In May 1297, a man called William Heselrig was murdered in Clydesdale. Heselrig was one of the many Englishmen called northwards to serve their king; he had been made sheriff in Clydesdale, and held the sheriff’s court at Lanark. The stories are confused about the details of how he died. One has it that there was some argy bargy at this court, and later a group of local men returned and murdered him. Others that Heselrig was hunting a bandit, managed to capture the bandit’s lover and had her murdered – and was murdered in is turn by the lover. But all agree that one man was at the centre of it all – William Wallace.
William Wallace is at once an uncomplicated figure in the Scottish wars, and a very complicated one in history, and of course no conversation about him is compete without talking about Mel Gibson and Braveheart. And so you will find this conversation incomplete, though I have no doubt we will cover the lad in History in Technicolour, Wolf and I. Reconstructing the history of Wallace is pretty much an industry all of its own – there are any number of excellent websites that do the job, not to mention a historical society. It’s an industry because Wallace’s memory faced two big problems – obscurity and propaganda.
Wallace is obscure because whoever he was, he seems to have been NQOCD. If you listen to English chroniclers, he was a no good low down bandit and peasant; if you listen to the later Scottish chroniclers he was from a knightly family. But even his passionate supporters don’t claim that he was part of the ruling elite, the magnates and barons, he was not on the same level as, say, a Bruce. This means that Wallace moves into the light of the Chroniclers only when he is centre stage – we know almost nothing about him before the uprising, we lose sight of him after his defeat at Falkirk, until his capture and execution, or judicial murder as some would have it. Freeee-dooooom. And this lack of information is because really we very rarely have good information about anybody other than those at the very top of society in days medieval.
The second problem is propaganda, both for and against. Almost all the English chroniclers, predictably, absolutely hate the man and try to denigrate him at every turn
sprung from low-born stock . . . an expert archer who made his living by bow and quiver’
Said the Rishanger Chronicle. From that quote incidentally, has sprung the question of whether maybe Wallace had fought already in the English army in France and acquired a military expertise there – which is of course a lot of speculation. The Lanercost Chronicle, from an Abbey close to the Scottish Border and therefore super unfriendly, described him as
‘a bloody man . . . who had formerly been a chief of brigands’
And raged at him
Thou pillager of many a holy shrine, Butcher of thousands, threefold death be thine
This was as you would expect, a rant on the same line as the ‘they eat babies don’t they’ thing. But a bit more subtle denigration is some initial equivocation from Scottish Chroniclers too. Because the problem was that it was Bruce that had by then become the story; Bruce had triumphed, and he was a nice, comfortable member of the magnate class, plus his story had become part of the lore of the ruling dynasty, and chroniclers are traditionally unwilling to upset their king because, you know, it doesn’t help the career. It is notable that there are no contemporary chronicle references to Wallace which is odd. One of the reasons may be that reticence about Wallace’s background; and/or it could be regional loyalties to local magnates, and by the time the first writing about the wars begin from Scotland, Robert Bruce was already the story. John Barbour, who died in 1395, produced in the 1370s one of the most famous chronicles, a historical poem called The Brus. The poem ignores Wallace completely. To big up Wallace would simply have distracted from the poem’s hero. In a way it’s a back handed compliment to the extent of Wallace’s achievement that he needed to be written out of the narrative so comprehensively.
The next Scottish chronicle was the continuation of John of Fordun’s Chronicle of the Scottish people, probably written in the 1380s though from material assembled earlier by John of Fordun; and the consensus seems to be that the section on Wallace is Forduns work, not his continuator, Walter Bowers. To a large degree this starts the job of presenting Wallace as a straightforward hero. It also refers to his background in such as way as to suggest that it’s an issue; it’s a little bit defensive:
and, though, among the earls and lords of the kingdom, he was looked upon as lowborn, yet his fathers rejoiced in the honour of knighthood
Around 1420, came the first vernacular work, The Cronykil of Scotland by Andrew Wynton. Wynton was unashamedly patriotic again, but took care to present English bravery where he saw it, and his presentation of Wallace therefore has some nuance as well; Wallace is first shown as a loud mouthed brawler, then as a great general and wise ruler, and finally as a martyr. In the end it is the story of a hero:
Of his good deeds and his manliness
Great Gestis, I heard say, are made . . .
Whoever his deeds would all endite
Would need a mighty book to write
But the big one is Blind Harry, in a political poem called The Wallace, first printed in 1508. It was massively successful, and over the next three centuries was reprinted in various editions, and became one of the most widely owned books in Scotland. It turned Wallace into a patriotic, national hero. Here, just for example, is Robbie Burns
The first two books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read since, were the Life of Hannibal, and the History of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier, while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice into my veins, which will boil along there till the floodgates of life shut in eternal rest
Historians now tend to view Blind Harry’s The Wallace as a sort of historical novel, stuffed so full of demonstrable inaccuracies that it’s difficult to trust any of it. They note that Harry was partly motivated by the poet’s distrust of James III’s pro English policy at the time he wrote it. The trouble is that for later patriotic authors such as Burns to mention just one, he much more exciting than the other chronicles, he’s got verve and dramatic skill and was not shackled by the tawdry bonds of truth. Plus, he’s a minstrel called Blind Harry – how much more romantic and compelling can you get than a blind poet signing about the evil English? Much more exciting than even the best medieval monk. We don’t know much about Harry, but there’s a brief reference in a piece written in 1446
In the time of my infancy, Harry who was blind from birth, composed a book consisting entirely of the achievements of William Wallace ….Particulars which he heard related by the vulgar he wrote in the vulgar verse in which he excelled. But I do not believe everything that I find in such writings …. By reciting his histories before princes or great men he gained his food and raiment, of which he was worthy
And so we get stories such as the one about a supposed lover of Wallace Marion, who distracts the English soldiers pursuing her lover and is murdered by Heselrig as a result. It’s a lot more sexy than a minor landowner cutting up rough at a sheriff’s court.
Part of the reason for the success of the work is in the strength of the character of Wallace. He starts as a headstrong and uncouth young man, up for hammering away at the hated English, then to the leader of a band of outlaws than to the leader of an army, and to his country’s ruler. He gains the respect and love of his followers, and instills fear into his enemies and waverers on his own side. He is single minded in the pursuit of his one aim: the removal of the English from Scotland. Harry didn’t also shy away from comparisons with Bruce – and while he was not about to ruin Bruce’s reputation, he came out second best to the real hero, Wallace.
And so we are almost in the realm of the parallel history which I would argue exists in most national histories. There are almost two histories – the received history that folks talk about and the history of the ivory towers. I am reminded of a few examples. There’s an old chestnut In English history, that the 17th century saw the peasant robbed of their rightful common land by the English government – the point being made that most of this had happened well before, that the peasant had never owned the land only some rights on it, and actually the government usually tried to prevent enclosure. It takes a long time it seems to me for received history to change, if it ever does; I am also reminded of Eamon Duffy’s despairing rant about the view off the 16th century church in the history of England written by the journalist Simon Jenkins. You have to feel for Duffy – there he is, the most eminent of historians lauded by his peers – and for the vast majority it’s almost as though he had never existed.
One struggle along these lines is the folk hero; that Wallace’s army was composed not of the posh magnates, who anyway spent as much time dealing with Edward, but of the brave, uncomplicated, far sighted and clean common people, who fought for the future of Scotland against the evil invader. You can see historians pushing against this story and yet, and yet, we know so little it is impossible to refute.
Wallace’s story continued to inspire. The Latin poetry of Thomas Ruddiman for example, in the 18th century presented Wallace as a popular, radical bastion against imperial power for example. Any historians trying to question the Bind Harry account were swimming against the tide; the 18th Century Scottish historian and advocate Lord Hailes, David Dalrymple tried; he would not accept popular accounts unless they were corroborated by written evidence, He was just blown away. In the 1790 edition of Blind Harry’s poem, Dalyrmple’s approach was strongly condemned, he was blown away by the passion and talent of poets like the ubiquitous Robert Burns. There is then the poem that became almost a Scottish national anthem for two centuries, Scots Wha hae, which I had a quick chat about with Davie, who also recited it for me:
Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour;
See approach proud Edward’s power—
Chains and slavery!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave!
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
Wha for Scotland’s king and law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or freeman fa’,
Let him follow me!
By oppression’s woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!—
Let us do or die!
Burns has been followed by others of course. In 1814 William Wordsworth joined the team, during his journey to Scotland:
How Wallace fought for Scotland; left the name
Of Wallace to be found like a wild flower,
All over his dear Country: left the deeds
Of Wallace like a family of Ghosts,
To people the steep rocks and river banks,
Her natural sanctuaries with a local soul
Of independence and stern liberty
There were dozens of biographies in the 19th and 20th centuries which relied heavily on Blind Harry, and in the 1960s a play, called the Wallace. So, the historical Wallace faces a lot of challenges. It’s only partly because the voice of literature speaks so loudly. The author of the play The Wallace, Sydney Goodsir Smith put his finger on it when he wrote:
The historical materials for this period in Scotland are scant; and traditional or legendary material can never be discounted altogether. One of Blind Harry’s ‘wild romances’- Wallace’s visit to France- was shown to be right in the nineteenth century, four hundred years after Harry sang, by a document found in the tower of London
Despite this, Blind Harry’s account has been largely pushed to one side by historians as unreliable, and yet the popular history still rules along side the academic. And as Smith also pointed out in that quote, uncovering the real man is pretty much impossible, except in so far as his verifiable deeds allow. And then some, historically viable things are pretty clear, which helps keep Wallace at the top of the patriotic list. Because one part in particular of the folk story is absolutely true – Wallace is a far less equivocal figure to the modern eye than is Bruce. So, Wallace’s opposition to Edward and the English usurpers is unwavering. There is no dealing, no messing about, no half measures – Wallace lives and dies with the intention of being Edward’s nemesis and bringing Scotland back to her rightful king. He never wavers in his support for John Baliol – not for Wallace the subtle and dangerous attractions of political wheeler dealing – another reason why he was far from universally popular with some of his magnate chums. He seems to have been a military man; and no one could challenge his verve, courage and conviction, though not all his decisions worked out well. So, it’s really easy to get behind Wallace – success or failure isn’t really important, courage, honesty, conviction, a just cause – these are things that make a hero easy to love.
We do have some physical descriptions of Wallace, but you can’t help feeling they may fall into the building of a hero. Here they are though. First, John of Fordun’s continuator, Walter Bower
He was a tall man with the body of a giant, cheerful in appearance with agreeable features, broad-shouldered and big-boned with belly in proportion and lengthy flanks, pleasing in appearance but with a wild look, broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs, a most spirited fighting-man, with all his limbs very strong and firm.
Here is Blind Harry:
In stature he was full nine quarters high,
When measured, at least, without a lie.
Betwixt his shoulders was three quarters broad,
Such length and breadth would now-a-days seem odd . . .
Great, but well-shaped limbs, voice strong and sure,
Burning brown hair, his brows and eye-bries light;
You get the idea; a small bloke with a gammy leg, a squint and a habit of going on a bit he was not. It led some people to complain that Mel Gibson wasn’t tall enough.
Wallace was not the man who started the uprising of 1297; his act of rebellion in that year was part of a trend;
The scots massacred all they could find
Reported one English chronicler; English clergy were thrown out of their churches. One Historian compares it to other examples of rebellion; in 1282 for example, the Sicilians massacred as many French as they could find. Just like 1297, these were uprisings against foreign rulers.
But in May, the Fordun chronicle relates:
The same year, William “Wallace lifted up his head from his den — as it were — and slew the English sheriff, a doughty and powerful man, in the town of Lanark. From that time, therefore, there flocked to him all who were in bitterness of spirit, and weighed down beneath the burden of bondage under the unbearable domination of English despotism; and he became their leader. He was wondrously brave and bold of goodly mien, and boundless liberality; and, though, among the earls and lords of the kingdom, he was looked upon as lowborn, yet his fathers rejoiced in the honour of knighthood.
Ok, hopefully I have built up Wallace enough for you now. Wallace was initially joined by James Stewart and by Robert Bruce, Robert Bruce VII, our future king. As a general rule now folks, when I say Bruce from now on this is the chap I am talking about, unless I specifically say otherwise – makes it easier, and anyway all you need to know is that his dad remains stubbornly loyal to Edward I.
Wallace found support from minor landowners because their position was threatened by the alien invader. Bruce and Stewart joined for the same reason – Edward had handed control of the South West over to an Englishman, Henry Percy. It took Bruce a little while to declare himself; he was made to swear an oath of allegiance to the English and carryout an attack on the lands of Wallace’s allies, but before long Bruce also raised his standard at Carrick alongside Stewart and another critical figure – Andrew Wishart Bishop of Glasgow. They declared their rebellion was to defend ‘the commune of our land’. But the rebellion seemed to be over almost as soon as it began – the Bruce and his supporters were defeated by an English force at Irvine, Bruce again swore his loyalty but Wishart was thrown into prison. Many of the English thought that was that – but the treasurer Hugh Cressingham knew better
Matters have gone to sleep
He wrote, because taxes were no longer coming in – he could see that in the countryside, the Scottish people were defiant, they were refusing to do the bidding of their English sheriffs.
And there were two men that gave a focus to their defiance. One of these was Wallace. Immediately after killing Heselrig at Lanark he had launched a surprise attack on the English sheriff at Scone. He now made his home in Selkirk forest in southern Scotland, what we now call the Borders, and started a guerrilla war, causing chaos in Clydesdale and around Roxborough. In Fife, Macduff also led rebellion, which is really interesting. It was MacDuff’s refusal to accept Baliol’s authority that had triggered Baliol’s fall; but the attempt by an English king to impose himself was too much for him, and he bow switched sides and fought in defence of his homeland. He was however captured quite quickly by the Earl of Strathearn.
You would have been shocked if the north had not been involved in rebellion, after all that had always been their specialist subject. Fortunately, you will not be disappointed. Enter north of the Mounth, one Andrew Murray, who was reassuringly posh, heir to a great baronial house. They began a series of attacks on English garrisons and sheriffs in the north, and drove many of them out. The English had no chance of raising an army to come that far north in the immediate future, so they exhorted the Scottish barons to crush the rebels. The response was delightfully half hearted. John Comyn and the heir to the Earldom of Mar did indeed raise an army to fulfil their vows to the English king and go after Murray – and then let Murray slip through their fingers. Darn it, Sorry Edward, sorry…oops, sorry.
By August, most of the Magnates had broken contact with Edward, and anyway, Wallace and Murray had lit a fire all over Scotland; English garrisons stood out as beleaguered and isolated outposts of a colonial power surrounded by hostile natives. Edward was in France and it was left to John Warenne and Hugh Cressingham to try to organise a response, and finally in September 1297 they had themselves an army. Meanwhile Murray and Wallace had united and brought their army to Stirling; Stirling was the lowest crossing of the river Forth, the strategic heart of Scotland in linking Scotland North and south of the Forth. They could not be allowed to control the bridge or the castle there, and so it was there that Warenne headed. His first instinct was to deal, so he sent some Dominicans to try to broker a peace with Wallace, and received a magnificently dusty response from him
Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle to defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on and we shall prove this in our very beards
Where, can I ask you, was Mel Gibson’s beard then? Anyway, confident in their numerical and indeed military superiority, the English started to cross the River with several thousand Welsh foot soldiers and English horse. Actually it took them ages – they started and then came back, started and came back; they were advised of a ford higher up the river they could use for an outflanking movement but ignored it, eager to get on, and confident they’d crush the rebels.
Popular story has it of course that they faced a bunch of lowly peasants, a popular army – we don’t really know, but certainly the English behave with a hideous lack of caution that speaks of arrogant over confidence. Because once they were over there, horsemen then found the ground too soft; they were all milling around chaotically in a bend in the river, no way to deploy or indeed run away, the bridge was a pinch point that would delay reinforcement or escape. Warenne was desperately staring at his hitch hikers guide and hoping the Don’t Panic message was really appropriate. It wasn’t. All this was going on in the face of the enemy, and Wallace and Murray were no fools. They waited – they waited until half the army was over the bridge, and then they charged down the hill with their long spears. And the English were slaughtered. Warenne had not yet crossed the river – so he ordered the bridge destroyed, and ran for England with those that survived. Cressingham was not so lucky – he was killed, and by repute was flayed and his skin made into a belt for Wallace. Which is an admirably green approach to making use of everything rather than just throwing it away.
Wallace was a force of nature, and the force had gone a long way to freeing Scotland. English garrisons were helpless, and surrendered all across Scotland leaving only Edinburgh, Roxborough and Berwick in their hands. There is a letter that survives written by the two leaders, Wallace and Murray in October 1297 to Hanseatic merchants, it includes the lines
The kingdom of Scotland has, thanks be to God, by war been recovered from the power of the English
Sadly, it seems that Murray had been wounded at Falkirk and would soon be dead; had he not died, it’s moot who might have become the leader of the resistance at this point, given that Murray was reassuringly noble. But through his uncomplicated defiance and by the stunning victory at Stirling Bridge, Wallace was now supreme. It is quite possible, and indeed probable, that Wallace’s success gave the nobility of Scotland something of a dilemma; the underlying factionalism had never gone away. But really there was little choice – Wallace had grabbed the initiative by the throat. As Fordun’s chronicle put it
So Wallace overthrew the English on all sides; and gaining strength daily, he, in a short time, by force, and by dint of his prowess brought all of the magnates of Scotland under his sway, whether they would or not
During the winter of 1297 then, the great and the good swallowed their misgivings and accepted Wallace’s leadership. This meant two things; they had Wallace knighted since obviously it was inconceivable they’d give their allegiance to a commoner. And secondly, he was made Guardian of the realm. It so happens that my son and I went walking in the Borders this summer and stayed in the town of Selkirk. And as we walked out of the town there was the old kirk where he was proclaimed Guardian. I may not be Scottish, but that was an historic and atmospheric place to be, I can tell you. All was legitimised by reference to the community of the realm and everything was done in King John’s name – Wallace never wavered in his loyalty to Baliol, there was no suggestion of switching horses to Bruce. Even now though, not all magnates had resolved to desert Edward – Earl Patrick of Dunbar for example remained with the English king.
Wallace showed himself a firm and determined leader. In October he led raids into Northern England which through their brutality assured him of the relentless opposition of the northern English chroniclers – a brutality, by the way, entirely in the mould of an Edward I and indeed any other medieval monarch you might care to mention. The campaigning and loot it generated helped keep a Scottish army in the field, for which Wallace also recruited persistently on his return – and is reputed to have hung those who refused. One interesting wrinkle here is that Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, had been part of the initial 1297 rising, but had surrendered at Irvine and like Bruce sworn loyalty to Edward, only to be imprisoned. For William Wallace this was feeble backsliding. He burnt Wishart’s manor house and carried off his movables and his children.
Wallace showed the same firmness in the traditional preserve of the medieval leader – the distribution of patronage. Bishop Fraser of St Andrews had died; his replacement was urgent, particularly since Wishart’s imprisonment robbed the Scots of a critical and talented leader. Now, the appointment of such an important post was supposed to be by election of the chapter of the Cathedral; Wallace was having that and imposed a man called William Lamberton. I mention this because a member of the Comyn family complained about this to the pope – it’s another sign of continuing faction within the Scottish nobility, and it’s more than likely that the Comyn’s viewed Wallace now with added distrust – Wallace’s leadership was on trial. However Wallace’s judgment was excellent – William Lamberton would be a consistent and equally determined champion of Scottish independence.
Edward returned from France in March 1298, determined to crush what he saw simply as a rebellion. It is interesting that we tend to focus on the Scots and their strategies in this, but it’s worth remarking that despite Edward’s high reputation as one of the great kings of England, his approach to Scotland was remarkably devoid of a strategy. He could have taken the Wales approach – the application of overwhelming force, building castles to impose rule. He could have taken a conciliatory approach towards the Scottish nobles, assuring them of their continued local dominance and liberties – and yet he’d instead flooded the country with English officials and a royal deputy. So, what was he about? Part of the explanation has to be the distraction of war with France; part of it that financial exhaustion was near – he could not afford to build all those castles as he had in Wales. So if rule by force was not a runner, why not conciliation? And here Edward was caught between the need to conciliate by regranting Scottish lands and rights; and the need to reward his own English followers. Wallace gave him no time to decide. And so in the short term war was the only option.
The army that Edward marched into Scotland through the borders was a whopper of 28,000, 3,000 cavalry, 10,000 Welsh footmen and 15,000 English foot. Edward had learned some lessons from Stirling Bridge – a much greater proportion of his army were crossbow and archer, which will indeed prove a good decision. So it was a big and powerful army – but was it a happy army, did they sing and they marched? Well I have no idea about the singing but happy army it was not. Wallace had no intention of fighting – the set piece of Falkirk had been an exception, it was the tactics of Selkirk forest for Wallace. He retreated, burning as he went, taking everything from the land that Edward might be able to use. Supplies for the English army ran low – supplies from the sea continuously failed to reach the army, and morale ran low. At one stage a shipment did get through – 200 tuns of wine, which Edward gave to the Welsh. What a mistake that was – did he not know the effect of alcohol on an empty stomach? The Welsh were off their collective trolley, threatened to mutiny, the cavalry charged them and 😯 died. Not a happy army then. In fact, Edward may well have decided to retreat, a humiliating disaster. But then Patrick of Dunbar came up trumps – one of his scouts reported that Wallace and the army was near.
Edward had no doubt what he should do – he should attack. It is impossible to think that the spectre of Stirling Bridge was not in his mind, and attacking with a poorly fed, mutinous army was hardly the best start, but whatever he lacked, Edward did not lack verve and courage.