Historical Figures: William Wallace

Hollywood is no stranger to fictionalising historical events. In 1995 actor/director Mel Gibson brought to life Scottish hero William Wallace in the film Braveheart, the story of one man taking on the might of the English. It won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, but how accurate was this tale of love, revenge and freedom?

William Wallace

The Real William Wallace

There is no doubt that the inspiration for Braveheart actually existed. Executed on 23rd August 1305 AD, Wallace was a knight and Scottish patriot who did lead a resistance against the English occupation of Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence.

There still remains uncertain about the date and place of his birth. Some say it was 1270, other historians believe it to be 1276. Likewise tradition has always held that he was born in Elderslie, near Johnstone in Renfrewshire, but recently it has been claimed that he came from the village of Ellerslie in Ayrshire.

Blue Blood

Traditionally Wallace has been depicted as the epitome of 'the common man' taking arms against an oppressive regime, in this instance that of English King Edward I, known as "Longshanks" on account of his impressive physical stature.

This notion of lowering the status of Wallace was used especially when comparing him to his countryman and future king Robert The Bruce, who came from upper nobility and was depicted in the film as Wallace's brother in arms.

In fact Wallace's family were minor nobles descending from "Richard Wallace the Welshman", a landowner who was an early member of the House of Stuart. Wallace was also therefore educated, allegedly being taught Latin by two uncles who had become priests. It makes more sense then that this relative nobility and education would allow Wallace to lead men into battle against the English.

No Kilts!

This inaccurate status of commoner can be seen in the way Gibson dressed his version of Wallace. The film portrays Wallace and his fellow Lowland men as fighting on foot wearing kilts, whereas any historian will tell you that Lowlanders did not wear kilts.

In fact, the military appearance of Scottish knights and feudal lords such as Wallace would have been about the same as their English counterparts. When it came to battle they would have also been on horseback, wearing chain mail stockings to protect the legs and a long mail shirt, over which they would sport a surcoat displaying their own coat of arms.

William Wallace memorial plaque in London

William Wallace memorial plaque in London

Was Wallace Braveheart?

Perhaps the most obvious historical inaccuracy of Gibson's film is the fact that Wallace was never referred to as Braveheart! The term referred to Robert the Bruce and it stems from the fact that after his death his heart was carried on a crusade against the Moors by Sir James Douglas.

Douglas himself was killed in 1330 in an ambush whilst carrying the heart and is said to have thrown the casket containing Bruce's heart ahead of him shouting "Onward braveheart, Douglas shall follow thee or die."

Hostile relations?

The film clearly depicts England as the villain of the piece, with King Edward a scheming monarch prepared to murder his own family to get what he wants. In particular the film declares that Scotland was already under English occupation by 1280, even though we know that England first invaded Scotland in 1296, after the outbreak of the First War of Scottish Independence. For three generations prior to that the two countries had lived in peace.

When it comes to hostile rivalry it's also worth pointing out that contrary to Braveheart, Wallace and Robert The Bruce weren't allies. They never actually met and were bitter enemies fighting on different sides.

The reality is that Wallace was fiercely loyal to King John Balliol, who ascended to the throne of Scotland in a ceremony sanctioned by Edward Longshanks at on 30th November, 1292.

Bruce on the other hand came from a rival clan to Balliol and was therefore was a direct competitor to the newly-crowned Scottish king. Seeing himself as equally entitled to the throne of Scotland he upheld his own different claim, which is why Robert the Bruce did not fight with Wallace at any point in history.

Great Warrior?

Gibson based his film on The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie, by the 15th century minstrel, Blind Harry, which as you can probably tell by now does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

Blind Harry's poem tells of alleged skirmishes against the English, but the fact of the matter is this: when it comes to Wallace's military activity, there is no concrete documentation of anything Wallace did prior to 1297. The first concrete evidence we have is that forces of Andrew de Moray and William Wallace defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11th of that year.

Like any great battle story, the winning side were heavily outnumbered and in the six months following Stirling Bridge, Wallace led a raid into northern England to show Edward that Scotland also had enough might not to be walked over.

In Gibson's film, Wallace not only invades northern England but his forces capture the city of York. This is completely untrue as he simply did not possess the capability to take any fortified city. In fact, Wallace got nowhere near York!

Defeat and Death

One thing the film got right was that Wallace was finally defeated at the Battle of Falkirk and was executed by order of Edward. The battle took place on 22nd July 1298, when the English army invaded Scotland on April 1st in retaliation after the embarrassment of Stirling Bridge.

Wallace managed to evade capture by the English until 5th August 1305 when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers near Glasgow.

Wallace was transported to London and tried for treason and murder. At the trial Wallace maintained that John Balliol was officially his king. Wallace was declared guilty and on 23rd August Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered at Smithfield and his head was placed on a pike at London Bridge.

The final lie of the film is that it suggests Wallace was the father of the future Edward III. The reality is that Edward's mother Isabella of France was ten at the time of Wallace's death and never met him!

What is true is that regardless of the fictional accounts, William Wallace will always live on in the hearts and minds of Scots as a hero and noble figure of historical pride. In this sense Wallace the symbol is arguably more important than Wallace the man!