the truth I tell you:
of all things freedoms most fine.
Never submit to live, my son,
in the bonds of slavery entwined.
William Wallace - His Uncles proverb,
from Bowers Scotichronicon c.1440s
The reputation of William Wallace runs like a fault line through later medieval chronicles. For the Scots, William Wallace was an exemplar of unbending commitment to Scotlands independence who died a martyr to the cause. For centuries after its publication, Blind Harrys 15th-century epic poem, The Wallace, was the second most popular book in Scotland after the Bible.
For the English chroniclers he was an outlaw, a murderer, the perpetrator
of atrocities and a traitor. How did an obscure Scot obtain such
Who was William Wallace?
Wallace was the younger son of a Scottish knight and minor landowner.
His name, Wallace or le Waleis, means the Welshman, and he was probably
descended from Richard Wallace who had followed the Stewart family
to Scotland in the 12th century.
Little is known
of Wallaces life before 1297. He was certainly educated, possibly
by his uncle - a priest at Dunipace - who taught him French and Latin.
Its also possible, given his later military exploits, that
he had some previous military experience.
In 1296 Scotland had been conquered. Beneath the surface there were
deep resentments. Many of the Scots nobles were imprisoned, they
were punitively taxed and expected to serve King Edward I in his
military campaigns against France. The flames of revolt spread across
Scotland. In May 1297 Wallace slew William Heselrig, the English
Sheriff of Lanark. Soon his rising gained momentum, as men oppressed
by the burden of servitude under the intolerable rule of English
domination joined him like a swarm of bees.
his base in the Ettrick Forest his followers struck
at Scone, Ancrum and Dundee. At the same time in the
north, the young Andrew Murray led an even more successful
rising. From Avoch in the Black Isle, he took Inverness
and stormed Urquhart Castle by Loch Ness. His MacDougall
allies cleared the west, whilst he struck through
the north east. Wallaces rising drew strength
from the south, and, with most of Scotland liberated,
Wallace and Murray now faced open battle with an English
11th September Wallace and Murray achieved a stunning
victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The English
left with 5,000 dead on the field, including their
despised treasurer, Hugh Cressingham, whose flayed
skin was taken as a trophy of victory and to make
a belt for Wallaces sword. The Scots suffered
one significant casualty, Andrew Murray, who was badly
wounded and died two months later.
It was a remarkable
achievement for a mere knight to hold power over the nobles of Scotland.
In a medieval world obsessed with hierarchy, Wallaces extraordinary
military success catapulted him to the top of the social ladder. He
now guided Scottish policy. Letters were dispatched to Europe proclaiming
Scotlands renewed independence and he managed to obtain from
the Papacy the appointment of the patriotic Bishop Lamberton to the
vacant Bishopric of St Andrews.
'Commander of the Army of the Kingdom of Scotland - the outlaw
Wallace was now knighted and made Guardian of Scotland in Balliols
name at the forest kirk, at either Selkirk or Carluke.
Militarily he took the war into the north of England,
raiding around Newcastle and wreaking havoc across the
north. Contemporary English chroniclers accused him
of atrocities, some no doubt warranted, however, in
Wallaces eyes the war, since its beginning,
had been marked by brutality and butchery.
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