Beyond 'Braveheart': 5 Things We Get Wrong About William Wallace

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky  | 

William Wallace
This statue of William Wallace by sculptor William Grant Stevenson, erected in 1888 in Aberdeen, Scotland, bears this inscription: "I tell you a truth, liberty is the best of all things, my son, never live under any slavish bond." Wikipedia

Whether you know his name thanks to Mel Gibson's portrayal in "Braveheart" or from Joshua Jackson's parody of said portrayal in an iconic episode of Dawson's Creek (I'm in the latter camp), William Wallace has become synonymous with medieval Scottish history. But like so many legends, Wallace's story isn't quite in line with the pop culture representation most of us are familiar with.

Here are some things you may not know about the famed Scottish knight:


1. He's Considered One of Scotland's Greatest National Heroes

Wallace is credited with leading the Scottish resistance forces during the struggle to free Scotland from English rule. In 1296, King Edward I of England deposed and imprisoned the Scottish king John de Balliol and declared himself the ruler of Scotland. While resistance efforts had already begun, Wallace is credited with kicking things into high gear in May 1297 when he gathered 30 men together to burn down the town of Lanark and kill its English sheriff. He then organized an army to attack the English troops and — despite being vastly outnumbered — killed many more as they attempted to cross over into Scotland. He nearly freed the country from occupying forces and invaded northern England. He was knighted in 1297, and proclaimed guardian of the kingdom, but in 1298, his men were defeated by Edward's troops in the Battle of Falkirk, Stirling.


2. You Shouldn't Consider "Braveheart" a Wallace History Lesson

Google "Braveheart inaccuracies" and you may spend the remainder of your day scrolling through pages and pages of (rightfully) irate commentary. The 1995 film definitely took some liberties with Wallace's story (for one thing, he did not wear a tartan kilt — those didn't show up until 500 years later). While the film did bring international attention to Wallace's story, it didn't exactly do it justice, according to experts.

"Aside from a 1975 novel by Nigel Tranter ('The Wallace'), there have been very few representations of William Wallace in popular culture, which makes 'Braveheart' influential in the public's image of the man," Tom Turpie, project historian and history lecturer at the University of Stirling writes via email.

"In general, I find that these representations of Wallace, especially 'Braveheart,' fall into a trap that we often find with medieval Scottish history. Very often, as we find in 'Braveheart,' the popular presentation of the subject (either through film, at historic sites and increasingly on television), is so simplified or includes unnecessary fictions (like Wallace meeting the English queen in 'Mary, Queen of Scots,' and films having him meet Elizabeth I, etc.) that are much less interesting than what actually happened. I never understand the need to make up anything about Scotland's medieval past as the reality is always more interesting than any fiction!

"The main problem, specifically with 'Braveheart' (aside from its many historical inaccuracies), is that it gives Wallace rather simplistic 20th-century motivations — nationalism, desire for political self-determination and autonomy — and completely misunderstands his social status (he was a minor nobleman from the southwest, not a highland peasant living in a mud hut wearing tartan)," Turpie says.


3. He Was a Diplomat Later in His Life

One piece of the Wallace puzzle that's often lost is the fact that he became a diplomat later in his career, serving as an envoy for the Scots to the courts of Europe. "What is almost always missed out in the popular versions (and ignored in "Braveheart"), is the most interesting part of Wallace's career," Turpie says. "After defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, for much of the next three to four years, he traveled abroad as a diplomat, visiting the king of France and the pope in Rome (and possibly the exiled Scottish king) and seems to have played an important role in gaining support for the Scots cause from these groups."


4. Some Scholars Consider Him an "Accidental Braveheart"

In a 2011 article for The Scotsman, University of Glasgow Scottish history professor Dauvit Broun describes the evidence he uncovered that indicates Wallace was a "co-leader" in the murder of Sheriff William Hesilrig, the English sheriff of Lanark in 1297 (the event that kicked off the Scottish rebellion), not necessarily the leader.

"Before he became the leader, there is a pattern in the three main acts of resistance we know about where Wallace is co-leader with someone who was his social superior (killing the sheriff of Lanark was co-led by Sir Richard of Lundie, attacking the justiciar at Scone was co-led by Sir William Douglas, and the Battle of Stirling Bridge was co-led by Sir Andrew Moray)," Broun writes via email. "By the end of 1297, only Wallace was left as leader. What this suggests is that Wallace did not plan or want to be sole leader of the resistance, but was prepared to take on this role when it became necessary."

According to Broun, it was actually Lundie, a close ally of Wallace who rose with him in opposition to the English occupation of Scotland, likely responsible for sparking the revolution. "It was Lundie who led the band with Wallace that was responsible for the killing of the Sheriff of Lanark May 3, 1297," he says.


5. There's a Period of His Life That's a Little Mysterious

While there's some evidence that Wallace went to France in 1299 after the Scottish defeat and later took on the role of a solo guerrilla leader, nothing is known about his life from the fall of 1299 through 1303. In 1305, however, he was arrested near Glasgow and taken to London where he was condemned as a traitor to the king (despite the fact that he stated he had never sworn allegiance to King Edward in the first place). His death wasn't pretty: He was hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered. It wasn't until the following year that his successor, Robert de Bruce (later King Robert I) ignited the rebellion that eventually won Scotland its independence.