How historically accurate is Braveheart
Braveheart was a very popular movie in 1995 that featured Mel Gibson playing the role of William Wallace, a Scottish knight who became a hero in the Scottish rebellions against the English in the late 13th and early 14th century. The significance of the movie is it 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, in reality 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 birth places (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, the trigger that led to William Wallace to fight against the English was the death of his wife in 1297, who 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 could have been a more likely trigger for him to become one of the chief early rebels. In fact, in the movie, Wallace's actions are suggested as the trigger to a wider rebellion that started 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.
The first major battle William Wallace fought in was the Battle of Sterling Bridge, which occurred on September 11, 1297. 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 one 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 the rule, using the narrowing of the bridge to his advantage.
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 a major raid into northern England, where in the movie York is suggested to have been sacked, although this likely did not happen, Wallace went back into Scotland. The raids of northern England in 1297 by Wallace may have been momentous and much destruction is suggested by contemporary chroniclers. After a period where a large English army then gathered to invade Scotland, where the Scots mostly contended with raids, a pitched battle finally occurred at the Battle of Falkirk on July 22, 1298. This time, and similar to the movie, the Scots were decimated by English longbowmen. However, it is very unlikely that the 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.
Death of William Wallace
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 to affect the English presence in Scotland. More likely, Edward I probably did not consider Wallace a major threat at this point and Wallace was more in a desperate state trying to raise a more significant force after the disaster at Falkirk.
In fact, because he probably now 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 trail for treason at Westminster Palace, where he did seem to say that he was not guilty of treason, the charge he was tried with, because he never claimed loyalty to the English crown, as depicted in the movie. However, he was also charged with other offences. Among the charges brought against him were those related to his pillaging of civilians, which was probably at least partially true. 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 queen of England, Edward II's wife, Isabella of France. In fact, at this point, Isabella would have been no older than 9 years of age and not yet married to Edward II. While Edward II is portrayed as effeminate, where historical records do indicate he was possibly homosexual, his role was not significant. However, because Edward II was a relatively weak king, this did allow the Scots to successfully rebel against him. In fact, Robert the Bruce, in many ways, was far more successful than William Wallace, as he successfully rebelled from the English and Scotland regained its independence under his reign. The battle of Bannockburn, as suggested by the movie, was a major turning point, although many years of fighting and rebellion occurred before and after that battle between the Scots and English.
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.