William Wallace of Renfrew had managed to rally his disparate Scottish countrymen against the strict rule of England. There was a void amongst the Scottish royalty since 1286 and a bitter family dispute over who should be King divided the land. The English King, Edward I, seized upon the confusion to march into Scotland and, in 1296, after brutal massacres, brought the Scottish noblemen to their knees.
Edward then instituted a reign of terror in Scotland, sending English officials to run the government and to hold all positions of public authority. While the English were resented by the Scots, their noblemen continued their squabbling.
In this context, Wallace had killed an English sheriff in Lanark and he had managed to rally the local men into a small fighting unit. When word of the revolt spread, Wallace's army quickly grew by the hundreds and then by the thousands. He marched upon English strongholds in Scotland and captured them one by one, always with fatal results to their English defenders. His army was finally defeated in 1298 and Wallace went into hiding.
Scotland was an easy place to hide in spite of the English military occupation. Forests were thick and all of the peasants and many of the noblemen of Scotland considered Wallace to be a hero.
In 1304, a new Scottish King had been appointed with the approval of King Edward. Clemency was granted to many of the Scottish noblemen that had supported Wallace's uprising; but not to Wallace. A bounty was placed on his head and he was finally captured in Glasgow on August 3, 1305, betrayed by a fellow Scotsman, Ralph Rae, a prisoner-of-war that the English had released on condition that he lead them to Wallace.
Edward I had actually instituted many legal reforms in England, some of which still stand today. It was during his era that the professions of "barrister" and "solicitor" were spawned. He also supervised the development of civil procedures and extensive laws on property. But the law meant little when it came to the William Wallace. One medieval historian's account shows the contempt for which not only Edward I, but also the English people held the Scottish patriot: "William Wallace, a runaway from righteousness, a robber, a committer of sacrilege, an arsonist and a murderer, more cruel than Herod and more debauched in his insanity than Nero."
In spite of Edward's commitment to the law, Wallace was given no legal rights or privileges. His trial and punishment were typical of law and order in the medieval ages. It stands as an example of primitive justice systems including government-approved barbarism which is all but extinct today.
Edward wanted Wallace's fate to serve as a example to any remaining Scottish insurgents. Bound, Wallace was marched through England in the middle of summer reaching London on August 22, where he was ceremoniously paraded to the heart of the city, as if he were a sort of military trophy.
On August 23rd, he was brought before a bench of noblemen in Westminster Hall. Then, a long and accurate indictment was read against him detailing all his military victories and the murder of many English prisoners-of-war. It mattered little to the bench, no doubt acting on Edward's direct orders. He was not allowed to speak, to defend himself or his actions and the sentence was read. Wallace did try to speak out at one point. Records show that he yelled out that he admitted all the charges against him except treason. How could he be guilty of high treason if he had never sworn allegiance to the King of England? This defence was valid but of little avail to the bloodthirsty bench of medieval English judges. Revenge mattered more than justice.
The sentence of death was read and Wallace was quickly led outside and tied to a team of horses, where he was pulled to a field outside of the city walls, jeered along the way, onto the grounds of the St. Bartholomew Hospital. A massive crowd cheered on as the executioners first hanged him until he was semi-conscious. Then he was tied down and, while still alive, his genitals were cut off and his stomach opened. His intestines were pulled out and burned, all while he still lived. Finally and mercifully, he was beheaded. "A cruel yet fully deserved death," wrote an observer.
Edward was not yet finished with Wallace. As an added deterrent, he ordered Wallace's body cut in four and the pieces brought to cities at the four corners of England, where they were displayed. Wallace's head was impaled on the spikes at London Bridge.
Barbaric, medieval justice would continue to prevail in England, with the most despicable sentences reserved for those, such as Wallace, convicted of acts which threatened the King's authority. And yet, all countries at that time sanctioned similar punishment on their convicted citizens. Where education was rare, lawlessness had to be checked and deterred. The life of a peasant convict mattered little. Within a few centuries, England would desist from cruel and unusual punishment setting a standard to which all modern nations now abide.