The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Monday, 14 July 2008

22 (iii) Obscure histories and noble successes

I have tried without success to get hold of a copy of Braveheart this past week, with the object of drawing precise comparisons between the movie's depiction of events and the historical record. Instead I must rely on my imperfect memory. I seem to recall King Patrick the McGoohan cursing and fretting that the maverick Sgt Gibson and his crazy schemes are about to lay waste to Olde London Town, or some such, and that only a fiendish betrayal inexplicably not perpetrated by Alan Rickman can save his realm.

There is presumably some very logical law of historical motion picture-making which demands such reinterpretations. A shame, because the outline given in Britannica seems cinematic in scope, despite lacking the bizarre insertion of a love triangle between the vengeful Scot and Edward's queen.

Last week we saw the fierce uprising initiated by Wallace shattered by division in his ranks. Undeterred, however,
"Wallace retired to the north, and although deserted by the barons was soon at the head of a large army. The vigour and success of his operations was such that in a short time he succeeded in recovering almost all the fortresses held by the English to the north of the Forth. He had begun the siege of Dundee when he received the information that an English army, led by the Earl of Surrey and Cressingham the treasurer, was on its march northward. Leaving the citizens of Dundee to continue the siege of the castle, he made a rapid march to Stirling. Encamping in the neighbourhood of the Abbey Craig - on which now stands the national monument to his memory - he watched the passage of the Forth. After an unsuccessful attempt to bring Wallace to terms, the English commander, on the morning of 11th September 1297, began to cross the bridge. When about one half of his army had crossed, and while they were still in disorder, they were attacked with such fury by Wallace, that almost all - Cressingham among the number - were slain, or driven into the river and drowned.

"[...]The results of [this battle] were important. The English were everywhere driven from Scotland. To increase the alarm of the English, as well as to relieve the famine which then prevailed, Wallace organized a great raid into the north of England, in the course of which he devastated the country to the gates of Newcastle. On his return he was elected guardian of the kingdom. In this office he set himself to reorganize the army and to regulate the affairs of the country. His measures were marked by much wisdom and vigour, and for a short time succeeded in securing order, even in the face of the jealousy and opposition of the nobles."

This was the pinnacle of Wallace's career - his successes were remarkable and inspiring, and well worthy of celluloidal commemoration. His downfall, execution and legacy were equally dramatic.

Edward I, the "Hammer of the Scots" was in Flanders during the Battle of Stirling.

"He hastened home, and at the head of a great army entered Scotland in July 1298. Wallace was obliged to adopt the only plan of campaign which would give any hope of success. He slowly retired before the English monarch, driving off all supplies and wasting the country. The nobles as usual for the most part deserted his standard. Those that remained thwarted his councils by their jealousies. His plan, however, came very near being successful. Edward, compelled by famine, had already given orders for a retreat when he received information of Wallace's position and intentions. The army, then at Kirkliston, was immediately set in motion, and next morning (July 22, 1298) Wallace was brought to battle in the vicinity of Falkirk. After an obstinate fight,the Scots were overpowered and defeated with great loss. Among the slain were Sir John de Graham, the bosom friend of Wallace, whose death, as Blind Harry tells, threw the hero into a frenzy of rage and grief. The account of his death is one of the finest and most touching passages of the poem. With the remains of his army Wallace found refuge for the night in the Torwood - known to him from his boyish life at Dunipace. He then retreated to the north, burning the town and castle of Stirling on the way. He resigned the office of guardian, and betook himself again to a wandering life and a desultory and predatory warfare against the English. At this point his history again becomes obscure.

"[...]When in the winter of 1303-4 Edward received the submission of the Scottish nobles, Wallace was expressly excepted from the terms. And after the capture of Stirling castle and Sir William Oliphaunt, and the submission of Sir Simon Fraser, he was left alone, but resolute as ever in refusing allegiance to the English king. A price was set upon his head, and the English governors and captains in Scotland had orders to use every means for his capture. On the 5th August 1305 he was taken - as is generally alleged, through treachery - at Robroyston, near Glasgow, by Sir John Menteith, carried to the castle of Dumbarton, and thence conveyed in fetters and strongly guarded to London. He reached London on the 22d August, and next day was taken to Westminster Hall, where he was impeached as a traitor by Sir Peter Mallorie, the king's justice. To the accusation Wallace made the simple reply that he could not be a traitor to the king of England, for he never was his subject, and never swore fealty to him. He was found guilty and condemned to death. The sentence was executed the same day with circumstances of unusual cruelty."

Our Reverend author closes with a very nice summation.

"The cause of national independence was not lost with the life of Wallace. Notwithstanding the cruelty and indignity amid which it terminated, that life was not a failure. It has been an inspiration to his countrymen ever since. The popular ideas regarding his stature, strength, bodily prowess, and undaunted courage are confirmed by the writers nearest his own time - Wyntoun and Fordun. And indeed no man could in that age have secured the personal ascendancy which he did without the possession of these qualities. The little we know of his statesmanship during the short period he was in power gives proof of political wisdom. His patriotism was conspicuous and disinterested. He was well skilled in the modes of warfare that suited the country and the times. That he failed in freeing his country from the yoke of England was due chiefly to the jealousy with which he was regarded by the men of rank and power. But he had a nobler success in inspiring his countrymen with a spirit which made their ultimate conquest impossible."

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