Yes. It's Braveheart. I can already hear the groaning and face palms. Some of you may even be heading to your taskbar in order to click your back button. Wait!
Braveheart has become notorious and hated in a number of circles -- historical, cinematic, cultural, even political. As with Gladiator, it's one of the rare films that's had its inaccuracies widely broadcast. The average citizen may not know a Plantagenet from a Hapsburg, but they can tell you about how Mel Gibson omitted the bridge from the Battle of Stirling Bridge. But whereas Gladiator still moves and touches a lot of people even when they know better, Braveheart just garners rage or eye rolls.
So, this week I wanted to shake things up a bit and write something that was a little personal. When I started this feature, one of the things I was keen to focus on was what cultural or political upheaval may have inspired a particular film, or what effects the film had on pop culture. Last week's selection of That Hamilton Woman was based on a variety of factors -- being sick, Memorial Day making me think about war, and the temptation to work in a bit of travelogue. When it came time to pick today's film, my gut said "You ought to write about Braveheart so you can write about crawling around tombs, your sore feet in Cheapside, and all that."
And maybe, just maybe, I can help rescue Braveheart from its cultural infamy. Because every once and awhile, I think it's ok for power to overcome facts, and for history to go utterly Hollywood, because it can inspire great things. Or just one nerdy teenager who was curious about swords, castles, and Stirling.
Let's do this quick. Scotland has been conquered by Edward I. The Scots who resist his oppressive rule are brutally killed. After witnessing the death of his father and brother, young William Wallace grows up resentful, but hoping to live in peace with the English. But when the English kill his wife, Wallace rebels, and all of Scotland follows. Though they win their first conflict at Stirling in 1297, they lose at Falkirk, and Wallace is a hunted man. Eventually, he is betrayed by Scottish nobles and sent to London where he is executed. But the rebellion rages, and Robert the Bruce leads the country to victory and independence at Bannockburn.
The Historical Background
The events leading up to Edward I taking over Scotland are your standard medieval politics. Alexander III was the King of Scotland at the time of Wallace's birth, a reign that spanned from 1249 to 1286. It was a period that's gone down as a "golden age", though that's likely due to all the horror that came after. Alexander's first wife was Margaret of England, sister to Edward I. Alexander managed to outlive his wife and his three children, though his daughter Margaret had lived long enough to marry King Eirik II of Norway and have a daughter of her own. Baby Margaret (better known as the Maid of Norway) was the only heir Scotland had to the throne.
Alexander was killed in a freak accident -- he and his horse fell down a cliff while riding at night -- and the little Maid (all of seven years old) was duly shipped to Scotland to assume the throne. The poor girl died en route. A battle for the Scottish throne ensued, with no less than thirteen claims. War threatened to break out, so the Bishop Fraser of St. Andrews wrote to Edward and asked him to intervene. Edward was thrilled to do so, rode into Berwick-Upon-Tweed, and essentially asked whether the Scots had proof he wasn't the lord of Scotland. No one could prove he wasn't (he was, after all, brother-in-law to the late King). Edward declared John Balliol as King of Scotland, but himself as the feudal superior, with all claimants of the throne swearing allegiance to him. Balliol was crowned in 1292, but tired of Edward's control by 1295 and rebelled. This was the beginning of the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Edward's retaliation was swift. He marched his army to the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. He laid waste to the town. At that time, it boasted 20,000 inhabitants and it's not known how many survived. The slaughter managed to horrify contemporary historians. Supposedly the bodies were so numerous they clogged the streets, and had to be dumped into pits or into the sea. Berwick has never recovered it's medieval population. The Scots and English clashed at Dunbar in 1296 (and it's possible Wallace may have fought there, as he officially pops into the history books a mere year later), but the English were triumphant. Edward assumed control of Scotland on July 8, 1296, and seized Scotland's valuables, including the Stone of Scone. A year later, Wallace struck the first blow for independence.
Is It Accurate?
Partly. The main problem is that the film is loosely based on Blind Harry's Poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace which is full of fantasy and romanticism. Wallace fights lions and pirates in it, for heaven's sake, so any film using it as a source was bound to be a little iffy.
The very opening of the film takes this into a land of weird historical fantasy with the voice over claiming Edward I was "a cruel pagan" which doesn't even make sense. There was only one church, and everyone followed it, especially a king. A king was considered God's representative in the most literal way possible. There's also no record of Scottish lords being lured under a banner of truce only to be summarily hanged, it's merely a legend, though it's the kind of thing Edward would have done. The character of Edward -- regardless of what his admirers will tell you -- is pretty darn accurate. This is a man who still lies in a "temporary" sarcophagus in Westminister Abbey, decorated only with the epithet "Hammer of the Scots." And yes, they called him Longshanks for his impressive height.
William Wallace came from a well-to-do family of knights. They wouldn't have been caught dead living in the hovel the film portrays, but a nice stone manor. (The way they portray medieval people living in general is pretty laughable. Things were rough, but they weren't this rough and filthy. People did wash their faces and build real houses!) Young Wallace was well educated. Unlike in the movie, Wallace never had any intention of living in peace. Legend claims his father was killed in 1291 by English soldiers, but again, there's no record. It's stuck around because 1291 was supposedly when Wallace attacked his first Englishman, a young nobleman named Selby who had taunted him. Wallace either stabbed him or smashed his head in with his fist. Take your pick. He's also believed to have killed a troop of soldiers while out fishing, but again, there's no solid record. Around this time is when a priest, reportedly an uncle, taught him a poem that went "Freedom is best, I tell thee true / Of all things to be won / then never live within the bonds of slavery, my son."
Wallace officially enters history in 1297 when he killed the Sheriff of Lanark, William Heselrig. Folk legend believes he was avenging the death of his wife or fiancee, Marion Braidfute. Some pseudo-historians will claim they were married in this church or that, and that they had a daughter, but the only thing we actually know happened 1297 is that Wallace killed Heselrig and burned the garrison because it was one of the charges read to him at his sentencing. (I'm a big believer in folk tradition having a grain of truth; the "love story" seems perfectly plausible.) The event resounded through the area. Men started flocking to him, and he won skirmishes at Scone, Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow, and Dundee using a variety of guerrilla tactics. Another Scotsman, Andrew Moray, also revolted in the north and the two slowly converged onto Stirling to meet the English.
The Battle of Stirling Bridge is one of Braveheart's biggest gaffes because it doesn't have a bridge. The bridge was key to the success of the Scots, because it was basically the battle of Thermopylae over water. The wooden bridge was too narrow to accommodate the entire army. One account even claims it collapsed, or that Wallace rigged it to collapse. Certainly, men tried to jump and swim, only to drown in the weight of their armor. It was a bloodbath, against all rules of chivalry. Tradition holds that one of the English commanders, Hugh Cressingham, was killed by a spear, stripped, and skinned. Wallace may have had a belt made from his skin. (And you thought Gibson overdid the violence!) Moray was killed in the battle, leaving Wallace as the sole commander of the army.
Wallace did invade northern England, but he didn't sack York or any major fortress, as he lacked siege engines. He was knighted and made Guardian of Scotland shortly after, and actually spent a lot of time creating some domestic policy for the country. He drew up plans to end feudalism, and penned letters encouraging foreign traders to do business with Scotland. (One of these letters was rediscovered in 1998 which was incredibly exciting.) Some of his radical ideas regarding feudalism may have been what first caused a rift between himself and the Scottish nobles, who were already in an awkward spot with their allegiances.
Success was short lived. The Battle of Falkirk in 1298 was a disaster for Scottish Independence. The battle continues to be mired in historical controversy, as the Scottish cavalry turned and fled. Was it a betrayal? Mere panic? No one knows, but the foot soldiers and archers were slaughtered. Controversy also surrounds Robert the Bruce's role. Blind Harry claims he fought with the English, but historical accounts indicate he did fight with Wallace and certainly was burning castles on his behalf a month later. Incidentally, while the Irish didn't abandon the English in favor of the Scots, the Welsh may have. They threatened to, and Edward told them to go ahead so he could kill them along with the Scots. Whether they took him up on the offer is unknown.
Braveheart's second biggest gaffe occurs around Falkirk with the romantic entanglement of Wallace and Princess Isabella of France. Isabella of France didn't marry Edward II until 1308, years after the death of Wallace and Edward I. Wallace did visit France in 1298, hoping to recruit help from King Philip IV, and stayed until 1300. It's possible they met, though she would have been a mere child. But I give credit to the film for its attempt (as corny as it is) to pay homage to a pretty incredible woman of history. Isabella's marriage to Edward II was as disastrous as the movie suggests, and she staged a successful coup for the English throne in 1326. She became known as the She Wolf of France. While it's utter fantasy to connect her story to Wallace's, I appreciate they tipped their hat to an incredibly powerful woman of the period. I just wish Gibson and Randall Wallace had realized she deserved her own movie, not just a fictional footnote in Braveheart.
Wallace resigned Guardianship, but continued to rally men to the cause. He was a threat that England wanted eliminated. He was captured outside of Glasgow, betrayed by Sir John Menteith. He was taken in chains to London, and was sentenced to the grisly execution of hanging, drawing, and quartering.
In Defense ....
I know Braveheart is inaccurate in a lot of ways -- the kilts, the accents, the Princess, the hovels, and the crazy Irishman. (Though Wallace did have a companion named Stephen Ireland.) But I still think the film is a powerful one, and taps into the mythological sway Wallace has over Scotland. There are thousands of little sites connected with this man -- stones he allegedly sharpened his swords on, a well he drank out of, trees he supposedly planted. Rafters from the Glasgow barn he was captured in were preserved, and made into a chair that sits in Sir Walter Scott's home. A massive sword, said to be his and left behind at Dumbarton Castle after his capture, sits at the heart of the Wallace Monument in Stirling. Statues and plaques dot the country, commemorating where he struck his first blow for Scottish independence, his birthplace, and his battles. Even London has a few markers for him. If you visit Westminster Hall, there's a sign on the floor of the medieval hall marking where he stood at his sentencing.
When this movie came out in 1995, it had a profound effect on me. I can't even say why, except that it was a period I had always been fascinated with, and I was shocked at having never heard of Wallace before. Researching Wallace led me into researching other aspects of medieval history. It's how I ended up doing what I do in so many ways. It's also how I met one of my good friends, a Scotsman who knew he was going to have to put up with me dragging him to many a Wallace monument. When I went to Scotland, I took On the Trail of William Wallace with me purely to hunt out some of the most obscure and folkloric spots associated with Wallace. (I still have the book --it's battered to all hell, and every time I open it, a UK train ticket or brochure falls out.) My Scot followed me patiently as we hiked up to the Wallace Monument, went miles out of our way to Paisley Abbey to see a Wallace window, or combed through the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral looking for the tomb of Wallace;s supporter Bishop Wishart. He cracked me up with his tales of wanting to kill English after seeing the movie, and with impressions of his schoolteacher: "Gather round children and I'll tell ye the tale of William Wallace! He was seven feet tall, and just as wide." (It sounds funnier in a brogue.)
Finding things associated with this now-Hollywoodized hero was eerie. Upon coming home, I would tell people I went to Glasgow Cathedral because Wallace had sat on its steps, or walked miles through Cheapside until I found the spot where he was executed. I had a few smirks and eye rolls, "Oh, I hate that Mel Gibson movie!" It even happened while I was in the UK. I didn't go around asking tour guides about Edward I or William Wallace, but if you visit the Tower of London tour, or get a particular guide in Westminster Abbey, they will bring him up. They sound as though they wished Edward could torture him to death all over again, and then ride north to retrieve the Stone of Scone.
Yes, Braveheart is a bit of a silly movie. But whenever I hear someone sneering at it as a Mel Gibson gorefest, I wince a little. Regardless of what you think of the film, Wallace was a real person. Even without Hollywood's help, there was something special about him that Scotland held on to. There were other Scottish patriots -- Andrew Moray raised an army at the same time as Wallace, fought equally with him, and he heroically died on the battlefield of Stirling. Yet history largely passed him by. It was undoubtedly Wallace that Edward was thinking of when he wanted his own bones carried at the head of every English invasion into Scotland.
If you go to Smithfield, there's a sign marking the spot where he was executed. There's not a lot of Wallace stories you can take as hard fact, but his execution is one of them, as is the defense he gave in Westminster Hall: "I can not be a traitor, for I owe him no allegiance. He is not my Sovereign; he never received my homage; and whilst life is in this persecuted body, he never shall receive it. To the other points whereof I am accused, I freely confess them all. As Governor of my country I have been an enemy to its enemies; I have slain the English; I have mortally opposed the English King; I have stormed and taken the towns and castles which he unjustly claimed as his own. If I or my soldiers have plundered or done injury to the houses or ministers of religion, I repent me of my sin; but it is not of Edward of England I shall ask pardon."
Legend claims that Wallace asked for a priest to hear his confession at the gallows, but was denied, so he asked for the psalter he always carried to be held before him "till they to him had done all that they would." I suspect that Wallace -- stripped of everything he had -- didn't actually possess a psalter. Seeking religious comfort, he would have only had the steeple of St. Bartholomew's Church to look at. It's still there, much as it would have been in his day, and it's hard not to feel a chill at the gory scene that took place there. It has absolutely nothing to do with Gibson screaming "Freedom!" But I can't hate on that scene, or any other in the film, because it manages to tap into everything that is romantic, tragic, and mythic about this medieval hero. Sure, there's no bridge at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but I walked the streets of Stirling because of seeing it onscreen, and explored chilly crypts just to find a man Wallace knew. This is why I can forgive Braveheart its inaccuracies. It's why I can forgive a lot of historical films. I imagine there's some movie and history nerd who went to Thermopylae, the Colosseum, Little Big Horn, the Alamo, or the HMS Victory purely because of a movie, and enjoyed a similar rush. It's hard to put it into words, but when it happens, it has nothing to do with heartthrobs, soundtracks, and pop culture quotes. The story becomes real. And I can forgive a lot in a movie if it can lead anyone to that awakening.