Sir William Wallace was executed in London on the 23rd of August, 1305.
Whatever you think or believe about the story of William Wallace, his capture and execution was a betrayal and a crime. These days, it would be considered a war crime. It was a question of jurisdiction and Wallace’s accuser, judge and jury had no such right. Of course, Edward knew all that and the fact that he went to the trouble of holding a ‘trial’ at all says more than a little about how Wallace was viewed and Edward’s intentions. Wallace had severely embarrassed Edward’s Lieutenants at Stirling Bridge in 1297 and, despite defeat at Falkirk a year later, he had fought a successful guerilla campaign against the might of England over a number of years before taking a ‘working holiday’ in France. Wallace was the symbol of Edward’s failure to entirely subdue Scotland and bring the nation to heel, and his continued freedom a source of seething rage within the dark heart of the elderly Edward Plantagenet. No surprise then, when Edward devised a new method of execution for his arch enemy and sought to make such an horrific and public demonstration of his ultimate authority over the ‘outlaw’ William Wallace.
When Wallace returned to Scotland from France in 1303, he continued his policy of harassing the occupying English army, but his days were numbered when the Nobles of Scotland submitted to Edward in Feburary, 1304. That left Wallace out on a limb, isolated and more exposed than ever. As Edward said at the time, “As for William Wallace, it is agreed, that he shall render himself up at the will and mercy of our sovereign lord the king as it shall seem good to him.” He wasn’t short on arrogance, was Edward and neither was he short of craftiness or cruelty. I guess we should give him his due, though, as the times were brutal and cannot ever be judged by today’s moral standards. True to character, Edward resorted to bribery and blackmail in order to induce his fellow Scots to betray Wallace. He made promises to reduce the punishments of other individuals if they brought Wallace into custody, but none of those patriots who provided him with shelter turned him in and he escaped several ambush attempts. He had a few close calls, mind you, including that at Earnside in September, 1304, when he and his men fought off the Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence.
Wallace was finally captured on the 3rd of August, 1305, at Robroyston near Glasgow. He was captured by one of his own, Sir John de Menteith, who had been on the Scottish side, but had since sworn allegiance to Edward I. So, who was the traitor? The double crossing Menteith had been rewarded already by Edward for changing sides. He had been made Sheriff and Keeper of Dumbarton Castle, but what additional reward he gained from Edward isn’t known. A local mason seems to have given him an apt memorial as there is a gargoyle with a horribly contorted face perched on the guardhouse at Dumbarton Castle, which is called the ‘fause (false) Menteith’. It was reported that Menteith “followed [Wallace] close at his heels and took him in bed beside his strumpet.” The present memorial at Robroyston carries the inscription: “the house in which the hero of Scotland was basely betrayed and captured about midnight on 5th August 1305 when alone with his faithful friend and co-patriot Kerile who was slain.” Actually, it was the 3rd of August, according to most reports.
Wallace’s journey to London for his ‘trial’ was commemorated in August, 2005, on the seven hundredth anniversary of his death. David Ross, historian and ‘Convenor of the Society of William Wallace’, repeated Wallace’s 450 mile walk from Robroyston all the way to West Smithfield, in London, the site of the hero’s execution. He timed his journey to coincide with the date of Wallace’s arrival and trial in Westminster and the occasion was marked with a memorial service in the House of Commons attended by Ross and a number of SNP members, including Alex Salmond. A service was also then held on the 23rd at The Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great, nearby to where a memorial hangs on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The inscription on the plaque reads in part: “To The Immortal Memory of Sir William Wallace Scottish Patriot… Who from the year 1296 fought dauntlessly in defence of his country's Liberty and Independence in the face of fearful odds and great hardship being eventually betrayed and captured brought to London and put to death near this spot on the 23rd August 1305.” At the ceremony in Smithfield, Alex Salmond said, “Seven hundred years on and William Wallace still has the establishment scared stiff. Throughout history the more the authorities of the day have tried to suppress the Wallace legend the more that it has grown.”
There is also a Latin couplet on the commemorative plaque, which translates as: “I tell you the truth, son, freedom is the best condition, never live like a slave.” These emotive words were taught to William Wallace by one of his uncles, the Priest of Dunipace.
Wallace was ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’, which remained the penalty for high treason amongst males in the United Kingdom until abolished under the ‘Treason Act’ of 1814. Women found guilty of treason were in danger of being burned at the stake until that law was changed by the Treason Act of 1790 in Great Britain (1796 in Ireland). After his sham trial, Wallace was chained prostrate on a hurdle and drawn by two horses through the filthy streets of London for the entertainment of the public. During his three and a half mile journey to Smithfield via the Tower of London and Aldgate, the jubilant crowd threw stones and mocked the fallen hero. At Smithfield, Wallace was hanged, but cut down before he expired. He was then held upright before being emasculated and disembowelled. His privates and entrails were burned in a brazier in front of his eyes, although I doubt if they’d have been open at that point. The executioner then reached into his abdomen, ripped out his heart and held it in triumph before the baying mob. Finally, he was decapitated and quartered. Edward’s symbolism created three ‘deaths’ for Wallace – hanging, evisceration and decapitation – for his crimes against God, man and the King. One of Wallace’s arms was sent to Stirling, where it was eventually buried by the Monks of Cambuskenneth Abbey, outstretched and pointing – towards Abbey Craig, the scene of Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge.