Braveheart: the Historical Movie that Isn’t

First, let me be clear: wide-release movies are not meant to be documentaries. There will be deviations of history, and I’m fine with that. I will also say that I greatly enjoyed Braveheart as a movie.

However, if you’re going to make a historical movie, you might want to include something of actual history in it. Otherwise it’s not even good alt-history, but rather a fantasy tale which happens to label its location as “England.”

William Wallace

The main character, William Wallace, is a problematic historical topic as very little was actually written about him during his lifetime. So the movie has to make some things up.

The movie primarily draws from a ballad called The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie, written in 1490 (almost 200 years after Wallace’s death) and filled with what we know are historical inaccuracies. Certainly I am not going to blame them for not clarifying that point, just as I don’t expect Robin Hood movies to have a disclaimer stating that Robin Hood is not a real person, even if historical characters do play a part in the tale.

Minor Problems

I call these minor problems because they weren’t overly relevant to the plot, even if they were glaring inaccuracies:

  • Wallace was raised in a noble family rather than living as a peasant
  • Prima-nocte, the right of the lord to sleep with a bride on her wedding night, doesn’t exist.
  • It is true that the ancient Celts once painted themselves in blue for battle, and it is true that Scottish culture derives from the Celts: the Scottish language is a form of Gaelic.  However, by the time of Wallace, the practice had been abandoned for centuries.
  • Edward I was not a pagan, nor was anyone else in 13th century England. We’re off by several centuries.
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And my personal favorite:

  • The Battle of Stirling Bridge was at a location that had, among other things, a bridge, which is curiously missing from Braveheart.
Edward I in Braveheart

Actor Patrick McGoohan is most well known as Number 6 in The Prisoner, which was something like a British 1960s Lost: no one ever really knew what was going on, but we still loved it.  (Historical Histrionics)

King Edward I (Edward Longshanks)

I appreciated the depiction of King Edward in Braveheart for so many reasons. Yes, he really was that much of a hard-ass and, yes, he really was that driven against the Scots. While the line “The problem with Scotland is that it is full of Scots” is fictional, he did end up with the label “Hammer of the Scots” on his tomb.

We also don’t have any records of Edward throwing one of his son’s friends out a window, but we do have a report of him grabbing his son by the hair in frustration over his favoritism toward friends (who are likely male lovers).

Edward I was the first English king to name his heir the Prince of Wales. A probably apocryphal story – the first record of it comes from the 16th century – states that the conquering Edward promised the Welsh he would appoint a leader that spoke no English. He then declared his infant son – who, of course, speaks no language at all – Prince of Wales.

Just because a story isn’t true doesn’t mean it can’t tell us something of someone’s reputation.

On the other hand, Edward I was also a very capable king, charitable man, loving husband, and the arguable creator of Parliament (although precursors existed) . These aren’t things the Scots remember him for, however.

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Prince Edward

The king’s son, also named Edward, is generally accepted to have been homosexual or bisexual.  He was outrageously generous to his favorites, which won him lots of enemies.  He was exceedingly frivolous, easily manipulated, and fairly inept at running a country.  He is eventually murdered, probably on the orders of his wife.

The Death Scene

Remember that scene when King Edward was dying just as Wallace was being executed, and Princess Isabella dropped the bomb about bearing Wallace’s child? That all seems a wee bit unlikely, since Wallace was executed in 1305, and Edward didn’t die (on campaign, not in his bed) until 1307.

However, if you thought Wallace’s death was overly gruesome, let me be clear that the movie was actually relatively tame.  Traitors were not merely hung in medieval times.  They were dragged to the place of execution, partially strangled, then castrated and eviscerated while still alive, with their organs potentially being set on fire.  He was then chopped into pieces  and put on public display.

Humans are sometimes overly clever and creative.

princess isabella in Braveheart

I can’t decide what to call her, so let’s just stick with the nickname “She-Wolf of France.” That’s what you get when you overthrow and murder your husband. (Historical Histrionics)

Isabella of France

There is nothing more wrong in this movie than Isabella of France, wife to Prince Edward, the future Edward II.

Oh, wait, I mean the current Edward II. When Isabella married in 1308, Edward II was already king. She was never Princess of Wales. She immediately became queen. And, of course, the only way Edward II could be king is if Edward I was already dead, which he was. She never met Edward I. Thus, she never bragged to him that she was carrying the child of a man who died two three years earlier.

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But I’m just getting started.

The entire set-up between Isabella and Wallace is not merely unhistorical but ridiculous. You don’t send a 14th century woman to be a diplomat. You don’t expose the Princess of Wales Queen of England to that kind of threat and you never, ever leave said princess queen alone with, well, anyone, much less the enemy. Royal women had little privacy even in the best circumstances.

But….still not done.

Isabella was born in 1295. She was twelve years old when she married Edward II. She was nine years old when Wallace died and three years old (and in France) at the time of the battle of Falkirk, when the movie says she and Wallace met.

They don’t send three-year-olds as diplomats either.  They tend to side with however offers the most lollipops.

Not done yet!

What about that baby she was carrying, the future Edward III? Isabella gave birth for the first time in 1312 at the age of 17. That baby was, in fact, the future Edward III, so at least they got that right.

In short, either this sub-plot is about William Wallace having sex with a bi-locational, three-year-old diplomat who remains pregnant for 14 years, or it’s fiction.

One comment

  • Peter

    It is also worth mentioning that no one wore belted plaids or kilts at the time of William Wallace. The kilt was not in use until 500 years later.

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