Aug. 23, 2022

William Wallace is Executed

William Wallace is Executed

August 23, 1305. Scottish rebel leader William Wallace is executed in London.


Cold Open

It’s after dark on March 18th, 1286.

On the east coast of Scotland, near the town of Inverkeithing, a group of Scottish nobles rides north through a raging storm. Leading from the front is their king, Alexander III of Scotland. The wind lashes Alexander’s cheeks and the rain stings his eyes. But despite the stormy conditions, the King does not slow down.

Alexander is traveling from Edinburgh to the royal court at Kinghorn, where the queen awaits his arrival. Tomorrow is the queen’s birthday. Alexander hopes to join her before daybreak, but the weather threatens his progress.

Soon, the muddy dirt track turns into cobblestones as Alexander and his retinue reach Inverkeithing.

Alexander signals for his men to stop and quickly replenish with food and water. Some want to rest for the night. But Alexander refuses. They mustn’t delay if they are to reach Kinghorn by sunrise.

But just then, the local magistrate comes rushing over to Alexander and shouts over the rain, “My lord, what are you doing out in such weather?” When Alexander explains, the magistrate shakes his head and warns the king that the road is too treacherous by night. But Alexander is insistent. It’s the queen’s birthday tomorrow, and he intends to be with her by morning.

So soon, Alexander and his men continue their journey.

They ride for miles along the cliff’s edge, following the curvature of the coastline.

And down below, Alexander can hear the waves crashing against the rocks. Behind him, he can hear the hoofbeats of his escorts. But when he turns to look, he can barely see through the swirling mist and rain. The King grips his reins and carefully picks his way along the uneven path.

When suddenly, Alexander’s horse slips, the animal’s knees buckle, and the King is sent hurtling forward.

His body slams against slippery rocks, before tumbling head-over-heels through pitch blackness. He flails his limbs wildly, trying to grab hold of something, anything, but it is no use. King Alexander drops over the cliff’s edge… and plummets to his death.

The death of King Alexander III triggers a constitutional crisis in Scotland.

Alexander’s only living heir - his seven-year-old granddaughter, Margaret - dies from illness before she can be crowned. And soon, a power struggle ensues, with various contenders fighting for the vacant throne. Fearing the country will descend into civil war, the Scottish nobility calls upon King Edward the First of England to choose Alexander’s successor.

But the English King’s choice will not be made in the best interests of Scotland. And in the inevitable ensuing Wars of Scottish Independence, one man will emerge as the hero of Scottish resistance – a renowned warrior named William Wallace. William will lead Scotland’s battle for freedom against English tyranny, until he is captured by the enemy and executed on August 23rd, 1305.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 23rd, 1305: William Wallace is executed.

Act One: The Sack of Berwick

It’s March 30th, 1296; nine years before the execution of William Wallace.

On a cool spring morning, an English army marches toward the town of Berwick, just north of the Scottish border. Over thirty thousand soldiers sweep across the lowlands, their lances bobbing above their heads, their chainmail glinting in the morning sun.

Riding at the vanguard is King Edward I of England. Tall and strapping, with a chiseled face and long wavy hair, Edward epitomizes the medieval ideal of the warrior-king. He wears upon his head a golden crown inlaid with jewels, a shield on his arm, and a longsword sheathed by his side. In the King’s eyes there flickers a hunger for victory – and a desire for revenge.

Following the accidental death of Alexander III of Scotland, Edward was called upon by the Scottish nobility to choose his successor. The Scots feared the country might descend into civil war, so they were relieved when Edward restored order and appointed a new monarch. But Edward’s intervention came with a catch. The nobleman he chose, John Balliol, was forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the English crown and kneel before Edward, his feudal overlord.

The Scottish nobles were outraged. John’s subservience to Edward was an embarrassment to Scotland. And worse: it was a threat to Scottish sovereignty. Faced with the possibility of English encroachment into their kingdom, the Scottish nobles struck an alliance with England's sworn enemy: France. Emboldened by the new alliance with France, John renounced his oath of allegiance to Edward. And Scotland had regained its sovereignty… but at a tremendous cost.

When the notoriously short-tempered Edward learned about John’s disobedience, he was beside himself with rage. He exclaimed: “O' foolish knave! What folly he commits. If he will not come to us, we will go to him.” And true to his word, Edward assembled an army and embarked for Scotland, determined to teach the disobedient Scots a lesson…


Now Edward summits the crest of a hill, trampling the purple heather underfoot. Down below, clustered around the mouth of the river, is the important trading town of Berwick. Smoke drifts from the chimneys and merchant ships bob in the bustling harbor. The town’s only defenses are makeshift wooden embankments that line the shallow river.

Edward lifts his gaze to a fleet of English warships darkening the horizon. The plan is to attack Berwick by land and by sea, a double-pronged assault intended to decimate the town and vanquish its population. Edward unsheathes his sword and lets out a guttural bellow. Then the King digs his spurs into his horse’s flanks and leads the charge down the hillside.

The assault is swift and brutal.

The English swarm over the defending embankments and lay waste to the town, unleashing the full extent of Edward’s avenging fury on the unsuspecting townsfolk. Some try to flee, but the English are merciless. With single strokes of their swords, they cut down civilians in the street, men, women, and children.

The events of the day were later recorded by a medieval chronicler who witnessed the atrocities, writing: “Edward spared no one… in his tyrannous rage, he ordered the massacre of 7,500 souls… so that mills could be turned by the flow of their blood.”

Following the Sack of Berwick, Edward pushes further north, methodically capturing castle after castle. Roxburgh, Edinburgh, Stirling, all of Scotland’s major fortresses fall to the English, as the map of Scotland turns steadily red with the blood of its slaughtered defenders.

Meanwhile, Scottish King John Balliol cowers in his castle in Perth. He knows it’s only a matter of days before Edward’s army reaches him. John fears punishment if he holds out any longer, so he decides to surrender. He rides out to the English garrison at Kincardine Castle near Perth, prostrates himself before King Edward, and begs for forgiveness.

Edward sneers. Before a crowd of jeering onlookers, John is stripped of his ceremonial vestments, and the Scottish coat of arms is violently ripped from John’s coat. Then, having been forced from the throne, John is arrested and transported to England, where he will be thrown into the Tower of London.

Before leaving Scotland, Edward installs various English administrators to govern the country. And as one final humiliation, he orders Scottish noblemen to pay loyalty taxes to their new English overlords.

Edward believes his victory over Scotland is complete. But resistance is brewing. And before long, a warrior will emerge to lead the Scots in the defense of their homeland, a man rumored to stand at seven feet tall and drink the blood of his enemies. William Wallace's battle cry will soon sound across the kingdom, summoning his countrymen to rise up and reclaim their freedom. 

Act Two: The Battle of Stirling Bridge

It’s May 1297; eight years before William Wallace’s execution.

In the town of Lanark, in central Scotland, an English nobleman is entertaining guests inside his home. Sir William Heselrig is the High Sheriff of Lanark, a royal official appointed by King Edward to maintain law and order. Heselrig quaffs from a tankard of ale while his companions eat, drink and make merry around the dining table.

Heselrig is in high spirits. A few weeks back, he ordered the execution of a local woman, Marion Braidfute, the wife of a Scottish outlaw named William Wallace. Many Scots regard Wallace as an outspoken opponent of English authority in Scotland, a bit of a hero; to Heselrig, he is nothing but a common criminal, and Heselrig hopes the execution of Marion will serve as a reminder to Wallace that any attempt to undermine English authority will be punished by swift and merciless cruelty. 

But Wallace and his deceased wife are far from Heselrig's mind tonight until he hears a commotion outside. Heselrig stands and drunkenly staggers to the door, swaying on the threshold while his eyes adjust to the gloomy twilight. Heselrig calls out to his guards, but no reply comes…

Then, a figure materializes from the shadows. He's tall - well over six foot - with broad shoulders and long, matted hair. Heselrig holds his lantern aloft and light falls across the stranger’s face. Heselrig recognizes William Wallace immediately: the hatred gleaming in his eyes, the blood dripping from the blade of his sword. Heselrig cries out, but before he can run, William lifts his sword and slits the Englishman’s throat.

William then gallops back to his hideout in Ettrick Forest. He brings news to his small band of outlaws that Heselrig, the High Sheriff of Lanark, is dead. The outlaws cheer and clap William on the back. But William is in no mood for celebration. He slopes to the edge of the camp, thoughts racing. His murder of Heselrig will surely spark fury among the English, and provoke a strong reaction from King Edward I. William is pleased his wife’s death has been avenged… but he also knows this is only the beginning of a long, difficult fight.

And William is right. Word of the murder of Heselrig spreads, and William Wallace's daring inspires rebellion across Scotland. In the far North, a Scottish lord named Andrew Murray leads the resistance there, uniting the Highland Clans in their effort to topple English rule. Meanwhile, William and his growing band of warriors conduct several successful raids in the south, driving the English back across the border.

Then in September, William and Andrew Murray join forces in Dundee. The two men know they have the enemy on their heels. But they also know nothing is over yet. By now, King Edward has deployed a force of 10,000 men to crush the rebellion. The English will vastly outnumber the Scottish and will come equipped with more sophisticated weaponry and armor. But William and his allies have something indispensable on their side, something worth fighting for: their independence.


The following day, William and Andrew lead a force of 6,000 men south to meet the English army. By September 10th, the two sides have established camps on either side of the Forth River, just outside the town of Stirling.

On the evening before the battle, William walks to a patch of elevated ground. As he ponders tactics, William notices that there’s only way to cross the river: a narrow bridge, supported by three stone arches. An idea occurs to him - a tactical gamble that could either end in sensational victory or crushing defeat. His plan is to lure a portion of the English army across the river, then cut off their reinforcements.

The following morning, Wallace leads his army to the patch of elevated ground above the river. He delivers a rousing speech, telling his men: “We are not here to sue for peace, but to fight for the freedom of our country!”

Shortly after that, a trumpet sounds, and the English mount the charge.

But instead of advancing to meet the enemy, the Scots hold their position. The river is too deep to cross on foot, so the English infantry begin swarming over the bridge. As more and more English cross the river, William continues to refrain from giving the order to charge. And then after around 2,000 enemy soldiers have crossed, William gives the signal. His spearmen descend from the hill and engage the English head-on.

Meanwhile, a second Scottish division heads to the bridge. They block the English reinforcements, forming a barricade that prevents any more enemy infantry from crossing. And as the English pile up on the bridge, desperately trying to overwhelm the Scottish barricade, the stone arches supporting the bridge give way. Hundreds of English soldiers plunge into the icy cold water, never to resurface.

And soon, those who made it across the river find themselves trapped, besieged by wave after wave of bloodthirsty Scottish warriors.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge will go down in history as one of Scotland’s most glorious victories over England. William will be appointed “Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland” and following the triumph, many Scots will believe their independence from England has been assured.

But before long, the tide will turn against Scotland and William Wallace.

Two years after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, King Edward sends another army into Scotland, almost twice the size of the first force. William once again leads an army into battle, meeting the English outside the town of Falkirk.

This time, however, the Scottish are no match for the English archers and infantry. The Scottish are routed, and although William survives the battle, his reputation will never recover. He will be stripped of his title and hurled toward exile, capture, and death. 

Act Three: Capture and Execution

It’s August 5th, 1305, just over two weeks before William Wallace is executed.

In the village of Robroyston, outside Glasgow, William is taking shelter inside the house of a friend. William lies in bed, staring at the ceiling. The famous patriot has spent the last seven years on the run from the law; a bounty on his head.

Following his crushing defeat at the Battle of Falkirk, the Scottish nobles stripped William of his title as Guardian of Scotland. The war against England was still ongoing, but William Wallace’s time as Scotland’s leader was over.

Tonight, he lies awake in bed, listening to his friend’s snores. When suddenly, William’s ears prick up. Outside, he hears muffled voices. William’s instincts kick in, and he slowly reaches for his sword. But before he can arm himself... the door flies open, and a group of men rush inside the cottage. William recognizes the leader as John de Menteith, a Scottish knight. William knows Menteith is a patriot who fought against the English, so he isn’t worried. But when he notices that Menteith is flanked by two English noblemen, the realization hits: Menteith has switched allegiances. And somehow, found out where William was hiding and brought these Englishmen here. Menteith, no doubt, seeks to collect the reward for William's capture.

At Menteith’s order, the noblemen pin William down and lash his wrists together. William resists, but it’s no use. He’s outnumbered and disoriented, and soon finds himself hog-tied and on the back of a horse. Menteith and his entourage ride south, their helpless prisoner in tow.

Ignominiously, William is carried to the English army’s headquarters south of the River Forth, where he is presented to King Edward I. The monarch looks the famous warrior up and down, a smirk spreading across his face. Edward has spent years imagining the satisfaction of capturing William Wallace, the hero of Scottish resistance. And with a contemptuous flick of the wrist, Edward gives the order: William is to be taken to London and put on trial.

A few weeks later in London, William is prosecuted for treason against the crown. It doesn’t take long for William to be found guilty and sentenced to death. But William refuses to pander. He declares to the shocked convocation: “I could never be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.”

Then on the morning of August 23rd, 1305, William is removed from his cell in the Tower of London. He is stripped naked and dragged through the cobbled streets to Smithfield, a public space where executions are held. Before a baying crowd, William is hanged, drawn, and quartered – a gruesome method of execution designed to draw out the victim’s suffering as long as possible.

William Wallace will never live to see an independent Scotland. Following his death, a new leader will take the reins and lead the battle for freedom, a brilliant military hero named Robert the Bruce. In 1320, fifteen years after William’s demise, Robert the Bruce’s armies will defeat English, and Scotland will declare itself an independent nation.

Today, William Wallace is remembered as one of Scotland’s greatest heroes; a patriot and a warrior who led his countrymen in the fight against tyranny. A monument now stands overlooking the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William struck the first meaningful blow in the fight for Scottish independence, the cause for which he gave his life on August 23rd, 1305.


Next onHistory Daily.According to eyewitness accounts, on August 24th, 79 AD. Mount Vesuvius erupts in southern Italy, burying entire cities in volcanic ash. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.