Today all the way back in 1305, the Scottish rebel Sir William Wallace was executed in London. The death of the Scottish outlaw has long since become a symbol of freedom, in Scotland and beyond.
Nowadays, the lochs and forests of Scotland offer idyllic getaways – a picture of tranquillity.
This was not so at the turn of the 14th century – at least not for the knights of Edward I, King of England.
For them, hiding behind any pine tree or glen could be the next ambush by the legendary outlaw, William Wallace, who died today in 1305.
The brutal death of William Wallace
Though Wallace came from outside the traditional circles of authority in medieval Scotland – occupied by characters like Robert the Bruce – he had a real knack for rebellion.
Wallace fought the English by ambush, using natural hiding places like Ettrick Forest (in Selkirkshire) as a base for raiding the King’s troops and castles.
He also came up with the ‘schiltron’ formation, where foot soldiers would pack together to form a bristly spear-wall – a handy defence against Edward’s heavy cavalry.
Wallace was like a medieval Che Guevara, pioneering what we’d now call guerrilla tactics to help the weak overcome the strong.
He was also like Che in how he was executed by his enemies (but in 14th century London, rather than 1960s Bolivia).
After years of evading Edward I’s agents, Wallace was captured near Glasgow in 1305 and taken to Westminster Hall, where he was put on trial for treason, a charge he answered with the words:
“I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.”
Wallace was nonetheless found guilty, and then brutally executed by hanging, drawing, and quartering.
Edward sent his limbs north to Berwick, Newcastle, Perth, and Stirling, as a warning to any more would-be Scottish rebels (this only served to provoke more fury in Scotland, leading to another rebellion – repression never works).
William Wallace: the Scottish outlaw
But William Wallace was also like Che Guevara in that the image of him we have today does not map so perfectly onto the man himself (of whose life medieval historians still know precious little).
For one thing, Wallace is often portrayed (aided by Mel Gibson in Braveheart) as some populist revolutionary when in reality he was more like a constitutional conservative.
Unlike Wat Tyler's Peasants’ Revolt at the other end of the 14th century, Wallace wasn’t trying to improve the grim social lot of serfs in feudal Scotland – he simply wanted Scotland ruled, as it had always been, by a Scottish king.
But this gap between the revolutionary myth of Wallace that we have from the movies, and the feudalist Wallace that existed in reality, isn't what's so important.
'Freedom is what is best': the man becomes a myth
In the right hands, the myth of William Wallace has done some pretty progressive work, spreading the idea that freedom is something worth struggling for.
Take the memorial put up in 1956 at the site of Wallace's execution in modern day Clerkenwell. It reads:
“I tell you the truth. Freedom is what is best.”
‘William Wallace’ has become a by-word for defiance in the name of freedom.
And that is a priceless notion, now more than ever.