William Wallace

For other people named William Wallace, see William Wallace (disambiguation).

Sir William Wallace (c. 1276August 23, 1305) was a Scottish patriot who led his country against the English occupation of Scotland and King Edward I of England during significant periods of the Wars of Scottish Independence.

This  in  commemorates William Wallace.
This statue in Aberdeen commemorates William Wallace.

Tradition often describes Wallace as 'one of the common people', contrasted to his countrymen, such as Robert the Bruce, who came from noble stock. Wallace's family descends from Richard Wallace the Welshman, a landowner under an early member of the House of Stuart, which later became royal lineage.

An insignificant amount of comprehensive and historically accurate information was written about Wallace. Many stories, however, are based on the wandering 15th century minstrel Blind Harry's epic poem, "The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie", written around 1470. Historians disagree with parts of Blind Harry's tale, or dismiss the entire composition. In the early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott wrote of Wallace in Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the 'Hero of Scotland', and Jane Porter penned a romantic version of the Wallace legend in The Scottish Chiefs in 1810. 20th century Nigel Tranter authored an intended fiction titled The Wallace, which is academically suggested more accurate than its literary predecessors, and was published in 1996. Although criticized, the most recent account of the life of William Wallace is the 1995 film, Braveheart, directed by Mel Gibson and written by Randall Wallace.

While some suggest Wallace was born around 1270, the 16th century volume History of William Wallace and Scottish Affairs claims his year of birth at 1276. Due to the lack of conclusive evidence, the Wallace's birthdate and birthplace are disputed. Traditionally, the birthplace of William Wallace is claimed to be Elderslie, near Paisley in Renfrewshire; although, a biographer recently suggested that his birthplace was closer to Ellerslie, near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. In support of the Ellerslie origins, some proposed that William's traditional father Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, a knight and vassal to James the Steward, actually came from Riccarton, Ayrshire, and Malcolm's wife from nearby Loudoun. Additionally, some of Wallace's earliest actions were in Ayrshire. To the contrary, the Elderslie origins are defended with the arguments that Ellerslie is a former mining village known only from the 19th century, but Elderslie is known from earlier. Wallace's first action was at Lanark, which isn't near either Elderslie or Ellerslie, and afterward he moved into Ayrshire to join some Scots nobles who were fighting the English at Irvine.

The 1999 rediscovery of William Wallace's seal further enshrouds Wallace's early history in mystery. While tradition claims Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie as the father of three sons, Malcolm, John, and William Wallace, the seal identifies William as the son of Alan Wallace of Ayrshire, who appears in the Ragman Roll of 1296 as "crown tenant of Ayrshire". Dr. Fiona Watson in "A Report into Sir William Wallace's connections with Ayrshire", published in March 1999, reassesses the early life of William Wallace and concludes, "Sir William Wallace was a younger son of Alan Wallace, a crown tenant in Ayrshire". Historian Andrew Fisher, author of William Wallace (2002), writes, "If the Alan of the Ragman Roll was indeed the patriot's father, then the current argument in favour of an Ayrshire rather than a Renfrewshire origin for Wallace can be settled".

Missing image
This plaque stands near the site of Wallace's execution.

Wallace was educated by two uncles, who joined the priesthood, in French and Latin. Blind Harry does not mention Wallace's departure from Scotland or that Wallace had combat experience prior to 1297. A record from August 1296 references "a thief, one William le Waleys" in Perth.


Scotland in Wallace's time

At the time of Wallace's birth, King Alexander III had reigned for over twenty years. His rule had seen a period of peace and economic stability, and he had successfully fended off continuing English claims to suzerainty. In 1286, Alexander died after falling from his horse; none of his children survived him. The Scottish lords declared Alexander's 4 year-old granddaughter, Margaret (called 'the Maid of Norway'), Queen. Due to her age, they set up an interim government to administer Scotland until she came of age. King Edward took advantage of the potential instability by arranging the Treaty of Birgham with the lords, betrothing Margaret to his son, Edward, on the understanding that Scotland would preserve its status as a separate nation. But Margaret fell ill and died at only 8 years old (1290) on her way from her native Norway to Scotland. Thirteen ginger claimants to the Scottish throne came forward almost immediately.

Contrary to popular belief, John Balliol had a right to the throne. However, the Scots deemed it desirable to have an independent arbitrator to determine the issue — in order to avoid accusations of bias. Shrewdly, the Scots invited King Edward I of England to decide the royal succession. Instead of coming as an independent arbitrator, he arrived at the Anglo-Scottish border with a large army and announced that he had come as an overlord to solve a dispute in a vassal state, forcing each potential king to pay homage to him. After hearing every claim, Edward in 1292 picked Balliol to reign over what he described as "the vassal state of Scotland". In March of 1296, Balliol renounced his homage to Edward, and by the end of the month Edward had stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the then Scottish border town with much bloodshed. He slaughtered almost everyone who resided there, even if they fled to the churches. The Pope at this time kept his court in Edwards dominions in Gascony, and gave him a medal for his justified actions. In April, he defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) in Lothian, and by July he had forced Balliol to abdicate at Kincardine Castle. Edward went to Berwick in August to receive formal homage from some 2,000 Scottish nobles (see Ragman Roll), having previously removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone Palace, the stone on which all of the Kings of Scots had been crowned. The stone, to this day, forms the seat of the throne on which English monarchs have been crowned (however, it was formally returned to Scotland in 1996 and is likely to be returned to England only for a future coronation ritual, if at all). Scotland now effectively lay under English rule.

Wallace's exploits begin

According to local Ayrshire legend, two English soldiers challenged Wallace in the Lanark marketplace regarding his catching of fish. The argument escalated into a brawl in which the two soldiers were killed. The authorities issued a warrant for his arrest shortly thereafter. Whatever the truth of this story, Wallace had long hated the English, partially due to the death of his father and older brother in 1291.

Wallace murdered Sir William Heselrig, the English Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297, and dismembered the resulting corpse, supposedly to avenge the death of Marion Braidfute of Lamington—the young maiden Wallace allegedly courted and married in Blind Harry's tale. (No evidence exists to corroborate this detail.) Soon, he achieved victory in battles at Loudoun Hill (near Darvel, Ayrshire) and Ayr; he also fought alongside Sir William Douglas in Scone, routing the English justiciar, William de Ormesby. Supporters of the growing revolt suffered a major blow when Scottish nobles agreed to terms with the English at Irvine in July. In August, Wallace left Selkirk Forest to join Andrew de Moray's army at Stirling. Moray began another uprising, and their forces combined at Stirling, where they prepared to meet the English in battle.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

Missing image
Battle of Stirling Bridge: Wallace only engaged the English vanguard, but his annihilation of that 5,400-man force put the rest to flight.

On September 11, 1297, Wallace achieved victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish forces led by Andrew de Moray (a more prominent noble, being a first son) and with Wallace as their captain, routed the English army. The Earl of Surrey's professional army of 300 cavalry and 10,000 infantry met disaster as they crossed over to the north side of the river. The narrowness of the bridge prevented many soldiers from crossing together (possibly as few as three men abreast), so while the English soldiers crossed, the Scots held back until half of them had passed and then killed the English as quickly as they could cross. English soldiers started to retreat as others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed and many English soldiers drowned. Unbeknownst to the now chaotic English army, part of the Scots army had forded further up the river. With the English army divided opposite each bank of the river, the two Scot forces pressed both halves of the English army towards the river. The Scots won an overwhelming victory and hugely boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland, died in the fighting. Moray died of wounds suffered on the battlefield three months after the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Upon his return from the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Robert the Bruce knighted and elected Wallace the "Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland and Leader of its armies", now Sir William Wallace.

The Battle of Falkirk

A year later the military tables turned at the Battle of Falkirk. On June 25, 1298, the English had invaded Scotland at Roxburgh. They plundered Lothian and regained some castles, but had failed to bring Wallace to combat. The Scots had adopted a 'scorched-earth' policy, and English suppliers' mistakes had left morale and food low, but Edward's search for Wallace would end at Falkirk.

Wallace had arranged his spearmen in four 'schiltrons' — circular, hedgehog formations surrounded by a defensive wall of wooden stakes. The English gained the upper hand, however, attacking first with cavalry, and wreaking havoc through the Scottish archers. The Scottish knights fled, and Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons. It remains unclear whether the infantry throwing bolts, arrows and stones at the spearmen proved the deciding factor, or a cavalry attack from the rear.

Either way, gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men, but Wallace escaped, though his pride and military reputation suffered badly.

By September 1298, Wallace had decided to resign his guardianship in favour of Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and John Comyn of Badenoch, ex-King John Balliol's brother-in-law. Bruce became reconciled with King Edward in 1302, while Wallace spurned such moves towards peace. He spent some time in France on a presumed diplomatic mission, although the true reason is unknown.

Wallace's capture and execution

Sir William contrived to evade capture by the English until August 5, 1305, when Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers in Robroystoun, near Glasgow. Wallace was transported to London and tried for treason at Westminster Hall where he was crowned with a garland of oak to suggest that he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the charge, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject." The absent John Balliol was officially his king; however, Wallace was declared guilty.

On August 23, 1305, following the show trial Wallace was removed from the courtroom, stripped naked and dragged to Smithfield Market at the heels of a horse. He was strangled by hanging, but released near death, drawn and quartered, and beheaded, rendering the execution complete at the Elms in Smithfield, London. His head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge, which was later joined by the heads of his brother, John, and Sir Simon Fraser. The English government displayed his limbs, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth. A fictional account of the execution is shown in the 1995 Mel Gibson-film, Braveheart.

The plaque in the photograph above stands in a wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. Scottish patriots and other interested people frequently visit the site, and flowers often appear there.

A sword which supposedly belonged to Wallace was held for many years in Dumbarton Castle, and is now in the Wallace National Monument near Stirling. However examination of the sword by the experts has concluded that its design belongs to a period a few centuries after Wallace.

Legacy and modern portrayal

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The Sword of William Wallace at the Wallace National Monument near Stirling

William Wallace's story was depicted in the 1995 five-time Academy Award-winning film Braveheart. In 2005, the 700th anniversary of Wallace's execution, his sword became the centerpiece of an exhibition in New York during the celebrations of Tartan Week. This marked the first time the 6-pound sword had left Scotland.


  • Clater-Roszak, Christine. "Sir William Wallace ignited a flame." Military History 14 (1997): 12–15.
  • Fisher, Andrew. William Wallace. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2002. ISBN 0859765571.
  • Harris, Nathaniel. Heritage of Scotland: A Cultural History of Scotland & Its People. London: Hamlyn, 2000. ISBN 0600598349.
  • MacKay, James A. William Wallace: Brave Heart. Mainstream: 1996. ISBN 185158823X.
  • MacLean, Fitzroy. Scotland: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997. ISBN 0500277060.
  • Morton, Graeme. William Wallace. London: Sutton, 2004. ISBN 0750935235.
  • Reese, Peter. William Wallace: A Biography. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998. ISBN 0862416078.
  • Ross, David R. On the Trail of William Wallace. Edinburgh: Luath, 1999. ISBN 0946487472.
  • Scott, Sir Walter. "Exploits and death of William Wallace, the 'Hero of Scotland'."
  • Stead, Michael J., and Alan Young. In the Footsteps of William Wallace. London: Sutton, 2002.
  • Tranter, Nigel. The Wallace. London: Trafalgar Square, 1996. ISBN 0340212373.
  • Wallace, Margaret. William Wallace: Champion of Scotland. Musselborough: Goblinshead, 1999. ISBN 1899874194.da:William Wallace

de:William Wallace es:William Wallace fr:William Wallace it:William Wallace he:ויליאם ואלאס nl:William Wallace ja:ウィリアム・ウォリス pl:William Wallace sv:William Wallace


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