What led the young William Wallace down the path to greatness? To determine that, this article discusses Wallace’s early years and some of the motivations behind his struggle against the English in 13th century Scotland.
William Wallace has mysterious beginnings, as most legendry heroes do. Wallace is one of Scotland’s greatest heroes and the inspiration for Mel Gibson’s character in the movie Braveheart. Not only do reports of his life remain undecided on whether his father’s name was Malcolm or Allen, but even his birth year is debated. There is no question, however, that he is the standard for freedom and peace in his Scottish homeland.
To set the stage for William’s entry into the history books, it is well-documented that the short years of his life were filled with conflict. A civil war was on the horizon because the ruling house of Scotland, which had been firmly in place for over 200 years, vanished with the death of its only remaining heir, a three-year old Norwegian princess. Instantly, two strong nobles claimed the throne, and turned to the English king, Edward (known as Longshanks because of his unusual height), to mediate the dispute. He created a document that more or less allowed England to take possession of Scotland, thereby turning it into an occupied nation. William Wallace grew up hating the English and fighting for the freedom of Scotland.
William Wallace was a younger son of a nobleman and as was the custom in the 13th century, expected to take up a career in the church. He lived with his uncle, a church cleric, while he was a young teen and gained a classical education. His uncle impressed young William with moral precepts that included liberty and peace. This early training formed much of William’s attitude and behavior over the rest of his life.
At 17, William began his formal education in Dundee, Scotland. It was here that he formed close ties with several other young men who would later follow him in his adventures. William was a striking young man, reputed to be well over six feet tall. In a time when the average height of a man was nearer five feet, his imposing presence must have commanded respect and admiration immediately.
All the while William was growing up, Scotland had been a morass of in-fighting among its nobles and struggles against English occupation. William’s family had been torn apart, his father and older brother escaping to southern Scotland, his mother seeking refuge with relatives in the north. When William was 19, his father was killed by an Englishman. Fueled by his hatred for the English scoundrel who killed his father, one day William found himself ringed by a group of English youths who taunted him about his clothes and demanded he give up his dirk (the Scottish term for a long dagger). Instead of giving up his dirk, William used it to kill the leader of the group, the son of the English constable of Dundee Castle.
Branded by the English as an outlaw, William was forced to leave Dundee and hide out with another of his uncles. Unfortunately, he met up with an English garrison one day while fishing. Several of the soldiers demanded he turn over his day’s catch and the leader of the group drew his sword when Wallace asked to keep half of it for his elderly, blind uncle. Once again William was forced to fight for what was his in the first place. Armed with only a fishing pole, William managed to maim or kill all the soldiers who had attacked him. Once more he was forced to run, hiding in the northern woods.
For at least five years, William waged a 13th century guerilla war against the English. He attacked and murdered at will in an attempt to avenge his father’s death and his own ill treatment at the hands of the English. He became a sort of Robin Hood figure to the Scottish people, while striking fear into the hearts of his enemies. Garnering the support of the locals and building up his military strength and reputation, William soon took up his place in Scottish history as a freedom fighter.
William Wallace lived a short but courageous life. He was captured, tried and found guilty of treason at the young age of 33. His execution at the hands of the English was prolonged, brutal, and torturous.