Sir William Wallace (c. 1270 - 1305) was a Scottish patriot who led his country against the English (Norman) occupation of Scotland and King Edward I of England as part of the Wars of Scottish Independence.
Popular opinion often sees Wallace as 'one of the common people', in contrast to his fellow-countryman, Robert de Bruce (Robert I of Scotland), who came from noble stock. Wallace's family descended from Richard Wallace (Richard the Welshman), a landowner under an early member of the Stewart family, which would later become a royal line in its own right. Wallace was born at Elderslie in Renfrewshire (near Kilmarnock, Ayrshire) around 1270, which made him still a young man in his most famous years between 1297 and 1305.
Few contemporary sources for information about Wallace's early life exist, and much reliance is placed on the account of Blind Harry, written around 1470, roughly two centuries after Wallace's birth. We are told that he was born in Ayrshire, his father was Sir Malcolm Wallace of Riccarton, and that he had two brothers, Malcolm and John.
He received his education from two uncles who were priests, and therefore became well-educated by the standards of the time, knowing both French and Latin. Blind Harry makes no mention of his ever having left the country, or having any military experience before 1297. A record from August, 1296 makes reference to 'a thief, one William le Waleys' in Perth.
Scotland in Wallace's time
Contrary to popular belief, John Balliol had a right to the Scottish throne. However, it was deemed necessary for an independent arbitrator to be invited to Scotland, so that no accusations of bias would be levelled at the arbitrator. Much to their folly, the Scots invited Edward I of England to decide the succession of the Scots throne. Instead of coming as an independent arbitrator, he arrived at the Anglo-Scottish border with a large army and announced he was an overlord coming to solve a dispute in a vassal state, forcing each potential king to pay homage to him. After hearing every claim, Edward picked John Balliol to be king over what he described as the vassal state of Scotland. In March of 1296, Balliol renounced his homage to Edward, and by the end of the month Edward had stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the border town with much bloodshed. In April, he defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) in Lothian, and by July, Balliol had been forced to abdicate at Kincardine Castle. Edward went to Berwick in August to receive formal homage from some 2,000 Scottish leaders, having previously removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone Palace, seat of Scottish kings. Scotland was now effectively under English rule.
Wallace's exploits begin
The following year, 1297, was to see the start of Wallace's rise to prominence. According to local Ayrshire legend, Wallace was challenged by two English soldiers over fish he had caught. The argument escalated into a full-scale fight, with the result that Wallace killed the soldiers. A warrant for his arrest was issued shortly thereafter. Whether this is true or not, it is clear that Wallace had a long-standing hatred of the English, partially based on his father's death at their hands in 1291. He further avenged his father's death by winning battles at Loudoun Hill (near Darvel, Ayrshire) and Ayr. By May he was fighting with Sir William Douglas in Scone, routing the English justiciar, William Ormsby. Supporters of the growing popular revolt suffered a major blow when Scottish nobles agreed to terms with the English at Irvine in July, and in August, Wallace left his base in Selkirk forest to join Andrew de Moray's army at Stirling. Moray had started another rising, and their forces combined at Stirling, where they prepared to meet the English in battle.
The battle of Stirling Bridge
September 11, 1297, saw a decisive victory for Wallace and the Scots at Stirling Bridge. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Scottish forces led by Andrew de Moray (a more prominent noble, being a first son) and with Wallace as their captain, routed the English army. The Earl of Surrey's professional army of 300 cavalry and 10,000 infantry met disaster as they crossed over to the north side of the river. The bridge was too narrow for many soldiers to cross at once (possibly as little as three men abreast), so while the English soldiers crossed, the Scots sat back and killed the English as quickly as they could cross. English soldiers started to retreat as others pushed forward and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed and many English soldiers drowned. Unbeknownst to the now chaotic English army, part of the Scots army had forded further up the river. With the English army split on either side of the river, the two Scots forces pressed both halves of the English army towards the river. It was an overwhelming victory for the Scots and a huge boost to the confidence of the Scottish army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland, was killed in the fighting.
Following the victory, Wallace was made a knight and Guardian of Scotland in March 1298. Unfortunately, de Moray was mortally wounded in the battle and died three months after it took place. Their partnership had proved successful but Wallace was now on his own, with bigger battles still to face.
The battle of Falkirk (1298)
A year later, however, the tables were to be turned. On June 25, 1298, the English had invaded Scotland at Roxburgh. They plundered Lothian and regained some castles, but had failed to bring Wallace to combat. The Scots had adopted a 'scorched-earth' policy, and English suppliers' mistakes had left morale and food low, but Edward's search for Wallace would end at Falkirk.
Wallace had arranged his spearmen in four 'schiltrons' – circular, hedgehog formations surrounded by a defensive wall of wooden stakes. The English were to gain the upper hand, however, attacking first with cavalry, and wreaking havoc through the Scottish archers. The Scottish knights fled, and Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons. It is not clear whether the infantry throwing bolts, arrows and stones at the spearmen was the deciding factor, or a cavalry attack from the rear.
Either way, gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men, but Wallace escaped, though his pride and military reputation were badly damaged.
By September, 1298, Wallace had decided to resign his guardianship to Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and John Comyn of Badenoch, ex-King John Balliol's brother-in-law. Bruce became reconciled with Edward in 1302, while Wallace spurned such moves towards peace. He spent some time in France on a presumed diplomatic mission.
Wallace's capture and execution
Sir William managed to evade capture by the English until May 1305, when Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, captured him near Glasgow. After a show trial, the English authorities had him horribly executed on August 23, 1305, at Smithfield, London in the traditional manner for a traitor. He was hanged, then drawn and quartered, and his head placed on a spike in London Bridge. The English gowernment displayed his limbs in a grisly fashion separately in Newcastle, Berwick, Edinburgh, and Perth.
The plaque in the photograph above stands in a wall of St Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. Scottish patriots and other interested people frequently visit the site, and flowers frequently appear there.
The 1995 motion picture, Braveheart, offers a very loose account of William Wallace's life.