Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days

Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days

Patrick Lynch - November 18, 2017

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.

Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days
Mel Gibson as Wallace in Braveheart – Celtic News Now

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.

Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days
William Wallace – Daily Express

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.

Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days
Patrick McGoohan as Edward I in Braveheart – YouTube

Betrayal & Capture

Although Robert the Bruce had officially surrendered, he was biding his time and waiting for the death of the elderly Edward before launching a new rebellion. Meanwhile, the net was closing in on Wallace who bravely remained in Scotland and evaded the enemy for as long as he could. He was an outlaw which meant that anyone who discovered him was allowed to kill him on the spot.

In 1305, Wallace apparently sent one of his men on a journey to deliver a letter to Bruce. It urged Bruce to return and assume leadership of the country and assured him that the nobility and clergy would not stand in his way. Bruce was pleased to receive the letter and told Wallace to meet him near Glasgow at the end of June. Unbeknownst to Wallace, a Scot named Sir John Menteith betrayed him and received the sheriffdom of Dumbarton as a reward.

One story suggests that a servant named Jack Short betrayed Wallace and collected the reward. Edward apparently offered 40 merks (£30) to any servant who spied him out and 60 merks (£45) to those who were there when Wallace was captured; this money was to be shared amongst them. The reasons for Menteith’s treachery are unknown although he may have been angered by the death of his uncle at the Battle of Falkirk and held Wallace responsible.

Whatever the reason, Wallace was captured at Robroyston near Glasgow on August 3, 1305. He was handed over to Sir Robert de Clifford and Sir Aymer de Valence and taken to Carlisle Castle. Rather than executing him immediately, Edward wanted to transport the prisoner to London to show other would-be rebels what happened to those who defied the crown. He was forced to travel another 300 miles to London where a terrible fate awaited him.

Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days
Statue of Robert the Bruce – Ancient Pages

Execution Part I

There was a show trial in London, but in reality, there was zero chance that Wallace would escape with his life. While his death scene in Braveheart is excruciatingly painful, it was a mild demise compared to what really happened. After the inevitable guilty verdict on August 23, 1305, he was sentenced to die in one of the worst ways imaginable. Wallace was about to be hung, drawn, and quartered.

The English apparently took him from Westminster Hall and stripped him naked. Then they tied him to a hurdle and horses dragged him around six miles to Smoothfield where the pain began. During the journey, bystanders threw excrement and other assorted pieces of garbage at the unfortunate Scot, and he was also beaten with sticks and whipped by the angry mob.

In Braveheart, Wallace endures the painful trip to the gallows but he is clothed, and while the crowd throws items at him, he is not struck by excrement. He received the ‘drawn’ punishment for committing treason, but there was much worse to come.

Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days
Statue of William Wallace – The Philosophers Mail

Execution Part II

Wallace had also been found guilty of robbery and murder, and the sentence for these crimes was hanging. Alas, the rebel didn’t get off so easily so while he was half-strangled by the rope, he wasn’t allowed to die. In Braveheart, we see knives on the table, but we don’t see what happened below Wallace’s waist. In reality, his executioner ‘emasculated’ him; this means Wallace’s testicles and penis were cut off. Next, the prisoner’s intestines were removed and burned in front of him.

If Wallace weren’t already dead at this point, the next step would have finished him off. The executioner ripped the Scot’s heart out of his chest; there were instances when a criminal’s heart was still beating when the executioner displayed it to the crowd and declared it to be the heart of a traitor. We don’t know if Wallace’s heart was still beating when it was taken out of his body. The final brutal step involved chopping Wallace’s head off with an ax.

After the execution, his body was divided into four pieces and displayed in areas around the country as a showcase of Edward’s power. For example, Wallace’s head was stuck on a pike on London Bridge. The heads of John and Simon Fraser joined that of Wallace on the Bridge later on. Wallace’s limbs were sent separately to Berwick, Stirling, Perth, and Newcastle. The English King died two years later, and Robert the Bruce led his people to glory with a notable victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. 14 years later, Scotland had its independence, so William Wallace’s sacrifice was not in vain.

Excruciating Death of Braveheart Execution Revealed in Account of William Wallace’s Final Days
The William Wallace Sword – Awesome Stories

An Intriguing Theory

It is often assumed that William Wallace died such a cruel death because of his continued resistance to King Edward I. However, new research suggests that he was targeted because Edward believed Wallace wanted the Scottish Crown. In 2011, historians from Glasgow University found evidence that suggests the English thought Wallace was trying to become the King of Scotland.

According to Edward’s Exchequer (also known as the Pipe Roll) for 1304/05, Wallace was “a robber, a public traitor, an outlaw, an enemy and rebel of the king, who throughout Scotland had falsely sought to call himself King of Scotland.” Normally, the Pipe Roll was a dull affair, but for that particular year, the English civil servants took note of the expenses incurred in the execution of Wallace and the cost of sending the different parts of his body around Scotland.

It is probable that the English misunderstood the role of ‘guardian’ that Wallace had assumed on behalf of John Balliol. There are few documents in Wallace’s name, but in the ones that have been discovered, it is clear Wallace was always careful to write that he was acting on behalf of Balliol. Incidentally, the records also show that Edward’s Lieutenant in Scotland, John of Seagrave, received 15 shillings to bring the body back to Scotland as a means of deterring other potential rebels.


Sources For Further Reading:

The Scotsman – William Wallace Myths Busted

BBC Bitesize – William Wallace And Scottish Resistance

Historic UK – William Wallace and Robert The Bruce

The Guardian – The Rise And Reign Of Robert The Bruce

The Scotsman – William Wallace’s Peace Deal With England To Be Marked

History Today – The Hunt for William Wallace

The Glasgow Times – Where William Wallace Was Betrayed

About History – The 10 Gruesome Steps of the William Wallace Death

World History Project – Sir William Wallace is Executed for High Treason

The Londonist – What Does The Spike On London Bridge Represent?

Ranker – The Brutal Story Of William Wallace’s Execution That ‘Braveheart’ Wouldn’t Show You

History Collection – Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time