Would the Real William Wallace Please Stand Up

Would the Real William Wallace Please Stand Up

By Malcolm D Broun

Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History, Vol.5 (1997)

William Wallace Statue

Abstract: The object of this paper is to give a brief outline of the life of William Wallace, and to make references in passing to the film, Braveheart, loosely based on the life of William Wallace, starring the Australian actor Mel Gibson. Without wishing to detract in any way from the marvellous spirit of Scottish nationalism which the film produced, the comments on the film will inevitably point primarily to just a few of the film’s historical inaccuracies. Films for popular consumption should perhaps not be expected to be historically accurate. The image of Wallace in the minds of such parts of the public who have heard of him at all, is largely myth. Great historical figures gather myths around them and the Scots are among the great myth builders. Braveheart the film builds on the myths of Wallace, but at the expense of adding invention where there was no need. Edward I of England is portrayed as deliciously evil, by Patrick McGooan, but the most evil thing Edward I did in Scotland, the sack and slaughter of Berwick in 1298, does not appear in the film. When there was so much real horror, heroism, honour and deception in reality, what is the need for more myth building?

Introduction: It is generally accepted that William Wallace was born at Elderslie, a small town southwest of Glasgow, the son of a local significant landholder. The date or even year of his birth has never been established. Since his activities between 1297 and 1305 could only have been the work of a man in his prime, he must have been at least twenty and probably not more than thirty-five in 1297. That would put his date of birth at somewhere between 1262 and at latest 1277.

The effective English occupation of southern and eastern Scotland began, at earliest, and the only to a partial extent, by the voluntary delivery of the kingdom into the hands of Edward I on 11 June 12912 by the four regents of Scotland. They did so as a first step in solving the disputed succession after the death of Alexander III’s last remaining heir, his grand-daughter known as the ‘Maid of Norway’ in 1290. The invitation to Edward was given to prevent civil war between the supporters of John Balliol and those of Robert the Bruce The Claimant (also known as The Competitor), grandfather of the future Robert I (1306-1329). Complete military occupation of south and east Scotland and the formal deposition of King John Balliol only followed on 27 April 1296 after the battle of Dunbar and the subsequent surrender of Roxburgh and Dumbarton Castles and the fortress of Jedburgh the same year. When the English presence in Scotland first began in 1291 Wallace must have been somewhere between fourteen and twenty-nine years old, and the fullscale occupation began only a year before he ‘lifted up his head from his den’.

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