Exploits And Death Of William Wallace, The "Hero Of Scotland"
Author: Scott, Sir Walter
1297 - 1305
When the granddaughter and sole heiress of King Alexander III of Scotland
was betrothed, in her sixth year, 1288, to the son of Edward I of England, an
early union of the English and Scottish crowns seemed assured. But the death
of the little princess, two years later, left the throne of Scotland vacant,
and was followed by the rise of thirteen claimants, three of whom were
entitled to serious regard - John de Baliol, Lord of Galloway; Robert Bruce,
Lord of Annandale; and John Hastings, Lord of Abergavenny, all descended from
David, brother of William the Lion, King of Scotland, 1165-1214.
Edward I of England at once assumed all the rights of a feudal suzerain
until the disputed claims should be settled. Finally the claim of Baliol was
recognized, he did homage to Edward for his services to the realm of Scotland,
and for a time peace prevailed. But when Edward called upon the Scottish
nobles to serve in his foreign wars, and made other demands implying the
dependence of Scotland, the resentment of Baliol's subjects forced him into an
attitude of war. In 1295 he made an alliance against Edward with Philip the
Fair of France. In 1296 Edward invaded Scotland, took Berwick and slaughtered
eight thousand of its citizens; defeated the Scots at Dunbar; occupied
Edinburgh, Stirling, and Perth; compelled Baliol to surrender, and sent him to
the Tower of London. Edward then made Scotland a dependency of his crown.
This submission was not the act of the people, but of their leaders. "The
Scots assembled in troops and companies, and betaking themselves to the woods,
mountains, and morasses, prepared for a general insurrection against the
They found their leader in the outlawed knight, William Wallace. Wallace
was born about 1274. Popular tradition, which "delights to dwell upon the
beloved champion of the people," has invested him with many striking
qualities, ascribing to him a gigantic stature and enormous strength, as well
as extraordinary courage. Little, if anything, is really known of his
personality and private life; while all that belongs to history concerning him
is told by his celebrated and admiring fellow-countryman, Sir Walter Scott, in
the following narrative.
Wallace is believed to have been proclaimed an outlaw for the slaughter
of an Englishman in a casual fray. He retreated to the woods, collected
around him a band of men as desperate as himself, and obtained several
successes in skirmishes with the English. Joined by Sir William Douglas, who
had been taken at the siege of Berwick, but had been discharged upon ransom,
the insurgents compelled Edward to send an army against them, under the Earl
of Surrey, the victor of Dunbar. Several of the nobility, moved by Douglas'
example, had joined Wallace's standard, but overawed at the approach of the
English army, and displeased to act under a man, like Wallace, of
comparatively obscure birth, they capitulated with Sir Henry Percy, the nephew
of Surrey, and in one word changed sides.
Wallace kept the field at the head of a considerable army, partly
consisting of his own experienced followers, partly of the smaller barons or
crown tenants, and partly of vassals even of the apostate lords, and
volunteers of every condition. By the exertion of much conduct and
resolution, Wallace had made himself master of the country beyond Forth, and
taken several castles, when he was summoned to Stirling to oppose Surrey, the
English Governor of Scotland. Wallace encamped on the northern side of the
river, leaving Stirling bridge apparently open to the English, but resolving,
as it was long and narrow, to attack them while in the act of crossing. The
Earl of Surrey led fifty thousand infantry and a thousand men-at-arms. Part
of his soldiers, however, were the Scottish barons who had formerly joined
Wallace's standard, and who, notwithstanding their return to that of Surrey,
were scarcely to be trusted.
The English treasurer, Cressingham, murmured at the expense attending the
war, and, to bring it to a crisis, proposed to commence an attack the next
morning by crossing the river. Surrey, an experienced warrior, hesitated to
engage his troops in the defile of a wooden bridge, where scarce two horsemen
could ride abreast; but, urged by the imprudent vehemence of Cressingham, he
advanced, contrary to common-sense as well as to his own judgment. The
vanguard of the English was attacked before they could get into order; the
bridge was broken down, and thousands perished in the river and by the sword.
Cressingham was slain, and Surrey fled to Berwick to recount to Edward that
Scotland was lost at Stirling in as short a time as it had been won at Dunbar.
In a brief period after this victory, almost all the fortresses of the kingdom
surrendered to Wallace.
Increasing his forces, Wallace, that he might gratify them with plunder,
led them across the English border, and sweeping it lengthwise from Newcastle
to the gates of Carlisle, left nothing behind him but blood and ashes. The
nature of Wallace was fierce, but not inaccessible to pity or remorse. As his
unruly soldiers pillaged the church of Hexham, he took the canons under his
immediate protection. "Abide with me," he said, "holy men, for my people are
evil-doers, and I may not correct them." When he returned from this successful
foray, an assembly of the states was held at the Forest Church in
Selkirkshire, where Wallace was chosen guardian of the kingdom of Scotland.
The meeting was attended by Lennox, Sir William Douglas, and some few men of
rank: others were absent from fear of King Edward, or from jealousy of an
inferior person, like Wallace, raised to so high a station.
Conscious of the interest which he had deservedly maintained in the
breast of the universal people of Scotland, Wallace pursued his judicious
plans of enforcing general levies through the kingdom and bringing them under
discipline. It was full time, for Edward was moving against them. The
English monarch was absent in Flanders when these events took place, and, what
was still more inconvenient, before he could gain supplies from his parliament
to suppress the Scottish revolt, Edward found himself obliged to confirm Magna
Charta, the charter of the forest, and other stipulations in favor of the
people; the English being prudent, though somewhat selfishly disposed to
secure their own freedom before they would lend their swords to destroy that
of their neighbors.
Complying with these demands, Edward, on his return from the Low
Countries, found himself at the head of a gallant muster of all the English
chivalry, forming by far the most superb army that had ever entered Scotland.
Wallace acted with great sagacity, and, according to a plan which often before
and after proved successful in Scottish warfare, laid waste the intermediate
country between Stirling and the frontiers, and withdrew toward centre of the
kingdom to receive the English attack, when their army should be exhausted by
Edward pressed on, with characteristic hardihood and resolution. Tower
and town fell before him; but his advance was not without such inconvenience
and danger as a less determined monarch would have esteemed a good apology for
retreat. His army suffered from want of provisions, which were at length
supplied in small quantities by some of his ships. As the English King lay at
Kirkliston, in West Lothian, a tumult broke out between the Welsh and English
in his army, which, after costing some blood, was quelled with difficulty.
While Edward hesitated whether to advance or retreat, he learned, through the
treachery of two apostate Scottish nobles, the earls of Dunbar and Angus, that
Wallace, with the Scottish army, had approached so near as Falkirk.
This advance was doubtless made with the purpose of annoying the expected
retreat of the English. Edward, thus apprised that the Scots were in his
vicinity, determined to compel them to action. He broke up his camp, and,
advancing with caution, slept the next night in the fields along with the
soldiers. But the casualties of the campaign were not yet exhausted. His
war-horse, which was picketed beside him, like that of an ordinary
man-at-arms, struck the King with his foot and hurt him in the side. A tumult
arose in the camp, but Edward, regardless of pain, appeased it by mounting his
horse, riding through the cantonments, and showing the soldiers that he was in
Next morning, July 22, 1298, the armies met. The Scottish infantry were
drawn up on a moor, with a morass in front. They were divided into four
phalanxes or dense masses, with lances lowered obliquely over each other, and
seeming, says an English historian, like a castle walled with steel. These
spearmen were the flower of the army, in whom Wallace chiefly confided. He
commanded them in person, and used the brief exhortation, "I have brought you
to the ring; dance as you best can."
The Scottish archers, under the command of Sir John Stewart, brother of
the Steward of Scotland, were drawn up in the intervals between the masses of
infantry. They were chiefly brought from the wooded district of Selkirk. We
hear of no Highland bowmen among them. The cavalry, which amounted to only
one thousand men-at-arms, held the rear.
The English cavalry began the action. The Marshal of England led half of
the men-at-arms straight upon the Scottish front, but in doing so involved
them in the morass. The Bishop of Durham, who commanded the other division of
the English cavalry, was wheeling round the morass on the east, and,
perceiving this misfortune, became disposed to wait for support. "To mass,
Bishop!" said Ralph Basset of Drayton, and charged with the whole body. The
Scottish men-at-arms went off without couching their lances; but the infantry
stood their ground firmly. In the turmoil that followed, Sir John Stewart
fell from his horse and was slain among the archers of Ettrick, who died in
defending or avenging him.
The close bodies of Scottish spearmen, now exposed without means of
defence or retaliation, were shaken by the constant showers of arrows; and the
English men-at-arms finally charging them desperately while they were in
disorder, broke and dispersed these formidable masses. The Scots were then
completely routed, and it was only the neighboring woods which saved a remnant
from the sword. The body of Stewart was found among those of his faithful
archers, who were distinguished by their stature and fair complexions from all
others with which the field was loaded. Macduff and Sir John the Grahame,
"the hardy wight and wise," still fondly remembered as the bosom friend of Sir
William Wallace, were slain in the same disastrous action.
Popular report states this battle to have been lost by treachery; and the
communication between the earls of Dunbar and Angus and King Edward, as well
as the disgraceful flight of the Scottish cavalry without a single blow,
corroborates the suspicion. But the great superiority of the English in
archery may account for the loss of this as of many another battle on the part
of the Scots. The bowmen of Ettrick Forest were faithful; but they could only
be few. So nearly had Wallace's scheme for the campaign been successful, that
Edward, even after having gained this great battle, returned to England, and
deferred reaping the harvest of his conquest till the following season. If he
had not been able to bring the Scottish army to action, his retreat must have
been made with discredit and loss, and Scotland must have been left in the
power of the patriots.
The slaughter and disgrace of the battle of Falkirk might have been
repaired in other respects, but it cost the Scottish kingdom an irredeemable
loss in the public services of Wallace. He resigned the guardianship of the
kingdom, unable to discharge its duties, amid the calumnies with which faction
and envy aggravated his defeat. The Bishop of St. Andrew's, Bruce, Earl of
Carrick, and Sir John Comyn were chosen guardians of Scotland, which they
administered in the name of Baliol. In the mean time that unfortunate Prince
was, in compassion or scorn, delivered up to the Pope by Edward, and a receipt
was gravely taken for his person from the nuncio then in France. This led to
the entrance of a new competitor for the Scottish kingdom.
The Pontiff of Rome had been long endeavoring to establish a claim, to
whatsoever should be therein found, to which a distinct and specific right of
property could not be ascertained. The Pontiff's claim to the custody of the
dethroned King being readily admitted, Boniface VIII was encouraged to publish
a bull claiming Scotland as a dependency on the see of Rome because the
country had been converted to Christianity by the relics of St. Andrew.
The Pope, in the same document, took the claim of Edward to the Scottish
crown under his own discussion, and authoritatively commanded Edward I to send
proctors to Rome to plead his cause before his holiness. This magisterial
requisition was presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the King, in the
presence of the council and court, the prelate at the same time warning the
sovereign to yield unreserved obedience, since Jerusalem would not fail to
protect her citizens, and Mount Zion her worshippers. "Neither for Zion nor
Jerusalem," said Edward, in towering wrath, "will I depart from my just rights
while there is breath in my nostrils."
Accordingly he caused the Pope's bull to be laid before the Parliament of
England, who unanimously resolved "that in temporals the King of England was
independent of Rome, and that they would not permit his sovereignty to be
questioned." Their declaration concludes with these remarkable words: "We
neither do, will, nor can permit our sovereign to do anything to the detriment
of the constitution, which we are both sworn to and are determined to
maintain" - a spirited assertion of national right, had it not been in so bad
a cause as that of Edward's claim of usurpation over Scotland.
Meantime the war languished during this strange discussion, from which
the Pope was soon obliged to retreat. There was an inefficient campaign in
1299 and 1300. In 1301 there was a truce, in which Scotland as well as France
was included. After the expiry of this breathing space, Edward I, in the
spring of 1302, sent an army into Scotland of twenty thousand men, under Sir
John Seward, a renowned general. He marched toward Edinburgh in three
divisions, leaving large intervals between each.
While in this careless order, Seward's vanguard found themselves suddenly
within reach of a small but chosen body of troops, amounting to eight thousand
men, commanded by Sir John Comyn, the guardian, and a gallant Scottish knight,
Sir Simon Fraser. Seward was defeated, but the battle was scarce over when
his second division came up. The Scots, flushed with victory, reestablished
their ranks, and having cruelly put to death their prisoners, attacked and
defeated the second body also. The third division came up in the same manner.
Again it became necessary to kill the captives, and to prepare for a third
encounter. The Scottish leaders did so without hesitation, and their
followers, having thrown themselves furiously on the enemy, discomfited that
division likewise, and gained - as their historians boast - three battles in
But the period seemed to be approaching in which neither courage nor
exertion could longer avail the unfortunate people of Scotland. A peace with
France, in which Philip the Fair totally omitted all stipulations in favor of
his allies, left the kingdom to its own inadequate means of resistance, while
Edward directed his whole force against it. The castle of Brechin, under the
gallant Sir Thomas Maule, made an obstinate resistance. He was mortally
wounded and died in an exclamation of rage against the soldiers, who asked if
they might not then surrender the castle. Edward wintered at Dunfermline, and
began the next campaign with the siege of Stirling, the only fortress in the
kingdom that still held out. But the courage of the guardians altogether gave
way; they set the example of submission, and such of them as had been most
obstinate in what the English King called rebellion, were punished by various
degrees of fine and banishment.
With respect to Sir William Wallace, it was agreed that he might have the
choice of surrendering himself unconditionally to the King's pleasure,
provided he thought proper to do so; a stipulation which, as it signified
nothing in favor of the person for whom it was apparently conceived, must be
imputed as a pretext on the part of the Scottish nobles to save themselves
from the disgrace of having left Wallace altogether unthought of. Some
attempts were made to ascertain what sort of accommodation Edward was likely
to enter into with the bravest and most constant of his enemies; but the
demands of Wallace were large, and the generosity of Edward very small. The
English King broke off the treaty, and put a price of three hundred marks on
the head of the patriot.
Meantime Stirling castle continued to be defended by a slender garrison,
and, deprived of all hopes of relief, continued to make a desperate defence,
under its brave governor, Sir William Olifaunt, until famine and despair
compelled him to an unconditional surrender, when the King imposed the
harshest terms on this handful of brave men.
But what Edward prized more than the surrender of the last fortress which
resisted his arms in Scotland was the captivity of her last patriot. He had
found in a Scottish nobleman, Sir John Monteith, a person willing to become
his agent in searching for Wallace among the wilds where he was driven to find
refuge. Wallace was finally betrayed to the English by his unworthy and
apostate countryman, who obtained an opportunity of seizing him at Robroyston,
near Glasgow, by the treachery of a servant.
Sir William Wallace was instantly transferred to London, where he was
brought to trial in Westminster Hall, with as much apparatus of infamy as the
ingenuity of his enemies could devise. He was crowned with a garland of oak,
to intimate that he had been king of outlaws. The arraignment charged him
with high treason, in respect that he had stormed and taken towns and castles,
and shed much blood. "Traitor," said Wallace, "was I never." The rest of the
charges he confessed and proceeded to justify them. He was condemned, and
executed by decapitation, 1305. His head was placed on a pinnacle on London
bridge, and his quarters were distributed over the kingdom.
Thus died this courageous patriot, leaving a remembrance which will be
immortal in the hearts of his countrymen. This steady champion of
independence having been removed, and a bloody example held out to all who
should venture to tread in his footsteps, Edward proceeded to form a species
of constitution for the country, which, at the cost of so much labor, policy,
and bloodshed, he had at length, as he conceived, united forever with the
Ten commissioners chosen for Scotland and twenty for England composed a
set of regulations for the administration of justice, and enactments were
agreed upon by which the feudal law, which had been long introduced into
Scotland, was strengthened and extended, while the remains of the ancient
municipal customs of the original Celtic tribes, or the consuetudinary laws of
the Scots and Bretts - the Scotto-Irish and British races - were finally
abrogated. This was for the purpose of promoting a uniformity of laws through
the islands. Sheriffs and other officers were appointed for the
administration of justice. There were provisions also made for a general
revision of the ancient laws and statutes of Scotland.