Many times, evidence of fantastic finds vanishes, leaving behind only legends (think the Tulli Papyrus or Robin Hood’s Hideout). However, sometimes, fabulous artifacts from history manage to survive intact across the millennia. Currently, controversy swirls around the authenticity of one such artifact, the sword of the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace. The Wallace Sword would have been in use at least until the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, possibly until Wallace’s death in 1305. Over the next 700 years, the sword changed many hands before coming to rest in the Hall of Heroes gallery of the National Wallace Memorial. It’s a fascinating tale – if it is the real sword.
The History of the Wallace Sword
Today, William Wallace (1270-1305) is probably most familiar to people as the man portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. A Scottish knight, Wallace was instrumental in the Wars of Scottish Independence, initially as a military leader and then as a symbolic figure. The two wars lasted from 1296 to 1357. At the end of both wars, the Kingdom of Scotland maintained its independence from the Kingdom of England. (Though the two kingdoms would become increasingly intertwined due to royal marriages until they merged to form the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.)
A depiction of Wallace from H E Marshall’s ‘Scotland’s Story’, published in 1906. ( Public Domain )
The Wallace Sword currently on display in Stirling, Scotland weighs 5.95 pounds (2.7 kg). The blade is 4 feet 4 inches (132 cm) long; with the hilt, the sword is 5 feet 4 inches (163 cm) long. At the base, the sword is 2.25 inches (5.7 cm) wide; at the point, the sword is 0.75 inches (1.9 cm) long.
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The Wallace Sword. (Glenn J. Mason/ CC BY 2.0 )
In 1305, Wallace was captured and turned over to the British by the sheriff (later governor) of Dumbarton, John de Menteith (sometimes called Fause Menteith for this treachery). Here, the legend of the sword becomes murky. It is believed that de Menteith kept the sword or possibly received it back as a token of appreciation from the English.
The Trial of William Wallace at Westminster by Daniel Maclise. ( Public Domain )
For the next 200 years, there is no record or mention of the sword. Then, in 1505, records show that King James IV of Scotland paid 26 shillings to an armorer for “the bind of Wallace’s sword with cords of silk” and for the provision of “a new hilt and plummet” as well as for “a new scabbard and a new belt” (Caldwell, 2014). The King’s requests were undoubtedly made because Wallace’s scabbard, hilt, and belt were said to have been made from the dried skin of Sir Hugh Cressingham, the treasurer of the English administration in Scotland. If this is true, the scabbard, hilt, and belt were probably in terrible condition by 1505; even if it is not true, it is still an unsettling thought, especially for an Englishman.
After this, the legend becomes murky once again. In 1644, a sword bearing the description of the Wallace Sword turns up in Wallace Tower at Dumbarton Castle. Erected in 1617, it is not entirely clear why the tower was named after the Scottish folk hero but, at least as late as 1808, the sword was advertised as Wallace’s Sword, as evinced by William Wordsworth notes from his visit to the castle.
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Dumbarton rock, castle, lime kiln and the clyde in 1800. ( Public Domain )
The sword does not reappear until 1825, when it was allegedly sent to the Tower of London to be repaired. At this time, Duke of Wellington (the Master-General of the Ordnance) submitted it to Sir Samuel Meyrick (an authority on ancient swords) for examination. Given the technology at the time, Sir Meyrick could only accurately date the sword’s mountings. So it is not surprising that he concluded “The two-handed sword, shown at Dumbarton Castle as that of Wallace, is of this period, as will be evident to any one who compares it with that of the earldom of Chester, in the British Museum” – the Chester Sword was used by Edward IV, Prince of Wales, to storm Chester Castle in 1475 (Caldwell, 2014). This dating is accurate so far as the sword’s mountings go, however, historical evidence shows that those were replaced in 1505.
Disturbances and Controversy Surrounding the Wallace Sword
In 1888, after 19 years of requests, the sword was transferred to the National Wallace Monument. There it has been on display ever since, though not without some disturbances. In 1912, “suffragette Ethel Moorhead smashed the sword case in the National Wallace Monument to draw attention to the women’s cause for the freedom of political expression” (The National Wallace Monument, 2017).
The Wallace Monument near Stirling, Scotland. (Finlay McWalter/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
And in 1936 the Wallace Sword was stolen “by Scottish Nationalists at Glasgow University, who later returned the sword after realizing the distress the theft had caused” (ibid). Finally, “the Sword was stolen again in May 1972 and returned in October of that same year” (ibid). The Sword has also traveled around the world to participate in museum displays, for instance, it went to New York City in 2005 to be the centerpiece for a Tartan Day celebration (BBC, 2017).
Yet controversy swirls around the sword’s authenticity. Most notably, the sword is so big it could not have been wielded while on horseback. Moreover, even to be wielded on foot, “historians think that because of its massive size, Wallace must have been at least 6 foot 5 [1.96m]; the average height at the time was around five foot seven [1.7m]” (Lawton, 2011).
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William Wallace statue by D. W. Stevenson, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. (Kim Traynor/ CC BY SA 3.0 ) Was Wallace a towering 6 ft. 5 inches (1.96 meters) tall?
However, as historian David Caldwell points out, “remarkably, the blade, as we now have it, seems to have been welded together from at least three separate pieces” (Caldwell, 2014). In addition, the blade shows heavy use and mistreatment. The repairs needed for the blade itself would be in keeping with the historical evidence we have showing repairs were needed for the sword mountings. In his examination of the blade, Caldwell writes,
“at least two of the pieces do not seem to match up well. The bottom 87.7 centimeters [34.5in] has for the most part a flattened diamond section, unlike the flattened profile of the upper portion, and seems to belong to a relatively narrower weapon… Possibly this amounts to a single-handed blade that has been deliberately enlarged to give it the appearance of a two-handed one. A close date could not be put on such a single-handed blade, but it might well be of thirteenth-century date.” (Caldwell, 2014)
Caldwell continues that the mismatch could have happened accidentally or deliberately to enhance Wallace’s renown.
History may never know for certain. Regardless, “Wallace’s sword has been of great symbolical importance to people down the centuries. It is on public display in the National Wallace Monument, and every Scot should look at it, study it, and think of what it means in the history of Scotland.” (Elspeth King, quoted in BBC, 2017)
Wallace Monument, Stirling, Scotland – stained glass window, William Wallace. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
In October, 2017, a new investigation was launched – this time, historians were on the look out for the last sword used by William Wallace, which is believed to have been presented to him by the King of France. The weapon is known to have been kept in the parish of Loudoun in Ayrshire, Scotland, for many centuries, before being sold at a private auction in Glasgow in 1930. After that, all traces of the sword disappeared and its whereabouts is currently unknown. It is not believed to be still in Scotland, but historians have been trying to trace its steps, in the hope that a deal maybe struck and the sword could one day return to its homeland.
Top Image: Detail of the Wallace sword on display inside William Wallace monument.