The Hunt for William Wallace

Andrew Fisher asks who William Wallace really was, and why he has become an icon of Scottish resistance to the English.

The Trial of William Wallace at Westminster, by Daniel Maclise

On the morning of August 23rd, 1305, there was something of a carnival atmosphere in London. Since the early hours of what promised to be a fine day for Edward I’s capital city, crowds had been gathering to watch that most appealing of spectacles, a public execution. Such an event was not, of course, unusual when the law was often capricious and brutal; thieves, coiners, servants who had struck their masters, the simple-minded and the irreligious, these were some of the subjects on which the hangmen could rely for employment.

But today’s proceedings promised to be special. The victim of the judicial process on this occasion was the Scot, William Wallace. Over the years English propaganda had depicted Wallace in the most extreme terms, as a man void of pity, one crueller than Herod, madder than Nero. Above all, he was portrayed as a traitor to Edward I and as such worthy of the worst the law could devise. Not since the execution of Thomas Turberville, the Englishman who had spied for France ten years before, had Londoners had the opportunity to enjoy the death of a traitor.

Through the abusive and threatening crowds, Wallace was brought to Westminster Hall, where a plaque marks the spot on which he stood to hear his fate from a commission headed by Peter Mallore, Edward’s justiciar. In keeping with contemporary practice, there was no trial as we understand the term; Wallace was present only to hear the charges against him and the sentence to be visited on him. He was not allowed to speak in his own defence, although he managed to cry that he was no traitor, since he had never sworn loyalty to the king who had judged and condemned him.

The farce over, he was led from Westminster Hall to face the first part of his protracted and horrific ordeal. In front of the expectant crowd, he was tied to a hurdle and dragged at the tails of horses over a distance of more than four miles to Smithfield, where a second plaque, on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, serves as a reminder of Wallace’s end. At Smithfield he was slowly hanged but cut down still alive, to be disembowelled and castrated, and his heart, liver, lungs and entrails were burnt. Only then was his head struck off and his body quartered. His head was raised on a pole on London Bridge to the delight of the public and his quarters were sent for display at selected sites in Edward’s kingdom, which now, despite Wallace’s heroic efforts, included Scotland.

And there, at Smithfield, it has long been believed, the legend of William Wallace began. According to this scenario, Edward, vicious and obsessive, had set out not merely to destroy Wallace’s body but also his reputation, to expunge his name from the Scottish consciousness. In this objective, the King is seen as having failed. The truth may be otherwise. The facts, such as they are, suggest a different interpretation, both of the hunt for Wallace prior to his capture and on the question of his reputation after his execution.

Who was this man who inspired such hatred in his English contemporaries but such devotion in Scots seven hundred years after his death? His origins are obscure, although there are tantalizing clues. A seal of 1297 portrays him as an archer and bears the legend William, son of Alan Wallace. We know of an Alan Wallace who was a crown tenant in Ayrshire but what connection, if any, there was between the two we cannot say. The same applies in the case of a William Wallace found guilty of theft in Perth. As so often with Wallace, there are more questions than answers.

Wallace emerged from obscurity with the brutal murder of William Heselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297. Tradition ascribes this act to revenge for Heselrig’s treatment of Wallace’s lover, Marion Braidfute: the truth is more likely to be found in the political situation in Scotland. In the previous year, Edward I had invaded Scotland when defied by John Balliol King of Scots over the matter of suzerainty. Edward defeated and imprisoned Balliol and imposed his own government on Scotland under Earl Warenne and Hugh Cressingham, the treasurer, whom the Scots came to know as ‘the treacherer’. Edward then left for the Continent, believing that Scotland was pacified.

In this, he was quickly shown to be mistaken. Rebellion against English rule broke out across the country. In the north, Andrew Murray led the rebels in a series of attacks on centres of English power. Further south, Wallace became the focal point of resistance. His murder of Heselrig, whether motivated by patriotism or passion, drew the disaffected to him. If not previously an outlaw, he was certainly one now.

At once, he demonstrated the vigour and military skill which were his trademarks. Soon after Lanark, we find him at Scone, eighty miles to the north, where he almost captured William Ormsby, Edward’s justiciar. He then swept the English out of Perthshire and Fife, and by August had laid siege to Dundee. In the vicinity of Stirling, he joined forces with Andrew Murray at the head of what the English called ‘a very large body of rogues’. Wallace, unsparing of himself and others, had left Dundee to the care of the townspeople on pain of loss of life and limb.

Scottish resistance to English rule had not been uniformly successful. An aristocratic rebellion led by Robert Bruce, James the Stewart, and Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, had ended in ignominious surrender to an English army at Irvine in June 1297. Wallace and Murray, with the only Scottish army in the field, were now about to face their own test of strength. Warenne and Cressingham at the head of a large army were moving north to deal with them. The English commanders were at odds; Warenne was loth to fight, while Cressingham, by contrast, was intent on glory. Their army, with its impressive heavy cavalry, outnumbered the Scots by a comfortable margin. The easy defeat of the Scots under Balliol almost certainly increased English belief in victory in any battle.

Wallace and Murray, however, were well prepared. Like the enemy, they understood the strategic importance of Stirling Castle, overlooking the crossing of the River Forth. They had positioned their army on the southward-looking slope of the Abbey Craig, about a mile from the only bridge available to the English. The ground at the foot of the Abbey Craig was unsuitable for heavy cavalry. Warenne, an experienced soldier, may well have realized this and made several attempts to persuade the Scots to surrender. In a memorable rejoinder, Wallace informed Warenne that the Scots were at Stirling ‘to do battle to defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on, and we shall prove this in their very beards’.

On September 11th, 1297, the English began to cross the bridge. It was so narrow that no more than two horsemen could ride abreast. When the vanguard had almost crossed, Wallace and Murray released their infantry in a downward charge which crashed into the English. Unable to deploy, the vanguard was slaughtered, while their colleagues watched impotently from the far side of the river. At least a hundred knights perished, among them Cressingham. Warenne fled. It was later said that the Scots skinned Cressingham’s body to make a belt for Wallace’s sword.

It was a remarkable but costly victory. Murray was grievously wounded and survived only until November. The burden of defending Scotland fell on Wallace. In recognition of his achievements, he was knighted and made Guardian of Scotland, the first individual to hold this office. After the death of Alexander III in 1286, the Scots, fearful of civil war, placed the government of the nation in the hands of men known as ‘custodes’ or ‘Guardians’. When we consider the composition of the first Guardians – two bishops, two earls, and two barons – we begin to understand the nature of Wallace’s achievement. Wallace recognized the value of restoring links with the Continent and was soon in contact with Lübeck and Hamburg. That winter he led a devastating series of attacks on the north of England, in which, it was claimed, ‘the service of God totally ceased in all the monasteries and churches between Newcastle and Carlisle’.

But his greatest task lay ahead. Wallace knew that only with the defeat of Edward himself could Scotland be free. He began to prepare for the onslaught that was to come. Edward returned to England from the Continent on March 14th, 1298 and at once set about gathering an army, which was to muster at Roxburgh on June 25th. While estimates of the size of the army vary, it is generally accepted that it was the biggest Edward ever raised for any Scottish campaign. Wallace could not hope to match such numbers; he chose to rely on the infantry that had served him so well at Stirling.

However, Wallace was anxious to avoid battle if possible. To this end, he engaged in a strategy of withdrawal behind a screen of scorched earth. Edward advanced, his lines of communication quickly overstretched. His army, unable to find the enemy, was in disarray, starving and with dissension in the ranks. By July 21st, Edward was ready to retreat. But he was saved by news from two Scottish earls that the Scots lay less than twenty miles ahead, at Falkirk. He acted at once with a forced march. He came upon Wallace in a strongly entrenched position, fronted by a morass. If Wallace had not intended to fight, he was nevertheless in a strong position. He had divided the Scottish infantry into four schiltroms, bristling with spears, each surrounded by a fence of stakes. A small cavalry force under fellow rebel John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch was present.

The schiltroms proved their worth against the initial English cavalry charges, their spears inflicting much damage on the enemy horses. The Scottish cavalry meanwhile had fled, for reasons unknown. Edward now called up his archers and they began the systematic decimation of the Scottish ranks. His cavalry completed the rout of the Scots in a further series of attacks. The schiltroms kept their discipline to the end, but losses were heavy; according to an English account, the Scots ‘fell like blossoms in an orchard when the fruit has ripened’.

Wallace left the field with a small force and, at an unknown date, resigned the Guardianship. It has been argued that he should never have fought at Falkirk. In his defence it must be said that his strategy had almost come to fruition, and that he came closer than any Scot of the period to defeating Edward. Indeed, so bruised was the English army at Falkirk that Edward was forced soon afterwards to abandon his campaign. We know of no attempt in the months after Falkirk to capture Wallace, who sought other ways to bring about the restoration of John Balliol. Wallace had seven years to live.

Quite when Edward had determined upon Wallace’s death is impossible to say, but the hunt for him had been intermittent. At his trial, it was stated that he had spurned an offer of clemency from Edward. A second offer to submit was made, according to the chronicler, Langtoft, in 1303, but again Wallace failed to take the opportunity. The sources for these offers are both English and must therefore be treated with caution. Edward had, however, displayed an equivocal attitude to Wallace which suggests that the Scot had not yet come to be seen, as he subsequently did, as prey. After his defeat at Falkirk and his resignation of the Guardianship, Wallace travelled to the Continent to argue the Scottish case for freedom at the courts of Europe.

It is possible that he first went to Norway before moving on to France. It was an uncertain time for him to visit France, for Philip IV and the English king, hitherto at odds, were briefly reconciled by Edward’s marriage to Philip’s sister, Margaret, on  September 4th, 1299. When, therefore, Wallace came to Philip’s attention, the French king had him arrested and offered to hand him over to Edward. The latter merely thanked Philip and asked him to keep Wallace in France, hardly the reaction of a man intent on the destruction of the Scot. By the following year, Philip had changed his mind about Wallace, whom he now described as ‘our beloved William le Walois of Scotland knight’.

From France, Wallace went to Rome, to continue his efforts on behalf of Scotland. When precisely he returned to his native land is unclear. By 1303 he was once more active in the field against the enemy. That June we find him raiding through Annandale and Liddesdale and into Cumberland in the company of John Comyn and erstwhile warden of Selkirk Forest, Simon Fraser. Historians are reluctant to see Wallace in charge in these circumstances and it is difficult to disagree; he had been absent from Scotland for a considerable time, and the political situation had changed. But, interestingly, to the English he remained the Scots’ ‘commander and captain’.

It is not impossible that Edward thought the same. He was in Scotland in the early summer of 1303, about to bring the Scots finally to heel. At the same time, he was issuing instructions for the capture of Wallace. To this end, he used bribery and coercion on those who might aid him. Edward hoped that the capture of Wallace would be achieved by his countrymen, as had happened in 1283 with the Welsh prince, David ap Gruffydd. Among those Scots to whom Edward turned were former associates such as Fraser, Comyn, and Alexander Lindsay. They were unsuccessful in the pursuit of Wallace.

By early 1304, the pressure on Wallace was intensifying. The Scots, under Comyn, had recognized the futility of continued resistance and were seeking terms. Edward, judiciously, treated the Scots with respect and little severity. Clemency for Wallace, by contrast, was not guaranteed; if he chose to surrender, he must take his chances. It was too late, in his case, for negotiation.

Wallace was to remain at large for eighteen months after the Scottish surrender to Edward in February 1304. But his fate was effectively sealed by the St Andrews parliament in the next month, when he was declared an outlaw under Scottish law. In theory, at least, every man’s hand was now turned against him. As a soldier, Wallace had not lost his skill. He evaded capture by an Anglo-Scottish force under the command of Aymer de Valence but was defeated near Peebles by Sir John Segrave. He remained a problem as late as March 1305, when complaints were made against his activities by Scottish supporters of Edward.

Edward’s wish that Wallace should be captured by a Scot was fulfilled.  On August 3rd, 1305, Wallace was taken by John Menteith, keeper of Dumbarton Castle and Edward’s loyal subject. It might equally have been Robert Bruce, present with Segrave at Peebles when Wallace was defeated, however, or Comyn or James the Stewart, who brought Wallace to Edward’s justice.

So ended the hunt for Wallace. The Wallace of history was himself unquestionably a great man, a unique man. Born into a class-ridden society, he rose from humble origins to become sole Guardian of Scotland. Untrained in the art of war, he manifested a sublime skill in strategy and in the handling of large armies, as at Stirling Bridge and Falkirk. While Guardian, he governed a nation still divided and restored it to its place in European politics. At Falkirk, he came closer to defeating Edward I, the greatest soldier of his age, than any other Scot. Having resigned the Guardianship, he crossed to the Continent to plead the Scottish case in Paris and in Rome.

To the end of his life, Wallace remained devoted to the cause of John Balliol, Scotland’s legitimate king, deposed by Edward I. Wallace had set himself two tasks. One was the restoration of Balliol and in this he did not succeed. He failed, equally, in the second task: the expulsion of the English from his native country. When Wallace died, there was no prospect of a Balliol restoration, and Edward’s grip on Scotland was inexorable. The rebellion of Robert Bruce, who was the foresworn traitor to Edward that Wallace never was, was not a continuation of Wallace’s efforts but the consequence of Bruce’s dynastic ambitions.

Indeed it is with Bruce’s eventual success that we see the second stage of the deconstruction of Wallace’s reputation. It was not in Bruce’s interests to allow Wallace, an unrepentant Balliol supporter, a place in the pantheon of Scottish heroes. Nor did Bruce’s biographer, John Barbour, treat Wallace with any sympathy. In modern terms, Wallace was a victim of spin, airbrushed from the fourteenth-century picture of the struggle for independence. The Bruce dynasty, and its successors, the Stewarts, both had their own agenda and created their own, successful, version of events.

Wallace was rescued from anonymity, and perhaps oblivion, 170 years after his death, by Blind Harry (Henry the Minstrel, c.1440-c. 92). His biography of Wallace, a work containing more than its share of fiction was the template for Mel Gibson’s ludicrous film Braveheart. In both, separated by five hundred years, we recognize the Wallace of today, in a simplistic portrait of a complex man. Harry was writing for an anti-English audience and it was in just such an audience that Braveheart found its most unreasoning support.

Harry’s Wallace, in all more than 11,000 lines, can be dated to the period of 1474 to 1479. We know even less of Harry than of his subject but financial accounts show that he made a living from the reciting of poetry and song. He was known at the court of James IV and in other noble houses. His biography of Wallace, while it cannot stand scrutiny on the grounds of accuracy, reflects the strong opposition within sections of Scottish society to the perceived pro-English policies of James III. Harry’s patrons, among them possibly Alexander Stewart, second son of James II and 3rd Duke of Albany, found in Harry’s work the opportunity to attack James III’s treaty of 1474 with England.

Wallace was for Harry every bit the equal of the Chronicle of Lanercost’s ‘bloody man ... For whom the vilest doom is fittest’. Wallace, in Harry, seems to exist only to kill the hatred Southron. Harry portrays him as huge –

Thus, we have a heroic figure in size and deed, who gave his life to his country -
Right sooth it is, a martyr Wallace was.

It is scarcely surprising that in the troubled politics of the reign of James III, Wallace should, with Harry's help, appeal to Scots. Such mentions of Wallace as had previously appeared had been in Latin chronicles and were therefore inaccessible to the majority. Harry's work, particularly in the eighteenth-century abridgement by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, brought the story of Wallace to a wider audience. It was this version which fired the imagination of Robert Burns and generations after him.

Wallace died alone. We know of no attempt to intercede with Edward on his behalf, none to rescue him as he was brought from Scotland to England. By 1305, his time was past. Scotland was a defeated and warweary country, occupied and subdued. Its leaders, more pragmatic than Wallace, had embraced the future as envisaged by Edward. Some of them were in London at the time of Wallace's execution, summoned to participate in Edward's plans for Scotland. The execution, appalling though it was, was an element in a political settlement, the best and indeed the only settlement they could hope for from Edward. Wallace was gone, and with him the independent Scotland for which he had striven.

From Blind Harry to Braveheart each generation has produced its own version of the story of William Wallace. Robert Burns and William Wordsworth, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Louis Kossuth, have all in their day admired him. An industry has grown up around his name; his legacy is disputed by self-interested groups. Wallace, then, has survived but not in a form recognizable to history. His achievements, remarkable though they were, were not enough in his own day and they are not enough today. Wallace remains as elusive to us as he was, for so long, to Edward I.

Andrew Fisher is the author of William Wallace (Birlinn, 2002) and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Wallace