Americans with shorter historical perspectives tend
to underestimate this fact, unless they were part of some ethnic or
regional group that has borne the brunt of a military occupation, such
as Native Americans or old-time Southerners, who still call the Civil
War “the War of Northern Aggression.”
For many people in the world, grievances of past
centuries can be as real as the events of last week and often more
powerful. Animosities born of brutality and perceived injustice can
distort relations even between countries with strong economic and
Which is what Colin, with his close-cropped hair
and strong Scottish accent, recalled to me as we sat in the bar on the
night of July 4, 2005, talking about the bloody wars waged against
Scotland and Wales by Edward I, the ruthless and cunning English monarch
of the late 13th Century.
My conversation with Colin and his spike-haired
college friend David was the sort of serendipity that comes with foreign
travel. Off-duty guides from the nearby Stirling Castle, both were
mildly intrigued by my reason for being in their gritty, central
Scottish city of Stirling:
My wife and I were taking my 16-year-old son and
one of his friends on what I had dubbed the “Edward I/William Wallace
tour” of the United Kingdom. (Yes, it is that much fun to be one of my
A Grisly Execution
Our tour had started four days earlier in London,
after we had arrived from Washington. We began our little quest at the
end for the two historical figures.
First, we searched through Westminster Abbey for
Edward I’s tomb, upon which Scots are reputed to spit even seven
centuries later. We found its location, although access to the tomb
itself was cordoned off to the general public.
Later, we toured the Tower of London, a castle best
known as a prison for political enemies, many of whom met the grisly
fate that Edward I and other English monarchs meted out to traitors.
While victims of royal blood faced relatively quick death from
beheading, lesser-born victims were dragged through the streets,
partially hanged, castrated and disemboweled – before their hearts were
cut out. Then they were decapitated and their bodies chopped into
It was that fate that awaited Scottish hero William
Wallace – also known as “Braveheart” – who led the Scottish resistance
to Edward I’s military campaigns against Scotland in the 1290s. Wallace
was captured in 1305 and taken to London for a show trial at Westminster
before being condemned.
Edward I ordered Wallace’s torture to be especially
deliberate with his entrails to be pulled out inch by inch as a warning
to Scots to cease all rebellion. On Aug. 23, 1305, Wallace was dragged
some four miles through London streets to a market area called
Smithfield, where his public torture and execution were carried out.
Finding a Plaque
After completing our visit to the Tower of London,
we took the Underground to the Barbican station and then walked to the
Smithfield market area in search of a plaque that marks the location
where Wallace was drawn and quartered.
Following directions I got from a gentleman who
sang in the choir at the Medieval-era St. Bartholomew’s Church, we
walked 20 paces beyond the church grounds, looked to our left and found
Wallace’s plaque on the wall of an adjacent hospital building. In front
of the plaque, someone had left a display of fresh flowers.
A few days later, another part of our U.K. trip
took us to northern Wales, which Edward I had subdued with his usual
ferocity, before turning on Scotland.
In Wales, Edward I – known as “Longshanks” because
of his height – had imposed his dominion over the Celtic population by
constructing a network of mammoth castles in important towns, a strategy
that strangled Welsh resistance but drained the English treasury. We
visited two of Edward’s castles – one at Conwy and another at Caernarfon
(near where our Parry ancestors had lived).
After throttling Wales, Edward I turned his
attention to Scotland, where Gaelic tribes had resisted external control
for a thousand years, since the days of the Roman Empire. In 1297,
Edward’s army – without him in command – marched north to crush Scottish
rebels led by Wallace.
That campaign brought the English army to the
strategic Scottish town of Stirling. There, English commanders,
including Edward’s treasurer for Scotland, Hugh Cressingham, rashly
decided to cross a narrow bridge, giving Wallace his opportunity.
Though outnumbered, the Scottish soldiers charged
down a slope and set upon the half of the English army that had made its
way across the bridge. Amid the chaos, the rest of the English force
couldn’t cross and the wooden bridge collapsed.
The Scots slaughtered half the English army,
driving many into the river where they drowned. Among the dead was
Cressingham, whose skin was cut off and sliced into Scottish battle
The rout at Stirling Bridge forced the English into
retreat. Wallace’s army marched south after them, taking the war to
towns in northern England before withdrawing back to Scotland as winter
weather set in.
The next year, Edward personally led a fearsome new
campaign against the Scots. Aided by dissension within the Scottish
ranks and using the devastating longbow developed by Welsh archers,
Edward crushed Wallace’s army at the Battle of Falkirk. Gradually,
Edward tightened his grip on Scotland as Wallace went into hiding and
Seven years later, after Wallace returned to
Scotland, he was betrayed by a fellow Scot, taken prisoner by Edward’s
forces and paraded before mocking crowds in English towns en route to
his grisly fate in London.
After Wallace was drawn and quartered, Edward
ordered Wallace’s head put on a spike on London Bridge and his severed
limbs displayed over the sewers in the Scottish towns of Newcastle,
Berwick-upon-Tweed, Perth and Aberdeen.
Edward’s goal was to make Wallace’s suffering and
humiliation a warning to the Scots. Instead, Edward created a martyr who
has inspired the Scottish independence movement to this day. After actor
Mel Gibson portrayed Wallace in the 1995 movie “Braveheart,” new impetus
was given to the cause of Scottish nationalism.
In the decade since the movie, the Scots have
pursued what they call the “devolution” of their ties to England. With
their own parliament and control over many domestic policies, many Scots
now regard their land as an independent country only in loose
confederation with Great Britain.
On July 4, 2005, our “Wallace/Edward tour” brought
us to Stirling, where we met Colin and David, who were drinking beers at
the bar after finishing their day’s work as guides at Stirling Castle.
It was hard to tell if they were more bemused or impressed that some
Americans had bothered to visit the site of Wallace’s execution in
Colin especially held Wallace in deep reverence as
the archetypal Scottish hero who never bent to the will of England, even
in the face of a horrible death. There were other Scottish heroes, Colin
said, but none measured up to Wallace.
After Edward I’s own death in 1307, as he was
preparing another military campaign against Scotland, Robert the Bruce
led the Scots to a major victory over Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314.
But Colin said the memory of Robert the Bruce was tainted by his
on-again-off-again collaboration with Edward I.
Colin leaned toward me at the bar. “You know a
bunch of us Scots are going down to London on the 700th
anniversary of Wallace’s death,” he said. “We’re going to follow the
route that Wallace took through London, to where he was executed in
It struck me that the calm commitment on Colin’s
face was a lesson that should not be lost on George W. Bush and other
politicians of today. However justified they might regard their military
operations in other lands, those wars carry the heavy risk of creating
martyrs and enflaming hatreds that could outlast any short-term
objectives, just as Edward I's brutality against Scotland did.
That is one reason why leaders with deep historical
perspective really do treat war as a last resort, rather than a casual
means for achieving some geopolitical end.
Though William Wallace was undoubtedly a brutal man
himself, Edward I’s aggression against Scotland and his martyrdom of
Wallace created a legacy that has haunted English-Scottish relations to
the present day. As Colin made clear, Wallace’s path of execution on
Aug. 23, 1305, is becoming a kind of “stations of the cross” for
Edward I may have viewed Wallace’s torture and
dismemberment as one sort of political warning to his enemies, but that
atrocity has evolved into another type of cautionary tale for
politicians of all eras – if you rely too readily on violence, it can
have negative consequences that far outweigh its successes.