Freedom Fighter: William Wallace and the Fight for Scotland’s Independence

Leah Rhiannon Savage

Historical Context

In 1286 the fate of Scotland’s independence lay in the balance, as the country’s king Alexander III died leaving the country with a power vacuum as he had no direct heir to the throne. The country could have been left in the hands of his granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway, however, she was still a child and there remained a stigma in the medieval period about women not being able to rule independently. By 1290, this wasn’t even an option as Margaret, Maid of Norway died on her way to Scotland, leaving Scotland still without a successor to the throne. The power vacuum in Scotland led to rival claims on the throne from leading Scottish nobles including; John Balliol, Robert Bruce, John Comyn and ten other claimants. The rivalries between the different Scottish claimants on the throne proposed civil war in Scotland, and this resulted in King Edward I of England seizing an opportunity to gain control in Scotland himself as both a mediator and overlord. Edward took control of Scotland and made the Scottish lords pay allegiance to him. This was short-lived as the Scots became xenophobic, and wanted to regain independence of their land and not be ruled by a foreigner. The English occupation of Scotland sparked The Scottish Wars of Independence beginning in 1296. The Scots were first defeated at The Battle of Dunbar in 1296, resulting in the English seizing control of Dunbar Castle and gaining more control in Scotland than they had before. Edward I forced John Balliol to relinquish his role as de facto King in Scotland, and Edward I became the overlord of Scotland. With Edward’s new control, he forced 1,800 Scottish nobles to swear fealty to him and halting any hope of Scottish Independence.
Freedom Fighter: William Wallace and the Fight for Scotland’s Independence
William Wallace

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The Scots Fight Back

In 1297, the Scots chose to begin to fight back against the English oppression. The first documented act of defiance was believed to have been carried out by William Wallace, who killed the English High Sheriff of Lanark in May 1297. Following this act, Wallace and Hardy, Lord of Douglas led a raid on Scone. Their reason for reclaiming Scone for the Scottish fight was obvious. For centuries, the stone of Scone had been the place of anointing and crowning of Scottish Kings. The English had taken Scotland, and if it was to be reclaimed, then whoever would be the next Scottish King would need to be crowned in Scone. Therefore, Scone needed to be back under Scottish control, if the people were to gain their independence. At the same time, other Scottish leaders and nobles were also staging their attacks to fight back at the English, including the Earl of Moray who was fighting to reclaim the North of Scotland. The actions of Moray and Wallace in particular during this early period were significant, as both of these men were absent from submitting fealty to Edward I, resulting in Wallace being declared an outlaw and his loyalty to Scotland undoubted. On 11th September 1297, Moray and Wallace’s joint armies fought in the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The Scottish army was highly outnumbered but used the topography and structures of the land to gain their victory. The narrow nature of Stirling Bridge meant that the English army was limited to only a few at a time being able to cross the bridge. So the Scots used this to their advantage and waited for their attack until the opportune moment. This was a success and Moray and Wallace gained control and named themselves as Guardians of Scotland. Whilst Moray died shortly after the battle, this victory demonstrated a pivotal turning point in the Scottish fight. Wallace and Moray’s victory, made other nobles and Scottish leaders re-think their fealty to Edward I and turn to fight for their country’s independence and their authority again. In April 1298, the English seized another chance to try and gain control of Scotland. Edward I paid a large force of approximately 25,000-foot soldiers and 1,500 cavalry to his cause. The English gained control over Scottish Castles but failed to capture Wallace which was Edward I’s main aim for re-invading. The English army later gained intelligence that indicated that the Scottish forces were camped near Falkirk, and so the Anglo-Scottish conflict happened there at ‘The Battle of Falkirk’. The Battle was a harrowing failure for the Scots and those who survived the battle had to disperse forcing individuals such as Wallace into hiding. The Battle of Falkirk left significant damage on Wallace’s reputation. Wallace also shortly after the failure of the Battle, relinquished his title as Guardian of Scotland, as there was growing support for Robert the Bruce’s cause to reclaim the Scottish throne for himself. Whilst Wallace’s activities whilst he was in hiding were unknown at times, there is historical evidence that Wallace sought out the support of the French King Philip IV for support for Scottish independence. The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, in theory should have ensured the support from the French, as Scotland was under attack from England, but even with letters written to the Papacy pleading for additional support for Wallace’s cause, this help did not come. Wallace returned to Scotland in 1304, and re-began his quest to free Scotland from the English oppressors. Wallace continued to fight for Scotland until 1305, being involved in minor conflicts until he was eventually captured. Wallace was betrayed by John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward. Wallace was handed over to the English near Glasgow and then transported to London. Wallace faced trial at Westminster Hall, where he claimed that he had never sworn allegiance to Edward I. However, Edward I chose to use Wallace’s treatment as an example for any other Scots who defied Edward. Wallace was taken to the Tower of London, stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield. Wallace’s punishment was brutal as he was hanged, drawn and quartered. The four parts of Wallace’s body were taken and exposed at different locations as a reminder to those who dared to defy Edward I’s authority. Wallace’s head was also placed on a spike on London Bridge.
Ancestry UK

Wallace's Legacy and Memory

William Wallace’s efforts for Scotland were not in vain. A year after Wallace’s death Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scotland and Scottish Independence from the English was officially achieved in 1328. Robert the Bruce’s descendant James VI of Scotland also became James I of England uniting England and Scotland under a Scottish King – the exact opposite of what Edward I aimed to achieve in his lifetime. Wallace is remembered in history as a martyr to the Scottish cause of independence. His sacrifice was also interpreted by historiography as a catalyst for other Scottish Lords such as Robert the Bruce to take up the fight for Scottish Independence again. William Wallace is considered to be a Scottish National Hero and martyr who sacrificed himself for the cause of saving his country. The brutality of Wallace’s death also suggests that he was perceived as a huge threat by the English and by removing Wallace from the situation, Edward I probably thought this would damage Scottish morale against him, but instead his death spurred the Scots on. The portrayal of William Wallace in the Media: Perhaps one of the most famous portrayals of William Wallace in the film is the 1995 film ‘Braveheart’ starring Mel Gibson as Wallace. Despite the controversy over the film’s historical inaccuracies, the film demonstrates the significance of Wallace’s actions and loyalty to his nation as being a rallying force behind the Scottish Wars of Independence. The more modern film ‘Outlaw King’ from 2018 depicts the rise of Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine, and depicts Wallace’s martyrdom as a catalyst for the increased Scottish action to fight back against Edward I’s control. Wallace’s arm is depicted in the film, accompanied by screams, shouting, panic and violence from English controllers of the area demonstrating the significance of Wallace’s death on the Scottish people. Whilst the film does not show Wallace alive, it shows the significance of Wallace to the cause of fighting for Scotland, recognising his contribution to the Scottish Wars of Independence, the elevation of Robert the Bruce as King of Scots and the success of independence in 1328. Wallace’s Memory: Wallace remains a figurehead and national hero in Scottish culture in the modern day. He is remembered through monuments including the National Wallace Monument near Stirling, A statue of him at Edinburgh Castle and another Statue of him in the Scottish Borders. Wallace is perhaps more of a famous or recognisable Scottish figurehead than Scottish monarchs. His efforts for Scotland have been memorialised in Scottish culture and he is remembered as a Scottish National Hero who sacrificed his life for Scottish Independence.
Freedom Fighter: William Wallace and the Fight for Scotland’s Independence
William Wallace
Freedom Fighter: William Wallace and the Fight for Scotland’s Independence

Leah Rhiannon Savage

Leah Rhiannon Savage, a 26-year-old Historian and working mother from Nottingham. Specialism in Early Modern British History, with a particular interest in Early Modern Scottish History. Dissertations on ‘The Origins of John Knox’s Social Thought with a focus on his attitudes towards women ’ and ‘The Social Experiences of the Female Relatives of Robert Bruce during his rise to power 1296-1314.’ A holder of a Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, a Masters in History and a Bachelors in History. Working in Further and Higher Education Access and Inclusion Tutor, with six years of experience working in various education providers including colleges, a university, secondary schools, primary schools and SEN settings, supporting students to achieve in the face of adversity. Working currently with students in further and higher education who have special educational needs, helping differentiate learning and making learning accessible for them. Two years working as a Freelance Writer and Published Historian for three history Magazines, as well as a Sub-Editor for The Historians Magazine. History Enthusiast with a passion for education and promoting history.
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