Who Was William Wallace? Fact vs. Fiction

The fact and the fiction of the legendary William Wallace is sometimes difficult to separate, and he occupies a space of legendary repute in Scottish identity.

Jan 4, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
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Statue of William Wallace in Dryburgh, via Scotland off the Beaten Track; with The Scottish flag, via Wallpaper Safari


William Wallace is a legendary figure. He occupies an important space in Scottish national identity as a hero, a liberator, and a symbol of independence. Although widely known today, his legacy, brought to international attention by the film Braveheart (1995), is littered with misconceptions and fictional ideas created mainly for the purpose of entertainment rather than a need for historical accuracy.


He lived a life of hardship and conflict in his desire to see Scotland freed from English dominance. Martyred and elevated in status, his story has become almost mythical. But who was William Wallace in reality, and how do common beliefs compare to the reality of the man?


The Early Life of William Wallace 

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A monument to William Wallace at his supposed birthplace in Elderslie, via Paisley


From the beginning, the movie Braveheart depicts William Wallace as a commoner, and that’s the idea that most people have in their heads when they think of who William Wallace was – just a common man who gains uncommon power. This, however, was not the case.


William Wallace was born to lesser nobility around 1270 in the southwest of Scotland. The place of his birth is open to speculation, and various sources hint at various locations. Traditionally, his birthplace is stated to be in Elderslie, Renfrewshire. His family owned several estates.


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Very little is known about Wallace’s early life, and what is known is drawn from speculation regarding the physical remains of his father’s seal upon a letter and the writings of a minstrel known as Blind Harry. According to Blind Harry, William Wallace was also seven feet tall. Similarly, the 15th-century abbot Walter Bower claims that William Wallace was a giant of a man. Whether these accounts are truthful is completely unknown, so it is impossible to tell fact from fiction in this regard.


Traditionally, Wallace is also said to have been descended from the sister of Saint Patrick. If this is true, this ancestral line would have come from Wales.


Scotland in Turmoil

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John Balliol (who ruled Scotland from 1292 to 1296) by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II, c. 1685, via Royal Collection Trust


In 1296, the king of Scotland, Alexander III, fell from his horse and died. Next in line for the throne was his granddaughter, Margaret, who fell ill and died en route to Scotland from Norway. This event sparked a succession crisis, and Scotland was torn apart as a total of thirteen contenders vied for the crown. The contenders with the most credible claims were John Balliol and Robert Bruce, the grandfather of Robert the Bruce.


With the political dynamic threatening to push Scotland into civil war, the Scottish nobility invited Edward I (known as Edward Longshanks) of England to arbitrate and mediate. In 1292, John Balliol was judged to have the strongest claim and made king of Scotland. Far from settling the issue, it sparked another political crisis, as Balliol was seen as a puppet of Edward, and Scotland found itself being treated as a vassal of England. By 1295, the other Scottish nobles had had enough, and they appointed a council of 12 nobles to act as guardians of Scotland, effectively ripping all power away from John Balliol. To add insult to injury, they concluded a treaty of friendship with France, later known as the Auld Alliance, which was aimed mainly at protecting Scotland from England by making an ally out of England’s longtime enemy. This infuriated Edward, and he led an invasion, swiftly defeating the Scots at Dunbar and removing John Balliol from the throne.


Braveheart creates erroneous reasons for the Scottish rebellion against the English, mainly in the form of Jus Primae Noctis, which was the right for a nobleman to sleep with a local bride on her wedding night. There is no strong evidence this right was ever practiced anywhere in the medieval world.


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Braveheart (1995) depicts the death of William Wallace’s wife, played by Catherine McCormack, via IMDb


One thing that the film may have gotten right was the circumstances of the death of William Wallace’s wife. In the movie, she is bound to a stake, and her throat is slit by the English occupiers. Blind Harry gives a similar account, referring to the killer as the Sheriff of Lanark. One discrepancy between the movie and the Blind Harry source is that Blind Harry doesn’t name Wallace’s wife, while later sources claim her name was Marion Braidfute. This was changed in the movie to Murron to avoid confusion with Maid Marian from the Robin Hood legend. However, the name “Marion Braidfute” is also subject to debate, as modern historians have claimed it was a completely fictional invention.


While the death of his wife spurs Wallace to action against the English in the movie, Blind Harry notes that William Wallace was a rebel leader who had been fighting against the English long before his wife was killed.


As in the movie, one event that is known to have taken place is William Wallace killing William de Heselrig, the High Sheriff of Lanark. While the movie positions this event as revenge for the murder of Wallace’s wife, the reality is unknown. Some sources claim this event took place before the murder of Wallace’s wife.


By this time, Wallace was committed to the cause of throwing off the English yoke, and together with William Douglas the Hardy and a small army, Wallace led a raid on Scone, forcing the English-appointed Justice of Scotland, William de Ormesby, to flee. Douglas was captured soon after, but Wallace evaded the English and continued to wage war against his enemies.


Stirling Bridge

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The movie poster versus what it would look like if it were historically accurate. Image created by & courtesy of Patrick Robinson Art and Animation


One of the most notable events in the life of William Wallace was the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Jointly led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray, the Scottish, vastly outnumbered, won a victory against the English on September 11, 1297. As a result of a wound suffered during the fighting, Andrew Moray died over a month later. After the battle, William Wallace took up the mantle of “Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland on behalf of King John Balliol.”


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Movie poster for Braveheart (1995), via IMDb


The battle, however, has played out differently in modern retellings. Unlike the depictions in Braveheart, the Scottish were not clad in kilts and blue face paint. The latter, a reference to woad, stopped being used by the Scots (and the Picts) centuries before as a decorative adornment in battle. In reality, the Scots were dressed much like the English, wearing armor that was common at the time. William Wallace would have at least worn a suit of chainmail and was likely to have worn a greathelm or something similar as well.


Similarly, Scottish knights would have been adorned with the same level of heraldry found within the English army, with shields displaying colorful devices. And unlike in the movie, the two armies didn’t run at each other, hacking and slashing in a chaotic whirlwind of stupidity. Careful strategy and tactics were involved.


In November of 1297, Wallace led a raid into Northern England, and upon his return, he was knighted by one of the earls of Scotland.


William Wallace’s Downfall

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English knights overpower the Scottish at Falkirk, via Warfare History Network


In April 1298, King Edward I launched another invasion of Scotland. To his frustration, the Scots refused to give battle and shadowed his troops harassing the English army, which was critically low on supplies and morale. However, luck would not be in the Scots’ favor, as Edward received word of the exact location of the Scottish army.


When the English arrived suddenly at Falkirk, the Scots had no option but to engage. The Scottish defeat was heavy, and Wallace lost his prestige as a military commander. He resigned as Guardian of Scotland in favor of Robert the Bruce. Following the disaster, little is known of Wallace’s whereabouts or activities, but it is suggested he traveled to France to plead for assistance and planned to travel to Rome. After his return to Scotland, he engaged in minor skirmishes with the English until he was betrayed by a Scottish knight loyal to the English. Wallace was captured in 1305 and transported to London, where he stood trial and was sentenced to death.


His torture was brutal. He was dragged through the streets while tied to a horse, whereafter he was emasculated, eviscerated, hanged, drawn, and quartered. His head was covered in pitch and displayed on a spike on top of London Bridge.


The execution, however, did not produce the results the English wanted. William Wallace became a martyr and a symbol of Scottish independence. Nine years after the death of Wallace, Robert the Bruce would lead Scotland to victory at Bannockburn in a decisive victory, crushing the English army and humiliating its king.


The Braveheart Name

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Facial reconstruction of Robert the Bruce, the person to whom the “Braveheart” name was originally given. The image on the left shows him with leprosy, the disease from which he died; via Sky News


In popular consciousness, the name “Braveheart” will forever be remembered as being connected to William Wallace, and imagery of a blue-faced Mel Gibson wearing a kilt immediately comes to mind. He was, however, not “Braveheart” at all. Robert the Bruce was Braveheart.


By the end of his life (dying from leprosy), Robert the Bruce regretted never having gone on crusade. According to 14th-century Scottish chronicler John Barbour, Robert requested that one of his knights, Sir James Douglas, take Robert’s heart in a silver case with him when he went on a crusade against the Muslims in Spain. Douglas was killed in combat, but before he died, he lobbed the silver case containing the heart toward the enemy and shouted, “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee!” After the battle, the heart was taken back to Scotland, where it was interred at Melrose Abbey.


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The execution site of William Wallace in Elms, Smithfield, via Historic UK


The sources on the life of William Wallace are few and certainly cannot be regarded as authoritative. Given the nature of the source material, one can almost excuse Hollywood for the deliberate inaccuracies in presenting the man. While some information is skewed, exaggerated, or left out, the basic idea of what William Wallace represents is not lost on society. And in an age where Scottish sentiment for self-determination is at an all-time high, William Wallace remains an extremely important figure.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.