10 Facts About William Wallace

Sarah Roller

Middle Ages
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William Wallace is one of Scotland’s greatest national heroes – a legendary figure who lead his people in a noble quest for freedom from English oppression. Immortalised in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, it’s time to ask exactly what the truth behind the legend is.

Battle of Stirling Bridge
A Victorian depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge

1. Obscure beginnings

Although the exact circumstances surrounding Wallace’s birth are obscure, it’s believed he was born in the 1270s to a gentry family. Historical tradition dictates he was born in Elderslie in Renfrewshire, but this is far from certain. Either way, he was noble by birth.

2. Scottish through and through?

The surname ‘Wallace’ stems from the Old English wylisc, meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘Welshman’. When Wallace’s family arrived in Scotland is unknown, but perhaps he was not as Scottish as first thought.

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3. He was far from a nobody

It seems unlikely that Wallace led a major successful military campaign in 1297 without some prior experience. Many believe he was the youngest son of a noble family, and ended up as a mercenary – perhaps even for the English – for several years before launching a campaign against them.

4. A master of military tactics

The Battle of Stirling Bridge took place in September 1297. The bridge in question was extremely narrow – only two men could cross at a time. Wallace and Andrew Moray waited for around half of the English forces to make the crossing, before launching an attack.

Those still on the south side were forced to retreat, and those on the north side were trapped. Over 5000 infantrymen were slaughtered by the Scots.

william wallace statue
Statue of William Wallace at Edinburgh Castle. Image credit: Kjetil Bjørnsrud / CC

5. Guardian of Scotland

Following his success at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace was knighted and made a ‘Guardian of Scotland’ – this role was effectively that of a regent. In this case, Wallace was acting as Regent for the deposed King of Scotland, John Balliol.

6. He wasn’t always victorious

On 22 July 1298, Wallace and the Scots suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the English. The use of Welsh longbowmen proved a strong tactical decision by the English, and the Scots lost a lot of men as a result. Wallace escaped unharmed – his reputation, on the other hand, was badly damaged.

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7. Surviving evidence

Following this defeat, Wallace is believed to have gone to France to enlist support. There is one surviving letter from King Philip IV to his envoys in Rome, telling them to support Sir William and the Scottish independence cause. Whether Wallace travelled to Rome after this is unknown – his movements are unclear. However, he was back in Scotland by 1304 at the latest.

8. King of the Outlaws?

Wallace was turned over to the English in 1305 by John de Menteith. He was tried in Westminster Hall and crowned with a circlet of oak – traditionally associated with outlaws. He is supposed to have maintained his commitment to Scottish independence, and on being accused of treason, said “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject”.

westminster hall
The interior of Westminster Hall. Image credit: Tristan Surtel / CC

9. He never saw Scottish independence

Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered in August 1305, 9 years before the Battle of Bannockburn, which marked the start of de facto Scottish independence. Formal independence was acknowledged by the English in the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton in 1328.

10. A legendary hero?

Much of the myth and folklore surrounding Wallace can be attributed to ‘Harry the Minstrel’, who wrote a 14th century romance featuring Wallace. Whilst there seems to have been little documentary evidence behind Harry’s writing, it is clear that Wallace had captured the imagination of the Scottish people.

Today, William Wallace is best known to people through Braveheart (1995), which dramatized Wallace’s life and the struggle for Scottish independence – although the accuracy of the film is hotly disputed by historians.

Sarah Roller