William Wallace became one of the main leaders of the Scottish resistance to England’s occupation during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Unfortunately, very little is known about his early life prior to his assassination of William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297. Following this attack, he joined forces with William the Hardy, father of the young lad who would grow up to become the Black Douglas, to carry out an audacious raid on the English regime’s power base at Scone. This uprising was one of several rebellions taking place across Scotland simultaneously, including one led by Andrew de Moray in the north.
Eventually, Wallace joined forces with de Moray and both men defeated a vastly superior English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297. They were subsequently appointed as Joint Guardians of Scotland although de Moray died soon after as a result of wounds received at Stirling Bridge. Wallace then led a particularly brutal large-scale raid into northern England, through Northumberland and Cumberland and continued to serve as Guardian until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. He then resigned the Guardianship in favour of Robert the Bruce, the future king, and John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch.
Details of Wallace's activities after this point are vague, but evidence suggests that he left Scotland on a diplomatic mission to the court of France to plead for assistance in the Scottish struggle for independence. There is a surviving letter from the French king dated 7 November 1300 to his envoys in Rome demanding that they should help Sir William. It also suggests that Wallace may have intended to travel to Rome, although it is not known if he ever did.
Whatever he was up to, by 1304 Wallace was back in Scotland, and, unable to remain inactive, was involved in skirmishes with English forces at Happrew and Earnside. Using guerrilla tactics he continued to be a thorn in the flesh of the authorities until 5 August 1305 when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, betrayed him and turned him over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow. Letters of safe conduct from Haakon V of Norway, Philip IV of France, and John Balliol, along with other documents, were found upon Wallace’s person.
He was transported to London and taken to Westminster Hall where he was tried for treason and atrocities against civilians in war. He responded to the treason charge by saying, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject."
Immediately following his mock trial he was stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield where he was murdered. First, he was strangled by hanging, but cut free while he was still alive. Then he was emasculated and eviscerated, his bowels burned before his own eyes. Finally he was beheaded and his body cut into four parts. His preserved head (dipped in tar) was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth as a warning to those who would resist England’s power.
A plaque stands in a wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. Since his death, Wallace has obtained an iconic status far beyond his homeland.