The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Author: Walter Scott  | Date: A.D. 1297-1305

Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the "Hero of Scotland"

A.D. 1297-1305


When the granddaughter and sole heiress of King Alexander III of Scotland was betrothed, in her sixth year, 1288, to the son of Edward I of England, an early union of the English and Scottish Crowns seemed assured. But the death of the little princess, two years later, left the throne of Scotland vacant, and was followed by the rise of thirteen claimants, three of whom were entitled to serious regard—John de Baliol, Lord of Galloway; Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale; and John Hastings, Lord of Abergavenny, all descended from David, brother of William the Lion, King of Scotland, 1165-1214.

Edward I of England at once assumed all the rights of a feudal suzerain until the disputed claims should be settled. Finally the claim of Baliol was recognized, he did homage to Edward for his services to the realm of Scotland, and for a time peace prevailed. But when Edward called upon the Scottish nobles to serve in his foreign wars, and made other demands implying the dependence of Scotland, the resentment of Baliol’s subjects forced him into an attitude of war. In 1295 he made an alliance against Edward with Philip the Fair of France. In 1296 Edward invaded Scotland, took Berwick and slaughtered eight thousand of its citizens; defeated the Scots at Dunbar; occupied Edinburgh, Stirling, and Perth; compelled Baliol to surrender, and sent him to the Tower of London. Edward then made Scotland a dependency of his crown.

This submission was not the act of the people, but of their leaders. The Scots assembled in troops and companies, and betaking themselves to the woods, mountains, and morasses, prepared for a general insurrection against the English power."

They found their leader in the outlawed knight, William Wallace. Wallace was born about 1274. Popular tradition, which "delights to dwell upon the beloved champion of the people," has invested him with many striking qualities, ascribing to him a gigantic stature and enormous strength, as well as extraordinary courage. Little, if anything, is really known of his personality and private life; while all that belongs to history concerning him is told by his celebrated and admiring fellow-countryman, Sir Walter Scott, in the following narrative.

Wallace is believed to have been proclaimed an outlaw for the slaughter of an Englishman in a casual fray. He retreated to the woods, collected around him a band of men as desperate as himself, and obtained several successes in skirmishes with the English. Joined by Sir William Douglas, who had been taken at the siege of Berwick, but had been discharged upon ransom, the insurgents compelled Edward to send an army against them, under the Earl of Surrey, the victor of Dunbar. Several of the nobility, moved by Douglas’ example, had joined Wallace’s standard, but overawed at the approach of the English army, and displeased to act under a man, like Wallace, of comparatively obscure birth, they capitulated with Sir Henry Percy, the nephew of Surrey, and in one word changed sides.

Wallace kept the field at the head of a considerable army, partly consisting of his own experienced followers, partly of the smaller barons or crown tenants, and partly of vassals even of the apostate lords, and volunteers of every condition. By the exertion of much conduct and resolution, Wallace had made himself master of the country beyond Forth, and taken several castles, when he was summoned to Stirling to oppose Surrey, the English Governor of Scotland. Wallace encamped on the northern side of the river, leaving Stirling bridge apparently open to the English, but resolving, as it was long and narrow, to attack them while in the act of crossing. The Earl of Surrey led fifty thousand infantry and a thousand men-at-arms. Part of his soldiers, however, were the Scottish barons who had formerly joined Wallace’s standard, and who, notwithstanding their return to that of Surrey, were scarcely to be trusted.

The English treasurer, Cressingham, murmured at the expense attending the war, and, to bring it to a crisis, proposed to commence an attack the next morning by crossing the river. Surrey, an experienced warrior, hesitated to engage his troops in the defile of a wooden bridge, where scarce two horsemen could ride abreast; but, urged by the imprudent vehemence of Cressingham, he advanced, contrary to common-sense as well as to his own judgment. The vanguard of the English was attacked before they could get into order; the bridge was broken down, and thousands perished in the river and by the sword. Cressingham was slain, and Surrey fled to Berwick to recount to Edward that Scotland was lost at Stirling in as short a time as it had been won at Dunbar. In a brief period after this victory, almost all the fortresses of the kingdom surrendered to Wallace.

Increasing his forces, Wallace, that he might gratify them with plunder, led them across the English border, and sweeping it lengthwise from Newcastle to the gates of Carlisle, left nothing behind him but blood and ashes. The nature of Wallace was fierce, but not inaccessible to pity or remorse. As his unruly soldiers pillaged the church of Hexham, he took the canons under his immediate protection. "Abide with me," he said, "holy men, for my people are evil-doers, and I may not correct them." When he returned from this successful foray, an assembly of the states was held at the Forest Church in Selkirkshire, where Wallace was chosen guardian of the kingdom of Scotland. The meeting was attended by Lennox, Sir William Douglas, and some few men of rank: others were absent from fear of King Edward, or from jealousy of an inferior person, like Wallace, raised to so high a station.

Conscious of the interest which he had deservedly maintained in the breast of the universal people of Scotland, Wallace pursued his judicious plans of enforcing general levies through the kingdom and bringing them under discipline. It was full time, for Edward was moving against them. The English monarch was absent in Flanders when these events took place, and, what was still more inconvenient, before he could gain supplies from his parliament to suppress the Scottish revolt, Edward found himself obliged to confirm Magna Charta, the charter of the forest, and other stipulations in favor of the people; the English being prudent, though somewhat selfishly disposed to secure their own freedom before they would lend their swords to destroy that of their neighbors.

Complying with these demands, Edward, on his return from the Low Countries, found himself at the head of a gallant muster of all the English chivalry, forming by far the most superb army that had ever entered Scotland. Wallace acted with great sagacity, and, according to a plan which often before and after proved successful in Scottish warfare, laid waste the intermediate country between Stirling and the frontiers, and withdrew toward the centre of the kingdom to receive the English attack, when their army should be exhausted by privation.

Edward pressed on, with characteristic hardihood and resolution. Tower and town fell before him; but his advance was not without such inconvenience and danger as a less determined monarch would have esteemed a good apology for retreat. His army suffered from want of provisions, which were at length supplied in small quantities by some of his ships. As the English King lay at Kirkliston, in West Lothian, a tumult broke out between the Welsh and English in his army, which, after costing some blood, was quelled with difficulty. While Edward hesitated whether to advance or retreat, he learned, through the treachery of two apostate Scottish nobles, the earls of Dunbar and Angus, that Wallace, with the Scottish army, had approached so near as Falkirk.

This advance was doubtless made with the purpose of annoying the expected retreat of the English. Edward, thus apprised that the Scots were in his vicinity, determined to compel them to action. He broke up his camp, and, advancing with caution, slept the next night in the fields along with the soldiers. But the casualties of the campaign were not yet exhausted. His war-horse, which was picketed beside him, like that of an ordinary man-at-arms, struck the King with his foot and hurt him in the side. A tumult arose in the camp, but Edward, regardless of pain, appeased it by mounting his horse, riding through the cantonments, and showing the soldiers that he was in safety.

Next morning, July 22, 1298, the armies met. The Scottish infantry were drawn up on a moor, with a morass in front. They were divided into four phalanxes or dense masses, with lances lowered obliquely over each other, and seeming, says an English historian, like a castle walled with steel. These spearmen were the flower of the army, in whom Wallace chiefly confided. He commanded them in person, and used the brief exhortation, "I have brought you to the ring; dance as you best can."

The Scottish archers, under the command of Sir John Stewart, brother of the Steward of Scotland, were drawn up in the intervals between the masses of infantry. They were chiefly brought from the wooded district of Selkirk. We hear of no Highland bowmen among them. The cavalry, which amounted to only one thousand men-at-arms, held the rear.

The English cavalry began the action. The Marshal of England led half of the men-at-arms straight upon the Scottish front, but in doing so involved them in the morass. The Bishop of Durham, who commanded the other division of the English cavalry, was wheeling round the morass on the east, and, perceiving this misfortune, became disposed to wait for support. "To mass, Bishop!" said Ralph Basset of Drayton, and charged with the whole body. The Scottish men-at-arms went off without couching their lances; but the infantry stood their ground firmly. In the turmoil that followed, Sir John Stewart fell from his horse and was slain among the archers of Ettrick, who died in defending or avenging him.

The close bodies of Scottish spearmen, now exposed without means of defence or retaliation, were shaken by the constant showers of arrows; and the English men-at-arms finally charging them desperately while they were in disorder, broke and dispersed these formidable masses. The Scots were then completely routed, and it was only the neighboring woods which saved a remnant from the sword. The body of Stewart was found among those of his faithful archers, who were distinguished by their stature and fair complexions from all others with which the field was loaded. Macduff and Sir John the Grahame, "the hardy wight and wise," still fondly remembered as the bosom friend of Sir William Wallace, were slain in the same disastrous action.

Popular report states this battle to have been lost by treachery; and the communication between the earls of Dunbar and Angus and King Edward, as well as the disgraceful flight of the Scottish cavalry without a single blow, corroborates the suspicion. But the great superiority of the English in archery may account for the loss of this as of many another battle on the part of the Scots. The bowmen of Ettrick Forest were faithful; but they could only be few. So nearly had Wallace’s scheme for the campaign been successful, that Edward, even after having gained this great battle, returned to England, and deferred reaping the harvest of his conquest till the following season. If he had not been able to bring the Scottish army to action, his retreat must have been made with discredit and loss, and Scotland must have been left in the power of the patriots.

The slaughter and disgrace of the battle of Falkirk might have been repaired in other respects, but it cost the Scottish kingdom an irredeemable loss in the public services of Wallace. He resigned the guardianship of the kingdom, unable to discharge its duties, amid the calumnies with which faction and envy aggravated his defeat. The Bishop of St. Andrew’s, Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and Sir John Comyn were chosen guardians of Scotland, which they administered in the name of Baliol. In the mean time that unfortunate Prince was, in compassion or scorn, delivered up to the Pope by Edward, and a receipt was gravely taken for his person from the nuncio then in France. This led to the entrance of a new competitor for the Scottish kingdom.

The Pontiff of Rome had been long endeavoring to establish a claim, to whatsoever should be therein found, to which a distinct and specific right of property could not be ascertained. The Pontiff’s claim to the custody of the dethroned King being readily admitted, Boniface VIII was encouraged to publish a bull claiming Scotland as a dependency on the see of Rome because the country had been converted to Christianity by the relics of St. Andrew.

The Pope, in the same document, took the claim of Edward to the Scottish crown under his own discussion, and authoritatively commanded Edward I to send proctors to Rome to plead his cause before his holiness. This magisterial requisition was presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the King, in the presence of the council and court, the prelate at the same time warning the sovereign to yield unreserved obedience, since Jerusalem would not fail to protect her citizens, and Mount Zion her worshippers. "Neither for Zion nor Jerusalem," said Edward, in towering wrath, "will I depart from my just rights while there is breath in my nostrils."

Accordingly he caused the Pope’s bull to be laid before the Parliament of England, who unanimously resolved "that in temporals the King of England was independent of Rome, and that they would not permit his sovereignty to be questioned." Their declaration concludes with these remarkable words: "We neither do, will, nor can permit our sovereign to do anything to the detriment of the constitution, which we are both sworn to and are determined to maintain "—a spirited assertion of national right, had it not been in so bad a cause as that of Edward’s claim of usurpation over Scotland.

Meantime the war languished during this strange discussion, from which the Pope was soon obliged to retreat. There was an inefficient campaign in 1299 and 1300. In 1301 there was a truce, in which Scotland as well as France was included. After the expiry of this breathing space, Edward I, in the spring of 1302, sent an army into Scotland of twenty thousand men, under Sir John Seward, a renowned general. He marched toward Edinburgh in three divisions, leaving large intervals between each.

While in this careless order, Seward’s vanguard found themselves suddenly within reach of a small but chosen body of troops, amounting to eight thousand men, commanded by Sir John Comyn, the guardian, and a gallant Scottish knight, Sir Simon Fraser. Seward was defeated, but the battle was scarce over when his second division came up. The Scots, flushed with victory, reestablished their ranks, and having cruelly put to death their prisoners, attacked and defeated the second body also. The third division came up in the same manner. Again it became necessary to kill the captives, and to prepare for a third encounter. The Scottish leaders did so without hesitation, and their followers, having thrown themselves furiously on the enemy, discomfited that division likewise, and gained—as their historians boast—three battles in one day.

But the period seemed to be approaching in which neither courage nor exertion could longer avail the unfortunate people of Scotland. A peace with France, in which Philip the Fair totally omitted all stipulations in favor of his allies, left the kingdom to its own inadequate means of resistance, while Edward directed his whole force against it. The castle of Brechin, under the gallant Sir Thomas Maule, made an obstinate resistance. He was mortally wounded and died in an exclamation of rage against the soldiers, who asked if they might not then surrender the castle. Edward wintered at Dunfermline, and began the next campaign with the siege of Stirling, the only fortress in the kingdom that still held out. But the courage of the guardians altogether gave way; they set the example of submission, and such of them as had been most obstinate in what the English King called rebellion, were punished by various degrees of fine and banishment.

With respect to Sir William Wallace, it was agreed that he might have the choice of surrendering himself unconditionally to the King’s pleasure, provided he thought proper to do so; a stipulation which, as it signified nothing in favor of the person for whom it was apparently conceived, must be imputed as a pretext on the part of the Scottish nobles to save themselves from the disgrace of having left Wallace altogether unthought of. Some attempts were made to ascertain what sort of accommodation Edward was likely to enter into with the bravest and most constant of his enemies; but the demands of Wallace were large, and the generosity of Edward very small. The English King broke off the treaty, and put a price of three hundred marks on the head of the patriot.

Meantime Stirling castle continued to be defended by a slender garrison, and, deprived of all hopes of relief, continued to make a desperate defence, under its brave governor, Sir William Olifaunt, until famine and despair compelled him to an unconditional surrender, when the King imposed the harshest terms on this handful of brave men.

But what Edward prized more than the surrender of the last fortress which resisted his arms in Scotland was the captivity of her last patriot. He had found in a Scottish nobleman, Sir John Monteith, a person willing to become his agent in searching for Wallace among the wilds where he was driven to find refuge. Wallace was finally betrayed to the English by his unworthy and apostate countryman, who obtained an opportunity of seizing him at Robroyston, near Glasgow, by the treachery of a servant.

Sir William Wallace was instantly transferred to London, where he was brought to trial in Westminster Hall, with as much apparatus of infamy as the ingenuity of his enemies could devise. He was crowned with a garland of oak, to intimate that he had been king of outlaws. The arraignment charged him with high treason, in respect that he had stormed and taken towns and castles, and shed much blood. "Traitor," said Wallace, "was I never." The rest of the charges he confessed and proceeded to justify them. He was condemned, and executed by decapitation, 1305. His head was placed on a pinnacle on London bridge, and his quarters were distributed over the kingdom.

Thus died this courageous patriot, leaving a remembrance which will be immortal in the hearts of his countrymen. This steady champion of independence having been removed, and a bloody example held out to all who should venture to tread in his footsteps, Edward proceeded to form a species of constitution for the country, which, at the cost of so much labor, policy, and bloodshed, he had at length, as he conceived, united forever with the English crown.

Ten commissioners chosen for Scotland and twenty for England composed a set of regulations for the administration of justice, and enactments were agreed upon by which the feudal law, which had been long introduced into Scotland, was strengthened and extended, while the remains of the ancient municipal customs of the original Celtic tribes, or the consuetudinary laws of the Scots and Bretts—the Scotto-Irish and British races—were finally abrogated. This was for the purpose of promoting a uniformity of laws through the islands. Sheriffs and other officers were appointed for the administration of justice. There were provisions also made for a general revision of the ancient laws and statutes of Scotland.


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Chicago: Walter Scott, "Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the Hero of Scotland," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed March 19, 2019,

MLA: Scott, Walter. "Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the "Hero of Scotland"." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 19 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Scott, W, 'Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the "Hero of Scotland"' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 19 March 2019, from