But Wallace Didn’t: The Historical Wallace and the Construction of the Braveheart Legend
[This is part three of a series on John Eldredge’s medievalism—specifically his use of the figure of William Wallace—in his popular book Wild at Heart . To recap:
- In Part One, I lay out the broad point of the whole series, which is that, via the figure of Wallace, Eldredge, in his search for a more authentic Christian masculinity, essentially replaces one potentially destructive fantasy with another.
- In Part Two, I examine Eldredge’s use of the figure of William Wallace in the text of Wild at Heart.
- In a small Interlude, I explain why I respect Eldredge’s purpose in Wild and Heart, and see this work as at least as much of a continuation of that work (a search for a more authentic way of being) as it is a critique.]
One of the points of the previous posting is to suggest that, in using the figure of William Wallace, Eldredge seems to do more than simply point to a fictional figure to which men respond positively. He presents Wallace as a figure of a more authentic kind of masculinity that he locates in the historical past. Being more like William Wallace is more “real,” in other words, not simply because it presents an image of masculinity that is appealing in the present, but rather one that is worthy of recovery because its location in the past is what makes it more authentic: Eldredge seems to regain from that past something that men have “lost” in the present. But–to borrow another childhood axiom–if we are going to pick something up out of the past and incorporate it into ourselves, it might be worth asking where that thing has been and what it may have picked up along the way. Exactly what is the nature of the figure of William Wallace that Eldredge adopts as a model of authentic masculinity? A look at what little we know about the historical Wallace can help to highlight the nature and significance of the character as portrayed in Braveheart and
Wild at Heart .
The first thing to know is that there has never been much reliable documentary evidence concerning Wallace. The first historical look we have at Wallace comes when he seems to burst onto the scene of a widespread Scottish popular rebellion against English rule in 1297—in chronicle accounts written well after the fact. Given the snail’s pace at which information traveled in medieval Scotland, 1 it is unlikely that even the Scots rebels, at the time, had anything like this impression. And even in the modern histories, the beginning of the usual narrative of Wallace’s participation in the uprising curiously predates the evidence of same. To quote one biographer, he “sprang full-blown, as it were, into the national conscience and has remained there since.” 2 The first documentary evidence of Wallace as a fighter for the Scottish cause appears in relation to his murder of an English sheriff at Lanark sometime in May 1297. 3 The reason for the murder is not given, though Andrew Fisher speculates that he may have needed no more reason than to disrupt English governmental operations in that area. 4 Wallace springs up suddenly in the English chronicles (also generally written well after the fact) about this time as well, as a sort of dark Scottish boogeyman. 5 The Chronicle of Lanercost says that in 1297 Bishop Robert Wishart and James the Steward, the initial leaders of the rebellion, “not daring openly to break their pledged faith to the king…caused a certain bloody man, William Wallace, who had formerly been a chief of brigands in Scotland, to revolt against the king and assemble the people in his support” ( Fidem prastitiam manifeste infringere non audentes, quemdam virum sanguineum, Willelmum Waleis, qui prius fuerat in Scotia princeps latronum, contra regem insurgere fecerunt et populum in sui adjutorium congregare ). 6 There is not much detail concerning his subsequent life. We know that he led the Scottish force with Andrew Moray at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, 7 was knighted sometime before March 1298 and elected Guardian of Scotland shortly thereafter; that he issued documents in the name of John Balliol (the deposed Scottish king), participated in various military encounters (including raiding in Northern England and the Scottish defeat at Falkirk, after which he relinquished the guardianship); and that he led diplomatic missions to the French court and the Papal Curia at Avignon, and was captured and executed by the English in 1305. 8 Further details concerning all of these exploits are colored by their origins in very partisan and often highly fictionalized sources, the foremost being Blind Hary’s Wallace, the chronicles of John of Fordun and Walter Bower, and Andrew of Wyntoun’s Originale Cronikil , the account in which is likely heavily influenced by the unnamed and lost “gret gestis” Andrew himself mentions. 9 Only three documents thought to be in Wallace’s own hand survive. 10 Moreover, as recent work by historian James Fraser indicates, even the accounts in the earliest chronicle sources alter events in politically interested ways. Fraser argues that one of the earliest narratives of Wallace, in a chronicle now known as the Gesta Annalia II , one of Fordun’s sources, was comprised of “a story devised neither to give Wallace his due nor to set the record straight, but to strengthen and deepen the acceptability of Robert Bruce as hero and king. Not for the last time, the image of William Wallace became more important than the historical reality…” 11
Aside from these few chronological details, then, the majority of William Wallace’s life is uncertain, an absence filled in with narrative, learned deduction and conjecture, speculation, myth, folk tradition, and outright fiction. The sheer volume of this conjectural and fictional material overwhelms the scant details of the historical person. What the name “William Wallace” invoked in late fifteenth century Scotland (as it does now) could only be a fictive cultural creation, an aggregation of the strata of narrative plaster layered over the gaps of his existence.
Even a cursory comparison of the Braveheart version of Wallace with the above historical information can help reveal some of the constructedness and interestedness of the figure Eldredge adopts as a model of authentic masculinity. For example, the film portrays Wallace’s murder of the Sheriff of Lanark as motivated by revenge for the Sherrif’s murder of Wallace’s wife (a scenario supplied by later legend and “embellished” poetic accounts of Wallace’s life). What we know from documentary evidence is that he did, in fact, kill the English Sheriff of Lanark, but there is no evidence of a murdered wife, and, really, no reason to believe the incident was more than what it appears to be: a simple guerrilla raid. The “murdered wife” part of the story is, then, most likely a fabrication, one that supplies a nobler motive for Wallace’s (otherwise merely violent and illegal) action, and becomes an emblem for the heroic Wallace’s desire to protect home and family—an idea much more compatible with the status of a national hero than a guerilla raid. Already, here, we can begin to see how the film (not to mention its earlier sources) alters the reality to create a nationalist myth.
The film’s visuals participate in the creation of this nationalist myth. To mention only one costuming example, one of the largest deviations from history in the film is the fact that Wallace wears a kilt. There is, in fact, no evidence of tartan kilts being worn in Scotland before the 16 th century. Even if they were, a normanized, lowland minor noble such as Wallace would probably not have worn one in any case, and very likely would have considered it below his station to do so. The kilt Mel Gibson wears in the film would be roughly accurate to the 17 th and 18 th centuries: you’d have seen Scots wearing great kilts of that kind during, say, the Thirty Years War, but not at Stirling or Bannockburn. So why put Gibson in a kilt, which the film’s production designers were certainly savvy enough to realize was a serious anachronism? Certainly a large part of the answer to this question lies in the nature of filmic communication: the designers and directors surely needed a way to visually differentiate Scottish and English characters. Historically, lowland Scots dress and English dress, especially among the aristocratic classes, would have been quite smiliar in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, so historical accuracy would not have served the film’s purposes—and kilts immediately register as Scottish to a present-day movie audience. The kilt, of course, is symbolically linked with Scottish nationhood as the “national costume.” Consequently, this simple costuming decision makes the film’s hero refer in a nationalist direction: Wallace fights, here, not for King John, his feudal suzerain, but for Scotland the nation; Wallace is not simply a hero in Braveheart but a national hero, symbolizing loyalty to a kind of national identity that, very arguably, did not exist at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Perhaps the most significant change from the historical to the fictional Wallace is one that an audience of Braveheart would not be equipped to realize at all, which is that Wallace characterized himself as fighting for something other than the political sovereignty of a nation-state. In his function as Guardian of Scotland, Wallace invariably acted in the name of King John Balliol, the Scottish monarch whom Edward I of England had deposed. What this means is that Wallace’s loyalties, historically speaking, were more feudal than national. His allegiance was not to a nation-state but rather to a particular monarch and a particular line of regnal succession. The Wallace legend, however, changes this element of his character even in its earliest iterations, making Wallace fight for Scotland rather than King John. In Braveheart , Wallace fights for an even more abstract term, “freedom,” in such a way that his actions come to seem more like those of a colonial American revolutionary than a thirteenth-century knight who probably saw himself as fighting on behalf of a feudal suzerain. Such an idea is only reinforced by the fact that Mel Gibson could go on, several years later, to recycle the plot of Braveheart and, with little more than a change of costume, create The Patriot .
Another detail concerning the historical Wallace begins to demonstrate that not only does the Braveheart legend alter the historical record in a nationalistic direction, but in the direction of a particularly aggressive form of nationalism as well. One of the things we know about the historical Wallace is that he was quite literate, and not only a warrior but politician and diplomat as well. When Edward I deposed King John and invaded and took direct control over Scotland in 1298, any Scottish polity ceased to exist. Scotland had become, in effect, a new northern county of England, under an English system of law, an English bureaucracy, and an English church. Wallace’s “rebellion,” then, involved more than military engagement. As the “Guardian” of the realm, part of Wallace’s function was to begin to set up, anew, a working Scottish government and bureacracy (with, we can certainly assume, all the mundanity and “pharisaic” political niggling such work entails). We also know that he led major diplomatic missions to the French court and the Papal Curia at Avignon. Braveheart , of course, elides all of this activity. One reason for this is certainly because battles make more striking cinema than negotiations, but such deviation from history is not without rhetorical consequence: by eliding Wallace’s role as a politician and diplomat and highlighting his role as a fighter, the focus of the legend gravitates toward an emphasis on violent nationalism. The central heroic quality of the Wallace of Braveheart is his aggression, and his aggression always works in a nationalist direction. Christa Canitz goes so far as to suggest that the film actually aligns goodness and authenticity with illiteracy and aggression:
The directors’ verbal and visual statements create a forceful impression of incontrovertible authenticity and apparent historical accuracy, suggesting to viewers that this “simpler age” when villains were clearly evil (and members of the social, political, and economic elite) and when the heroes were clearly good (and politically and economically underprivileged), provides “a role model” for the contemporary little guy whose noble fight for the greater good of all will be validated by later history… 12
In other words, it’s not so much that Wallace as portrayed in the film is a representative of a historically authentic masculinity as it is that the film uses the the techniques of filmic fantasy-building to create the idea that Wallace represents a historically authentic masculinity and make it seem to be true in the absence of any historical reality. The Wallace of Braveheart is not an example of a historically authentic masculinity, but rather a vehicle to lead audiences to believe that the brand of masculinity the film’s creators wish to promote carries an authenticity that it really lacks. Put more succinctly: the film is designed to make fantasy seem like reality. And it is this fantasy, primarily, for which Eldredge seems to fall in Wild at Heart .
Coming next, the consequences of embracing Eldredge’s UnReal Man.
1 Ranald Nicholson, Scotland : The Later Middle Ages (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974), 2.
2 A. Fisher, William Wallace (Edinburgh: J. Donald, 1986), 36-7.
3 G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988), 83.
4 Fisher, William Wallace , 38The film supplies the reason that the Sheriff of Lanark had murdered Wallace’s wife, very much an invention of later legend.
5 Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland , 83
6 Sir Herbert Maxwell trans., The Chronicle of Lanercost: 1272-1346 (Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1913). Maxwell’s translation.
7This is the battle ostensibly represented as the centerpiece of Braveheart, at which Wallace gives his oft-quoted “freedom” speech. Historically, Wallace won the battle by enticing an overconfident English force to bottleneck itself on a bridge, thus limiting the English army’s ability to bring its superior numbers to bear. The bridge is conspicuously absent from the film.
8 Barrow, Bruce, see especially chapters 5-8 and notes.
9 Franðcois Joseph Amours, John Thomas Tosbach Brown and George Neilson, The Original Chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun Printed on Parallel Pages from the Cottonian and Wemyss Mss., with the Variants of the Other Texts, Ed., with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary (Edinburgh, London,: Printed for the Society by W. Blackwood and sons, 1903), 6 v.
10 Walter Scheps, “William Wallace and His ‘Buke’: Some Instances of Ther Influence on Subsequent Literature,” Studies in Scottish Literature 6 (1969), 221.
11 James Fraser, “‘A Swan from a Raven’: William Wallace, Brucean Propaganda, and Gesta Annalia II,” Scottish Historical Review 8, no. 3 (2002), 21-2.
12A. E. Christa Canitz, “”Historians…Will Say I Am a Liar”: The Ideology of False Truth Claims in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Luc Besson’s the Messenger ,” Studies in Medievalism 13 (2004), 137.