At the end of the 13th century, William Wallace led the Scots in battle against the invading English during the First War of Scottish Independence. He’s hailed as Scotland’s National Hero, but fiction has bled into the facts of his story. Many of the misconceptions about Wallace stem from Blind Harry’s 15th-century poem The Wallace, which in turn inspired Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995). Read on for the actual facts about the Scottish warrior’s life.
1. Little is known about William Wallace’s life before Edward I’s invasion in 1296.
Historical records of Wallace’s early life are sparse. His seal was found on the 1297 Lübeck letter, which told German merchants that the Scots had regained control of their ports, and gives some indication of his background. The seal bears an image of a bow and arrow, suggesting Wallace may have been an archer before the Wars of Independence broke out.
The seal also gives his father’s name as Alan Wallace. Thanks to Harry’s poem, it was previously thought his father was Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, Renfrewshire. This led scholars to believe that William was born into nobility. However, the Alan Wallace who is listed on the 1296 Ragman Rolls—documents recording Scottish landowners' fealty to the English king—and was a crown tenant in Ayrshire is now believed to be the probable candidate for his father.
2. His first known act is killing the English High Sheriff of Lanark.
In May 1297, Wallace led an uprising in Lanark and killed William de Heselrig, the Sheriff of Lanark. Harry’s The Wallace claims the rebellion was triggered by the Sheriff murdering Wallace’s wife, Marion Braidfute (she’s renamed Murron MacClannough in Braveheart). However, whether or not Wallace ever had a wife is unknown. What is known is that he then took part in other revolts against the English administration.
3. William Wallace’s iconic reputation was forged at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
On September 11, 1297, Wallace and Andrew Moray co-led the Scottish army to victory. The Scots were outnumbered, but Wallace and Moray forced the English to cross Stirling Bridge. Funneling them across the bridge meant the invading troops could not use their numbers to their advantage. The Scots slaughtered the advancing infantry. According to several accounts, the bridge collapsed beneath the English soldiers in the chaos.
Both Wallace and Moray were then given the title Guardian of Scotland; Moray soon died from injuries sustained on the battlefield, leaving Wallace, who was subsequently knighted, as sole Guardian. Wallace used this position of command to rule Scotland and prepare for further battles against the English.
4. His failure at the Battle of Falkirk ended his time in the military spotlight.
Edward I launched another invasion into Scotland in 1298. Wallace may have been attempting to avoid open combat until he had starved the English army of supplies to weaken them. But someone leaked the location of the Scottish army—whether this was intentional or traitorous is unknown—and Wallace prepared to do battle at Falkirk on July 22, 1298.
Wallace positioned the cavalry at the rear and formed his foot soldiers into circular schiltrons (defensive groups with shields and pikes), which were protected by archers. But the cavalry fled, leaving the schiltrons and archers vulnerable.
The Scots suffered heavy losses. Wallace escaped, and later that year resigned as Guardian. He ceded the title to Robert the Bruce, the future king, and John Comyn, King John Balliol’s nephew (who Robert the Bruce eventually murdered).
5. After Falkirk, William Wallace went to France to seek aid from King Philip IV.
There is little historical record of Wallace’s actions after Falkirk, but at some point he went to France, hoping to benefit from the Auld Alliance with King Philip IV. A letter dated November 7, 1300, from Philip to his envoys in Rome suggests he was willing to help: “We command you to request the Supreme Pontiff to consider with favour our beloved William le Walois [Wallace] of Scotland.”
It's unknown whether Wallace made it to Rome to meet with Pope Boniface VIII. Either way, help from abroad did not materialize. By 1303, he was back in Scotland fighting for independence.
6. He was gruesomely hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1305.
In August 1305, a Scottish knight named John de Menteith captured Wallace and handed him over to the English to be tried and executed for treason. Sir Walter Scott’s 1828 “Sir William Wallace,” from his Tales of a Grandfather series, reports that Wallace declared “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject”—but, while certainly powerful, this bold statement was a fictional embellishment.
On August 23, Wallace was dragged to the gallows through the streets of London on a hurdle drawn by horses. He was hanged and strangled—but taken down while still alive. He was then emasculated and disemboweled, and his removed body parts were burned before him. Finally, he was beheaded and his body was cut into four parts. Wallace's head was dipped in tar and stuck on a pike on London Bridge as a warning to other outlaws. His limbs were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth.
7. William Wallace’s legendary status was solidified by Blind Harry.
Wallace’s current reputation has been partially built upon romanticized myth passing as historical fact. Although he had already become legendary, Harry’s 15th-century fictional poem left the largest mark on popular conceptions of Wallace. In addition to Harry and Scott’s tales, Wallace’s status was further enhanced by Robert Burns’s song "Scots Wha Hae" (1793) and Jane Porter’s novel The Scottish Chiefs (1810).
Nowadays, the most well-known account is the film Braveheart, which was loosely based on Harry’s poem. The title was historically associated not with Wallace, but with Robert the Bruce. During a battle, Sir James Douglas, tasked with taking Robert’s heart on a tour of the Holy Land, supposedly shouted: “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.”
8. The National Wallace Monument was erected in 1869 to celebrate Scotland’s National Hero.
The Wallace Monument is a Victorian Gothic-style tower that stands 220 feet tall and sits atop Abbey Craig, overlooking the site of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge. There are 246 steps up to the viewing platform at the top, and the body of the tower houses three exhibition rooms.
The Monument is home to The Wallace Sword, a 5-foot, 5-inch-long weapon Wallace supposedly used. It's possible that part of the sword’s blade dates to the 13th century, but there's no evidence Wallace actually wielded it.
In 1997, a statue of Wallace carved in the image of Mel Gibson was displayed near the tower. Described as one of “the most loathed pieces of public art in Scotland,” it was occasionally vandalized before its removal in 2008. It now resides at Glebe Park football stadium in Brechin.