November 2012 – William Wallace, traitor?

William Wallace: traitor to the king of Scotland?

Ian StoneKing’s College London


Liber de Antiquis Legibus has been much used by historians of the thirteenth century. It has been little used, however, by students of fourteenth-century events. The Liber is a manuscript, now kept at the London Metropolitan Archives, which was almost entirely compiled under the direction of the London alderman Arnold fitz Thedmar between 1257 and 1274; it brings together various statutes, lists of office-holders, accounts from history, miracle stories, and most importantly, the ‘Chronicle of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London’.[1]  This chronicle, written contemporaneously from 1264 provides the most detailed and intelligent account of the period of ‘reform and rebellion’ in England, and the final fifteen-year period of Henry III’s rule. As well as affording, at times, a day-by-day account of national events, it also shines a light on the social history of London, with its vivid descriptions of daily life and recollections of tumultuous events in England’s largest town. It has been twice edited, but neither edition is satisfactory.[2]

The chronicle, covering folios 63v–144v of the Liber, ceases in August 1274, owing to the death of its author. We cannot be clear about what then happened to the manuscript, but there seems to have been a twenty-five year hiatus before any additions were made to it. From about 1299, two main scribes began to add to the various chapters of the Liber, often in a seemingly haphazard way. The rather disordered nature of many of these additions, along with the general unsatisfactory nature of both of the printed editions, has not endeared the manuscript to historians of the period after 1274, and to the best of my knowledge, it has been seldom used in the study of events after that date.

And yet within these later additions, the general themes of the manuscript’s preceding text have been followed. The earlier author’s interest in weights and measures is maintained. There are also brief annalistic entries for the majority of years from 1299 to 1327, which occasionally are expanded into more detailed accounts. Not only are they all written by someone in London, but the names of the mayors and sheriffs of London continued to be entered, as were those of the archbishops of Canterbury and bishops of London (although not the other sees). One of the three notes stitched to the recto of folio 146 again suggests a fourteenth-century London connection. This is a note ordering that treasure recovered from the robbery of King Edward I’s treasury at Westminster in April 1303 was to be presented at the Guildhall before the mayor and sheriffs of London. It is therefore likely that someone connected with city government or administration, or at least someone interested in the city’s laws and customs, had ownership of the Liber and was adding to it as he saw fit, as well as inserting documents he considered of interest. It may lack the detail and sophistication provided by fitz Thedmar, but it is still a source of value to the historian, particularly of events in London.

On folio 61v, one of the continuers, writing in French, close to the time of events, provides the following account of an episode in London of considerable note in August 1305.

Memorandum ke Lundi par le welle Seyn Bertermeu, lan du Rey Edward xxxiij fut Willeme le Wales, iuwaler Decose, ajeuagge en la sale le rey a Neuwouttel dettre treyne, pendu, decole, le boues hars, le cors demembre, en iiij parties decose, la tette au pont de Londres en hanse pour trayson fet a lawantdit Edward Rey Degleterre e Decose.

Translated, this reads,

Be it remembered that on Monday, the Vigil of Saint Bartholomew, in the thirty-third year of king Edward, William Wallace, knight of Scotland, was condemned in the king’s hall at New Palace to be drawn, hanged, beheaded, his bowels burnt, his body dismembered, torn apart into four pieces, his head on London Bridge on a pike, for treason committed against the aforesaid Edward, king of England and Scotland.

The account is mostly correct in its essentials. That should not surprise us, because the fullest account of William Wallace’s sojourn in London, his trial (if it can be called one) and grisly execution, is provided by another London chronicler, most probably an officer of city administration, in the Annales Londoniensis. The two accounts agree on 23 August 1305 as the date, they agree that judgment was given in the king’s hall (although the Annales is more specific that this was at Westminster), and they agree with the details of Wallace’s demise and subsequent dismemberment. The Annales provide much more detail, including copies of the commission to try the case, and a record of the judgment given. What makes the continuation of the Liber unique is the last line. Wallace, it says, was condemned ‘for treason committed against the aforesaid Edward, king of England and Scotland’.

To be sure, there was a definite vagueness about Scotland’s governance in 1305. The ordinance for the good order of Scotland issued in that very year attempted to deal with many of the practicalities of the situation as it then was, being mostly concerned with the appointment of sheriffs, coroners, justices, constables and other officers of government. It had, though, nothing to say about the contentions over land that a decade of war had led to in Scotland. The greatest omission in this settlement, moreover, was its absolute silence over the issue of kingship. Since the deposition of John Baliol in 1296 Scotland had been without a king. Much has, of course, been made of the description in the Ordinance of Scotland as a ‘land’ (la terre d’Escoce) as opposed to ‘a kingdom’, yet in it the wording remains quite clear; Edward is referred to as ‘le roy’, but never ‘le roy d’Escose’.[3] Neither is he so styled in the chancery records of the period, nor in the other chronicle accounts. War had originally broken out as a result of Edward’s insistence on recovering his royal rights, which included an acceptance by the Scots of his position as overlord of the king of Scotland. Edward had also previously sought to marry his son, Edward, to the Maid of Norway and thereby bestow the title ‘king of Scotland’ on his heirs. But such a title was never one that he sought or used himself.

It is true that this is not the only fourteenth-century source to refer to Edward as king of Scotland. Dauvit Broun has shown that there is at least one other manuscript, the MS. Arundel 202 at the British Library in London, which also styles Edward king of Scotland. This was, however, written around eighty years later in the decade or so after 1380. The Liber is seemingly unique, then, in being a contemporary source for the events of 1305, in which the author refers to Edward quite clearly as king of both England and Scotland. What then do we make of this claim?

It could have been a slip on the chronicler’s part, but a slip nevertheless of some consequence. The Liber was a tremendous repository of information, and one that in later years was often used by great officials of London, such as John Carpenter, Common Clerk of London and founder of the City of London School for Boys, as source material for the history and laws of England and London. The manuscript has been annotated throughout by city officials with tags such as nota or nota bene et lege where important issues of national history or local custom are referred to. It is likely that even quite early in its adventures, it was being used in just such a way as a reference tool by city officials. By continuing its key themes, whoever was adding to the manuscript in the first quarter of the fourteenth century must have been doing so knowing that it would most likely be used by generations following him. How else does one account for his entering each year, with metronymic regularity, the names of the mayor and sheriff for those years? Although the entries can be terse, and might appear haphazard and clumsy, with frequent misspellings, they nevertheless remain a valuable source for events in the city and country during these years. The anonymous chronicler was eager to record detail for posterity. The description of Edward as king of Scotland, which is not corrected or erased as another mistake could easily have been, should not be dismissed as a mere slip.

The entry on Wallace’s execution, moreover, was written at the very time of Edward’s greatest power. Robert Bruce’s murder of John Comyn and rebellion were yet to come, and indeed, the next entry in the manuscript, written in a different stint, refers to Bruce having himself crowned as king in March 1306. In 1304 Edward had, however, brought a decade of war with Scotland to a close. Perhaps the author of this entry wrote it having recently witnessed the king’s power manifested at close quarters? Certainly, the Annales Londoniensis tell us that Wallace was lodged at the home of a London alderman, William Leyre, and that the great and the good of London both ‘led and followed’ Wallace to his judgment. A similar procession saw him taken back through the city, and a sizeable crowd gathered for his execution at Smithfield.

Nor was this the sole demonstration of Edward’s might in London. In late 1282 Llwelyn ap Gruffudd had been killed and his head placed upon a pole at the Tower of London. A year later, his brother Dafydd’s head was placed next to that of his brother. Eighteen months after this, Edward responded to an outbreak of disorder in London by enclosing the ancient site of the citizens’ assembly and taking the city into his hand. Had our continuer been present in London for some, even if not for all of these events of the last twenty years, we might imagine the impact this would have had on his mind as a contemporary Londoner. He would have seen at first hand Edward’s firm imposition of his will on the city, and then witnessed the brutal death of Scotland’s last major rebel and, with his execution, the apparent end of Scottish resistance. We need not be surprised that the continuer of this London chronicle thought of Edward I as king of both England and Scotland.

[1] MS. CLA/CS/01/001/001.

[2] De Antiquis Legibus Liber, Cronica Maiorum et Vicecomitum Londoniarum, ed. Thomas Stapleton, Camden Society 34 (London, 1846); and Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London, ed. H. T. Riley (London, 1863).

[3] Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174–1328, ed. and transl. E. L. G. Stones (London, 1965), 120–9.

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