The real Sir William Wallace

Statue of William Wallace in Aberdeen, Scotland / en.wikipedia.org

Statue of William Wallace in Aberdeen, Scotland / en.wikipedia.org

Some years ago the anglophobe film star and director Gibson made a Hollywood-backed movie called Braveheart. This tasteful work of art purports to be the story of a Scot called Wallace who led his (kilted) warriors to victory against a dastardly English king and won a major battle at Stirling in the cause of independence for Scotland from domineering, untrustworthy England. The film is so full of historical errors as to make it extremely funny, and therefore worth watching on your video machine at least once a year.

The real William Wallace was born around 1294. His was a knightly family, not a collection of crofters. Still young, he began the impossible task of gathering the Picts and Scots together – not the clans, they came later. Most northern Scots spoke Gaelic and nothing else, except some relics of their Norse ancestry. All lowland Scots spoke what went for English in the 13th century, a heady mixture of French and Saxon tongues. One thing bound these fighters together, their joint hatred of the English, and of each other. William Wallace, who was born a knight, did indeed manage this tricky task, and the English were trounced at the battle of Stirling in 1297 when William was only twenty-three.

Unfortunately for William and Scotland, the English king was not known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’ for nothing, and he led the army which defeated Scottish forces at Falkirk in 1298. The reference to ‘kilted’ warriors above refers to the fact that the kilt came into fashion about four hundred and fifty years after these bloodthirsty battles. The Scots wore trews or trousers, and very little else, but they did not paint their faces with woad, something popular with fighters around four hundred and fifty years before the wars of independence.

Sir William got away from the lost battle against the terrible Anglo-French king Edward, but was found in Glasgow in 1305, a disappointed man. He became even sadder when at his trial he was sentenced to the classic English execution of hanging, drawing and quartering. This abominable death happened to him at Smithfield in London, later famous as the chief meat market in the south. William was twenty-nine when he was first half-hanged, cut down, had his intestines and genitals cut off and burnt before his eyes, and both arms and legs axed off, by which time he was, unsurprisingly, dead. This was, and was for centuries, the prescribed punishment for treason.

King Edward died two years later (1307), having defeated the rebellious Scots, annexed half of Wales and built castles there. He never managed to control Scotland as he did in Wales, and even promoted a Scottish king, John Balliol. His son Edward II preferred male favourites to making war, and could not be said to have given his father much pride. Mel Gibson was of course much too old to play Sir William, but not too old to direct and produce the pantomime film mentioned before – Braveheart.

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