I finally had time to watch something for this blog after my semester from hell. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to a more regular posting scheduled now. The film I watched is Netflix’ Outlaw King(2018, dir. David Mackenzie). The film tells the story of the early days of the rebellion of Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) against the English kings Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and Edward II (Billy Howle).
Robert the Bruce
Robert the Bruce (which is an Anglicization of “Robert de Brus”) was descended from a line of Anglo-Norman nobles who arrived in Scotland in the 1120s. On his father’s side he was descended from the Scottish king David I (r. 1124-1153). His grandfather had staked a claim to the throne in 1290, when the Scottish throne became vacant, along with about a dozen other claimants. That “Great Cause” ultimately resulted in King Edward I being invited into to resolve the competing claims. But Edward made all the candidates swear loyalty to him and then refused to render a verdict, essentially seeking to incorporate Scotland into his kingdom despite not having a dynastic claim of his own. Edward correctly realized that with so many candidates, the Scots would have a lot of trouble organizing an effective resistance to him.
What he hadn’t counted on was the rebellion of Sir Andrew Moray and Sir William Wallace in 1297. That rebellion was militarily defeated at Falkirk in 1298, but Wallace continued a bandit resistance until he was captured in 1305, thus making it hard for the English to have complete control.
During all this, the Bruce family was caught between loyalty to Edward and rebellion against him, because they held land in both Scotland and England and resisting Edward would surely have meant losing their English holdings. (To confuse you, there have been lots of guys named ‘Robert the Bruce’. To spare you as much confusion as possible, I’m going to call his ancestors the Lords of Annandale and save ‘Robert the Bruce’ for the famous rebel.) So instead the family played both sides. Bruce’s grandfather, the 5thEarl Lord of Annandale, turned over his Scottish lands and claim to the throne to his son, the 6thLord of Annandale, who pretty quickly turned them over to his son Robert. That way, Robert could participate in Moray’s rebellion while the Lords of Annandale supported Edward and opposed Moray and Wallace.
But Bruce eventually quickly concluded that Wallace had little chance of success, because he submitted to Edward and reportedly fought on his behalf at Falkirk, helping to defeat Wallace. This was to prove one of Bruce’s biggest obstacles to getting the throne, because his family and he had switched sides so often that when finally made a bid for the crown, few of the Scottish lords were willing to trust him.
By the time Wallace was caught, there were only two real claimants to the Scottish throne left, Robert the Bruce and John Comyn (sometimes called the ‘Red Comyn’, to distinguish him from a cousin John Comyn the Black Comyn). The two of them were essentially rivals, and it’s pretty clear that at least from the start of Andrew Moray’s rebellion, Bruce was always angling for the throne. Neither Moray nor Wallace had any sort of claim to rule Scotland and neither ever asserted a desire to be king. Their cause was just independence from English rule.
By the end of 1305, Edward was starting to suspect that he could not trust Bruce, because he revoked a grant of land he had given Bruce earlier in the year. It was a smart call, because mid-way through 1305, Bruce and Comyn had entered into a secret deal in which Comyn agreed to surrender his claim to the Scottish throne in exchange for Bruce’s lands. At least, that’s what two later sources claim. Bruce’s claim to the throne was stronger than Comyn’s, so it makes sense that Comyn might have decided that land in the hand was worth more than a weak claim in the bush.
At some point, however, Comyn appears to have spilled the beans to Edward and Bruce seems to have found out. He was at the English court and was reportedly warned that he needed to flee, which he did. When he got back to Scotland, Bruce sent a message requesting a meeting at the Franciscan monastery at Dumfries, and Comyn and his uncle showed up. Exactly what transpired at the meeting is unclear, but at some point Bruce pulled a dagger and stabbed Comyn. According to a not entirely certain story, Bruce left the chapel and commented to his men something to the effect that “I doubt I’ve killed John Comyn”. Reportedly one of them responded, “You doubt? I mak sikkar!” (“I’ll make sure”) Two of his men rushed into the chapel and killed both the Red Comyn and his uncle.
Whether the famous dialog happened or not, it’s certain that Bruce sacrilegiously murdered his rival. It’s likely, though not provable, that he went to Dumfries planning to at least confront Comyn and probably to kill him for betraying him. English sources depict Bruce as having premeditated the killing, but they’re obviously quite biased.
With such a blatant murder on his hands, Bruce was now committed to rebellion. So he immediately attacked Dumfries castle and forced the English garrison to surrender to him. The Scottish bishops pardoned Robert’s sacrilege and immediately agreed to support him as king, and 6 weeks later he was crowned at Scone, with several of the leading nobles present. A day later, Countess Isabella of Buchan, who was married to the Black Comyn, showed up. As a member of the MacDuff family, she claimed the right to perform the actual coronation, so the ceremony was repeated to strengthen Bruce’s somewhat shaky claim.
By June, Edward’s lieutenant in Scotland, Aymer de Valence, had arrived with a force at Perth. Bruce laid siege to Perth, but rather foolishly failed to take precautions against an attack by de Valence’s forces. He didn’t establish even basic defenses around his camp, so when de Valence’s forces launched a pre-dawn assault on his position, his whole army was routed and he and his family had to flee. The Battle of Methven, as this humiliating defeat is known, was an inauspicious start to his rebellion, and worse was to come.
For safety, he sent his wife, his daughter Marjorie, two sisters, and Isabella of Buchan to Kildrummy Castle with his brother Neil to protect them, but the English forces soon caught up to them. The women were able to flee the castle in time, but Neil was captured when the castle feel and immediately executed. Elizabeth and the other women were caught not long afterward by supporters of the Comyns. They were all sent into captivity in England. Isabella and Bruce’s sister Mary were put into cages that hung from the walls of the castles at Berwick and Roxburgh, while Elizabeth was held at a series of castles for the next eight years.
These events forced the Black Comyn to side with the English against Bruce. In addition to Bruce being a rival to his claim on the throne, he had also murdered Comyn’s cousin and basically won the loyalty of the Black Comyn’s wife Isabella and gotten her captured and humiliated. In some ways he was Bruce’s biggest threat in the months after Methven. Bruce spent the winter of 1306-7 on the run, probably hiding out in the Hebrides, although his movements in this period are uncertain. He sent two of his brothers to gain control of southwest Scotland, but as they crossed Loch Ryan they were ambushed by MacDugall forces who were loyal to the Comyns; Bruce’s forces were again routed and both his brothers were sent to Carlisle, where Edward had them beheaded. The invasion of Loch Ryan may have been intended as a distraction to Bruce’s own landing in Galloway. In that case, it worked, but at quite a cost.
Bruce managed to win a small victory at Glen Trool, forcing de Valence’s forces to retreat by attacking them as they moved single-file through a rocky track along Clatteringshaws Loch. It was more of a propaganda victory than a strategic one, but it proved that Bruce had some ability to win, something he desperately needed if his rebellion was to succeed.
A far more important victory awaited him. He seems to have learned a lesson from Methven that he was fighting against superior forces and needed to be more tactical. A month later, he confronted de Valence’s forces at Loudoun Hill, where he was able to control the terms of the battle. He did a good job preparing the battle site and was able to inflict a serious defeat on the English. We’ll discuss it at length in a little bit.
Loudoun Hill was Bruce’s first significant victory, and it marks the start of a gradual turning poin tin his rebellion. Edward I died two months later, having been kept by illness at Lanercost monastery just south of the Scottish border for several months. Over the next year, Bruce ravaged Comyn-controlled parts of Scotland, demonstrating that the Scots could brutalize each other at least as effectively as the English had, and by 1309 he was sufficiently dominant that he could summon the Scottish Parliament to meet. Finally, in 1314, Bruce inflicted a massive defeat on Edward II at Bannockburn. That victory essentially re-established Scottish independence from England, although the conflict dragged on for years.
The film focuses essentially on the period between 1304 and 1307, thus exploring only the period of Bruce’s fumbling beginnings as a rebel to the turning point of Loudoun Hill. It opens with a meeting between Edward I and various Scottish nobles outside Sterling Castle, which Edward is sieging while the Scottish nobles make their submission to them. Edward demonstrates the construction of a massive trebuchet which he fires at the castle (with a flaming missile, of course, because they’re absolutely necessary in films these days). Then he allows the castle to surrender. This is a nice historical touch, because in fact when Edward sieged Sterling Castle, he did delay accepting its surrender until he could try out the enormous siege engine he had had built.
In the feast that follows, it’s announced that Bruce’s father has arranged the marriage of Bruce to Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh). In fact, they were married in 1302 and already had at least one daughter when Bruce launched his rebellion.
The film then moves forward to 1306 and has the mandatory tax collection sequence, because collecting taxes is how you know medieval kings are bad. During the tax collection Bruce starts to realize how unpopular the English are, and then word arrives that William Wallace’ arm has been tied to the market cross, prompting a riot. Bruce promptly returns home, tells his brothers they’re all going to revolt, and then meets the Red Comyn (Callen Mulvay) in an effort to persuade him to work together. Comyn, however, villainously tells Bruce that he’s going to betray Bruce to Edward, thereby eliminating his rival for the crown, thus forcing Bruce to stab him to death. So as the film presents it, Bruce is a very reluctant rebel, rebelling only because everyone hates the English, he’s upset that Wallace has been executed, and Comyn forced him to commit sacrilegious murder.
To put it politely, that’s an extremely generous interpretation of events. Wallace had been dead for a year before Bruce started his rebellion, so it’s unlikely that his execution had any significant influence over Bruce. Most historians feel that Bruce was already determined to rebel when he invited Comyn to the Dumfries meeting, and it’s likely that he called the meeting intending to kill his rival. Far from being a reluctant and selfless rebel, Bruce’s family had been self-serving in its pursuit of the crown and their best interests for a generation. Bruce’s rebellion was purely about his own ambitions.
The two coronations at Scone have been collapsed into a single event, which is understandable, and Isabella of Buchan performs the coronation, although no explanation is offered as to who she is or why she’s doing it.
Bruce offers to meet de Valence in single combat to decide who’s going to control Perth, and de Valence accepts but then underhandedly launches a night-time attack on Bruce, complete with flaming arrows, because when you’re launching a sneak attack you definitely want to make sure your enemies can see your arrows on the way in. So the film positions the Battle of Methven as an act of base treachery against a trusting Bruce. In reality, Bruce did offer de Valence single combat, but de Valence turned the offer down, and Bruce rather foolishly assumed that this meant de Valence wouldn’t attack. So, as with the murder of John Comyn, the film is trying to make Bruce look better than he was. His defeat at Methven was a sign that he was a rather green commander, not that de Valence was especially villainous.
Then Prince Edward captures Kildrummy Castle and apprehends Bruce’s women just outside the castle, which is inaccurate but probably a forgivable compression of events. But it’s Elizabeth who gets hung in a cage outside a castle, not Isabella.
After that, Edward I gives Prince Edward permission to ‘unfurl the dragon’, which apparently means that the English have permission to be unchivalrous when they fight. This is totally fabricated, and again seems intended to explain why Bruce is doing so badly at the start of the start of his rebellion—he hasn’t yet learned to fight dirty.
The Battle of Loch Ryan is presented as Bruce’s forces retreating out to the Hebrides to lick their wounds and being treacherously attacked by the MacDugall forces, instead of as an invasion attempt that went badly. The attack happens after Bruce has already gotten across the Loch, so he’s unable to get to back to the fight until it’s already become a disastrous rout.
Then we see Bruce training his forces to fight dirty, which in this case is killing the horses of the knights (something that medieval knights would actually have considered a violation of the rules of warfare) and then they launch sneak attacks on a couple of castles, retake them and burn them. This seems to be a rather garbled presentation of Bruce’s harrowing of Comyn’s lands and a very soft-pedaled harrowing to boot. Can’t have Bruce looking bad.
Then Edward I dies. His son is a complete dick, promising his father to carry his father’s bones into Scotland and then just giving an order to bury him when he died. This is wrong, since Edward died about two months later. An unreliable story claims that he asked his son to either carry his bones into Scotland or carry his heart to the Holy Land, but in reality, Edward had his dad’s body shipped back to London where it was give a proper, if somewhat simple, burial. The grave was opened in the 18thcentury and his body found to be in remarkably good condition. All of this is clearly intended to build up Edward II as a villain.
The film climaxes at Loudon Hill. Historically, Bruce identified Loudoun Hill as an ideal place to fight because it was located on a key road that de Valence’s forces would have to pass through. He chose Loudoun Hill because it was a relatively narrow stretch of dry land running between two large bogs. Bruce had his men narrow the dry ground by digging a series of trenches inward from the two bogs, thus creating a tight bottleneck at the base of a hill and sharply reducing the English advantage of numbers while rendering cavalry almost useless. In doing this, he may have been inspired by a similar tactic employed by the Flemish against the French cavalry at the battle of Courtrai in 1302. When the English cavalry advance, they found themselves forced to attack Bruce’s spearmen through a narrow causeway and up a slope. The result was that the Scots broke the English charge and inflicted enough damage that the English forces fell back in confusion and de Valance fled the scene. It was not a total rout, however; only about 100 English soldiers were killed. But, as I noted, it was a crucial battle because it demonstrated that Bruce could win a solid open-field victory against numerically superior forces.
The film gets Loudoun Hill roughly right, but exaggerates several important points. Bruce himself helps dig the ditches. There’s no evidence of that, but modern audiences like to see kings acting like the common man. In reality, Edward II actually enjoyed ditch-digging—manual labor like digging ditches and laying bricks was a hobby of his—but the film wants to make Edward look worse than he was to make Bruce look better. Bruce’s men also fill the ditch with sharpened stakes, which didn’t happen. Instead of de Valance, it’s Edward who’s in command, when in reality, Edward wasn’t king yet and wasn’t in Scotland at all.
At the start, Bruce stations some of his men in front of the ditch, thus disguising its presence from the English. When the English charge, the Scots scurry behind the ditch, causing the English to crash into the spike-filled ditches. Then the Scots attack, using mostly swords and axes rather than spears. While not exactly correctly, this isn’t so outrageously wrong as to be a serious problem because it does get the basic dynamic of the battle right, although the slope of the hill is behind the Scots and not a factor in the fight.
Edward rides into the battle, but gets unhorsed. Bruce fights him in single combat, soundly defeats him, and then allows him to flee back to his troops. Of all the inaccuracies in the film, this is, for me at least, the most problematic. Not only was Edward not present at the battle, but if he had been and if Bruce had defeated in combat, he would almost certainly have taken Edward prisoner. Having Edward as prisoner would have ended the war right then and there. The English would not have dared attack while their king was prisoner, so Bruce would have been able to dictate the terms of an abject surrender to the English. More importantly, Edward had not fathered any children at this point in his life. If Bruce had killed Edward, there would have been a serious political crisis in England, because Edward’s presumptive heir at this point was his seven-year old half-brother Thomas of Brotherton, and there would probably have been a power struggle within the English government to see who would run the government during the prolonged royal minority. So had Bruce actually allowed (the not actually yet) King Edward II to run off the battlefield, he would have blown the biggest political opportunity of his reign.
Throughout the film, I couldn’t help comparing it to Mel Gibson’s rather more famous Braveheart. Although Outlaw King gets a fair number of things wrong and consistently massages the facts to make Bruce seem a more decent man than he was, it’s still light-years better than Braveheart in terms of historical accuracy. For starters, there’s nary a kilt in sight. The costuming at least tried to look period and, in FrockFlick’s opinion got at least halfway there, although a lot of the women are wearing barbettes without a headpiece, making all of Elizabeth’s ladies look like they had bad toothaches that day.
Another way that Outlaw King is superior to Braveheart is that both Edward I and Edward II are treated more fairly. Edward I is not a sneering villain bent on sexing his daughter-in-law, and Billy Howle’s Prince Edward isn’t the limp-wristed sissyboy of Gibson’s film. He’s an angry young man eager to move out of his father’s shadow, which at least makes sense as a characterization, and the film accurately depicts his eagerness for battle.
Pine’s Bruce, on the other hand, is a surprisingly bland hero whose shaggy beard and haircut are probably his most notable characteristic. He spends a lot of time looking moodily at the camera, brooding about how poorly his rebellion is going. To the extent that the film succeeds, I think it’s more despite Pine’s performance than because of it. Given that Pine spends an enormous amount of time on-screen, the weakness of his performance results in a film that lacks energy except in the fight scenes, and it’s not surprising that Mackenzie cut 20 minutes from the film after a test audience told him it was boring.
So overall, Outlaw King is kind of a big Meh. It’s not a bad film, but it’s nowhere near what I would call a good film. It’s more accurate than Braveheart, but then so is the average grade school production of Snow White.
Want to Know More?
Outlaw King is available on Netflix.
Fiona Watson’s Traitor, Outlaw, King: Part One The Making of Robert the Bruce offers a reasonable, non-romantic, non-patriotic take on him, making it one of the best things available on Bruce.