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William Wallace: The Scottish Lowland Warrior Lost In Myth - aka BraveHeart

William Wallace statue

The recent popularity of Celtic stories and culture has brought stories like that of the Lowland Scottish warrior, William Wallace, to the forefront of modern culture.

Hollywood portrayed this Scottish warrior in the movie BraveHeart.

However, we know that stories get distorted just through the passage of time.

How much more do popular versions written for mass markets distort the true facts? In addition, can this deliberate distortion diminish the very real heroism of the tale's subjects?

Why is William Wallace a popular Scottish Warrior?

Given that just about every Scottish man able to wield a weapon would march as a warrior into battle, as his clan so called him, why has William Wallace's story been so popular for quite some time?  This Scottish warrior has been popular amongst the Scotts because of several factors:

  • He was only a minor noble and landowner who unexpectedly won a great victory for Scotland at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

  • By sticking Edward I's pride and never capitulating to England's rule, this Scottish warrior made himself a symbol of Scottish rebellion.

  • Edward tried to make an example out of William, but only succeeded in making a martyr.

  • In the 1400s a storyteller named Blind Harry made a lovely and inaccurate tale out of these events which still survives today as the version most people are familiar with. While Blind Harry's tale is a cracking good story, it ignores several key details in history that give the context necessary to true understanding.

 

What is the real story of this Scottish Warrior, William Wallace?

The real story, like all true stories, is a bit less clear.

 

The growth of this Scottish warrior from birth to young manhood.

William Wallace was born either in 1272 or 1276, probably in Elderslie.

Even the location of his birth is still under massive debate. In addition, the Wallaces are fairly common throughout that region, so his father's name could be Malcolm, David or Alan.

There is no record of his father's death, and Scotland was not at war with anyone during William's childhood.

King Alexander III had reigned over an independent, stable and wealthy Scotland for over twenty years at the time of William's birth, and would not fall from his horse to his death for another decade.

There is also no evidence that William had any combat experience prior to 1297. In essence, William grew up in a peaceful, independent Scotland that served as the bedrock of his world.

 

How the death of seven year old girl sets the stage to war and conflict within Scotland.

When Alexander III fell from his horse, the only linear descendant he had was a four year old granddaughter, Margaret.

She was living with her maternal relatives in Norway at the time, and stayed there for another two years while the nobility of Scotland negotiated over the inheritance.

They invited Edward I (the English king) in to arbitrate, and he agreed, but of course he was plotting already to bring Scotland under English rule.

He supported Margaret's claim to the throne on the condition that she marry Edward II (the son of the English king) when she came of age.

The Scottish nobility agreed to this as long as Scotland remained an independent nation.

Apparently they didn't know Edward I all that well. He was infamous for breaking treaties and agreements whenever it was to his advantage, and his lifelong ambition was to rule the entirety of the British Isles.

When all of this was hammered out in treaty, the Scots asked the Norwegians to send Margaret back so she could grow up in the country she was to rule.

Her Norwegian grandfather, King Eric, tried to give her every luxury to make the trip bearable for a frightened little girl.

Unfortunately, despite all luxuries and safeguards, seven year old Margaret got sick on the ship over from Norway and died before reaching Scotland.

One account says that her ship landed at the Orkney Isles because the captain knew he had a very sick little girl to care for, and she died in a clergyman's arms upon leaving the boat.

Because of her youth, we can't know how she felt, but we should be able to imagine and sympathize with a frightened, ill child who was taken away from everything she ever knew.

A national tragedy unto itself, her death also presaged one of the greatest periods of war and instability that Scotland was ever forced to endure.

 

The Return of Edward I

When Scotland found itself teetering on the brink of dynastic war, they once again invited Edward I to arbitrate rather than endure such a widespread conflict.

Edward I agreed to arbitrate only if the Scottish nobility acknowledged him as overlord.

After a lot of argument, double-dealing and outright machinations, the Scots agreed to accept him on a temporary basis.

Of course, Edward wasn't planning on leaving.

After he set John Balliol up as the nominal King of Scotland, he had the "temporary" taken out of his overlordship and continued in his campaign to unify the entire island under his rule.

Needless to say, the Scots objected.

When Balliol broke his homage to Edward I, the English king responded by attacking and slaughtering the inhabitants of Berwick-on-Tweed.

 

The Stone of Destiny Taken

He continued to perform various acts of war and humiliation while attempting to bring Scotland to heel, including the removal of the Stone of Scone (Stone of Destiny) from Scotland to his palace in London.

Historically, this stone was a vital part of Scotland's coronation ceremony.

In effect, Edward's actions stated that Scotland was no longer entitled to self-rule, but would always be under the English dynasty from then on.

 

The rise of the Scottish warrior William Wallace.

William's military history begins around this time but unfortunately is muddled by several different stories.

  • One story says that he started by killing a bunch of English soldiers who tried confiscating the fish he'd caught in the River Irvine.

  • Another says that he killed the son of an English governor who had been bullying his family,

  • and yet a third states that he killed William Heselrig, Sherriff of Lanark, in revenge for the death of Marion Braidfute.

This last version dates only from Blind Harry's story from around 1470, and is most likely pure fiction.

No matter what the spark was, William could not help but notice the increasing levels of oppression his people - the peope of Scotland - were being forced to endure.

We may not know what exactly caused him to take up the sword, but we know the effects.

No matter how this Scottish warrior got started, he quickly proved himself a competent military leader in the Lowlands of Scotland.

He fought in skirmishes in the province of Ayr, at Loudon Hill, and at Scone where he helped Sir William the Hardy rout the local English official, William Ormesby.

However, he was never a Highlander and did not fight above the Firth of Forth.

The Highlander side of the rebellion was instead handled by William's contemporary, Andrew Moray.

They worked together for a number of years to systematically drive the British from Scotland, and even coordinated their efforts on more than one occasion.

 

The Scottish warriors stand at Stirling Bridge

In their most infamous joint effort, Wallace and Moray joined their forces and tactical ability to win the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

They were vastly outnumbered by the English forces, but possessed enough knowledge of the area and a sufficient grasp of tactics to divide the English into two parts on opposite sides of the river.

Because no more than three people abreast could cross the bridge, they were able to choke off the English into smaller groups that fell before the Scots.

Wallace ordered a crucial cavalry charge that was to prove instrumental in winning the battle because it caused English soldiers to back up onto the bridge, overloading it and causing it to collapse into the swift river.

After this surprise victory, William and two of his seconds were knighted, and William was given the title "Guardian of Scotland and Leader of its Armies."

Who bestowed these titles on Wallace cannot be confirmed, but it was probably Robert the Bruce who had been crowned King of Scotland in secret by the Scottish clergy.

 

William Wallace leads the first attack on English soil.

In order to live up to his title and continue the momentum that the Battle of Stirling had built up, William then led a raid into northern England.

He wanted to prove to Edward I that England was not invulnerable.

While he infuriated the proud English king, William failed to intimidate him. Instead, Edward's pride got stung that this minor noble would dare to move against him, and the seeds of William's martyrdom were planted.

 

The political end of William Wallace, the Guardian of Scotland and Leader of its Armies.

A year after the Battle of Stirling, Wallace fought and lost the Battle of Falkirk.

He attempted to use a tactical formation of pikemen known as a "schiltron" against the English, but Edward overcame the schiltrons by strategic use of archers.

Once a few gaps had been opened within the pikes, the cavalry got within the spears and crushed them from the inside.

One account from this time says that when William fled the battle, he fought and killed Brian de Jay, head of the English Templars, in a thicket nearby.

Of course, after this loss William's military reputation suffered significantly and he eventually turned over his title of Guardian to Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick (Robert the Bruce) and John Comyn of Badenoch.

As far as we can tell, this humiliation at the hands of the English deeply injured him. While he didn't give up the fight for another ten years, he also isn't seen with the high and mighty anymore.

 

William Wallace, a Scottish Warrior in Obscurity

After this, William Wallace becomes much more difficult to track through history until his capture at Robroyston.

Some accounts say he went to plead for France to aid Scotland, others say that he served in the French military for a while, while one more says he went all the way to Rome.

However, not one of these stories can be confirmed, and some are even impossible as the events in question were decades or even centuries in time away from William's lifespan.

The account that's most likely true is that he and some of his best men continued to terrorize the English from within Selkirk Forest.

 

William Wallace, a Scottish warrior captured and turned over by fellow Scottsmen

Whatever he did in the intervening time, he was captured by John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to England, and given over to English soldiers on August 5, 1305.

He was taken to London and tried in Westminster Hall for treason and war crimes against civilians.

He claimed that John Balliol was his official king, not Edward, and so he could not have betrayed Edward.

Of course, this logical argument didn't stop the presiding officials from declaring him guilty.

They mocked him and had him crowned with oak leaves as "king of the outlaws." In reality, they were trying to minimize him as much as possible, so when he was executed he'd be seen as a criminal instead of a rebellious warrior martyr for Scotland.

The trial of William Wallace

Apparently, Edward I wasn't as good at public relations and spin doctoring as he was at politicking.

On August 23, 1305, William Wallace was dragged through London at the heels of a horse, hanged for a time, let down still alive, was eviscerated and finally beheaded.

We in this century have probably never witnessed a scene of such brutality and can only begin to imagine the pain and humiliation William endured.

After his death his body was cut into four pieces and taken to be displayed at Stirling, Aberdeen, Newcastle and Berwick.

His head was placed on a pike on London Bridge.

The death of the Scottish Lowland Warrior, William Wallace, galvanises all of Scotland against England

Edward I performed such a vicious display to cow the Scots into accepting his rule.

Of course, it did not produce the intended effect.

Instead, William Wallace became a martyr of Scotland.

The high-handed vicious manner of his death galvanized the Scottish people into a unified whole and allowed Robert the Bruce to lead them to eventual Scottish independence after Edward I had died and his ineffectual son, Edward II, was no longer interested in the Scottish conflict.

Today, a plaque resides on the wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of William's execution commemorating his patriotism.

A sword named for him was displayed for many years at Loudon Castle and can now be found at Stirling Castle. The sword, however, was probably not his as the style and many pieces of it are dated to the 1400's, approximately 160 years ahead of William's time.

What does remain, however, is the story of a man who rose from minor landowner to national hero as a Scottish warrior, through perserverance, fighting ability, and endurance.

He is counted as a patriot of Scotland and one of its most inspiring historical heroes.

 

 

Major write by L Ice, rewrites by Donald Urquhart, 2008.

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