WILLIAM Wallace governed as Regent (“Guardian” in medieval Scotland) for one year (1297-98) between the reigns of John Balliol and Robert the Bruce. It’s not sensible to mistake a nation’s Regent or Guardian for a career criminal, yet we continue to deploy these propagandist terms when describing Wallace, a man about whom we know next to nothing beyond the fact he was Regent years before Bruce was King.

The regal legitimacy of the office of Guardian is beyond question. Robert the Bruce wasn’t crowned King of Scots until 1306, but he served as one of four Guardians between 1298 and 1300. Guardians and Regents in the middle ages weren’t subordinates or subservient titular officers working for a higher body or on behalf of a monarch. They were kings in all but name .

Wallace was King of Scots in all but name. The 1304-05 “Pipe Roll” accounts of King Edward I applied the usual rhetoric (“robber, a public traitor, an outlaw”) to describe Wallace’s alleged criminal character, but they also describe a man who, in “contempt of the king” and as “an enemy and rebel of the king”, had “falsely sought to call himself King of Scotland”.

Years had passed since Wallace “resigned” as Guardian in 1298, but his short tenure made an impression in England and still-divided Scotland. As an ardent supporter of King John Balliol, a second Wallace guardianship was as much a threat to Robert the Bruce as to Edward I. Both men were likely relieved when Wallace departed the scene after the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, but his return sometime before 1304 provoked a significant response.

The so-called Battle of Happrew (February 1304) outside Peebles was a botched attempt to capture or kill the outlawed Wallace. A second attempt took place a little later (September 1304) at an unknown location called “Yrenside”, where English accounts record payments made for a horse lost in a skirmish with Wallace. “Yrenside” was long believed to refer to the River Earn, but it may correspond with the River Irvine, where legend already has Wallace attacking mounted English soldiers and their horses.

The now-fugitive Wallace lasted more than a year on the run before on-again/off-again Bruce loyalist John de Menteith identified and captured him in 1305 at Robroyston outside Glasgow. Menteith, in Wyntoun’s words (1418), apprehended Wallace and “sent him to England” to be tried as a criminal in a London court. Menteith’s loyalty to Bruce was eventually rewarded, and he managed to keep himself at the forefront of Scottish affairs for the next 15 years. He’s even one of the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath.

A few months after the capture of Wallace, Robert the Bruce killed (likely by his own hand) another extremely popular and influential Balliol-aligned Guardian of Scotland: John Comyn. Bruce was a ruthless tactician, but if he hadn’t been so harsh with his immediate rivals, Scotland might’ve struggled to overcome the King of England’s repeated attempts to annex Scotland.

The “Chronicles of London from Henry III to Edward III” (1885) confirms that Wallace’s fate was sealed. So “anxious was Edward to wreak his vengeance upon the head of Wallace” he started arranging the public execution before the show trial had even begun.

Wallace was “dragged at the tails of horses through the streets” to the gallows, where he was “hanged, but not to death” before being “cut down yet breathing, his bowels taken out, and burnt before his face”.

His head was mounted for display on London Bridge, but the rest of his body (depending on the source) was transported “into Scotland to be placed over the gates of as many of the principal cities”, or to Newcastle, Berwick, Perth, and (more controversially) Aberdeen or Stirling.

One Londoner, according to the Mayor Court Rolls (1305), went “to look at the head of William le Waleys”, but was detained by the sheriff’s officer for “making a disturbance” and for “behaving as one against the King’s peace”. The man was accused of assault.

It’s an odd epilogue to the life and death (and head) of the de facto King of Scots.