We’re all familiar with the hugely successful 1995 film Braveheart, headed by Mel Gibson who took the leading role of Sir William Wallace: iconic Scottish legend and foe to King Edward I. If you’re reading this, the film likely holds a special place in your heart. We’ve watched William Wallace grow from boy to man, experience heartbreaks and triumphs, and ultimately lead an army of his countrymen against English oppression over and over, relishing in the romance and patriotism. That said, the writer certainly made use of his artistic licence and the film is bursting with historical inaccuracies. The film was written by the American-born Randall Wallace, who was inspired during his visit to Scotland to trace his roots (no, there’s no relation there). After discovering the legendary story of Sir William Wallace, he put pen to paper and wrote his first screenplay to make it to film. All of this isn’t to say the film can’t still be enjoyed for the masterpiece that it is – but for the sake of our love of history, here we will highlight some of the most notable historical inaccuracies of Braveheart.
Starting with the title itself, the term “brave heart” has actually been used historically to refer to Robert the Bruce and not William Wallace, the name coined by the Scottish poet William Edmondstoune Aytoun. But it is a catchy title. When writing the screenplay, Randall Wallace was heavily influenced by the work of Blind Harry, responsible for the epic poem “The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie” (a less catchy title) retelling the story of the late and great Wallace. The work is certainly more focused on romantic storytelling than that of historical accuracy. It was also written over 170 years after the capture and execution of Wallace.
The film’s representation of Wallace – donned with kilt, belted plaid and iconic blue warpaint – is wildly inaccurate in terms of the dress at the time. The Scots weren’t wearing kilts or belted plaid (the loose tartan fabric wrapped around the body) until much later in the 16th century. The blue warpaint worn by Wallace and his men would have come from the leaves of the woad plant, but this was in use 1,000 years before Wallace’s time (by the Picts, to scare off the pesky Romans) and certainly wouldn’t have been seen on the battlefield at Stirling Bridge. The long sword he used in the film would also most likely have been a smaller, one-handed sword alongside a shield, as long swords weren’t common at the time – and wouldn’t be until the 16th century.
Wallace is also shown losing his father as a young boy, after he dies in battle against the English, and is without a mother. In reality he lost his mother at the age of 24 and it is possible that his father was still alive during his rebellion. The film’s depiction of him as an orphan taken into the care of his uncle is also not correct – the character was completely fictitious, though some of his uncles may have helped in his education. He is shown as a peasant farmer, living in poverty – however Wallace’s family were of the lesser nobility and landowners, and Wallace himself was quite well educated. Finally, Wallace was from the lowlands, so the striking mountainous backdrop shown in the film would have looked more like rolling hills in actuality.
Early in the film, King Edward I enforces “jus primae noctis” (or “right of the first night”), which allows his English lords to engage in sexual relations with newly married Scottish brides on the day of their wedding, taking their virginity in the hopes of “breeding them out”. Whilst it served the film well in portraying Edward as a ruthless tyrant, it’s widely believed by historians that this was in fact a myth. References are also made early in the film to the long-standing oppression and occupation of Scotland by the English. In actuality, Scotland was independent until just one year prior to Wallace’s rebellion.
Wallace’s affair with Isabella of France is a notable fabrication by the film’s writer and complete historical nonsense. As satisfying as it was, the scene in which Isabella breaks the news of her unborn son’s parentage to the dying King Edward I absolutely did not happen. In fact, she was a small child in France during the Battle of Falkirk, when the affair supposedly took place and her son wasn’t born until several years after the death of Wallace. Also, the depiction of the King’s death – taking his last breath as Wallace endures his sentence at the gallows – was a work of fiction. Edward wouldn’t die for another two years.
Finally and most importantly, the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This was a momentous victory for Wallace and his rebellion, and you’ll recall the scene in the film in which the Scotsmen flash their bums and force the English to surrender. The real battle saw the English troops forced to cross a narrow bridge to meet their Scottish opponents, making them highly vulnerable and ultimately saw their bloody defeat. Though the cinematography was superb, it was ironically depicted with a total lack of bridge.
Image: The Wallace Monument, overlooking Stirling