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William Wallace

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In 1286, by the time he was about sixteen, Wallace may have been preparing to pursue a life in the church. In that year, Alexander III died after riding off a cliff during a wild storm. None of Alexander III's children survived him. After his death, his young granddaughter, Margaret, the 'Maid of Norway', was declared Queen of Scotland by the Scottish lords, but was still only a little girl of 4 who was living in Norway. An interim Scottish government run by 'guardians' was set up to govern until Margaret was old enough to take up the throne. However, Edward I of England took advantage of the uncertainty and potential instability over the Scottish succession. He agreed with the guardians that Margaret should marry his son and heir Edward of Caernarvon (afterwards Edward II of England), on the understanding that Scotland would be preserved as a separate nation.

Margaret fell ill and died unexpectedly in 1290 at the age of 8 in the Orkney Islands on her way from Norway to England. 13 claimants to the Scottish throne came forward, most of whom were from the Scottish nobility.

Scotland was essentially occupied by the English at this time, and was beset by its own internal conflicts. The various aristocratic Scottish guardians of the throne plotted against one another, variously aligning themselves with King Edward or defying their loyalty to him when it suited them. At the same time English troops, including mercenaries and frequently disgruntled Welsh and Irish conscripts, operated freely throughout Scotland from stockaded camps and fortified garrisons. Civilian life was precarious, and abuses by the occupiers against the common people were rife. The Scottish nobles did little to maintain the rule of law and protect Scots from atrocities.

In this climate of lawlessness, William Wallace's father was killed in a skirmish with English troops in 1291. It is likely that the death of his father at the hands of the English contributed to Wallace's lifelong desire to fight for his nation's independence. However, little is known about Wallace's life during this period, except that he lived the life of an outlaw, moving constantly to avoid the English, and occasionally confronting them with characteristic ferocity.

Carrick's describes Wallace's skills as a warrior:

"All powerful as a swordsman and unrivalled as an archer, his blows were fatal and his shafts unerring: as an equestrian, he was a model of dexterity and grace; while the hardships he experienced in his youth made him view with indifference the severest privations incident to a military life."

In the absence of a clear successor to the Scottish throne, the claimants to the Scottish throne requested Edward I's arbitration. The three main candidates were all descendants of David, Earl of Huntingdon, who was the brother of William the Lion, king of Scotland from 1165 to 1214. John de Balliol was the grandson of David's eldest daughter; Robert de Bruce was the son of David's second daughter, and John de Hastings was the grandson of David's youngest daughter. In 1292, Balliol was chosen as king by a special commission one half of whose whose members were chosen by Bruce and the other half by Balliol.

Balliol took an oath of fealty, paid homage to Edward, and was accepted in Scotland. However, Edward I's motives had not really been to help the Scots as an arbitrator. He saw himself as the feudal superior of the Scottish crown, and wished to install a Scottish monarch whom he could manipulate.

Edward underestimated the Scots' belief in their own sovereignty. When he sought to exert his suzerainty by taking law cases on appeal from Scottish courts to his own court in England, and by summoning Balliol to do military service for him against France, he turned the Scottish throne against him. In the meantime, England had been at war with France. In 1295, a treaty was negotiated between Edward I and the French that provided for the marriage of John de Balliol's son Edward to the French King's niece. Edward demanded the surrender of three castles on the Scottish border and, on John's refusal, summoned him to his court. John did not obey, and war was inevitable.

Edward marched north with his armies. After a five-month campaign, he conquered Scotland in 1297. Following his victory, he appointed his own agents to enforce peace in Scotland. He deposed and imprisoned John de Balliol and declared himself ruler of Scotland. He also had the Stone of Destiny, the coronation stone of Scone, taken south to Westminster. The government of Scotland was placed in the hands of Englishmen led by Hugh Cressingham, the Earl of Surrey.

Outside the south-east corner of Scotland, there was widespread disorder, and defiance against the English was increasing. Wallace was involved in a fight with local soldiers in the village of Ayr. After killing several of them, he was overpowered and thrown into a dungeon where he was slowly starved. Wallace was left for dead, but sympathetic villagers nursed him back to health. When he had regained his strength, Wallace recruited several local rebels and began his systematic and merciless assault on the hated English and their Scottish sympathisers.

As his support grew, Wallace's attacks broadened. In May 1297, with as many as 30 men, he avenged his father's death by ambushing and killing the knight responsible and some of his soldiers. Now, he was no longer merely an outlaw but a local military leader who had struck down one of Edward's knights and some of his soldiers. William Wallace had become the king's enemy.

Although most of Scotland was in Scottish hands by August 1297, Wallace successfully recruited a band of commoners and small landowners to attack the remaining English garrisons between the Rivers Forth and Tay. Wallace and his co-leader, Sir Andrew de Moray, marched their forces towards Stirling Castle, a stronghold of vital strategic importance to the English. The English commanders must have been falsely confident that the upstart Scots would retreat or surrender. On Sept 11, 1297, the English army under John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, confronted him near Stirling. Wallace's forces were greatly outnumbered, but Surrey had to cross a narrow bridge over the River Forth before he could reach the Scottish positions. Wallace's men lured the English into making an impulsive advance, and slaughtered them as they crossed the river. English fatalities are reported to have approached 5,000, gaining Wallace an overwhelming victory. He had shown not only that he was a charismatic leader and warrior, but also that his tactical military ability was

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