I sometimes quip that my ancestor killed Mel Gibson on this day, August 23rd 1305.
Mel Gibson, in addition to being a fine actor, is not quite so old and is still very much alive. But as Hollywood retains the uncanny ability to insert itself into the collective memory of every movie-going generation, William Wallace, the defiant Scottish martyr, has comes down to us as a handsome, principled and heroic figure who skillfully outwitted a powerful and dastardly English king.
But with any true study of history, one must satiate ones mind and examine the many facets of both sides to appreciate what really happened. To the Scots, Sir William Wallace resembles the character as portrayed by Gibson. To Edward I he was a petty thief and a brigand.
Every movie needs a good villain and Edward I sure fits the part. Though he was nearly sixty at the time of the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 (the victory which immortalized Wallace in the eyes of his countrymen and the world), Edward “Longshanks” as he was called, owing to his large size, still cut a very impressive figure.
He was tall, much more so than the average man of the age, and strong. When on a crusade in the Middle East, he was attacked in his tent by an assassin, who under the pretense of peace, stabbed him with a dagger in the hip. Though severely wounded, Edward managed to swing at the assailant with his powerful arm, striking him in the temple.
Edward’s blow knocked the man senseless giving himself enough time to grab a dagger of his own. The future king, thrust the knife so hard into the attacker’s head that it shattered his skull, killing him instantly. It was well known to those who knew him that there were few men who could match Edward “Longshanks” one on one.
William Wallace was, of course, impressive in his own rite. His victory at Stirling Bridge was a brilliant success and he parlayed the triumph into the unvarnished esteem of his countrymen. He was knighted and declared the sole Guardian of the Scottish realm.
He spent several months after his Stirling Bridge victory laying waste to the northern English countryside and villages and then retreating back into the Scottish interior, hoping to draw the English inward where he could strike a fatal blow.
Edward had not been present at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. At the time he was overseas in France negotiating a treaty to bring about a much desired peace with his continental rival. The Earl of Surrey had led the charge and was accused of negligent and ineffectual leadership in the face of an inferior force.
With his affairs settled in France, Edward now set his sights on Sir Wallace.
Every English king before Edward, even the more bellicose of the lot such as Richard “The Lionheart,” had been content to let the Scottish monarchs pay symbolic homage to them and as such, left them largely to their own devices.
Edward for some reason (simple pride being the most likely one), required a more notorious display of subservience from his neighbors to the north. When Wallace and his band of rebels were not so forthcoming, the English sovereign, in June of 1298, journeyed north with his knights in tow intent on forcing their obedience.
Hearing that Wallace was camped at Callendar Wood, near the village of Falkirk in central Lowlands of Scotland, Edward rode his army through the night in the hope of capturing him. As his army made camp that night, Edward lay down to get some sleep in an open field. His royal horse, grazing nearby, trampled back on him, breaking two of his ribs. He was quite accustomed to be uncomfortable and soldiered on.
At first light he and his army awoke to the specter of the rebel Scots arrayed in a defensive formation behind a wetland bog and ready for a bloody battle. Edward was not fooled, however, and split his army in two, going around the bogland on both sides.
Not long after the battle began, the Scottish army crumbled under the onslaught of English arrows and crossbows but the Scottish nobility, along with William Wallace, melted away in the mayhem. Though Edward had won the day he and his army were too exhausted to keep the field. With his provisions in short supply, King Edward and his army made their way back to England.
With his battlefield defeat, Wallace’s military reputation plummeted and he was forced to abdicate his title of Guardian of Scotland. Not much is known of his doings in the years following the loss at Falkirk. It is believed that he settled into the role of ambassador working to shore up support for Scottish independence among the sovereigns of Europe, especially the French.
He was not successful, as he was in 1304. Thus, with no prospects of military support from the continent, the Scottish nobility accepted Edward as their rightful sovereign. Wallace, however, was not among those who capitulated.
We know Sir William was back in Scotland in 1305 as he was reportedly involved in a few raids into the English countryside. He managed to evade capture through the spring and part of the summer until August 5th when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight with allegiance to Edward, betrayed his countryman, turning him over to English soldiers at Robroyston, near Glasgow.
Wallace was brought to London to stand trial for treason and atrocities to civilians. Upon arrival at Westminster Hall, his head was crowned with a garland of oak, symbolizing that he was king of outlaws. His answer to the charge of treason was, “I could never be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.”
He was nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to death. That would would have suited him fine were death to be his only punishment.
The date of his execution was set as August 23rd 1305. He was taken to the Tower of London and it was there that the nightmare unfolded.
Sir William Wallace was stripped naked, tied to a horse’s heel and then ceremoniously dragged through the streets of London. When the nervous horse reached the Elms at Smithfield, the place of his execution, Wallace was cut loose only to be tied to another rope; this time around his neck. He was hanged but not allowed to die.
He was then liberated from the rope around his neck but only as prelude to the cruel act of emasculating him. After that, he was disemboweled and his intestines laid before him. In the dim light of consciousness, he was forced to watch as his executioner lit his entrails on fire.
Still, he was not yet allowed to pass into the afterlife as the executioner had more work to do. With the swing of an ax, a likely still conscious Wallace was next beheaded. His severed head was then boiled to preserve it, doused with hot tar and then set on a pike atop London Bridge. His body was afterward cut into four pieces and sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to other would-be rebels contemplating following in Sir William’s footsteps.
This was the mode of death of an Edwardian traitor.
Edward “Longshanks,” so named because of his extraordinary height and span would find that his reach would not extend to the grave. The great king would die less than two years after Wallace’s grisly demise. His son, Edward II would inherit his size but not much else. Rather than consolidating his father’s accomplishments, he squandered them and eventually was forced to sign a truce with Scotland after being decisively defeated by Robert Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Edward II was in fact so feckless in his abilities that his French wife eventually invaded England with a small army and deposed him. He was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle where he died in September of 1327. Many believe he was murdered on orders from his son’s new regime.
William Wallace on the other hand lives in the hearts and minds of millions to this day. His spirit has permeated not only a twentieth century movie audience but countless aspirants of freedom, including the American Founding Fathers, who knew well the Scottish rebel.
Edward I did much to codify some of the rights that we now enjoy as Americans. I am proud that he is my ancestor. But Wallace’s words before the battle of Stirling speak louder to me:
“Go back and tell your people that we have not come for the benefit of peace, but are ready to fight, to avenge ourselves and to free our kingdom.”
Four centuries later, these spirited words were echoed by another defiant scotsman to an English king, when Patrick Henry said,
“Give me liberty or give me death!”
We are fortunate indeed, that throughout all human history, brave hearts have pumped the courageous blood of patriots.
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