This Day In Literary History
On August 23rd, 1305, the legendary Scottish knight Sir William Wallace was executed by order of England's King Edward I. This important historical event would inspire the writing of two classic poems and the making of an acclaimed feature film.
The story of Sir William Wallace's execution actually begins nearly twenty years earlier in 1286, with the death of Scotland's monarch, King Alexander III. For years, he had ruled over a peaceful and prosperous Scotland.
Then, in 1286, Alexander was killed when his horse threw him off. His successor to the throne was his little granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway. Sadly, the young girl died on her voyage home, leaving Scotland without a ruler.
The Scottish lords set up an interim government of "Guardians" to rule until a new king could be crowned. This new government was sharply divided; some of the guardians wanted independence from England, while others remained loyal to the British crown.
The conflict threatened to plunge Scotland into civil war. England's King Edward I intervened to prevent that, acting as an arbiter to settle disputes between the feuding Guardians.
As the search for a new King of Scotland continued, King Edward demanded that all contenders to the throne recognize him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. This left a bad taste in many Scots' mouths.
In 1292, a great feudal court in Berwick-upon-Tweed chose John Balliol to be the new King of Scotland, as he was a descendant of the former king, David I.
Meanwhile, King Edward continued to antagonize the Guardians of Scotland by continually reversing the rulings of their court.
The new King John Balliol was then summoned to appear at the English court as a common plaintiff, which most Scots considered the height of disrespect. Balliol was a weakling and his people referred to him as Toom Tabard - Empty Coat.
He pledged his loyalty to King Edward, sparking off a revolution. King Edward had his armies storm Berwick-upon-Tweed. They sacked the town, leaving a path of wanton destruction in their wake.
In July of 1296, three months after the Scots were defeated in the Battle of Dunbar, temporarily squelching the flames of revolution, King John Balliol was forced to abdicate, even though he had pledged loyalty to the British crown.
Nearly a year later, Sir William Wallace, a Scottish nobleman, assassinated William De Heselrig, England's brutal High Sheriff of Lanark.
Legend has it that De Heselrig sought to arrest Wallace at his home, but finding only Wallace's wife there, he arrested her and had her put to death.
After killing De Heselrig, Sir William Wallace teamed up with fellow Scottish noble William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas. Together, they led many armed insurrections against British soldiers on Scottish soil.
In September of 1297, along with fellow revolutionary Andrew Moray, Wallace led their army to victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where they routed a much larger British force.
After the battle, Wallace and Moray were made Guardians of Scotland. Two months later, Wallace led a successful large scale raid on Northern England. For this, he was knighted.
On April 1st, 1298, a horde of English soldiers invaded Edinburgh, looting and pillaging the land as they searched for William Wallace and his men. Wallace found them and attacked, and the Battle of Falkirk was on.
Unfortunately for Wallace, this battle proved to be a disaster - an embarrassing, catastrophic defeat that cost the Scots a lot of men.
Wallace escaped from the battlefield, but his reputation as a military leader would be irreparably tarnished. By September, he resigned as a Guardian of Scotland.
William Wallace continued to do his part for Scottish independence, mostly in a non-military capacity. He visited France's King Philip IV to ask for assistance in fighting the British.
For several years, Wallace avoided capture by the English, but then in August of 1305, he was caught by John De Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to the British crown.
Wallace was turned over to a regiment of English soldiers near Glasgow, then transported to London, where he would stand trial for treason at Westminster Hall.
Sir William Wallace, defiant to the last, defended his actions by saying, "I could not be a traitor to [King] Edward, for I was never his subject." Nevertheless, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
It was a gruesome execution. After Wallace's conviction, he was taken away, stripped naked, dragged through London by a horse, and hanged to the point of near death. Then, still alive, he was castrated, disemboweled, and beheaded.
Finally, his body was quartered - ripped apart into four pieces. In a final act of humiliation, his severed head was dipped in tar and mounted on a pike atop London Bridge.
Wallace's horrific fate and his earlier heroics made him one of Scotland's greatest folk heroes. The story of his life would inspire two classic poems written by two legendary Scottish poets.
In 1477, the poet Blind Harry, aka Henry the Minstrel, wrote The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace - The Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace.
In this classic nine volume epic poem in tribute to the Scottish hero, Blind Harry tells of Wallace's assassination of William De Heselrig in retribution for the alleged murder of his wife:
"And thought'st thou, traitor," fierce the hero cried,
"When by thy murd'ring steel she cruel died;
When thy fell hand her precious blood did spill,
Wallace though absent, would be absent still?"
Furious he spoke, and rising on the foe,
Full on his head discharg'd the pond'rous blow;
Down sinks the felon headlong to the ground,
The guilty soul flew trembling through the wound...
In 1793, Robert Burns, considered Scotland's greatest poet, wrote Scots Wha Hae, (Scots, Who Have) his classic patriotic ode to his country's heroes:
Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victorie!
Now's the day, and now's the hour:
See the front o battle lour, [look menacingly],
See approach proud Edward's power --
Chains and slaverie!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave? --
Let him turn, and flee!
Wha for Scotland's King and Law
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or Freeman fa',
Let him follow me!
By Oppression's woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow! --
Let us do or die!
Burns originally published the poem anonymously, as publicly advocating for Scottish independence was an imprisonable offense at the time.
In 1995, the highly acclaimed feature film Braveheart was released, starring Mel Gibson (who also directed) as Sir William Wallace. The screenplay was based on Blind Harry's classic epic poem, and the movie won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (Gibson).
Quote Of The Day
“Suspicion is a heavy armor and with its weight it impedes more than it protects.” - Robert Burns
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for Braveheart, the classic 1995 feature film about Sir William Wallace. Enjoy!