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Braveheart, Fact or Fiction

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay describes some of the many historical problems with the film Braveheart

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

One of the most common questions I'm asked is how factual Mel Gibson's portrayal of William Wallace was in the 1995 film Braveheart. The short answer is that is hasn't an iota of fact in it. The long answer appears below.

It's a good film, just don't take it as fact. I have left out a number of bits of the film here as they obviously fall apart given the facts. For example, Isabella cannot have been carrying Wallace's child (and presumably Edward III) as she was in France at the time and did not arrive in England until two years after Wallace's death. She could also therefore have not warned him at York (which Wallace didn't attack anyway).

A full account of this period is available elsewhere on this site. If you have any additional questions don't hesitate to drop me a line at requests@scottishhistory.com.

Problem 1:

The film begins in 1276 with the meeting of Scots noblemen in a barn to decide on who should be king. They are then hung by Edward I. Scotland is in perpetual war with England.

In 1276, Alexander III was very much alive and well, as were his children. There had been peace with England for nearly 60 years and the last battle fought by the Scots had been a skirmish with the Norwiegans on the shore at Largs in 1266. Moreover, war did not breakout until 1296 after the death of Alexander III (1286) and during the reign of John Balliol

Problem 2:

The Scots are all wearing plaids.

Wallace was probably the younger son of a knight from Ayrshire, moreover the dress of the nobles and peasantry in England and Scotland was pretty much the same.

Problem 3:

Prima Nocte

There is no evidence (even in France) that this ever existed in the feudal period. It does however regularly appear in Hollywood movies due to the "moral" issue it can then raise with audiences.

Problem 4:

Isabella Princess of Wales

The problem here is that at the time of Wallace and Moray's risings in 1297/8 and Wallace's execution in 1305, Isabella was 9 years old and living happily in France. Moreover, she did not marry Edward II until late 1307 long after both Wallace and Edward I were dead.

Problem 5:

Battles: (a) Stirling Bridge

The key problem here is the lack of the central element in the battle, namely the bridge over the river Forth at Stirling. Wallace & Moray had drawn their forces up on the far side of the Abbey Craig, a promontory overlooking the carse of Stirling and about a mile from the bridge. The Scots watched for several hours as the English army crossed the bridge two abreast, before launching their attack on those English who had crossed. The remainder of the English army which had not crossed fled the field.

It was not until Courtrai in 1302 where a Flemish army composed of spearmen defeated the flower of the French chivalry in a pitched battle that the spearman overcame the armoured horseman.

Problem 6:

Wallace as Guardian

After Stirling Bridge, Wallace was knighted and Sir Andrew de Moray (the son of the earl of Moray) were appointed as Guardians of Scotland in the name of King John Balliol. This meant that they controlled and ran the kingdom with the authority of the king until the king returned. Their first priority was to reopen trade with the low countries. Wallace then invaded England (not an unusual thing to do btw) advancing through much of northern England but nowhere near York.

Problem 7:

Battles: (b) Falkirk

The battle at Falkirk was a very static affair. The Irish troops did not switch sides (indeed there weren't that many there), although the Welsh archers did threaten to switch sides due to lack of food the night before the battle. The Scots were drawn up in four circular formations (schiltroms) with their spears pointing outwards with their archers in between. The English heavy cavalry forced the Scots light cavalry off the field and then rode down the Scottish archers but could not break into the tightly packed schiltroms. Edward then advanced the archers and the Welsh and English bowmen spent some time pouring arrows and other projectiles into the massed Scottish ranks. The result was that eventually first one schiltrom then another became vulnerable to the cavalry who charged in and rode down the Scots.

Wallace escaped the field but the majority of the Scottish army did not. Bruce was not at the battle as he was in Carrick in the southwest at the time.

Problem 8:

Wallace after Falkirk

After Falkirk, Wallace resigned as Guardian and was sent on a diplomatic mission to France and Rome. He did not return until after the Scottish surrender in 1302.

Problem 9:

Capture Trial and Execution

Wallace was betrayed and captured in August 1305 outside Glasgow and was taken south as quickly as possible to a show trial in Westminster hall. The charges were read out and the sentence pronounced that he was to be drawn, hung and quartered. He was then taken from the hall, tied to a wooden spindle which was then drawn at the tails of horses to Smithfield where he was hung then disembowelled. He was then beheaded and his entrails burned. His body was then quartered. The head was put on a spike on London bridge and the quarters sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth.

Problem 10:

Robert Bruce (the father and son)

The character of Robert Bruce in the film is probably the only one they got reasonably accurate. At least as a young man who is confused and mixed up as to his loyalty and what he should do. However there are more than a few problems...

Bruce did switch sides for personal advantage - in 1302 he resigned as guardian and made peace with Edward in order to marry the daughter of the earl of Ulster. However his father was unstinting in his service to Edward serving as governor of Carlisle for a number of years. His father did not have leprosy (that would be the cause of Bruce's own death in 1329) and indeed Bruce did not receive the right to the full claim of the Scottish throne until after his father's death in 1304.

In 1306 Bruce met John Comyn in Dumfries where after an argument Bruce killed him. This set off a chain of events which led to both his excommunication and his coronation as king. It would be a long hard struggle before he would hold the country as his own. When he met the English army on the fields by the Bannock Burn outside Stirling he was not there to receive their blessing of his crown but to defend Stirling castle (which was to surrender to him if he could keep the English away) and to defeat one of the largest English armies sent north since Falkirk.