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William Wallace: Birth of a Hero

Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 23rd September 2014


July 1296. The sun shone bravely, but dark clouds glowered over Scotland. Their king, John Balliol, stood before the English king. He carried a white rod, the sign of a penitent, he got down on his knees. He pleaded to the king for forgiveness.

William Wallace

John Balliol kneeling before Edward I

Edward was unmoved. He didn’t believe in compromise. He forced John Balliol to abdicate, and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. After months of insurgence the kingdom of Scotland was finally under Edward’s control.

John Balliol had ruled Scotland for four disastrous years. At first he had capitulated to the English king, to the dismay of his people. Finally he had rebelled, leading a disorderly and doomed war against the English occupation.

Edward confiscated the Stone of Scone, which had supported the bottoms of all Scottish Kings at their crowning, and had it installed at Westminster Abbey, where it would remain for 6 centuries.

William Wallace

Edward Longshanks

Known as Longshanks, because he was so tall, Edward’s ambition was to rule Scotland directly, without the inconvenience of another monarch. He had bullied them into accepting his feudal superiority. His attacks had included the shocking and bloody massacre of all the women and children of Berwick. Now Scotland was defeated. They had no monarch but Edward I. John Balliol was eventually freed and allowed to live the rest of his days in French exile. He would never return to free his people. Scotland needed a hero.

Who Was William Wallace?

In 1291 William Wallace was still a teenager. As second son of a minor member of the gentry, it was his fate to enter the church, and for some years he had been under the guardianship of a paternal uncle, a cleric, to further his education and smooth his entrance into that profession. His uncle was also a follower of politics, a great influence on the young Wallace. He instilled in William the importance of liberty.

William Wallace

Painting of Wallace by the 11th Earl of Buchan

Son of Sir Malcolm Wallace

Like his son William, Sir Malcolm Wallace was not one to submit.

In 1291 Edward had insisted all Scottish noblemen must add their seal to the infamous ‘Ragman Rolls’ as a mark of allegiance to the Crown. Sir Malcolm Wallace couldn’t bring himself to do it. When his brother-in-law, Sir Reginald De Crauford, who was acting as administrator of the rolls, noticed his brother-in-law’s seal was missing, this was the cue to disappear for a while.

Sir Malcolm, with his eldest son, escaped to Lennox to hide from persecution from the English; meanwhile William’s mother took William and his younger brother to stay with Sir Reginald, who was not about to deny his sister refuge, even if her husband chose to run.

Sir Malcolm’s freedom was short-lived. By December he had been betrayed by his own countryman and murdered by English forces.

Stories of William Wallace

The young William may have already heard about his father’s death when he was walking through the streets of Dundee on a cold December day in 1291. That day changed his life. A young English punk called Selbie, son of the town sheriff, decided to try and get a rise out of him. He taunted William about his clothes. William ignored him. English taunts were an habitual irritation. Selbie raised the stakes and tried to take William’s knife. William flared with rage, drew his knife and dug it into Selbie’s chest.

As Selbie fell at his feet William knew his life was forfeit. From that moment on he was an outlaw. He ran home to his mother, and together the family hatched a plan. Disguising themselves as pilgrims they made their way north to escape detection. the Governor of Dundee wasted no time in putting a ransom on William’s head.

But William couldn’t escape his own temper. At Riccarton, while they were staying with another uncle, William was accosted by four English soldiers who demanded of him the fish he had just caught in a nearby river. William refused, engaged one of the swordsman with his fishing rod, disarmed him, snatched up the soldier’s sword and dispatched him with it. He turned the sword on the other soldiers, killing a second man. The other two fled. William was not a man to be bullied!

His uncle was a bit miffed that William had yet again given in to his rage. He packed him off to another relative who hid him in a wood. Woods were going to become familiar territory to this young outlaw. As his fame grew, he attracted a small band of followers. Some of them were family, cousins and nephews. The woods became his headquarters. He began to lead ambushes against English troops, acting on intelligence he gained from a network of informants. He gained booty from these raids, horses, arms, money. A great resistance movement was underway.

Wallace’s many triumphs against the so-called ‘invincible’ English troops melted Scottish fear, and gave fresh hope. More people joined him. Edward I was infuriated by news of him. Wallace eventually rose to command an army that would humiliate Edward at the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge. His efforts helped to re-instate Scotland’s king, in the shape of Robert the Bruce.

At Scotland’s time of need, a hero was born.

William Wallace

Wallace’s personal seal (known as the Lubeck seal)

The stories about Wallace’s early life are mostly apocryphal and all facts are hotly contested by historians. The truth is the life of William Wallace is over time becoming more legend than fact. It is thought too that the legend of Robin Hood is actually based on the life of Wallace.

About the author

Written by: Stewart Borland

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