What do we know of Wallace?
Despite being Scotland’s most famous hero, not much is known of the man’s early life, nor that of his station, or father, brother or even where exactly he was born and what title he held other than that of a knight. What we do know, however, is presented to us in the guise a single “based on a true story” movie. Not much to go on for your casual observer, riddled with inaccuracies such as it is, which is often used as fodder with which to deride those of us Scots deemed mindless and rabid nationalists at the mere mention of the auld guardians name; mocked for following a Hollywood cutout, rather than the man himself. Though, for those of us who have done more than simply watch Braveheart, we find that Wallace’s life and deeds are somewhat more heroic when bolstered by truth and fact, rather than clad in the hero arc of film and television. So, without further introduction, I’ve compiled a few interesting facts and accounts of the big yin, ranging from his distant kin, to the corroborating evidence of who he was, what he was like, and how he might have looked, as presented to us in the works of Blind Harry, Barbour, Nigel Tranter and a few others.
Where was he born?
Well, there are two locations within Scotland that fiercely claim the honor of having been his place of birth. First, nestled between Johnstone and Paisley in Renfrewshire, lies the village of Elderslie, which is often touted as Wallace’s hometown, a fact that is widely believed by many, and heavily promoted in song and literature.
However, the second contender is an all but unheard of village by the name of Ellerslie, which as you can see, bares an awfully similar name to the better known village; yet this unassuming place may in fact offer far more substantial evidence in regards to its Wallace claim than first meets the eye, for it is said that the Wallace’s were Barons of Riccarton, land that once bordered Ellerslie, but which was later absorbed into the greater Kilmarnock area. The evidence put forward for this is found on none other than Wallace’s own seal, which he had marked the now famous Lubeck letter with. The letter was sent to inform the traders and governments of Lubeck and Hamburg, that Scotland’s ports were open for business, as it were, after the victory at Stirling Bridge, 1297. The seal contains the words “William, son of Alan Wallace”
And it just so happens, that one, Alan Wallace from Riccarton, is among the names found on King Edward I humiliating Ragman’s Roll. So, to me, it seems as though a simple lapse in concentration, an oversight, led to the confusion between the villages name, resulting in decades of confusion regarding Ellerslie, whose connection to Wallace is far superior to Elderslie’s. Why it was never corrected, despite the evidence? Well, when so little is known of a beloved hero such as Wallace, it’s easy to understand why any connection to the man is held on to so tightly.
Ellerslie survives only in historical records, as the village now no longer exists.
When was he born?
There is a 16th-century work called The History of William Wallace and Scottish Affairs which claims he was born in 1267, whilst other historians suggest he was born in 1260, or there abouts. Of course, there are also those that contend that he was born in; you guessed it, Elderslie, in 1270. Regardless, this goes someway to giving us a fairly tight window in which to estimate his age upon death, in 1305, which would be, 38, 45, and 35, respectively. Either way, we can be certain that he was of middle years.
Malcolm Wallace, and Alan Wallace, is the two names put forward as being that of Wallace’s father, though as mentioned above, I would be inclined to believe him to be Alan Wallace, rather than Malcolm.
Names that some may be familiar with in connection to Wallace also, are those of his brothers, Malcolm and John, though there are sources mentioning them, there is little in the way of anything else other than that they too rose up and fought alongside him. We also know that John died in London in similar circumstances to that of his brother Wallace.
A less familiar name would be that of a women who was either his cousin, or his sister, Margaret, who married a man named Alexander Cleland. Their son, James Cleland, fought with his first cousin/uncle at Loudonhill, 1296; Stirling Bridge, 1297; Falkirk 1298; Glasgow, 1300; and reportedly in France, 1301. James and his son, John, also fought at Bannockburn in 1314. We know this because King Bruce gave him East Calder as reward for his loyalty and dedication to Scotland’s cause.
Whilst researching this, I stumbled across another figure, John Blair, said to have been Wallace’s childhood friend, and personal chaplain. John Blair had been with Wallace right up until his defeat at Falkirk, and eventually compiled a record of his and Wallace’s adventures. This is said to have been the inspiration behind Blin Harry’s epic: The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.
Wallace grew up in a period of relative peace between Scotland and England. With Alexander III sitting on the Scottish throne, Edward I designs for the country were kept at bay, for not even he could justify an invasion, and deposition, of a sovereign whose lands posed him no threat. So in regard to Wallace’s childhood, it can be assumed that whoever his father was, Wallace was of lesser nobility either way. And as such, it is reasonable to assume that he would have been a well-read individual, no doubt capable of conversing in both French, and perhaps even Latin. We can also assume that, from his subsequent knighting, he had been taught how to fight with both sword and bow, as well as ride a horse. There is also some evidence to suggest that he was an accomplished archer, as the depiction on his seal attests to this, and it having being alluded to in contemporary works. So, we can make an educated guess as to his childhood growing up in a Scotland during a relatively peaceful period, as being one of comfort, though on account of being lesser nobility and of modest holdings, not necessarily luxury.
Much has been made of the Wallace surname and its supposed links to the country of Wales. Now, the origins of the surname, and its association with southern Scotland are far from certain, yet what we do know of it, would suggest that it has its origins within a Welsh speaking population, yet, that does not mean that it is Welsh, rather, that it may have originated from the Cumbric speaking, Brythonic Celtic peoples of Y Gododdin, a mixture of Gaels, Picts and pre-Roman Celtic Britons who lived in what is now southern Scotland.
The name itself is derived from the Old English, wylisc (pronounced “wullish“), meaning “foreigner” or “Welshman“. A term that was also used for local Cumbric-speaking peoples in Strathclyde, Scotland, and so it seems likely that the surname refers to a people who were seen as being “Welsh” due simply to haven spoken a Cumbric language.
What did he look like?
In a section from the Scotichronicon from the 14th century, we are given this description of Wallace: “He was a tall man with the body of a giant, cheerful in appearance with agreeable features, broad-shouldered and big-boned, with belly in proportion and lengthy flanks, pleasing in appearance but with a wild look, broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs, a most spirited fighting-man, with all his limbs very strong and firm.”
Another aspect of Wallace is his purported height. At anywhere from 6 ft 5, to 6ft 7, and even 6ft 8, he was almost certainly a giant of man by all accounts. His estimated height is based on documents that were passed down describing him as such, and also on the speculation that he would have had to have been especially tall and powerfully built in order to effectively wield his 5 feet 4 inch long Claymore.
Despite their being numerous portraits done of Wallace over the years, we simply don’t know exactly what he looked like. Though there is a sketch done by the 11th Earl of Buchan, in the 19th century that is reputed to have been drawn from an original medieval piece of art. Unfortunately, this appears to have been lost to time. Fortunately, though, there is the below engraving, which is said to have been based on the earlier sketch.
Aftermath of Falkirk
After countless battles and skirmishes, Wallace and his army were subsequently defeated at the Battle of Falkrik on 22 July 1298. Wallace led 5000 men against England’s 15000. It’s estimated that both sides sustained heavy casualties, with some even placing the loss on both sides at a relatively equal 2000 or so apiece. Regardless of how valiantly the Scots fought, this proved to be an utter slaughter, with the English cavalry routing first, the Scots horse, and then a good portion of their knights. All that was left then, were the unbreakable Scottish spearmen, who up until then, had withstood both English horse, and knight. The archers closed in as all but they remained on the field of battle, and as the first arrows fell, the fate of the spearmen was all but sealed. With bows, crossbows and slingshots, the English made sport of the pinned Scots, so much so, that when the English mounted knights entered the field, they essentially rode down corpses.
Wallace escaped, and went to France, to the court of King Philip IV to plead the case for his assistance with the Scottish cause. A letter survives from that period, and was sent by the French king to Rome, demanding that they should help Sir William.
However, it was not to be, and Wallace was betrayed, and then captured soon after his return to Scotland. Letters of safe conduct from Philip IV of France, Haakon V of Norway, and John Balliol, were found in his possession, somewhat illustrating the extent of support he received from all across Europe. He was swiftly taken to England, where he was put on trial in Westminster hall.
Wallace’s statement at his trial.
“I can not be a traitor, for I owe him no allegiance. He is not my Sovereign; he never received my homage; and whilst life is in this persecuted body, he never shall receive it. To the other points whereof I am accused, I freely confess them all. As Governor of my country I have been an enemy to its enemies; I have slain the English; I have mortally opposed the English King; I have stormed and taken the towns and castles which he unjustly claimed as his own. If I or my soldiers have plundered or done injury to the houses or ministers of religion, I repent me of my sin; but it is not of Edward of England I shall ask pardon“
On the 23rd of August, 1305, Wallace was hung, drawn, quartered, eviscerated and disemboweled at Smithfield in London; he was reputed to have lived up until the moment of decapitation. His head was then removed, along with his limbs, and reunited with that of his brother, John, atop London Bridge.
“For sooth, ere he decease,
Shall many thousands in the field make end.
From Scotland he shall forth the Southron send,
And Scotland thrice he shall bring to peace.
So good of hand again shall ne’er be kenned”
Thomas the Rhymer.