William Wallace is still considered to be an incredibly important person in Scottish history. But is Mel Gibson’s version accurate to the real William in history? Let’s find out!
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From Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers and even the more recent Heaven Is for Real, Randall Wallace has written a number of movies that were based on true stories—or at least claim to be.
Even the Leonardo DiCaprio classic, The Man in the Iron Mask, which Randall wrote in the late 1990s, had a basis in fact as it brought to the big screen the theory from 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas that the mysterious prisoner held by King Louis XIV was his own twin.
Just before The Man in the Iron Mask, though, Randall had written what’s probably one of the more epic of his Hollywood films. He was inspired to write the story after traveling to Scotland and seeing statues of William Wallace.
After a tour guide explained the story, Randall was fascinated. The rest, as they say, is history.
Oh, and William Wallace isn’t related to Randall Wallace.
Braveheart was made on a budget of $72 million, the equivalent of $115 million today, and was released in 1995. It did pretty well at the box office, raking in about $10 million on opening weekend.
Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $16 million today. That means if we were to rank Braveheart alongside opening weekends for all movies, it’d come in just behind 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which made just over $16 million on opening weekend, and just over another Mel Gibson film that’s based on a true story, Hacksaw Ridge, made just over $15 million on opening weekend.
Braveheart would go on to be nominated for an impressive ten Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards, including one for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Randall Wallace. Unfortunately, Randall didn’t win, but Braveheart would still walk away with five of the ten Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Director for Mel Gibson and the big award, Best Picture.
So, of course, that begs the question: Did Hollywood sell out the true story in an attempt to build a story for the big screen?
I’m Dan LeFebvre.
And this is Based on a True Story.
Comparing history with Braveheart
The movie opens in the beautiful, lush green Scottish countryside. The text on screen says the date is 1280 A.D., as the voice over explains that you’re about to hear the story of William Wallace.
Then it continues as we hear that historians will say he—being the narrator—is a liar. But that history is written by those who have hanged heroes.
The real William Wallace was born around the year 1270 A.D., which means at this point he would’ve been about ten years old. So the timing is right.
What of the tidbit about historians saying the story’s narrator is a liar? Well, it’s sort of hard to argue that. If the people who can read and write are those who create the laws, it’s a fair assumption that those are the same people who control the documents and words that are written throughout the kingdom. So, too, will they control the documents that survive for us to piece together the story.
Think of it like watching today’s news from social media almost a thousand years in the future. How would people be able to tell the difference between what’s fake news and what’s real news? A lot of people today, even, have a hard time telling the difference. Imagine how tough it’d be hundreds of years in the future with little to no context as to what else was happening at the time.
With all of that said, the reason why the movie says this is because there are some discrepancies between what the English and Scottish histories say happened. As you can probably guess, Braveheart sides with the Scottish side.
Which one is true? Well, we don’t know. Imagine over 700 years from now you’d have to try to determine the truth of what’s happening today using only news from Glenn Beck and…who’s the liberal equivalent of Glenn Beck? Maybe Bill Maher? Michael Moore?
Anyway, we’re not debating politics here. The point is there are two very opinionated views of history. We have historical documents from the English side and the Scottish side. While historians have been able to piece together what likely happened based on these, it’s worth noting that it’s nearly impossible to determine which is more accurate with absolute certainty.
According to the movie, the King of England, known as Edward the Longshanks, has laid claim to the throne of Scotland after Scotland’s own king died without an heir.
Although the movie doesn’t mention who this King of Scotland was that died, an educated guess by looking at history would say that they’re talking about Alexander III. Remember, the text on screen said it was 1280 A.D. in the movie.
Alexander III was the King of Scots from the year 1249 until he died in 1286. So the timing is a bit off with there being about a six year difference there, but it’s fairly close.
Another clue that the movie is referring to Alexander III is that the real Alexander didn’t have an heir when he died. He had married Margaret, who was the daughter of King Henry III of England. She was also Alexander’s fourth cousin, but that sort of thing was common back then.
The couple had three children. Firstborn was a daughter, also named Margaret, who was born in 1261. She was married off to King Eric II of Norway. Then there was a son, Alexander, who was born in 1264. Finally, another son, David, who was born in 1272.
Sadly, three years after David was born, King Alexander III’s wife, Margaret, passed away.
Then tragedy continued to strike the royal family as both of King Alexander III’s sons died.
As the movie implies, when King Alexander III passed away, Scotland was left without an heir to the throne. However, what the movie doesn’t mention is that Margaret assumed control of Scotland when Alexander III passed away.
Not Margaret the former Queen of Scotland and wife of Alexander III. We had just learned she died in 1275. And it wasn’t the royal couple’s oldest daughter, also named Margaret. Instead it was King Alexander III’s granddaughter, yet another girl named Margaret, who took control.
You see, after King Alexander III’s youngest son died, that left Scotland with only one heir. So when Margaret was married to King Eric II of Norway, this was added to the marriage agreement:
If it happens that the king of Scotland dies without a lawful son, and any of his sons does not leave lawful issue [not sons] and Margaret has children [not sons] by the king of Norway, she and her children shall succeed to the king of Scotland … or she, even if she is without children, according to Scottish law and custom.
The marriage between King Eric II and Margaret was in 1281. Two years later, Margaret would die during childbirth when her own daughter, also named Margaret, was born. Then, the following year, the marriage agreement’s provision would be enacted when the last living heir of King Alexander III of Scotland died in 1284.
Confused? It doesn’t help that everyone seems to have the same name.
To recap, King Alexander III had three children. His youngest, David, was the first to perish when he died in 1281. Then, only a couple years later, his eldest daughter, Margaret, died in 1283. Finally, the last heir to his throne, Alexander, died just seven days after his 20th birthday in 1284.
So when King Alexander III died in 1286, it was his granddaughter with the same name as his wife and daughter who took control of Scotland.
While she was the legal heir, it was a tenuous grasp on the throne. And, as the movie implies, it was one that the English wanted to take advantage of.
Now that we know a bit about the royal family on the Scottish side of things, naturally, this begs the question: If King Alexander III’s wife, Margaret, was the daughter of King Henry III of England, why does the movie say the King of England was named Edward the Longshanks?
While all of this was going on with the Scottish royal family, a similar web of confusion was happening on the English side.
King Henry III of England reigned until his death in 1272. When he died, the throne passed to his 33-year-old son, Edward I.
After all of the confusion around who gets the Scottish crown after King Alexander III passed away, it was Edward I who wanted to take the crown away from Margaret and give it to a man named John Balliol.
John was a part of a long line of the Balliol clan who had a claim to the throne, although his appointment by England was very much akin to setting up a puppet government. John was, as the movie would later claim, very much in support of Edward the Longshanks, and would do whatever he asked. In return, John Balliol kept his crown and his power in Scotland.
So the movie does get this part of the timeline accurate.
Oh, and the nickname “Longshanks” came about because Edward was quite tall. Historians have debated exactly how tall he was, and sadly we don’t know for sure, but we know about the nickname. So the conclusion that most historians agree on is that he was taller than most others at the time.
In the movie, we see young William’s father, Malcolm, for a brief time at the truce set up by Edward the Longshanks. He’s there with his other son, John.
James Robinson is the actor who portrays young William, while Malcolm is played by Sean Lawlor and John Wallace is played by Sandy Nelson.
After being introduced to them, in the movie, Malcolm and John are off to hear how the truce called by Edward the Longshanks went. It turns out to be a trap. Young William stumbles upon the hut filled with people who had to have been family friends hanging from the ceiling.
There isn’t a lot we know about William Wallace’s early years, so it’s hard to verify whether or not this actually happened. The little we do know comes from a minstrel in the late 15th century simply referred to as Blind Harry. It was he who wrote poems and songs about William Wallace, so while we don’t have a lot more facts to support Blind Harry’s songs, we also don’t have any facts to disprove them, either.
According to one of these tales, William’s father was indeed a man named Sir Malcolm of Elderslie. Although Sir Malcolm didn’t have just two sons as the movie shows.
Again, relying on the tales of Blind Harry the Minstrel, Sir Malcolm of Elderslie was born in 1249 and had five children with his wife, Lady Margaret Craufurd.
That would mean in 1280, when the movie claims to start, Malcolm Wallace would’ve only been 31 years old. By comparison, the actor who plays Malcolm, Sean Lawlor, was 41 when he played the role.
Another difference between history and what we see in the movie, here, is the mention of only two children. According to the movie Malcolm had two sons, John and William. And we can tell from the movie that John is much older than William.
In truth, Malcolm’s children consisted of two older girls that we know nothing about other than the fact they existed, then Malcolm II, William and John.
Of course, we don’t know a lot about this version of history, and the little we do know comes from a songwriter who was born in 1473—meaning his songs were written over 200 years after the life of William Wallace, who was born around 1270.
Remember how we learned there are conflicting reports about a lot of William Wallace’s history? Well, it starts here with his father. While some historical tales would say William was the son of Sir Malcolm of Elderslie, there’s also the possibility that William Wallace’s father’s name was Alan from Ayrshire.
As a side note, the city of Elderslie is about 35 miles, or 56 kilometers, to the north of the city of Ayrshire.
This comes from a letter that was found with William Wallace’s own seal on it. The letter gave the name of Alan Wallace as William’s father.
Which is true? It’s been something historians have debated for centuries, and probably won’t stop debating any time soon.
Regardless, from what we know of history, the movie seems to change up William Wallace’s family quite a bit.
In the movie, after Edward the Longshanks slaughtered the Scottish nobles, there’s a call to fight the English. This is ultimately what leads William’s father and brother away from home.
We don’t see the battle in the film. Instead, all we see is William playing with his friend, Hamish, who’s played by Andrew Weir in the film. The next day, when the men of William’s village return home, they’re carrying the bodies of his father and brother.
As you can probably guess, we don’t know if this is true. After all, historians debate who William Wallace’s real father even was. How are we supposed to know how he died if we don’t even know who he was?
There are some reports that Sir Malcolm died at the Battle of Loudoun Hill in Ayrshire. But according to that tale, Sir Malcolm died alongside his son, William. Not to get too ahead of ourselves here, but that can’t be true because William didn’t die in battle.
Because we don’t know how William’s father died, it’s safe to say this part of the film where we see William’s father, Malcolm, and his brother, John, being brought home on a cart after an unnamed battle was made up for the film.
For the record, the official William Wallace Society holds the view that William’s father was Malcolm. But there’s other historians who debate this, saying that William’s own seal on a letter that claims his father’s name was Alan of Ayrshire is enough evidence to debunk the idea of Sir Malcolm being William’s dad.
In the movie, after William’s father passed, his uncle, Argyle, comes to raise the young lad. Argyle Wallace is played by Brian Cox.
Argyle Wallace is another character we don’t know much about. In fact, there’s not any documentation that shows William had an uncle named Argyle, or that he was raised by his uncle at all.
So far we’ve learned that we don’t really know who William’s father was and we don’t know how, or if, his father died while William was young.
With the information about what we don’t know, it’d make sense, then, that we don’t know about William being raised by his uncle. If, as Blind Harry the Minstrel said in his songs, William’s father died alongside him in battle, that means he would’ve been alive for most of William’s life. So why would his uncle have raised him?
Or even if that’s wrong, and William’s father did pass away while William was young, we don’t even know if William’s father was a man named Malcolm of Elderslie or Alan of Ayrshire.
So again, without enough history to back this up, we’re forced to come to the conclusion that this storyline with young William being raised by his uncle Argyle Wallace was something made up for the film.
In one of the next scenes, as young William and his uncle are listening to bagpipes being played in honor of his now-deceased father, Argyle tells William they’re saying goodbye to his father by playing outlawed tunes on outlawed pipes.
Well, the tune is the theme for Braveheart which was written by the incredibly talented composer James Horner for the film. So obviously the song wasn’t around back during the time of William Wallace.
Were the bagpipes outlawed, though?
As with most things we’ve learned so far, we don’t know for sure if this is true. But there’s also no historical documentation to show that the bagpipes were ever outlawed.
The closest thing we know of is a myth that spread from the late 18th century. According to this myth, after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46, the bagpipes were outlawed as a part of the Act of Proscription. But even then, this isn’t true. Historians have pointed out that the bagpipes were never specifically mentioned in this act. Generally speaking, most historians agree that bagpipes were never outlawed like the movie claims.
After this, in the movie, time passes. The narrator explains that Edward the Longshanks, who’s played by the legendary Patrick McGoohan, arranged the marriage of his eldest son. There’s no details given about how much time has passed, merely that his son’s bride was to be the daughter of the King of France. Although, according to the film, Edward’s son clearly isn’t into the marriage. He has eyes for a young man in the court instead.
In the movie, Prince Edward is played by Peter Hanly while his lovely bride, Princess Isabelle, is played by Sophie Marceau.
The details of this were made up for the film, but there are just enough elements of truth scattered in here to make it seem plausible.
The true story was that Prince Edward was the fourth son that King Edward I had with his first wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile. Or maybe he was the fifth, there might’ve been a son we don’t know much about in there.
John was the first son of Edward I and Eleanor. He was born in 1266, but he died soon after in 1271, before the events in the movie take place. Then there was Henry, born in 1268 and died in 1274. Alphonso lived the longest, being born in 1273 and living until 1284. Some historians think Edward had another son in the year 1280, too. But if he did exist, he died before he was a year old.
Edward II, who is the Prince Edward depicted in the film, was born on April 25th, 1284. So while the movie is sort of correct by saying he’s the eldest heir to the throne, it wasn’t because he was the eldest son. He was just the eldest surviving son.
Oh, and along with the four or five sons, Edward I and Eleanor had eleven daughters.
While the movie doesn’t mention how many years passed since we saw young William Wallace, it cuts from the events earlier with the date 1280 to the marriage of Edward II and Isabelle.
The movie is correct in saying Isabelle was the daughter of the King of France. This was King Philip IV, who was one of the most powerful kings of the time, and a source of great tension for the English. In an attempt to quell the tensions, Edward II and Isabelle of France were married in the year 1308, about 28 years after the events earlier in the film.
As a side note, the rumor the movie implies about Edward II and the man in the court is also true. Although we don’t have all the details, Edward II was very close friends with a man named Piers Gaveston. We don’t know if they were lovers, like the movie implies, or just good friends. What we do know is their relationship caused some controversy in the court. It would seem Edward I didn’t like his son’s friendship—or relationship—or whatever it was.
After the marriage, the movie takes us to King Edward I’s strategy room where he’s trying to figure out how to rule the entire island. To do that, he has to take control of Scotland. He wants to get English nobles to move to Scotland to solidify his hold there.
To do that, he has to appease the English nobles.
But they won’t be swayed by land alone. That’d mean new taxes, and no one likes paying taxes. Then, looking at his new daughter-in-law, the ruthless King of England has an idea. To get the Scots out of Scotland, they’ll breed them out.
Next, the movie explains that Edward the Longshanks is going to reinstate an old custom, granting the English lords the right to primae noctis. The full Latin term is jus primae noctis, which means “right of the first night.”
Basically, in an attempt to take over Scotland one person at a time, the English would breed the Scottish population out by allowing the English lords to sleep with Scottish women on their wedding night.
This is not true. At least, there has never been any historical documentation or evidence that King Edward I, who is the king they’re referring to as Longshanks, ever decreed anything along the lines of primae noctis.
In fact, there’s debate among many historians about whether or not it ever happened at all. On one hand, if it did happen, it’d happen to peasant women. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of documentation about what happened to these women.
But still, some historians think primae noctis—or something similar—took place for centuries. At some point you’d think there’d be some reports with actual names and places.
But there aren’t any.
Probably the best evidence we have comes from Hector Boece, a historian in Scotland in 1527. According to Hector, the right existed in Scotland up until Malcolm III abolished the act. Malcolm III lived from 1031 to 1093, though. So while this could have been the “old custom” that Patrick McGoohan’s version of King Edward I is referring to, there simply hasn’t been any documentation of any sort of primae noctis being instituted in medieval Europe.
There’s another big player here, and we meet him during the next part of the story in the movie. It’s in Edinburgh at a meeting of the Scottish nobles. It’s here that we’re introduced to someone the movie says is Robert, the 17th Earl of Bruce. In the film, Robert is played by Angus Macfadyen.
Robert the Bruce was a very real person. Although, like William Wallace, we don’t know a lot about Robert’s early days. What we do know is that his grandfather had laid claim to the Scottish throne after King Alexander III had died, even though the crown had passed to Margaret thanks to the provision in her mother’s marriage to Norway’s King Eric II.
If you remember, Margaret was born in 1281, and her grandfather passed away in 1286. So even though the young child was handed the crown, it wasn’t like she was able to defend it.
But Robert the Bruce’s grandfather, who was also named Robert, by the way, failed in his attempt to get the Scottish throne. Instead, with the crown legally going to a five year old child, Edward I of England was able to grasp at the opportunity who, in turn, used that chance to set up a puppet government under John Balliol.
So when the movie says Robert the Bruce was one of the leading contenders for the crown of Scotland, it’s right. Even though the English royal family had assumed the Scottish crown, Robert the Bruce was still one of the most legitimate heirs to the Scottish throne.
After this introduction to Robert the Bruce, the movie introduces us to a grown up William Wallace as he returns to the village he grew up in. William, as I’m sure you know, is played by Mel Gibson.
When William arrives home, presumably for the first time since his uncle Argyle took him away, the village is empty. They’re all away celebrating a wedding.
There’s no historical proof this actual wedding took place. But the purpose of this wedding isn’t really for the bride and groom, but to include a few major plot points.
The first of these is when William meets his childhood sweetheart, Murron, who’s played by Catherine McCormack in the film. Although, perhaps “meets” is a bit strong.
They glance at each other from across the way, but they don’t really talk at the wedding. That comes later when William and Murron take a ride in the rain.
Historians have long debated whether or not William Wallace was ever married, with most of them agreeing that he never was. Some legends of the real William include a woman named Mariod Braidfute, so if there was a real person on which the character of Murron was based that would’ve been her.
But Murron wasn’t the only person William reunites with at the wedding. Another major plot point here at the wedding is when William finds his childhood friend, Hamish. He’s grown up now and played by Brendan Gleeson in the movie.
As we learned just a moment ago, it’s after the wedding in the movie when William and Murron start to catch up. We already talked about the reality of Murron, so we won’t go into that. But I wanted to point out something that Mel Gibson’s version of William mentions to Murron.
It’s while he’s trying to impress Murron by speaking to her in French, a language she doesn’t understand. She tells him to say it standing on his head, to which William says his kilt will fly up, but he’ll do it.
And that’s what I wanted to mention: the kilt.
Most historians agree the kilt was invented in the mid to late 16th century. Some historians get a little more specific, pinning the year as 1720 when the kilt started to be worn.
Regardless of which is right, the point here is that it’s not historically accurate to depict William Wallace in the 13th century wearing a kilt. That’s at least a few hundred years too early.
But hey, it looks good on Mel, so let’s give Hollywood a break on this one.
Back in the movie, once William comes back, Hamish’s father, Campbell, wastes no time in recruiting William to their strategy meeting. Campbell is played by the talented James Cosmo in the movie.
According to the movie, William doesn’t want any part of the resistance. He says he came back to raise crops, a family, and if he can he’ll live in peace.
While there’s no way to verify these specific events, it’s highly unlikely they’re true.
We know this because in May of 1291, King Edward I had instituted something called the Ragman Roll. This was exactly what it sounds like, a roll call of sorts. The King of England required all Scots who could write to sign the roll, and with it pledge their loyalty to the King.
William Wallace refused.
So, in the eyes of England, this act of refusal would’ve made him an outlaw very early on—long before the timeline we see here in the movie. For this reason, it’s not likely he would’ve avoided the resistance. After all, by refusing to sign he’d already assured he wouldn’t be living a life of peace. He’d already sided with his people, the people of Scotland.
In the movie, William and Murron continue their romance and eventually decide to get married in secret. This is no doubt to keep from being forced to succumb to primae noctis.
Our comparison of the film can start to speed up a little here because, based on what we’ve learned so far, it’s safe to say all of this is made up for the film. There’s no proof William Wallace was ever married. And while the storyline in the film makes perfect sense given the scenario they’re in, there’s no proof William married in secret to avoid primae noctis. After all, it’s highly unlikely that primae noctis was even a thing during William’s lifetime.
In the movie, after they get married, it becomes obvious that the two are no longer just friends. Actor Michael Byrne’s character, an English soldier named Smythe, tries to rape Murron. William comes to the rescue, but it marks him as a target for the English. This leads to a fight in the village, and Murron is captured as she’s trying to escape.
Sadly, she’s brutally murdered before William is able to rescue her. According to the movie, this is what drives William’s hatred of the English and his rebellion. When William comes back into town, he does so with a vengeance as he starts killing the English soldiers. His friends, Hamish and Campbell and Morrison, which is Tommy Flanagan’s character who got married earlier, all join in the fledgling rebellion.
Everyone in the village starts to help out in the rebellion, and eventually overrun the English encampment.
That’s just not true.
Even if we were to assume there was a romantic relationship between William and someone like the character of Murron we see in the film, we know William refused to sign the Ragman Roll before the events we see in the film. If he truly desired peace, like the movie makes it seem, why would he refuse to sign something that’d instantly make him an outlaw?
We don’t know everything about William’s life, so we can’t say for sure that this isn’t true. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense for someone who’d essentially volunteered to be an outlaw of England to try to live a peaceful life.
Instead, most historians believe it wasn’t an act of revenge for a love lost, but the real outlaw William Wallace gathered others who refused to sign the Ragman Roll into an army of rebels.
In the movie, there’s a scene where a couple of runners come to William’s band of rebels with news. One of them is Tommy Flanagan’s character, Morrison, who tells William the English are advancing their army near Stirling.
Stirling is a city about 20 miles, just over 30 kilometers, east of Glasgow and about 30 miles, or about 50 kilometers, west of Edinburgh, and just slightly north of both.
After this announcement in the film, we see a massive battle. This is the one where a painted blue-faced William inspires his men by saying the English may take their lives, but they’ll never take their freedom.
According to the movie, the Scots pull off a major upset when they defeat the better equipped and larger English army.
We don’t know if that speech took place, although it’s not likely it did. We also don’t know if they wore blue paint on their faces like that. Again, not likely.
What the movie did get right though, was the fact that William Wallace won a major victory at Stirling.
It was in May of 1297 when William Wallace attacked the town of Lanark. That’s about 25 miles, or 40 kilometers, southeast of Glasgow. During the attack, which the movie doesn’t show, William’s men killed the English sheriff.
If Wallace was just a nuisance of an outlaw before, killing the sheriff turned his little band of outlaws into a full-fledged rebellion.
It was after this battle that, as the movie shows, Scots started joining William’s rebellion in droves. With his numbers growing, William started to drive the English out of the regions of Fife and Perth, to the north of Edinburgh.
Then, on September 11th, 1297, William’s men met a large English force at a bridge near Stirling. The movie says the English have 300 heavy cavalry and outnumber the Scots three to one.
Those numbers aren’t quite right, but the Scottish were badly outnumbered. Historical documents show the Scots brought about 300 cavalry and 10,000 infantry. While this was no small force, the English had almost 3,000 cavalry and anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 men. We don’t know the exact number, but it was much more than the Scottish.
Just like the movie shows, despite being outnumbered, the battle was a massive victory for William Wallace. Most historians agree this was the first battle to see heavily armed and mounted knights lose. Up until this point, they were considered practically invincible.
We don’t know the numbers of how many were lost on each side, but historians estimate the English suffered at least 6,000 casualties while the Scottish hardly lost any.
Probably the most glaring inaccuracy in the film with the battle is that there’s no bridge in the movie. In truth, this victory became what we now know as the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Today, The National Wallace Monument stands at Stirling to commemorate the event. You can learn more about the monument or plan your own visit at www.nationalwallacemonument.com.
In the movie, after this major victory, we see William Wallace get knighted and appointed the guardian of Scotland.
This is true, although we don’t know for sure if this happened right after the battle like the movie shows. Most historians agree that it was in the following March when William Wallace was knighted and became Sir William Wallace, the guardian of the kingdom.
Back in the movie, William Wallace advances his troops to do what no one had dared do before—invade England. The one the movie focuses on here, though, is a city with a massive castle that the movie claims is the greatest city in northern England: York.
While there’s no historical documentation that ever shows William Wallace attacked the city of York, the general idea that William’s men invaded northern England is true. Without wasting much time after the victory at Stirling, William Wallace led his men into northern England in November of 1297.
Although most historians believe William’s invasion stuck to the very northern regions of England such as the modern-day counties of Cumbria or Northumberland.
Throughout the movie we get an idea of William Wallace being a brutal and fearless killer. This depiction is quite true, and if anything it was tamed for the film. While we obviously don’t know specifics, there were tales that as he ravaged northern England, William Wallace went so far as to skin an English soldier and keep his skin as a trophy.
Of course, that can’t be proven. So maybe it was just a tale that spread through the English countryside in the wake of William’s men.
Regardless, while the Scottish were rallying around William Wallace, on the English side the brutality of William’s attacks were a rallying cry of sorts around King Edward I.
In the movie, as William’s rebellion is growing, word reaches King Edward I by way of a head in a basket. He decides to send his son’s wife, Sophie Marceau’s version of Princess Isabelle, in an attempt to negotiate a truce with William.
Or is he hoping William will kill Isabelle and bring down the anger of the French on his rebellion?
These are all events that could be plausible. By that, I mean we know the French were one of the super powers of the known world at the time. So if the English wanted to get rid of the Scottish rebels without having to do it themselves, who better to bring into the battle as an ally than one of the world’s great super powers?
As plausible as they may be, however, they also have no historical proof.
After this failed proposal of peace in the movie, King Edward I explains he’s already begun preparations to attack William Wallace at York.
Hearing of this, according to the movie, William tries to get support from Robert the Bruce and the rest of the Scottish nobles for the next battle. The text on screen says this battle takes place at Falkirk.
As with many other things we’ve learned about in the film, a lot of the battle was fictionalized for the movie. What is true is that on July 22nd, 1298, William Wallace’s forces met a massive force led by King Edward I himself at Falkirk. That’s about ten miles, or about 16 kilometers south of Stirling.
As with the battle at Stirling, we don’t have exact numbers for the battle at Falkirk. Historians estimate William had about 1,000 cavalry and about 5,000 infantry. On the other side, King Edward I had 2,500 cavalry and about 12,500 infantry. Those aren’t exact numbers, and some historians have offered up different numbers on both sides. Regardless, one thing was certain—again, William Wallace and the Scots were heavily outnumbered.
The movie makes it seem like William lost the battle because his own countrymen turned on him. We see Mel Gibson’s version of William fighting the English infantry, and as he calls on the cavalry to come into the battle, they turn away—leaving William and his men at the mercy of the English.
That’s not what happened.
In truth, the Scots were simply outnumbered. When the attack began, the English knights were able to drive off or kill most of the Scottish cavalry and archers. But the Scots had a large number of pikemen with spears that were able to fend off the advancing English horses.
But they were surrounded, so it wasn’t long before the English archers were able to destroy most of the pikemen.
The Scottish didn’t stand much of a chance.
According to the movie, after the defeat at Falkirk, William exacts revenge on the Scottish nobles who betrayed him.
That didn’t happen. Neither was he betrayed by the Scottish nobles and turned over to the English like the movie shows later on.
Oh, William was betrayed—it just wasn’t right after the battle of Falkirk as the movie shows. And it wasn’t in the manner the movie shows.
However, the movie was correct in showing that William Wallace didn’t die in this battle. In truth, after the devastating loss at Falkirk, William resigned from his role as guardian of Scotland.
But he never stopped trying to build a Scottish rebellion against the English. The year after the battle, in 1299, William acted as a diplomat to France and tried to get the French to help Scotland break free from English rule.
And it worked.
The French helped William’s rebellion for a few years, but would end up betraying the Scots in 1304. Because of this, the rest of the Scottish leaders, too, betrayed William’s rebellion and capitulated to King Edward I of England.
William continued to refuse to submit to King Edward I, though. Practically alone in his struggle, King Edward I’s men finally caught up with William on August 5th, 1305 near the city of Glasgow.
The specifics in the movie were made up, of course, but the overall gist after William’s capture is fairly accurate. Finally capturing the man who had led the rebellion against him for decades, King Edward I had William Wallace taken to London where he was paraded around as a traitor.
If you remember, the English hated William for his brutal attacks in the northern English countryside, so the events we see in the film of everyone throwing things at William certainly could have happened.
Well, with the exception of the tomatoes. Like the kilt, tomatoes weren’t even introduced to Europe until the 16th century.
The movie shows some pretty horrific things happening to William Wallace. He’s tortured, stretched and disemboweled. All of these are true, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
On August 23rd, 1305, William Wallace was stripped naked and dragged through the city of London behind a horse. Then, he was hung at the end of a rope. Just before dying, he’d be released so they could continue to torture him.
Horrible, horrific torturing. If you’re listening with kids, you might want to skip forward a bit.
Some historians say his stomach was cut open and his bowels ripped out, then burned in front of William so he could watch.
Finally, William was beheaded and his body chopped into pieces. Just like the movie says, his head was placed on top of London Bridge so everyone could see.
It was a pretty horrible way to die.
In the movie, there’s a bit of justice when Princess Isabelle tells the ailing King Edward I on his deathbed that she’s pregnant. She never says it’s William’s child, but she says it’s not Edward’s line, so that’s the implication.
That’s not true.
In truth, King Edward I lived to continue fighting Robert the Bruce, who had taken up William’s rebellion. In February of 1307, King Edward I and his men were just south of the Scottish border when he contracted dysentery.
On July 6th, 1307, King Edward I died.
In the end, while the story shown in Braveheart isn’t a very historically accurate one, it’s one that turned everyone’s attentions to a very real Scottish hero. William Wallace fought his entire life for Scottish independence. It was something he ultimately gave his life for after he was tortured and killed.
But it wasn’t a life given in vain.
In the movie, the final scene shows a horde of Scotsmen charging the English soldiers. Mel Gibson’s voiceover says in 1314, patriots of Scotland charged the fields of Bannockburn and won their freedom.
That is true, although not entirely. What’s true is that on June 24th, 1314, Robert the Bruce led Scottish forces in a major victory during what we know as the Battle of Bonnockburn. It was the first battle that would lead to Scottish freedom, but it wasn’t the last.
After the English defeat at Bonnockburn, the Scottish continued to raid northern England for years. Finally, in 1328, a full 23 years after William was executed, the King of England, Edward II, agreed to the Treaty of Edinburgh.
Part of the treaty was for England to formally recognize the full independence of the Kingdom of Scotland, and Robert the Bruce as the King of the Scots.
LINKS AND MORE RESOURCES
- Chat about the show on the Based on a True Story Facebook group
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Books & Resources
- William Wallace: The Life and Legacy of the Scottish Freedom Fighter by Charles River Editors
- William Wallace Brave Heart by James Mackay
- Braveheart (1995) – IMDb
- Braveheart – Awards – IMDb
- Braveheart (1995) – Synopsis
- Braveheart (1995) – Rotten Tomatoes
- Braveheart – Wikipedia
- Braveheart – Wikiquote
- Droit du seigneur – Wikipedia
- Jus Primae Noctis: Fact or Fiction?
- William Wallace – Wikipedia
- William Wallace – Royalty, Military Leader – Biography.com
- Sir William Wallace | Scottish hero | Britannica.com
- BBC – History – William Wallace
- William Wallace – New World Encyclopedia
- 700-Year-Old William Wallace Letter Finally Reaches Scotland – History in the Headlines
- William Wallace Biography – Childhood, Life Achievements & Timeline
- Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie (1249 – 1305) – Genealogy
- BBC – Scotland’s History – Robert the Bruce, King of Scots
- Robert the Bruce – Wikipedia
- BBC – History – Robert the Bruce
- Biographies of Great Men & Women of England, Wales and Scotland
- Robert The Bruce: Warrior King of Scotland
- Robert the Bruce Biography -Biography Online
- Robert the Bruce | Biography & Facts | Britannica.com
- Robert the Bruce | Famous Scots | VisitScotland
- King Robert the Bruce of Scotland | Britroyals
- The Myth of the Outlawed Bagpipes [Archive] – Bob Dunsire Bagpipe Forums
- 1280s – Wikipedia
- Alexander III of Scotland – Wikipedia
- Edward I of England – Wikipedia
- Edward II of England – Wikipedia
- 15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About ‘Braveheart’ | Mental Floss
- “History vs Hollywood: The Truth Behind Braveheart” Essay Example | Topics, Sample Papers & Articles Online for Free
- History vs Hollywood-Episode 2- Braveheart – #ashtag #istory
- “History vs Hollywood: The Truth Behind Braveheart” – WriteWork
- History vs Braveheart
- Fact or Fiction: Hollywood vs. History | HowStuffWorks
- History vs. Hollywood By Sterling Ray and Matt Gallagher. – ppt download
- Competitors for the Crown of Scotland – Wikipedia
- Battle of Stirling Bridge – Wikipedia
- BBC – Scotland’s History – The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297
- Battle of Stirling Bridge in the Wars of Scottish Independence
- BBC – History – William Wallace
- Battle of Falkirk – Wikipedia