William Wallace

William Wallace Statue in Aberdeen

William Wallace was a Scottish knight who led his countrymen against the English in the first Wars of Independence. Son of minor noble Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, William Wallace was to lead the guerilla resistance against the English occupation. Like many Scots Wallace refused to take the oath of fealty to the King of England and after a brawl with the English garrison in Lanark he escaped with the help of his wife. She was subsequently executed by his pursuers and the enraged Wallace returned to Lanark and killed the English sheriff, Sir William Hazelrigg.

William Wallace initially led a band of outlaws but through his success was called upon to lead a more official resistance. In 1297 the rebellion gained momentum and broke into a full scale uprising. Wallace led a series of guerilla attacks and in June encountered an English force at Irvine. Unfortunately the Scottish army was divided with Wallace still supporting the useless Balliol as the rightful king and many of the Scottish nobles joined the English and were pardoned by King Edward. The capitulation at Irvine was brought about because many of the nobles, Robert the Bruce included, could not see the sense in fighting for Balliol when he had a rival claim. With division amongst the Scots many made the decision to join the English but it was a political manoeuvre rather than a heartfelt one. William Wallace would not submit and it was this event that made him into a leader in his own right. An English chronicler at the time, Walter of Guisborough, had this to say of Wallace "the common folk of the land followed him as their leader and ruler; the retainers of the great lords adhered to him; and even though the lords themselves were present with the (English) king in body, at heart they were on the opposite side".

Edward set sail for Flanders to fight the French believing the situation in Scotland resolved, meanwhile Wallace moved north and joined forces with another leader of the uprising Andrew Murray. They inflicted a heavy defeat on the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. A few months after the battle Wallace was knighted and Murray and Wallace were appointed guardians but Murray was fatally wounded and after his death Sir William Wallace became the sole "guardian of the kingdom of Scotland and commander of its armies".

Wallace led several successful attacks on the north of England and was known as "the hammer and scourge of the English". He stole supplies and raised men in various towns across the country enforcing a rigid discipline amongst his common army. He also instituted a scorched earth policy burning anything the English could use when they advanced and trying to starve the troops. This was not seen as chivalrous and may explain why Wallace was drawn into battle at Falkirk. In 1298 Edward returned and led an army north. They met Wallace at Falkirk where the superior English forces inflicted a heavy defeat in a battle that Wallace should have avoided. Although he escaped with his life his power and reputation were irrevocably damaged and he was replaced as guardian.

Over the next few years Scotland lost the support of the Pope and of the French and Edward was able to conquer the north. He offered lenient terms to those who surrendered but his vindictive nature prevented him from offering William Wallace any peace, when asked if terms should be offered to Wallace in 1304 Edward replied "Know that it is not our will that you hold out any word of peace either to him or to any of his company unless they place themselves absolutely in all things at our will, without any reservation whatsoever".

In late 1304 after a final skirmish Wallace fled and lived as a hunted outlaw. It is testament to his popularity that it took until August 1305 for him to be captured when he was handed over to the English by Sir John Stewart of Menteith. Instead of a trial English judges read a list of charges against Wallace and then tortured and executed him. Parts of his dismembered body were sent to Scotland for display and his head was placed on a pike atop London bridge. William Wallace was later immortalised as a martyr by Blind Harry in an epic poem written in the late 15th century, a book which in Scotland was second in popularity only to the bible. He continues to be an inspirational figure for many and a National Wallace Monument was erected on Abbey Craig in Stirling in 1869 funded by public donations from home and abroad.

The Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig in Stirling