How historically accurate is Braveheart?
This article contains spoilers.
Braveheart was a popular movie released in 1995 that won 5 Oscars and featured Mel Gibson as William Wallace. Wallace was a Scottish knight who became a hero in the Scottish rebellions against the English in the late 13th and early 14th century. The movie helped to inspire Scottish national pride while also, to some, represent an early, Medieval warrior who fought for freedom for himself and his people.
While much of the story depicted did occur, including the English occupation of Scotland during the time of Edward I, king of England, the depiction of the revolt against the English and other events do not correspond well to historical accounts.
Early Years of William Wallace
In the movie, William Wallace is suggested to have traveled in Europe during the early years of Edward I's occupation of Scotland. However, little is known about Wallace's early years. First, it is assumed Wallace came from a noble family; two villages are often claimed as his birthplaces (Elderslie and Ellerslie), both on the western part of Scotland.
We do know that Wallace was an experienced swordsman and knight, which indicates he may have fought in wars prior to his own rebellion and participation in the wars against the English. In fact, one possibility is he fought with King Edward I as a mercenary during that king's wars against the Welsh. That may have been the most feasible path for him to have gained fighting experience and possibly learn about English war tactics.
Revolt Against the English
In the movie, William Wallace began fighting against the English after the death of his wife in 1297, who according tot he movie was killed by the English. In fact, no records exist of William Wallace having ever been married. However, a later poem did mention he had a wife that was killed and it led him to seek revenge. More likely, Wallace was either ambitious to break English authority or resented English occupation of his ancestral lands. This may have been why he became one of the leading early Scottish rebels. Braveheart also suggests that Wallace's actions in response to his wife's death triggered to a wider rebellion against the English.
However, a rebellion across various parts of Scotland had already started, with William Wallace joining William, Lord of Douglas as an ally. One of the first major acts of rebellion was the assassination of the Sheriff of Lanark, William Heselrig. The account by Thomas Grey does indicate a woman or girl present with William Wallace. Some have suggested this was his wife. Similar to the movie, Wallace may have left the town initially then came back with some supporters to lead an attack where the Sheriff was then killed. As the events occurred at the same time as other rebellious acts across Scotland, the attack may have been a premeditated and coordinated event.
After the murder of the sheriff, Wallace took some time to organize his forces, as other parts of Scotland began to rebel and side with the spreading rebellion. While Wallace was portrayed as the leader in this revolt, several people, in addition to Wallace, began to lead the early rebellion. The first major battle William Wallace fought in was the Battle of Sterling Bridge, which occurred on September 11, 1297. This battle was a turning point as it gave Wallace his fighting reputation. In the movie, the English are tricked into marching their heavy cavalry into a trap, with the resulting infantry slaughtered in a futile charge.
In reality, the battle was won by the Scottish because the English became trapped on Sterling Bridge, where they were not able to use their superior numbers. Many English soldiers fell in the river and likely died from drowning as the bridge may have collapsed during the battle. The victory by Wallace may have largely occurred because the English assumed Wallace would let them cross the bridge, as that may have been considered more in line with the rules of war or assumed rules at the time. In effect, Wallace may have won because he simply didn't follow this rule, realizing the narrowing of the bridge could be used to his advantage and launching the attack as the English tried to cross.
It was after the battle that Wallace was likely named as guardian of the kingdom in March 1298. In the movie, the noblemen are seen as less than trusting of Wallace and more willing to give the English their loyalty. More likely, much of Scotland was in open revolt, although parts of it did stay under English control and there were noblemen loyal to the English. Notably, Edinburgh and its well fortified castle remained in English hands. After the battle, the Scots began to raid parts of northern England. The movie, the main city in the north, suggests York was sacked, although this likely did not happen. The raids of northern England in 1297 by Wallace, nevertheless, may have been momentous and much destruction is suggested by contemporary chroniclers. Such destruction was used by the English as part of their evidence against him when he was captured years later. The raids by Wallace were designed to provoke the English and undermine their authority, leading to potentially rebellion within England against the king. This forced Edward's hand into mounting a more serious invasion into Scotland.
After a period where a large English army then gathered to invade Scotland, where the Scots were mostly content with raiding these forces, a pitched battle finally occurred at the Battle of Falkirk on July 22, 1298. Edward saw his chance their as the Scots willingly gave him battle rather than continue their raiding of English forces. This time, and similar to the movie, the Scots were decimated by English longbowmen. However, it is very unlikely that Robert the Bruce, future king of Scotland and leader of the Scottish revolt, betrayed Wallace, as suggested in the movie. In fact, the movie suggests rather than Wallace's failure, it was a lack of Scottish support that cost him the battle. More likely, the main failure of the battle may have been poor planning on the part of Wallace, who may have done better by simply harassing the English forces from a distance rather than face a far larger enemy in open combat. After the battle, he may have been so humiliated that he willing resigned his role as guarding of Scotland or was stripped of this title.
How did William Wallace die?
After the defeat at Falkirk, Wallace may have left for France or even Rome for a period of time. It is possible he was seeking assistance from the French and Pope for the Scottish cause. This is likely since there were wars between the French and English at this time and Wallace would have tried to appeal to a willing English enemy if he could. Sometime around 1304, Wallace likely returned to England and continued to raid parts of English occupied Scotland.
The movie depicts an aging Edward I as being tormented by William Wallace. The attacks were shown as successful skirmishes in most cases, but it is likely these attacks were either negligible, failures, or were insignificant. They did not have a meaningful impact on the English presence in Scotland. Edward I most likely did not consider Wallace a major threat at this point, because Wallace was struggling to raise an army after the disaster at Falkirk.
Additionally, he probably had a weakened position in Scotland. Wallace was betrayed, as suggested in the movie, by a Scottish noble (John de Menteith) who was loyal to Edward in 1305. Wallace was captured and soon put on trial for treason at Westminster Palace. At the trial, he did seem to say that he was not guilty of treason because he never claimed loyalty to the English crown. This was depicted in the movie. However, he was also charged with other offenses such as pillaging civilians. This charge was probably true because he did lead raids into northern England.
By the end of August 1305, Wallace was found guilty and drawn and quartered, a death reserved for traitors. Wallace's body parts and head were displayed in different parts of England to make an example against those considering of revolting against the English king.
Despite Wallace's death, he is shown as gaining revenge by impregnating the future consort of the king of England, Edward II's wife, Isabella of France. In reality, Isabella would have been no older than 9 years of age at this time and not yet married to Edward II. She was not even in England at this time. While Edward II is portrayed as effeminate, historical records do indicate he was possibly gay. But his role in English rule was not significant until after his father's reign. However, because Edward II was a relatively weak king, the Scots did successfully rebel against him.
Robert the Bruce, in many ways, was far more successful than William Wallace. He successfully rebelled against England and Scotland regained its independence under his reign. The Battle of Bannockburn, as suggested by the movie, was a major turning point. Bannockburn was the culmination of years fighting the Scots and English. Nevertheless, as the movie suggests, the Scots did gain their independence after the reign of Edward I.
Much of William Wallace's life has now been steeped in myth, where in actuality very little is known about him. Most of what we do know deriving from primary accounts center around the battles from 1297-1298 and when he was captured in August 1305. Nevertheless, William Wallace did, for various reason, gain a symbolic importance. Later stories, such as Exploits and Death of William Wallace helped to create a romantic and tragic character, perhaps more similar to later figures rather than William Wallace. Nevertheless, the significance of William Wallace is evident to the national character of Scotland where today many statues and monuments are dedicated to him.
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- For more on Wallace's early development years before he revolted against the English, see: Cushing, H. (2010). The life of Sir William Osler. [Vol. 1]: [...] (Nachdr. der Orig.-Ausg., Oxford. Hamburg: Severus Verl.
- For more on William Wallace the knight, see: Brown, C. (2005). William Wallace: The True Story of Braveheart. Stroud: Tempus.
- For more on the events that led up to the Battle of Sterling Bridge and Wallace's murder of the Sheriff of Lanark, see: Tranter, N. G. (1975). The Wallace. London: Coronet.
- For more on the Battle of Sterling Bridge and Wallace's role, see: Magnusson, M. (2001). Scotland: The Story of a Nation (Paperback ed). London: HarperCollins.
- For more on how Wallace became guarding of Scotland, see: Murison, A. F. (2003). William Wallace: Guardian of Scotland. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications.
- For more on these raids, see: Brown, C. (2014). William Wallace: The Man and the Myth.
- For more on the Battle of Falkirk, see: Henty, G. A. (2002). In Freedom’s Cause: A Story of Wallace and Bruce. Mineola, N.Y: Dover.
- For events after the Battle of Falkirk in Wallace's life, see: Hamilton, J. S. (2010). The Plantagenets: History of a Dynasty. London ; New York: Continuum, pg. 79.
- For more on the capture and execution of William Wallace, see: Ross, D. R. (2005). For Freedom: The Lasts Days of William Wallace. Edinburgh: Luath Press.
- For more on Isabella and her life, see: Warner, K. (2016). Isabella of France, The Rebel Queen: The Story of the Queen who Deposed her Husband Edward II. Gloucestershire, England: Amberley Publishing.