Notable Britons


William Wallace, born near Pasiley, Renfrewshire, was hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered in 1305. He thus suffered the same fate as Welsh leader Dafydd ap Gruffudd some 22 years before and for the same reasons: both had dared the might of the English crown; both had dared to raise armies against Edward I and both had fought for the independence of their nations. In order to understand Wallace's significance in his country's history, we have to look at the situation in Scotland that led to his arrival as leader of his people in the vacuum that Robert the Bruce was not ready to fill until he was perfectly sure of success.

A new struggle for control of Scotland had begun at the death of Alexander III in 1286, leaving as heir his grandchild Margaret, the infant daughter of the King of Norway. English King Edward, with his eye on the complete subjugation of Scotland suggested that Margaret should marry his son, a desire consummated at a treaty signed and sealed at Birgham. Under the terms, Scotland was to remain a separate and independent kingdom, though Edward was to keep English garrisons in a number of Scottish castles. When the young princess died, all plans changed: the succession was now open to many claimants, the strongest of whom were John Balliol and Robert Bruce.

After the decision had gone in favor of Balliol, he declared himself King of Scotland and declared that he would answer only to his own people; refusing to supply military service to Edward, who had supported his election. Overestimating his strength, he then concluded a treaty with France prior to planning an invasion of England.

Edward was ready. He went north to receive homage from a great number of Scottish nobles as their feudal lord, among them Robert Bruce, who owned estates in England. Balliol immediately punished this treachery by seizing Bruce's lands in Scotland and giving them to his own brother-in-law, John Comyn. Yet within a few months, the Scottish king was to disappear from the scene. His army was defeated by Edward at Dunbar in April 1296. Soon after at Brechin, on 10 July, he surrendered his Scottish throne to the English king, who took into his possession the stone of Scone, "the coronation stone" of the Scottish kings. At a Parliament, which he summoned at Berwick, the English king received homage and the oath of fealty from over 2,000 Scots. He seemed secure in Scotland.

It was an illusion. The rising tide of nationalist fervor in the face of the arrival of the English armies north of the border created the need for new Scottish leaders. With the killing of an English sheriff following a brawl with English soldiers in the market place at Lanark, young nobleman William Wallace, with his fierce hatred of foreign occupation, found himself at the head of a fast-spreading movement of national resistance. At Stirling Bridge, a Scottish force, led by Wallace, won an astonishing victory when it completely annihilated a large, lavishly-equipped English army under the command of Surrey, Edward I's viceroy.

Yet Wallace's great victory, successful because English cavalry were unable to maneuver on the marshy ground and their supporting troops had been trapped on a narrow bridge, proved to be a Pyrrhic one. Bringing a large army north in 1298, and goading Wallace to forgo his guerrilla campaign into fighting a second pitched battle, the English king's forces were more successful. At Falkirk, they crushed the over-confident Scots.

This time the English cavalry was able to maneuver and the archers (many of whom had been recruited in Wales following that country's virtual annexation by the Statute of Rhuddlan less than twenty years before) inflicted heavy damage on the massed ranks of the Scots. Falkirk was a grievous loss for Wallace who never again found himself in command of a large body of troops. After hiding out for a number of years, he was finally captured in 1305 and brought to London to die a traitor's death. At his trial, he declared that he was not a traitor to Edward, for Edward was not his king.

Much of the story of Wallace came to us in the late 15th century romance ascribed to Henry the Mistral (Blind Harry). In 1938, Sir James Ferguson published his William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland, and of course, the name of Wallace became known throughout the world after the release of the highly successful Hollywood movie Brave Heart in 1995. (Just in time for the 1997 referendum that restored Scotland's Parliament after an absence of more than 300 years).

Perhaps Wallace's main contribution to Scotland's history (apart from showing his people that English armies could be defeated) was that he brought forth Robert the Bruce, stirred out of his lethargy, ashamed of his homage to England and now ready to do his own bit to reassert the independence of Scotland.