Monday, August 6, 2012

William Wallace, the Hero?--Two Sides to Every Story

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Whenever I study history, I have an innate bias in favor of the underdog. When the Britons face the invading Angles and Saxons, I root for King Arthur’s warriors at Badon Hill. When the Anglo-Saxons bear the iron yoke of the Normans, I rally with Robin Hood’s men in Sherwood Forest. And when the Scots thwart Edward I’s ambition to rule the entire island, I look to William Wallace as the hero of the hour.

My first introduction to William Wallace was in The Scottish Chiefs, a nineteenth century novel by Jane Porter. The highly romanticized story, strewn with N. C. Wyeth’s poignant illustrations, appealed to my young teenage self. My second encounter with Wallace was in the 1995 movie Braveheart. The much grimier, but still highly romanticized story appealed to my older teenage self. Both stories made me want to cry “Freedom!” with the Scottish warrior and shed tears for his patriotic martyrdom.

Wyeth's William Wallace

Later, when I was curious enough to sift fact from fiction, I discovered that both of these retellings were about as accurate as a perjurer’s deposition. But, even with all the embellishments discarded, I had no doubts where my loyalty lay. I was still committed to William Wallace, and taking Edward I’s side was unthinkable.

This certainty was sorely shaken when I encountered the Flores Historiarum, a Latin chronicle written by several English hands during the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. It was begun at St. Alban’s Abbey, continued at Westminster Abbey, and today there are approximately twenty manuscripts extant.

The Flores Historiarum presents a much less romanticized view of William Wallace; it presents an English opinion of the Scottish hero:
About the time of the festival of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a certain Scot, by name William Wallace, an outcast from pity, a robber, a sacrilegious man, an incendiary and a homicide, a man more cruel than the cruelty of Herod, and more insane than the fury of Nero…a man who burnt alive boys in schools and churches, in great numbers; who, when he had collected an army of Scots in the battle of Falkirk against the King of England, and had seen that he could not resist the powerful army of the king, said to the Scots, "Behold I have brought you into a ring, now carol and dance as well as you can," and so fled himself from the battle, leaving his people to be slain by the sword. 
He, I say, this man of Belial, after his innumerable wickednesses, was at last taken prisoner by the king's servants and brought to London, as the king ordained that he should be formally tried, and was on the eve of St. Bartholomew [23rd August, 1305] condemned by the nobles of the kingdom of England to a most cruel but amply deserved death. First of all, he was led through the streets of London, dragged at the tail of a horse, and dragged to a very high gallows, made on purpose for him, where he was hanged with a halter, then taken down half dead, after which his body was vivisected in a most cruel and torturous manner, and after he had expired, his body was divided into four quarters, and his head fixed on a stake and set on London Bridge. But his four quarters thus divided, were sent to the four quarters of Scotland. Behold the end of a merciless man whom his mercilessness brought to this end.
For the William Wallace of this story, the punishment fits the crime. For the William Wallace of this story, the reader has no tears.

The portrayal of William Wallace in the Flores Historiarum is certainly as yellow as a jaundiced eye can make it. Some could argue that it is as far removed from truth as the whitewashed hagiographies of several centuries later. But whether it is accurate or not, for me, this passage has always illustrated an important lesson: there are two sides to every story.

As a historical novelist concerned about my craft, I can’t always follow my innate biases. I can’t just root for the underdog, or the man with the most glamorous legends. If two voices deserve to be heard, I must let them both speak.

Wallace Monument near Stirling Bridge

Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


  1. Enjoyed this blog; short, sharp and to the point with a lesson for all of us. Well done Rosanne!

    PJK x

  2. Rose - I went through almost the exact same process as you with Wallace. I read Scottish Chiefs in 8th grade and loved it (enough that I added it to the curriculum at Logos when I had the chance). We used to run around crying, "Death and Lady Marion!" I also loved Braveheart. It doesn't hurt that my family is Scottish and my ancestor was cupbearer to Robert the Bruce, so I was predisposed to like Wallace.

    When I was teaching Scottish Chiefs I came across an account similar to the one you cited - though not portraying him as cruel, just as petty. Something about him killing English fishermen for their fish. You're right - there are two sides to every story... but only one of them is right. If only we knew which one. :) But it does seem natural that the English would want to demonize him after all the trouble he caused them.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. There are indeed two (or more) side to every story, especially in History which is almost always complex, and raely 'black and white'.

      In light of such complexity, it is not neccaserily right to assume that 'only one side is the correct one', and dismiss all the other as untrue or incorrect.

      Different people have different perspectives and agendas, and such was certainly the case with Medieval Chroniclers, but this does not mean they could not record actual historical events, or that nothing they said really happened.

      Certainly it is inevitable that the English would not have a positive view of Wallace, but there is evidence from other sources to suggest that he did commit acts of violence and brutality in England against English people.

  3. (I did discuss with the 8th graders the difference between Porter's romanticized version of his story, and the version found in Braveheart, which was closer to the historical account in many respects - Wallace being a peasant rather than a noble, his death being torturous rather than his noble heart bursting lest the English rope bespoil his noble neck... ;).

    1. Fun to hear someone else has read Porter! I hardly ever run across anyone who's heard of The Scottish Chiefs.

    2. William Wallace was neither peasant nor noble, he was a Knight, or the son of a knight. These were counted as 'commoners' but were certainly not 'peasants'.

      The problem with Wallace is that there is so little reliable information about him available from contemporary sources. Most is romanticised storytelling, such as 'Blind Harry's' poem/song written over 100 years after he lived. Braveheart is supposed to be based largely on this.

    3. I read it at The Oaks. I absolutely loved it (and Wyeth's illustrations didn't hurt). I think 8th grade is the perfect age to read it - old enough to be passionate and young enough to not be cynical about romanticism (Wallace's "flowing locks" and all that).

    4. Rosanne, I recently bought biography of William Wallace by one Andrew Fisher which is claimed to be about the most objective one available.

      I have not read it yet, baut according to one reviewer Fisher claims that there was nothing particularly extraordinary about Wallace;s expecution as it was supposedly the standard punishment for a commoner convicted of High Treason.

  4. Didn't Wallace come from Yorkshire, too?

  5. One does not have to look to history to know there are alwasy two sides to every story. What you believe depends a lot on which side you were on,or who won.

  6. Odd that if WW was that treacherous to his own people, that he would be that revered/legendary? Scotland, though the faithful remnant stories ravish our hearts (Cameron/Renwick/Nisbet), certainly had its complement of treacherous characters. I like to see the conflict, not so much as English vs. Scots, as Union vs. Confederates, Unitarian vs. Trinity, Christ as Head of Church & State, vs. (human) King is Law, deified Man.
    Scotland also profound source of Druid/Occult streams that have flowed down through history since. Certainly a piece of Geography where the spiritual war waxed HOT.

  7. This is a fantastic blog post, it was incredibly interesting to read. I was wondering whether you could perhaps link me to where you found Flores Historiarum as I would be interested to read, and cite in an essay that I am currently writing. Thank you very much

    1. Glad you enjoyed it!

  8. William Wallace lived in a Scotland that was full of Nobles and warring Clans. The fact he could muster an army large enough to take on an army as large and powerful as the English had is a miracle in itself. As for him being cowardly, I find it hard to believe the Scots would risk everything to follow a coward. The comments about him burning kids in schools and much worse seem abominable to us but lets be honest, what had the English done to the Scots previous to that, much worse me thinks.
    I don't have it that Wallace was all he was cracked up to be in Braveheart but I also don't think we should read too much into what the English wrote about him as no Scot up to that point had resisted them like he and his rag tailed army had. I too wish for more information but until we have it we can only go by scraps of information and a sense of what it must have been like to live in these horrible times.


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