Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2009

First published: 1810

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1296-1305

Locale: Scotland, France, and England

Principal Characters:

Sir William Wallace, a Scottish patriot

Earl of Mar, a Scottish nobleman

Lady Mar, his wife

Lady Helen Mar, his daughter

Edwin Ruthven ...

(The entire section contains 2009 words.)

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First published: 1810

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1296-1305

Locale: Scotland, France, and England

Principal Characters:

Sir William Wallace, a Scottish patriot

Earl of Mar, a Scottish nobleman

Lady Mar, his wife

Lady Helen Mar, his daughter

Edwin Ruthven, Wallace’s friend

Edward I, King of England

Robert Bruce, the heir to the Scottish throne

Earl of Gloucester, an English nobleman

The Story:

In the summer of 1296, Scotland was finally at peace, for the Scottish king had submitted to the authority of Edward I, King of England. Sir William Wallace, like many other Scottish lords, had retired to his home at Ellerslie. One night, he was asked secretly to meet Sir John Monteith, who gave him a mysterious iron box with instructions that it was not to be opened until Scotland was again free. On his way home with the box, Wallace saw the old Earl of Mar attacked by English soldiers. Wallace saved his old friend and took the wounded man to Ellerslie. There the vengeance of the English governor followed them. The wounded earl was hidden in a well, and Wallace fled to the hills. Lady Wallace was killed by the English governor when she refused to give information concerning her husband’s whereabouts or the iron box. Ellerslie was burned. After the English had gone, Mar was rescued and taken to Bothwell Castle. Wallace had the box taken to the Abbot of St. Fillan for safekeeping.

When Wallace heard that his wife had been so cruelly murdered, he swore to free Scotland from the tyrant Edward. Mar promised him aid and men, and in a few weeks, Wallace had captured several castles and their English garrisons. After some successful battles, Wallace learned that Mar and his family had been captured and jailed in Dumbarton Castle, and he hastened there with his troops to save them.

A young man, Edwin Ruthven, secretly entered the castle to learn the strength of its defense. Acting on Ruthven’s information, Wallace and his troops captured the castle and saved Mar’s family. He escorted the fugitives to Bute, where it was hoped they would be safe until Scotland was free.

While Wallace was at Bute, he learned that the English had executed many of the great Scottish chiefs in revenge for the victories he had won. Wallace first led his troops to Avr and captured that castle. Shortly afterward, he attacked Berwick Castle and captured its noble commander, the Earl of Gloucester, son-in-law of King Edward. Gloucester realized that Edward’s claims to Scotland were weak and that Wallace had the right and the blessings of God on his side. The two men became fast friends, and Gloucester promised never again to raise his sword against Wallace. He planned to return to England and plead with Edward to grant Scotland independence and freedom.

On the same day, Wallace received a letter from Lady Helen Mar which said that her father had been betrayed and that he was a prisoner in Stirling Castle. Wallace led his troops to Stirling at once, taking with him Lord de Valence, an English prisoner. As he approached the castle, the English showed Mar on the battlements and threatened to hang him if Wallace did not surrender immediately. Wallace countered this threat with a promise of death to de Valence if Mar were touched. Later, Wallace destroyed an English army marching to reinforce the garrison at Stirling. After this defeat, Stirling surrendered, and in the ancient hall of Snawdoun, the Scottish nobles assembled and named Wallace regent to rule for the king whom Edward held hostage in England. Some of the nobles, however, were jealous of his victories and popularity and could not see what an honest and true Scot Wallace was. When they heard that King Edward himself was leading troops to Scotland to fight Wallace, they planned to betray the regent into English power.

Wallace met the English in the Battle of Falkirk. During the battle, the false Scottish lords turned their troops against Wallace and tried to defeat him. That night, while reconnoitering the English lines, Wallace met Robert Bruce, the son of the royal claimant who was half friend, half ally of Edward. Convinced of Wallace’s virtue and honor, the young Bruce promised to try to persuade his father to join the patriots fighting for Scotland’s freedom. In the next day’s fighting, Mar was wounded and Lady Helen Mar captured. On his deathbed, Mar made Wallace promise to save her from Lord de Valence, the English knight who had made her his prisoner. Wallace promised that he would. Edward, meanwhile, had retreated to English soil, and all would have gone well if the nobles had supported Wallace. Dissension broke out in the Scottish Parliament when Lord Cummins declared that Wallace was trying to seize the throne for himself. Realizing that Scotland would be torn with internal quarrels if he remained regent, Wallace resigned his post, much to the sorrow of all true Scots. Lady Mar insisted that her noble birth would help him to secure the throne, and she tried to persuade him to marry her after her husband’s death. Disgusted, Wallace left her to go to England to save Lady Helen.

Disguised as a minstrel, he made his way to the castle of Durham, where Edward held his court. His voice soon won him the favor of Edward’s queen, and he was often called to sing for her. He found his old friends, Gloucester and Robert Bruce. His father had died, and Bruce was now the heir to the throne. He declared himself ready to fight beside Wallace for his country’s freedom. When Edward became suspicious of the minstrel’s identity, the Earl of Gloucester helped Wallace to escape. Bruce promised to join him soon.

Wallace had learned that de Valence had taken Lady Helen to France and had locked her in a castle there. Bruce joined Wallace in Rouen. He and Bruce were well received by the French king. Wearing a suit of royal French armor that the king had given him, Wallace entered the prison of Lady Helen and rescued her. Disguised as a page, she returned to Scotland with Wallace and Bruce.

Wallace again turned his sword against the enemies of Scotland and fought under the new regent, Lord Cummins. One day, a knight presented himself to Wallace and asked to be allowed to fight under the anonymous title of the Knight of the Green Plume. Wallace gave his permission, unaware that the knight was Lady Mar in disguise. Bruce, not wishing to claim the throne of Scotland until after he had fought for Scottish freedom, had taken the name of the Count de Longueville. He fought bravely in several battles. Severely wounded, Wallace then was sent to the castle of Huntingtower until he recovered. During his absence, Wallace was surprised to discover that the Knight of the Green Plume was really Lady Mar. She revealed herself to him and again begged him to marry her. When he refused, she struck at him with her dagger and wounded him slightly. As she left his tent, she boasted that she would someday see his head rolling beneath the executioner’s ax.

A short time later, Wallace received word that he had been accused of treason, and he was summoned before the chiefs of Scotland to stand trial. He soon learned that his accuser was Lady Mar, who tried to prove by false letters that Wallace had betrayed Scotland to the King of France. The council, led by Lord Cummins, decided against him. In a fury, he swore that he would leave Scotland forever. When he learned that his enemies were planning to turn him over to the English, he and his faithful follower, Edwin Ruthven, attempted to flee to France. Sir John Monteith, turning against his old friend, betrayed him to the English. Monteith and his men surrounded the hut where Wallace and Ruthven had stopped for the night. Ruthven was killed defending his leader. Wallace was put in chains and taken to London.

When Robert Bruce learned of this tragedy, he left his sickbed and made a futile attempt to save Wallace. Lady Helen Mar dressed herself in the page’s costume in which she had escaped from de Valence with Wallace’s help and set out for London. By bribing the guards, she gained entrance to the Tower of London and saw Wallace in prison. The two were discovered by Wallace’s old friend, Gloucester, who sent Lady Helen to plead with the king. Her mission was fruitless. With Gloucester’s aid, she and Wallace were married on the eve of his execution.

The next day, Wallace died a shameful traitor’s death. Gloucester, however, had the body saved from indignity and brought back to the tower. Robert Bruce arrived too late to see Wallace alive but he helped Lady Helen smuggle the body back to Scotland.

Robert Bruce raised the royal standard in his own name. The Scottish nobles, learning the identity of the Count de Longueville, acclaimed him their rightful monarch. He led his army against Edward’s troops in the famous battle of Bannockburn, defeated the English, and won Scotland’s freedom.

After the battle, Bruce went to be crowned at the church of St. Fillan. There, with Wallace’s body newly placed in a grave, he was crowned and married to Isabella Mar, Lady Helen’s younger sister. As the ceremony ended, Lady Helen fell dying on the tomb of Wallace. Then the Abbot of St. Fillan, remembering the box that had been left in his care, brought it forward in the belief that it contained holy relics that would save the dying woman. The crown and regalia of the King of Scotland were in the box. So Wallace, dead, restored to Robert Bruce his rightful crown.

Critical Evaluation:

Historically inaccurate and filled with diction extravagant by modern standards, THE SCOTTISH CHIEFS: OR, THE LIFE OF SIR WILLIAM WALLACE is nevertheless a work of interest today, for it vividly portrays the political and military milieu of late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century Scotland. Jane Porter studied much literature about Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s national hero, beginning with the heroic couplets written about him by Blind Henry the Minstrel in the fifteenth century. She used the information thus gathered to create a fast-paced medieval romance focusing on Wallace’s life. The emphasis in the novel is on Wallace’s military exploits in defense of Scotland and on his chivalry.

In a series of plots and counterplots, battles and retreats, Porter pictures Wallace as a military genius. With the help of other Scottish chiefs and their families and patriotic common folk, the young man thwarts the English who would rule Scotland. He knows when to run from the enemy, as evidenced in his decisions to hide in trees, behind waterfalls, and among crags and thickets in the deep glens. He also knows how to fight. Although greatly outnumbered, his troops win several battles because of his tactical strategy and his ability to inspire a fervor for justice in his soldiers. Notable among his successes is the defeat of thirty thousand Englishmen under Lord Warden by five thousand Scots.

In addition to military prowess, Sir William possesses other virtues characteristic of the medieval knight. He is merciful to his enemies. When, for example, his armies invade the English countryside, he restrains them from murdering the people and laying waste the land; he insists that the soldiers merely replace goods taken by the English from Scotland. Wallace is also protective of women. Not only does he twice rescue Lady Helen, first from de Soulis and then from de Valence, but also he suffers in silence the lies that her stepmother tells about him to maintain the honor of Helen’s family.

All in all, Porter’s Wallace is an exemplary man, no discredit to the real Wallace, to whom Scots still pay homage.

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