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William Wallace, Scottish Hero

In May the commune of Scotland, whatever the term may here meant, had chosen Wallace as their leader; probably this younger son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, in Renfrewshire, had already been distinguished for his success in skirmishes against the English, as well as for strength and courage. The popular account of his early adventures given in the poem by Blind Harry (1490?) is of no historical value. His men destroyed the English at Lanark (May 1297); he was abetted by Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, and the Steward; but by July 7, Percy and Clifford, leading the English army, admitted the Steward, Robert Bruce, the future king, and Wishart to the English peace at Irvine in Ayrshire. But the North was up under Sir Andrew Murray, and “that thief Wallace” (to quote an English contemporary) left the siege of Dundee Castle which he was conducting to face Warenne on the north bank of the Forth. On September 11, the English, under Warenne, manœuvred vaguely at Stirling Bridge, and were caught on the flank by Wallace’s army before they could deploy on the northern side of the river. They were cut to pieces, Cressingham was slain, and Warenne galloped to Berwick, while the Scots harried Northumberland with great ferocity, which Wallace seems to have been willing but not often able to control. By the end of March 1298 he appears with Andrew Murray as Guardian of the Kingdom for the exiled Balliol. This attitude must have aroused the jealousy of the nobles, and especially of Robert Bruce, who aimed at securing the crown, and who, after several changes of side, by June 1298 was busy in Edward’s service in Galloway.

Edward then crossed the Border with a great army of perhaps 40,000 men, met the spearmen of Wallace in their serried phalanxes at Falkirk, broke the “schiltrom” or clump of spears by the arrows of his archers; slaughtered the archers of Ettrick Forest; scattered the mounted nobles, and avenged the rout of Stirling (July 22, 1298). The country remained unsubdued, but its leaders were at odds among themselves, and Wallace had retired to France, probably to ask for aid; he may also conceivably have visited Rome. The Bishop of St Andrews, Lamberton, with Bruce and the Red Comyn, deadly rivals, were Guardians of the Kingdom in 1299. But in June 1300, Edward, undeterred by remonstrances from the Pope, entered Scotland; an armistice, however, was accorded to the Holy Father, and the war, in which the Scots scored a victory at Roslin in February 1293, dragged on from summer to summer till July 1304. In these years Bruce alternately served Edward and conspired against him; the intricacies of his perfidy are deplorable.

Bruce served Edward during the siege of Stirling, then the central key of the country. On its surrender Edward admitted all men to his peace, on condition of oaths of fealty, except “Messire Williame le Waleys.” Men of the noblest Scottish names stooped to pursue the hero: he was taken near Glasgow, and handed over to Sir John Menteith, a Stewart, and son of the Earl of Menteith. As Sheriff of Dumbartonshire, Menteith had no choice but to send the hero in bonds to England. But, if Menteith desired to escape the disgrace with which tradition brands his name, he ought to have refused the English blood-price for the capture of Wallace. He made no such refusal. As an outlaw, Wallace was hanged at London; his limbs, like those of the great Montrose, were impaled on the gates of various towns.

What we really know about the chief popular hero of his country, from documents and chronicles, is fragmentary; and it is hard to find anything trustworthy in Blind Harry’s rhyming “Wallace” (1490), plagiarised as it is from Barbour’s earlier poem (1370) on Bruce. But Wallace was truly brave, disinterested, and indomitable. Alone among the leaders he never turned his coat, never swore and broke oaths to Edward. He arises from obscurity, like Jeanne d’Arc; like her, he is greatly victorious; like her, he awakens a whole people; like her, he is deserted, and is unlawfully put to death; while his limbs, like her ashes, are scattered by the English. The ravens had not pyked his bones bare before the Scots were up again for freedom.

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