His reign is often described as a “Golden Age” for the Scots, an age of relative peace and prosperity confirming the emergence of Scotland as a European kingdom of some rank. In 1268 King Alexander III was accidentally killed. Scotland was left without an obvious ruler.
Thirteen "competitors" claimed the Scottish throne, and there was a strong chance of rival claimants starting a civil war. To avoid a civil war, the Scots invited Edward I of England, who was probably the greatest lawyer of his time, to hold a court case. Edward then surprised the Scots by claiming he was overlord of Scotland and tried to make the kingdom for himself. The Scots reluctantly agreed, when Edward's army joined him. Bruce and Balliol, the main claimants, were both descended from the same man, David of Huntingdon. Edward chose Balliol and made him king.
This was not a war between kings supported by their nobles, because the whole Scottish community became directly involved in the struggle. During his revolt against King Edward I in 1295, John Balliol was supported by the French. Since 1168 Scotland an France had a treaty known as the Auld Alliance. The agreement was that if England attacked either France or Scotland the other country would invade English territory. When King John Balliol was captured and imprisoned by Edward I, a series of popular rebellions destroyed his control over Scotland. William Wallace, who would normally have been too unimportant to appear in history books, became their leader.
For the Scots, William Wallace was an exemplar of unbending commitment to Scotland’s independence who died a martyr to the cause.
is the truth I tell you:
of all things freedom’s most fine.
Never submit to live, my son,
in the bonds of slavery entwined.’
William Wallace - His uncle’s proverb,
from Bower’s Scotichronicon c.1440’s
For the English chroniclers he was an outlaw, a murderer, the perpetrator of atrocities and a traitor.
Wallace was the younger son of a Scottish knight and minor landowner. His name, Wallace or le Waleis, means the Welshman, and he was probably descended from Richard Wallace who had followed the Stewart family to Scotland in the 12th century. Little is known of Wallace’s life before 1297. He was certainly educated, possibly by his uncle - a priest at Dunipace - who taught him French and Latin. It’s also possible, given his later military exploits, that he had some previous military experience.
William Wallace became a Scottish hero when he led the Scots against Edward of England's attempts to take over their kingdom in the 1290s. As his fame spread, more and more men joined his forces. In the spring of 1297 the whole of Scotland was in a state of armed insurrection. Complete garrisons of English troops were massacred by troops loyal to what was described as a giant of a man named William Wallace. He was a Gaelic-speaking man of low status and called by some an outlaw or bandit, it may have been that Wallace was being used by more powerful Scots aristocrats as a cover for their rebellion so they should not be seen to break their feudal vows of homage to Edward. Harassed by English tax collectors and hiding in the forests of Selkirk, Wallace gathered around him a band of rogue and common warriors.
According to the legend, one evening he made a dash to see his wife or lover. Surprised by an English patrol, he retreated into his woman's house and disappeared out the back door. Frustrated by his continual escape, the Englishmen set fire to the house and slaughtered Wallace's lover/wife and family inside. The tall, angry Scotsman vowed vengeance. He had little time to wait. He and his retainers caught up with the guilty English patrol that night and cut them to pieces.
This blow against the English encouraged several Scots aristocrats to raise their banners in rebellion. Among them was Sir Andrew de Murray, who was on the other side of Scotland raising his own forces against the English much as Wallace was doing. That Murray, a minor noble, and Wallace would meet and become the best of allies was inevitable. They became fast friends and worked in unison remarkably well.
The town of Stirling was the key entry point to the north of Scotland. As the English army of heavy cavalry, Welsh archers, men-at-arms and infantry (50,000 men supposedly) marched towards Stirling castle in September 1297, Wallace got news of their impending arrival and marched rapidly to intercept them with all the men that he could muster, about 10,000 in all. On the banks of the River Forth, which was too wide to cross, the English troops came into sight of Wallace's men. Wallace positioned his men in the hills around a bridge crossing the Forth, north of Stirling. Not all the Scots felt confident about the confrontation. James Stewart approached the English warlord with an offer of peace, which was refused.
The bridge across the river Forth near Stirling was then of timber and it is described as having been so narrow that only two persons could pass along it abreast, yet the English leaders proposed to make the whole army and all their horse undergo the tedious operation of crossing it in the face of the enemy. By dawn of the 11th September the English infantry began to cross the bridge only to be recalled due to the fact that their leader, Warenne, had overslept. Again they crossed the bridge and again they were recalled, as Warenne believed the Scots might finally negotiate. Two messengers were sent to Wallace to acquire his surrender. They returned shortly afterwards with Wallace’s first recorded speech:
“Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle, defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on, and we shall prove this in their very beards.” [= through hand-to-hand combat]
In the meantime a masterly movement was executed by Sir Andrew de Murray, who by a quick detour got in between it and those who had already crossed the river, completely cutting off their retreat. Confusion ensued on the part of the English, and discipline was lost. Wallace, as soon as he saw the movement for intercepting their retreat achieved, pressed on with greater force. The half-formed columns of the English on the north bank of the river gave way, and many of the heavy-armed cavalry were driven into the river and drowned. The bridge parted and crashed into the Forth under the weight and strain of battle. This collapse was a catastrophe to the English, which decided the victory for the Scots.
The battle was a scene of barbarous slaughter. It was common for the winning force to try to ride down as many retreating enemy soldiers as possible and to put them to the sword. What we would often think of as "chivalrous" knightly warfare, was actuality, some of the most brutal and bloody hand to hand combat ever practised.
At that point the outlaw Wallace became the recognised leader of Scotland. He was made a knight and given the title, "Guardian of Scotland and Commander of its Armies on behalf of the exiled King John Balliol". Wallace spent a year reorganising Scotland and preparing for an invasion by King Edward himself and was successful for a year. It was a remarkable achievement for a mere knight to hold power over the nobles of Scotland. In a medieval world obsessed with hierarchy, Wallace’s extraordinary military success catapulted him to the top of the social ladder. He now guided Scottish policy. Letters were dispatched to Europe proclaiming Scotland’s renewed independence in order to restore trade between Scotland and Europe.
In November 1297, after the battle of Stirling Bridge, Sir Andrew de Murray, Wallace's friend and right hand military advisor died of the terrible wounds he had received at Stirling Bridge. Wallace was now the sole Guardian of Scotland; he was now alone in his fight to secure Scotland’s freedom. In the beginning of 1298 the hope and support from France ended bitterly for the Scots, with peace between Philip and Edward.
On 21 July 1298, Wallace led his army forward to meet the English. In the early dawn of the following morning scouting parties from the two opposing forces met each other near Falkirk, heralding the opening of battle. Sir William Wallace feared the greater numbers of English horsemen for good reason. To counter them, he positioned his spear-carrying foot-soldiers behind boggy land, with woodland and rough terrain guarding their flanks. The 12 foot spears of the Scots were like long pikes and they stood in crowded phalanx formations -- called schiltrons (pronounced skil-trons) -- presenting the enemy with a forest of iron points. This clever invention of defence against cavalry was Wallace's own creation. Wallace had badly misjudged the fighting condition of the English army, but he came to the field well prepared. He realised that his infantry must defeat Edward's cavalry and this had not happened for centuries. With the experience of Stirling Bridge behind him this seemed possible, although it was a rare event in medieval warfare of that period. Wallace had never before faced such an army, or fought a large battle without a natural defence. Here was no river, no narrow bridge to halt an armoured charge, and he may have sensed this was the end.
The battle was a disaster for Wallace because he had been betrayed (probably by jealous Scottish nobles) and his army was wiped out. Wallace escaped riding northward. He had to give up being a Guardian. Edward had won the battle but not the war. Though further resistance appeared pointless, Wallace never contemplated surrender and reverted to the life of bandit-cum-guerilla, enough to keep the tiny flame of defiance alive.
The struggle against Edward continued although Wallace is hardly mentioned until 1305. On 5th August he was betrayed by one of his own compatriots near Glasgow, Scots knight Sir John Menteith. William Wallace was captured and handed over to Edward. Wallace was taken to London and accused of being a traitor to King Edward. Wallace's reply was that Edward was not his king. Edward had him put to death, by being hanged, drawn and quartered. His execution, instead of frightening the Scots by its severity, encouraged more popular resistance and Wallace became an inspiring hero for them.
Robert Bruce was able to take advantage of this mood to make himself King of Scots. He was the heroic King of Scots who, despite set-backs, secured Scotland's independence from England. Bruce was distantly related to the Scottish royal family and always had ambitions to be king. He took his chance in 1306, when Edward was ailing, by arranging a secret meeting, in Greyfriars Kirk, Dumfries, with Balliol's agent in Scotland, Comyn. The meeting ended in disaster because the two men quarrelled and Bruce stabbed Comyn to death. Thus, he made enemies of King Edward, the Comyns and the Church for committing murder in a holy place.
Nevertheless, Bruce was crowned in March 1306. Shortly afterwards, he was defeated by the English and then by the Comyns. After that, Edward captured Bruce's wife and family and put some of them in cages as a punishment.
Legend says Bruce spent that winter alone, sheltering in a cave on a deserted island, watching a spider trying to spin a web. When it failed, it simply started all over again. Bruce took that as a lesson. He returned to inflict a series of minor defeats on the English which won him fame and brought him more supporters.
He then turned on the Balliols and Comyns and destroyed them because they would not accept him as king. Finally, Bruce attacked the English bases in Scotland and demolished them because he did not have troops to garrison them.
His attempts to capture Stirling Castle led to his famous victory at Bannockburn in 1314, which is the most famous Scottish victory in the Wars of Independence. The English should have won because they had more men and better equipment. They were, however, very badly led by Edward II who made a fatal mistake in his choice of battlefield. Firstly the English lost their formations, then they lost their nerve just as the Scots were tiring. The sudden intervention of Bruce's camp followers broke the English morale and they fled. Stirling Castle, which Edward II had been trying to relieve, surrendered the next day. The victory ensured Scotland's survival as an independent country with Bruce as its King.
Robert Bruce had taken the Scottish crown from John Balliol. He had taken property away from Balliol's relations, the Comyns, because they would not accept him as King. Some Anglo-Scottish nobles wanted to keep England and Scotland together to enjoy their property in each. Because of their losses, these groups are known as "the Disinherited". In 1332 they invaded Scotland from England to reclaim their property. They defeated the Scots at Dupplin and crowned Balliol's son. He depended upon Edward III of England, who treated him like a puppet before discarding him and trying to take Scotland for himself. However the struggle did not end there because Edward III invaded, conquered and controlled parts of Scotland with the support of some Scottish nobles.
King David II invaded England to support Scotland's Auld Alliance with France. His army was defeated and he was captured by the English. David spent eleven years in English prison before being released at a ransom which the Scots could not afford to pay. He and Edward III agreed that the debt would be cancelled if Edward III was named as David's heir. Although David II diligently promoted the proposal, the Scots refused to consider the idea which would have destroyed the results of fifty years of fighting. Consequently they kept on fighting till they drove out the English – the Scots wanted to be free at all costs.
The spirit of William Wallace is still alive
700 Years later, the people of Scotland, partly inspired by the depiction of Sir William Wallace in "Braveheart", voted for a renewed Scottish parliament and dedicated a new statue to Wallace. (Wallace Monument near Stirling) At the gathering on September 11, 1997, 700 years after his victory at Stirling Bridge, he was commemorated with seminars and lectures.