Scotland's First Great National Hero, The Thorn In Englands Side - William Wallace

By: Rivington | Posted: 10th March 2010

Folklore and legend tell of Wallace's great stature and strength, but there is nothing historically certain regarding his physical appearance or his character. It is probable that Wallace was born near Paisley in Renfrewshire around 1270, and spent some of his life in Stirlingshire and Dundee.

There are differing accounts of the reason for him becoming an outlaw. One tells of a brawl in the spring of 1297 with some English soldiers in the market place at Lanark. A girl, who may have been his wife, helped him to escape but she was caught and killed by Lanark's English sheriff. Wallace promptly killed him in retaliation. Another story relates that in Dundee he killed a young Englishman who had insulted him.

Whatever the immediate cause, he was driven to rebellion against the English, and with a guerrilla army of fellow countrymen gathered round him, attacked them wherever he could with varying degrees of success. He was soon leader of a rapidly growing and determined resistance movement.

Despite many setbacks, including the desertion of large numbers of his titled friends and comrades who submitted to the English at Irvine, Wallace was able to summon a huge force and in the summer of 1297 re-took many of the fortresses held by the English. As he was about to besiege Dundee he heard that a large English army was on its way north, with the Earl of Surrey and the despised treasurer Hugh de Cressingham at its head. The power of Wallace's resistance was brought home to the English on 11 September 1297 when they were trapped and destroyed at Stirling Bridge by an unstoppable force made up of warriors from all over Scotland.

Wallace waited with his army until nearly half the English were across, then fell on them with such force that almost all were slaughtered or drowned. Cressingham, the bloated man of the exchequer, was among them, and the Scots are said to have showed what they thought of him by flaying his body and making sword-belts of his skin. The remaining half of the English army were now unable to use the bridge and fled in panic and disarray, hotly pursued by Wallace and his men, who had forded the river. The chase drove the English as far as Berwick, more than seventy miles away. Wallace was now master of the whole of southern Scotland. But his triumph came at a great price: he had lost his ablest lieutenant, Sir Andrew de Moray.


Soon the English had been driven from Scotland entirely, but Wallace added to England's woes by raiding and plundering as far south as Newcastle and west to Carlisle, devastating the countryside and carrying back crops, animals and other booty to a now famine-stricken Scotland.

Only ten months after his famous victory, Wallace made the fatal error of allowing himself to become involved in a pitched battle against overwhelming odds. Edward I, incensed at England's utter defeat at Stirling Bridge, had returned from Flanders and in July 1298 led a mighty army into Scotland. Wallace could only retire slowly as the English progressed, and as had happened in the past, many nobles deserted him.

On 22nd July the armies met near Falkirk, and after a bloody battle the Scots were overpowered and defeated. Sir John de Graham, Wallace's greatest friend, was among the dead, and Wallace was grief-stricken. He made his way north, burning the castle and town of Stirling as he went to prevent its occupation by the English. He renounced his leadership of the Scots and returned to his guerrilla attacks against the hated enemy.

When all other Scottish nobles submitted to Edward in late 1303 and early 1304, a price was put on Wallace's head and an order was made for his capture by any means. Betrayed by a person or persons unknown, on 5th August 1305, as he lay asleep in a barn at Robroyston near Glasgow, Wallace was seized by Sir John Menteith, Sheriff of Dumbarton.

Wallace was taken to London, where on 23rd August in Westminster Hall he underwent a mockery of a trial. Denounced as a traitor by the King's Justice, Sir Peter Mallorie, Wallace answered simply that he had never been a subject of the King of England and could therefore not commit treason against him. Inevitably, he was sentenced to death.

Later that day he was dragged to Smithfield, half strangled and slowly butchered alive with a hideous gruesomeness rare even in those brutal times. His head was spiked and put on display in London, and his limbs dispatched to Berwick, Newcastle, Perth and Stirling as a grisly warning.

Behind its slick and sophisticated image, the metropolitan city of Edinburgh has a dark past that runs right through its very heart. Step into the 14th century world of William Wallace, discover the haunted underground city and feel the terror of those incarcerated in the dank torture chamber of the Royal Mile jail at the Edinburgh Dungeon, the most gruesome of Edinburgh attractions
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Tags: setbacks, englishman, physical appearance, retaliation, comrades, fortresses, desertion