William Wallace

Sir William Wallace (Scottish Gaelic: Uilleam Uallas, pronounced [ˈɯʎam ˈuəl̪ˠəs̪]; Norman French: William le Waleys;[3] born c.1270, died 23 August 1305) was a Scottish knight who became one of the main leaders during the First War of Scottish Independence.[4]

Sir William Wallace
Wallace in stained glass at his monument in Stirling
Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland
(Second Interregnum)
In office
Preceded byJohn Balliol (as King of the Scots)
Succeeded by
Personal details
Elderslie, Renfrewshire, Scotland
Died23 August 1305
Smithfield, London, England
Cause of deathHanged, drawn and quartered
Resting placeLondon, England, in unmarked grave
Spouse(s)Marion Braidfute[2] (supposed)
  • Alan Wallace (father)
ChildrenNone recorded
OccupationMilitary leader
Military service
Allegiance Kingdom of Scotland
Years of service1297–1305
Battles/warsFirst War of Scottish Independence:

Along with Andrew Moray, Wallace defeated an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297. He was appointed Guardian of Scotland and served until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. In August 1305, Wallace was captured in Robroyston, near Glasgow, and handed over to King Edward I of England, who had him hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason and crimes against English civilians.

Since his death, Wallace has obtained an iconic status far beyond his homeland. He is the protagonist of Blind Harry's 15th-century epic poem The Wallace and the subject of literary works by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Porter, and of the Academy Award-winning film Braveheart.

He was first cousin to Roger de Kirkpatrick. Roger himself was a third cousin to Robert the Bruce.


William Wallace was a member of the lesser nobility, but little is definitely known of his family history or even his parentage. Blind Harry's late-15th-century poem gives his father as Sir Malcolm of Elderslie; however William's own seal, found on a letter sent to the Hanse city of Lübeck in 1297,[5] gives his father's name as Alan Wallace.[6][7] This Alan Wallace may be the same as the one listed in the 1296 Ragman Rolls as a crown tenant in Ayrshire, but there is no additional confirmation.[8] Blind Harry's assertion that William was the son of Sir Malcolm of Elderslie has given rise to a tradition that William's birthplace was at Elderslie in Renfrewshire, and this is still the view of some historians,[9] including the historical William Wallace Society itself.[10] However, William's seal has given rise to a counter claim of Ellerslie in Ayrshire. There is no contemporary evidence linking him with either location, although both areas had connections with the wider Wallace family.[11] Records show early members of the family as holding estates at Riccarton, Tarbolton, and Auchincruive in Kyle, and Stenton in East Lothian.[12] They were vassals of James Stewart, 5th High Steward of Scotland as their lands fell within his territory. Wallace's brothers Malcolm and John are known from other sources.[13]

The origins of the Wallace surname and its association with southwest Scotland are also far from certain, other than the name's being derived from the Old English wylisc (pronounced "wullish"), meaning "foreigner" or "Welshman". It is possible that all the Wallaces in the Clyde area were medieval immigrants from Wales, but as the term was also used for local Cumbric-speaking Strathclyde Welsh, it seems equally likely that the surname refers to people who were seen as being "Welsh" due to their Cumbric language.


The identity of Wallace’s wife is not known for certain. He apparently fell in love with and married a young woman named Marion Braidfute.[14][15] Wallace’s violent assassination of the High Sheriff of Lanark was carried out as revenge for the killing of his wife according to Blind Harry's 15th century poem.[16][17]

Political crisis in Scotland

When Wallace was growing up, King Alexander III ruled Scotland. His reign had seen a period of peace and economic stability. On 19 March 1286, however, Alexander died after falling from his horse.

The heir to the throne was Alexander's granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway. As she was still a child and in Norway, the Scottish lords set up a government of guardians. Margaret fell ill on the voyage to Scotland and died in Orkney on 26 September 1290. The lack of a clear heir led to a period known as the "Great Cause", with several families laying claim to the throne.

With Scotland threatening to descend into civil war, King Edward I of England was invited in by the Scottish nobility to arbitrate. Before the process could begin, he insisted that all of the contenders recognise him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. In early November 1292, at a great feudal court held in the castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed, judgment was given in favour of John Balliol having the strongest claim in law.

Edward proceeded to reverse the rulings of the Scottish Lords and even summoned King John Balliol to stand before the English court as a common plaintiff. John was a weak king, known as "Toom Tabard" or "Empty Coat". John renounced his homage in March 1296 and by the end of the month Edward stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the then-Scottish border town. In April, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar in East Lothian and by July, Edward had forced John to abdicate. Edward then instructed his officers to receive formal homage from some 1,800 Scottish nobles (many of the rest being prisoners of war at that time). [18]

Silent years prior to the Wars of Independence

Some historians, such as Andrew Fisher, believe Wallace must have had some earlier military experience in order to lead a successful military campaign in 1297. Campaigns like Edward I of England's wars in Wales might have provided a good opportunity for a younger son of a landholder to become a mercenary soldier.[19] Wallace's personal seal bears the archer's insignia,[20] so he may have fought as an archer in Edward's army.

Walter Bower states that Wallace was "a tall man with the body of a giant ... with lengthy flanks ... broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs ... with all his limbs very strong and firm".[21] Blind Harry's Wallace reaches seven feet.[22]

Start of the uprising

The first act definitely known to have been carried out by Wallace was his assassination of William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297. He then joined with William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas, and they carried out the raid of Scone. This was one of several rebellions taking place across Scotland, including those of several Scottish nobles and Andrew Moray in the north.[23]

The uprising suffered a blow when the nobles submitted to the English at Irvine in July. Wallace and Moray were not involved, and continued their rebellions. Wallace used the Ettrick Forest as a base for raiding, and attacked Wishart's palace at Ancrum. Wallace and Moray met and joined their forces, possibly at the siege of Dundee in early September.[24]

Battle of Stirling Bridge

On 11 September 1297, an army jointly led by Wallace and Andrew Moray won the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish army routed the English army. John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey's feudal army of 3,000 cavalry and 8,000 to 10,000 infantry met disaster as they crossed over to the north side of the river. The narrowness of the bridge prevented many soldiers from crossing together (possibly as few as three men abreast), so, while the English soldiers crossed, the Scots held back until half of them had passed and then killed the English as quickly as they could cross. The infantry were sent on first, followed by heavy cavalry. The Scots' schiltron formations forced the infantry back into the advancing cavalry. A pivotal charge, led by one of Wallace's captains, caused some of the English soldiers to retreat as others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed and many English soldiers drowned. Thus, the Scots won a significant victory, boosting the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland, died in the fighting and it is reputed that his body was subsequently flayed and the skin cut into small pieces as tokens of the victory. The Lanercost Chronicle records that Wallace had "a broad strip [of Cressingham’s skin] ... taken from the head to the heel, to make therewith a baldrick for his sword".[25]

After the battle, Moray and Wallace assumed the title of Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland on behalf of King John Balliol. Moray died of wounds suffered on the battlefield sometime in late 1297.

The type of engagement conducted by Wallace was characterised by opportunistic tactics and the strategic use of terrain. This was in stark contrast to the contemporary views on chivalric warfare which were characterised by strength of arms and knightly combat.

Around November 1297, Wallace led a large-scale raid into northern England, through Northumberland and Cumberland.[26]

In a ceremony, at the 'Kirk o' the Forest' (Selkirk), towards the end of the year, Wallace was knighted.[27] This would have been carried out by one of three Scottish earls—Carrick, Strathearn or Lennox.[28][29][30]

Battle of Falkirk

In April 1298, Edward ordered a second invasion of Scotland. Two days prior to the battle 25,781 foot soldiers were paid. More than half of them would have been Welsh. There are no clear cut sources for the presence of cavalry, but it is safe to assume that Edward had roughly 1500 horse under his command.[31] They plundered Lothian and regained some castles, but failed to bring William Wallace to combat; the Scots shadowed the English army, intending to avoid battle until shortages of supplies and money forced Edward to withdraw, at which point the Scots would harass his retreat. The English quartermasters' failure to prepare for the expedition left morale and food supplies low, and a resulting riot within Edward's own army had to be put down by his cavalry. In July, while planning a return to Edinburgh for supplies, Edward received intelligence that the Scots were encamped nearby at Falkirk, and he moved quickly to engage them in the pitched battle he had long hoped for.[32][33]

Wallace arranged his spearmen in four schiltrons—circular, defensive hedgehog formations, probably surrounded by wooden stakes connected with ropes, to keep the infantry in formation. The English, however, employed Welsh longbowmen, who swung strategic superiority in their favour. The English proceeded to attack with cavalry and put the Scottish archers to flight. The Scottish cavalry withdrew as well, due to its inferiority to the English heavy horses. Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons, which were still able to inflict heavy casualties on the English cavalry. It remains unclear whether the infantry shooting bolts, arrows and stones at the spearmen proved the deciding factor, although it is very likely that it was the arrows of Edward's bowmen. Gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men, including John de Graham. Wallace escaped, though his military reputation suffered badly.[32][33]

By September 1298, Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick and future king, and John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, King John Balliol's nephew.[32][33]

Details of Wallace's activities after this are vague, but there is some evidence that he left on a mission to the court of King Philip IV of France to plead the case for assistance in the Scottish struggle for independence. There is a surviving letter from the French king dated 7 November 1300 to his envoys in Rome demanding that they should help Sir William.[34] It also suggests that Wallace may have intended to travel to Rome, although it is not known if he did.[35] There is also a report from an English spy at a meeting of Scottish leaders, where they said Wallace was in France.[36]

By 1304 Wallace was back in Scotland, and involved in skirmishes at Happrew and Earnside.[32][33]

Capture and execution

Wallace evaded capture by the English until 5 August 1305 when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow. (The site is commemorated by a small monument in the form of a Celtic cross.) Letters of safe conduct from Haakon V of Norway, Philip IV of France, and John Balliol, along with other documents, were found in Wallace's possession and delivered to Edward by John de Segrave.[37]

Wallace was transported to London, lodged in the house of William de Leyrer, then taken to Westminster Hall, where he was tried for treason and for atrocities against civilians in war, "sparing neither age nor sex, monk nor nun." He was crowned with a garland of oak to suggest he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the treason charge, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject."[38][39]

Following the trial, on 23 August 1305, Wallace was taken from the hall to the Tower of London, then stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield.[40] He was hanged, drawn and quartered—strangled by hanging, but released while he was still alive, emasculated, eviscerated and his bowels burned before him, beheaded, then cut into four parts. His preserved head (dipped in tar) was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. It was later joined by the heads of the brothers, John and Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth. A plaque unveiled 8 April 1956, stands in a wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. It includes in Latin the words "Dico tibi verum libertas optima rerum nunqual servili sub nexu vivito fili" (I tell you the truth. Freedom is what is best. Sons, never live life like slaves.), and in Gaelic "Bas Agus Buaidh" (Death and Victory), an old Scottish battle cry.[41]

In 1869 the Wallace Monument was erected, very close to the site of his victory at Stirling Bridge. The Wallace Sword, which supposedly belonged to Wallace, although some parts were made at least 160 years later, was held for many years in Dumbarton Castle and is now in the Wallace Monument.[42]


  • A well-known account of Wallace's life is presented in the film Braveheart (1995), directed by and starring Mel Gibson as Wallace, written by Randall Wallace, and filmed in Scotland and Ireland. The film was criticised for inaccuracies regarding Wallace's title, love interests, and attire.[43]
  • In the film Outlaw King (2018), Robert the Bruce is prompted to plan a revolt against the English after observing rioting induced by the public display of the quartered body of Wallace.


  • In her prize-winning poem of 1819, Wallace's Invocation to Bruce, Felicia Hemans imagines Wallace urging Bruce to continue the struggle for freedom after defeat at the Battle of Falkirk.
  • G. A. Henty wrote a novel about this time period titled In Freedom's Cause: A Story of Wallace and Bruce (1885). Henty, a producer of and writer for the Boy's Own Paper story paper, portrays the life of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, The Black Douglas, and others, while dovetailing the events of his novel with historical fiction.[46]
  • Nigel Tranter wrote a historical novel titled The Wallace (1975), "admirably free of anything to do with Braveheart".[47]
  • The Temple and the Stone (1998), a novel by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris, includes a storyline creating a fictional connection between Wallace and Templar Knights.[48]



  • A number of beers are named for Wallace. A brewery in Bridge of Allan, Scotland, makes a Scottish ale named "William Wallace", and Scottish Maclays Brewery had a beer called "Wallace".[49]

See also


  1. "Sir William Wallace, Scottish hero". Britannica.com. Retrieved 26 November 2015.
  2. http://wallace.scran.ac.uk/man_and_myth/
  3. Stevenson, Joseph (1841). Documents illustrative of Sir William Wallace: his life and times. Printed for the Maitland club. p. 173. Retrieved 1 September 2013 via New York Public Library and Google Books.
  4. "William Wallace (c. 1270–1305)". BBC History. 3 August 2007. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
  5. Lübecker Nachrichten, 21. September 2010: The document is still kept in the cities archives
  6. Duncan, "William, son of Alan Wallace", pp. 47–50; Grant, "Bravehearts and Coronets", p. 91.
  7. The Scottish Wars of Independence: The Lübeck Letter at the National Archives of Scotland website
  8. Watson, "Sir William Wallace", p. 27; Duncan, "William, son of Alan Wallace", pp. 51–53; Grant, "Bravehearts and Coronets", pp. 90–93.
  9. Traquair, Peter Freedom's Sword p. 62
  10. "Sir William Wallace Of Elderslie". Thesocietyofwilliamwallace.com. Retrieved 26 November 2015.
  11. Watson, "Sir William Wallace", p. 27; Grant, "Bravehearts and Coronets", pp. 90–91.
  12. Barrow, Kingdom of the Scots, pp. 324–325.
  13. Duncan, "William, son of Alan Wallace", p. 53; Grant, "Bravehearts and Coronets", pp. 91–92.
  14. "William Wallace myths busted". www.scotsman.com. Retrieved 15 October 2019.
  15. "The Wallace: Introduction | Robbins Library Digital Projects". d.lib.rochester.edu. Retrieved 15 October 2019.
  16. "William Wallace's life and death. Facts of his wife, his child, his sword and the statues/History Totally Naked". History Totally Naked. 19 January 2019. Retrieved 15 October 2019.
  17. wallace.scran.ac.uk http://wallace.scran.ac.uk/man_and_myth/. Retrieved 15 October 2019. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. Traquair pp. 15-59
  19. Fisher, Andrew (2002), William Wallace (2nd ed.), Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 1-84158-593-9
  20. Lübecker Nachrichten, 21. September 2010: The document is still kept in the city's archives.
  21. Walter bower, The Scottichronicon
  22. Fisher, Andrew (2002), William Wallace (2nd ed.), Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 1-84158-593-9, p. 278
  23. Traquair pp.63-67
  24. Traquair pp. 70-73
  25. Chronicle of Lanercost, ed. H. Maxwell, vol. 1, p. 164.
  26. Traquair pp. 77-79
  27. Sarah Crome (1999). Scotland's First War of Independence. Sarah Crome. pp. 57–. ISBN 978-0-9536316-0-5.
  28. Traquair p. 79
  29. "Scottish Historical Figures: Sir William Wallace". Scotsmart.com. Archived from the original on 23 March 2010. Retrieved 4 April 2010.
  30. Prebble, John The Lion in the North
  31. Watson, Fiona (1998). Under the Hammer: Edward I and Scotland. Tuckwell Press. pp. 88ff.
  32. Scott, Ronald McNair (1989). Robert the Bruce. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.
  33. de Hemingburgh, Walter (1957). Rothwell, Harry (ed.). The chronicle of Walter of Guisborough. London: Royal Historical Society.
  34. "Special delivery as William Wallace letter heads for Scotland". Herald & Times Group. Glasgow. 14 December 2011. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
  35. "Delight as 700-year-old letter linked to legendary patriot William Wallace returns to Scotland". The Daily Record. 12 January 2012. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  36. Barrow, G.W.S. Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland. Edinburgh. pp. 140–141.
  37. Barrow, G.W., Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, EUP (2005), 452 n. 48: Palgrave, Francis, ed., Documents and Records illustrating the history of Scotland, and the transactions between the Crowns of Scotland and England, vol. 1, (1837), p. cxcv, citing Bishop Stapleton's Kalendar of Treasury documents preserved in London, 1323: Palgrave, Francis, ed., Antient Kalendars and Inventories of the Treasury of His Majesty's Exchequer: Bishop Stapleton's calendar, vol. 2 (1836) p. 134, item 46.
  38. Solis, Gary (2010). The law of armed conflict: international humanitarian law in war. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-521-87088-7.
  39. Goldstone, Richard; Smith, Adam (2009). International Judicial Institutions (Global Institutions). Routledge. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-415-77645-5.
  40. Stevenson, Joseph, ed., Documents Illustrative of Sir William Wallace, Maitland Club (1841), pp. 189, 192
  41. "St Bartholomew's Hospital - Sir William Wallace".
  42. "Scottish Wars of Independence". BBC Scotland. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  43. White, Caroline. "The 10 most historically inaccurate movies". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 15 June 2011. Retrieved 15 November 2013.
  44. Parker, Martin (2013). Alternative Business: Outlaws, Crime and Culture. Routledge. p. 88. ISBN 9781136617454.
  45. Morton, Graeme (2012). "The Social Memory of Jane Porter and her Scottish Chiefs". The Scottish Historical Review. 91 (232): 311–35. doi:10.3366/shr.2012.0104. JSTOR 43773920.
  46. Roberts, Peter H. (2007). "A New Age of Discovery: India, the Middle East and Britain". Middle Eastern Studies. 43 (2): 321–30. doi:10.1080/00263200601114190.
  47. Royle, Trevor (10 January 2000). "Nigel Tranter: Novelist and patriot with a love of Scottish history and architecture". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 April 2018.
  48. "The Temple and the Stone". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 29 March 2017.
  49. Kaufman, Alex (2011). "Robert de Bruce and William Wallace". In Matheson, Lister M. (ed.). Icons of the Middle Ages: Rulers, Writers, Rebels, and Saints. 1. Greenwood. pp. 107–142.


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