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The History Behind Braveheart

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Many of the characters portrayed in the film Braveheart -- William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Edward I, Princess Isabella, Prince Edward, the Sheriff of Lanark -- were true historical figures. While Braveheart gives a detailed look into the life of William Wallace, much of it is fictional, for we do not know a great deal about Wallace. What we do know I shall try to tell you.

See a Timeline of the lives of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce
See scheduling information for the National William Wallace Monument at Stirling, Scotland.
See a bibliography regarding William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Edward I, Edward II, and Isabella of France.

William WallaceWilliam Wallace 1272-1305

William Wallace is a hero to the Scots, to be sure, but much of him seems to be borne in legends, now. There is not a great deal to be known about him. He was born at Elderslie, in Paisley Parish. His father was a vassal of the High Steward of Scotland, James Stewart. It is possible that Wallace received some education at Paisley Abbey, for it does appear that he knew Latin and French. He had uncles who were priests, and it is likely that they taught him. He married Marian Braidfoot around 1297 in the church of St. Kentigern in Lanark. As portrayed in the film Braveheart, Marian (or Murron) was indeed murdered under the direction of the English sheriff of Lanark, William de Hazelrig, in May of 1297. However, it appears that, in reality, she was killed because Wallace had done more than protect her from a previous assault by English soldiers, as depicted in the film. It seems that he had already risen against the English when they killed Marian in reprisal.

Interestingly, at the same time that Wallace was attacking Hazelrig, Andrew Murray was leading an attack against the English in the Highlands. There were other rebellions across the country at that time, as well. The unrest was due to the imposition of strict rule on the Scots after John Balliol, who had held the throne of Scotland for a brief time, gave up his kingship. Edward I had control of Scotland, as she had no king, and he wanted to make certain that the Scots did not break free from beneath his hand. Under such oppression it was not surprising that the Scots did react, many of them, being poor, forming weapons from farm implements.

Wallace's huge act of rebellion attracted the attention of common folk and Scots nobles alike, all of whom were unwilling to bear Edward I's bonds. These, including James Stewart, to whom William Wallace's father had been a vassal, Sir James Douglas, and Robert the Bruce allied with Wallace and, under the tutelage of the Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, they prepared to throw off the shackles of the English.

Wallace and Murray were aghast when the nobles who had allied with them surrendered to the English on July 9, 1297 at Irvine. In response, the two men began to take control of the rebel forces which had become scattered about the country. By August they had consolidated the rebels into one army at Stirling.

The Battle of Stirling happened a little differently than portrayed in the film. On September 11, 1297, the English forces were arrayed around Stirling Castle, while the Scots were opposite them across the Forth, which wound through a valley there. All that separated them was a bridge across the Forth. Because of poor commanding by the English leaders, the English were trapped as they crossed the bridge and were slaughtered by the Scots. It was an incredible victory for Wallace and Murray.

Unfortunately, Murray was mortally wounded during the battle and died shortly thereafter. Wallace assumed control of the rebels himself, then, but it is acknowledged that he had lost an irreplaceable partner in Murray. Still, Wallace lead his men on a deadly raid all the way to County Durham, England, in October. In November he and his men returned to Scotland to wait out the bitter winter. During that time he reconsolidated his forces.

In March of 1298 Wallace was knighted, possibly by Robert the Bruce himself, in Tor Wood, and he was appointed Guardian of Scotland. The fact that a man of his means was appointed to such a potentially powerful position indicates how revered he was by the nobles for his role in trying to free Scotland, and how dear to the Scots nobles freedom was.

There is no evidence that Wallace ever misused the power that was given him by the nobles. Instead he used it to the best of his ability to rally the commoners and the nobles around him to fight the English. This is to his credit, for many of the nobles might not have been quite so honorable in the same position. Wallace remained steadfast and did not waiver from his goal of freedom for Scotland.

Edward I and his men finally headed for Scotland in July of 1298. One of Wallace's tactics was to move all livestock and people from the path that the English would take through Scotland on their way to meet him. This would guarantee that the English would not find ready provisions or information as they traveled north. Another of Wallace's tactics was to train his men to use shiltrons -- groups of men holding spears out in all directions, forming a defense much like that of a porcupine or hedgehog. In Braveheart, true shiltrons were not used but were replaced by long spears used to defend against the English heavy horse. However, shiltrons had proved very successful in past battles. And so Wallace and his men awaited the English.

Sadly, the English army was much larger than that of the Scots, and despite Wallace's best efforts, the English decimated the Scots at Falkirk. Wallace himself barely escaped the field with his life. Some historians do believe that Robert the Bruce was involved in rescuing Wallace from the battlefield, as shown in the film, but others place the Bruce in Ayrshire, where he attacked Ayr Castle, which was under English occupation. I personally believe that Bruce very well could have been at Falkirk, for he did not attack and burn Ayr Castle until August of 1298.

After the Scots' horrendous loss at Falkirk, Wallace resigned as Guardian, though it is not known if he did so willingly or not. Robert the Bruce and his cousin, John Comyn, the Red, were appointed to replace him in that position. Very little is known of Wallace's activities from the time of his resignation until his capture and eventual execution in 1304. As depicted in Braveheart, Wallace probably did lead several raids into northern England. However, what was not included in the film was the possibility that Wallace went to the Continent to seek help from the Norse, French, and even the Pope. A letter from Philip IV was sent to Rome asking that Wallace be given the help that could be managed. Based upon the letter's date, Wallace was probably in Rome around 1300.

Raids into England continued into 1303, most of them performed in Wallace's style, though we do not know if he was actually a member of these raiding parties. However, these additional forays into England served only to anger Edward I further, so that he concentrated his efforts to find Wallace. Wallace managed, with the help of the many Scots who believed him to be a hero, to elude Edward, at least for a time. But Edward so strongly beat the Scots nobles into submission that Wallace's days were surely numbered.

Though we know nothing of the actual capture of Wallace near Glasgow aside from the fact that it was accomplished by Scotsman John Mentieth (or, as some sources say, by Mentieth's servant), we do know that Wallace was immediately taken to London, as shown in the film, and he arrived there on August 22. He was lead through the streets of Fenchurch the next morning, where the crowds, much as they did in the film, jeered him and pelted him with rotten food and bread. The English had been lead to believe that Wallace was a merciless outlaw who had killed innocent Englishmen and who should be punished.

At Westminster Hall Wallace was forced to stand on a platform and wear what some believe was a crown of thorns. He went before a magisterial panel appointed by Edward. Interestingly, one of the main charges brought against him was the murder of the Sheriff of Lanark, Hazelrig, some eight years before. Another charge was, of course, treason. The charges were read and the sentence pronounced, as was the custom of the day, for outlaws, being outside the law, had no rights; Wallace was not given any opportunity to speak in his own defense.

The sentence was immediately carried out: Wallace was wrapped in oxhide and dragged several miles to Smithfield. Then, as shown in the film, he was hanged until almost unconscious, then he was taken down, tied to a table, disemboweled, and his entrails were set afire while still attached to him. He was possibly castrated, as well. He was finally put out of his unimaginable misery by being beheaded. His body was quartered, the pieces being sent to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, and Berwick, Perth, and Stirling in Scotland, and his head was placed on a pike on London Bridge for all to see, all as a warning to other would-be traitors.

William Wallace's beliefs are clear in what some have said was his favorite bit of verse, originally in Latin:

Freedom is best, I tell thee true, of all things to be won. Then never live within the bond of slavery, my son.

And so it was on the 3rd of August of 1304 that Sir John Mentieth captured William Wallace somewhere near Glasgow. Sadly, Mentieth had been on the side of Scots freedom some time before, but he had grown greedy and had succumbed to Edward I. In reward he was made sheriff of Dumbarton. Though there is no indication that Wallace was on his way to meet The Bruce when he was betrayed, the film was, sadly, accurate in its depiction of his betrayal by one of his own countrymen.

Today one can see several Scots' monuments to their hero: one at Edinburgh Castle, on one side of the entrance (The Bruce occupies the other side); one in Lanark, in a niche above the door of the current parish church facing High Street; and the most famous, in Stirling, at the National Wallace Monument. Wallace lives on in the imagination of Scotland.

Information on the National Wallace Monument, Stirling, Scotland

Open: February and November, 10am - 4pm, weekends only

March - May & October, 10am - 5pm daily

June & September, 10am - 6pm daily

July & August, 9:30am - 6:30pm daily

January & December, closed.

Enquiries, phone (01786) 472140 (in Scotland).

Robert the Bruce 1274-1329

Bruce's tomb

Robert the Bruce, or Robert de Brus, as his Norman surname was spelled, was born on 11 July, 1274. He was the firstborn son of one of the richest and most powerful of the nobles in Scotland. His father had both Norman blood, as the surname suggests, and royal Scots blood in his veins, and his mother was from one of the oldest noble Celtic families in Scotland. Of course Bruce was educated, learning Latin, English, Scots and Gaelic, and he was also trained in warfare, later to become unsurpassed in Europe in his use of the battle axe. Too, he was raised with the knowledge that he would have a claim to the Scots throne if anything ever happened to the Balliol line, the Balliols having taken the throne when the daughter of the last king, Alexander III, died.

Not long after ascending the throne, Balliol submitted to Edward I, giving up his crown and ostensibly giving Edward control of Scotland. Bruce, however, like many other Scots, would not stand for such an affront to Scotland -- being ruled by a foreign power -- especially when such was aggravated by the bloody sacking of Berwick at English hands in March of 1296, and so he eventually called his vassals and knights to stand behind him in rebellion against Edward.

Bruce did not reside at Edinburgh Castle, as portrayed in the film, for it was occupied by the English from 1296 until 1313. And, though the character of the Bruce in Braveheart was depicted as being a man more of words than of battle, that was not the case. While William Wallace and Andrew Murray took control of the heart of Scotland, Bruce gave the English trouble in southwest Scotland. Most historians cannot be sure of Bruce's actions at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but it is thought that he may have been the highest-ranking noble who knighted William Wallace in Selkirk Forest in March of 1298, after the victory at Stirling. As far as the battle of Falkirk, while it is accepted that Bruce supplied forces for the Scots army, most historians cannot agree as to what role he played there, though I do feel he was instrumental in helping Wallace escape from the bloodied field as was shown in the film.

After the loss at Falkirk, once Wallace had resigned as Guardian of Scotland, Bruce and John "The Red" Comyn, Bruce's cousin, were given joint positions as Guardians late that year. There had been trouble before between Bruce and Comyn, but they apparently were able to get along at least for a time. However, the Bruce gave up the Guardianship in 1300, though it is not known why.

Bruce's next unexplained move was his submission to Edward I in 1302. This was depicted rather symbolically in the film by his appearance on the Falkirk battlefield under Edward's banner. Of course, the Bruce had not submitted to Edward at the time of the Battle of Falkirk, but the message is clear nonetheless: he wavered. He wavered from his previous driving desire to free Scotland. There are many theories as to why he did so. Perhaps he wanted to protect his lands, titles and power, as the character of his father suggested in the film. Or perhaps, as his staunchest fans today suggest, he was simply a brilliant man who knew that he could not win just then, and that he had to go to Edward's side in order to survive, though he planned to join the side of rebellion again when he was on his feet again. This seems possible, for eventually he did join the rebels once again.

In 1304, Bruce and Bishop Lamberton surreptitiously allied with one another. Lamberton had been working long and hard to find nobles and clerics alike who were willing to join together to end English occupation and rule of Scotland. Bruce's desire to be allied with the rebels was strengthened when William Wallace was executed in 1305. Interestingly, Bruce included his old rival John Comyn in the secret alliance and workings of the rebellion, promising Comyn lands if he would help Bruce win the crown of Scotland. Sadly, in early 1306, Comyn told Edward I of Bruce's promise. Bruce barely escaped London before being arrested by Edward's men, for he had been tipped off to Comyn's treachery.

Of course Bruce was furious with Comyn, but he did not let on that he was aware of Comyn's betrayal of him. He asked Comyn to meet him at Greyfriar's Church in Dumfries on February 10th. When he realized that his betrayal was known, Comyn moved to attack the Bruce, but Bruce struck first, injuring Comyn. Comyn's uncle then attacked Bruce, but Bruce's brother-in-law killed him. Historians do not agree on what happened next: either Bruce killed Comyn on the altar of the church, or Bruce left and one of his knights killed Comyn there. Whatever happened, Bruce realized that his involvement in Comyn's death could not be hidden, and he made his defiance of Edward I known.

Many Scottish nobles came to openly support Bruce after the death of Comyn. He was crowned king at Scone on 25 March, 1306. However, things began to go awry thereafter, for Bruce's presumption angered Edward I terribly. The English imprisoned both Bishop Wishart and Bishop Lamberton. Bruce and his army were defeated at Methven, and Bruce fled to Rathlin Island, though he was almost found by the English several times as he made his way through the Highlands. Sadly, his wife and daughter and his sisters, whom he had placed in his brother Nigel's hands, were captured and imprisoned, and his brother was beheaded.

Despite such horrible losses, Bruce worked to gather an army. He returned from Rathlin Island in 1307, and though his brothers Thomas and Alexander were executed, he forged ahead and assembled his army.

Edward I died in July of 1307. This was wondrously fortunate for Bruce and the Scots, for Edward II was not as keen on crushing Scotland as his father had been. Bruce had the opportunity, then to continue amassing his forces for the inevitable clash with the English.

That clash did not come until July of 1314 at Bannockburn, when Bruce and his men decimated the English (although, despite the film's depiction, Bruce was not at Bannockburn to have the English accept his kingship -- in fact, he and his men were there besieging Stirling Castle and the English had come to try to end the siege). The Declaration of Arboath was signed in 1320 by many Scottish nobles and bishops and was sent to the Pope (and a portion of it read: "For as long as one hundred of us shall remain alive we shall never in any wise consent to submit to the rule of the English, for it is not for glory we fight...but for freedom alone"), but true independence for Scotland would not be achieved for another 14 years, when the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed in March of 1328 and Edward III formally recognized Bruce as king. However, during that interim, Bruce was able to rule his kingdom, and he was well-liked by his subjects, for he had a reputation of fairness. He was also a faithful Christian, and he granted large sums of money for the rebuilding and upkeep of the great abbeys in southern Scotland which were damaged or sacked by the English.

Bruce was cursed by a skin disease which, today, historians believe was psoriasis or the like, but which for centuries was believed to be leprosy. Bruce himself believed it to be that dread disease, and he felt that it was a punishment for his involvement in the death of John Comyn on a sacred altar. This may explain his generosity to the abbeys. He also asked that, when he died, his heart be taken on crusade to the Holy Land. Therefore, when he died in 1329, his body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey, the resting place of other Scottish monarchs, and his heart was taken by Sir James Douglas to the Holy Land. However, Douglas was killed in one of the many battles of the Crusades before he could reach his destination. The Bruce's heart, carried in a small casket about Douglas' neck, was returned to Scotland and buried in Bruce's beloved Melrose Abbey.

Like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, or Robert I of Scotland, lingers in the minds and hearts of Scotland today because of his fierce determination and his overcoming numerous obstacles and losses in his fight for the freedom of Scotland.

Edward I 1239-1307

Edward I

Edward I, who reigned from 1272-1307, is recognized by most Englishmen as a great king. However, the Scots and Welsh do not necessarily agree with their English neighbors, for Edward was viciously fixated upon subduing Scotland and Wales. Additionally, Jews may not have fond thoughts of him for it was he who had the Jews expelled from England during his reign.

Edward was purportedly a handsome man, and he was very tall, his long legs garnering him the moniker "Longshanks." He married Eleanor of Castile at an early age, and he was very fond of her, so much so that when she died in 1290 in Wales, he had a cross erected at each site where her body was set down during the journey back to London. Those crosses were called chere reine -- or "dear queen" -- crosses. Charing (chere reine) Cross in present day London is the former site of one such cross; hence its name.

Despite his love for his wife and his gentle gestures to her after her death, Edward apparently had a hot temper, sometimes venting his wrath upon his own children. It is said that he had a cruel streak, as well (this being played up in Braveheart). But even though he possessed such character flaws, he was a strong ruler who strengthened the authority of the English monarchy; he made gains for England in France and Wales; and he attempted to subdue Scotland, as well. Additionally, Edward developed England's common law and emphasized Parliament's role in government, a great moment in English history.

His wars at home and abroad cost a great deal, as hinted at in the film with discussions of taxation. He did succeed in defeating Llewelyn "the Last" ap Gruffyd of Wales and taking Llewelyn's principality. The royal lands in Wales were assigned to Edward's heir (the future Edward II) who became the first Prince of Wales. In Scotland Edward was not so fortunate, and he was still waging war against the Scots when he died in 1307 (two years after Wallace was executed). War also broke out in France over Edward's duchy of Aquitaine. Because of the great cost of these campaigns, Edward's nobles objected strongly, and they tried to make him change his policies. In the end, he died leaving many of his endeavors unfinished. However, his obsession with subduing the Scots earned him a nickname, although it was recorded only sometime after his death when someone carved Scotorum malleus -- Hammer of the Scots -- on his tomb.

Edward II 1284-1327

Edward II

The marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France.

Edward II, the first Prince of Wales, was born in Wales in 1284. His parents had a very happy marriage. However, the young prince was raised under the domination of his mother, before she died in 1290, and his sisters, for he had no surviving brothers and his father was frequently absent. When his father was present, he was known to have violent displays of temper. Some historians believe that these factors caused Edward to become very reliant upon his friends, especially Piers Gaveston (perhaps the model for Philip in the film) and the Despensers. This, however, served to be his downfall.

Edward I did not like his son's friends, nor did he trust the younger Edward, and so he did not give his son much opportunity to gain experience in governing. Therefore, when Edward II acceded, he was not well versed in ruling his kingdom.

He inherited many problems from his father's reign, and his weakness as king furthered those problems. He had Scotland to deal with, but he lost her when the Scots were victorious at Bannockburn in 1314. This was a blow to his reputation. Additionally, war with France was ongoing and expensive, alienating the nobles, who had already mistrusted Edward I. All of this combined with Edward's infatuation with Piers Gaveston resulted in the nobles' attempt to control the king's expenditures and to exile Gaveston. Edward II refused to cooperate, which resulted in Gaveston's murder in 1312 (Edward I had been dead for five years by that time; only his ghost could have had anything to do with Gaveston's murder). After Bannockburn, the English nobles were so disgusted with Edward that they seized power under the leadership of the earl of Lancaster. Edward and his new friends, the Despensers, who were father and son, fought back and were the winners of civil war (1321-2). Edward had Lancaster executed for his rebellion.

Despite his success in regaining the crown, Edward continued to anger his nobles, and French gains in Gascony did not help his reputation. Interestingly, it was his wife, who had fled to France with her son the prince, who led an invasion against Edward along with Roger Mortimer. In 1327 Edward was captured, imprisoned, and murdered, purportedly by the use of a hot poker which left no marks on the body, allowing the assertion that he had died of natural causes to be made.

Queen Isabella 1292-1358

Queen Isabella, also known as Isabella of France, as well as the "She-Wolf of France" in her later years, married the future Edward II at a young age (she was 16). The marriage was arranged in the interest of politics by Edward I; hence it is not surprising that the couple was not happy, to say the least.

Edward II was purportedly homosexual, and he spent most of his time with Piers Gaveston and then the Despensers, so Queen Isabella grew resentful. She did bear her husband a son, the future Edward III, but one has to wonder if Edward II's nobles and subjects believed that the child was his. However, Braveheart's depiction of William Wallace being Edward III's father is impossible, for it is quite unlikely that Wallace and Isabella ever met. Additionally, I have seen no speculation or opinion indicating that Edward III was not of Edward II's line. Edward II and Isabella were married in 1308, three years after Wallace's death, and the future Edward III was born in 1312, seven years after Wallace's execution.

As Edward II's grip on the crown grew weaker and his nobles grew more and more dissatisfied, Isabella became further alienated from her husband. She eventually fled to France for protection, taking her son the prince with her. It was only when her husband was at his lowest point with his nobles that Isabella and Roger Mortimer invaded England and captured Edward, in 1327. Edward II was held prisoner for some months but was then murdered, his wife very likely having a role in his death. Isabella retained some power for a time after her husband's death, but the nobles soon grew tired of her and her lover, Mortimer, and she sank into the background once her son was crowned Edward III.

A Timeline of the Lives of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce

If you're wondering, this tartan is Campbell of Breadalbane (fancy).

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This site last updated on August 16, 1996.