When Mel Gibson released his Braveheart (1995, dir. Mel Gibson), it proved a worldwide hit. It earned five Academy Awards, and became probably the most successful film about the Middle Ages ever made. Almost 20 years after the fact, a very sizable percentage of my students have seen it. It is also one of the most historically-inaccurate films ever made and a film largely reviled by professional medievalists. Like 300, we’re gonna be feasting on this film for multiple posts. So let’s begin, shall we?
The Scottish Wars of Independence
The political circumstances around Wallace’s rebellion are extremely complex, and can only be summarized here. In 1286, the Scottish king Alexander made the mistake of riding his horse down a rocky slope during a storm, breaking his neck in the process. He left no direct heirs other than a young grand-daughter who died 4 years later, which triggered a major political crisis in Scotland. 13 different nobles put forward claims to the Scottish throne. The two leading contenders were John Balliol and Robert Bruce (often incorrectly termed ‘Robert the Bruce’, a corruption of his French name, Robert de Brus).
Because Scotland was heading for a civil war over this issue, the Scottish nobility invited Edward I of England to arbitrate the dispute. Edward demanded that all of the competitors acknowledge him as the overlord of Scotland. Most of them reluctantly accepted this demand, which was not as outrageous as it sounds today, since Edward’s great-grandfather Henry II had enjoyed this position; in Edward’s view, he was simply claiming a right that had slipped over the past two reigns. In 1292, Edward issued a ruling in favor of John Balliol, a ruling accepted by a majority of the Scottish nobility.
In the years following, Edward treated Balliol as a vassal rather than an equal, and eventually in 1296, Balliol renounced his homage. Edward responded by invading southern Scotland and defeating the Scots at the battle of Dunbar. Balliol surrendered soon after. Edward deposed him and sent him into captivity, and proceeded to take control of much of Scotland.
The Scots, understandably, disliked this, and bristled at English rule. In 1297, rebellions broke out in numerous parts of Scotland. Andrew de Moray (or Andrew Murray) seized control of Moray in northern Scotland and began conquering northeastern Scotland in the name of Balliol. About the same time, William Wallace rebelled and killed the sheriff of Lanarkshire in southern Scotland. Wallace’ rebellion struggled to catch up to Moray’s lead; it’s important to realize that at this point, Moray was the leader of the movement, not Wallace.
Edward responded by sending troops into Scotland. He also sent his vassal Robert Bruce, but Bruce chose to side with the rebels. On September 11th, 1297, the English forces, led by John de Warenne and Hugh Cressingham, encountered the joint forces of Moray and Wallace at Stirling Bridge. The Scots took up a position on boggy ground at the north end of the bridge over the River Forth. A sizeable advance force of English infantry and several hundred cavalry under the leadership of Cressingham advanced over the bridge, but then got slowed down by the boggy ground. The Scottish forces seized control of the north end of the bridge and effectively cut the advance force off from the rest of the army. Because of the narrowness of the bridge, the English were unable to get the rest of their army across the river, with the result that the advance force was slaughtered. Warenne chose to retreat, ordering the destruction of the bridge. The unfortunate Cressingham was killed and his body flayed; legend holds that Wallace had a baldrick made out of his skin. Andrew Moray suffered fatal injuries in the battle and died a few weeks later, leaving Wallace as the dominant figure in the war. Wallace invaded northern England and plundered it. After that, he was knighted and appointed Guardian of Scotland.
Chris Brown, in his William Wallace: The True Story of Braveheart, offers a somewhat different interpretation of the battle based on the idea that the bridge opened out onto a narrow spit of land between two bends in the river. In his view, what the Scots did was simply occupy the neck of the spit, preventing the English from continuing their crossing and forcing the cavalry back into the infantry. In this view, it was not the Scots who prevented the cavalry from retreating, but the English infantry and the narrowness of the bridge. It’s a plausible scenario. The chief problem is that archaeologists have not yet identified the location of the bridge, which makes a definitive interpretation of the battle difficult. There is also disagreement over whether the English made a second attempt at crossing the bridge or not.
The primary Scottish tactic during the war was the pike schiltrom (sometimes called a ‘hedgehog’). This was a formation in which a large number of men armed with pikes (essentially long spears) positioned in a circular or square formation with men facing outward in all directions. This presents a wall of pikes no matter what direction the schiltrom is approached from, and since horses will not run into an unmoving object, it provided very good defense against the dominant knightly cavalry of the 13th century. At Stirling Bridge, the Scottish pikemen charged to the bridge and then formed up a schiltrom, thus effectively separating the two halves of the English army. (If you prefer Brown’s reconstruction, they formed their schiltrom at the neck of the spit.)
However, the schiltrom was essentially a static, defensive formation. Once it had formed up, it could not move quickly because it was only effective as long as it maintained its outward-facing orientation; to move, men on one side would have to walk backwards while keeping in formation. Under Brown’s reconstruction, it could have advanced slowly, since it would not have had to defend its rear, but even if it was entirely forward-facing, it would have to maintain its close formation.
The schiltrom was part of the so-called Infantry Revolution of the 14th century; in the decades after Wallace, it was to help drastically reduce the effectiveness of cavalry. But Wallace and his men were at the forefront of this development, before people had really figured out how to best use pikes.
Stirling Bridge hurt Edward’s war effort, but it was hardly a decisive battle. In the long run, it changed very little strategically. In 1298, Edward came north with another army. Initially, Wallace adopted guerrilla tactics, harassing Edward’s forces but not giving battle. Edward contemplated falling back to Edinburgh but then he got word that Wallace was encamped at Falkirk just a few miles away. Wallace seems to have wanted to retreat from the English forces, which substantially outnumbered his troops, but his men, apparently grown overconfident, insisted on fighting. Wallace took up a position between a woods and a small river. Before the battle, Wallace is reported to have told his men, “I have brought you to the (dancing) ring, hop (dance) if you can.” Not exactly an inspiring speech.
Wallace’ infantry were formed into schiltroms, supplemented by a modest force of cavalry and archers. Edward had a significant force of cavalry and a large number of longbowmen, as well as a sizeable force of infantry.
The English cavalry scattered the Scottish archers but could not penetrate the schiltroms. The Scottish cavalry attempted a counter-attack, but were badly outnumbered by the English cavalry and broke and fled. Then Edward brought forward his archers and proceeded to demolish the schiltroms, which were unable to respond effectively to missile fire without losing their formation. Once the Scottish pikemen had been substantially thinned out, the cavalry charged in and finished them off. Wallace fled into the woods. His reputation ruined, he resigned the Guardianship of Scotland.
Over the next several years, Edward gradually got the upper hand in Scotland. Bruce submitted to Edward in 1301. In 1304, after Wallace was defeated again in a minor encounter, most of the Scottish leadership surrendered, although Wallace did not. Finally in 1305, Wallace was captured near Glasgow. He was put on trial, found guilty, and publicly executed; he was hanged, cut down while still alive, emasculated, disemboweled, beheaded, and cut into four pieces. His head was put on a spike at the Tower Bridge, and his limbs were sent to Scotland for display. That brought Wallace’ rebellion to an end, but not the Wars of Independence.
It’s important to realize that there is no evidence that William Wallace was a particularly skilled general. He only ever fought two major battles, and the victory at Stirling Bridge may have been due as much to Moray’s leadership as Wallace’. He was more successful at guerrilla warfare than open-field battles. At best, Stirling Bridge suggests that he was capable of finding a intelligent way to minimize the English advantage, but attacking when the enemy is disorganized and in a bad position does not require particular genius, just the ability to take advantage of an opportunity. He was smart enough to realize that he was unlikely to win at Falkirk, but lacked the leadership skills to get his men to obey him. In the end, Wallace was a failure as a general; his major contribution to Scottish history was in helping start the process of resistance to English rule, not in delivering a major victory.
Braveheart’s Battle of Stirling Bridge
Braveheart offers versions of both Stirling Bridge and Falkirk, but they’re very different from the historical battles. The first battle takes place on a small plain with low hills and a forest behind the English. There is no river or bridge in sight, and the ground is firm, rather than boggy. Wallace (Moray never even appears in the film) arrays his infantry in a simple line. He instructs his small cavalry force to ride off; in reality this is a flanking maneuver, but it’s intended to trick the English into thinking the cavalry has fled. The English command a mixed force of cavalry, archers, and infantry.
The English commander (who I’m going to assume is Hugh de Cressingham; I’ve watched this movie several times and I’m never clear on this question, but perhaps I’ve just missed something) orders his archers to open fire on the Scottish position, who are taunting them and flashing their genitals at them. The archers inflict a few casualties, but the Scottish miraculously parry most of the arrows with their shields. This is extremely unlikely.
After a second round of Scottish taunting and English arrows failing to achieve very much, Wallace’ cavalry rides off and Cressingham orders a cavalry charge (which is done with a properly dressed line, in contrast to Olivier’s Henry V). The Scots, however, have a trick up their kilts; they have secretly brought pikes with them, which are laid on the ground where the English don’t see them. Thus the cavalry winds up charging not a disorganized mass of general infantry troops but a pike wall that kills their horses and shatters their charge. The Scots massacre the English cavalry, at which point Cressingham panics and orders the infantry to charge in and a formless brawl ensues as both sides charge each other. Then the Scottish cavalry reappears, and the English forces are completely routed; Cressingham is decapitated in battle.
Could a battle like this have happened around 1300? Yes, given a few assumptions. One of the basic rules of medieval warfare is that the side that advances its infantry is at a disadvantage, since the infantry is likely to lose formation (you can see this when the two infantries charge each other at a full run). So the Scots taunt the English in an effort to get them to advance. Instead, Cressingham orders his longbowmen to attack the Scots, who as infantry are going to be particularly vulnerable to archery (they either have to stand their ground and take the hits or advance and risk losing formation). After two flights the English are winning; the Scots are slowly taking casualties and have done no harm to the English. Cressingham’s obvious tactic is to continue exactly what he’s doing because it’s working.
But then we reach the first assumption; for this battle to happen, Cressingham must be a complete idiot and overconfident. When the Scottish cavalry rides off, he foolishly thinks he’s routed them and sends in his cavalry. Had Cressingham been a more prudent general, he would have kept up the missile fire and considered the possibility that the Scots were trying to flank him. The movie present Wallace’ flanking tactic as being extremely clever when in fact it’s actually a pretty basic tactic. Remember, the English have a forest behind them in the movie; they would have chosen that deliberately to prevent a flanking maneuver.
Then we get to the second assumption. The film suggests that it is possible for a pike unit to hide its weapons on the ground until the last minute and therefore trick cavalry into charging it. That’s a huge assumption, and one I’m fairly dubious of. Pikes have to be positioned and braced firmly on the ground using one foot as a sort of backstop so that the pike won’t slide on impact. That’s a complex maneuver, and not one that can quickly done, especially by troops that have never used pikes before (the film shows Wallace dreaming up the pike strategy the night before the battle). And these are cumbersome wooden poles a couple inches around, rather than actual pikes. Also, the film cheats. In all the earlier shots of the Scottish infantry, there are no pikes lying on the ground, but they magically appear just when the Scots are ready to use them. In reality, the English would probably have spotted the pikes on the ground and figured out what the Scots were up to. So the film’s trick is wildly implausible. But if we assume that somehow this trick could be pulled off, what follows is reasonable.
At this point, Cressingham sends in his infantry. A smarter tactic would have been to stand his ground, resume archery fire, and force the Scots to charge a defensive line under withering arrow fire. Instead, Cressingham panics and orders his infantry to advance. Wallace rather foolishly does the same thing, and the result is a completely chaotic battle in which the Scots have nullified most of the English advantages but have also lost their own unit cohesion. Had Wallace been a skilled commander, he would have stood his ground and let the English infantry charge his pike wall; instead, he gets a lot of his men killed. Perhaps he knows that he barely has control of his army and figures they’ll charge anyway.
So, assuming that Cressingham was an incompetent general and assuming that the trick with the pikes could be pulled off (which it probably couldn’t), this battle could have happened. In contrast to 300’s Thermopylae, this battle makes sense on some level, if you grant a couple of unlikely possibilities. One of Gibson’s concerns is to depict the battle as an extremely chaotic and frightening event, which is a fair assessment of some medieval battles. In this, he is drawing off the same tradition that Kenneth Branagh tapped into a few years earlier in his Henry V.
But Braveheart’s Stirling is certainly not Stirling Bridge, where Wallace and Moray won because they struck the English army at a vulnerable moment and took up a strong position that exploited the narrowness of the bridge and the bogginess of the terrain.
In a previous post, I said that the right question to ask is not “Is this film historically accurate?” but rather “Why is this film being inaccurate about this particular detail?”, and Braveheart illustrates this principle on several occasions. Why did Gibson make up a battle instead of trying to recreate Stirling Bridge the way it happened? On the surface, it seems like an odd decision. The name of the battle is Stirling Bridge, and it’s a fairly well-known event, at least in Scotland, so you’d think that the omission of the bridge would be a problem. And the Scottish tactics at Stirling Bridge were intelligent; the film could have showcased Wallace’ tactical cunning in a more plausible way than it does.
Years ago I saw an interview with someone involved in the film (I don’t think it was Gibson; it may have been the director of photography) who claimed that they couldn’t find an appropriate bridge to use. This is a fairly silly thing to say, since Hollywood routinely builds sets like that all the time.
I think a much more likely reason has to do with how Gibson wanted to present the battle. As I’ve mentioned, in reality, Wallace and Moray won Stirling Bridge because they made good use of the terrain and the bridge. They cut the English forces in two, held off the infantry that had not yet crossed the bridge, and slaughtered the cavalry, which couldn’t maneuver effectively on boggy ground and couldn’t retreat back to the bridge. But that doesn’t fit Gibson’s narrative of Wallace, whom he constantly presents as a plucky, outnumbered underdog who wins his fights through sheer moral force. Showing the bridge would force Gibson to acknowledge that Wallace won because his control of the bridge kept him from being outnumbered; it would undermine the plucky underdog quality Gibson was trying to create. So it seems to me that Gibson’s version of this battle is inaccurate because accuracy at this moment would have violated the point he was trying to make about who Wallace was and who the Scots are as a people. He consciously re-wrote the past to achieve a particular effect.
After Stirling, Wallace lays siege to York, which never happened, and captures it. He executes Edward’s unnamed nephew and sends his head to Edward. Edward’s daughter-in-law, Isabella meets Wallace and warns him that Edward plans to invade, so Wallace is able to prepare for the forthcoming battle.
In Gibson’s version of the battle of Falkirk, the battle again takes place on a small plain surrounded by hills and forest. There is no Westquarter Burn. The Scots prepare the ground by pouring pitch on the ground.
Both sides line up their troops in a line. There is no sign of the Scottish schiltroms. Edward disdainfully decides not to use his archers, and instead orders his Irish mercenaries (of whom there were none at the actual Falkirk) to advance, with the stated purpose of getting them killed to soften up the Scots. The mercenaries, however, switch sides because of Wallace’ cleverness in getting the Irish to support him. Then he orders his archers to use fire arrows to light the pitch on fire after the English have advanced their forces. The English cavalry breaks, and the two infantries collide (again, ignoring the rule to never advance your infantry if you can avoid it). Wallace again seems to be winning.
However, the Scottish cavalry refuses to engage, and Edward explains that he has bribed its leaders. The film presents this as a villainous trick, ignoring the fact that Wallace has just done the same thing. Apparently it’s ok when Wallace lures the mercenaries to his side, but it’s evil when Edward does it with the cavalry. Edward callously orders his archers to open fire even though it will mean killing lots of English soldiers. This spells Wallace’ defeat. Wounded (he pretty clearly has an arrow in his lung, which would have killed him fairly soon after the battle), he charges Edward’s position, but is intercepted by Robert Bruce, who helps him get to safety.
So, as with Stirling Bridge, Gibson’s Falkirk is entirely wrong. There are no schiltroms. Gibson’s Wallace uses fire where the real one didn’t. Gibson’s Wallace advances his troops when the real one didn’t. Gibson’s Wallace schemes to get the Irish to switch sides and his Edward does the same to the Scots, when in reality neither of them did anything of the sort. The historical flight of the Scottish cavalry becomes conscious treachery. Instead of fleeing in defeat, Gibson’s Wallace fights against all odds until he cannot fight any longer and must be taken off the field against his will.
It’s easy to see why Gibson’s depiction of Falkirk is inaccurate. The historical Wallace was not a tactical genius; he favored guerrilla tactics; his victory at Stirling Bridge probably owed as much to Moray’s skill as a commander as to his. Reluctant to fight but forced to by his troops, he adopted a static position that was bound to lose the battle because of the English archers, and when he lost, he did the smart thing and ran away.
But once again that runs directly counter to Gibson’s preferred vision of William Wallace. Gibson’s Wallace is a clever commander who makes effective use of stratagems and loses only because he is betrayed by a corrupt nobility who are willing to be the English king’s lackeys. This betrayal is heightened by the rank immorality of the cinematic Edward, who is arrogant, treacherous, and willing to sacrifice his own troops for no good reason (and that’s all just in this scene). The Scots had victory within their grasp, and lose it because they lacked moral resolve, not because the English were better at warfare.
In a future post, I’ll talk about how these battles fit into the wider message of the film. Here, it’s enough to say that there is a sharp disjunction between the historical battles and the blatantly moralistic battles that Gibson presents. There is no reason he could not have shown the battles as they actually happened, except that it didn’t fit his purpose to do so.
Want to Know More?
Although it pains me to admit it, Braveheartis readily available on Amazon.
There are a couple books on William Wallace, but the only one I’ve seen that is worth anything is William Wallace: The Man and the Mythby Chris Brown. Although I’m not sure that Brown is a scholar, the book is well-researched and does a good job laying out what we actually know about Wallace, which is less than a lot of people seem to think. The best work on Edward I is Michael Prestwich’s Edward I (The English Monarchs Series). If you feel you need some context for Wallace’ rebellion, take a look at Michael Brown’s The Wars of Scotland, 1214-1371 (New Edinburgh History of Scotland).
Osprey Books publishes a lot of carefully researched and beautifully illustrated works on specific military campaigns and weapon systems, and their book on Stirling Bridge and Falkirk 1297-98: William Wallace’s rebellion (Campaign)does a good job of surveying Wallace’s military career.