Sir William Wallace

The Scottish soldier Sir William Wallace (ca. 1270-1305) led the Rising of 1297, an attempt to reverse the loss of Scottish independence to England. Although he failed, he is remembered as a champion of Scottish nationalism.

Verylittle is known of the early life of William Wallace. His father is known to have been a member of the lesser nobility in the west of Scotland, and so his origins were decent but undistinguished. Beyond brief references to his schooling, there is not record of Wallace until he is identified as a fugitive from justice, the result of his having slain an English sheriff. He became the leader of a small band and earned the reputation of being a friend to Scots who suffered at the hands of their English conquerors. It is difficult to assess with precision the nature of Wallace's activities since legends about his early life are colored by his later exploits. Whether he was an ordinary brigand or a sort of Robin Hood, he was the leader of but one of many peasant bands. What does set Wallace apart is that he emerged as the leader of guerrilla resistance to English occupation for the Scots at large, and so he became a figure of national significance.

Wallace's support came from the lower classes and the lesser nobility; with few exceptions, the greater nobles were never enthusiastic, loyal, long-term allies. While they may have mistrusted his social origins, the more important fact is that members of that class were favorably disposed toward England, where many of them still had lands and relatives. The failure of the upper nobility to support Wallace, especially on the field of battle, proved to be his undoing.

The Rising of 1297, led by Wallace, caused Edward I of England to send a special force against him. The first meeting of the two armies was at Stirling Bridge on September 11, and here Wallace gained a great victory. The English had superior numbers, but Wallace had a favorable position, a large measure of patience, and a sufficient talent for tactics to rout the impatient and poorly led enemy. Wallace followed up his triumph by moving swiftly to restore Scottish control over every fortress and castle in Scotland. The victory at Stirling Bridge had made Wallace the liberator of Scotland.

Riding the wave of success, Wallace carried the war into England. In this period he gained a noble title, and he styled himself "guardian of the realm of king John." So devastating was Wallace's work that Edward made truce in his war with France so as to be free to face the threat from the north. Wallace met the English counteroffensive with a calculated retreat and scorched-earth policy, and for a time his strategy worked. In the face of the pinch of scarce supplies and threats of mutiny, Edward was preparing to abandon his pursuit when he learned that Wallace was within striking distance. Edward moved quickly to force an open battle.

The battle of Falkirk (July 22, 1298) is remembered in Scottish history as the occasion on which Scots fought valiantly but vainly in defense of their independence against far greater numbers. The noble cavalry defected from Wallace's army without striking a single blow. The Scottish infantry withstood the onslaughts of English cavalry, but without horsemen Wallace was unable to carry the battle to the enemy. When Edward brought his archers into play, the Scots were doomed. With his army decimated, Wallace resigned his office as guardian of the realm and withdrew from the center of the political stage.

Little is known of Wallace's career in the years between 1298 and 1303 except that he visited France and Rome in an unsuccessful search for help against Edward. On his return to Scotland, Wallace became the object of relentless pursuit by Edward, and on Aug. 5, 1305, he was betrayed to the English by his one-time subordinate Sir John Menteith.

Transported to London, Wallace was obliged to stand trial for acts of war and treason. The condemned Wallace was dragged by horses to the gallows, hanged, and disemboweled. His head was impaled on London Bridge; his quartered body was distributed for display at four castles in Scotland.

Intended to be advertisements of Edward's victory, those bloody quarters became banners of the cause that Wallace bespoke. Within months Edward was faced with a resurgence of Scottish nationalism that he could not put down.


Further Reading on Sir William Wallace

A eulogistic biography which contains many extracts from early sources and is, therefore, informative about the legends which have grown up around the memory of Wallace is John Carrick, Life of Sir William Wallace, of Elderslie (2 vols., 1830). A balanced and reliable narrative of events is provided by Robert Laird Mackie, A Short History of Scotland, edited by Gordon Donaldson (rev. ed. 1962). A colorful but dependable account is Eric Linklater, The Survival of Scotland (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Fisher, Andrew, William Wallace, Edinburgh: J. Donald Publishers; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Distributed in the U.S.A. and Canada by Humanities Press, 1986.

Gray, D. J., William Wallace: the king's enemy, London: R. Hale, 1991.