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In Braveheart, Wallace spends most of the battles wielding an enormous sword, far larger than the other swords in the film, so large that it looks almost comical in some scenes. So it’s worth a brief discussion, although I’m hardly an expert on medieval weaponry.

A promo shot of Wallace and his sword

A promo shot of Wallace and his sword

Late medieval soldiers sometimes used a sword that was much longer than conventional swords, typically with a blade that was 3 to 3 ½ feet long and with a hilt long enough to accommodate two hands. These swords have gone by a variety of names that all designate roughly the same weapon (with some differences, for example in the hilt and cross-piece, or the length): longswords, hand-and-half swords, bastard swords, claymores (a Scottish term meaning literally “great sword”); in the period they were typically known as swords of war or great war swords, so I’m just going to call them great swords.

Although there are a few early precursors, great swords were primarily used in the period from roughly 1350 to 1550. Although extremely long, these swords were light enough that they could be wielded either one-handed or two handed; the latter allows for greater force. While it could be wielded from horseback, it was probably best suited to combat on foot. They seem to have been most popular in Germany and Italy, where whole systems of sword-fighting were built around them. In battle, great swords were particularly useful when confronting units of pikemen (such as Wallace’ schiltroms), because the length and force of the sword make it particularly good to use against pikes; it can be used to knock the pike out of the way and then step in within the pike’s range, making it hard for the pikeman to respond. Using a great sword with a shield is difficult, and in general, great swords worked best with plate armor, which lessened the need for a shield and which therefore freed up the off-hand for use with the great sword.

Two examples of a great sword in a late medieval manuscript

Two examples of a great sword in a late medieval manuscript

So it’s fairly clear that Wallace is unlikely to have used a great sword in his battles. They had not really become common yet, they required heavier armor than Wallace is likely to have worn, and they are better used on foot whereas Wallace was almost certainly fighting primarily from horseback. So is this an example of Braveheart’s rather cavalier relationship to the historical facts?

Not quite. The film was almost certainly relying for its ideas about Wallace’ sword on the so-called Wallace Sword, a weapon reputed to have belonged to Wallace. In 1505, King James IV paid for an armorer to provide a new hilt, pommel, scabbard and belt for a sword said to be Wallace’ sword. That sword may be the one given to the Wallace Monument in the late 19th century, where it is now on display.

The so-called Wallace Sword

The so-called Wallace Sword

So at the start of the 16th century, the king of Scotland possessed a sword thought to be Wallace’ sword. But a close examination of the weapon now at the Wallace Monument has revealed that it contains parts of four different swords, and the blade may in fact be three separate pieces welded together. Much of the sword has features that post-date Wallace by more than a century, but one part does seem to be typical of 13th century swords. So it is possible that part of the current blade is genuinely Wallace’ sword, but the sword as it now exists was not one that could have existed in Wallace’ day. If Wallace did use a piece of this sword, it would not have been a great sword but a much shorter sword typical of the late 13th century. Great swords were more common in Scotland in the 16th century, so it would make sense if someone at that time had taken Wallace’ genuine sword and combined it with parts of other swords to make a weapon that looked more like what 16th century Scots would have expected a heroic Scotsman to use.

So Braveheart used a replica of an actual sword that is reputed to be Wallace’ sword, even though that sword is almost certainly not the sword Wallace actually used, but may contain a piece of one he did use. As the late great Allan Sherman once said, it’s a genuine copy of a fake Dior.

Of course, if you want to get all Freudian on this movie (which I do), we can see other reasons why Mel Gibson might want to spend the movie waving such a long sword around…

Want to Know More?

I’m not sure there’s much more to be said about the Wallace Sword, unless you’re way more into weapons than I am. So let me just repeat the recommendations from the last post.

Braveheartis 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.

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.