Biography of William Wallace

Scottish Knight and Freedom Fighter

Sir William Wallace (c. 1270–August 5, 1305) was a Scottish knight and freedom fighter during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Although many people are familiar with his story as told in the film Braveheart, Wallace’s story was a complex one, and he has reached an almost iconic status in Scotland.

Early Years & Family

William Wallace statue. Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
Statue of William Wallace near Aberdeen. Richard Wareham / Getty Images

Not much is known about Wallace’s early life; in fact, there are differing historical accounts as to his parentage. Some sources indicate he was born in Renfrewshire as the son of Sir Malcolm of Elderslie. Other evidence, including Wallace’s own seal, hints that his father was Alan Wallace of Ayrshire, which is the more accepted version among historians. As there were Wallaces in both locations, holding estates, it has been hard to pinpoint his ancestry with any degree of accuracy. What is known for certain is that he was born around 1270, and that he had at least two brothers, Malcolm and John.

Historian Andrew Fisher posits that Wallace may have spent some time in the military prior to beginning his campaign of rebellion in 1297. Wallace’s seal contained the image of an archer, so it’s possible he served as an archer during the Welsh campaigns of King Edward I.

By all accounts, Wallace was unusually tall. One source, Abbot Walter Bower, wrote in the Scotichronicon of Fordun that he was “a tall man with the body of a giant ... with lengthy flanks ... broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs ... all his limbs very strong and firm." In the 15th century epic poem The Wallace, poet Blind Harry described him as being seven feet tall; this work is an example of chivalrous romantic poetry, however, so Harry likely took some artistic license.

Regardless, the legend of Wallace's remarkable height has persisted, with common estimates putting him at around 6’5”, which would have been incredibly large for a man of his time. This guess is due in part to the size of a two-handed great sword purported to the Wallace Sword, which measures over five feet including the hilt. However, weapons experts have questioned the authenticity of the piece itself, and there is no provenance to prove that it really was Wallace’s.

Wallace is believed to have been married to a woman named Marion Braidfute, daughter of Sir Hugh Braidfute of Lamington. According to legend, she was murdered in 1297, the same year Wallace assassinated the High Sheriff of Lanark, William de Heselrig. Blind Harry wrote that Wallace’s attack was as retribution for Marion’s death, but there is no historical documentation to suggest that this was the case.

Scottish Rebellion

The wallace monument from Stirling
Stirling Bridge, with the Wallace Monument in the distance. Image by Peter Ribbeck / Getty Images

In May 1297, Wallace led an uprising against the English, commencing with his murder of de Heselrig. Although not much is known about what provoked the attack, Sir Thomas Gray wrote about it in his chronicle, the Scalacronica. Gray, whose father Thomas Sr. was at the court where the incident took place, contradicts Blind Harry’s account, and claimed that Wallace was present at a proceeding being held by de Heselrig, and escaped with the help of Marion Braidfute. Gray went on to say that Wallace, following his assassination of the High Sheriff, set fire to a number of homes in Lanark before fleeing.

Wallace then joined forces with William the Hardy, the Lord of Douglas. Together, they began raids upon a number of English-held Scottish cities. When they attacked Scone Abbey, Douglas was captured, but Wallace managed to escape with the English treasury, which he used to finance more acts of rebellion. Douglas was committed to the Tower of London once King Edward learned of his actions, and died there the following year.

While Wallace was busy liberating the English treasury at Scone, other rebellions were taking place around Scotland, led by a number of nobles. Andrew Moray led resistance in the English-occupied north, and took control of the region on behalf of King John Balliol, who had abdicated and been imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In September 1297, Moray and Wallace teamed up and brought their troops together at Stirling Bridge. Together, they defeated the forces of the Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, and his advisor Hugh de Cressingham, who served as the English treasurer in Scotland under King Edward.

The River Forth, near Stirling Castle, was traversed by a narrow wooden bridge. This location was key to Edward’s recovery of Scotland, because by 1297, nearly everything north of the Forth was under the control of Wallace, Moray, and other Scottish nobles. De Warenne knew that marching his army across the bridge was incredibly risky, and could lead to massive losses. Wallace and Moray and their troops were encamped on the other side, on high ground near Abbey Craig. On de Cressingham’s advice, de Warenne began marching his forces across the bridge. The going was slow, with only a few men and horses able to cross the Forth at a time. Once a few thousand men were across the river, the Scottish forces attacked, killing most of the English soldiers who had already crossed, including de Cressingham.

The Battle at Stirling Bridge was a devastating blow to the English, with estimates of around five thousand foot soldiers and a hundred cavalrymen killed. There is no record of how many Scottish casualties there were, but Moray was gravely wounded and died two months after the battle.

After Stirling, Wallace pushed his campaign of rebellion even further, leading raids into England’s Northumberland and Cumberland regions. By March 1298, he had been recognized as the Guardian of Scotland. However, later that year he was defeated at Falkirk by King Edward himself, and after escaping capture, resigned in September 1298 as Guardian; he was replaced by the Earl of Carrick, Robert the Bruce, who would later become king.

Arrest and Execution

Wiliam Wallace statue, Stirling Castle, Stirling, Scotland
Statue of Wallace at Stirling Castle. Warwick Kent / Getty Images

For a few years, Wallace disappeared, most likely going to France, but resurfaced in 1304 to start raiding again. In August 1305, he was betrayed by John de Menteith, a Scottish lord loyal to Edward, and was captured and imprisoned. He was charged with committing treason and atrocities against civilians, and sentenced to death.

During his trial, he said,

"I cannot be a traitor, for I owe [the king] no allegiance. He is not my Sovereign; he never received my homage; and whilst life is in this persecuted body, he never shall receive it... I have slain the English; I have mortally opposed the English King; I have stormed and taken the towns and castles which he unjustly claimed as his own. If I or my soldiers have plundered or done injury to the houses or ministers of religion, I repent me of my sin; but it is not of Edward of England I shall ask pardon.”

On August 23, 1305, Wallace was removed from his cell in London, stripped naked, and dragged through the city by a horse. He was taken to the Elms at Smithfield, where he was hanged, drawn and quartered, and then beheaded. His head was dipped in tar and then displayed on a pike at London Bridge, while his arms and legs were sent to other locations around England, as a warning to other potential rebels.

Legacy

The National Wallace Monument
The Wallace Monument in Stirling. Gerard Puigmal / Getty Images

In 1869, the Wallace Monument was built near Stirling Bridge. It includes a hall of arms, and an area dedicated to the country’s freedom fighters throughout history. The monument’s tower was built during a nineteenth-century resurgence in interest in Scotland’s national identity. It also features a Victorian-era statue of Wallace. Interestingly, in 1996, following the release of Braveheart, a new statue was added that featured the face of actor Mel Gibson as Wallace. This proved to be massively unpopular and was vandalized regularly before finally being removed from the site.

Although Wallace died more than 700 years ago, he has remained a symbol of the fight for Scottish home rule. David Hayes of Open Democracy writes:

“The long “wars of independence” in Scotland were also about the search for institutional forms of community that could bind a diverse, polyglot realm of unusually fractured geography, intense regionalism and ethnic diversity; that could, moreover, survive the absence or negligence of its monarch (a notion memorably embodied in the 1320 letter to the Pope, the “Declaration of Arbroath”, which affirmed that the reigning Robert the Bruce too was bound by obligation and responsibility to the “community of the realm”).”

Today, William Wallace is still recognized as one of Scotland’s national heroes, and a symbol of the country’s fierce battle for freedom.

Additional Resources

Donaldson, Peter: The Life of Sir William Wallace, the Governor General of Scotland, and Hero of the Scottish Chiefs. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Library, 2005.

Fisher, Andrew: William Wallace. Birlinn Publishing, 2007.

McKim, Anne. The Wallace, an Introduction. University of Rochester.

Morrison, Neil. William Wallace in Scottish Literature

Wallner, Susanne. The Myth of William Wallace. Columbia University Press, 2003.

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Wigington, Patti. "Biography of William Wallace." ThoughtCo, Dec. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/william-wallace-biography-4156276. Wigington, Patti. (2017, December 26). Biography of William Wallace. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/william-wallace-biography-4156276 Wigington, Patti. "Biography of William Wallace." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/william-wallace-biography-4156276 (accessed May 28, 2018).