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Military History: Braveheart - The Real Story

For anyone who has seen the movie Braveheart and believes it was a true to life tale about William Wallace, forget it. Although it may be a great piece of Hollywood theatre, it is not an accurate portrayal of the true events of his life. In central Scotland, the truth about William Wallace can really be discovered. Underneath schools, factories and modern housing estates leads a trail of blood, but was Wallace a hero or a villain?


The real William Wallace

William Wallace was one of the first Scottish champions in the wars of independance against the English. He remains a Scottish national icon to this day, but he was certainly no saint. He was pre-eminently a freedom fighter and was there for his country when they needed him.

He wasn't born a paticularly important figure, merely the second son of a low ranking knight and minor noble, descended from Norman aristocracy, but he had a demeanour and a presence that people looked up and responded to.

We may never have even heard of him, had it not been for an accident of history. When he was born, there were no wars with England, Scotland was thriving and daily life was good. Then however, disaster struck, on the stormy night of the 19th March 1286, the Scottish king Alexander III, was entertaining at a function at Edinburgh Castle.

Late that night after consuming copious amounts of alcohol, he went against the advice of his courtiers and insisted upon returning home to Kinghorn on the other side of the Firth of Forth.

He had recently been wed to a beautiful young French princess and in the driving rain and strong winds, he set off along the coastal path for his marriage bed. it would prove to be his fatal undoing, as some way along the road, his men lost sight of him. His horse had stumbled and fell and when his men had caught up with him, they saw that the fallen king had broken his neck.

More tragedy arose when Alexander's only son died and Scotland was further plunged into crisis. Mighty rival tribes or clans as they were known, took up arms and the country slid towards civil war, without a leader there would be disorder, lawlessness and anarchy.

King Edward 1st of England

King Edward 1st of England

The Merciless English King

Edward the first of England, was a merciless hard-hearted individual who had already annexed Ireland and Wales.

Now he had the opportunity to bring Scotland into his expanding empire.

Under the pretence of wanting to avoid a civil war, Edward took overrule of Scotland.

He made the Scottish nobility recognise him as their monarch, but while the nobles yielded, the common people remained opposed.

Resistance warlords rose up all around the country and attacked the despised occupying English forces.

Tales of a fearsome young Scot had also now begun to spread.

Scottish clansman's attire of 1296

Scottish clansman's attire of 1296


Building A Reputation

One particular account tells of Wallace fishing in a river when five English soldiers appeared and demanded his catch. Wallace, although clearly irritated by this, offered them half anyway. One of the English soldiers was so incensed by this "impudent Scot", he pulls out his sword and lunged at Wallace.

But Wallace had the presence of mind to parry the sword with his fishing pole and snatch the weapon from the soldiers grasp. He then swung up the sword, beheaded the Englishman and then proceeded to kill two of his associates, letting the other two escape to tell the story.

The only pictures of William Wallace are from recent times and so are not officially accepted, but he was believed to be a huge man, six foot six or more with an arrow scar down his neck, but where did he come from?

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A Scottish registrar of the time called Blind Harry, states that the DeWallace family (meaning that they originated from Wales) settled in Elderslie, just south of Glasgow.

As they did best, the Victorians erected a monument to Wallace at this spot, based entirely on the slightest, unsubstantiated evidence, but now, archaeology has backed up mere tradition. In 1998, on the site of the monument, an archaeological dig uncovered evidence of a fortified palisade thought to have belonged to the DeWallace family.

The surprising details are that the only record of Wallace's youth is that he was schooled by monks and planned to become a priest. This is very probable as the church was seen as a viable career choice for minor nobles who had no considerable territory to inherit.

The only physical evidence though, is that Wallace was heading down a far less righteous career path. Once the ruthless Edward the first gained control of Scotland, he had incensed a nation and in 1296, the Scots formed an army and invaded northern England.

Berwick upon Tweed, northern England

Berwick upon Tweed, northern England

The Scottish Stone of Destiny

The Scottish Stone of Destiny

Upsetting The Wrong King

This though was just the provocation that Edward wanted and he marched north to engage what he called "The insolent, uncultured Jocks". Berwick upon Tweed is today part of England, but 700 years ago, it was one of the most prosperous towns owned by Scotland.

As Edward the first advanced north spoiling for a fight, the people of Berwick upon Tweed gave him the perfect opportunity for just that. A number of English merchant traders had been murdered there and their goods pillaged by the local people, Edward vowed to make an example of them.

The insuing massacre shocked even the most patriotic of English chroniclers of the time. Edward had unleashed his vast army of trained killers upon the lightly armed civilians. However one of the merchants had been Edward's cousin, so if they expected any mercy, they were sadly mistaken. They were sentenced to death by Edward, who personally ordered that they be burnt alive.

The chronicles state that the English Army pillaged the town, raped all the women and then murdered at least half the population of Berwick. One woman was hacked to death whilst in the process of giving birth and the river of Berwick ran red with blood as the bodies were piled in.

But the massacre at Berwick was just the beginning, Edward crushed the Scottish Army's rebellion and took the Stone of Destiny, which was the symbol of Scottish kingship, back to Westminster, where it remained for 700 years.

Edward had assumed he had taught the Scots a lesson, but the slaughter at Berwick had completely the opposite effect. All over Scotland the people were galvanised by hatred of the English and William Wallace's time had come.


Wallace In Love

The chronicles also tell the tale of how William Wallace fell in love, he was instantly smitten with a pretty maiden whilst attending mass. The pair allegedly pursued a secret love affair and Wallace eventually married the girl, Marian.

However, the English Sheriff of Lanark, also had his eye on the girl. When Wallace got into a fight with the sheriff's men, Marian helped Wallace to escape into the hills. In revenge and full of lustful hatred, the sheriff had Marian executed.

On hearing of her slaughter, under cover of darkness, Wallace returned to exact his revenge, killing the sheriff and all of his men. Wallace himself was never actually called Braveheart, that was the name given to the other Scottish hero Robert The Bruce, after he had died when his brave heart was put in a casket and carried into battle.

The slaying of the Sheriff of Lanark, established Wallace's reputation and people began to flock to his cause. The outlaws became a militia which grew into an army and at it's head was a nobody from Elderslie.

Stirling Bridge today

Stirling Bridge today

Scotland United

But Wallace wasn't alone, a young nobleman named Andrew Murray from the Scottish highlands, had also been fighting an equally successful campaign against the English.

When he and Wallace joined forces, the rebellion gained revolutionary momentum.

The English felt that they had to act and Edward the first, who was away fighting in France, ordered a considerable army northwards to crush the rebellion.

Barring their way north was the vast River Forth, Wallace and Murray decided to face the enemy at it's crossing point and it's name would echo throughout history, Stirling Bridge.

In 1297, the bridge held the key to unlocking the Highland territories and if England was going to take Scotland, they had no choice, but to cross it.

Wallace and Murray knew that a battle at the bridge was their best chance of defeating the English Army.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

Depiction of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge

Depiction of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge

Andrew Murray

Andrew Murray

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

The Scots had positioned themselves on the high ground of the northern side of the river. Wallace had a clear view of the English opposition that faced them, looking south to the river, they could see the English as they prepared for battle in the shadow of Stirling Castle.

Chronicles state that the English had brought around 1,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantrymen to face the spears, dirks and claymores of the Scottish rebels. They outnumbered the Scots by as much as 10-1 and Wallace knew his men would be up against it.

The English Army at the time were considered as the mightiest army in the whole of Christendom. Wallace must have been an incredibly convincing warrior to have instilled the belief in his men that they could possibly win this battle against not only superior numbers, but also superior weaponry.

But if nothing else, Wallace was smart and he used the surrounding landscape to his advantage. the River Forth looped around and left an area of boggy ground between the English and the Scots. It was crossed by a narrow causeway and this combined with the bridge caused a bottleneck.

Vast numbers of English knights became anxious at the prospect of getting through this area and as they discussed tactics, the tide rose making the surrounding land even boggier.

Delays and indecision proved fatal as three times the English started forward and three times they drew back. Dominican friars were even sent across to offer Wallace peace terms, but they were sent back with the message "We have not come for peace, but to avenge our country"

Wallace and Murray could not believe their luck, the English were about to fall right into their trap. The narrow bridge could only take two horses side by side and as the heavily armoured knights rode off the causeway to form a battle line, they became too bogged down to perform an effective charge.

The English had assumed that the Scots would wait until they had all progressed across the bridge and lined up in formation for battle, as per the etiquette of chivalry. But Wallace and Murray were no knights, they were street fighters who were faced with the last ditched attempt to save their country.

They let a certain amount cross the bridge and then wallace gave a single blast on his horn. The Scots rushed forwards on both flanks and cut off any English retreat back to the bridge. There was nowhere for the English to form up and completely unable to manouevre, they became stuck.

The Scots slashed the hamstrings of the English horses and as they fell, the English knights were slaughtered. In minutes the battlefield was a scene of utter carnage.

The chronicles wrote of 5,000 English dead, the victory was against all the odds and native cunning and spirit had defeated numbers, money and equipment, the English retreated in disarray. Wallace became a national hero, but he was now on his own, as Murray had been one of the few Scottish rebels to have been killed at the battle.

The pride of the Scots was up however and Wallace decided to take the battle to the English, the next time they would see the avenging Scot would be on their own soil.

Depiction of William Wallace

Depiction of William Wallace


Wallace's Dark Side

As far as the English Army were concerned, Wallace was a terrorist who had broken the rules of chivalry in war.

What happened next confirmed the darker side of Wallace.

Bhouyed by his success at Stirling Bridge, Wallace advanced into northern England and it was time for the Scots to vent their fury.

The English chronicles tell of the savagery of Wallace, burning monasteries and laughing as monks are drowned in his presence.

He slaughtered women and burned schools with the children inside.

Rape,torture and countless atrocities marked his progress through the borders, they accused him of, in effect, ethnic cleansing and the stories evoke modern day parallels.

Even the Scottish chronicles realised that there was a problem, stating in graphic detail Wallace's hatred of the English and the ways in which this hatred manifested itself.

So was Wallace a hero or just a vicious war criminal?

The National Wallace Monument

The National Wallace Monument

The English Are Not Done Yet

The National Wallace Monument is the huge Victorian expression of his legendary status, it dominates the landscape of his great triumph at Stirling Bridge and Braveheart fans and Scots from around the globe come to pay homage.

However, with daily displays of medieval warfare, even here there is a grim recognition that their was little room for comprimise in medieval times. Wallace was a man of his day, a violent man in a violent age.

But Wallace was also a leader of men, true to his rightful king, a great military strategist and had a sense of purpose and achievement. When he returned from his campaign of terror along the English borders, Wallace was knighted, probably by Robert the Bruce. Sir William Wallace was then made Guardian of Scotland and in the absence of any king, he had been given absolute power.

Wallace of course knew that the English weren't beaten and began fortifying the defences of the realm. He erected gallows in every major Scottish town in order to deter criminal behaviour. Another ruthless act perhaps or just a recognition of the scale of the expected English response?

Edward had learnt that if he wanted a job done properly, he would have to do it himself and so he and Wallace were now on a collision course. The English were dtermined that they would not be fooled by another surprise attack. Wallace too knew this and so prepared for a clash with English cavalry.

The outnumbered lines of his infantry would form an enormous circle of spears, so that the charging English knights would be met with a deadly ring of death. As a massive English Army advanced from the south, Wallace would retreat, burning fields and crops as he went back in an attempt to break the English lines of supply of food, and it almost worked.

As the English slowly advanced, they became ever more hungry, and there was no sign of the enemy. Then, as they reached Edinburgh, an English scout reported that Wallace was just 20 miles away in Falkirk, ready to counter-attack should the English retreat.

Edward immediately ordered a full speed march and at dawn on the 23rd July 1298, the English luck changed for the better. As they marched up the Forth, they saw a flash of armour up on a nearby hill, it was Wallace spying on his enemy.

An advanced guard raced up the hill, but Wallace had disappeared, but looking down toward the town, they could see the entire Scottish Army by the side of Falkirk, preparing for battle.

The Battle of Falkirk, 1298

The Battle of Falkirk, 1298

The battle map of Falkirk

The battle map of Falkirk

The devastating English longbow

The devastating English longbow

The Battle of Falkirk

It isn't clear why Wallace chose to stand and fight, the English who were nearly out of food, were close to retreat. Perhaps the victory at Stirling Bridge had made him overconfident. it was to prove a crucial battle although unusually, no one is exactly sure where the battle actually took place.

Whatever the location, the story was that Wallace had his men arranged up on top of a hill, with four large circles of spearmen. In between them he had his bowmen and behind them, he had his cavalrymen ready to charge.

The English sent endless waves of cavalry up the hill to face the awaiting Scottish spears. Two significant things then occurred to change both the course of the battle and Wallace's reputation. Firstly, the Scottish nobility that formed their cavalry, simply upped and left the battle, then secondly, the English revealed their secret weapon, the longbow.

The range of the longbow was deadly, some even said it went against the rules of war, as effective then as machine gun of today. Although Wallaceescaped with his life, 10,000 of his men did not.

Falkirk was an annihilation and Wallace's reputation was in ruins, the English longbow had slaughtered Wallace's infantry and according to Blind Harry's chronicles, his cavalry had simply deserted him.

Sir John Graham was one of the few Scottish nobles who stayed at Wallace's side. His remains lay in Falkirk graveyard, one of only three marked graves of the 10,000 dead.

Wallace hadn't known it, but as well as fighting the English, he had also been fighting aginst the Scottish nobility, possibly because of his lesser status in society and his rise to high standing in the community. The powerful Earls of Scotland may well have been jealous of this and that had led them to desert him at Falkirk.

Many historians also believe that even if the cavalry had stayed on and fought with Wallace, the odds were that the Scots would probably have lost the battle anyway. Sheer weight of numbers combined with the awesome firepower of the English longbow would probably have wiped them out regardless.

This actually leads some historians to believe that the nobles may never have planned to betray Wallace, but simply realised the battle could not be won and therefore left to fight another day.

T he forests of Selkirk, Scotland

T he forests of Selkirk, Scotland

The Royal Palace of Westminster, 1305

The Royal Palace of Westminster, 1305

Wallace's Downfall

Wallace was subsequently stripped of his title as Guardian of Scotland and without his decimated army, he returned to his homeland, hiding out in the forests of Selkirk whilst he regrouped.

Edward the first had beaten the Scots into military submission and when Wallace re-emerged from his self-imposed exile, it is not as a soldier, but as a diplomat.

Wallace was attempting to open trade links with the continent, now in the wake of military disorder, he was trying to take a political initiative against the hated Edward.

Wallace also made trips to visit the king of France and to the Pope to try to win political support., the equivalent of an appeal to the United Nations of the time.

These endeavours however, were not backed by the Scottish nobles who were trying to appease Edward while they consolidated their position.

But, in 1303 on his return to Scotland, Wallace actually rejoined the ranks of the nobility and is given a position in the Scottish Army.

But once the Scots had decided that submitting to Edward was probably the best option, hopefully in the short term at least, Wallace was incensed and refused to commit to this course of action.

He fought on as an outlaw and went straight to the top of Edward's most wanted list. The most surprising circumstance of Wallace's tale, was that he was not captured by an Englishman, but betrayed by a Scotsman who was on the payroll of the English.

In 1305, Wallace was finally in English hands, by this time most of the Scottish nobles were back under the rule of Edward. Eventually Wallace's betrayal wasn't just political, but personal.

The man chosen to close the net on Wallace was Sir John Mentieth, a one-time close friend of Wallace, who was actually godfather to Wallace's two children.

They caught Wallace just outside Glasgow and took him south to England, so as to avoid any kind of rescue.

On the 23rd August 1305, Wallace was brought before the king's bench at the Royal Palace of Westminster.

The palace was once the largest freestanding building in Europe and in 1305 it was the intimidating setting for a show trial.

The trial of William Wallace

The trial of William Wallace

Artist's depiction of William Wallace being dragged through the streets of two horses

Artist's depiction of William Wallace being dragged through the streets of two horses

The hanging, drawing and quartering of William Wallace

The hanging, drawing and quartering of William Wallace

Trial, sentence and execution

Wallace stood in silence facing his accusers as endless charges were read out, he only spoke once, to say "I could never have committed treason as I have only ever given loyalty to the rightful king of Scotland".

The trial was more about humiliation than justice, the sentence for treason was declared and Wallace would be hung, drawn and quartered.

He was then stripped naked and with his feet tied to to the tails of two horses, he was dragged through the streets of London.

His head banged along cobbles as crowds pelted him with filth, when they reached the rear of St. Bartholomews Hospital in the Smithfields area of london, they butchered him.

He was strung up and as he was breathing his final breaths, he was hacked open, his intestines were ripped out, shown to the baying crowd and tossed onto a fire, so that if by some miracle he was not yet dead, he could smell his innerds burning.

Then his heart would be cut out, the heart still beating, Wallace was now brain dead.

His head was put on display at London bridge and the four parts of his dismembered body were sent to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Berwick and Sterling, the scene of his greatest triumph, a stark reminder to any Scots contemplating any kind of future hostilities.

That should have been the end, at 35, William Wallace had died a failure, his reputation as a military genius had been destroyed in just 9 months.

Then for the next 7 years he had been powerless to stop Scotland falling under Edward's rule.

But like many heroes who die young, his death sealed his immortality, it's his legacy that is his lasting achievement. Wallace's execution inspired Robert the bruce to take up where he had left off.

Nine years later, Bruce envoked Wallace's spirit before the decisive battle at Bannockburn, which established the Scottish independance that Wallace had fought for.

As a man of the people, Wallace came to represent personal freedom as well as Scottish independance.

Of course, Wallace was a brutal man in a brutal age, but his absolute insistence, that no man or group should be able to dominate any other against their wishes, makes him not just a Scottish hero, but also a universal one.