Today, 23rd August is the anniversary of the execution of William Wallace in 1305.
Wallace was born about 1270 possibly in Renfrewshire or Ayrshire into minor landholding nobility.
After the death of Alexander III in 1284 Scotland entered an interregnum which led to the Great Cause in which John Balliol was chosen as king of Scotland by Edward I in 1292.
Balliol’s eventual refusal to pay homage to Edward provoked Edward’s invasion of Scotland starting with his infamous attack of Berwick in 1296. Like so many things in the film “Braveheart” Scotland had not been subjugated to English rule for generations.
Another unanswered question posed by the film is, “How did Wallace go from farm boy to military leader so seamlessly?” Some historians, such as Andrew Fisher, believe Wallace must have had some earlier military experience in order to lead a successful military campaign in 1297. Campaigns like Edward I’s wars in Wales in the 1270s might have provided a good opportunity for a younger son of a landholder to become a mercenary soldier.
Wallace’s personal seal bears the archer’s insignia. If Wallace was indeed an archer, he must have been a professional, worth paying a reasonable sum of money for military services. This would tally with descriptions of him. Walter Bower, the author of the 1440 “Scotichronicon” states that Wallace was “a tall man with the body of a giant … with lengthy flanks … broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs … with all his limbs very strong and firm”.
The first act definitely known to have been carried out by Wallace was his assassination of William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297.
He then joined forces with Moray who had been leading rebellions in the north of the country and the combined, though still small force, routed the English at Stirling Bridge in September 1297.
Shortly after Stirling, the English abandoned Berwick-uponTweed—the defences commenced by Edward were still rudimentary—and the Scots led by Haliburton walked in. Wallace had been raiding Northumberland around Hexham and came to Berwick later. Berwick Castle was retained by the English. By spring the following year the Scots abandoned the town and an English force entered the town unopposed.
One of the English Knights present at Stirling Bridge and the later Battle of Falkirk was John de Segrave. He was later appointed Keeper of Berwick Castle in 1302 and then Guardian of Scotland. Falkirk was an important and much needed win for the English and though not decisive in itself marked the beginning of the end for Wallace.
After the successful siege of Stirling Castle, Segrave’s mission was to quell any further insurrection and capture Wallace. Wallace was betrayed to the English on 5th August by John de Monteith near Glasgow. Segrave was in charge of the custody and trial of the rebel Scot. They arrived to Westminster Hall in London on 22nd August.
The next day, Wallace was tried for “treason and for atrocities against civilians in war” (which was ironic to say the least considering what the English had done at Berwick and elsewhere). He was crowned with a garland of oak to signify he was “king of outlaws”. His defence was, “I could not be a traitor to Edward for I was never his subject.” Edward may have seen that differently as he had insisted on being made Lord Paramount of Scotland at the outset of the Great Cause back in 1292.
Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered. (Readers of a delicate disposition move on to the next paragraph!) This is one bit the film does quite well. Before a baying crowd no doubt, he was stripped naked and dragged through the streets to Smithfield. There he would have strangled by hanging within an inch of his life and cut down. He would then be drawn, i.e. his guts ripped out and burnt before him. It is possible he would still be conscious. He was then beheaded and body butchered into four quarters.
The head was tarred (to make it last longer—nice) on London Bridge. John de Segrave was then responsible for transporting the mutilated body parts north. These were displayed in prominent places in Newcastle, Stirling, Perth and Berwick to show anyone harbouring similar ideas of rebellion what mint be in store.
It is supposed to be the left upper quarter that came to Berwick. In truth no-one knows where it was displayed. It was probably the bridge, market place near the Town Hall or one of the two gates leading to Scotland.
One place it wasn’t is Wallace Green! That name is merely a corruption of Walls Green possibly through misspelling and romantic notions. The Walls Green was just an area of open land much larger than that of today. It originally stretched from the Lions House area in the east of the town (the New Fort is recorded a being built in the Wallis Green in the 1550s) up to the area known as the Greenses (which is why its called that).
P.S. Similarly, on the north stretch of the walls between the Bell Tower and Lord’s Mount was the Wallace Gate. This guarded the road to Edinburgh. But the original spellings are various—Walaysgate, Waleisyate, Waleyseyate. Walaisgate , etc. This may mean the “Walls Gate" (but why that one?) or the idea that it leads to a foreign place, Wylisc, pronounced “wullish” is an Old English word meaning foreigner. Hence, later, “Welsh” and “Wallace”.