William Wallace, Scotland’s greatest hero, who was gruesomely executed in 1305. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably thanks to Braveheart. The great 1995 movie that depicted a ‘Freedom!’ screaming Wallace, torn up by his wife’s murder at the hands of the English, and brandishing his ridiculously giant claymore sword to avenge her, as well as obtain freedom for the Scots.
But Braveheart was historically inaccurate. Hugely inaccurate. So what facts do we know about the real William Wallace?
1# Stature or Statue?
To begin with, he likely didn’t look as damn sexy as Mel Gibson. In fact, we don’t even know how he looked at all. But that hasn’t stopped the Scots from dotting the entire country with statues and portraits of their greatest champion of independence, alongside King Robert the Bruce.
Despite his lack of profile picture, William is suspected to have been a very tall man, described in the Scotichronicon (1440) as almost seven feet tall, or 195 cm. Quite a staggering size in those times.
William origins are almost as obscure. Legends place his birth in Elderslie, Renfrewshire, around 1270. He was the son of Alan Wallace, a minor nobleman. Little William was believed to have travelled a lot, spending time in Rome, and learning several languages, including French and Latin. Sounds like William was the deadliest nerd ever.
2# Wallace’s wife and his revenge
In Braveheart, he is shown to fall in love with a Scottish peasant, called Murron, and begins a vendetta against the English when they kill her in cold blood.
Blind Harry’s poem, Wallace (1478), depicts him as being in love with a woman called Marion Braidfute, and after she was murdered in Lanark, William killed the English Sheriff of Lanark, Sir William Heselrig, in retaliation. The later was a recorded event, however, there is no evidence of Marion’s existence.
The truth is, Wallace was already a staunch opponent of English occupation before the Lanark incident. When the rest of the nobility submitted to Edward’s I claim of lordship over Scotland in 1291, and again in 1296, William refused.
3# Robert the Bruce. A betrayal?
William’s legend began during the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1327), when he rallied and lead the kingless Scots, together with Andrew Murray, against the English King Edward I. Together, they defeated the English army in the Battle of Stirling Bridge, 11th September 1297.
In Braveheart, Wallace gives an inspirational speech, and later the Scots tease the enemy by flashing their asses. Maybe you’re wondering why there was no bridge depicted in the movie, if it’s called Battle of Stirling BRIDGE. Mel Gibson doesn’t need a bridge to beat the bad guys ok?
After Stirling, William was appointed the Guardian of Scotland, to rule the country during the absence of its legitimate King, John Balliol, whom William fought for. While in Braveheart, William is wrongly depicted as an unshakeable believer in Robert the Bruce. And to further butcher history, Robert betrays William during the Battle of Falkirk. In reality, Robert wasn’t even mentioned in either the Scottish or English chronicles of the clash.
But boy, the awesome dramatic scene where Gibson-Wallace is crushed after discovering the man he admires has betrayed him… speechless.
#4 William Wallace’s child
Let’s destroy another Braveheart myth, shall we? William Wallace didn’t bed the French wife of the Prince of Wales, Isabella. And he certainly didn’t leave her pregnant with the future Edward III. Isabella was born in 1295, making her only TWO years old during the events of the film. Sadly, William Wallace didn’t get his revenge against Edward by shagging his daughter-in-law, and placing Wallace Jr. on the English throne. But I reckon Hollywood couldn’t have thought of a nastier revenge.
#5 William Wallace’s death
Not much is known of William Wallace after he resigned his guardianship in 1298, but some letters exchanged between Philip IV of France and the Pope, hint that he might had been abroad, trying to enlist the support of the French and the Roman Church.
William probably returned to Scotland in 1304, renviving his vow to bother Edward like a fly does to a horse. In fact, the rest of the Scottish nobility had laid down arms and surrendered. But William refused to hand himself over and, unyieldingly, kept skirmishing against the English as a fugitive.
On the 5th of August 1305 he was captured and handed to Edward by the knight, John de Menteith, NOT Robert the Bruce’s father, the nasty old leper in Braveheart. Wallace was mailed to London, where he was tried for treason. To which he replied, ‘I can’t be a traitor to Edward, for I’ve never been his subject’.
On 23rd August, he was stripped naked and dragged through the streets to Smithfield. There, he was strangled, and while still alive, was disembowelled and castrated. Finally, William’s head was cut off, along with his limbs, and each one was sent to Newcastle, Perth, Stirling and Berwick. The head was put on top of a spike on London Bridge, as a warning to future rebels.
Message received! Said Robert the Bruce a year later, when he began the campaign that would liberate Scotland, and place a crown on his head.
#6 William Wallace’s sword
The fearsome painted faces, the anachronistic kilts, and a giant sword. A fear-inspiring warrior, was Wallace in Braveheart. In such movies, the bigger the weapon, the more virile the character. But did William use such a colossal blade?
It is suspected that the Wallace clan were actually prouder of their archery skills. A bow and arrow are depicted in William’s seal, in 1297, when he wrote a letter to the German city of Lübeck, as the Guardian of Scotland, to encourage trade.
Swords though, were the choice weapon of nobles, and one can’t rule out that William probably carried one in battle. In fact, the Wallace Monument, inaugurated in 1869, displays a 163 cm sword, which allegedly belonged to Wallace.
It has been discovered that the Wallace Sword is made of different metals from different weapons, the oldest dating from the 13th century. No record prior to the 16th century mention the Wallace Sword. Until 1505, when King James IV of Scotland paid to provide the sword with a new hilt, plummet, and scabbard.
Is it possible then, that the 13th century metal belonged to the original Wallace sword, and was later used to patch up a modern relic? Possibly. There’s no way of telling. Don’t blame the blacksmith responsible for it though. After all, haven’t you copied and pasted from other works for your university papers? The sword was heroic recycling.
#7 The modern symbol of freedom
In 1327, Robert the Bruce achieved Wallace’s dream, of a free, sovereign Scotland, 22 years after the legendary champion of independence had been executed. In 1304, William had been declared an outlaw, by the Scottish Parliament in Saint Andrews. But today, his name is evoked in defiance of tyranny, ringing with prideful patriotism in the fight to preserve human and political rights, against absolutism and abuse.
We’ll never know the whole story of the man behind the legend, and you can bet it won’t be as half as thrilling as Braveheart. But one thing is clear, whoever William truly was, he seems to have been a man who fought and died for the cause he believed.
Guys like Wallace might not have what it takes to become successful rulers like Robert the Bruce. But humankind, for many centuries and those yet to come, has looked and will again look up to role models. Like the real William, a man of flesh and bones? No, rather like William Wallace, a symbol of hope and freedom.