THAT WILLIAM Wallace is a giant of Scottish history is beyond question. The stature of the man is such that he has grown along with his legend and in many descriptions he now stands a gargantuan 6 feet, 7 inches. His deeds, like his height, may be exaggerated but what is also beyond question is that Wallace is one of Scotland's greatest heroes. So, in the midst of all the myths, who was the real William Wallace?
Most people know of Wallace from the film Braveheart, which like most films blends fact with fiction. Like many histories, Braveheart tells of the son of Sir Malcolm Wallace, a minor noble of Renfrewshire, who became the symbol of resistance to English conquest. In fact, the truth is more complicated.
A letter reveals Wallace as the son of Alan, a small landowner related to Malcolm. The name comes from le Waleis, meaning the Welshman. Perhaps surprisingly, Wallace's family was descended from an English servant of a Norman knight who travelled north at the invitation of David I of Scotland.
The Wallace family were not united in resisting the English. William's father might have had no allegiance but his two brothers, John and Malcolm, were both supporters of the Bruce. When King John Balliol raised an army against the English at Dunbar in 1296, Malcolm and John fought alongside Bruce on the English side. But as a leader of the Scots' resistance William Wallace supported Balliol's claim to the throne.
One of the earliest accounts of Wallace comes from the work of Blind Harry, a fifteenth century poet who in turn is said to have based his accounts on a Benedictine monk, John Blair. Blair is described as Wallace's friend during his education at Dundee and later a comrade-in-arms. However, it is questionable whether Wallace ever studied in Dundee.
Blind Harry's epic tales of Wallace's heroism, with a body count that would make any Holywood action hero jealous, certainly make an exciting read. In these accounts, Wallace enters Ayr in disguise - difficult, surely, for such a tall man - and challenges English soldiers to duels, avenges numerous injustices and defeats thousands of soldiers almost single-handedly. From these stories some controversially hail Wallace as the true inspiration for Robin Hood.
Wallace was indeed an outlaw, but like most outlaws his life was less than the stuff of romantic literature. Court records mention one William Wallace as a thief, the partner of a Matthew of York, who robbed a woman at her home. Wallace escaped the charge.
At least one of the outlaw tales is true. Wallace did kill Sir William Heselrig, English sheriff of Lanark, in 1297. However, it is doubtful whether this was in revenge for the murder of his mistress by the English, as the tales recount. Like the tales though, he was certainly not lacking in bravado. His next deed was to attack Sir William Ormsby, one of Scotland's English governors. Ormsby fled for his life.
During his outlaw life, Wallace met another rising star of the Scots' rebellion, Andrew Murray. Many historians credit Murray as the real genius behind the popular uprising. Murray, a nobleman, lived as an outlaw himself and the two met and joined forces for the battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297. But whatever the reasons behind the success at Stirling, Murray died from wounds a month later leaving Wallace to champion the cause alone.
Stirling Bridge turned Wallace from brigand to national symbol, including in the minds of the English. "Tell your commander that we are not hear to make peace but to do battle to defend ourselves and to liberate our kingdom. Let them come on, and we shall prove this in their very beards," Wallace is quoted as saying before the battle by an English writer of the time.
Wallace did not have long to glory in his fame as defeat quickly followed at Falkirk in 1298. He fled Scotland for the continent where he tried to enlist support for John Balliol and Scotland's cause. He returned to find the resistance crumbling. Robert the Bruce defected in 1302 and the Scots parliament confirmed a peace treaty with Edward in 1304. Following the treaty, the Scots were persuaded that one of the conditions for peace was the life of William Wallace.
In truth Edward had been trying to capture him before, and used Scots to do it. In March 1303 he paid some Scots who failed to ambush Wallace. In March 1305 a Scot who had previously been part of the resistance, Sheriff John Menteith, succeeded where others failed. Wallace was captured in or near Glasgow and shipped south to London, bound and gagged.
There he was paraded through the streets and taken to Westminster for trial before a panel of nobles. The charges and sentences were read together. They were: murder, arson, sacrilege, the destruction of property and, famously, treason. Wallace denied only the last charge.
After the trial Wallace was dragged through London by horse to be executed at Smithfield. He was hanged, cut down while still alive, disembowelled and probably castrated. His lungs, liver and heart were thrown on a fire for sacrilege and he was then decapitated. His head was placed on a pole at London Bridge and his limbs displayed in Scotland as a warning. And as Braveheart shows, Edward's message did not have the desired effect.