One of Scotland’s most beloved national heroes, William Wallace, led the Scottish resistance at the beginning of the long fight to free Scotland from England’s rule. The film “Braveheart” propelled the legend of Wallace to new heights.
William Wallace’s Early Life
The details of William Wallace’s early life are murky. Born in approximately 1272, he was the second son of a minor Scottish landowner. According to Henry the Minstrel or “Blind Harry,” a 15-century poet who wrote “The Wallace,” an epic poem about William’s life, his father was Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie in Paisley, Scotland. Other sources, however, suggest that Wallace’s father may have been Alan Wallace of Ayr.
William was the second of three sons; his brothers Malcolm and John would also become involved in the struggle for Scotland’s independence. Malcolm, being the oldest, inherited the family’s modest wealth, while William planned to join the church and become a priest. He studied French and Latin with his uncle, a priest, at Cambuskenneth Abbey, according to the BBC, and may have had military training as well.
Though he may have been bound for the church, a closer look at William reveals that he “had the early makings of a hero,” according to Awesome Stories. “At a time when most men stood 5 feet, Wallace was 6'7".”
Several documents attest to his height, but perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence is his sword, on display at the Wallace National Monument at Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum: The sword is 5 feet 4 inches long, “so its use would have needed to be both tall and strong to use it properly in battle,” according to Wallace: Man and Myth.
By the time he turned 20 years old, English invaders had killed his father and his brother, Malcolm. William was enraged and equally determined to ensure that Scotland wouldn’t fall under English rule as Wales already had.
Learning and Teaching Scotland provides an overview of William Wallace and links to a variety of sites with more information suitable for the classroom.
William Wallace as Resistance Leader
Sources in this Story
- Wallace: Man and Myth
- The BBC: History: Scottish History: Wars of Independence: William Wallace
- Awesome Stories: Famous Trials: William Wallace: Infamous Trial
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Sir William Wallace Biography
- HistoryNet (British Heritage): William Wallace’s Adventure Through Time
- Fordham University: Medieval Sourcebook: The Flores Historiarum: On William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, c. 1307
- The Times of London: William Wallace was a monster, admits Gibson
- The Society of William Wallace
- The BBC: Service remembers William Wallace
In 1296, England’s King Edward I deposed the Scottish king, John de Balliol, and had him imprisoned. Edward declared himself ruler of Scotland, inciting anger and resentment. Many Scottish nobles were imprisoned, taxed, and expected to support Edward in his military actions against France, the BBC reports.
After a variety of resistance efforts, Wallace and approximately 30 men burned Lanark and killed William Heselrig, the town’s English sheriff, in May 1297. It isn’t known for certain whether Wallace was married or if he had children, but Wallace: Man and Myth report that his killing of Heselrig “is believed to have been as vengeance for the murder of his wife, Marion Braidfute.”
After the incident at Lanark, Wallace’s uprising gained momentum. His followers attacked Scone, Ancrum and Dundee; in the north, his ally Andrew Murray took Inverness and Urquhart Castle; and his MacDougall followers took control of the west.
On Sept. 11, 1297, Wallace and Murray met the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Wallace’s army was outnumbered, but the English forces had to cross a narrow bridge before they could confront the Scottish. “By slaughtering the English as they crossed the river, Wallace gained an overwhelming victory,” writes Encyclopedia Britannica. While the Scots sustained one significant casualty, Andrew Murray, the English left 5,000 of their own dead on the field, according to the BBC.
“One indisputable fact does exist—Wallace’s military genius,” British Heritage magazine reports. Evidence suggests that he was the first to use “round skiatrons of spearmen,” and even Winston Churchill admired Wallace’s military skill.
In December 1297, Wallace was knighted and elected Guardian of Scotland in Balliol’s name. Still, many of the nobles of Scotland were reluctant to let a mere knight rule over them, and Wallace still had to confront Edward I, who was in France.
When Edward returned to England in 1298, he invaded Scotland and defeated Wallace’s army at the Battle of Falkirk, Stirling. “Although Edward failed to pacify Scotland before returning to England, Wallace's military reputation was ruined,” Encyclopedia Britannica explains. Wallace barely escaped alive and resigned as Guardian of Scotland. He was succeeded by Robert the Bruce.
Some evidence suggests that Wallace went to France in 1299 to drum up support for Scottish independence. On Aug. 5, 1305, he was back in Scotland, where he was arrested near Glasgow. He was taken to London, condemned as a traitor and given a gruesome death sentence.
The Flores Historiarum, a collection of compositions written by a variety of monks at Westminster, completed c. 1327, provides an account of Wallace’s death: “First of all, he was led through the streets of London, dragged at the tail of a horse, and dragged to a very high gallows, made on purpose for him, where he was hanged with a halter, then taken down half dead, after which his body was vivisected in a cruelest and torturous manner, and after he had expired, his body was divided into four quarters, and his head fixed on a stake and set on London Bridge.”
“Blind Harry's Wallace,” translation by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, 1722
William Wallace’s Legacy
Many of the tales about Wallace stem from Blind Harry’s “The Wallace,” written more than 150 years after Wallace’s death. Although most of the information in the 12-book, 11,877-stanza poem is unsubstantiated, the poem was the second most popular book in Scotland after the Bible.
What Blind Harry did for the legend of Wallace in Scotland, Mel Gibson did for the legend of Wallace on a worldwide scale: The epic film “Braveheart” told Wallace’s story in grand Hollywood style, winning five Oscars and spreading Wallace’s fan base far and wide.
Fifteen years after making the film, Gibson admitted that Wallace “wasn’t as nice as the character we saw up there on the screen. … Wallace was a monster. He always smelt of smoke; he was always burning people’s villages down. He was like what the Vikings called ‘a berserker’.”
Many historians are kinder, however, believing that the real Wallace “surely lies in between,” as Fiona Watson, a University of Stirling academic and Wallace biographer told The Times of London.
Though he may have been a fierce warrior, Wallace is largely celebrated as a national hero. The Society of William Wallace, for example, is a non-political organization “dedicated to upholding the memory of Scotland’s great patriotic hero.”
And on Aug. 23, 2005, the 700th anniversary of Wallace’s death was marked with a memorial service in the House of Commons, along with a series of events across Scotland.
After so many hundreds of years, Wallace’s legend is still a source of contention: “Note the absence of any official commemoration planned for today, the anniversary of the execution of Scotland's greatest national hero,” SNP leader Alex Salmond told the BBC on that day in 2005. “Throughout history, the more the authorities of the day have tried to suppress the Wallace legend the more that it has grown.”