London’s Smithfield seems a little frayed round the edges to me. Home to the capital’s huge meat and poultry market, some of the buildings have seen better days and there is a sad little park; it did not encourage me to linger. What I was looking for, though, was the memorial to Sir William Wallace, just across from the park on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. A couple of Scots were busy taking photos of it and some dead flowers were stuffed into a railing underneath. Wallace was cruelly executed nearby more than 700 years’ ago, on 23rd August 1305, but the memorial – and it is a handsome one - was placed there as recently as 1956.
I guess it would be difficult to honour all of those who died thereabouts. ‘Smooth Field’ originally sat outside London’s walls and for centuries was the city’s chief livestock market, as well as a site for fairs, tournaments and public executions. Wallace wasn’t the first to be done to death there, and certainly wasn’t the last.
Little is known about this Scottish patriot and hero, though we can be pretty sure he wasn’t much like Mel Gibson. William Wallace was born sometime in the 1270s, possibly in Elderslie near Paisley, or in Ayrshire, and was apparently the younger son of a minor landowner called Alan Wallace. It is said he was educated by two uncles, and could speak Latin and French.
At a time when the English King Edward I virtually ruled Scotland, Wallace came to prominence in May 1297 by leading a successful attack on Lanark, killing the English sheriff, Sir William Heselrig, in the process. The story goes that Heselrig had murdered Wallace’s wife and that Wallace retaliated by ghastly dismembering Heselrig’s corpse. He went on to wage a victorious guerrilla war against the English, culminating in the defeat of a considerably larger English army at Stirling Bridge in September 1297. He was knighted, allegedly by Robert the Bruce, and made Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland. More triumphant hit and run tactics followed, but in July 1298 the Scots were heavily beaten at the Battle of Falkirk. Wallace went abroad to plead Scotland’s cause, returning in 1303. In August 1305, he was betrayed by Sir David Menteith, captured at Robroystoun near Glasgow, taken to London and put on trial for treason. Wallace denied the charge, pointing out that he had never sworn allegiance to the English King so how could he be a traitor? The result was a foregone conclusion, though; Wallace was found guilty, of course. Far from home and alone, accounts of his execution make harrowing reading: he was stripped, dragged through the streets to Smithfield on a wooden frame, and there hung, drawn and quartered in front of a baying crowd. His head was displayed at London Bridge and the four remaining parts of his body were exhibited at Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick upon Tweed, Stirling and Perth.
It is said that the Latin inscription on the memorial is a saying that Wallace knew; it translates roughly as “My son, freedom is best, I tell thee true; never live like a slave”. “Bas Agus Buaidh” is a Scots Gaelic battle cry and means “Death and victory.”