Reading Time: 10 minutes

Braveheart narrates the history of William Wallace, a Scottish warrior who became a hero for Scotland’s independence against the successive English attempts to place them under their boot. Wallace’s history is shrouded in mist, and few are the documents mentioning him. His depiction in the epic movie Braveheart stirred both praise and critique, for some of the eye-sore inaccuracies. Here ten false historical facts in Braveheart, and ten true facts.

1. Wallace’s family

The tall and strong William Wallace might have become the champion of the people, but certainly he wasn’t born in a ruinous thatched hut in the Scottish countryside. He was the son of a lesser noble, but still noble, called Alan Wallace, of whom we know because of a letter sent to Lübeck by Wallace himself, bearing his family badge.

William Wallace was said to be a proficient archer
In Latin: William Wallace. Son of Alan Wallace

Wherever his father was killed when he was a child, we do not know. But it is unlikely that he was killed by Edward as depicted in Braveheart, where Alan Wallace is shown as being killed in 1280. That’s 6 years prior to the death of the King Alexander III of Scotland, and 12 years prior to Edward laying claim to sovereignty over the Scots, therefore making him super unlikely of killing Wallace’s daddy.  

However, there’s one fact Braveheart might have been right about our hero’s childhood: William Wallace probably knew how to read, and also spoke several languages. As some noblemen did. After his defeat in Falkirk, 1298, he vanishes from the records for several years, and some letters of the French King in 1300, seem to imply he was in Rome to get support from the Pope. Travelling was very unusual then, even with nobles, and the ones that travelled, surely had some knowledge of foreign tongues.  

2. Prima nocte

In a meeting with his nobles, Edward I is seen discussing how to appease the Scots, and he toys with the idea of granting the English lords the right to sleep with serf women on their weeding night. Later on, when William returns home and finds himself in a weeding celebration, he is witness how the bride is dragged away by a lustful English noble who forces her to bed him. This is known in Latin as Jus Primae noctis (right of the first night), also known as Droit du seigneur (right of the lord). The existence of such custom has been long disputed, but there’s no instance that Edward I decided to institute it in Scotland. In the movie, Primae noctis, was just a ruse to ill-predispose the viewer against the English, the favourite baddies of choice when it comes to an independence war movie.   

But the movie Edward, and later Robert the Bruce, in one of his conversations with Wallace, both mention one thing that was key to explain the English-Scottish conflict. The situation for the Scottish nobles was confusing, for many possessed lands in England too. Even the deceased king of Scotland, Alexander III, had paid homage to Edward I for his lands in England. That meant that for the Scottish barons, to oppose Edward I meant risking their wealthy English states, and that explains their acquiescence to him. Including the king-to-be, Robert the Bruce.

Edward I on the higher throne, and Alexander III on the left. The latter’s daughter, Margaret, was betrothed to the future Edward II. But Margaret died in 1290 when she was 7

3. William Wallace’s lover?

Isabella of France, the beautiful wife of Edward’s son, a caged bird and deeply in love with the attractive William Wallace, with whom she has an affair, and conceives a child, the future Edward III of England. Everything seems like the perfect karma for Edward and his evil-doings in Scotland and against Wallace. But as they say in my land: too good to be true. For Isabella of France was born in 1295, whereas the events of Braveheart, that’s it, the adult life of William Wallace, takes place between 1296 and 1305.

Isabella and Edward III are welcomed in Oxford in 1326

At least Mel Gibson had the decency of depicting her and Edward as indifferent and estranged. A story many modern couples would relate, for she eventually had a liaison with a nobleman called Roger Mortimer, and together they deposed her husband in 1326. Edward and Isabella’s son, Edward III, was king, with Isabella as regent. Sounds like the modern struggle for custody, a bit bloodier though. In Braveheart she threatened to rule instead of Edward II, whispering such to Edward I’s, in the later dying bed, and she meant it. For her hostility against her husband, she is known to us as the She-Wolf of France.  

4. The Battle of Stirling Bridge

Classic Hollywood approach. The protagonist arouses his men with an epic speech, for epic it was, they charge, and the enemy, seeing their determination of steel, flee for their lives. In reality the Battle of Stirling Bridge couldn’t have been more different. The Scots won, and they were led by William Wallace, indeed, but where was the bridge in Braveheart? Some have suggested filming in a bridge wouldn’t have been easy, but others say its bulls***. In real life, the Scots waited until half the English army had crossed Stirling Bridge to engage them, and then attacked, routing and sending them to panic, as their rear units were stuck in the bridge, and their foremost units fled the Scottish spears.

A fictional depiction of the battle of Stirling Bridge

But Braveheart got other aspects of the confrontation right, for example, his depiction of the Scottish spears being effective against cavalry. Heavy horsemen were expensive to train and equip, and the Scots, less wealthy than their English counterparts, could afford less. Heavy cavalry was the main war tactic of the period, but Wallace and Andrew de Moray (another leader of the uprising against the English, but totally absent in Braveheart) found a cheaper way to counter them. They fashioned spears and formed vast walls known as Schiltrons, and used them to effectively fend off the powerful horse charge. 

5. Painted faces and the Wallace Sword

In Braveheart, William Wallace and his mates smear their faces in blue, trying to appear fearsome in battle. Although it is not historically inaccurate that in some cultures, warriors painted their faces before battle, in Scotland, or Caledonia, as the Romans called it, it didn’t happen during the events of the movie. In fact, the warriors of whom this custom of war painting is inspired, were the Picts. The Picts were a conglomeration of Celtic speaking tribes living in Caledonia, north of the Roman Province of Britannia. In Latin, Picti mean ‘painted ones’, as they painted their faces and bodies before battle. And these Picti are precisely one of the ancestors of the modern Scottish folk, thus the war paint in Braveheart. But there’s no evidence that middle ages Scots did as well.

However, Braveheart makers decided to play safe when it came to the weapon of choice of William Wallace. Although as hinted in another of my posts about the hero of the Scottish Wars of Independence, Robert the Bruce aside, Wallace’s crest was a bow, and he might have chosen such to give battle. But being a noble, and later a very important one as leader of the Scots, is plausible that the sword would have displaced the bow and arrows. For the sword has been traditionally the weapon of nobles and kings. In Stirling, in the Wallace Monument, a long sword is kept there, traditionally though to be the sword of William Wallace. A two-handed sword, similar to the one that Mel Gibson brandishes in the movie.    

The blade lacks a fuller typical of the swords of the same period
Did William Wallace fought with this sword?

6. Guardian of Scotland

Once Wallace routed the English by flashing their asses and willies (by the way there were no Kilts in the 13-14th century), he is appointed Guardian of Scotland, and then a discussion takes places between the Balliol supporters and the Bruce’s supporters, to see who William will back up for the vacant position of king. Indeed both families had fought for the right to the throne, only that during the events of the movie, there was a king already. He was John Balliol. By the time Wallace won the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Balliol was a prisoner of Edward I, but he was the rightful king of Scotland, and the real William Wallace fought for Balliol, not for Robert the Bruce.

But there’s no doubt that William Wallace was the Guardian of Scotland, a position that entitled him to rule the kingdom in the absence of the king. He only held the office for a year, abdicating after his defeat at Falkirk, in 1298. In a letter sent to Lübeck in 1297, bearing the seal of Wallace, he and Andrew de Moray, are described as ‘leaders of the army of the kingdom of Scotland, and of the community of the same kingdom’. Proof that Wallace was by then, if not de iure, at least de facto, Guardian of Scotland.  

The Lübeck letter bearing Wallace’s wax seal

copyright owned by www.scottisharchivesforschools.org

7. Raiding North England

After Stirling, drunk with success, Wallace is set upon unleashing hell upon the English northern counties, in retaliation for the suffering caused upon his people. He is even depicted storming York’s gate, taking the city and killing Edward’s own cousin. How much of this is true?  None. There was no conquest of York. Although invigorated by their victory at Stirling, the Scots had no manpower enough to take a fortified city like York, which lies not precisely close to the English-Scottish border.

The Multangular Tower and Roman walls of York, built between the 2nd and 4th century. A daunting defense against any attacker

However, they did raid in Northumberland and Cumberland, and by raid I mean stealing cattle and setting ablaze huts and byres, not precisely a majestic and glorious conquest. But it must had itched Edward enough that his cows and goats had been delivered to the Scots.  

8. Robert the Bruce in Braveheart

One of the best scenes in Braveheart, is the one where Robert the Bruce is revealed as a traitor to Wallace’s cause, and the latter, utterly defeated, and quietly lying in the grass, is waiting to be captured. Although Wallace was a Balliol supporter, and thus a natural enemy of the Bruces, Robert’s name doesn’t figure in the roll of nobles who fought on the English side at Falkirk. And if Robert wasn’t there, he couldn’t have betrayed the Scots. Besides, when Wallace stepped down as Guardian in 1298, Robert was appointed together with John Comyn. If he had betrayed Wallace like in the movie, he would have seriously struggled to secure support for such position.

Forensic reconstruction of Robert the Bruce made from his skull

However, he was known for actively changing sides during the first years, fighting against Edward until 1302, when he submitted to him, but then he took the path of no return when he was crowned King of Scots in 1306. In that, he is perhaps accurately portrayed in the movie.

9. Wallace’s trial

As our poor William is tortured prior to lose his head, an ailing Edward rests in his dying bed, struggling to talk, yet his eyes brim with hate and malice. Although William was truly executed in London, on the 23rd of August 1305, the real Edward I had still some energy left in his old bones to beat Scotland to submission, for which he is posthumously and warmly remembered as Hammer of the Scots. He reached the impressive age of 68, when he perished on the 7th July 1307, when he was going up north with his army to teach obedience to Robert the Bruce. So the death of Edward I in Braveheart, was just another way to show that the wicked eventually get their just reward.  

Take comfort, however, knowing that the real badass qualities of Wallace, were utterly nailed in the trial scene.  Remember when Wallace is shown in chains, being indicted by an English magistrate, who accuses him of high treason against the king, meaning Edward I? William coldly replies that he never sworn allegiance to him. In your face magistrate! The latter must have hated smarty replies, for as a punishment to that, and also to the desolation Wallace’s raids had caused in England, condemned the Scottish leader to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  

10. Torture and Wallace’s death

The movie ends with Robert the Bruce leading the Scots into victory, in what is historically known as the Battle of Bannockburn, which took place in 1314, and was a decisive victory for Scotland’s struggle for independence. However, Scotland wouldn’t achieve the long dreamed goal of getting rid of their English neighbours until 1328, shortly after Edward II was deposed. What was true in the Braveheart depiction of Bannockburn? Not much sadly. The Scots are initially shown about to pay homage to the English, when in real life, they actively waged guerrilla war and finally seek them in pitched battle. The real Robert the Bruce didn’t gather an army to kiss Edward II’s ass. He went to Bannockburn to fight, and fight and win he did.

Statue of Robert the Bruce in Bannockburn. He defeated the army of Edward II in 1314, after years of guerrilla warfare and picking the English-garrisoned castles in Scotland, one by one

But if some scene is beyond historical reproach and totally epic, that is the execution of Wallace. The standard punishment for traitors in England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. As the name says, the condemned was first hanged, then stretched, emasculated, eviscerated, beheaded, and finally quartered to pieces. For reasons of sensitivity, Braveheart had the common sense of avoiding to show the bloody parts, such as Wallace’s removal of what dangled under his kilt. But even if there’s no way of knowing if Wallace screamed other thing rather than excruciating pain when he was gruesomely opened, the final cry of ‘FREEDOM!’ will forever echo in our minds, historically accurate or not.

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