Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:07 pm
London’s Smithfield seemed a little ragged round the edges to me. Home to the capital’s huge meat and poultry market, some of the buildings have seen better days and the well-intentioned Victorian garden at West Smithfield appeared a little sad; it did not encourage me to linger. What I was looking for, though, was the memorial to Sir William Wallace, Scottish hero and patriot. I found it just across from the garden on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. A couple of kilted Scots were busy taking photos of it and a few flowers had been casually stuffed into a railing underneath. Wallace was cruelly executed nearby more than 700 years’ ago, on 23 August 1305, but the memorial – and it is a handsome one – was only placed there as recently as 1956.
Smithfield was originally Smoothfield, an open area outside London’s walls. The Romans used it to muster troops, as well as for burials. Since the middle ages, Smithfield has been known as the City’s chief livestock market as well as a site for tournaments and fairs; the 3-day annual St Bartholomew’s Fair was held from 1133 until being cancelled by the authorities in 1855 for its drunkenness and debauchery. Because it was a place where the public gathered, Smithfield was also a natural site to stage public executions, and was sometimes known as The Elms – because it had Elm trees.
Wallace probably wasn’t the first to be cruelly done to death at Smithfield, and he certainly wasn’t the last. The Tudors were particularly fond of burning religious dissenters there; in the region of 60 Protestants, for example, were burned alive at Smithfield during the short reign of Queen Mary, from 1553 to 1558. Something should honour all the poor souls who perished in this place.
Little is known about William Wallace, though we can be pretty sure he wasn’t much like the character portrayed by Mel Gibson in the historically dodgy 1995 film Braveheart. Wallace was born sometime in the 1270s, possibly in Elderslie near Paisley, or perhaps in Ayrshire, and was probably the 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 successful guerrilla war against the English, culminating in the defeat of a considerably larger English army at Stirling Bridge in September 1297, with the help of Andrew de Moray (Andy Murray). William Wallace 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, captured by the Scottish knight Sir John de Menteith at Robroystoun near Glasgow, taken to London and put on trial for treason. Wallace denied the charge, pointing out – reasonably, but possibly naively – 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. Accounts of his execution make harrowing reading: he was stripped, dragged through the streets of London to Smithfield on a wooden frame, and there hanged, drawn and quartered in front of a baying crowd. This dreadful, barbaric, punishment for treason may have been uniquely English: it involved strangulation by hanging until the victim was almost dead, thereafter being cut down, emasculated, disembowelled, heart cut out, decapitated and the torso butchered into four pieces. Wallace’s body parts were dipped in tar for preservation: his head was displayed at London Bridge and the 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.”