The movie ‘Braveheart’ was a blockbuster hit and is based on the life and death of legendary Scottish hero William Wallace as he fought for independence. You already know that the Hollywood version of events was quite different to the reality; even Mel Gibson referred to it as ‘historical fantasy.’ What you may not be aware of is the genuinely grisly nature of Wallace’s death which was far more graphic and horrifying than depicted on screen. He may have lived by the sword, but he died by a variety of other means.
Early Life & Victories
William Wallace was born in the county of Renfrewshire, Scotland in 1270. By the time he had reached his teens, Scotland was in the midst of a political crisis as King Alexander III died suddenly on March 19, 1286, after falling from a horse. His granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway, was his heir but as she was a child, a government of guardians was set up to rule. When she died from an illness in 1290, there was a power vacuum, and several families laid claim to the throne.
While John Balliol became king in 1292, he was a weak ruler and was forced to abdicate by King Edward I of England in July 1296, three months after the English defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar. It was the beginning of the First War of Scottish Independence which lasted until the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328.
Little is known about Wallace’s early years, but it is likely that he had a reasonable level of military experience by his mid-twenties. Given the skill he displayed in the campaigns of 1297, it is improbable that he was a novice. According to a 15th-century chronicler, Walter Bower, Wallace was a giant of a man while another author of the late 15th century, Blind Harry, suggested that Wallace was seven feet tall.
The first known military action completed by Wallace was the assassination of the English High Sheriff of Lanark, William de Heselrig in 1297. It was the start of several Scottish uprisings, and on September 11, Wallace won one of his finest victories at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Along with Andrew Moray, Wallace took the role of Guardian of Scotland, a title he held alone later that year when Moray died, and Wallace was knighted late in the year. He resigned the role of guardian in favor of Robert the Bruce in 1298 after defeat at the Battle of Falkirk.
Wallace spent some time in France, apparently to ask its king for assistance against the English. He returned to Scotland in 1304 and was involved in a couple of minor skirmishes at Happrew and Earnside. By this stage, Wallace was one of a handful of major Scottish figures who refused to pay homage to Edward as the nation was under English submission. The irate English monarch needed to make an example of someone to solidify his grip on Scotland and as Wallace refused to accept defeat; he became the focus of Edward’s rage.