William Wallace – a summary

‘We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us; we are ready to meet them beard to beard.’

This, in 1297, was the manner in which William Wallace was reported to have lured the English into the first significant defeat they had suffered in 30 years – at the battle of Stirling Bridge.

William Wallace was the younger son of a minor landowner from the west of Scotland, and is perhaps the best known character from the early battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Wallace was born some time around 1274 and was only a teenager at the time of the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland.

Fighting the English

William Wallace grew into a huge young man; estimates place him at six feet seven inches tall.  This would truly have made him a giant of the era and afforded him an enormous advantage in a medieval battle, where strength was of great importance. He wasted little time in using this muscle as he would fight the English at any given opportunity, killing them with impunity and without mercy.

From this brawling, murderous beginning, Wallace quickly became first an outlaw, living in the sprawling forests of the day, then guerilla commander and finally general of an army which inflicted blow upon blow on the occupying English forces of Edward I.

His full potential was realised at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where, allied with Andrew de Moray, he faced and defeated arguably the best army in Europe at the time, made up of professional and hardened soldiers.

This victory gained him the accolade of Guardian of Scotland and, more dangerously, the envy of the nobility of Scotland.

Wallace followed up the success at Stirling with a campaign of raids into the north of England which did little to advance the Scottish cause but which did land him and his followers a vast treasure trove of plunder.

Capture and Death of Wallace

Less than a year after Stirling Bridge however, Wallace was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk. Edward I had got his revenge.  Wallace lost the title of Guardian of Scotland and was never again the major figure he had once been.  It is not clear whether Wallace was stripped of the title or gave it up voluntarily, but from the ashes of the defeat he found it difficult to maintain the resistance with the same vigour of previous years.

In the seven years, from Falkirk to his horrific death at Smithfield in London in 1305, Wallace never fought another major engagement against the English.

He retreated to the north of the country, employing scorched earth tactics as he went, burning the towns of Stirling and Perth to prevent their use by Edward.

The defeat of the Scots at Falkirk, however, turned out not to be the knockout blow Edward had expected.  They held on, refusing to give in, and the English were forced to return south, leaving garrisons to occupy the main strategic sites.

It is thought that Wallace now returned to the guerrilla tactics of his earlier days to attack the English whenever he could.  Towards the end of the year he was replaced as Guardian by Robert the Bruce and Sir John Comyn, and he remained on the sidelines as these men now emerged as the potential leaders of resistance against Edward.

Wallace also travelled abroad in this period, visiting Paris to converse with Philip IV of France, and also to Rome where he was greeted with much favour by Pope Boniface, a great supporter of Scottish independence.

Returning to Scotland after his European sojourn, Wallace found himself back in the familiar role of guerrilla fighter, taking the fight to the English by any means at his disposal.

It was not to last much longer though, and on 5 August 1305, at Robroyston, near Glasgow, Wallace was betrayed and captured.  He was then taken to London, where, on the 23 August, he was tried for treason against the English king.

Wallace responded to the charges against him by denying that he had ever sworn allegiance to Edward but the trial was little more than a show, the result never in any doubt.  Wallace was found guilty and immediately dragged through the streets to Smithfield, where he was hung, drawn and quartered for his crimes.

His head was placed on a spike on London Bridge and his limbs were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth.

Russell Burgess

See also articles on the Battle of Falkirk, Edward I and Robert the Bruce.