Matthew Beyer has begun a “Moments In History” series to raise awareness of important historical events. Each post will also have book recommendations about the moment in history, using our extensive history collection in the library.
August 23rd, 1305
Execution of William Wallace
Many historical figures become enshrined in the annals of history as larger than life folk-heroes. This is certainly the case when it comes to William Wallace. He is not only celebrated as a national hero of Scotland, but has become a symbol of resistance against oppression worldwide.
William Wallace was born in the year 1270 A.D. at a time when Scotland’s squabbling nobility was threatening civil war due to a session crisis which started with the death of their king (who left no heir). The English King Edward I offered to mediate the crisis but in reality invaded Scotland and turned the country into a vassal state of England through oppressive taxation and forced conscription into the English army. The Scottish peasantry were rife with grievances, and a revolt seemed imminent. What they needed was a leader who could unite the clans under a common cause: namely, driving the English out of Scotland for good.
William Wallace was just that man; he had to have been a charismatic figure and was likely born into nobility. A common misconception, thanks to Hollywood and popular fiction, was that he wore a kilt and was a Highlander. In fact, he was born in the Lowlands and wore dress that would have been nearly indistinguishable from an average English Knight. Wallace would go on to lead a revolt that would become known as the First War for Scottish independence.
Wallace had early successes and inspired his countrymen by defeating a large English army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1297. This came as a shock to the English and Scots alike as his army did not rely on heavy cavalry. This was traditionally the deciding factor in warfare at the time as the knight on horseback was thought to be invincible by infantry of the era. Wallace was successful though his use of Scottish Schiltron’s, which basically turned an army of peasants into a hedgehog of spears to ward off horses.
Unfortunately for Wallace, his successes would not last forever. He was defeated in 1298 at the Battle of Fallkirk two years later and would go into hiding. Wallace would continue to be something of a bogeyman and a thorn in the side of the English until his betrayal and capture in 1305. He was brought to London and put on trial on the charge of treason. William Wallace boldly defended himself against this charge by saying that he had never sworn allegiance to King Richard in the first place. It was, however, a forgone conclusion that he was going to be found guilty.
Upon the guilty verdict, Wallace was executed by the gruesome method of hanging, drawing, and quartering on August 23rd, 1305. His head was set on a pike on London Bridge and his limbs sent to be displayed across parts of northeast England and Scotland as a warning, but ultimately they had the opposite effect. Eventually, Scotland was united under a contemporary of Wallace, Robert Bruce, who would go on to be crowned King of Scotland and rule it as an independent power.
A plaque now stands near his execution site and the last portion of it is inscribed in Latin and reads: “Dico tibi verum libertas optima rerum nunqual servili sub nexu vivito fili.” (I tell you the truth. Freedom is what is best. Sons, never live life like slaves). There is also the Gaelic “Bas Agus Buaidh” (Death or Victory).
If you would like to know more about William Wallace and the War for Scottish Independence, check out the links below: