This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

August 2005


23 August 1305:   William Wallace, Scottish patriot, hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered in London.

This month marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Sir William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland.

For years William Wallace had organized the Scottish people and waged an ongoing war against the ambitions of England’s king Edward I to conquer and rule Scotland. Even after his defeat at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, Wallace had remained a presence in Scotland and a continued threat to the security of English rule.

Edward at last accomplished by treachery what he could not achieve in battle. Wallace was betrayed when he rode out from Glasgow for what he believed would be a private meeting with Robert the Bruce. Instead of meeting the Bruce, he was seized by English agents and hustled south to meet his fate at the hands of a vengeful Edward. It took nearly three weeks to bring Wallace to London, giving Edward ample time to prepare a damning indictment, and he saw to it that his legal staff overlooked nothing.

Wallace’s trial at Westminster on 23 August wasn’t anything of the sort, being devoid of argument, jury or legal representation. The legalistic Edward knew that a trial wasn’t really necessary: he had already taken the trouble more than a year before to have Wallace declared an outlaw by a collaborationist Scots parliament. By thus being cast out beyond the protection of the law, Wallace was not entitled to any trial whatsoever, and could be legally killed upon capture.

But to secure his grip on Scotland, Edward wanted to make sure that Wallace’s reputation was destroyed along with his life, so the “trial” that convened at Westminster before Edward’s hand-picked magistrates was held only to read out a lengthy indictment and enter it into the public record, tarring Wallace with a list of crimes in addition to the main charge of treason.

At the reading of the treason charge Wallace managed to inject his only comment into the proceedings. He could not be a traitor, he said, since as a Scot he had never sworn allegiance to the English king. It was a moot point as far as Edward was concerned, since as he claimed to be the rightful king of Scotland, he considered Wallace his subject. The judges at Westminster that day knew full well that treason was whatever the king chose to say it was and ignored Wallace’s objection. (The crime of treason would not in fact be defined in English statute books for another fifty years.)

Edward wanted to inflict the maximum penalties that a conviction of treason would bring, but at the same time he wanted to criminalize Wallace’s actions as a freedom fighter. To this end the treason charge was based only on the fact that Wallace had displayed a flag (a royal prerogative) while appearing in arms against the forces of the king. The rest of the indictment reviewed the history of Wallace’s war of independence, specifying individual counts of murder (beginning with the Sherif of Lanark) or crimes against property wrought in the destruction of English towns and settlements. To confirm Wallace’s status as an outcast and an outlaw, separate charges of sacrilege were specified for damages to church property.

The reading of the indictment was immediately followed by the reading of the sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering. The sentence was carried out immediately. Wallace was tied face down onto a wooden hurdle, and dragged through the streets on a roundabout four-mile route that wound from Westminster through central London to Smithfield. The hurdle was dragged beneath the tails of two horses, ensuring that the course of nature would add to Wallace’s degradation.

The traditional punishment of traitors was designed to be an especially horrifying triple death, but the judges at Westminster made the point of freighting each part of the sentence with a symbolic significance as punishment for different categories of crime. Hanging was the usual sentence for murder and robbery, but here the victim would be cut down before he was dead. The crimes of sacrilege would then be satisfied by drawing out and burning the dying Wallace’s internal organs. In the belief of the day these organs, especially the liver, were considered to be the seat of emotion and attitude, or, in the language of the sentence, “whence such perverted thoughts proceeded.” The beheading would signify Wallace’s status as an outlaw.

Lastly, all other crimes having been covered, Wallace’s body was hacked into four quarters as the special penalty for treason. The pieces were at the disposal of the king, who would send them to whatever part of the kingdom where their public display would serve a political purpose. This also denied Wallace a Christian burial, and in the popular mind this would jeopardize the possibility of his resurrection at the end of time.

Wallace’s head was stuck on a pike and went to decorate London Bridge. Two of the four quarters went to English towns that had suffered under Wallace’s invasions: one to Berwick-on-Tweed where it is commemorated in the place-name of “Wallace Green” and the other to Newcastle, where the delighted locals hung it up over the town sewer. The two remaining pieces were dispatched to Sterling and Perth, though a persistent local tradition in Aberdeen maintains that one of Wallace’s quarters is immured there in an old retaining wall.

The death of Wallace brought king Edward no lasting peace: within months Robert the Bruce would be crowned king of Scotland at Scone and the aging Edward would die in the preparation of yet another Scottish invasion. But even on his deathbed Edward could not let go of Scotland. He left instructions that the flesh be boiled off his skeleton, and that his bones be carried at the head of his army until Scotland was well and finally subdued. This macabre commandment was not carried out, however, and deprived of the inspiration of his father’s hallowed bones, Edward II eventually went down in defeat at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, which established Scotland as an independent nation.

It is a curious fact that, although capital punishment was abolished for most crimes in England in the mid-1960s, the death penalty for treason remained on the books until 1998.

For more information on Scotland, see the Scottish Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2006 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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