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The Horrifying Execution of William Wallace

23rd Aug 2021
The Horrifying Execution of William Wallace

From hauntings to heritage, return to Edinburgh’s dark past again & again. Use your Returner’s Rewards for a discount each time you come back.

By Simon Bendle, Mercat Storyteller

If you've seen Braveheart, you’ll remember the classic scene where a blood-strewn William Wallace – aka Mel Gibson – is spreadeagled on the execution scaffold as a grubby medieval crowd look on in horror. Wallace is then urged to beg for mercy to bring his torture to an end and hasten his inevitable death. But Wallace will not. “Freedom!” he shouts, defiant to the end. The crowd looks stunned and 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, but how historically correct is it?

The Trial & Execution of William Wallace

'A thorn in the side of the invading English King'.

The depiction shown in Braveheart is the Hollywood version, of course, but what did they really do to William Wallace on that fateful day? Well, it was far less Hollywood - but much more brutal and horrifying.

The great Scottish freedom fighter was captured in Glasgow in Scotland, carried to Dumbarton Castle, and finally brought to London a few weeks before his execution. At which point, he'd been a thorn in the side of England’s King Edward I for years.

There he was declared a traitor to the English king – despite being a Scot! In fact, his trial at Westminster Hall wasn't really a trial at all. There was no jury or opportunity for Wallace to defend himself and he knew all too well what was coming next; he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered the same day of his trial on August 5th of 1305.

How & Where Was William Wallace executed?

'Head spiked on London Bridge?'

If you’ve just had your breakfast, you might want to skip this 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 hung and emasculated while still alive, his “privy parts” burned in front of him. The executioner then cut Wallace open, pulled out his entrails, removed 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 placed on a spike on London bridge, a grisly reminder to others of King Edward’s “justice”.

There’s no record of Wallace yelling “Freedom!” while any of this was going on like in the movie. Undoubtedly, the man had other things on his mind at the time!

Looking to learn more about Scotland's history? Join one of our Edinburgh history tours and get fast-pass access to key locations such as Edinburgh Castle and The Palace of Holyroodhouse.

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