On 23rd August 1305, William Wallace was taken from Westminster hall, stripped naked and dragged backwards through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield. He was hung but released while he was still alive. He was castrated, eviscerated and his bowels burnt before him. After that, he was beheaded. His body was then cut into four parts while his preserved head (dipped in tar) was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Aberdeen.
William Wallace had evaded capture since the Battle of Stirling. But on 5th August, a Scottish knight turned Wallace over to the English near Glasgow. He was transported to Westminster Hall where he was tried for treason and sentenced to death, but he was a condemned man well before that.
From his refuge in the Scottish highlands, Wallace had heard of the battle at Berwick. He'd heard of Edward I's army as it marched into Scotland, trumpets blaring and drums pounding. He'd heard that Edward sat high on the hill overlooking the town as the blustery wind blew his beard, strewn with silvery grey whiskers, as his long hair whipped around his face. His mouth had been smiling but it was the smile of a man who wonders which bug to squash first. As the two armies clashed below, his chainmail shone and the evil smile spread further across his battle-weathered face, highlighted against the gleaming sun in a clear blue sky.
Wallace had heard all the reports and he was seething. Berwick would never be the same, they said. For two days, blood had flowed from the slain and at the end of the battle, thousands of corpses were thrown like garbage down wells and into the sea.
Wallace had been holding back his raggedy army of men who had been itching for a fight and he wasn't about to hold them back another day. What they lacked in experience they made up for in cold-bloodedness and determination. He was about to show the English king what it was like to face a race of people who were fierce in the patriotism of their country and who wouldn't give up without a fight.
Edward should have left his grievance with France behind him. Instead, he returned to France and left John Warenne, Earl of Surrey as his commander in chief. On 11th September 1297, Warenne found himself face to face with Wallace on the other side of Stirling Bridge.
In hindsight, Warenne should have listened to his knights. Only one hour before, he’d watched as Wallace and his band of brigands glared at him from the other side of the bridge. He’d listened in silence as his officers urgently tried to convince him of the dangers of deploying across the bridge, especially with Wallace waiting on the other side. They argued that it would take eleven hours to move their entire army across the bridge. In that time, they would be open to attack and totally vulnerable. And what if Wallace met them halfway and attacked before the passage was complete?
John Warenne was a battle-hardened commander in the north but he made a fateful mistake that day. He refused to listen and he ordered his troops to cross the bridge anyway.
As the knights had predicted, Wallace watched eagerly as the English troops moved forward. He had little if no experience as a leader but he had what most good commanders had. Instinct. He waited for the exact right moment and then hurled the full force of his men at them and in the chaos, five thousand English men were slaughtered. Edward had released the monster and Wallace was the result.
Edward wasn’t about to let a repeat of Stirling Bridge happen. This time, he was fully prepared. He had brought his full cavalry and his Welsh archers and they relentlessly rained arrows into the Scottish lines at Falkirk. The battle was lost for the Scots almost as soon as the first arrows began to fall, sending Wallace and his men fleeing into the hills.
It was the beginning of the end for William Wallace, just a matter of time before he was captured and executed. But waiting to take up the challenge for Scotland was Robert the Bruce. As far as Edward was concerned, Scotland was dead. But as far as the Scots were concerned, they had only just started.