In 1296, Edward I of England forced the Scottish king, John de Balliol, to abdicate the throne, imprisoning him, and declared himself ruler of Scotland. Within months, civil unrest at this injustice was widespread in Scotland and Edward was met with much resistance. William Wallace, a young nobleman from the old Scottish county of Renfrewshire, led much of this resistance. In May 1297, at the age of 27, Wallace and around 30 other men burnt down the Scottish town of Lanark and killed the English sheriff there. Their resistance became a rebellion as more men gathered to join Wallace in numerous attacks to force the English out of Scotland. In September of the same year, Wallace and his militia defeated an army of English soldiers at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, despite being vastly outnumbered. This, together with the subsequent capture of Stirling Castle, succeeded in pushing most of the English out of Scotland.
In October, Wallace raided northern England, devastating much of the counties of Cumberland and Northumberland. He became known as a brutally savage military leader – he’d reportedly flayed an English soldier, keeping his skin as a trophy. Despite this brutality, Wallace was knighted and appointed Guardian of the Kingdom in the name of the deposed King John. In retaliation for Wallace’s attacks on northern England, the English army marched north to face him. Wallace’s strategy of withdrawing back into Scotland, destroying more of the English countryside as he went, served to push King Edward deeper into Scotland. But in July 1298, the two armies met near Falkirk and the Scots were defeated.
Wallace escaped to France, where he served as a diplomat in an attempt to gain France’s support for his cause. But the French turned against Scotland and on his return home in 1304, Wallace found that Robert Bruce, who had undertaken Guardianship of Scotland in his absence, had accepted a truce with King Edward. Wallace refused to accept the terms of the truce and so the king offered a large reward for his capture. Wallace was arrested near Glasgow in August 1305 and transported to London where he was charged and tried for treason. He denied the charges, stating that he’d never sworn allegiance to the English king in the first place, and was sentenced to death. Wallace’s execution was held on the 23rd August: he was hung, drawn, and quartered, and parts of his body were put on display in London, Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth.
William Wallace is forever remembered as a Scottish martyr and a symbol of Scotland’s struggle for independence; a cause that continued many years after his death until Scotland gained independence with the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1328.