1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wallace, Sir William
WALLACE, SIR WILLIAM (c. 1270-1305), the popular national hero of Scotland, is believed to have been the second son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie and Auchinbothie, in Renfrewshire. The date of his birth is not certainly ascertained, but is usually given as 1270. The only authority for the events of his early life is the metrical history of Blind Harry. That authority cannot be implicitly relied on, though we need not conclude that the minstrel invented the stories he relates. He lived about two centuries later than Wallace, during which a considerable body of legend had probably gathered round the name, and these popular “gestis” he incorporates in his narrative. At the same time he professes to follow as his “autour” an account that had been written in Latin by John Blair, the personal friend and chaplain of Wallace himself. As Blair's account has perished, we cannot tell how far the minstrel has faithfully followed his authority, but some comparatively recent discoveries have confirmed the truth of portions of the narrative which had previously been doubted. At best, however, his authority must be regarded with suspicion, except when it is confirmed by other and more trustworthy evidence.
Only for a period of less than two years in his life — from the beginning of the insurrection in 1297 to the battle of Falkirk — does Wallace come before us in the clearest historical light. With the exception of one or two glimpses of him that we obtain from authentic historical documents, the recorded events of his later as of his earlier life rest on no more certain authority than that of Blind Harry.
In his boyhood, according to the usual accounts, he resided for some time at Dunipace, in Stirlingshire, with an uncle, who is styled “parson” of the place. By this uncle he was partially educated, and from him he imbibed an enthusiastic love of liberty. His education was continued at Dundee, where he made the acquaintance of John Blair. On account of an incident that happened at Dundee — his slaughter of a young Englishman named Selby, for an insult offered to him — he is said to have been outlawed, and so driven into rebellion against the English. Betaking himself to the wilds of the country, he gradually gathered round him a body of desperate men whom he led in various attacks upon the English. In consequence of the success of these early enterprises his following largely increased, several of the more patriotic nobles — including the steward of Scotland, Sir Andrew Moray, Sir John de Graham, Douglas the Hardy, Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, and others — having joined him. His insurrection now became more open and pronounced, and his enterprises of greater importance. An attack was made upon the English justiciar, Ormsby, who was holding his court at Scone. The justiciar himself escaped, but many of his followers were captured or slain. The burning of the Barns of Ayr, the quarters of English soldiers, in revenge for the treacherous slaughter of his uncle, Sir Ronald Crawford, and other Scottish noblemen, followed. The success of these exploits induced the English king to take measures for staying the insurrection. A large army, under the command of Sir Henry Percy and Sir Robert Clifford, was sent against the insurgents, and came up with them at Irvine. Dissensions broke out among the Scottish leaders, and all Wallace's titled friends left him and made submission to Edward, except the ever faithful Sir Andrew Moray. The treaty of Irvine, by which these Scottish nobles agreed to acknowledge Edward as their sovereign lord, is printed in Rymer's Foedera. It is dated the 9th of July 1297, and is the first public document in which the name of Sir William Wallace occurs. Wallace retired to the north, and although deserted by the barons was soon at the head of a large army. The vigour and success of his operations was such that in a short time he succeeded in recovering almost all the fortresses held by the English to the north of the Forth. He had begun the siege of Dundee when he received information that an English army, led by the earl of Surrey and Cressingham the treasurer, was on its march northward. Leaving the citizens of Dundee to continue the siege of the castle, he made a rapid march to Stirling. Encamping in the neighbourhood of the Abbey Craig — on which now stands the national monument to his memory — he watched the passage of the Forth. After an unsuccessful attempt to bring Wallace to terms, the English commander, on the morning of the 11th of September 1297, began to cross the bridge. When about one half of his army had crossed, and while they were still in disorder, they were attacked with such fury by Wallace, that almost all — Cressingham among the number — were slain, or driven into the river and drowned. Those on the south side of the river were seized with panic and fled tumultuously, having first set fire to the bridge. The Scots, however, crossed by a ford, and continued the pursuit of the enemy as far as Berwick. Sir Andrew Moray fell in this battle. The results of it were important. The English were everywhere driven from Scotland. To increase the alarm of the English, as well as to relieve the famine which then prevailed, Wallace organized a great raid into the north of England, in the course of which he devastated the country to the gates of Newcastle. On his return he was elected guardian of the kingdom. In this office he set himself to reorganize the army and to regulate the affairs of the country. His measures were marked by much wisdom and vigour, and for a short time succeeded in securing order, even in the face of the jealousy and opposition of the nobles. Edward was in Flanders when the news of this successful revolt reached him. He hastened home, and at the head of a great army entered Scotland in July 1298. Wallace was obliged to adopt the only plan of campaign which could give any hope of success. He slowly retired before the English monarch, driving off all supplies and wasting the country. The nobles as usual for the most part deserted his standard. Those that remained thwarted his councils by their jealousies. His plan, however, came very near being successful. Edward, compelled by famine, had already given orders for a retreat when he received information of Wallace's position and intentions. The army, then at Kirkliston, was immediately set in motion, and next morning (July 22, 1298) Wallace was brought to battle in the vicinity of Falkirk. After an obstinate fight the Scots were overpowered and defeated with great loss. Among the slain was Sir John de Graham, the bosom friend of Wallace, whose death, as Blind Harry tells, threw the hero into a frenzy of rage and grief. The account of his distress is one of the finest and most touching passages in the poem. With the remains of his army Wallace found refuge for the night in the Torwood — known to him from his boyish life at Dunipace. He then retreated to the north, burning the town and castle of Stirling on his way. He resigned the office of guardian, and betook himself again to a wandering life and a desultory and predatory warfare against the English. At this point his history again becomes obscure. He is known to have paid a visit to France, with the purpose of obtaining aid for his country from the French king. This visit is narrated with many untrustworthy details by Blind Harry; but the fact is established by other and indisputable evidence. When in the winter of 1303-1304 Edward received the submission of the Scottish nobles, Wallace was expressly excepted from all terms. And after the capture of Stirling Castle and Sir William Oliphant, and the submission of Sir Simon Fraser, he was left alone, but resolute as ever in refusing allegiance to the English king. A price was set upon his head, and the English governors and captains in Scotland had orders to use every means for his capture. On the 5th of August 1305 he was taken — as is generally alleged, through treachery — at Robroyston, near Glasgow, by Sir John Menteith, carried to the castle of Dumbarton, and thence conveyed in fetters and strongly guarded to London. He reached London on the 22nd of August, and next day was taken to Westminster Hall, where he was impeached as a traitor by Sir Peter Mallorie, the king's justice. To the accusation Wallace made the simple reply that he could not be a traitor to the king of England, for he never was his subject, and never swore fealty to him. He was found guilty and condemned to death. The sentence was executed the same day with circumstances of unusual cruelty.
The cause of national independence was not lost with the life of Wallace. Notwithstanding the cruelty and indignity amid which it terminated, that life was not a failure. It has been an inspiration to his countrymen ever since. The popular ideas regarding his stature, strength, bodily prowess and undaunted courage are confirmed by the writers nearest his own time — Wyntoun and Fordun. And indeed no man could in that age have secured the personal ascendancy which he did without the possession of these qualities. The little we know of his statesmanship during the short period he was in power gives proof of political wisdom. His patriotism was conspicuous and disinterested. He was well skilled in the modes of warfare that suited the country and the times. That he failed in freeing his country from the yoke of England was due chiefly to the jealousy with which he was regarded by the men of rank and power. But he had a nobler success in inspiring his countrymen with a spirit which made their ultimate conquest impossible.
For bibliography see the article in the Dict. Nat. Biog. The principal modern lives are James Moir's (1886), and A. F. Murison's (1898).
(A. F. H.)