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In the Footsteps of William Wallace in Scotland and Northern England
By Alan Young, Michael J. Stead
The History PressCopyright © 2010 Alan Young
All rights reserved.
WILLIAM WALLACE – THE MAKING OF A LEGEND
Anyone attempting to understand the William Wallace phenomenon in Scottish history must, first of all, establish how Wallace was viewed by his contemporaries. Only then can it be seen exactly when, how and why the legend and traditions now surrounding this character have evolved and developed over the last 700 years. As part of this process of unfolding layers of history and tradition that most significant source on the life of William Wallace the epic poem The Wallace, written in the 1470s by Henry the Minstrel (better known as Blind Harry), will be closely examined. The Wallace will be set in both the political and cultural context of the day, noting too the sources that had an effect on Blind Harry's work. In turn it will be seen what impact this late fifteenth-century poem has had on the late twentieth-century film Braveheart (1995) in terms of its portrayal of William Wallace. A number of questions arise. Why has Blind Harry's view of Wallace remained such a powerful, indeed dominant, influence on the popular perceptions of William Wallace? What other interpretations are there and why have these remained in the background? How far does this accepted view of William Wallace distort what is known of the historical Wallace?
Contemporary evidence for the historical William Wallace is restricted narrowly to the years between his sudden emergence onto the military scene in 1297 and his death in 1305. Within this time information is unevenly spread. Most material relates to the period from the summer of 1297, just before his triumph over the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (11 September 1297), until shortly after his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk (22 July 1298). It is to these years that the only four historical documents emanating from William Wallace himself belong. After defeat at Falkirk, Wallace left Scotland, acting as a roving ambassador for the Scottish cause, principally at the French and papal courts between 1298 and 1302. Little is known in detail of his activities during these years. Following his return to Scotland in late 1302 or early 1303, Wallace can be traced only through fragmentary references to his appearance in skirmishes with the English and in reports of Edward I's efforts to capture him. This pursuit ended with Wallace's capture by John of Menteith in 1305, after which Wallace was taken south to London where he was tried and executed. Reports of Wallace's trial and savage death form the bulk of the surviving contemporary comments on him.
One very interesting aspect of contemporary evidence on William Wallace is how little emanates from Scottish sources. The main Scottish strand in the standard narrative of Scottish medieval history was John of Fordun, whose Chronicle of the Scots Nation was compiled in the 1380s. Though written long after Wallace's death, Fordun's Chronicle is now acknowledged as an invaluable source of information for the period of William Wallace's influence. He had access to original thirteenth-century material and therefore must be recognised as the closest Scottish source to Wallace himself. Yet, though Fordun's reporting of facts may be accurate, his interpretation of events was naturally affected by the politics of his time. After Robert Bruce's (King Robert I's) death in 1329, Scotland had endured some years of great political instability – there had been a minority period, civil war and the constant threat of English invasion to support Edward Balliol's attempt to gain the Scottish throne. All of these threats to the Scottish situation seemed to be replicating the events that followed the death of Alexander III in 1286 which led to Edward I's interference in Scottish affairs. To make matters worse, the Scottish King David II had been captured by the English at Neville's Cross (near Durham) in 1346 and was subsequently held in lengthy captivity. As a result of these circumstances, Fordun's narrative strongly emphasises three themes – the growth of the Scottish nation and patriotism, the cause of Scottish independence and the importance of the Scottish monarchy in supporting these objectives. In view of the latter point, it is hardly surprising that Fordun's chief hero was Robert Bruce, who restored an independent Scottish monarchy in 1306, rather than William Wallace.
When Fordun's text is examined for information on William Wallace, he gives only a framework for his activities, an outline of his actions with little material about his background and, interestingly, in respect to later writings, nothing on his appearance. Undoubtedly, William Wallace was a hero, as can be seen in the following extract:
From that time there flocked to him all who were in bitterness of spirit and were weighed down beneath the burden of bondage under the unbearable domination of English despotism, and he [Wallace] became their leader. He was wondrously brave and bold, of goodly mien and boundless liberality ...
However, to Fordun Robert Bruce was the hero of his Chronicle. Significantly, Fordun makes no connection between Wallace and Bruce in his narrative – they acted quite separately.
Though there are the beginnings of hero-worship contained within Fordun's descriptions of Wallace's actions, these can hardly be considered the foundations of a legend. Ironically, it is to contemporary English sources that the historian must go to gain not only more details of Wallace's activities but also to trace the origins of the legend. Foremost among these English sources are two northern chronicles, the Guisborough Chronicle (North Yorkshire) and the Lanercost Chronicle (Cumbria), while the annals of Peter Langtoft, which derive from Bridlington, are also of use. All English material is biased against William Wallace, targeting him as a hate figure. This surely reflects Edward I's attitude to Wallace at the time – to the English King Wallace came to symbolise, in 1297 and 1298, the spirit of the Scottish opposition and this became even more apparent between 1303 and 1305 when most Scottish resistance was crumbling away. It is interesting, if hardly surprising, that the most extreme English anti-Wallace sentiments were expressed by chroniclers living much further south, such as William Rishanger (St Albans Abbey in Hertfordshire), Nicholas Trivet (Oxfordshire), Matthew of Westminster and the Norwich monk Bartholomew Cotton. The anonymous author of the poem Song on the Scottish Wars shared their opinions too. Whatever the degree of hostility shown towards Wallace by contemporary English sources, there was a common desire generally to discredit Wallace's reputation both during his life and after his execution. To the Guisborough chronicler, Wallace was 'a common thief ... a vagrant fugitive'. To the Lanercost chronicler he was 'a bloody man ... who had formerly been a chief of brigands'. Within the Lanercost Chronicle was published a song describing Wallace:
Thou pillager of many a holy shrine Butcher of thousands, threefold death be thine
Similar views, if more extreme, were voiced by Matthew of Westminster, who referred to Wallace as:
... a man void of pity, a robber given to sacrilege, arson and homicide, more hardened in cruelty than Herod, more raging in madness than Nero ...
The anonymous author of the political song On the Execution of Sir Simon Fraser pointed to Edward I's motives in using Wallace's death as a lesson to the Scots:
Sir Edward our king, who is full of piety sent the Wallace's quarters to his own country to hang in four parts (of the country) to be their mirror thereupon to think, in order that many might see and dread
The targeting of Wallace as a hate figure and the triumphalism of England's popular songwriters at his death probably had the opposite effect to that intended. Instead of destroying Wallace's reputation, it heightened it, made Wallace a martyr for the Scottish cause and helped to create the legend of his life and deeds.
In Scotland it was not until the fifteenth century that the successors and amplifiers of John of Fordun began to promote a more detailed picture of William Wallace as patriot hero. The Scottish enhancers of Wallace's reputation were, principally, Andrew Wyntoun – Oryginale Cronykil of Scotland (c. 1420), Walter Bower – Scotichronicon (c. 1440) and most famously Henry the Minstrel (Blind Harry) – the vernacular poem The Wallace (1470s). It is clear that well before The Wallace was written there were tales, or 'gestis', circulating about William Wallace. Andrew Wyntoun comments:
Of his good deeds and his manliness Great Gestis, I heard say, are made ... Whoever his deeds would all endite Would need a mighty book to write
Unfortunately, no traces of these 'gestis' have been discovered.
In the hands of Scottish chroniclers of the fifteenth century, William Wallace became a strongly Christian figure. Walter Bower, Abbot of Inchcolm, describes Wallace:
Moreover the Most High had distinguished him and his changing features with a certain good humour, had so blessed his words and deeds with a certain heavenly gift ... a most skilful counsellor, very patient when suffering, a distinguished speaker who above all hunted down falsehood and deceit and detested treachery; for this reason the Lord was with him and with His help he was a man successful in everything ... with veneration for the church and respect for the clergy, he helped the poor and widows, and worked for the restoration of wards and orphans bringing relief to the oppressed. He lay in wait for thieves and robbers, inflicting rigorous justice on them without any reward. Because God was greatly pleased with works of justice of this kind, He in consequence guided all his activities.
This clearly demonstrates that Wallace was well on the way to unofficial canonisation before Blind Harry's biography in the 1470s. It is rather ironic to compare contemporary English descriptions of Wallace as 'a common thief' and 'pillager of many a holy shrine' with the depiction of him as an exalted Christian hero in the fifteenth- century Scottish chronicles.
Walter Bower not only portrays Wallace as a paragon, he also provides the first detailed physical impression of Wallace. This too is a prestigious, classical portrait:
He was a tall man with the body of a giant, cheerful in appearance with agreeable features, broad-shouldered and big-boned with belly in proportion and lengthy flanks, pleasing in appearance but with a wild look, broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs, a most spirited fighting-man, with all his limbs very strong and firm.
This description seems to be modelled on the well-known vignette of Charlemagne given by his biographer Einhard, who in turn was influenced by the Roman writer Suetonius.
It is to Walter Bower we must turn for the popular tradition whereby William Wallace inspired Robert Bruce to take up the cause of Scottish independence in the aftermath of the English victory over Wallace's forces at the Battle of Falkirk (22 July 1298). According to Bower, Robert Bruce was on the English side at the battle – a debatable issue – and, pursuing the defeated Scots, encountered William Wallace who accused him thus:
Robert, Robert, it is your inactivity and womanish cowardice that spur me to set authority free in your native land ...
Bower relates that this stirred a profound reaction in Robert Bruce:
On account of all this Robert himself was like one awakening from a deep sleep; the power of Wallace's words so entered his heart that he no longer had any thought of favouring the views of the English. Hence, as he became every day braver than he had been, he kept all these words uttered by his faithful friend, considering them in his heart.
It is important to note that no fourteenth-century source hints that Wallace had a role in rousing Robert Bruce's dormant nationalism. John of Fordun, the most well-regarded Scottish commentator on the period during which Wallace is said to have exerted influence, does not mention the episode. Another piece written at about the same time as Fordun's Chronicle was the epic poem The Bruce (1375), by John Barbour, the Archdeacon of Aberdeen. This comprehensive work praises in detail the life of Robert Bruce, but significantly William Wallace does not even warrant a mention.
Despite this, it is clear that the legend of William Wallace had already received some considerable development before Blind Harry's poem The Wallace took his reputation onto another plane of hero-worship. The Wallace was not only an epic in style but also in length, comprising almost 12,000 lines. It became, as will be seen, the most well-known representation of William Wallace. However, to appreciate fully the value of Blind Harry's work it should be placed in a number of settings – the Scottish historical context of Fordun, Wyntoun and Bower; the literary background of popular writing: outlaw ballads, the tales of Robin Hood, William Tell and Arthur and the writings of Chaucer; and the political circumstances of late fifteenth-century Scotland where the pro-English policies of James III of Scotland provoked hostile anti-English sentiments. According to M. McDiarmid, editor of a valuable critical edition of Blind Harry's The Wallace for the Scottish Text Society (1968–9): 'Harry's Wallace is firstly a poetical narrative and to be read as such, but an awareness of its propagandist bearing on the Scots' political situation of 1477–9 is essential to an understanding of the poet's free treatment of his subject-matter.' In the political sense, William Wallace was an ideal figurehead for the anti-English party. Indeed, in Blind Harry's hands, William Wallace even took on the appearance of Alexander Duke of Albany, the leader of the anti-English party in Scotland during Blind Harry's time. Thus a new layer was added to the already exaggerated physical image of Wallace that had been fashioned by Walter Bower. Blind Harry used Bower's classical representation and contemporary knowledge of the Duke of Albany (later verified by sixteenth-century chronicle accounts) to compose a portrait that was influential for several centuries:
In stature he was full nine quarters high,
When measured, at least, without a lie.
Betwixt his shoulders was three quarters broad,
Such length and breadth would now-a-days seem odd ...
Great, but well-shaped limbs, voice strong and sture,
Burning brown hair, his brows and eye-bries light;
Quick piercing eyes, like to the diamonds bright.
A well proportioned visage, long and sound;
Nose square and neat, with ruddy lips and round.
His breast was high, his neck was thick and strong;
A swinging hand, with arms both large and long.
Grave in his speech, his colour sanguine fine,
A beauteous face wherein did honour shine.
In time of peace mild as a lamb would be,
When war approach'd, a Hector stout was he.
The value of The Wallace in understanding the historical William Wallace has been widely debated. In the eighteenth century, Sir David Dalrymple described Harry as 'an author who either knew not history or who meant to falsify it'. These two strands represent the extremes of the debate. John Mair, writing The History of Great Britain (1518), thought that Harry was blind from birth and that the information within The Wallace would have been obtained from popular oral tales rather than books. The work of M. McDiarmid (1968–9) has clearly demonstrated that Harry was not blind from birth and had, in fact, access to chroniclers such as Bower, Wyntoun, Barbour and Froissart. Indeed, Harry seems to follow and elaborate upon Bower at key points in his narrative, such as the emphasis on Wallace's personal qualities and physical characteristics, the episode after Falkirk in which Wallace awakens in Robert Bruce a latent sense of patriotism and duty, and the religious exaltation of Wallace. As far as the latter issue is concerned, Harry presents Wallace dramatically as the patriot leader appointed by God. Harry describes Wallace's vision in Monkton church in which St Andrew confers the sword of Scotland on him:
Into that slumber Wallace thought he saw,
A stalwart man, that towards him did draw;
Who hastily did catch him by the hand;
'I am', he said, 'sent to thee by command';
A sword he gave him of the finest steel,
'This sword', said he, 'son, may thou manage weel';
A topaz fine, the plummet, did he guess,
The hilt and all did glitter o'er like glass.
'Dear son', said he, 'we tarry here too long;
Shortly thou must revenge thy country's wrong.'
The focus in both Bower's and Blind Harry's work is passionately anti-English. Bower's Scotichronicon ends with the words 'He is no Scot, O Christ, that finds this book displeasing.' As with the other themes, Blind Harry takes this a stage further, describing with relish a series of Wallace's violent anti-English acts of vengeance. Indeed, so overwhelming is this that Wallace's cause itself seems to become revenge against the English rather than defence of John Balliol's right to the Scottish throne, which is barely mentioned in The Wallace.
Excerpted from In the Footsteps of William Wallace in Scotland and Northern England by Alan Young, Michael J. Stead. Copyright © 2010 Alan Young. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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