If you’re the type of person who dresses in Union flags and England football shirts, steer clear of Smithfield this week. Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace was executed here 700 years ago today, and, as in life, he’s sure to attract a large gathering of patriotic countrymen.
Wallace made a hobby out of soundly routing the professional armies of Edward I, back in the 13th and 14th centuries. In Scotland, he is an icon; and his courageous exploits were brought to a wider audience in the 1995 film Braveheart. So beloved is his memory, and the cause that he fought for, that flowers can nearly always be found at his memorial stone on West Smithfield.
London has seen its fair share of grisly deaths over the centuries, but few approach the fate of Wallace. After being captured and accused of treason, he declared: “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject”. A reasonable argument, seeing as England and Scotland would not be truly united under the same monarch for 300 years. But an example needed to be set. Wallace was sentenced to death, and what happened next would make even Itchy and Scatchy feel faint. Readers of a nervous disposition may find the following scenes disturbing.
To tenderise his body, Wallace was dragged naked behind a horse from Westminster Hall to Smithfield Market – about a mile. He was then hanged, but cut loose moments before losing consciousness. After a brief moment for recovery, the groggy Scot would have looked down in horror to see his genitals being ripped from his beaten body, shortly to be accompanied by his bowels. The heaped offal was burned before his fading vision, until final release came with a beheading. But that wasn’t quite the end of the matter. In a process that prefigured the work of the modern Smithfield meat market, his decapitated body was sliced into quarters and dispatched to the towns of Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth for display. The head got pride of place atop a spike on London Bridge.
700 years on, this martyr’s death is anything but forgotten. A service will be held in Westminster Hall, scene of Wallace’s trial, but you can bet that most of today’s action will be at the Smithfield memorial. The three battle-hardened souls in our picture were just the vanguard of a blue and white tartan army encamped in the area when we wandered past this morning.