William Wallace is a symbol of Scottish freedom fight. He was born in 1270s in Elderslie in the county of Renfrewshire. There are no significant records about his early life. He springs into limelight after Edward I usurped the throne of Scotland in 1296 following a succession crisis in Scotland. There was widespread unrest in Scotland following this usurpation. The first notable act of defiance by William Wallace was in May 1297 when he carried out assassination of William de Heselrig who was the English High Sheriff of Lanark. After this William joined with Lord of Douglas and William the Hardy and they carried out the successful raid of Scone. Soon people from all parts of Scotland flocked to join William Wallace’s army. The rebel armies drove the English out of Perthshire and Fife.
In 1297 Wallace and his men defeated a large English force at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. These successes weakened the English stronghold in Scotland. Wallace even went as far as launching raids in England. Early 1298 William Wallace was knighted and appointed as the “guardian of the kingdom” in the name of John Billiol, who was the deposed king of Scotland. Defeat at Stirling Bridge had shocked the English and Edward himself marched with an army to the North. Wallace strategized for the war. He wanted to avoid direct confrontation with Edward’s army and gradually withdrew. As William Wallace withdrew he went on destroying the English countryside, this meant Edward’s armies had to march deeper and deeper into Scotland. In July 1298, both the armies met near Falkirk, and the Scots were defeated in the battle. Wallace managed to escape abroad. He resigned from his guardianship and was succeeded by John Comyn and Robert Bruce.
Not many details about his life abroad were available until the latest discoveries. A 700 year old letter was found. It is linked to William. The letter is written in French and was issued on November 7, 1300. This letter suggests that Wallace intended to travel to Rome and on his arrival to the city he would dispatch the letter. The letter was addressed to Roman dignitaries urging them to help “Sir William” in his bid for Scottish freedom struggle. Whether he went onto to deliver the letter or not is still unknown.
Further studies suggest that after the loss at Falkirk William Wallace sought refuge of French monarch Phillip IV. He stayed in France till 1304. In the meantime Robert Bruce had settled a truce with English. On his return to Scotland William Wallace was involved in some skirmishes at Earnside and Happrew. Learning about his return King Edward I offered a large sum of money to anyone who killed or captured Wallace.
On August 5, 1305 John de Menteith, a Scottish knight turned Wallace over to the English soldiers near Glasgow. He was transported to London and tried for treason at Westminster hall for atrocities against civilians in war. Following this trial, on August 23, 1305 he was taken away from the hall, stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to Elms at Smithfield. Then he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. He was strangled by hanging but released alive, his genitals were cut, bowels were cut out and burnt before him and finally he was beheaded. His head was dipped in tar for preservation and then placed on top of London Bridge. The description of his punishment itself brings horrific images. This is the severest death sentence perhaps in English history.
Why did Edward I issue such a sentence? According to accounts in King Edward’s Exchequer for the financial year 1304-05 it is clearly mentioned that William Wallace called himself as the king of Scotland. This may have angered the English king most. He might have felt his position dwindling if William Wallace managed to become the king of a nation so close. The financial records further suggest that there was an extravagant expenditure incurred in Wallace’s trial at Westminster Hall. Many civil servants attended the trial. What has been shown as the greatest crime of Wallace his act of calling “himself King of Scotland.” There were many other lavish expenses over Wallace’s execution and sending his quartered body to Scotland.