Saturday, November 30, 2019

William Wallace

William Wallace is one of Scotland's most famous historical figures. Many more around the world grew acquainted with Wallace when Hollywood and Mel Gibson portrayed him in the movie BraveHeart. However, we know that stories get distorted just through the passage of time. Wallace cames from minor gentry in the West of Scotland. The name Wallace, or Walensis, derives from the Welsh-speaking people of Strathclyde. We have no exact date for Wallace's birth. William Wallace emerges from obscurity and rises up in the spring of 1297, kills the English sheriff of Lanark, then leads an effective and oft-hitting operation against English strongholds.

Edward I had already annexed Ireland and Wales and now took an opportunity of  a political vacuum to meddle in Scotland's affairs in the guise of legal mediator and appointed the weak John Balliol as king, made impossible demands of him, and then settled the issue by military conquest. It was in November 1292, that Balliol was declared King of Scotland, against the Bruce claim. Edward's pressure on him is relentless, forcing acts of homage on several occasions, and to revoke the Treaty of Brigham, which recognised Scottish independence. . When Edward haughtily orders Balliol into military service in France, the Scots instead ratify a treaty with Edward's enemy, Philip IV, and war is inevitable. Edward was free to roam through Scotland as if it was his own fiefdom. This he did, taking control of castles and humiliating King John as he went, resulting in the forced abdication of Balliol in Angus in July 1296.  The stripping of the royal emblems earned Balliol the insulting name "Toom Tabard" (Empty Tabard).  He was sent to the Tower of London and thereafter spent the rest of his life in relatively comfortable exile. Edward's dominance over Scotland was total. He made over 2,000 freeholders swear allegiance to him, in a document which became known as the Ragman's Roll. It was  William Wallace's aim to restore Balliol to the throne of Scotland.

Along with Andrew Moray, Wallace defeated an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, and was Guardian of Scotland, serving until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk. After Falkirk, Wallace resigned as Guardian and was sent on a diplomatic mission to France and Rome. He did not return until after the Scottish surrender in 1302. In 1305, Wallace was eventually captured in Robroyston near Glasgow by John de Menteith, a Scottish knight. Menteith was no English lackey, and in 1320 he put his seal to the Declaration of Arbroath. Wallace was taken to London to be handed over to King Edward. After a cynical mock show-trial at Westminster Hall in London, where he responded to the treason charge by declaring "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject." Wrapped in an ox hide to prevent him being ripped apart, thereby shortening the torture, he was dragged by horses four miles through London to Smithfield. There he was hanged, as a murderer and thief, but cut down while still alive. Then he was mutilated, disembowelled, his heart, liver, lungs and entrails were cast upon a fire, and, finally, his head was chopped off. His carcase was then cut up into bits. His head was set on a pole on London Bridge, another part went to Newcastle, a district Wallace had destroyed in 1297–8, the rest went to Berwick, Perth and Stirling (or perhaps Aberdeen), as a warning to the Scots. Edward had destroyed the man, but had enhanced the myth.  Edward I of England wanted the destruction of Wallace's name and reputation as well as physical presence, but inadvertently created a hero and martyr. He entered the realm of folktale and legend.

Separating myth from historical truth is no easy matter. The waters are muddied when the historian only has access to scant Medieval resources. Around 1470s the epic poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie, was written by Henry the Minstrel, also called Blind Harry; which became  possibly the most influential long poem ever written in Scots. And here we are most definitely in the realm of powerful and deliberate myth-making. Professor Cowan writes of "borrowings plunderings, plagerisms, inventions, and fancies", and points to two major events at least in the poem that never happened - Wallace's victory at Biggar, and English atrocities at the Barns of Ayr. One story says that he started by killing a bunch of English soldiers who tried confiscating the fish he'd caught in the River Irvine. Another says that he killed the son of an English governor who had been bullying his family, and yet a third states that he killed William Heselrig, Sherriff of Lanark, in revenge for the death of Marion Braidfute. This last version dates only from Blind Harry's story from around 1470, and is most likely pure fiction. In 1722 Blind Harry’s work was translated and adapted by another poet, William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, and became the most commonly owned book in Scotland next to the Bible.

Modern Scots today honour who they acclaim as a fighter for Scotland's sovereignty. What was the “Scotland” that Wallace believed in, defended, pledged himself to and died for? The idea of Wallace as early exponent of “democratic patriotism” ahistorically gives to a medieval man the mind and sensibilities of a later, modern age. Wallace was a violent man in a violent age; and anyone researching the gleeful cross-border forays of Wallace’s bands into Hexham Abbey or the priory at Lanercost in Northumberland, England’s far north, can register their devastating impact. Wallace never fought for an abstract “people” or even “nation”, but always in the name of a legitimate power of which he was but the temporary protector or “guardian”  -  John Balliol.

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