This edited article about William Wallace originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 684 published on 22 February 1975.
King Edward the First of England, who had earned himself the soubriquet of “The Hammer of the Scots,” had been in a belligerently hammering mood in that northern kingdom, where he claimed his overlordship.
He had sent into exile Scotland’s rebellious King, John de Balliol; he had laid waste the land in revenge for Scottish rebellion against the homage he claimed as his due; he had removed the historic Coronation Stone of Scone, upon which all the Kings of Scotland had been crowned for as long as Scots could remember; and he had forced the chiefs of the clans to agree that he had their country well and truly under his broad thumb.
It is said that “the hour shall find the man” and Scotland in the dark years that followed her humiliation when King Edward returned to England in 1297 found her man not among the proud clan chieftains but among the commoners.
When consideration is given to the momentous part which William Wallace was to play in Scotland’s fighting history, the most surprising thing about him is that so little is known of him. He was born, it is thought, in Elderslie in Renfrewshire. One story says that as a young man he killed an Englishman in a quarrel and as a result was outlawed. Little else is known of his life before he showed in his famous battle exploits that he was a military genius of very high order.
When King Edward left Scotland to attend to his English affairs he left behind smouldering resentment that swept right through the northern kingdom. Such retaliatory measures the Scots were taking against the English officials, with whom Edward had peppered the land, were disorganised and desultory, but William Wallace was already emerging as the leader of a patriotic band who were determined to harry their occupiers.
One day, with thirty of his faithful followers, Wallace swept on the courthouse of the English Sheriff of Lanark and murdered him. More forays, such as the burning of the English soldiers’ quarters in the barns at Ayr, conducted in outlaw style, quickly earned him a reputation for courage, fearlessness and leadership which fired Scottish patriotism to defy foreign domination.
The clansmen of Scotland were stirring at last. It was time, they judged, for revolt. The prejudices of nobility were put aside to allow the rough outlaw from Lanark into their conclave, though it was to be the pity for Scotland that the chieftains could not bury completely their contempt for the base-born William Wallace.
An attack, it was decided, would be made on ancient Scone by Wallace and Sir William Douglas, scion of one of the great Scottish families. It was scarcely a fight. When the English justiciar there, William de Ormesby, heard that Wallace was coming, he simply closed his books and fled. The rebellion fanned out like a bush fire, until the English in Scotland were obliged to muster an army to fight.
What happened at the fight at Irvine was symptomatic of Scottish decay. While Wallace and his men were fiercely harrying the English rearguard the clan chiefs were surrendering to their conquerors with almost pathetic eagerness.
“All is well in Scotland,” wrote Hugo de Cressingham, Edward’s clergyman Treasurer there, to the King. “The Scots are defeated with ease.” Satisfied, the impatient Plantagenet monarch sailed across the Channel to hammer the French.
But all was far from well for the English in Scotland. Swiftly Wallace had swelled his rebel band into a full-scale army of 40,000 men, at whose head he now marched upon the strategically important Stirling Castle. Alarmed at this turn of events, old John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, who had been left in charge of English affairs in Scotland, rode at the head of his forces to meet the arrogant outlaw.
Wallace was the first to arrive at Stirling Castle, in front of which the River Forth meanders through a valley. He noted the solitary wooden bridge, just wide enough to take a couple of men abreast, that crossed the river from the south to the north bank, and, some distance to the west, the ford which offered the only other means of crossing the river. Then he gave his rough orders in Gaelic to his lieutenants – orders that showed that William Wallace was a military genius.
When the old Earl of Surrey rode up to the south bank of the Forth he guessed that the scrubs and bushes that lay on the far side between the north bank and the hills beyond were bristling with hidden Scots. But why had they left the bridge intact? Was it some trap – or was it proof of the ineptitude and ignorance of their outlaw leader?
“It may be a trap,” argued some of the English officers. “There is a ford up the river which would give us the double advantage of being able to cross out of sight of the enemy and bring us on to his flank.”
“Let us be done with this talk,” replied the impatient Hugo de Cressingham. “We have all seen how badly Scotsmen fight; would you expect them to have the sense to wreck the bridge before hiding?”
To prove his point Cressingham went with the English vanguard across the bridge. Slowly the rest of the English army began to tramp across, fanning out to take up their position on the northern bank. The wonder of it was that Wallace stopped his Scots hidden among the scrub and bushes from letting their enthusiasm get the better of them and attacking at the wrong moment.
What he did was to allow just the right number of English across on to the swampy land on the northern bank to break the back of the enemy. When he had counted that enough had crossed, 40,000 Scottish throats echoed the order to charge and, barefooted so that the swamp was no handicap to them, they stormed upon the bewildered invaders with claymore, axe and lance.
From the southern bank of the Forth old John of Surrey watched Cressingham die, watched his officers die, watched the flower of his army die in their thousands, and then he turned and fled.
Wallace was far from prepared to call it a day. Like a well-oiled snow-plough he swept southwards, carrying the scattering English before him. Nor did he stop at the border, and by the time the angry Edward had come back from France and was leading his army out of London to meet these firebrand rebels, the renascent Scots were on the rampage in England’s northern counties.
But now the clan chieftains, forever unable to agree among themselves and envious of Wallace’s abilities, were melting away, and it was clear that at the next battle the Scots would be sadly depleted.
When Edward at last met them in person the Scots were near Falkirk, encamped half-way up a steep hill. It was not the best position for Wallace to fight from, but he had in mind the soft ground that lay between him and the English, and saw that it would hinder the enemy’s cavalry.
On that point he was strategically correct. When the English horses came to the soft ground they were forced to swerve right and left of it and were slaughtered by the Scottish lancers. Thus went the battle for some time.
Watching it, old King Edward’s experienced eyes took in the scene and the ground and the Scottish dispositions and he called his cavalry off. Then he ordered his Welsh archers, carrying their deadly longbows, to step up the fire.
It was from the Welsh that Edward had first learned about the longbow. Quick to realise its possibilities, he had made it his army’s chief weapon. The difference between the longbow and the ordinary bow was that the longbow was about the size of the archer – a foot or more longer than the ordinary bow. It could be fired three times as fast as the crossbow, and Edward himself must have seen an arrow fired from it penetrate four inches of stout English oak.
Now he saw the longbowmen’s murderous onslaught of arrows decimate the Scots and turn the battle in the English favour. Still watching, Edward narrowed his eyes in satisfaction and raised his hand to give the order for the coup de gr√¢ce. As his hand dropped his cavalry sped away to complete the rout in the rear of the Scots ragged line.
Wallace was one of those who got away, but after Falkirk he was discredited by the clan chieftains who were jealous of his great reputation. He is said to have gone to France to seek French aid for the Scottish cause, and by the time he returned Edward had Scotland well and truly under his yoke. The King still did not have Wallace, though, and Wallace was the man he wanted.
When a country is wasted and ravaged and undeniably conquered by an enemy there is generally someone prepared to sell it further for personal gain or protection. Such a one was John de Mentieth, appointed by Edward as Sheriff of Dumbarton. A few hours after Mentieth had told the English where Wallace was hiding the hero of Scotland was in chains, heading for London.
At Westminster Hall he was put up at a mock trial, where both verdict and sentence had been decided before the proceedings began. Nonetheless the judges went through the ritual of solemnly passing sentence: the prisoner was to be hanged drawn and quartered. Wallace was taken to the Tower while the scaffold was set up at Smithfield. When it was ready he was conducted to it to meet death bravely.
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