The Guardian-Chapter 1

Chapter One

Father James Wallace, 1343

The UK version of "The Guardian" from Sphere Books
The UK version of “The Guardian” from Sphere Books

I discovered many years ago that Sir Lionel Redvers was the first English knight ever to die at the hands of my cousin William Wallace of Elderslie, and while the discovery pained me at the time, it also gave me a moment of vengeful satisfaction. I have confessed that sin on many occasions but it remains within me unforgiven, for I have never really regretted the satisfaction I derived from it.

Redvers was an undistinguished knight from the county of Suffolk. I only ever met him once, and briefly, and had immediately dismissed him as a nonentity. But within minutes of our encounter he proved how strange are the ways of God, for even a nonentity may be a catalyst. That headstrong, zealous fool changed every life in Scotland and plunged the whole of Britain into chaos because he brought about the deaths of a woman, her small son, and her unborn second child.

The woman was in my care at the time and her name was Mirren Wallace. She was William Wallace’s wife and therefore cousin to me by marriage.

My name is Wallace, too, and I am a priest. A very old priest. I was born in 1272, which makes me seventy-one years old. Sir William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland, was my first cousin and my dearest boyhood friend. Thirty-eight years ago, on the day he died, he asked me, as his confessor, to bear witness to the manner of his dying, and to attest to it should men seek to malign him in times ahead. I swore I would, and that is why I am writing this today, so long afterwards.

For nigh on thirty years I had no reason to recall that promise to Will. From being greatly out of favour with his fellow Scots before his death, he was reborn as a hero during King Robert’s struggle to unite Scotland, when the Bruce himself chose to adopt the tactics Will had used against the English, turning the land itself, as well as its folk, to the task of defeating England’s plans to usurp our realm. And from the King’s open admiration of my cousin’s single-minded struggle, a new recognition of Will’s worth and integrity grew up in Scotland. I was content.

I have no idea when the substance of his recognition began to change or who set that in motion, and neither have I any doubt that the change continues. It first came to my attention through a chance conversation with an old friend, another priest, whom I had not seen for years. His name was Declan, and we had served together as chaplains to Will’s outlawed band in Selkirk Forest many years before, when we were both young. Mere chance threw us together again one night about ten years ago, in the abbey at Dunfermline in Fife, where we arrived separately one autumn afternoon on church business. After dinner that night, reminiscing by the dying fire, my old friend unwittingly destroyed my peace of mind.

We were speaking, as always, in Latin. This is not unusual among priests, since we learn it as soon as we begin to train for the priesthood, and we often find it useful to adopt the language of the Church when conversing privately, particularly if there are others nearby with whom we do not wish to share our thoughts. With Father Declan, though, there was another reason. Declan spoke poorly, even haltingly, in our native tongue, as though he had difficulty finding his words in the common language of everyday life. When he spoke Latin, though, he became another person altogether, his conversation fluid and sparkling with wit and ease. I always took pleasure in that difference.

“This is where I last saw your cousin Will,” he said that night.

“In this abbey?” I said, surprised. “I didn’t know he’d ever come to Dunfermline. When was that?”

“It was soon after the defeat at Falkirk,” Declan said, “but I couldn’t tell you exactly when. He was a different Will Wallace from the man I’d known in Selkirk Forest, though. That I can swear to. He looked decades older—haggard and … haunted is what I remember thinking at the time. He spoke to me civilly enough, but I never saw him smile in all the time I was there—he who had always had a smile for everyone and loved to laugh. And then within the month I heard that he had laid down the guardianship.”

“Aye,” I said, “haunted is a good word for how he looked then. He was a man transformed and disfigured by what occurred at Falkirk. He blamed himself for the debacle and would not be consoled, no matter how passionately we condemned the magnates who quit the field with their cavalry and left him and his men alone on foot to face the English bowmen. He carried all the guilt himself for the hundreds killed in the schiltroms, for he had never trusted the loyalty of the magnates and he believed he should have known they would desert him. He never recovered from the shame of it, though God knows there was no shame in it for him. But it sapped his spirit, and he lost the will to fight.”

Declan looked at me with one eyebrow raised. “You seem very sure of that. Did you confess him at that time?”

“No. I offered, but he would have none of it. It was plain to see he had lost all faith in God, in the realm, and even in the King’s cause that had sustained him. He had been King John’s most stalwart supporter since the outset, even in the face of everything that happened, and he saw Scotland’s abandonment of Balliol as a form of suicide—the self-willed death of the realm. He was a man in despair, and I could do nothing to comfort him. All I could do was commend him to his friend Bishop Lamberton, perhaps the single man in all of Scotland he still trusted. Eventually he left on the embassy to France—that was at Lamberton’s instigation—and thence to Rome to parley with the Pope and the cardinals on Scotland’s behalf, and I did not see him again for four years. Not until the night I visited him and heard his last confession in Smithfield prison.”

“But he had regained his faith by then?”

“Aye, he had, and I have thanked God for that. He made a good confession and died in a state of grace, his mind at rest—as far as it could be, knowing what faced him that day. When I left him before dawn that morning, he was the same old Will I had always known and loved.”

Declan smiled. “The Will we both knew and loved in Selkirk Forest. But that’s not the William Wallace men talk about today.”

I shrugged. “That’s as it should be. They see him now, too late, as the man he truly was.”

Declan looked at me strangely. “No,” he said, “that’s not what I meant, Jamie. The man he truly was? What they’re saying today has nothing to do with the man Will Wallace truly was. How can you even pretend to be amused by such a thing? Men speak of him now as if he were a demigod of the ancients, another Finn MacCool, bigger than any living man, greater even than King Robert.”

“Finn MacCool would be flattered,” I said, smiling at the foolishness of what he had said. “Fond memories play tricks on everyone—especially on those who were not there to share what happened. But I’m surprised to hear the ‘greater than King Robert’ slur. That’s inane. And dangerous. In their cups, I suppose.”

“I’ve heard it said, nonetheless, Jamie. On many occasions and by people who were not drunk.”

“Drunk or not, they must have been mad to malign King Robert openly.”

My friend turned to look at me squarely, and again I saw that expression of perplexity on his face.

“What?” I said. “You disagree with me?”

A deep cleft appeared between his brows and he stared at me for several moments. “Forgive me, Jamie,” he said and sat back in his seat. “I thought you must be aware of what I mean—even though I can’t imagine how you can truly not know.” He drew a breath. “They’re changing him, Jamie. Changing everything about him. Will has been dead, what? Twenty-eight years? Most of the folk who knew him are dead themselves. Those who talk about him now are young—not old priests like you and me but plain, very young Scots folk everywhere. They never knew him, never saw him, and they believe what they are being told.”

I could feel myself glowering. “Speak plain, man. What are they being told? And who is telling them?”

I suddenly saw my friend, whom I had known for so long and who had not aged in my mind, as what he really had become, a careworn, middle-aged priest perplexed by the strange inconsistencies of mankind.

“I don’t know, Jamie. I don’t know who is behind such talk, or even when or how or where it began. But folk are saying nowadays that Sir William Wallace was a giant. Not merely in his body, which God knows was big enough, but in everything else, too. In his passions and his convictions, his patriotism and his prowess, in the things he did and the things he believed and the things he achieved. They’re saying that he was a giant in his virtues, too, a towering, saintly figure, divinely inspired, without flaw and lacking any human faults. They’re speaking of him as they would a saint, saying that he had the privy ear of God Himself, and that in the Deity’s name he named and publicly condemned this country’s treasonous enemies, the Comyns and their like, who abandoned Scotland’s cause at Falkirk fight.”

I sat open-mouthed, appalled by what I was hearing, yet knowing that Declan would not lie about such things, and as I closed my mouth, swallowing the sourness on my tongue, he spoke on.

“I knew Will Wallace, Jamie,” he said in a voice that sounded as shaken as I felt. “Not as well as you did, I know, but that last part frightens me near to death when I think of it, for I know how wrong it is. Will Wallace was no saint.”

I have never felt anything quite like the helplessness that filled me then as I sat there, wordless, beside the smoking embers of the fire. It shook me to the bottom of my being, because the truth that rang in Declan’s voice was unmistakable and it convinced me that I had been derelict in my duty to protect my cousin’s name. I had to swallow hard to moisten my mouth before I could respond.

“I’ve heard none of this, Declan,” I said eventually. “Tell me more, all of it.”

And he did, in great detail.

Wallace was being reborn, he insisted, this time stripped of all human frailties and fallibilities and held up to the adoring crowds as a conquering champion who had been sent by Heaven to rally Scotland against its ancient enemies, and who had been betrayed and undone by traitors. Even as I listened, believing what he said, I had to fight the temptation to shout him down and try to make a liar out of him. The clear suggestion underlying everything he told me was that those ancient enemies were the English, and that was monstrously untrue. They had been our enemies for a time, yes, and we had fought a war with them that lasted, off and on, for eighteen years until we bested them at Bannockburn in the seventh year of King Robert’s reign. But the people of England had not been our enemies until their ageing king, Edward Plantagenet, sensing a weakness in us that did not exist, decided to lay claim to our realm and add it to his own, exactly as he had done earlier with Wales. His barons, hungry for Scots land and wealth, had flocked to support him, but the common English folk had never been our enemies before Edward himself provoked us into war with them.

What was being said now, flagrantly untrue, was obviously aimed at people too young to have known what really happened back in the days when Wallace’s rebellion broke out. Older people might have laughed at what they were being told, but most of those older people had died between then and now, and the plain truth known to my generation—that Edward of England alone was responsible for Scotland’s troubles in those days—was nearly forgotten.

Declan asked me, yet again, how I could have been unaware of such goings-on. All I could do was shake my head. I knew, though, that I had simply not been listening. I had assumed that my cousin had been redeemed by King Robert’s high regard for him, and that therefore I had no further need to worry about him. He had been dead for almost three decades, and the King’s esteem had cleared his name of any hint of shame or dishonour. I had believed I could leave him and his memory in God’s hands.

I had been wrong.

That evening with Declan was the goad that drove me to begin my history of my cousin as I knew him, and the task of doing precisely that—of bearing witness in Will’s memory—has consumed me for more than ten years now. I am realistic enough to know that my puny, unsupported voice can do nothing to influence or interfere with the political ambitions of those powerful but unknown people who are trying to use Will for their own ends. I am also cynical enough to acknowledge that, despite knowing nothing of their identities, their motivation, or their objectives, I could probably point my finger accurately at some who would turn out to be ringleaders. But even were I to do that, who would listen to an old, obscure priest, even though he be cousin to the great Wallace?

By writing instead of speaking out, though, I see a possibility that what I have to say will be read and understood in years to come by others who might heed my words and use them. I have a duty to keep the promise I made to Will, there in the pre-dawn darkness of his prison cell.

The King of England had him hanged in London town in the year 1305, but bade the royal executioners cut him down before he could die. They brought him back from the edge of death, and then they eviscerated him and forced him to watch his own intestines being burned in a metal dish. And finally they beheaded and dismembered him and sent his body parts to be displayed in various cities as a reminder of the penalty for defying England’s most Christian king.

I last set down my pen more than a year ago, unable to continue writing after I had described the inhumanity surrounding the deaths of Will’s wife, Mirren, and her unborn child, and the murder of his infant son, another William Wallace. Having written of it, reliving the horror as though it had happened mere days before instead of decades, I simply stopped and walked away, refusing to return to my chronicle. I had no will to pursue the painful memories further. It took me until yesterday to recapture the peace of mind I needed to resume my task, though I doubt even now if peace of mind is the correct term for what I had been lacking. Determination, now that I see it written here, is a more accurate word.

Whatever the right term may be, though, I was spurred to begin again by an unprompted memory of an Englishman, a common garrison soldier called Harald Gaptooth, whom I came to know in a Lanark monastery soon after my encounter with Redvers decades earlier. He was a boorish oaf, completely uncouth, utterly lacking in grace or manners, and coarsely English, but I had paid attention to his tale on the two occasions when I heard it, and I recalled it easily last night and decided, then and there, that I might never find a better point at which to resume my tale.The Guardian