Most people know that Braveheart is a film rife with historical inaccuracy. Now that Mel Gibson’s reputation has fallen into the toilet, not many people are willing to take his work seriously. But the fact remains that Braveheart won Best Picture and Best Director in 1996, and no matter how much we might mock the movie, a lot of its “facts” have been lodged firmly in the public consciousness.
We’ll start with the basics: William Wallace was a real dude. We don’t know a great deal about him because he started out poor and most of the facts have been obscured by famous long-form poems. He did have some education but wasn’t taken away by an uncle who showed him the wonders of Europe like William in the film. As a younger son who wouldn’t inherit his father’s land, William would’ve been educated for a position in the church. This means that he probably did know Latin like Gibson’s Wallace, but didn’t use it to seduce ladies. He also must’ve received some sort of military training to defy the English crown so effectively. As movie goers, we love an underdog story, but let’s be real here. Actual Scottish rabble could never defeat a well-trained army. But I guess actual military strategy is not as exciting as painting your face and showing the opposing army your genitals.
Maybe the most burning question people have after they watch Braveheart is whether it’s possible William Wallace fathered Isabella’s baby. In the film, Wallace and Isabella fall in love and make a triumphant reveal to the dying king that her baby’s father is a Scottish rebel. If the baby wasn’t Wallace’s, whose would it be? Certainly not Edward II, who is portrayed as a prissy dandy who wouldn’t even think about touching a woman. The movie provides a suitably creepy explanation: Edward I (Longshanks) intended to impregnate the princess himself. Cue evil villain music.
The truth? William Wallace died in 1305. Princess Isabella, born in about 1295, was around ten years old and still living in France. She married Edward II long after the death of William Wallace. Longshanks ordered the marriage, but died before Edward II brought his bride to Englan. The son the movie proudly touts was actually born in 1312. Unless Wallace or Longshanks were capable of posthumously impregnating someone (highly unlikely), neither of them could’ve been the father. Isabella and Edward II had four children together, all told. Historians widely acknowledge that Edward II had relationships with male favorites that were likely sexual, but he still fulfilled his medieval kingly duty–siring sons.
Okay, so maybe Gibson did some historical fudging to make for a better drama. Maybe getting these details completely wrong is only something history nerds care about. All right, fair enough. What about the approximately 1,000 inaccuracies in the first lines of the film?
I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes. The king of Scotland had died without a son, and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward the Longshanks, claimed the throne of Scotland for himself. Scotland’s nobles fought him, and fought each other, over the crown. So Longshanks invited them to talks of truce – no weapons, one page only. Among the farmers of that shire was Malcolm Wallace, a commoner with his own lands; he had two sons, John and William.
The opening narration is accompanied by a date: 1280 A.D. It’s hard to say exactly when William Wallace was born, but he would have been a young boy in 1280. That’s fine. What’s not fine is that this intro completely misconstrues the actual state of politics at the time. Alexander III (the king who had just died without a son) was still alive in 1280. While his sons did die before him, he didn’t die until 1286. His daughter married the prince of Norway and died giving birth to a daughter, Margaret. The Scottish nobles loyally agreed to make Margaret their queen when she came of age and Longshanks himself engaged his son to her. Margaret died in 1290, but Longshanks made no move on Scotland when she did, and he never actually declared the crown for himself.
Instead, the Scottish nobles began fighting each other for the crown. They asked Longshanks to choose one of them and he agreed on the condition they swear fealty to him. And they did! Turns out, Scottish nobles were really fucking selfish. After naming John Balliol king, Longshanks constantly pressured Scotland to do favors for England. Eventually, the Scottish nobles got pissed enough to create an alliance with France, causing Longshanks to march on Scotland in 1296. A full sixteen years after the beginning of Braveheart allegedly takes place.
But we’re not done yet. Let’s address the last part of these opening lines: Longshanks invited nobles to talk about a truce and among the men invited was Malcolm Wallace. Tradition usually names Malcolm Wallace as William’s father, but there’s a small bit of evidence to the contrary. After the Battle of Stirling Bridge, William named himself as the “son of Alan Wallace.” It seems Malcom had some wealthy and vague connections to Scottish history, making him an appealing candidate for William’s father. Alan Wallace was a commoner we don’t know anything about.
For the record, William had two brothers: John and Malcolm. This means William’s father had three sons. In addition, both John and Malcolm lived long enough to help their brother in his fight against the British.
To the narrator: YOU ARE A LIAR.
There are so, so many other things going on in this movie and no time to discuss them. I’ll leave off with Isabella. Aside from her being aged up, which works for dramatic purposes, the movie completely undercuts the things about this woman that made her fascinating. Later in her life, fed up with her husband, Isabella took on Roger Mortimer as a lover and overthrew Edward II, ruling England as a regent for her son. She was nicknamed the “she-wolf of France” for her fierce personality and ball-busting ways. The historical Isabella is sadly lacking in Braveheart. She shows small sparks of life, but there are far too many shots of her walking dreamily through hallways and thinking about Wallace. Oh, and the principle language in the English court in the 1300s was French, so she and her maid could not have gotten away with all their “secret conversations.”
Can we and should we excuse the film’s inaccuracies and accept it as a piece of drama? To some degree, sure, but I have a problem with the argument that nobody’s allowed to get offended because it’s “just a movie.” Movies can revitalize interest in subjects that have largely been forgotten about. Braveheart sparked a new wave of tourism to Scotland. Some people might end up hearing the real story, but most of us are left with faint memories of evil kings mercilessly killing heroes without knowing where we learned the story. You can still enjoy the story and appreciate the history at the same time. Sometimes, you might even find that you like the truth better than the fiction.
Image via Paramount/Hollywood.com