English source: William Wallace wanted to be king

William Wallace statue in AberdeenResearcher Dr. John Reuben Davies of Glasgow University has found a previously unnoticed reference in the pipe roll, a financial record of King Edward I’s exchequer, for fiscal year 1304-1305 that gives an account of William Wallace’s crimes, death and the disposition of his body parts. Discovered in the National Archives at Kew, the document describes Wallace as “a robber, a public traitor, an outlaw, an enemy and rebel against the king, who in contempt of the king had, throughout Scotland, falsely sought to call himself king of Scotland ….”

This is the first explicit reference found to Wallace seeking the kingly crown. The Scottish sources take pains to emphasize that Wallace never declared himself king or even aspired to the crown. The extant documents we have that were signed by Wallace himself all specify that he takes action in his role as Guardian of Scotland on behalf of imprisoned King John Balliol. Until now, the English sources didn’t say otherwise. This record being an internal financial document not intended for public viewing makes it more likely to be an honest view of the English powers instead of a propaganda exaggeration used to justify the brutal execution of a Scottish hero.

Dr. Davies thinks it may have been the result of a misunderstanding. Wallace was declared Guardian of Scotland by nobles including Robert Bruce after his victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297. At first he shared the role with Andrew de Moray, but de Moray died just two months later from wounds incurred at Stirling, leaving Wallace as sole Guardian until shortly after his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk a year later. As Guardian, he issued edicts, commanded the army, and had the right to bear the Scottish National Standard and appoint bishops. The Guardian is basically the acting king, and when the king he acts for is a) imprisoned and b) widely considered a spineless shill (Balliol’s nickname meant “empty shirt”), you can see how the English, unfamiliar with the constitutional role, might have seen Wallace as a pretender for the Scottish crown.

The quartering of Thomas Armstrong in 1683 for treasonThe pipe roll’s entry on Wallace is also the earliest description of his execution. Pipe rolls were accounts drawn up by the office of the exchequer which tracked the moneys sheriffs were tasked to pay to the king each year. The sum would be reduced based on expenditures undertaken by the sheriffs on behalf of the crown, like tax deductions, basically. In this case, the accounts deduct the sums the sheriff spent moving William Wallace’s quartered body parts to Scotland to put on display as a gruesome warning against rebellion. Wallace was executed in London on August 23, 1305. The pipe roll covers the accounting period of Michaelmas (the feast of St. Michael, celebrated on September 29th) 1304 to Michaelmas 1305, so it was drawn up within months of Wallace’s death, maybe even a single month after, depending on how promptly they started working on their accounts after the close of the fiscal year.

The entry describes Wallace as “by sentence of the king’s court at Westminster drawn, hanged, beheaded, his entrails burned, and his body quartered, whose four parts were dispatched to the four principal towns of Scotland. This year, 61 shillings 10 pence.” This level of detail is unique in a dry financial accounting ledger like a pipe roll. Other executions are recorded in earlier rolls, but it’s basic names and dates stuff, not the gory details of the accusations and executions. It underscores that even to accounting clerks William Wallace’s crime and punishment stood out as worth noting, enough so to include a narrative of them in what would otherwise have been the medieval equivalent of a payroll spreadsheet.

7 thoughts on “English source: William Wallace wanted to be king

  1. Astonishing drama emerging from bean-counting detail…! This is what archival research is all about!!!

    61 shillings and 10 pence was quite a lot of money back then. Nowadays, they could simply overnight the body parts to Ye IV Principaux Tuines of Scottelande–and/or post a webcast of the execution. (Enquiring minds want to know: Did the body parts go into tubs of brine…or what?) In regard to the virtues of small government, the Powers that Be (or “Were”) managed to economize quite nicely on costly legal appeals.

    On the “big question” of William Wallace’s “kingly ambitions” and/or “dutiful patriotic modesty”–we are never going to have a clear answer. “All of the above at once” probably sums up the historical realities best.

  2. There’s no comment in the pipe roll about how the quarters might have been preserved for travel. His head was covered in tar so it would last for a while on a pike on London Bridge. Perhaps the rest of him was tarred as well?

    So you think Wallace may have actually had kingly ambitions? His background was so modest and he was so focused on battle that until now it hadn’t really occurred to me that he might have been angling for a crown.

  3. Friends, bloggers, countrymen, lend me your eyes;
    I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
    The evil that men do lives after them;
    The good is oft interred with their bones;
    So let it be with Wallace. The royal Edward
    Hath told you Wallace was ambitious:
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
    And grievously hath Wallace answer’d it.

  4. I note that Captain Kidd’s body was covered with pitch as well–four hundred years after William Wallace(though he is looking notably untarred–or unpitched–in that nineteenth century print).

    In regard to William Wallace’s “kingly ambitions”–I put “kingly ambitions” in quotes because it all gets down to perceptions and motives that we need to assess in the late thirteenth century context (and I wish us luck on that one!)

    Probably not “kingly ambition” in any Machiavellian sense (oh, let’s heap up the anachronisms, why don’t we?!) But who knows what sort of models might have been available to William Wallace in popular, religious or legendary sources back in Scotland? What would it have taken to make him feel “chosen”? And so on…

    This all begs a lot of questions… And I wonder what the man himself would have made of concepts like “Rebellion”, “Treason” and–yes–“Kingly Ambition”!

  5. The sheriff’s fulfillment of the barbarous execution would not be considered extraordinary during that time since the sheriff would be subjected to the same treatment if he didn’t fulfill his obligation to his overlord. It is well known that persons under authority will perform heinous acts if ordered to, consider the still recent history of the Holocaust. What is extraordinary in English history is the Reformation which the humanists call the Enlightenment. The Word of God was read and preached in English, not Latin, and people were convicted in their souls of their true worth to God. By way of repentance and salvation, believers sought to reform social mores and introduce compassionate treatment of every sinner because no soul was outside the grace of God and an accounting for their treatment would be required by the Lord. The movement reached every level of society and government. This inspiration comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is the basis for the moral code.

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