Braveheart, Droit du Seigneur, Edward II, Isabella of France, ius prima noctis, Medieval Scotland, Mel Gibson, Movies I Hate, Sophie Marceau, William Wallace
One of the frequently remarked-on inaccuracies of Braveheart (1995, dir. Mel Gibson) deals with Princess Isabella (Sophie Marceau). In the film, Isabella is an adult woman (her age is unclear; Marceau was 29 at the time, but Isabella seems to be younger, perhaps early 20s), who gets married to Prince Edward (the future Edward II) during the course of the film. She falls in love with Wallace (Mel Gibson), has sex with him, and at the end of the film taunts Edward I by telling him that she is carrying Wallace’ baby and that her child will eventually supplant Edward II as king.
In reality, Isabella was born in 1295, and since the film is set around 1297, that means she was 2 years old and living in France at the time. She married Edward II in 1308, at the age of 13, and hadn’t even been to England when Wallace rebelled. So this romance is entirely fictitious. It’s easy to discount this as simply the sort of obligatory romance that every Hollywood action film has to include; Gibson, in the DVD commentary track, dismisses it as just exactly this. But if we assumed that, we’d be entirely wrong. The romance between Isabella and Wallace is, in fact, critical to the entire film; without it, this movie couldn’t have been made in 1990s Hollywood.
Trigger Warning: This post discusses rape.
A Bummer of an Action Film On the surface, Wallace’ story is poor fodder for Hollywood. He was a rebel in a political dispute that happened 700 years ago that Americans would not have had any real understanding of. He had one major military success that wasn’t fully his, got defeated at his next major battle, and was eventually captured, tortured and executed. The end.
In other words, Wallace lost. His rebellion achieved comparatively little of lasting impact, although it helped to stir up Scottish resistance against the English and laid seeds for Robert Bruce to harvest more than a decade later. That’s not the sort of story that Hollywood likes to tell. It rarely offers films in which the hero dies at the end (among recent action films, Gladiator is the only other one I can think of off the top of my head), but if the hero dies, he must certainly die victorious.
So how can one pull a serious victory out of Wallace’ story? The film certainly builds up the idea that Wallace inspired Bruce to make his rebellion, but that’s still a fairly intangible sort of victory by Hollywood standards. To supplement that, Braveheart’s screen-writer Randall Wallace (note the last name) added the Wallace-Isabella romance so that Wallace can impregnate Isabella and thereby eventually supplant the villainous Edward I and his pathetic son Edward II.
Quite simply, Wallace wins by knocking up Isabella. His military victory is entirely irrelevant to the story, except insofar as it inspires Isabella’s love. In other words, what actually matters in the film in terms of the ending is Wallace’s sexual prowess, not his military prowess. Without the Wallace-Isabella romance, Wallace simply loses, and that’s not acceptable in a Hollywood film. So while the film pretends to be a war movie, it’s actually a porn film in which the whole plot is a contest to see who’s get to boink the leading lady.
Lights! Camera! *Ahem* Action! Once you start to realize what the real plot of the film is, it begins to read very differently. It’s really about a competition to see who is more sexually potent, the Scottish or the English. Early on, King Edward (Patrick McGoohan) announces that “the problem with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots!” and then declares that he will remedy this problem by reinstituting what the film calls ius prima noctis. This “right of the first night”, more properly called by the French term droit du seigneur (“the lord’s right”), was a fictitious notion that medieval nobles had the legal right to sleep with a peasant woman on her marriage night before her husband did. It’s completely fictitious; no medieval noble every enjoyed a formal legal right like that. But as the movie presents it, it is this fact that triggers the Scottish rebellion. The Scots rebel because the English want to sleep with Scottish women.
But the film thinks that this mass rape of Scottish women is not enough to have inspired Wallace; his rebellion has to be personal. So in the film, Wallace rebels not because of ius prima noctis but because an English soldier tries to rape Wallace’s wife, Murron (Catherine McCormack). The soldier is unsuccessful; Murron fights so hard he’s unable to accomplish his goal, but she gets arrested and executed. So the film doubly determines the film’s rebellion as being about the English desire to have sex with Scottish women.
That sets up a theme of sexual competition between the Scots and the English, in which the issue is which side is sexually superior. And the answer to that question is fairly clear. The Scots are sexually skilled and the English are sexually inept. The English soldier fails to conquer Murron. Later in the film, Isabella’s handmaiden comments that she spent the whole night with an English noble, but all he did was talk, because “the English do not know what to do with their tongues”. In contrast, Wallace is so sexually compelling, Isabella falls in love with him before she meets him; in one of the few actually medieval-feeling details of the film, the first time she hears his name, she is so overwhelmed she has to sit down. And, of course, Wallace spends an awful lot of time waving that anachronistic great sword around…
Ok, so let’s get all Freudian. The film repeatedly invokes sexual imagery during its battle scenes. I’ve already explored how badly wrong the film’s version of the battle of Stirling Bridge is. Instead of the historical battle, the film’s battle is structured as a series of efforts to prove sexual prowess. The Scots taunt the English by flipping up their kilts and displaying their penises; the English, being dressed differently, can’t do the same. Instead, they respond with a couple volleys of arrows that mostly fail to penetrate the Scots, although one Scot is hit in the ass. The Scots respond with further sexual taunting, and the English retaliate by making a rather foolish lance change. Yet this attempt to penetrate the Scots also fails, because the Scots successfully penetrate the English with their spears. During the battle, there’s a brief shot of a Scotsman driving his sword into an Englishman’s groin, symbolically penetrating and castrating him at the same time.
Lest you think I’m reading too much into this, shortly before the battle scene, Wallace meets with his men in a forest to discuss strategy. Hamish, one of Wallace’s lieutenants, makes a joke about the size of his dick, just after Wallace looks up at the long, straight tree-trunks around them and hits upon the idea of making them into spears. So the film pretty much tells us that the spears are really Scottish cocks.
Another example of the film’s Freudianism comes a little after the battle of Stirling. Wallace’ men lay siege to York (which didn’t happen), and they take a battering ram to the gate. They struggle to force their way in, especially since the English are pouring flaming oil on them, but Wallace jumps in to lend a hand. A moment later, the gates are knocked in and there is an eruption of fire. I dare you to watch that scene and not think of ejaculation.
See what I mean?
So for Braveheart, war is all about sex. Wallace is fighting Edward I, but he’s not just fighting him militarily. The two men are locked in a competition to see who gets to sleep with Princess Isabella. The film repeatedly suggests that Edward I has carnal thoughts about his daughter-in-law. In fact, when he declares the revival of ius prima noctis, he does so while he’s looking straight at Isabella. His lust for her inspires the actions that lead to the Scottish rebellion. But Edward doesn’t get to sleep with Isabella; Wallace does. Edward may fantasize about boning her, but Wallace is the one who actually knocks her up. That’s why Isabella’s pregnancy is such a powerful symbol; Wallace gets to have what Edward wants, and the long-term consequences are that Edward’s line is supplanted by Wallace’ seed.
And Here’s Where the Film Gets Ugly In many Hollywood films, the female lead is the prize for victory. But not in Braveheart. Wallace gets Isabella, but he doesn’t get to keep her, because he’s executed. Instead of being the prize, Isabella is just a tool for Wallace’ victory (along with Wallace’ tool, that is). The film treats her like a brood mare or a field to be plowed and sown with seed.
However, unlike her namesake in Ironclad, Isabella has some real agency. She chooses to offer Wallace strategic information, and at the end of the film she announces her intentions to destroy Edward I’s family line. The problem, however, is that her agency is entirely devoted to helping and avenging Wallace.
The film’s only other important female character, Wallace’s wife Murron (where the hell did Randall Wallace come up with that name? It makes her sound like a cattle disease. The woman’s real name was allegedly Marion.), is similarly devoted to Wallace. She is sexually faithful to him to the point of preferring death over being raped. Obviously a woman might make such a difficult choice even if she weren’t committed to her husband, but Murron’s fidelity is reinforced in other scenes. Her faithfulness is supernaturally strong; she returns to him twice after her death, both times to offer him reassurance at difficult moments. While the film is ambiguous about whether Wallace is just dreaming her up or whether her ghost is actually there, the overall impression is that she’s come back from the dead because of her love for him.
So consider what the film has done with its two female characters. Wallace’s wife is intensely, supernaturally, faithful to him. She seemingly returns from the dead twice because even though she’s dead, she’s still his wife and he needs her. Wallace, however, feels no such obligation to Murron, because he sleeps with Isabella once Murron is dead. She is faithful to him even though he is not faithful to her, and her second visitation comes as he’s being executed, after he’s essentially cheated on her. So Murron is willing to ignore his infidelity, simply because she loves him. Braveheart is offering up a classic male sexual fantasy driven by the double-standard. Women exist to provide sex, love, and emotional support and so are expected to be committed to their man, while men are able to sleep around as they choose without losing their exclusive claim on their wives. When you put that together with the fact that Isabella’s entire purpose in the film is to get knocked up so Wallace can defeat her father-in-law, it seems clear that far from being romantic, Braveheart is actually quite misogynist and demeaning to women.
While We’re At It, Let’s Be Homophobic as Well But Isabella’s decision to commit herself to Wallace has a problem with it. She’s married to another man. Broadly speaking, Hollywood morality tends to frown on adultery. Most Hollywood films tend to do one of two things with adultery. Either it is a bad choice that usually leads to worse things like a decision to murder one’s spouse, and must therefore turn out badly and be punished, or it must be presented in a sympathetic light; the marriage has to be bad, the cuckolded spouse must be neglectful or abusive, and the other man has to be obviously a better choice morally. Since Isabella’s adultery has to be presented in a sympathetic light, it has to be clear to the audience that Isabella has a really good reason for cheating on her husband, Prince Edward.
And so the film makes the choice to depict Prince Edward as a classic example of the Hollywood Sissy. Braveheart’s Prince Edward (Peter Hanly) is a slightly-built, almost delicate man. He is far more interested in his boyfriend’s clothing than in either his new wife or in manly pursuits like warfare. He can’t be dragged away from his lover long enough to participate in political councils, so he sends his wife instead. At one point, Edward I throws his son’s boyfriend out a window; when Prince Edward tries to attack him, Edward bitch-slaps him and takes his knife away with contemptuous ease (symbolically castrating him, I suppose). All-in-all, Prince Edward is a pathetic little sissy boy.
This is completely ahistorical. The actual Edward II was a tall, handsome, physically robust and athletic man. Among his hobbies were ditch-digging and brick-laying (rather odd hobbies for a medieval noble, but clearly evidence of his physicality). He loved swimming and rough-housing, and once seriously hurt one of his companions with rough play. At the battle of Bannockburn, when it became clear the English were losing, Edward had to be physically dragged off the field because he wanted to stay and fight. Whatever his sexual preferences might have been (and scholars still debate exactly what his relationships with Piers Gaveston and the Despensers were), it’s clear that the actual Edward was not the limp-wrist he is in Braveheart.
But the historical Edward won’t do. He’s too close to the sort of man the film wants to present Wallace as. Isabella’s choice to cheat on the historical Edward II would be more puzzling, so Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson resort to the oldest and most offensive stereotype of homosexuals Hollywood knows. (To be fair, however, Randall Wallace is not the only author to demonize Edward II; most historical novelists who choose to write about him do similar things.)
I dislike Braveheart because of its numerous historical inaccuracies, its anachronistic notions of ‘freedom’ and its rather simplistic narrative. I hate it because of its deeply-rooted misogyny and homophobia. Gibson demeans women, gays, and the English all so he can run around battlefields stabbing people with his enormous penis substitutes and live out a male fantasy of sexual potency and female devotion.
Years ago, during a class on medieval warfare, some students asked me what I thought about Braveheart. That question is a sure-fire way to sidetrack me for 20 minutes, and I gave them a condensed version of this analysis. A year later, I ran into one of the students from that class. He said, “I went back and rewatched Braveheart, and you’re completely right!” So go ahead, rewatch it and tell me whether you think I’m right. Because once you start to see how Freudian the film is, you can’t stop seeing it.
Want to Know More?
Braveheartis available on Amazon.
Kathryn Warner is pretty much the leading expert on Edward II, and her book on him, Edward II: The Unconventional Kingis one of the best things written about him, although I’m not convinced by her argument that he survived his eventual deposition. Her blog about Edward II is definitely worth a look if you want to know more about him than you ever thought possible.
I wish I could recommend a book about Isabella of France, but frankly everything I’ve seen written about her is complete crap. Stay away from Alison Weir’s book.