The Trial and Execution of William Wallace (Intro by Dershowitz)

Our Book of the Week tells the final chapter of the story of the much-beloved Scottish hero, William Wallace. While most may be familiar with this legend from the acclaimed movie “Braveheart“, this historical account displays the truth behind his unjust trial and execution. Below is our edition’s introduction, written by Alan Dershowitz:

“The British system of justice was primitive in the early 14th Century, not only in comparison with other contemporary systems, but also in comparison with legal systems that predated it by millennia. The Roman, Greek and Jewish legal systems, to name but three, were far ahead of what passed as the justice system during the reign of King Edward of England.

The so-called trial of William Wallace in 1305 was worse than a travesty. It was nothing more than an arbitrary order of the King to kill one of his enemies. Despite the fact that the Magna Carta had been adopted nearly a century earlier, there is no suggestion that the British, in practice, followed any of its mandates when the King had an interest in the outcome. There were some formalities that conveyed an aura of justice, but these formalities merely served as a cover for substantive injustice. British justice came from the tip of the sword and the axe-blade of the executioner rather than from a fair trial or the rule of law.

William Wallace was the hero of an early Scottish independence movement. A giant of a man—standing “nine quarters large,” which translates to 6 feet 9 inches—he became the greatest warrior-statesman of his time. According to this hagiographic account by Wallace’s friend and priest, Wallace succeeded in ridding Scotland of the hated British authority that had conquered Scotland by force of arms. He took revenge against British soldiers and civilians for the murder of his wife at the hands of King Edward’s warriors. Eventually after British authority was forcibly restored, Wallace was captured, having been betrayed by Scottish nobles. He was brought to London and within 24 hours, he was indicted, tried, hanged, beheaded, dismembered and disemboweled. Talk about speedy trial! His execution probably took as long as his trial.

This account of his “trial,” which was recovered from an ancient Scottish building, is too one-sided to credit completely, but it is consistent with other accounts, at least according to the editor. Wallace was given no time to prepare his defense, no assistance of counsel, no trial by a jury of his peers and no opportunity to make legal arguments in his defense. He was given a brief opportunity to speak before the predetermined verdict was announced. According to this account, his defense was as simple as it was elegant. This is what he said:

“To Edward of England, I cannot be a traitor; for he never was my sovereign. As the wrongful invader of my beloved Land, the destroyer of her ancient liberties, the enemy of her peace, he never received my homage, and while life remains within this frame, he never shall!” (p. 58)

As soon as the King heard Wallace’s defense, he declared him guilty of treason and instructed the judges to issue a verdict and sentence.

“His own voice has condemned the Traitor. Witness is unnecessary. Therefore, let the Judge pronounce the Doom meted out to all Outlaws and Traitors, according to the ancient statutes of this kingdom!”

There was no appeal. The King even refused to allow him to confess to his priest or to seek religious counseling. Indeed he threatened with death any priest who would offer such religious solace to so notorious a traitor. According to this account, the Archbishop of Canterbury defied the King and accepted Wallace’s confession. Immediately upon doing so, he left the place of execution, apparently not wishing to witness the carrying out of the barbarous sentence that the King had ordered imposed.

It is quite remarkable that, in a Christian country, even in the early 14th Century, justice would be so primitive. Both the Jewish and Christian Bibles mandate far more due process and compassion than that reflected by King Edward’s justice. The Jewish Bible required two witnesses, advanced warning, a trial before the Sanhedrin, and other due process safeguards. The Christian Bible required compassion, forgiveness and an opportunity to repent. None of these elements were present when the British King was offended.

The myth of Magna Carta has long been accepted. In practice, however, the Great Charter was largely a parchment promise, designed to protect only nobles and not commoners. Even nobles had little protection, when the King desired a particular result. This was true for centuries to come. Yet the early British system is lauded by scholars and historians as a model of justice. It was anything but, until relatively late in its history. It took the emergence of a middle class to convert the promise to a few, into a reality for the many. It is still a work in process, as is every system of justice.

The 21st Century reader may wonder whether there was a rhyme or reason to the dismembering of an executed body, beyond mere vengeance. There was, at least according to Edwardian justice. Two quarters of Wallace’s body were dispatched to Scotland “to be exhibited to strike terror to all would-be-traitors against the English King.” (p. 70) Wallace’s head was exhibited on the London Bridge, atop a spear. The goal was deterrence, but at least according to this account, it backfired: “Roused…by the sight of his mangled body, the lower portions of which were exposed at the gateways of Perth and Aberdeen…his countryman rose almost to a man to assert and to grandly win their National Freedom.” (p. 77) Wallace apparently accomplished in death what he was not able to secure in life.

William Wallace’s martyrdom inspired the Scottish people. He became Scotland’s national hero, and King Edward, its national villain. His martyrdom was analogized to that of Jesus, and Edward was compared to Pontius Pilot. Memorials to the fallen hero and victim of Edwardian injustice were constructed throughout Scotland, where many still stand.

One stanza from the many poetic eulogies to Wallace summarizes his denouement:

“Whose head so grim; whose huge hacked limb,

spite of English whim, no man like him,

to earth’s outmost rim, ‘til time grows dim?

Wallace hallows the gallows!”


Alan M. Dershowitz

Cambridge, Massachusetts

March 21, 2013″

We offer our beautiful edition, with a special forward by Alan Dershowitz, as a special sale for ONLY THIS WEEK!Trial of William Wallace.jpg

Or, you can always find it as part of our Notable Trials Collection. Bring this timeless piece of literature into your home today!004.jpg



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