On this day in 1305, Sir William Wallace was tried in Westminster Hall on the charge of High Treason, during which a garland of oak was placed upon his head mockingly, to signify him as the King of outlaws. His grisly sentence, of course, was read out immediately following the verdict, and included the full details of the punishment, known as “hanging, drawing and quartering”.
He was then beaten and dragged outside to a pair of waiting horses, and subsequently chained prostrate onto a hurdle (just a piece of fencing, not the wheeled construction shown in the film) before being dragged through the filthy streets of London for the public to mock, throw rubbish at, and stone.
He was drawn first to the Tower, about two and a half miles from the site of his trial, and then on to Smithfield via Aldgate, another mile or thereabouts so that all could look upon his mighty person and safely jeer. When his would be humiliation was finally complete and he had arrived at the spot of his execution, without ceremony, a noose was swiftly tightened about his neck, after which he was hanged all the way up and to the point of unconsciousness, being cut down just before passing out, or strangling to death. He was not racked as shown in the film however, nor was he allowed a chance to submit to Edward’s peace or even take a breath, and thereby cut short his suffering; rather, whilst being held upright by the hangman’s rope, like a carcass in a butchers yard, his private parts were swiftly cut away (all of them, and hence emasculation, not castration) of which were then summarily burned in the brazier in front of him. Then, while still upright, and very much alive and conscious, his stomach was slit open so that he could be ritually disemboweled for a baying crowd of filthy, cowardly peasants. His entrails were burnt on the brazier likewise.
Not content with the excruciating torture already dished out to the bound prisoner, the cruelty of the English rarely sated when given the chance at psychopathy, and so the final act was to be decapitation, and then quartering. You will note that in effect, these are three symbolic deaths: first, hanging, second, evisceration, and finally, decapitation. But before that small mercy, his arms and legs were first hacked off of his body, and for at least some of that, or perhaps even all of it, Wallace might very well have been conscious enough to know what was happening to him. I only pray shock had fully set in then, and all was but a detached numbness as his body wracked and spasmed from the blows of the axe slowly, but steadily detaching the broken limbs from his body.
But why did such a cruel injustice befall Wallace, one might ask, and for what reason would such a horrific punishment be devised? Look no further than Edward I then, who is said to have decreed that treason was a triple crime: against God, against man, and against the King. Hence the triple death sentence. The grisly, grotesque nature of the killing was explained in the severe language of the law with the intention that it should terrify the listeners and enhance the misery of the man whose body would soon illustrate the reality of the horror it entailed.
Needless to say, afterwards, Wallace’s head, dipped in tar, was then fixed to a pike, and subsequently displayed atop London Bridge, to be joined alongside by those of his brothers later on.
“I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.”- Wallace at his trial.
This barbaric murdering, in fact, was employed by the English for the execution of Scotsmen even as late as the 18th century, and as given by Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough (1750-1818) the wording was as follows:
“You are to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged, but not till you are dead; for while still living, your body is to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burnt before your face; your head is then cut off, and your body divided into four quarters.”
P.S Tonight, I’ll be raising a glass of Bourbon in the name of Scotland’s Immortal Guardian.
“A Wallace, a Wallace!”- The War-cry of the men who had the fortune to follow him.