William Wallace: who was the Scottish rebel who defied Edward I?

Legendary Scottish hero William Wallace, the rebellious thorn in the side of Edward I of England, was a man of murky origins...

William Wallace on trial in 1305

When you think of the Scottish hero William Wallace, you’d be forgiven for first imagining actor Mel Gibson covered in blue paint and crying “Freedom!” However loved the 1995 film Braveheart is, it gives little away about the true story of the lionised Scottish rebel.

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Wallace’s execution on 23 August 1305 is of the most gruesome variety. Found guilty of treason, he was taken to the Tower of London, where he was stripped, tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets by horses. He was then hanged, drawn and quartered, with his bowels burnt before him.

Precipitating this grisly death were years of leading the first organised resistance against English rule in Scotland. In the early 13th century, Scotland had been a peaceful country under the rule of Alexander III. Following his death in 1286, the crown passed to Margaret, the Maid of Norway, a three-year-old. Her sudden demise in 1290 plunged the country into turmoil. To avoid a civil war, Edward I of England was asked to arbitrate for the Scottish nobles competing for the throne, which he did – but then he set about undermining the authority of the chosen monarch, John Balliol. In 1296, the King of England invaded.

William Wallace is a man of murky origins, but by this time he probably had military experience, possibly in Edward’s Welsh campaign. His first documented act of defiance was the killing of a sheriff in May 1297; one 15th-century poem of dubious veracity suggests the killing of Wallace’s wife was the catalyst for this. He then joined with other military leaders in skirmishes against English forces, and by September won a pitched battle at Stirling Bridge despite being vastly outnumbered. Now proven as a competent military leader, Wallace was subsequently appointed as Guardian of Scotland, the de facto head of state; Balliol had been forced to abdicate in 1296.

Wallace would battle Edward I’s army again at Falkirk – a devastating defeat that led to him resigning as Guardian. His movements after this are unclear, but it’s believed he travelled to the continent to seek support for the Scottish cause. In 1303, many of his countrymen submitted to Edward as their overlord, but Wallace refused to do.

On 5 August 1305, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, John de Menteith, turned Wallace over to soldiers at Robroyston. Tried for treason with no jury, lawyers or the chance to defend himself, he was found guilty. He denied the charges, saying: “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” After his execution, his head was placed on a spike on London Bridge, while his limbs were displayed across the land.

His life has since been romanticised in literature as well as on the silver screen. Today, he’s seen as the true spirit of Scottish independence.

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This content first appeared in the August 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed