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Wallace, Sir Williamlocked

(d. 1305)
  • Andrew Fisher

Wallace, Sir William (d. 1305), patriot and guardian of Scotland, is a man whose origins, once thought secure, have now become uncertain.

Early life: fiction and facts

The name Wallace originally meant a Welshman, and William's descent has been confidently traced from a Ricardus Wallensis, or Richard Wallace, who went to Scotland from the lordship of Oswestry in the mid-twelfth century in the train of Walter fitz Alan, soon to become first hereditary steward of the Scottish king. Richard's great-grandson Malcolm, who held Auchenbothie near Kilmacolm as well as the five-pound land of Elderslie near Paisley, both in Renfrewshire, and who married Margaret, daughter of Sir Reginald or Rainald Crawford of Corsbie, sheriff of Ayr, has been equally confidently identified as William's father. However, the rediscovery of a deed sealed by Wallace in 1297 casts considerable doubt on this, for in the inscription on his seal Wallace identifies himself as 'son of Alan Walais'. Much of what has in the past been accepted concerning Wallace, and especially his early life, derives from the late fifteenth-century poet Blind Hary, who here, as so often, now appears to have been a source of confusion. For in the light of the seal inscription it seems highly likely that William's father was in fact the Alan Wallace recorded as a crown tenant in Ayrshire in the late thirteenth century, and that his son's presumed links with the stewards were consequently less important than was previously supposed. In this context it may be significant that evidence for Hary's story that Sir Malcolm Wallace, his hero's father, was killed in 1291 by an English knight called Fenwick, is entirely lacking. There is no doubt, however, that Wallace had brothers named Malcolm and John.

The year of Wallace's birth is unknown. According to Hary, Wallace was eighteen when he killed the son of Selby, the constable of Dundee (book 1), an event which has been placed in 1291 or 1292, but for which there is no recorded evidence and which probably never happened, but forty-five when he was betrayed to the English in 1305 (book 11). Certainty on this subject, as in so much concerning Wallace, is impossible; it is enough, perhaps, to see Wallace as a young man, as does the English chronicler Rishanger, when he emerged from obscurity in 1297. What Hary has to say about Wallace's education, by two uncles who were priests, and about his meeting John Blair, said to have been later his chaplain and the author of a biography to which Hary acknowledges his indebtedness, must also be regarded as fiction, arising from Hary's desire to confer respectability upon both his subject and himself. One intriguing piece of evidence does survive, however, from the period before 1297. A document of 8 August 1296 records the conviction of one Matthew of York, a cleric, of robbery at Perth on 14 June 'in the company of a thief, one William le Waleys' (CDS, 2.191). There is no means of establishing the connection between the patriot and Matthew's confederate, but English references to Wallace as a thief and brigand, although clearly part of a propaganda campaign against him, may refer to a less than creditable period in his career.

The rebellion of 1297

By the time of the Perth incident, Scotland was occupied territory. Following the defeat of the Scots and Edward I's conquest of their country in the spring and early summer of 1296, the English king had imposed English administration upon it, with John de Warenne, earl of Surrey (d. 1304), as keeper or lieutenant, and Hugh of Cressingham as treasurer. Believing Scotland conquered, Edward left for England, to prepare for war against France. His confidence was misplaced. Within months unrest was widespread; disturbances occurred as far apart as the west highlands, Aberdeenshire, and Galloway in the south-west. In the north Andrew Murray of Petty led the resistance to English rule. The response by Warenne and Cressingham was ineffectual and disaffection spread. It was not, however, until May 1297, when Wallace slew William Heselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark, that unrest became full-blown rebellion.

Hary presents the death of Heselrig as Wallace's revenge for the murder of his mistress, Marion Braidfute, who had spurned Heselrig's son. The truth is almost certainly less romantic. Heselrig represented a repressive and alien regime and at the time of his death was in Lanark to hold an assize, a symbol of English authority. An attempt on an English official on such an occasion was therefore an act of great and symbolic importance. An eyewitness account in the Scalacronica reveals that the attack on Heselrig was carefully planned and ruthlessly executed. The impact of Lanark was immediate. Wallace's original band of some thirty men now grew. The Scottish chronicler Fordun saw his followers as 'those who were bitter in heart, and heavily oppressed by the intolerable servitude of English domination' (Fordun, 2.321). The English verdict, in Guisborough, is that they were 'vagrants, fugitives, and outlaws' (Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 294). Recruitment was aided by a rumour that Edward meant to impress the 'middle folk of Scotland' into his army against France. For such as these, rebellion against Edward was preferable to service abroad in a war against Scotland's ally, Philippe IV.

The killing of Heselrig was the only specific charge in the indictment against Wallace in 1305. He was now no longer unknown but notorious in English eyes if an inspiration to the Scots. Soon after Lanark he struck again. His target was a figure senior to Heselrig, William Ormsby, Edward's justiciar, then at Scone. In this endeavour Wallace was joined by Sir William Douglas ‘le Hardi’, a man of fearsome reputation, captured at Berwick in 1296 but released. This, Wallace's first recorded association with a nobleman, failed, but narrowly. Ormsby somehow learned of the approach of the Scots and fled, leaving much booty behind. The raid, as daring as the attack on Heselrig, gave further encouragement to the patriotic cause and added to Wallace's reputation. He and Douglas separated after Scone. Wallace overran the Lennox, while Douglas was active in Nithsdale. The English maintained that behind Wallace was to be discovered the influence of Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, and James Stewart. The chronicle of Lanercost is emphatic on this point: 'They [Wishart and Stewart] caused a certain bloody man, William Wallace, who had formerly been a chief of brigands in Scotland, to revolt against the King, and assemble the people in his support' (Chronicle of Lanercost, 163). The belief that Wallace the rebel was the creation of the two men has persisted. His devotion to the church and his maintenance, when in power, of the established order suggest an innate conservatism. In this characteristic, however, he was not unique and the events of 1297 were to show that he was very much his own man.

The capitulation of Irvine

In June the English at last moved against the Scots. Henry Percy and Robert Clifford had been given the task by Edward of suppressing the rebellion. From Cumberland they crossed into Annandale, where they burnt Lochmaben before proceeding to Irvine, arriving there by the end of the month. A Scottish army had assembled to meet the threat. In command were Wishart, Stewart, Douglas, and a recent convert to the patriotic cause, Robert Bruce, lord of Annandale, the future King Robert I. At the sight of the English cavalry the Scots sought terms. The negotiations leading to their submission were lengthy; Guisborough avers that the Scots were gaining time for Wallace to collect an army, an opinion which has found favour with historians. This denies Wallace the credit to which he is entitled by once more making him dependent on others. His presence at Irvine is not attested and the compromise which the negotiations represented was foreign to his nature. In a letter of 23 July to Edward, Cressingham described Wallace, then in the Forest of Selkirk, as 'like one who holds himself against your peace' (Stevenson, Documents, 2, no. 453). Cressingham, for once more perceptive than his colleagues, raised an army and would have acted but for Percy and Clifford who, with Irvine in mind, claimed to have subdued Scotland south of the Forth. Their confidence, like that of their king in the previous year, was misplaced, if understandable. Irvine had been deceptively easy. Wishart and Douglas were imprisoned. Stewart escaped this fate, as did Bruce, but their authority had been damaged. Wallace, however, was untainted by Irvine and, aided by a lack of response from the English, was free to assume the role in which Guisborough portrayed him: 'the common folk of the land followed him as their leader and ruler; the retainers of the great lords adhered to him; and even though the lords themselves were present with the English king in body, at heart they were on the opposite side' (Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 299).

The battle of Stirling Bridge

From the Forest of Selkirk, Wallace went north. According to Hary he reached Aberdeen, where he burnt 100 English ships. If this incident occurred, it was more probably the work of Andrew Murray, soon to be Wallace's colleague. Wallace himself was busy enough, clearing Fife and Perthshire of the English. In early August he began the siege of Dundee. Warenne, loath to continue as Edward's lieutenant in Scotland but disappointed in his hopes of relief, finally acted. He left Berwick at the head of what Lanercost calls 'a great army'. How many men exactly he had at his disposal is unknown. Guisborough's figures of 1000 horse and 50,000 foot in the English army, and 180 horse and 40,000 foot for the Scots, must be regarded as fanciful. Cressingham, who accompanied Warenne, informed Edward that he himself had mustered at Roxburgh 300 horse and 10,000 foot, a respectable contribution. Whatever the total number at Warenne's command, Cressingham thought it adequate for its purpose, refusing an offer of reinforcements from Percy and Clifford on the grounds of cost.

To Warenne the strategic importance of Stirling was clear, and he had reached there by the first week of September. The Scottish army which faced him was under the joint leadership of Wallace and Murray. The two had linked up towards the end of August, possibly at Dundee. Fordun tells us that before leaving Dundee Wallace entrusted the siege of the castle to the people of the town on 'pain of loss of life and limb' (Fordun, 2.322). The Scottish army at Stirling was certainly smaller than the English and almost entirely infantry. Unlike Warenne, neither Wallace nor Murray could claim extensive military experience, least of all in command of large forces; their victories over the English had been on a limited scale. Yet at Stirling they inflicted on the English a wholly unexpected defeat, the first in a pitched battle in the war. The battle of Stirling Bridge was fought on 11 September, after abortive attempts at arbitration by Stewart and Malcolm, earl of Lennox (d. 1333). Warenne was obviously reluctant to fight, despite his superiority in numbers and the contempt for the Scots which he shared with Cressingham after Dunbar and Irvine. Even after Stewart and Lennox had failed in their negotiations, Warenne was not done with talking. He sent two Dominican friars to the Scots to seek their surrender. To them Wallace made a justly celebrated response:

Go back and tell your people that we have not come here for peace: we are ready, rather, to fight to avenge ourselves and to free our country. Let them come up to us as soon as they like, and they will find us prepared to prove the same in their beards.

Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 300

This was the response of one committed to a cause and sure of the outcome. Wallace and Murray had drawn up their army on the south-facing slope of the Abbey Crag, where the Wallace monument stands today, looking towards Stirling Castle and the narrow wooden bridge across the Forth which stood below it. The English army was stationed on the south side of the Forth, between it and the castle. To come to grips with the Scots, who made no attempt to advance, the English had to cross the bridge. On the morning of 11 September this manoeuvre began. Some 5000 men had crossed, only to be recalled because Warenne had overslept and now insisted on creating several new knights. Dissension broke out in the English camp. An intelligent suggestion from Sir Richard Lundie to outflank the Scots at a nearby ford was overruled by Warenne on the intervention of Cressingham and the crossing resumed. The bridge was so narrow that only two horsemen could cross abreast. Wallace and Murray watched the English from the Abbey Crag until they were sure that enough of the enemy had reached the far side for their purposes. They then released their infantry down from the slope along the narrow causeway to the bridge. The terrain was, if suitable for infantry, too soft to permit the effective deployment of the English cavalry. In the words of Guisborough 'there was, indeed, no better place in all the land to deliver the English into the hands of the Scots, and so many into the power of the few' (Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 301). The Scots seized the northern end of the bridge so that the English vanguard was isolated and no reinforcements could reach it. The vanguard suffered appalling casualties, while the remainder of the army watched, unable to assist. Some 5000 infantry and 100 knights are said to have perished, killed by the Scots or drowned in the Forth. Sir Marmaduke Tweng, a Yorkshire knight, made a heroic escape, and some of the Welsh infantry swam to safety, but Cressingham died on the Scottish spears. Warenne had not crossed the bridge and fled to Berwick after ordering the destruction of the bridge to hinder a pursuit by the victorious Scots. With the battle won, Stewart and Lennox reappeared and with their men fell on the retreating English, killing some and capturing the baggage-train.

The Scots flayed the body of Cressingham and cut the skin into strips to be used as trophies. Lanercost states that Wallace had a sword-belt made from one of the strips. The English showed no sympathy for the treasurer, in whose incompetence as a general and refusal to countenance the expense of additional troops they found an explanation for their defeat. Warenne, no less incompetent, continued to enjoy his king's confidence.

The guardianship

The failure of the English leadership at Stirling Bridge should not be allowed to detract from the achievement of Wallace and Murray. They had deployed their army, inferior in numbers to the English but more disciplined, with intelligence, and on terrain suited to their purpose. Stirling did not end the war but its significance was not lost on contemporaries. In its aftermath Dundee Castle surrendered, as did Stirling itself. Edinburgh and Berwick also fell to the Scots, although their castles remained in English hands. Haddington and Roxburgh were burnt. The English hold on Scotland had been severely weakened. The collaboration of Wallace and Murray was not destined to last; wounded at Stirling, Murray died early in November. On Wallace alone thus fell the burden of leading the Scots in the continuing war. He soon gave evidence of his qualities. As he had in the military field, he demonstrated an unexpected talent in the diplomatic. On 11 October he and Murray wrote from Haddington to the mayors and communes of Hamburg and Lübeck. The style of the document, and that of others issued by them, indicates that they saw themselves as leaders of the army of Scotland in the name of King John (John Balliol). The letter of 11 October was doubtless one of a series intended to restore trading relations with Germany. Nor was Wallace unaware of the importance of the church in the struggle with England. On 3 November he secured the election of William Lamberton as bishop of St Andrews in succession to William Fraser. The wisdom of Wallace's action became apparent in time, with Lamberton until his death in 1328 a strong opponent of the English.

By the time of Lamberton's election Wallace had invaded England. His army had grown in size and become a drain on the limited resources of a Scotland stricken by famine. The Scots, moreover, were intent on retribution and Wallace saw no reason to restrain them. About 18 October he marched into Northumberland, catching the inhabitants by surprise. The Scots plundered and slaughtered at will. From Northumberland the Scots crossed into the north-west, reaching as far as Cockermouth. Without siege equipment they were unable to take any town of consequence, but such was their ferocity that, Guisborough relates, 'the services of God totally ceased in all the monasteries and churches between Newcastle and Carlisle, for all the canons, monks and priests fled before the face of the Scots, as did nearly all the people' (Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 304). The barbarous acts committed by the Scots under Wallace, like those ordered by Edward I at Berwick, had the purpose of breaking resistance, and were of a kind often repeated by both sides. But Wallace was on occasion capable of mercy. At Hexham, whose priory had suffered from the depredations of his soldiers, he invited the canons to celebrate mass and issued a letter of protection to them. His treatment of the canons was not enough, however, to alleviate the reputation for cruelty which the raid guaranteed him in English eyes; henceforth he was the object of an unremitting campaign of vilification. The raid into England ended in late November, with the Scots foiled in their attempt to ravage the bishopric of Durham by increasingly severe weather and, it was believed, by the intervention of St Cuthbert himself.

Back in Scotland, Wallace began to prepare for the inevitable clash with Edward. To what extent he could rely on the support of the magnates in this is debatable; many had agreed to serve Edward I in Flanders in 1296, and Scottish tradition suggests that some at least were not reconciled to Wallace's rise to power. If Fordun is to be believed, Wallace did not hesitate to employ harsh measures against these recalcitrants, imprisoning them until they submitted to his will. To others he was no less brutal. One source relates that he hanged some citizens of Aberdeen as an example to those who refused to obey him, while the case of Michael Miggel further illustrates Wallace's methods. Summoned to Perth after Wallace's death to explain his association with him, Michael told how he had twice escaped from Wallace's army only to be recaptured and warned that a third escape would mean death. He had remained with Wallace 'through fear of death and not of his own will' (CDS, 2, no. 1689). His story was credible enough to save him from punishment and can scarcely have been unusual. Such was Wallace's military genius that he created from a mixture of volunteers and pressed men an army capable of standing against Edward.

The campaign of 1298

The shock of Stirling had reunited the English behind their king who, in the wake of a truce with France, returned from Flanders on 14 March 1298. The nobles and clergy of England, both sources of disaffection, were won over by the need to defeat Wallace. In pursuit of this aim the king was his usual careful self, obsessed with detail and the need for legal justification for his actions. To facilitate the administration of the war the seat of government was moved north to York, and there Edward held a council in April to discuss the forthcoming campaign. The disregard by the Scottish magnates of the summons to attend the council allowed Edward to announce the forfeiture of the lands of his Scottish enemies. His army was instructed to muster at Roxburgh on 25 June. Edward, having made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St John of Beverley, was at Roxburgh in early July. Estimates of the force at his disposal vary but by the standards of the time it was formidable, composed of some 2000–3000 horse and about 14,000 infantry, of whom the greater proportion were Welsh. Edward advanced into Scotland through Lauderdale, over country devastated by Wallace and empty of inhabitants so that, as Guisborough has it, the English 'could not discover a single soul to tell them the whereabouts of the Scottish army' (Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 324).

Wallace's movements between his return from England and the start of the Falkirk campaign are uncertain. The winter of 1297–8 saw limited incursions by the English, under Clifford in Annandale and Warenne in the east, but what part Wallace played in these events is unknown. No major English activity was possible until Edward's return from Flanders, and it must be assumed that Wallace used the time to assemble and train his army and to devise the strategy which brought him so close to victory against Edward. His presence at Torphichen in Linlithgowshire on 29 March 1298 is attested by a grant of that date to Alexander Scrymgeour, the hereditary standard-bearer of the Balliols, and himself subsequently executed for treason by Edward. In the grant to Scrymgeour, Wallace styles himself both knight and guardian of the kingdom and, as before, leader of the army in the name of King John. When he was knighted and by whom is not recorded, although an English source suggests that one of the premier earls of Scotland was involved in the ceremony. His election to the guardianship as the first sole occupant of the office arose naturally from his military achievements; whether or not the magnates approved, he was the obvious choice. The English were unimpressed by his new status. One of their political songs comments that 'from a robber he becomes a knight, just as a swan is made out of a raven; an unworthy man takes the seat, when a worthy man is not by' (Wright's Political Songs, 174). As guardian Wallace now imposed on the Scots a strategy hitherto alien, eschewing confrontation on the line of advance, and instead withdrawing to the north behind country systematically wasted.

The wisdom of Wallace's strategy was soon apparent. Edward, frustrated by his inability to bring Wallace to battle, moved deeper into Scotland. As he did so, his problems increased. Food was short, Wallace's situation was undiscovered, it was impossible to live off the land, and Edward for once had failed to ensure the supply of provisions by sea. A detachment under Antony Bek, bishop of Durham, sent by Edward to attack the castles of Dirleton and Tantallon, had no food other than beans and peas from the fields and the rest of the army was in no better condition. By 19 July Edward was at Temple Liston, on the right bank of the Almond. The few supplies which reached him contained 200 tuns of wine. This Edward unwisely distributed. The Welsh, their morale and loyalty equally suspect, became drunk and rioted, killing a number of priests. The cavalry thereupon charged the Welsh. Eighty were killed and the rest spent the night apart from the main army, threatening to change sides. Edward stated that if necessary he would, with God's help, defeat the Welsh and Scots together. He recognized the true nature of his predicament, however, in his decision to fall back on Edinburgh, as a possible preliminary to the abandonment of the campaign. A withdrawal from Scotland by Edward at this time would not have ended the war but the blow to his prestige and the likely resumption of his struggle with his barons would have given Wallace the opportunity further to strengthen his position and thus have affected the course of the war.

The battle of Falkirk

The most renowned of Plantagenet kings, outgeneralled by a man for whom he and his people had nothing but contempt, was saved from disaster by news from a scout brought to him on 21 July by two earls, Patrick of Dunbar and Gilbert Umfraville of Angus. From the scout Edward learned that the Scots were no more than 18 miles away, at Falkirk. According to Guisborough, who gives the fullest account of these events, the scout also revealed Wallace's plans. He had discovered Edward's intention to retire on Edinburgh and thought to attack the retreating English by night, when they were most vulnerable. A set-piece battle was not part of Wallace's strategy. Edward's response was both spirited and immediate; praising God who had delivered the enemy to him, he declared that he would not wait upon an attack by the Scots but would instead seek them out. He led his army in the direction of Falkirk and by this action seized the initiative from Wallace. That night, 21 July, the English camped to the east of Linlithgow. Despite his apparent confidence Edward was still conscious of the possibility of attack by the Scots; his men were to rest with their horses beside them. During the night he was injured by his horse but he quelled the panic in his camp when he proved his fitness by mounting his horse. At dawn on the next day, the feast of St Mary Magdalene, Tuesday 22 July, he led his army through Linlithgow towards Falkirk.

Shortly afterwards the English had their first sight of the enemy. On the top of a hill a large body of Scottish spearmen was sighted. The English took this to be the main body of Wallace's army but the spearmen disappeared. What their function was is unclear. If, however, the information from Edward's scout was correct, the spearmen may have constituted the leading element in the proposed attack on the English. Events had overtaken Wallace and he was faced with a battle he had not sought. His dispositions, however, indicate that he had clearly understood that, ultimately, he would have to meet Edward in battle. The English saw a Scottish army divided into four schiltroms, composed of infantry armed with spears with 12 inch iron tips. Each schiltrom, in the words of Guisborough, 'was made up wholly of spearmen, standing shoulder to shoulder in deep ranks and facing towards the circumference of the circle, with their spears slanting outwards at an oblique angle' (Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, 327). A fence of stakes protected each schiltrom. The Scots could not match the English in heavy cavalry, the latter's principal weapon; if the schiltrom thwarted the expected cavalry assault, the fence could be moved aside to allow the spearmen an offensive role. The numbers in each schiltrom are unrecorded. Wallace had stationed his archers, a small force from the Forest of Selkirk under Sir John Stewart of Jedburgh, brother of James Stewart, between the schiltroms. The cavalry, probably controlled by John Comyn the younger of Badenoch, 'the Red', was to the rear. Behind the Scots lay Callander Wood, in front the Westquarter Burn and a small loch hidden from the English. Wallace had chosen neither the moment nor the location for his meeting with Edward; in the circumstances his dispositions were sound. Retreat was not an option; it would have damaged his credibility and given the English cavalry its opportunity. A remark attributed to him at Falkirk suggests that he recognized the parlous situation of his army. To his spearmen he said: 'I have brought you to the ring; now see if you can dance' (Rishanger, Chronicle, 187).

Wallace's dispositions were such as to give Edward pause. He was opposed to an immediate engagement and wished to allow his army rest and refreshment. His subordinates would not listen and the earls of Norfolk, Hereford, and Lincoln led the vanguard forward. Their momentum was slowed by the loch between them and the Scots and they were forced to swing westward. Antony Bek, in charge of the English right wing, was apparently, like Edward, in favour of caution but was overruled by his commanders. The two wings then clashed with the schiltroms. At this juncture the Scottish cavalry fled, whether from treachery, as was later asserted in Scottish accounts, or from fear as at Irvine, cannot be known. The loss of the cavalry was to prove a great blow to Wallace. The schiltroms, however, trained and controlled by him, proved their worth against the repeated cavalry charges; more than 100 English horses were killed. Edward's strategy during the campaign had been flawed; his tactics now restored his reputation. He withdrew his cavalry and advanced his Welsh longbowmen and Genoese crossbowmen. At Bannockburn, sixteen years later, Robert Bruce kept in reserve a small cavalry force against such an eventuality, a lesson learned from Falkirk. Wallace was deprived of the use of the cavalry by its flight and the schiltroms, with Stewart and his archers slain in the early English charges, were unprotected. They stood, an increasingly easy target, their discipline a credit to Wallace. The slaughter of the infantry was immense, both under the hail of missiles and the subsequent renewed cavalry assaults. One English chronicler relates that the Scots fell like blossoms in an orchard when the fruit had ripened. The majority of those who perished at Falkirk were of the common people who had discerned in Wallace their best hope of salvation. Not all of their betters left them to their fate. Sir John Stewart died with his men as, according to Fordun, did Macduff, son of Earl Malcolm of Fife. Guisborough reports that while most of the knights fled, a handful remained to direct the schiltroms.

Attempts at diplomacy

Wallace himself left the field before the end. The inevitable English charge of cowardice can safely be discounted. There is reason to believe that Wallace supervised the escape of Scottish survivors, while the ambush of Brian le Jay, master of the English Templars, was an action of the kind in which Wallace excelled. The English, exhausted by the battle and still without adequate supplies, could not follow up their victory and Wallace had time to reach Stirling, where he burnt the town and castle. Edward restored both, then began a phased withdrawal from Scotland by way of Ayr and Lochmaben, reaching Carlisle on 9 September. Of Wallace's movements at this time we have, as so often, little evidence. At some date between Falkirk and the following December he resigned the guardianship, to be succeeded by Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, and John Comyn the younger of Badenoch, an uneasy coalition reflecting Scottish conservatism. Historians have seen Wallace's resignation as inevitable after Falkirk. Scottish tradition is, however, less positive. Fordun, for example, places the resignation 'at the water of Forth' soon after Falkirk, and blames it on Scottish treachery, but indicates that Wallace chose to resign 'of his own accord' (Fordun, 2.324). Despite Falkirk no credible alternative to him as commander existed; had he determined to remain as guardian, he could scarcely have been forced from the position without damage to Scottish unity, a fragile thing at any time. He rejected this option, as he did, according to an allegation at his trial in 1305, an offer of clemency from Edward. A year after Falkirk he was in the field against the English. He then went abroad to argue the Scottish case.

We know something of Wallace's intentions from a letter of 20 August 1299 from Robert Hastings, the English constable of Roxburgh, to his king. Hastings passed to Edward an account by an informant of a council of Scots magnates at Peebles:

at the council, Sir David Graham demanded the lands and goods of Sir William Wallace because he was leaving the kingdom without the leave or approval of the Guardians. And Sir Malcolm, Sir William's brother, answered that neither his lands nor his goods should be given away, for they were protected by the peace in which Wallace had left the kingdom, since he was leaving for the good of the kingdom.

Barrow, Robert Bruce, 107

A description follows of a violent altercation between Graham and Malcolm Wallace, in which Bruce and Comyn, still ostensibly colleagues in the guardianship, joined on opposing sides. It required intervention by Stewart and others to prevent bloodshed.

The letter does not reveal what decision was taken on Wallace's lands. He had in any case reached France, where he remained for at least a year, by early November 1299. Wallace went to the court of Philippe IV to try to persuade him once more to support the Scots against Edward. Philippe, whose sister Margaret had married Edward in September, was at first hostile to Wallace. He had him arrested and offered to surrender him to Edward. In thanking Philippe, Edward asked merely that Wallace be kept in France. With time Philippe's attitude to Wallace changed. In a letter of 7 November 1300, a year after Wallace's arrival in France, Philippe wrote to 'his lieges destined for the Roman court' with the request that they obtain 'the Pope's favour for his beloved William le Walois, knight, in the matter which he wishes to forward with His Holiness' (Stevenson, Documents Illustrative of Sir William Wallace, 163). French records name a number of Scots associated with Wallace in France, all of them devoted to the restoration of Balliol, and Wallace's presence in France and possibly in Rome was part of a larger initiative. In May–June 1301 a powerful Scottish delegation, in which Master Baldred Bisset played a leading role, was in Rome to present a rebuttal of Edward's claim to Scotland and it was natural that Wallace should wish to support this endeavour in person. A safe-conduct from Hakon V, found on Wallace at his capture, hints at a visit to Norway but no proof exists that it occurred.

Resistance renewed

The date of Wallace's return to Scotland is unknown. That he was once more in the field against Edward in 1303 is certain, although the assertion in an English chronicle that in that year the Scots 'began to rebel, making William Wallace their commander and captain' (Rishanger, Chronicle, 213) does not accurately reflect his role. In his absence, the Scots had met with varying fortune. Campaigns in Scotland by Edward in 1300 and 1301 had been inconclusive and hopes of a Balliol restoration were high in 1301. The next year, however, was not a happy one for the Scots. In January Robert Bruce submitted to Edward. At Courtrai in July the French met with a defeat so serious at the hands of the Flemings that Philippe IV, in order to retrieve the position, sought an accommodation with Edward. In August Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294–1303), hitherto sympathetic to Scotland, wrote to the Scottish bishops to seek peace with Edward. A year which had begun well for the Scots with a truce of nine months with Edward had by the autumn so deteriorated that the very real danger of an Anglo-French peace which excluded Scotland was recognized. To avert the danger a Scottish delegation was sent to Paris. Among those involved were John Soules, sole guardian since early 1301, and Bishop Lamberton. John Comyn remained in Scotland to direct the war and it was he rather than Wallace therefore who was at this time the principal figure in the resistance to Edward. On 24 February 1303 Comyn inflicted a defeat on the English under Sir John Segrave at Roslin. The delegation to Paris, however, failed in its purpose and on 20 May the feared Anglo-French treaty was agreed. In the summer of 1303 Edward carried out an extensive campaign, and by September he had reached Kinloss Abbey before wintering at Dunfermline.

Wallace is not known to have been at Roslin. Yet he was not inactive. In June 1303, with Comyn and Simon Fraser, he left the Forest of Selkirk to raid through Annandale and Liddesdale and into Cumberland. This raid and other individual acts of defiance could not turn the tide against Edward, with whom Comyn, acting for the Scots, was forced to negotiate. On 9 February 1304, at Strathord, Comyn submitted. From the relatively lenient terms imposed on the Scots Wallace was specifically excluded: 'as for Sir William Wallace, it is agreed that he may render himself up to the will and mercy of our sovereign lord the king, if it shall seem good to him' (RotP, 1.213). An English chronicle relates that early in 1304 Wallace had sought through friends to submit to Edward. It adds that Wallace's request for an inducement to submit so angered Edward that he offered 300 marks to any man who killed Wallace. Edward continued to use every means to bring Wallace to account. A parliament at St Andrews in March outlawed Wallace, Simon Fraser, and the garrison of Stirling, which still held out against Edward. In July Fraser submitted and Stirling fell to Edward, but Wallace remained at large, the search for him growing increasingly intense.

The pursuit of Wallace had apparently begun soon after his return to Scotland. On 15 March 1303 certain Scots had been rewarded with money by Edward for an attempted ambush of Wallace and Fraser. On 10 September reimbursement was made for the loss of two horses in a similar venture. From his winter quarters Edward in March 1304 sent against Wallace and Fraser a large force under Segrave, Sir Robert Clifford, and Sir William Latimer. With them went Robert Bruce. The raid failed in its primary purpose of capturing Wallace and Fraser, but defeated them at Happrew near Peebles. Edward rewarded Nicholas Oysel, who had brought news of Happrew, and John of Musselburgh, who had guided the English force, but was displeased at the escape of the two Scots. Wallace was not easily to be taken; nor had he lost his skill as a soldier. In September 1304, in a skirmish 'below Earnside', in Stirlingshire, he inflicted casualties on a superior force under Aymer de Valence and made his escape. Edward put considerable pressure on the Scots to ensure Wallace's capture. James Stewart, Sir John Soules, and Sir Ingram Umfraville were not to be given letters of safe-conduct until Wallace was taken. Comyn, Sir Alexander Lindsay, Sir David Graham, and Fraser would have their sentences of exile or otherwise remitted if they captured Wallace before the twentieth day after Christmas. Lest there should still be doubt in the minds of the Scots, Edward informed Alexander Abernethy that 'it is not at all our pleasure that you hold out any word of peace to him, or to any other of his company, unless they place themselves absolutely and in all things at our will without any reservation whatsoever' (Stevenson, Documents Illustrative of Sir William Wallace, 2, no. 471).

Capture and death

In such circumstances it was only a matter of time before Wallace was captured. He survived, by means unknown, until 3 August 1305, when he was seized, in or near Glasgow, by servants of Sir John Menteith, Edward's keeper of Dumbarton. For his part in the capture Menteith was rewarded with land and other marks of Edward's favour. Sixty marks were distributed to those who had assisted in the capture, and forty marks given to 'the servant who had spied out William Wallace' (Stevenson, Documents Illustrative of Sir William Wallace, 169). English accounts emphasize that Wallace was betrayed by his own countrymen, but it has been argued that Menteith, at least, was merely carrying out his sworn duty. After Edward had refused to see him, Wallace was brought to London by Sir John Segrave on 22 August, amid great popular excitement, and lodged overnight in the property of William Leyre, an alderman, in Fenchurch. Early the next morning, again to great excitement, he was taken to Westminster Hall on horseback in a procession which included Segrave, his brother Geoffrey, and justices, sheriffs and aldermen. Inside the hall he was made to stand on a scaffold at the south end. A laurel crown had been placed on his head, to mock, it was said, his boast that one day he would wear a crown there. The principal figure in the commission of gaol delivery appointed to try Wallace was the justice Peter Mallore, and it was he who presented the indictment. Wallace denied the charge of treason, since he had never sworn allegiance to Edward, but admitted the other charges. There was no trial in the modern sense. The proceedings were a formality, as was the judgment, given on the same day by Segrave. Wallace, disregarding his fealty and allegiance, had risen in arms against the English king; he had exercised authority 'as if a superior' in Scotland, making an alliance with France in the process; he had waged destructive war in both Scotland and northern England; and he had continued in his resistance to Edward I even after his defeat at Falkirk. Since his legal standing was by 1305 that of an outlawed thief, the law allowed him no defence. Consequently he was to be drawn on a hurdle to the gallows at Smithfield, hanged, his heart and bowels taken out and burnt, his body quartered. His head was to be cut off and placed on London Bridge, his quarters displayed at Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth. The sentence, the standard one for treason, was carried out immediately. To Sir John Segrave fell the task of distributing the severed limbs to their various destinations in Scotland; 'for the carriage of the body of William le Waleys' he received the sum of fifteen shillings (CDS, 2, no. 485).

Patriot and hero

No contemporary equalled Wallace in courage and constancy in the cause of Scottish independence. Others (some of them unjustly overlooked since) met the same end but, unlike such as Simon Fraser and John, earl of Atholl (d. 1306), Wallace could not be guilty of treason since he had never taken an oath to Edward. When he might have saved his life by submission, he judged the price, the abandonment of the cause to which he had devoted himself, too great. That he could have saved his life before 1303 seems certain; Edward's offer of clemency after Falkirk and his response to Philippe IV's news of the apprehension of Wallace suggest that Edward was then less intransigent than he became in the matter of Wallace. The latter's continued defiance of Edward after his return to Scotland accelerated the search for Wallace. It is sometimes argued today that in 1303 Wallace was already something of a spent force. Yet the view of Rishanger, albeit unsubstantiated, that Wallace then again assumed the leadership of the Scots reflects the persistent English perception of Wallace as the source of Scottish resistance. His defeat at Falkirk had cost him an army but not, for the English, that pre-eminent position. At Stirling and in the Falkirk campaign Wallace demonstrated military qualities which Edward, a vastly experienced soldier, could not fail to appreciate. Where Wallace acquired those qualities, and that political and diplomatic skill of which there are few but significant indications, it is impossible to say. But the combination made him unique in a society unprepared for his emergence and, ultimately, unable to tolerate him. Of his time in his devotion to religion and his cruelty to enemies, he was in advance of it in his challenge to current doctrines in war and politics. In rebelling against Edward he threatened revolution. His isolation, pursued by the English and alienated from the ruling classes in Scotland, was inevitable. He was the victim of his own success.

Wallace remained, chiefly through the poem by Blind Hary, a popular figure in Scottish folklore in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Latin poetry of Thomas Ruddiman (1674–1757) presented Wallace as a popular, radical bastion against imperial power. Robert Burns's verses 'Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled' were for two centuries in effect the Scottish national anthem. Early in the nineteenth century consideration was given to a national memorial of ‘the Scottish hero’, as Victorians often referred to Wallace. Traditions, &c. Respecting Sir William Wallace (1856) records much Wallace folklore. The nationalism characteristic of the 1850s reached its culmination when, on 24 June 1861, the duke of Atholl laid the foundation stone of the national Wallace monument, designed by J. T. Roach of Glasgow. The monument, 220 feet high and placed on the Abbey Crag, north of Stirling overlooking the battlefield, is rivalled as a monument to a Scot only by that to Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh. At its foot is a 'hall of [Scottish] heroes', such as Bruce, Buchanan, Knox, Burns, Livingstone, and Gladstone. The hall also contains what is thought to be Wallace's sword. Derivative monuments to Wallace reflected reviving Scottish patriotism in many parts of the empire; that at Ballarat, Victoria, unveiled in 1889, was the best known, a focus of Scottish national sentiment in Australia. Wallace's pre-eminence in the Scottish historical tradition is also marked by the positioning of his statue, together with that of Robert Bruce, at the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. Wallace's reputation received a different but equally fervent memorial in the film Braveheart, which Mel Gibson directed in 1995, also playing the starring role of Wallace and achieving a great international success. This modern retelling of Wallace's story reflected the approach to the subject adopted by Hary. There is the same distortion of fact and manipulation of chronology, the same ability to arouse a range of emotions, and the same anti-English sentiment. Present, too, is the view of Wallace as the inspiration behind Bruce's conversion to the cause of Scottish independence. Despite the potency of this mixture, the Wallace who emerges in the film is as two-dimensional as Hary's creation; to that extent, epic and film alike do him a disservice. Our knowledge of Wallace is limited, but such reliable evidence as we have points to a quite exceptional figure whose reputation is secure without the need for invention. The status of Hary's work as an authority on Wallace has in any case declined with the acknowledgement of its true function. Hary was intent on countering the pro-English policies of James III, and the adventures of Wallace, inveterate foe of the English and patriotic martyr, were admirably suited to his purpose. Even so, Hary's poem established a national stereotype of such remarkable force that Wallace remains not merely the first but the most durable and heroic of Scottish patriots.


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  • A. Carrick, statue, Edinburgh Castle
  • R. Forrest, statue, Lanark
  • portrait, National Wallace Monument, Stirling
Camden Society
Scottish Text Society
J. Bain, ed., , 4 vols., PRO (1881–8); suppl. vol. 5, ed. G. G. Simpson & J. D. Galbraith [1986]
T. Rymer & R. Sanderson, eds., , 20 vols. (1704–35); 2nd edn, 20 vols. (1726–35); 3rd edn, 10 vols. (1739–45); new edn, ed. A. Clarke, J. Caley, & F. Holbrooke, 4 vols., RC, 50 (1816–69); facs. of 3rd edn (1967)