I hate Braveheart (1995, dir. Mel Gibson). I make no secret of this fact. I find poorly written, laughably inaccurate, and offensive in a number of ways. But that’s mostly because of how badly it mangles the historical facts it claims to be depicting. But there’s another way to approach this film, one that makes it less problematic for scholars, and that’s as an adaptation of a piece of medieval literature.
Most people assume that Braveheart is based directly on the historical events it purports to depict. But it’s not. It’s actually based on a late 15th century Scottish poem known as Blind Harry’s Wallace. So what the film claims is a historical movie is actually an adaptation of a medieval poem about Scottish history; it’s not history at all. This isn’t the only time that Mel Gibson has pulled this trick. His Passion of the Christ (2004) is not, as most people assume, based on the Gospel narratives about the life of Jesus Christ; it’s actually based on The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, an early 19th century account of the visions of a German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (who, perhaps not coincidentally, was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004). There’s some uncertainty whether she or a poet she knew, Clemens Brentano, was the real author of the text, but a close comparison of the film to the Gospel narratives and The Dolorous Passion demonstrates that a number of scenes were clearly taken from the latter text.
Blind Harry’s Wallace
The Wallace of Blind Harry is a long narrative poem in rhyming couplets, written sometimes around 1479 or a little later by a Scottish makar (court poet) known as Blind Harry. Little is known of Blind Harry (or ‘Hary’, as the Scottish records often spell his name), other than that he was employed at the court of Scottish king James IV; he seems to have died in 1492 or 93. The earliest surviving edition of his Wallace dates from 1488, but internal evidence suggests a composition date about a decade earlier.
Blind Harry claims that his source for the poem was a biography of William Wallace written by John Blair, a childhood friend of Wallace who became his personal chaplain and confessor and later supposedly wrote his biography at the request of the bishop of Dunkeld. There is no evidence for such a text actually existing, but it is not implausible that a Scottish bishop might have commissioned such a work. However, medieval authors were known for inventing sources in an attempt to make their fiction more respectable, so the fact that this biography is unknown outside of Blind Harry’s reference to it makes its existence dubious. Harry clearly mined another narrative poem, John Barbour’s Bruce, for material, often reassigning deeds done by Robert Bruce to William Wallace. Harry also seems to have borrowed things from the Alliterative Morte Arthure, particularly Wallace’ penchant for miraculous dreams, and from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. So the Wallace is not really an accurate historical account.
The Wallace (which, if you want, you can read here, either in its original Scots English or in a modern synopsis) depicts William Wallace as a classic example of a late medieval chivalrous knight. The emphasis is on Wallace’ amazing prowess and his deep hatred to the English, who are depicted as the natural enemies of the Scots.
Harry opens by inventing a family history for his hero, but there’s little evidence that it’s accurate; he names Wallace’ father as Malcolm, whereas in one of Wallace’ own writings, he says his father’s name was Alan. The name Wallace, incidentally, means ‘foreigner’ or ‘Welshman’, which suggests that his ancestry was not of Scottish origin. Wallace’ father sent him to his uncle for education at Dundee.
Much of the early portion of the poem is given over to stories of Wallace killing Englishmen. Eventually he meets and marries a noblewoman. (As an aside, the 18th century edition of the poem that I’m working from names this woman as ‘Miranda’, a name that is otherwise unattested in medieval sources. Most scholars credit William Shakespeare with the invention of this name is his Tempest. The name, however, is Latin; it means “wonderful, admirable”. So either Shakespeare did not invent the name or the 18th century editor inserted the name into the text, perhaps because Blind Harry didn’t give the woman a name. Either way, Miranda would have been a much better name than ‘Murron’, which makes the woman sound like a cattle plague.)
Wallace prepares to make war against England. Miranda begs to go with him because she fears the evil English Sheriff Heselrig, who killed her brother. Unfortunately, while Wallace is off making plans to fight, Heselrig kills Miranda. This provokes Wallace into slaughtering all the Englishmen in Lanarkshire. This is quite typical of Blind Harry’s William Wallace; he slaughters at the drop of a hat. Sometimes he has good reason to, as here, but earlier in the poem, he kills a Englishman for trying to take his knife.
Wallace defeats King Edward several times and conquers various castles before defeating Edward at Stirling Bridge. He drives the English out of Scotland, and then marches into England, sieges and captures York, and beheads Edward’s nephew, the governor of the city.
Then the unnamed English queen (who would be Edward I’s wife) comes to Wallace and tries to make peace. Wallace refuses because he doesn’t trust ether her or Edward, but she gives him a large sum of gold anyway, basically because he’s the hero of the poem. Wallace wanders off into France for a while, then returns to Scotland and beats the English several more times, in the process massacring a hundred men who have taken shelter in a church, as well as eighty Englishmen returning from a wedding. Did I mention that Wallace really dislikes the English?
The English defeat the Scots at Falkirk, mostly because a Scottish noble tricks Wallace into sitting out the battle (so Edward wins at Falkirk, but not by beating Wallace). Wallace confronts Robert Bruce, who fails to persuade him to submit to Edward; instead Wallace persuades Bruce to stop supporting Edward. Wallace returns to France, where he conquers Edward’s French lands, but in the meantime, Edward conquers all of Scotland with the help of a treacherous Scottish noble.
Wallace returns to Scotland, more fighting ensues, and then Wallace is betrayed and captured. Robert Bruce returns to Scotland and, inspired by Wallace, takes up the rebellion. Wallace is taken to London where he is executed after being given a comforting glimpse of a psalter he used to carry.
If this summary seems long, I’m condensing a LOT. Harry might have been blind, but he certainly wasn’t mute.
The number of factual errors in the Wallace are staggering. Wallace only actually fought two major battles, he never sacked York or killed the king’s nephew, he never met Edward’s wife (since Edward’s first wife was dead and he had not yet remarried at this point in the poem), he never conquered Edward’s French holdings, and so on.
But from the summary, it ought to be clear how much of this material found its way into Braveheart, including Wallace’ education at the hands of his uncle, the killing of Wallace’ wife, the siege of York and the beheading of Edward’s nephew, Wallace’ defeat at Falkirk being attributed to treachery, Wallace’ role in inspiring Robert Bruce, and the general Anglophobia of the poem. In the Wallace, Wallace has miraculous dreams, whereas in Braveheart, Wallace has a dreamlike encounter with his dead wife, and the comforting psalter at his execution is turned into a comforting glimpse of his dead wife. Since none of these events are rooted in history, it’s clear that the screenwriter, Randall Wallace, was drawing off of Blind Harry’s work. He condensed the narrative and removed all the references to things Robert Bruce actually accomplished later. He pared out the material about Wallace in France, and inserted the material about ‘Primae Noctis’ and Edward II’s homosexuality to make the English both more villainous and more pathetic.
Blind Harry has Wallace meet Edward I’s wife. Braveheart changes that to a meeting with Edward’s daughter-in-law and throws in a romance with her, never pausing to consider that this renders Wallace’s encounters with his dead wife rather problematic since he’s cheating on the wife who is coming back from the dead for him.
So while the film makes poor sense as history, it makes considerable sense as an adaptation of a late medieval poem. Why then was Braveheart marketed as based on history rather than based on Blind Harry’s Wallace? For three reasons, I think. First, Blind Harry’s Wallace isn’t a particularly well-known text; studio executives probably calculated, correctly, that there wasn’t a big market for seeing cinematic adaptations of obscure medieval Scottish poems. Second, Hollywood has understood for some time that modern audiences find ‘based on history’ to be a powerfully appealing marketing tactic. Finally, Blind Harry’s Wallace is based, albeit loosely, on history, so in a way, they’re just cutting out the intervening poem, even if that greatly obscures the historical facts.
Nevertheless, I find the idea that Braveheart is a cinematic adaptation of a fictional story comforting. It helps me watch the film without flying into a rage at its near constant glaring historical inaccuracies (Sharon Krossa counts 18 errors in the first two and half minutes of the film alone). What doesn’t work as history works to some extent as chivalrous romance. It’s still poorly written, laughably inaccurate, and offensive, but just less so. So next time you watch Braveheart (if you have to), watch it the way you’d watch the Errol Flynn Robin Hood or John Boorman’s Excalbur, as cinematic fiction, not cinematic history.
Want to Know More?
Blind Harry’s Wallace is readily available in paperback. It’s not really more accurate than Braveheart, but it’s a better work of fiction.