William Wallace. Braveheart.
Backtrack along Cloth Fair and turn left into West Smithfield. Follow the road as it veers right and pause on the left by the memorials to those who were executed here when this one of London’s execution grounds.
Probably the most famous person to be executed here was Sir William Wallace, the Scots patriot who was executed here in 1305 for opposing the English invasion of his country. A memorial plaque on the wall details his dauntless fight against Edward 1st incursions into his homeland, although diplomatically it never once mentions who it was he was courageously fighting against! Wallace’s story was the subject of Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart, which has been criticised for several historical inaccuracies. However, Wallace’s true story is certainly no less inspiring and perhaps warrants a re-telling here.
On 10th September 1297, William Wallace stood upon the lofty heights of Abbey Craig - where Scotland’s national memorial to him now stands - and gazed across the River Forth at the English held stronghold of Stirling Castle. The second son of minor Scottish noble Malcolm Wallace, William had grown up against the background of war, intrigue and ruthless oppression that had seen Scotland’s King, John Balliol, stripped of his sovereignty by England’s Edward 1st and his country bowed to English rule, her independence sacrificed to the self serving interests of her bickering and duplicitous nobles.
By his mid twenties William, standing at over six feet tall, was a giant of a man in both stature and reputation. He had avenged the killing of his father by murdering the English Knight responsible, and was living as an outlaw, leading a band of dedicated freedom fighters who waged a ruthlessly effective guerrilla campaign against English occupation from their hideout deep within the impregnable Ettrick forest. He was also betrothed to the beautiful heiress Marion Braidfute, who lived in the town of Lanark on the peripheral of the forest. When the English Sheriff of Lanark, Hazelrig, ordered the execution of Marion’s brother, Wallace and his comrades avenged the killing by stealing into town and putting fifty English soldiers to the sword.
Determined that the action should not go unpunished, but unable to get at Wallace himself, Hazlerig opted instead “to deny Wallace the woman he truly loved” and had Marion executed. It was an ill-conceived act of barbaric injustice and it brought the full wrath of William Wallace crashing into town, where he and his followers murdered the sheriff and slaughtered two hundred and forty English soldiers, merchants and commoners. With Lanark still smouldering from his retribution, Wallace went on the rampage, plundering his way across Scotland, collecting fables and followers as he went. Thousands flocked to his cause, including the Scottish Bishop’s, whose blessing turned the uprising into a moral as well as national crusade. By the time he arrived at Abbey Craig, his army had swollen to over 40,000 men, and William Wallace had become the ultimate cliché of patriotic resistance – a living legend.
From Stirling Castle itself the English commander, William de Warrenne, watched the rebels assemble. With 50,000 seasoned and heavily armed soldiers under him, he was confident that the ill disciplined, lightly armed Scottish force would be no match for his superior army. But, observing battle protocol, he sent two Dominican friars to offer a reprieve for all past misdemeanours if Wallace and his comrades would surrender. “Tell your commander that we are here not to make peace but to do battle, to defend ourselves” was Wallace’s contemptuous reply. “Let them come on and we shall prove this in their very beards.”
On the morning of 12th September 1297, the English cavalry began to file across the narrow, wooden bridge that spanned the River Forth. From their vantage point on Abbey Craig, Wallace and his comrades watched as the superior force began to fan out onto the marshy ground below. At 11am William Wallace raised his battle horn to his lips and, blowing a long loud blast, gave the signal to attack. The English were caught completely off guard as an avalanche of screaming terror came hurtling towards them and plunged into their ranks, swords and spears at the ready. A detachment of rebels broke from the main force and hacked and stabbed their way to the bridgehead determined to secure it. Panic-stricken, the English troops were unable to proceed but found their retreat blocked by their own advancing company. Many fell or jumped into the river where, weighed down by their armour and equipment, they drowned in its deep waters. Others were either cut down by rebel swords, impaled by Scottish spears, or else were crushed to death beneath horses hooves and men’s feet. By afternoon, the greatly outnumbered Scottish force had inflicted a crushing rout on an English army that, until then, had never known defeat. Plundering the bodies of their vanquished enemies, the victorious Scots came across that of the hated English Treasurer, Hugh Cressingham. They promptly flayed the skin from his corpse and fashioned it into a belt for Wallace’s sword.
Wallace was a national hero as he moved on to capture Dundee and drive the English forces further and further south until, by October 1297, not one English soldier remained in Scotland. But as they retreated, the English adopted a scorched earth policy, burning farms, slaughtering livestock and destroying crops. With the onset of winter and the people of Scotland facing famine, Wallace crossed the border and ravaged northern England. It was not all battles, however, he issued a letter to Lubeck and Hamburg declaring that Scotland was free and that trade could resume between the countries. Wallace was knighted and declared the Guardian of the Realm, acting for John Balliol.
But, as is so often the case in Scottish history, victory was short lived. The following year Edward 1st mustered a huge fighting force and, on 12th July 1298, he routed the Scots at Falkirk. The rebellion was over and, although he managed to escape from the battlefield, William Wallace renounced his guardianship of Scotland and faded into obscurity. It is known that he went to France in 1298 or 1299, probably to ask for military or diplomatic help. He may also have gone to Rome for the same reasons. It is highly probable that he returned to his campaign of guerrilla warfare and remained a considerable thorn in England’s side.
But history remains mute about his activities until in 1305, betrayed by one of his own countrymen, he was captured and taken to London. There, in the imposing surrounds of Westminster Hall, he was sat on a bench and laurel crown was placed upon his head. When the Kings Justiciar accused him of treason, Wallace refused to answer the charge, pointing out that since he had never sworn allegiance Edward 1st he couldn’t be guilty of treason against him. The English, however, were not interested in such legal niceties and the result of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Thus it was that on August 23rd 1305, tied to the tails of two horses, William Wallace was dragged through the streets of London to the Smooth Field here and suffered the barbaric punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Around the anniversary of his death visiting Scots adorn his wall memorial here with Scottish heather and Thistles, offsetting its greyness with a delightful profusion of wild greenery.
However, Wallace was just one of many who were executed here. During the latter medieval period many were burned at the stake here (including the Protestant martyrs detailed on the first plaque you pass on the wall. Less commonly, though equally as horrifying, people were also boiled alive here (giving rise to the nickname William Boilman for the Public Executioner). Burning alive was only on the Statute books for a little over a decade and was the prescribed punishment for prisoners. It was a treat for the victim and spectators alike if the water was boiling before the prisoner was lowered in, otherwise it could take hours before death ensued. It was probably not out of mercy for the victim that the authorities would order that the water be brought to boiling point, but rather to pacify the onlookers who might otherwise become unruly out of boredom while watching the prolonged suffering.
Burning at the stake could also be as emotionally painful to the spectators as it was physically for the victims, as the process could be very slow and protracted and the agonies of the sufferers would of course be readily apparent. Among the methods used to shorten the suffering was the placing of a small barrel of gunpowder on a cord around the victim’s neck. The resultant explosion not only shortened the agonies of death but also produced a spectacular conclusion to the proceeding for the delectation of the spectators.
Burning was usually a punishment reserved for heretics and those found guilty of treason. Witches, who were frequently burned in Europe, were generally hanged in England. It was therefore to the advantage of those accused of heresy to profess allegiance to the Devil, rather than to confess to worshipping God in a manner not approved of my the prevalent religious dogma of the day.