(Copyright © Heather M. Dale, 1995)
Mel Gibson's film "Braveheart" tells the tale of William Wallace, a Scottish freedom-fighter in the last decade of the thirteenth century. I was curious about the film's historical accuracy, so I undertook some research on the Scottish Wars of Independence (the rebellions against
King Edward I of England, who claimed to be the overlord of Scotland). I found that, though a few liberties had been taken by director Gibson, the film had followed the actual events quite well.
Braveheart's two main flaws are the compression of time, and the inclusion of Princess Isabella. Wallace was involved in the Wars of Independence over seven years of intermittent guerilla warfare, rather than the year or so that was portrayed in the film. This can surely be forgiven, as it spares us Wallace's long period of inactivity during that time. Isabella, the Princess of Wales, was introduced as a strategic female character in the absence of Wallace's wife, but in fact she did not arrive in England until after Wallace had been executed in 1305. So I'm afraid there is no possibility of Edward III being the love-child of dear old William (sigh).
Wallace was of the gentry (lower than lords, but higher than peasantry) who became an outlaw when he refused to swear fealty to King Edward. He married in secret because of this, but his wife and servants were killed when English soldiers burned down her house, thinking Wallace was
inside. In retaliation, Wallace led a vicious attack on the local English overseers; this galvanized the smouldering defiance of the Scottish, who flocked to his banner. The rebellion, co-led by Wallace
and Andrew Moray (who does not appear in the film), took full advantage of the rough Highland terrain and had successfully pushed the English southward by the autumn of 1297.
After the surprising Scottish victory at Stirling Bridge in September, Wallace was knighted by the Scottish nobles and was declared Guardian of Scotland. (As a martial aside, the battle scene when the Scots watched a flight of incoming arrows open-mouthed before raising their shields against them wasn't as stupid as I first assumed; I have since been reliably informed by an archer that they were judging the angle at which to set their small shields for optimum coverage.) Edward stormed north with his army and pummelled the Scots at Falkirk, though Wallace escaped and left Scotland for several years (remember when he told Murron he'd been to Rome? This was when it actually
happened). He returned to join yet another uprising in 1305, but he was betrayed by a Scottish compatriot and was delivered into the hands of the English. Wallace was found guilty of treason (despite having never sworn fealty to England) and was tortured and executed, his various body
parts being displayed on poles all over England.
In 1306, a Scottish nobleman named Robert Bruce, who had changed sides to protect his family interests, fled England and had himself declared King of Scotland. Furious, the increasingly ill Edward marched north yet again... and died on the border. He was succeeded by his effete and
ineffectual son Edward II, and King Robert Bruce defeated him resoundingly at Bannockburn in 1314 (the final scene of the film). There were a few more half-hearted English sallies, but Scotland was officially recognized as a separate Kingdom by Queen Isabella (who overthrew her husband in 1326).
I very much appreciated Braveheart's vivid portrayals of the main characters: ruthless and military Edward I, easily-influenced Edward II, gutsy Isabella, and passionate Wallace. The film also captured the shocking violence of medieval warfare, of which only a small portion was fought by armoured knights on horseback. So while the details were a bit off, I applaud Gibson for bringing the spirit of this era into sharp focus and creating such a moving rendition of the tale.
Barrow, G. W. S., "Wars of Independence," in Gordon Menzies, ed., The
Scottish Nation London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972).
Dickinson, William C., et al., eds., A Source Book of Scottish History:
Volume 1 (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1958).
Donaldson, Gordon, Scottish Historical Documents (Edinburgh: Scottish
Academic Press, 1970).
Frame, Robin, The Political Development of the British Isles 1100-1400
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Grant, Alexander, "The Triumph of Scotland," in Lesley M. Smith, ed.,
The Making of Britain: The Middle Ages (London: MacMillan, 1985).
McNair Scott, Ronald, Robert the Bruce: King of Scots (London:
**This book is an especially good account of the Wars, with a focus on
Tout, T. F., Edward the First (London: MacMillan, 1896).
Copyright 1995, Heather Dale. All rights reserved.