BRAVEHEART, the 1995 historical epic directed by and starring Mel Gibson as William Wallace, the Scottish knight who fought against Edward I’s occupation of Scotland in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, is littered with historical inaccuracies. Some of these are simply anachronistic, such as the woad warpaint of the Scots, something more suited to a Pictish warrior facing the Romans at Hadrian’s Wall a millennium before the events of the film, or Scots wearing kilts in the 13th century. But other errors obscure the fascinating true history of this turbulent period.

A detailed account of Wallace’s origins is offered by the 15th-century poet Blind Hary, whose poem The Wallace was a major source for the film, but much of this is probably fictional. From what little we can know of Wallace’s years before he rebelled in 1297 is that he was not a Highland peasant as depicted in Braveheart, nor was his family killed in 1280 by English occupiers. He did not leave Scotland to travel Europe and be educated abroad by a wealthy uncle either.

The English did not even conquer Scotland until 1296. Wallace was actually the son of an Alan Wallace, probably a minor Ayrshire landowner, neither a peasant nor a Highlander, and there is evidence suggesting that William may have been a bandit before his rebellion, not a farmer. Instead, it was his ally and fellow commander, Andrew Murray, who was the Highlander leading Scottish forces.

The National: Portrait of William WallacePortrait of William Wallace

The film depicts Wallace as the sole leader of the Scottish rebellion. He has subordinates like his friend Hamish (Brendan Gleeson) and there are nobles like Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) who are socially superior to him, but he is the single leader of the armies. Yet in reality, Wallace initially shared the leadership of the Scottish forces with another minor knight, Andrew Murray. Murray was the son of a minor landowner, lord of Avoch and Petty near Inverness. He even began fighting the English before Wallace and was captured at the Battle of Dunbar in April 1296.

After escaping imprisonment in England, Murray returned to Scotland and raised a rebellion in the north the following year, eventually recapturing the castles of Banff, Elgin and Inverness. He then united his forces with Wallace’s to face the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. In diplomatic letters, the two men referred to themselves as “commanders of the army of the kingdom of Scotland”, but this collaboration ended soon after, with Murray’s death from wounds inflicted in the battle.

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In response to Wallace and Murray’s successes in retaking key castles and towns, an English army marched north to Stirling, meeting the Scottish force led by both men. On September 11, 1297, the battle began with the English crossing the narrow bridge over the Forth. The Scots were positioned on the Abbey Crag, where the Wallace Monument stands today. They allowed much of the army to cross, before racing down the slope to encircle them, seizing the head of the bridge, and cutting off the English vanguard from reinforcements.

Said bridge, a key factor in the Scots’ crushing defeat of the English, is conspicuously absent from the film. Instead, Braveheart shows the Battle of Stirling Bridge taking place in a flat field. Supposedly, a local queried the film crew about this and was told that the bridge “got in the way”. “That’s what the English found”, he replied. The battle does not end with Wallace making a sword-belt out of the skin of one of the English commanders, as the 14th-century Lancercost Chronicle claimed. Perhaps this was too much for pre-Passion of the Christ Mel Gibson.

A repeated theme in the film’s portrayal of late medieval Scotland is of a country that was backwards, poor and isolated. A kingdom of modest castles, hovels and grimy people with unkempt hair – even some of the nobles – who can barely afford any armour. Only Wallace’s uncle, Argyle, appears to have any connections abroad. England, in contrast, is shown as a rich kingdom with massive fortifications, immaculate lords and ladies, and well-equipped troops. Yet Scotland was in fact a well-connected and developed kingdom, with strong ties to Western Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic.

Prominent Scottish nobles like the Stewarts, Bruces and Comyns all had Norman origins, and many had lands on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border, as did many English nobles. It was only after Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314 that this practice came to an end. Scots also readily participated in international trade. They imported timber from the Baltic and sold Scottish wool in the Low Countries. Towns like Aberdeen, Berwick, Dundee and Inverkeithing were home to foreign merchants.

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As Scotland had no university of its own until the early 15th century, many Scots travelled abroad to study at continental universities, particularly at Paris and Bologna. In 1282, three of King Alexander III’s chancery clerks were graduates of one of these universities. Such was the number of Scots studying at Paris that in 1325 a Scots College was established at the university there by David, bishop of Moray. Scottish priests and bishops communicated with their fellow clergy abroad and there was a network of Scottish and Irish monasteries in Germany, the Schottenklöster, led by the abbey of St James in Regensburg. Scots also fought in the Crusades, including Robert the Bruce’s grandfather, also called Robert, who joined Edward I’s crusade in 1271.

Medieval Scotland was the only state in these islands other than England to develop into a full kingdom, one eventually acknowledged by the English, the Pope and continental kings, in contrast to the Welsh princes and Irish kings who never managed to achieve such recognition. The desire of Braveheart to create an underdog for the audience to root for, by casting Wallace as a Highland peasant and Scotland as a noble but impoverished backwater, means that the film misses the chance to show this developed and fascinating medieval kingdom and its important place in late medieval Northern Europe.

Rory MacLellan is a historian specialising in late medieval Europe and the crusades.