Scotland's Story, Ch. 7 - William Wallace, Part 1

Story of Scotland Chapter Seven: William Wallace - the Scottish hero.



by Robert M Gunn© 2011/2012
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and ©Skye-Net, RM Gunn


Chapter Seven

The Story of Scotland's History, Chapter 7: William Wallace - Who was he?

©RMG

Unfortunately, we have more questions and empty gaps in our knowledge of William Wallace’s life, than we have facts to fill them in. We have what some writers refer to as “folk-history” and a few facts, some of them written by the English, who had no love of Wallace. What we have from Scottish sources about Wallace is the exact opposite: adoration. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, but it is doubtful we will ever know.

Since there is so much folk-history (legend) and embellished oral history, we should look first to this source. While we cannot reconstruct Wallace’s largely unknown past, we can speculate based on what little is written about the man, and what was spoken about him afterward.

In point of fact, the amount of speculation, conjecture, supposition and deliberate myth-making or glorification from certain camps, threaten to turn Wallace from a real historical figure into a semi-mythical entity, to be dismissed by academics. We will not go so far as to dismiss, for we know he existed. We have something of his life to record, even if that record leaves us wanting more – and finding only legends.

Ted Cowan said: “William Wallace was possibly one of the greatest Scots who ever lived – not only for himself, not only for his own lifetime, but for what he became. The mythos of Wallace is just as important as what the man himself achieved.”

This may be so, although it distresses historians who wish to stick to truth about the real man, not who we wish him to be. There are times when the interest in a subject is so great that even very particular writers have to indulge in a little speculation - if speculation is required. It is necessary with Wallace.

There are few contemporary accounts of William Wallace, except what was recorded by the English, and much of that is biased propaganda. Unlike Robert Bruce, that other great Scottish hero, we do not have many verifiable accounts. Bruce was of the nobility – the aristocratic class. His family and their events are at least partially recorded to an extent. Wallace was at best a minor noble, or perhaps the son of one. No real record of his life exists, outside of Andrew of Wyntoun, and the Scotichronicon by Walter Bower. Both of these wrote about Wallace from some considerable distance of time: 75-110 years after Wallace’s death. Worse still are the highly doubtful accounts of the traveling bard or minstrel, Blind Harry. He was not born until c. 1440, and his account then is close to two-hundred years after Wallace’s death. We know he was an entertainer, and the ‘Life and Deeds of William Wallace’ was his show. How much of Blind Harry can we trust? Not much can be checked or even believed. There is nothing to verify anything he says; worse, some of what he does say is so highly embellished, and beyond belief that he has been dismissed by academics as a credible source for centuries.

[Wallace Statue] However, this credibility deficient does not bother some people, such as Elspeth King, of the Smith Art Gallery. In fact, she advocates in favor of the whole work being accepted as history. She suggests it as a “populist” method to overcome academic skepticism: to override historical analysis, and take it straight to the people. While this writer cannot agree with that method, I find myself outnumbered and even pressured by populous sentiment. Let’s examine it. In chatting with Ms. King back in 1997 over the matter, we were unable to resolve our differences on the subject. [She was brought on to my history forum by a mutual friend.] Instead, she inspired another writer who was much more amenable to accept Blind Harry. All Wallace biographies suffer one main flaw, and it is they all tend to start out insisting they are not going to rely on Blind Harry in the beginning of the books, and running out of material by about chapter 3 or 4, they use him anyway. Such is the trap of writing biographies of people whose past is largely unknown. At some point, in order to flesh out a book, the writer must embellish with speculation, or let another’s work fill in the fiction for them.

But the real impetus to find more about the man behind all the myth was a Hollywood film, “Braveheart”, acted, produced and directed by troubled star, Mel Gibson in 1995. The screenplay was by Randall Wallace, and although factually incorrect in several areas (like the portrayal of Robert Bruce, wearing of kilts, etc.), it appealed to almost everyone that wanted to hear the story of this legendary and historical hero of Scotland. The lion’s share of the credit for a re-popularizing of Wallace really goes to “Braveheart”, not the countless books written right afterward to feed a starving audience. In essence, “Braveheart” was the Blind Harry of its day – and likewise, Blind Harry’s poem about Wallace was the “Braveheart” of its time. Even though a vast majority of academics, regrettably, have to dismiss Blind Harry as literary invention – too unreliable to used as historical material reference – the audience for Wallace makes it necessary. With the warning that whatever you might now read in this first part of a look at William Wallace may be pure imagination, we move forward.

It was Bower who first romanticized William Wallace in the Scotichronicon. His work, from about 1440 (Wallace died in 1305) had no access to the rich oral traditions that were growing about Wallace. So, Bower did the embellishing himself. Bower turns Wallace from powerful Scottish military leader, into a Homeric hero of Scotland. It is in his work that Wallace first emerges as the tragic hero, great warrior, and Scottish patriot: Wallace, the man of the people. Blind Harry soon follows with an even more theatrical version, but maintained to the end his work was based on the (yet undiscovered) Latin diaries kept by Wallace’s personal chaplain, John Blair. It is said the work by Blair was commissioned by Bishop William Sinclair of Dunkeld, perhaps to send to the Pope to show Wallace’s heroism for Scotland. More than a few think it was intended to convince Rome that Wallace should be made a martyr by the Church. Most experts on Wallace do not believe that this account by Blair ever existed; that Harry made it up when his credibility was questioned. Harry’s “The Wallace”, as it has come to be known, is not a nice read. It is vulgar, violent, gory and very anti-English. Originally written in an old form of Scots dialect that has become extinct, it was a difficult read. It was suited much more as an oral tale to be told. It was perhaps for these very reasons that it appealed to so many illiterate Scots in the 15-16th centuries. (Most people were illiterate then). The new version, inspired by Elspeth King, was released in 1998.

Traditionally, Wallace is thought to have been the son of a minor landowner, who may have also been a minor knight, named Malcolm Wallace (or Wallas, Walensis, Waleys). Curiously, the only written document we have, the Lubeck letter, indicates his father to be one Alan Wallace. The name is believed to be from an older origin “Walensis”, or perhaps le Waleys (Wallas), both of which strongly indicate a Welsh origin. He may have lived in Renfrewshire, Lanark, or perhaps even Ayrshire. No one is really quite certain and doubt remains. The town of Elderslie has laid claim as his birthplace, and has made a cottage industry of promoting itself as his home, based mostly on Blind Harry and some local sites that were, or have been adapted over the centuries. Truth is, we just don’t know enough to say with any certainty where he was born. Blind Harry has this to say:

"First, here I honour, in particular,
Sir William Wallace, much renown'd in war;
Whose bold progenitors have long time stood,
Of honourable and true Scottish blood;
And in first rank of ancient barons go,
Old knights of Craigy, baronets also;
Which gallant race, to make my story brief,
Sir Thomas Wallace represents as chief.
So much for the brave Wallace' father's side,
Nor will I here his mother's kindred hide:
She was a lady most complete and bright,
The daughter of that honourable knight,
Sir Ranald Crawford, high sheriff of Ayr,
Who fondly doted on his charming fair.
Soon wedded was the lovely blooming she,
To Malcolm Wallace then of Ellerslie;
Which am'rous pair, transported with delight,
Begot young Malcolm that same joyful night;
Then William, who, by true consent of all,
Was honour'd to be the Scottish general".

--- From Blind Harry's 'The Life and Deeds of Wallace'

We also glean from Harry that William was the middle brother of three, the eldest, Malcolm, who is mentioned in the poem, and there was also John. Harry mentions two sisters, but we know nothing of them. Although the exact birthplace of Wallace is open to conjecture it is Elderslie in Renfrewshire that has claimed the honor, although Ayrshire had a place called Ellerslie. Most tradition accepts the Renfrewshire Elderslie (also spelt Ellerslie on some old maps) and it is this site that contains, or did contain, many connections with Wallace including plaques, inscribed stones, a well, a monument and at one time the Wallace oak (now gone), which was said to have hidden Wallace and three hundred of his followers from an English patrol. Other claims his birthplace was Kilmarnock. Put simply, we do not know. Even Harry’s work alternates in spelling his birthplace from Elderslie in one instance, to Ellerslie in others. Perhaps it is merely a spelling variation.

Following the death of Alexander III, the Interregnum and Edward I of England's removal of John Balliol from the throne of Scotland Wallace's father decided that it would be safer if the family moved north:

"Wallace's father to the Lennox fled;
His eldest son he thither with him led;
The tender mother's also gone at last;
And to Kilspindie's with young Wallace past:
Into the pleasant Carse of Gowrie, where
He was brought up with his old uncle there;
Who to Dundee him carefully does send
For education..."

---From Blind Harry's 'Wallace'

It was during this time that Wallace heard of the atrocities perpetrated by the English at Ayr. The English had invited prominent Scots to talks at the Barns but when they arrived they were hung and Blind Harry states that "eighteen score were hang'd by Saxon seed". Wallace grieved over this outrage saying "Ah! should my country suffer such distress and South'ron daily thus increase: O had I but ten thousand at my back, And were a man, I'd gar their curpins (rump, behind) crack."

According to Blind Harry he was seventeen when he uttered these patriotic words.

It is believed that Wallace was born around 1270, (the dates, 1272 and 1274 appear often) and this would suggest he was a young lad of about twenty-five years old when ‘he raised his head’, a saying made famous by Harry. According to Harry, Wallace killed another young man in Dundee, named Selby – the son of an English overlord. Harry says it was Wallace’s anger over a massacre in Ayr that triggered his violence. Now an outlaw, Wallace escaped but continued to kill and even murder. According to Blind Harry Wallace was accosted by the English soldier, Selby, on account of his fine clothes:

"And with disdain, said, "Scot, I pray thee stay;
What devil clad thee in a suit so gay?
A horse's mantle was thy king to wear,
And a Scots whittle at thy belt to bear,
Rough roullion shoes, or any common trash,
Did serve such whore's sons through the dubs to plash;
Give me that knife under thy girdle hings."
"Nay, pardon me, sir, I know better things;
Therefore forbear, I earnestly entreat;
It both defends me, and it cuts my meat."
Selby assaults him, and would it take by force,
And so the plea went on from bad to worse.
Fast by the collar Wallace did him take,
Made the young squire tremble there and shake,
His dagger with the other hand drew out,
In spite of all his men so throng about,
And boldly without fear or dread
Upon the spot he stick'd young Selbie dead."

----From Blind Harry's 'Wallace'

According to tradition Wallace escaped by running into an inn where he was already known. The landlady then threw a gown around him and he pretended to be doing some spinning as the English soldiers searched for him thus eluding capture. The stone that he was supposed to have sat on is now kept in the McManus Galleries in Dundee. After leaving Dundee he managed to make contact with his mother who suggested that for his safety they should make a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Margaret at Dunfermline.

It goes on like this for some time. Surely, this violent and angry man who is sorely wronged by English soldiers, seemingly everywhere he goes, had a strong appeal to the people of Scotland who felt oppressed and hopeless under English occupation. Whether or not this part of the story is true, we know that generations were inspired by it. Blind Harry, again our only source for this period in Wallace's life, gives the route that they took as a ferry over the Tay to Lindores then through the Ochil hills to Dunfermline. They spent the night at Dunfermline before crossing the Forth, traveling to Linlithgow before staying with a relative, who was also a priest, in Dunipace. It is this relative, possibly an uncle, who is supposed to have taught Wallace the famous lines:

"Freedom is best, I tell thee true,
Of all things to be won,
then never live within the bonds of slavery, my son."

After remaining at Dunipace for a while they then made their way back to Elderslie where they discovered that Wallace's father had been murdered by the English. No verification of this has be found. Blind Harry also states that his brother Malcolm was also killed but from other sources it is believed that he survived and outlived William. By now it seems that Wallace's mother decided to stay at Elderslie "to live quietly" while William moved on to another of the family properties at Riccarton. It was while he was staying here that he had another encounter with English soldiers, this time from the retinue of Lord Percy.He kills English soldiers for demanding his catch of fish; he is gravely wounded, so much so he is dying, until a pregnant woman suckles him back into health with her breast milk.

Wallace was fishing and some English soldiers rode up and demanded his catch, Wallace refused. One of the soldiers drew his sword and Wallace hit him with his fishing rod before grabbing the sword and killing three of the five soldiers. When Percy heard of this he ruled that a search was not to be made for Wallace because "most manfully, it seems, the Scot has fought."

However, Wallace still thought it best to leave the Riccarton area. Blind Harry has Wallace retire to Leglen Wood from where he made periodic visits to Ayr, where yet again Wallace managed to get himself into trouble with the English. A large Englishman was betting one groat that he could withstand a beating on the back with a staff, Wallace took his bet and immediately killed the man with one blow. Wallace then had to fight his way free from the English soldiers, across the town to his horse and back to Leglen Wood. Later he returned to Ayr but "it proved a most unlucky day, I wish to Jove that he had staid away", as Blind Harry says. On this occasion Wallace was stopped by the Steward of Lord Percy who demanded a basket of fish that Wallace was carrying, when he refused to hand it over the Steward struck Wallace with a staff which resulted in Wallace stabbing him to death. This time Wallace was not so lucky, however, and he was captured before being taken to prison to await trial. It seems that Wallace spent quite a while in prison, he contracted dysentery and his jailer thought he was dead when he arrived to take Wallace to be sentenced.

"A cruel flux in prison and a sore,
Did then reduce him almost to last breath,
And left him gasping in the jaws of death.
The jailer's now commanded with great awe,
To bring him to the sentence of the law,
Who when he view'd him, to his great surprise,
Thought death already had shut up his eyes.
In haste returns, and does report the news,
That he had paid both law and prison dues.
Persuaded thus, that he was very dead,
For Wallace now there was no more remeid.
Being concluded by consent of all,
To throw, him quickly o'er the castle-wall."

---- From Blind Harry's 'Wallace'

The woman who had nursed Wallace as a child (?) came and collected his body and took it to her house in the New Town of Ayr. While caring for his body she discovered that he had not died and she secretly brought him back to good health by suckling him from her breast. At this point in Blind Harry's account, Thomas the Rhymer gives his prophecy regarding Wallace and Scotland:

"Before that Wallace die,
Out of this land he shall the South'ron send,
And thousands on the field make their last end;
He Scotland thrice shall bring into great peace,
And South'ron aye be frighted at his face."

---From Blind Harry's 'Wallace'

As can be clearly seen, these tales are so common to one another, and also so clearly invented for the purposes of entertainment, it becomes increasingly hard to accept them with any validity. The woman, (who nursed him) had breast milk again? She certainly was no young woman. There are many more stories in Blind Harry’s poetic work that it is hard to keep track. There are more adventures, more English soldiers mistreating Wallace, and more of Wallace slaying the dread enemy. Perhaps I could include some more of these at a later date, but I think you see the point of the work. One interesting fact is that in the tales there is a mention of Wallace fighting alongside a friend of his, Sir John de Graham, who we know died in 1298 at Falkirk. Other people mentioned in the story we are never able to identify or verify, and that is true for most of it.

Wallace himself is complex only in the sense that he is initially in it for injustice done to him, and for the love of Scotland, a complex patriotic notion not generally recognized in Wallace’s day. It has been suggested that Scottish nationalism developed after the Scottish wars of Independence, not before, and that the complex understanding of patriotism was not yet a common concept among people. The story takes a turn back to personal injustice when we hear of what happened to the love of his life.

It is all very compelling reading – and easy to identify with, if you are a not English. Harry has Wallace knowing Latin from his uncle (whom he suggests may have been a priest). Wallace is becoming everything to every Scot. One can certainly understand the appeal of the story from Blind Harry. In it, Wallace is brave, strong, handsome, a patriot in the truest meaning of the word – and he was morally wronged on more than once occasion, by far the worst, the English Sherriff of Lanark, Haselrig. Harry also says Wallace was seven feet tall (literally), and this perhaps explains the modified sword on display as his. In the story of Haselrig, Wallace has a beautiful wife (we aren’t sure he really did) named Marion Braidfute, or Braidfoote, also of Lanark. Wallace’s wife was killed by Haselrig in reprisal for her role in helping Wallace escape, after visiting his her. Knowing Harry’s Wallace as we do by now, we know what is coming next. Revenge.

Following his brief meeting with Marion he then goes to Lochmaben where he almost immediately gets into a fight, and slays the castle commander, Greystock. Wallace and his men then captured the castle although his chaplain, Blair "for wit and valour fam'd", was wounded. Wallace then returned to Lanark where he was reunited with Marion, where "now the hero, far from war's alarms, enjoys all pleasure in his consort's arms".

There is some confusion over what caused Wallace to kill Haselrig but one version of events has it that Wallace came to visit Marion but had to sneak into town to see her. While some of his companions were worshipping in St Kentigern's Church, they were accosted by English soldiers. The other version does not mention the church at all, but tells of Wallace leaving Marion’s home dressed as a woman as a disguise. A seven foot tall woman with a two-handed sword going unnoticed, is hard to imagine, but that is how Harry tells the story. Inevitably the English get wind that Wallace, a fugitive, is in the town, and a fight begins. Wallace and his men have to fight their way out of town. Sir William Haselrig, Sheriff of Clydesdale (and acting as Sherriff here), with Robert Thorn, captain of the garrison, and his men marched to Marion's door and on discovering that she was playing for time to let Wallace escape immediately put her to death:

"The trembling matron threw her eyes around.
In vain, alas! were all the tears she shed,
When fierce he waves the faulchion (broadsword) o'er her head;
All ties of honour by the rogue abjur'd,
Relentless deep he plung'd the ruthless sword;
Swift o'er her limbs does creeping coldness rise,
And death's pale hand seal'd up her fainting eyes."
From Blind Harry's 'Wallace'

The tale then draws us in, expectant, as any good story does.

When Wallace hears of this latest atrocity, he goes mad with rage and he immediately heads back towards Lanark for his revenge on Haselrig.

[Lanark] At this point we no longer have to rely completely on Blind Harry, as this period in Wallace's life is also retold (after the fact, not as a chronicle) by Sir Thomas de Gray (Scalacronica). He was an English knight who had been imprisoned in Edinburgh during the 1350's (Wallace died in 1305) and spent some of this time writing history. Included in this history is the account of how his father was part of the garrison at Lanark when Wallace attacked it in May 1297. Apparently, the English guards at Lanark did not expect Wallace to return and they paid no attention to the men who arrived that evening in one's and two's, and this allowed the group to reform later on to make their plans. One group led by de Graham went to Robert Thorn's house while Wallace with another group of men went to Haselrig's residence where Wallace kicked in the door before rushing upstairs to the bedroom where he killed Haselrig, who was in bed. By now the household was in uproar and Wallace also killed Young Haselrig as he rushed to his father's aid. Meanwhile, de Graham had also surprised Thorn's household and he set fire to the house burning everyone inside to death.

There is some other historical evidence for the slaying of Sheriff, Haselrig. At his ‘trial’ years later in London, one of the first charges brought against Wallace is the charge of murder of the sheriff of Lanark, and for cutting his body into pieces. So perhaps this part of the story has more merit than some of the earlier history from Harry.

The rebellion or uprising, or perhaps liberation against English occupation of Scotland had started. Whether it was this one act, all of them, or time finally came for others to act too, it had been brewing for some time. Immediately after Lanark Blind Harry places Wallace at Biggar fighting another battle. Again, there is no evidence for this, although it is possible that some sort of a fight took place right after the previous incident. Blind Harry then says Wallace traveled to Rutherglen for a meeting where "the hero to the terms of peace agreed" with the English, again there is no evidence that this event actually occurred. Wallace is next heard of at Ayr, this is where there had already been a massacre of Scots, and Wallace decided to take revenge on the garrison there. The castle at Ayr required a large garrison and not all the men could be kept within the castle walls so around five hundred of them were billeted in timber barns. Wallace gathered inflammable material to block the sides of the barracks, forcing them to exit out the front door. The barns were then set ablaze with the English soldiers either being burnt alive or killed by the Scots as they tried to escape.

Wallace was now traveling the country, almost raiding at will, and gaining support wherever he went. The Southwest was in turmoil and reports being sent back to London openly admitted that Scotland was in revolt.

Wallace and his followers, variously described as brigands, outlaws or heroic guerilla fighters, take revenge on the English in several more places, including a shipyard at Aberdeen.

Also at this time, we know that several nobles were also plotting and planning. A James Stewart and the Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart were busy organizing resistance of their own. One little known fact is that one major noble was also involved, though most history books omit this. Robert Bruce, the young Earl of Carrick was in with Wishart. But Edward and his spy network soon snuffed out the noble’s rebellion when he sent Sir Henry Percy and Sir Robert Clifford across the border and into Scotland. The nobles were forced to make pledge to Edward in exchange for Edward not taking their families and retainers hostages. Robert Bruce was among those forced to renew their pledge to Edward, and some historians have never forgiven him even to this day! It does not appear Bruce had much choice in the matter.

However, as soon as the Noble’s rebellion against Edward’s rule was foiled, another started in north-east Scotland under a Celtic warrior named Andrew de Moray, or Murray. De Moray and his father had been captured, imprisoned, and kept in the Tower of London after the razing and rape of Dunbar. At some point, the younger Murray, was transferred to another hold but managed to escape and returned home across the border and back to Ross-shire in 1297. There, Andrew de Moray led an army of Ross men and Highlanders which represented the Comyn family, while Wallace was slaying the English sheriff in the south. He arrived back in Scotland in the spring of 1297, at around the same time that Wallace was in Lanark, and he started fomenting revolt in the north, despite the fact his father was still in an English prison. Even though the English had large garrisons in the north, especially at Inverness, Urquhart, Nairn and Elgin, among others, his revolt proved to be effective and popular. Murray raised his standard at Ormonde Castle in the Black Isle and then went on to harry and harass the English garrisons and supply trains with guerrilla tactics, which was their best tactic against a larger, better-armed opponent. Later he initiated sieges and although Urquhart proved too strong to besiege, other castles did fall to de Moray including Banff, Elgin and Inverness.

Wallace attacked now in the south-west, gathering men and horse to make up a cavalry unit – something he had not done before. It was used against the English Justiciar in Scone, who was there to enforce pledges of loyalty to Edward from the locals. When Wallace closed in the Justiciar, William Ormesby, fled in all haste all the way back to England! Wallace’s reputation for killing every Englishman he met must have preceded him. This tells us something of the status as an English-fighter Wallace was garnering, even at this point. His name was well known to the English, and they feared it.

One cannot help imagining Edward’s fury, as he felt his ever-tightening grip on Scotland slipping out between his clenched fists. The harder he had his men squeeze Scotland, the more she slipped between his fingers. Both north and south Scotland were now in open rebellion and the two main leaders of these two very different factions now met for the first time. Word of Edward’s army (sans Edward, who was busy in France) was moving north under the Earl of Surrey. Wallace and de Moray went to meet them near Stirling.

Part 2 - The conflict with England

Edward - Overlord of Scotland?

Background:

Edward I of England
[Edward I]
Edward I of England had only recently completed phase one of his conquest of Wales by defeating the forces of Prince Llywelyn. Edward, for all of his disreputable charateristics, was indeed one of England's most powerful and effective rulers, particularly in his military campaigns. At the time, Anglo-Norman England commanded the most powerful, best equipped, armed military forces in all of Europe.

Edward had shown his military tactics in battles in Wales, England and France, to be very effective, if cruel and ruthless. He was indeed an enemy to be feared. It was Welsh misfortune to choose to fight with one of England's most powerful rulers. Like other medieval kings, Edward had problems to settle in France, but throughout his reign these were overruled by his determination to increase English influence in Britain. Such a focus of attention, backed up by high military expertise, was bad news for the island's Celtic realms. For after Wales, Edward set his sights on Scotland.

By 1297, the whole of Scotland, with the possible exception of Lothian was in a state of armed insurrection.

Wallace had led the first blows against the English, and it may have encouraged several Scots aristocrats to raise their banners in rebellion. Among them were Sir William Douglas, the former commander of Berwick and witness to the slaughter of Scots men, women and children at the hands of Edward I. Also there was James Stewart, a major Scots landownder, Simon Fraser another minor noble. Perhaps the most important, and most often overlooked, was Sir Andrew de Moray, we mentioned earlier. Wallace and de Moray then organized an army of to meet Edward's invasion force.

Wallace is said to have fought in the name of deposed king "Toom Tabard" or empty coat, John Balliol, although several have suggested that, in fact, Wallace fought purely for Scotland and personal revenge, and only invoked the name of Balliol to get much needed aid and support from certain nobles. Whether or not Wallace actually fought to restore Balliol, he was a Scottish patriot whose true allegiance has come to be seen as to Scotland, not to a a failing king.

King Edward I of England, "Longshanks" or "Hammer of the Scots", hoped to settle the insurrection with his Scots allies and sent Robert the Bruce from his base in Carlisle to capture the Douglas Castle. But Robert was none too sure of the righteousness of his order. His mother was Celtic and his deep feelings for the country of Scotland (something for which he is rarely given credit), ran contrary to his family's political friendship. Besides, the Bruces had been used before with the promise of kingship and Edward had always failed to deliver. At the castle of Douglas, Robert the Bruce made the vital decision, one that would later show his character in his life. He would not fight his countrymen, not against them. This failing, Edward sent in his northern army.

[map]The Earl of Surrey and Sussex, Edwards appointed Regent of Scotland, John de Warrenne, was in England when the orders from Edward came to put down the Scots rebellions. King Edward, who was embarking, again, for France (Flanders) to meet with the King of France, King Philip 'the Fair', over disputed territory. Edward had supposed the revolts would be easily handled by his northern English levies under Earl de Warrenne and the High Justicar de Cressingham. He didn't anticipate correctly.

As the English army of heavy cavalry, small contingents of archers (something that would change at Falkirk), men-at-arms and infantry marched towards Stirling castle in September 1297, Wallace got news of their impending arrival and marched rapidly to intercept them. On the banks of the river Forth, the English troops came into sight of Wallace's men.


The Battle of Stirling Begins

[Stirling Bridge breaks]

Among the many victories Wallace won, that at Stirling Bridge, on 11 September, 1297, is remarkable. Edward I, busy with continental politics, remitted John de Warrenne, Earl of Surrey and Sussex , and Hugh de Cressingham full power to repress any and all resistance; and for this purpose an army of 50,000 infantry (supposedly, but more likely 15-20,000), and a great body of horse, under their orders, marched through the south Lowlands in quest of Wallace, who was then beseiging Dundee with all the men that he could muster -- 10,000 in all. Wallace, quitting Dundee, crossed the Tay, and marched to dispute the passage of the river Forth, by which the English alone could penetrate into the more northern parts of the kingdom.

Wallace positioned his men in the hills around a bridge crossing the Forth, north of Stirling. Not all the Scots felt confident about the confrontation. James Stewart approached the English warlord with an offer of peace. De Warrenne refused and his mounted knights began to advance across the narrow bridge. The bridge across the Forth near Stirling was then of timber, and stood at Kildean, half a mile above the present ancient bridge. It is described as having been so narrow that only two persons could pass along it abreast, yet the English leaders proposed to make 20,000 (though this number is disputed), foot and all their horse undergo the tedious operation of crossing it in the face of the enemy. Walter de Hemingford, Canon of Guisborough, in Yorkshire, records that a Scottish traitor who served the Earl of Surrey strenuously opposed this measure, and pointed out a ford at no great distance where sixty men could have crossed the stream abreast; but no regard was paid to his suggestions.

Notwithstanding this superior force, Surrey was by no means anxious to meet Wallace, whose success in past encounters had won him a formidable name.

Seeking to temporise, he dispatched two Dominican friars to Wallace, whose force was then encamped near Cambuskenneth Abbey, on the hill so well known as the Abbey Craig; thus both armies were within perfect view of each other, and separated only by a river, which there winds between green and fertile meadows. The request of the friars was brief -- that Wallace and his followers should lay down their arms and submit.

"Return to thy friends", said Wallace, "and tell them we come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and to set our country free. Let thy masters come and attack us; we are ready to meet them beard to beard."

Enraged by this reply, many of the English knights now clamoured to be led on. This was exactly what Wallace and de Moray wanted....to make the English force come to them across the narrow bridge. It is recorded by English chroniclers that this is when the Scottish traitor, the Earl of Lennox, said to Earl Surrey, "Give me but five hundred horse and a few foot, and I shall turn the enemy's flank by the ford, while you, my Lord Earl, may pass the bridge in safety."

Crossing the Bridge

[Stirling Bridge breaks] Surrey still hesitated, during which the grotesquely fat Hugh de Cressingham, tax-collector of Scotland for Edward said, "Why do we thus protract the war, and waste the King's treasure? Let us fight, it is our bounden duty." Surrey, contrary to good judgement, yielded, and by dawn of the day the English began to cross the bridge; Wallace heard the tidings with joy.

When one-half of the Englishmen were over, Wallace advanced, having previously having sent a strong detachment to hold the ford referred to. The moment the Scots began to move, Sir Marmaduke Twenge, a knight belonging to the North Riding of Yorkshire, who, together with de Cressingham, led the vanguard of horse, displayed the Royal Standard amid loud cries of "For God and St. George of England!" and at the head of the heavily mailed horse made a furious charge up the slope upon the Scottish infantry, while their archers kept shooting fast and surely from the rear, and caused the English forces to waver and recoil.

The battle tested Scots of Wallace's made a foil downhill charge towards the bridge; while in the meantime a masterly movement was executed by Sir Andrew de Moray, who by a quick detour got in between it and those who had already crossed the river, completely cutting off their retreat. Confusion ensued on the part of the English, and discipline was lost. Wallace, as soon as he saw the movement for intercepting their retreat achieved, pressed on with greater force.

The half-formed columns of the English on the north bank of the river gave way, and many of the heavy-armed cavalry were driven into the river and drowned.


The Old Stirling Bridge - Parts

Stirling Bridge Collapses
[Stirling Bridge Parts]

Surrey, sought to retrieve the fortune of the day by sending across, at a moment when the bridge was open, a strong reinforcement with his own banner; but, unable to form amid the recoiling masses of their own infantry, they only added to the confusion and slaughter, being assailed on every side by Scottish spearmen (probably schiltrons).

The schiltrons, (prounounced skil-trons) are agreed by most historians to have been first used successfully at Falkirk, not at Stirling. But it is likely that the units, untrained as yet, were already in existence to use against the overwhelming numbers of English mounted warriors and knights. [The Schiltron]
The basic schiltron was a mass of Scottish spearmen, three rows of spearmen deep, wielding unusually long 12 foot spears in tight formations such as oval rings or box shaped infantry units. The oncoming charge of the heavy or light cavalry would not be able to break the tightly packed ranks of spearmen and the horses were usually impaled by the spears. Before long the knight was pulled easily from his mount and slaughtered by the Scots on the battlefield. This ingenious invention is credited to William Wallace himself.

At the moment Surrey's reinforcement was on the bridge, it parted and crashed into the Forth under the weight and strain of battle. This collapse, of which their are several versions, was a catastrophe to the English, together with the passage of the river by a body of Scots at the ford, when they fell on Surrey's rear, decided the victory for the Scots. A large number of English were drowned in attempting to cross the stream.

The treacherous Scottish barons who served in Surrey's ranks -- one of whom was the Earl of Lennox -- now threw off the mask, and, with their followers, joined in the pursuit, when the flight became, as usual in those days, a scene of barbarous slaughter. It was common for the winning force to try to ride down as many retreating enemy soilders as possible and to put them to the sword. What we would often think of as "chivalrous" knightly warfare, was in actuality, some of the most brutal and bloody hand to hand combat ever practised to a high art by men of any era.

Surrey, after making a final attempt to rally his beaten soldiers in the Torwood, on being assailed by Wallace again, resumed his flight to Berwick, and thence sent to his master the news of his humiliating defeat.


The Aftermath

Stirling Castle
[Stirling Castle]
It is claimed by several of my sources, that William Wallace supped that night in a grand victory feast with his companions in the castle of Stirling. All except one -- Sir Andrew de Moray, Wallace's most able friend and ally, was mortally wounded and never recovered from injuries he recieved in the battle of Stirling Bridge. He died weeks later in bed of infection and Wallace was alone in his defence of the realm of Scotland. It is also claimed by some sources, although it is also disputed and cannot be verified, that William Wallace was knighted, by Robert the Bruce, in the forests of Selkirk, and appointed "Guardian of the realm of Scotland", an office which he held with honour, fidelity and dignity.

By the result of this battle the English were driven out of Scotland, save for Roxburgh and Berwick, in the castles of which two tough garrisons of English maintained a stubborn resistance, till they were relieved by Surrey in Januarary, 1298.

Wallace's leadership had eight months yet to run, and few if any men have had so remarkable an influence in so short a time. His example was inspirational, his courage infectious, and his victory at Stirling Bridge a hinge upon which the door of the future turned. It is clear that he saw himself as a patriot, though the word had as yet little meaning for Scotland. The sense of unity, of nationhood, that had been growing in the reign of Alexander III, flowered first in Wallace. Love of his country, which changed him from an outlaw to a national leader in a few weeks, was stiffened by a hatred of the English. Stories of his relentless lack of mercy toward some of his captives were long disbelieved. They did not fit the conventional pattern of a hero. But the age had little mercy for all men, and this century has shown that those who resist a powerful and inexorable occupation cannot afford its luxury. Wallace's determination to destroy the enemy, wherever and whenever he met it, never to bargain with it, was the greatness of his strength. Such a man had been dreamt of, and by his coming inspired love, unity and sacrifice.



A Final thought On Sir William

Wallace's Sword
[Stirling Castle]
There are so many versions of William Wallace to read out there it can spin one's head. I have read he was a knight, a villian, a thief and brigand, a commoner and a marter for the church. Yet, no matter what version of William Wallace you read, one single impression is left by the author(s), who is often writing more of a personal story of Wallace than a historically accurate account. My personal thoughts are reflected below:

When we read the story of William Wallace, imagination wanders back to the times of heroic antiquity, and enthusiasm can scarcely keep pace with reason in forming an estimate of his services to his country. He gave new birth to his land, and interested the sympathies of the world in behalf of her gallant struggle for existence. Personal wrong and the grinding oppression practiced on his friends first stung him into revolt, but his passion soon hardened into principle, like the burning lava converted into stone. Against the victorious might of England he threw himself, and carved his way to honour. Castles changed masters. Ridicule gave way to reflection - the oppressor deigned to assign reasons for his oppression; injury and insult were followed by retaliation and revenge. The haughty Plantagenent found himself no longer invincible, and conquest gained by many intrigible, and much artful policy, vanished like a dream. But Wallace remains a hero.






Next, in chapter 8 of "The Story of Scotland's History": William Wallace, Part 2, Falkirk, lost years, execution.

  • Chapter 8 - William Wallace, Part 2. Wallace, Battle of Falkirk, Lost Years, Execution.

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