Scottish History and Culture

The Death of William Wallace

Click Here for Larger Image Nearly seven hundred years have passed since William Wallace was brutally executed on order of England's King Edward I, yet Wallace's memory is as powerful today as it was in 1305.

William Wallace was the son of a Scottish knight, but in the strict hierarchical order of 14th century Scotland, he was no better than a ordinary commoner. That he survived as long as he did to become one of the greatest of Scottish heroes, fighting both the English and his own Scottish noblemen, is an achievement in itself.

The noblemen's constant undermining of Wallace's efforts, both on and off the field of battle, are the stuff of Scottish legend. There was one final betrayal, however, from which William Wallace could never recover.

King Edward I, the conqueror of Scotland, was determined to eliminate William Wallace. The Scottish leader had cost the King money, men, and material and his continued existence was a major embarrassment. The fact that a so-called commoner could control a country better than its King was, in Edward's view, a supreme humiliation.

All the prominent Scottish leaders of the 'revolt' against Edward, except for William Wallace and a few others, submitted to the King some five months before the fall of Stirling. They surrendered under terms that were not overly harsh, but which contained some codicils that carried the mark of a personal vendetta against one William Wallace.

By this time, Wallace had become a symbol of resistance to English rule for his steadfast refusal to submit "utterly and absolutely" to Edward's rule. Orders were issued that the Stewart, Sir John de Soules and Sir Ingram de Umfraville would not have safe conduct or come within the King's power until William Wallace was given up. Also Sir John Comyn, Sir Alexander Lindsay, Sir David Graham and Sir Simon Frasier were ordered to exert themselves until twenty days after Christmas to capture William Wallace and hand him over to the King. By Christmas 1304, the days of Wallace's freedom were numbered.

King Edward's pursuit of William Wallace was relentless. A price of 300 merks was placed on the fugitive's head and in 14th century Scotland, 300 merks would have been a fortune to the commoners Wallace associated with: it is to their credit that they did not turn him in.

Wallace's last recorded military action took place below Earnside in September 1304. But by the middle of 1305, after being hunted constantly for over a year, events began to unfold that would prove William Wallace's undoing.

Like Robert the Bruce, Sir John Menteith, a Scottish Baron and the keeper of Dumbarton, had turned from a staunch supporter of revolt to a vassal of King Edward. It would have been in his interest, therefore, to assist the King in capturing William Wallace. Legend has it that Jack Short, Wallace's own servant, betrayed him to Menteith, but English records only list payment of 40 merks to a "spy" for having recognized Wallace.

In any case, Wallace was taken at the house of one Ralph Rae, and the men who actually seized him received 100 marks or merks to divide amongst themselves. For his part in supervising the operation, Menteith received 151 pounds and a grant of land from the English King.

Click Here for Larger ImageWallace was first taken to Dumbarton, where his famous sword remained for almost 600 years. From there he was taken under heavy guard to London where the King refused to even gaze upon him. On August 23, 1305 he was formally accused of treason in Westminister Hall. A crown of laurels was placed on his head as a mockery against his aspirations to the Scottish Crown. Sir Peter Mallorie, the King's Justice, then impeached him. William Wallace responded to the charges with the following statement.

"I can not be a traitor, for I owe him 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. To the other points whereof I am accused, I freely confess them all. As Governor of my country I have been an enemy to its enemies; 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."

To no one's surprise, William Wallace was convicted of treason. Following his trial, he was dragged alive through the streets of London to Elms in Smithfield. He was hung at the gallows for a short time and then taken down, allowed to recuperate for a few short minutes and was drawn while the blood-thirsty crowd watched.

Click Here for Larger Image To be drawn is to have one's intestines ripped from the body and burned, a hideously painful act that extends the torture because the victims do not die immediately. Afterwards, William Wallace was quartered, a dispicable act of cruelty which consists of having all one's limbs and head cut off.

Following the public execution, Wallace's head was stuck onto a pole which was placed in a prominent location on London Bridge, thus giving it the greatest exposure possible. A similar fate met his arms and legs: his right arm was displayed on Newcastle bridge, his left arm went to Berwick, his right leg to Perth and his left leg to Aberdeen. Legend has it that Wallace's left leg ended up in the wall at St. Machars Cathedral.

The Wallace statue in Aberdeen bears an inscription, supposedly told to Wallace by his Uncle, "I tell you a truth, liberty is the best of all things, my son, never live under any slavish bond."

For further information on William Wallace, his life and achievements, please go to the links below.

By BW February 2000

Suggested Reading:

WILLIAM WALLACE: BRAVE HEART by James MacKay, Mainstream Publishing May 1995


Biography of William Wallace Famous Scot

Sword of William Wallace

Wallace Monument

Braveheart Movie Website

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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