Why We Love William Wallace: "Freedom!"
William Wallace's battle cry, "Freedom!" resonates a deep chord in Americans' hearts. Perhaps it is the powerful war-voice of the bagpipes, the poetic thunder of a thousand hooves of Highland-bred horses, the brilliant flag-blue war paint on sweaty muscular faces, or the burning villages where bonny highland lasses and bairns used to romp and play portrayed so vividly in Mel Gibson's Braveheart. These images move a certain muscle in the jaw of every patriot, but I submit to you that the thrill we Americans get from the mere mention of "Braveheart" or "WIlliam Wallace" or even "bagpipes" comes from something deeper, something that brings us home to a place we've never been before, something that both Scotland and America share.
The Scottish Wars for Independence and America's War for Independence
Two hundred and thirty years ago colonial America fought for its freedom from tyrannical British rule. America's reasons for resistance were listed in the Declaration of Independence. Seven hundred years ago Scotland fought for its freedom from tyrannical British rule. Scotland's wars were called the Wars of Scottish Independence and they also wrote a treatise of Independence from England.
Patrick Henry gave an impassioned speech to members of America's Continental Congress proclaiming, "Give me liberty or give me death!" His words roused the colonials into action and started the fires that would burn the chords that bound America to England. William Wallace was known for his battle cry "Freedom!" and he led thousands of his Scottish countrymen into battle to free their families and land from England. He was given death for his fight for liberty, but because of his sacrifice, was able to uphold Scotland's status as an independent nation.
The William Wallace Braveheart Speech: "Freedom!"
Wallace also pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor for the freedom of his country. The speech Wallace gave to his apprehensive troops at Stirling in the movie Braveheart, though not necessarily word-for-word, is a dramatic and powerful representation of the real William Wallace's courage in fighting for freedom.
"I am William Wallace. And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom? Will you fight?"
A middle-aged soldier counters, "Fight? Against that? No, we will run; and we will live."
Wallace responded: "Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live -- at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom! Alba gu bra (Scotland Forever)!"
Wallace's point is well taken. Living in bondage to tyrannical government was not the kind of living that Wallace or any of his other Scotsmen wanted to be a part of. Liberty or death was Patrick Henry's maxim; freedom or death was William Wallace's.
About William Wallace: a Man of Honor
The William Wallace of Mel Gibson's Braveheart was courageous, strategic, and patriotic, but that seems to be the sum total of his virtue. I much prefer the William Wallace of Jane Porter's novel, Scottish Chiefs, whose chivalric honor only a Victorian novel writer can portray. She seems to have fashioned her portrayal of this Scottish hero after king David of the Bible; but no, as I read deeper into her thick book, I realized she was showing us a man who was truly Christ-like in his innocent death for his people. At the beginning of the book, William Wallace enters into a meditative and mournful mental state after the murder of his wife by the British. His brave and noble deeds following her murder are done in her memory and for the sake of her honor. In a way, his wife was an allegorical symbol of the honor of the country of Scotland that he fought for as well. Scotland had become defiled by national tyrants; his wife had been defiled by a local tyrant. Because of this, Wallace never profaned his purity or became distracted from the battle by fornicating or flirting with a woman, though romance does enter the story at the end of his life when he is wed to Lady Helen Mar in his cell in the Tower of London. Porter also portrays Wallace as a devout Christian, often going to the chapel to inquire of God before a decision or a battle. His choices in battle seemed divinely strategized and planned with wisdom beyond his thirty years. He was a source of encouragement as a friend and brother to his soldiers. As he commanded them to do, he did himself. After Wallace's death, his successor Robert the Bruce begged to see his commander before he was buried: "Show me that heroic face from whose beams my heart first caught the fire of virtue!" (Porter, p. 480)
This virtue is what we recognize in William Wallace when we see something there worth noting. Like moths attracted to the light, humans are attracted to virtue. It is a quality that cannot be hidden by centuries of history, and the memory of William Wallace testifies to this fact. He was given to Scotland at a pivotal point in Scotland's history, and the heart of this "king" was in the hand of God, and God turned it whichever way He wished.
William Wallace Loved His Psalms Book
Blind Harry or "Henry the Minstrel" wrote most of what we know about William Wallace. In his poem, he describes Wallace's dying moments:
Wallace about him, from his Child-hood kept,
Where e'er he went, whither he walk'd or slept,
A Psalter Book, which he beseech'd the Knight,
Lord Clifford, might be brought into his Sight.
Which done, he caus'd a Priest upon the Place
To hold it open straight before his Face,
On which he look'd, sometimes his Eyes up cast,
Religiously unto his very last.
Then quickly came the Executioner who,
Gave him the fatal, and the Mortal blow.
Thus in Defence, that Hero ends his Days,
Of Scotland's Right, to his immortal Praise...
The Virtuous Sword of William Wallace
When Alexis de Tocqueville came to America from France, he observed the people and the government, then wrote a book on why America was great. His reasons will reveal that the virtue of men and women and families is the measure of greatness: "America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." De Tocqueville also recognized that America's pursuit of liberty was in reality a pursuit of religion. The War for Independence was a religious war, as all wars are. “The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.” (Alexis de Tocqueville)
Perhaps this is the thrill that courses through our veins when we hear of the brave deeds of WIlliam Wallace, or when the cry of freedom meets our ears. Perhaps it is the voice of virtue, calling for patriots who are just as meek as they are courageous, just as compassionate as they are warriors, and just as pure as they are chivalrous.
All photos © Jane Grey 2010
N C Wyeth paintings from Scottish Chiefs