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The Horrifying Execution of William Wallace

23rd Aug 2021
The Horrifying Execution of William Wallace

By Simon Bendle, Mercat Storyteller

You’ll remember the classic scene in Braveheart. A blood-strewn William Wallace – aka Mel Gibson – is spreadeagled on the execution scaffold as a grubby medieval crowd looks on in horror. Out of shot, Wallace’s executioner is busy doing something unspeakable to his nether regions. The prisoner is then urged to beg for mercy to bring to an end this horrible torture and hasten his inevitable death. But Wallace will not. “Freedom!” he shouts, defiant to the end. The crowd looks stunned. The great axe descends. The movie’s stirring soundtrack swells to a climax.

It’s dramatic stuff. Perhaps no surprise Braveheart won Mel Gibson five Oscars, including Best Picture.

Thorn in the Side of the Invading English King

But what really happened to William Wallace on his execution day seven centuries ago was of course far less Hollywood and much, much more brutal and horrifying.

The great Scottish freedom fighter had been captured and brought to London a few weeks earlier, after being a thorn in the side of England’s Edward I for years.

His trial at Westminster Hall was no trial at all. There was no jury, no opportunity for Wallace to defend himself. Declared a traitor to the English king – despite being a Scot – Wallace knew all too well what was coming next: he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered the same day.

 

Head spiked on London Bridge

 

If you’ve just had your breakfast, you might want to skip the next bit. Wallace was first dragged naked behind a horse to his place of execution – Smithfield - being jeered and booed by onlookers the whole way. He was hanged – but cut down before dead. While hanging and still alive, he was emasculated, and his “privy parts” burned in front of him. The executioner then opened him up, pulled out his entrails, cut out his heart, and “quartered” his lifeless body – parts of which were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Perth and Stirling for public display. Wallace’s head, meanwhile, was dipped in tar and set on a spike on London bridge, a grisly reminder of King Edward’s “justice”.

There’s no record of Wallace yelling “Freedom!” while any of this was going on. The great man no doubt had other things on his mind at the time.

Discover more of Scotland's history on the Mercat blog or join us for a five-star Edinburgh history tour with our award-winning storytellers.

 

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