William Wallace, Scotland’s greatest hero

William Wallace, Scotland's greatest hero
William Wallace was said to be 'a tall man with the body of a giant'. Credit: VisitBritain / Britain on View

Mel Gibson played him in Braveheart, but William Wallace was, of course, also a real person. He was Scotland’s greatest hero.

William Wallace was a knight who became one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Abbot Walter Bower, a Scottish canon and chronicler of the times, described him as “a tall man with the body of a giant… with length flanks… broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs… with all his limbs very strong and firm”. Mel Gibson, indeed.

Wallace played a key role in the Scottish rebellions. He relied on strategy rather than the strength of his weapons. With Andrew Moray, he defeated an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 – even though the Scottish army was much larger than the English. After the battle, Wallace and Moray served as Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland. In 1297, Wallace led a raid into northern England, and was knighted towards the end of the year. But it wouldn’t be long before things started to unravel. Wallace was defeated the following year at the Battle of Falkirk. He escaped, but resigned as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert the Bruce.

The National Wallace Monument
The National Wallace Monument stands on Abbey Craig, overlooking Stirling in Scotland. Credit: VisitBritain / Rod Edwards

In August 1305, things worsened for Wallace. John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to King Edward I of England, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow. Wallace 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 show he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the treason charge with the line: “I could not be a traitor to Edward for I was never his subject.”

Wallace was found guilty, and suffered a particularly gruesome fate. After a quick trip to the Tower of London, he was dragged through the city at the heels of a horse. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, before being beheaded. His preserved head – dipped in tar – was placed on a pike on London Bridge.

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