In 1296, Edward I of England forced the Scottish king to abdicate and seized the throne of Scotland. Scottish unrest was immediate and widespread. It flared into full-scale rebellion in May 1297 when William Wallace led a raid against the town of Lanark, killing the English sheriff.* Under Wallace’s leadership, the Scots weakened the English hold on Scotland and raided across the border into England.** In late 1297, Wallace and his forces defeated a much larger English force at the Battle of Stirling. Wallace was subsequently knighted and made “guardian of the kingdom”, ruling Scotland in the name of its deposed king.
The victory at Stirling was a classic example of “win the battle, lose the war”. Edward marched north with his army to exact retribution. Wallace retreated deeper and deeper into Scotland. Edward followed. When the two armies met at Falkirk in July, 1298, the Scots were defeated and Wallace was forced to flee the battlefield.
Wallace resigned the title of guardian but did not give up his quest for independence. Turning to diplomacy, he sought support for the Scottish cause in France–the first step in what would be a centuries-long if occasionally shaky Franco-Scottish alliance against England.*** In his absence, Robert Bruce, Wallace’s successor as the guardian of the kingdom, negotiated a truce with Edward. Wallace refused to sign.
When Wallace returned to Scotland in 1303, Edward declared him an outlaw and offered a reward for his capture or death. For two years, Wallace continued to fight against English rule. He was captured near Glasgow on August 5, 1305–thanks to a tip from a fellow Scot–and taken to London where he was charged as an outlaw and a traitor. The result of his trial was a foregone conclusion. There was no jury and he was not allowed to speak in his own defense. Nonetheless, when accused of treason he denied the charge, saying he could not be a traitor because he had never sworn allegiance to the English king.
Wallace was drawn and quartered on August 23. His head was displayed on London Bridge. The quarters of his body were sent Newcastle, which he had savaged, and to Berwick, Stirling and Perth as a warning to would-be rebels.
Scotland regained its independence in 1328 with the Treaty of Edinburgh, only to lose it again with the Acts of Union in 1706-07. In the centuries after his death, William Wallace became an emblem of Scottish independence. (Contrary to popular belief, the winners don’t always write the history.)
Scottish independence is an issue once again, with a referendum scheduled for September 15. Polls suggest that a majority of Scots intend to vote yes for independence. Don’t touch that dial.
* The sheriff in medieval England was more than the local peace officer. As My Own True love puts it, he was a Big Wheel. The sheriff was the king’s officer at the level of the shire, responsible for collecting taxes, protecting the king’s hunting preserves, administering justice and, yes, keeping the peace.
**It’s only fair to point out that Wallace was a pretty brutal hero. He’s reported to have made a sword belt from the tanned skin of a fallen Englishman.
***Think Mary Queen of Scots. Think who supported the Stuart pretenders.
Photograph by Kjetil Bjørnsrud. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons