Following the death of King Alexander in 1286, there were several weak claimants to the Scottish throne. Thousands of nobles met in the great feudal court held at the castle Berwick upon Tweed, for the purpose of selecting their new King. In the end, the nobles selected John Balliol.
John was a weak king, known as “Toom Tabard”. Empty Coat. Factions quickly coalesced around rival claimants. Scotland was descending into civil war when nobles called on English King Edward I “Longshanks”, to arbitrate.
Edward could have entered this story as a benevolent and wise ruler, or he could have been a tyrant. He chose the latter course, passing into history as “The Hammer of the Scots”. Edward summoned King John to stand before the English Court as a common plaintiff. Thousands of Scottish nobles were arrested as John was forced to abdicate.
It’s uncertain where William Wallace came from, but later events indicate that he had military training. Specifically, he was an archer. He must have been an imposing physical specimen, as the first class long bow of the era had a draw weight of 170lbs.
Rebellion arose across Scotland as Wallace assassinated William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297. He became involved with raids happening all over Scotland, joining forces with Andrew Moray on September 11, 1297 to defeat a vastly superior English army at Stirling Bridge.
After the battle, Moray and Wallace assumed the title of “Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland”, though Moray would soon die of injuries suffered at Stirling Bridge. They were sworn to restore the reign of King John Balliol, and Wallace was knighted as he led a large scale raid into northern England in November of 1297.
Edward ordered a second invasion of Scotland in April, 1298. Wallace was defeated at the battle Falkirk later that year. He managed to escape capture, resigning as Guardian of Scotland and traveling to the French court of King Philip IV to plead the case for assistance in the Scottish struggle for independence.
The Mel Gibson film “Braveheart” has it mostly right as it depicts Wallace’s betrayal by Scottish Nobles. Wallace had evaded capture until August 5, 1305, when a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, John de Menteith, turned him over to English soldiers at Robroyston, near Glasgow.
Wallace was transported to London and tried for treason and “atrocities against civilians in war.” He was crowned with a garland of oak, suggesting that he was “king of outlaws”. Responding to the treason charge, Wallace said “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” Wallace was found guilty on August 23, stripped naked, and dragged through the city by a horse to the Elms at Smithfield.
This is where the Braveheart film gets it wrong. I’m not going to dwell on the brutality which passes for medieval “justice”. Suffice it to say that the film’s portrayal of Wallace’s execution could have been a Disney production, compared with what was dealt him. When it was over, Wallace’s head sat atop a pike on London Bridge, dipped in tar, next to the heads of the brothers John and Simon Fraser.
Scotland never did gain independence from England, though the subject has never entirely been put to rest. Last June, the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the European Union, even should the rest of the UK vote to “Brexit”. William Wallace was looking down on the proceedings with great interest. I’m sure.