William Wallace's life is depicted in Braveheart, but was he really the hero that the movie suggests?
In the 1995 film Braveheart directed by, produced by, and starring Mel Gibson, Scottish warrior William Wallace bravely charges into battle during the First War of Scottish Independence and emerges (mostly) victorious. Okay, he loses his head before he personally sees victory, but eventually, the Scots win their freedom.
Though Braveheart is a work of fiction, the premise is rooted in fact. The character of William Wallace is very real, as are the battles he fought in. Though, of course, as Mel Gibson does, he may have embellished the story just a touch.
In the movie, a young William Wallace witnesses the King of England invade Scotland and wage a battle that kills his father and brother. The deaths of his family instill in him a need for revenge, and he lives the rest of his life intent on avenging his father and brother and freeing Scotland from the King of England’s rule.
Over the course of his life, he falls in love, fights in battle, falls in love with a different woman, fights in another battle, and paints his face blue. He ultimately gets captured and taken to the gallows, where his last words before he’s decapitated are those of inspiration, as he bellows “Freedom!” into the wind.
In reality, not that much is actually known about the real William Wallace. All that is known of his life and his war against England comes from a late-15th-century epic poem by Blind Harry.
He is believed to have been born sometime in 1270. His family is hardly mentioned in the poem at all, though he is believed to have been of a lower noble class. The poem attributes his parentage to Sir Malcolm of Elderslie, though Wallace’s own seal suggests that his father’s name was Alan Wallace. Historically, the version of events put forth by Blind Harry is widely considered to be the correct one.
The First War of Scottish Independence began when the King of Scotland died. Alexander III had been considered a fair and peaceful ruler, during which the country experienced a period of economic and political stability. However, following his death from a horseback riding accident, the country entered a period of turmoil.
King Edward I of England descended upon the country, now leaderless and facing several men who claimed to be next in line and effectively began running it himself, claiming it for his own. Those who believed Scotland should remain independent of England gathered to plan a military revolt.
William Wallace was one of those who believed Scotland should hold true to its independence. It is believed that he must have had some sort of formal military training, as his campaign in 1297 was successful. His personal seal, along with his father’s name, also suggested he had some experience with archery, an army skill.
Also on Wallace’s side was his size. Though never truly specified, Wallace was described as a “giant,” “broad in the hips,” and “strong and firm.” Blind Harry claims he was roughly seven feet.
Wallace’s first act of rebellion was not, as Braveheart suggests, defending the honor of his wife, but assassinating an English High Sheriff. After that attack, he joined several other Scottish lords and carried out the raid of Scone, just one of the dozens of rebellions taking place across Scotland at the time.
At this point in time, Braveheart and reality overlap, when Wallace leads his men into the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
During the battle, the Scots led the English across Stirling Bridge, a narrow stone bridge which served as the only way across the river. The English were unfamiliar with the narrowness of the bridge, where the Scots were used to it. Unable to correct their attack, the Scots proved victorious, destroying the much larger army as they attempted to cross.
Wallace and his fellow battle leader Andrew Moray were both awarded the titles of Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland following the battle, though Moray eventually succumbed to wounds sustained during the battle. A few months later, William Wallace was knighted.
The following year, after he’d had time to nurse his wounds, King Edward ordered a second invasion of Scotland. This time, the Scots were not so lucky, as they were overpowered and had no architectural surprises up their sleeves. Many men were lost to the English archers, and though Wallace escaped without a scratch, his military reputation was wounded.
Unlike in Braveheart, Wallace couldn’t bring himself to overcome such a heavy figurative blow, and retreated from battle to nurse his wounds. He gave up his title as guardian of the realm, and for the next several years was only seen fleetingly in several skirmishes, never heading up the battles.
Finally, after evading capture for almost seven years, William Wallace was eventually discovered and turned over to Edward by a Scotish double agent. After being taken to Westminster Hall, a trial was brought against him for treason and atrocities against civilians. Wallace argued that he couldn’t be a traitor, as he wasn’t a subject of English rule, but the courts did not care.
He was deemed guilty and taken to the Tower of London where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. His beheading was, unlike the Hollywood version, a quiet one, after which his tarred head was placed atop a spike on London Bridge.
So there you have it. Unlike the glamorous, war-painted, revenge-driven, freedom-crying warrior that Mel Gibson portrayed, the real William Wallace was ultimately a coward, who was cut down in a battle and hid from the world, only to be posthumously put on display as a warning to all those who dared follow his lead.
After learning about the real William Wallace, check out Sawney Bean, Scotland’s most infamous cannibal. Then, read about the corpse of William the Conqueror, which exploded on all of his guests at his funeral.