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  • James Houser

September 11, 1297 - The Battle of Stirling Bridge & Why I Hate Braveheart

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 11, 1297. The Scots have risen. Under their iconic war leader William Wallace, a band of Scottish insurgents have assembled to hold Stirling Bridge – a strategic chokepoint and the key to Scotland. Their mission is to expel the English from their country, an epic struggle that will go well beyond myth and into straight up fantasy thanks to a Hollywood Film. I’m here to tell you why Braveheart sucks.

I’ve ranted about movies in my posts before. What might surprise some of you is that I’m not really a nitpicker. Directors and screenwriters often have to move historical events around, compress them, or gloss over them altogether to make a good movie or TV show, and I always take that as a necessity dictated by the medium. We don’t need to see all nine of the protagonist’s brothers and sisters, or delve deeply into the economic situation of the peasants. No one who watched Lord of the Rings really wanted to know about the recruitment practices and regimental structure of Rohan’s army, and that doesn’t change when the film is based on history.

What I take issue with, though, is less the factual inaccuracies for *clarity* and straight up insulting changes for drama, sexiness (in a general sense), or moralistic drivel. I cite the HBO show “Rome” and the movie “The Death of Stalin” as examples on the good end of this spectrum, since even though they take liberties with facts and dates and characters, they freaking NAIL the authentic mood of their ages, the aesthetic, and the morals of the day. People in HBO’s “Rome” are religious, violent, cruel, and oddly sensitive, just like the Romans in the age of Caesar. People in “The Death of Stalin” are paranoid, cynical, and relentlessly backstabbing, which fully captures the murderous horror of Stalinist Russia. The minor inaccuracies in these films could fill a book, but I find that less important than the humanity and the period authenticity of it all. The shows treat historical figures like complicated people, instead of plot devices.

As for negative counter-examples: “The Patriot” is overwrought drivel that tries and fails to portray the guerrilla war in South Carolina. Instead of showing it for what it really was – something bordering on a civil war, with slavery as a central issue, a clash of locals against locals with the British and American forces playing an outside but important role – it turns it into “brave American rebels versus silly/evil British who stand in straight lines like stupid people.” Reference any of my American Revolution posts for why I hate “The Patriot.” And don’t even get me started on “Gods and Generals.”

So you see my issue here. I don’t care if you combine characters, or gloss over battles, or sex up things a bit. That’s just filmmaking. But for the love of God, don’t put 21st-Century human rights in the mouth of your 13th-Century French princess, don’t turn your heroes’ enemies into mindless Orc-hordes, and don’t make a Civil War Confederate general pray to God for the end of slavery as he’s fighting to preserve it. These are things that will get you an “F” in historical authenticity. (I say, yelling at filmmakers, who will never see this post and, if they did, would wipe their tears of shame with their millions of dollars.)

So we come to Braveheart.

In 1290, the death of the Scottish heir caused a dispute over who would claim the throne. King Edward I “Longshanks” of England (a straight up, all-around badass I’ve talked about before) was asked to arbitrate in this dispute. Edward used this as an excuse to exert military power over Scotland, and after a series of events I won’t get too deep into, he found an excuse to invade. After a crushing victory at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296 (the same place where Cromwell would win his crushing victory in 1650), he forced King John Balliol to abdicate. Edward demanded (and received) homage from the Scottish nobility, so everything seemed to be in order. Wow, Edward must have said, that was easy. “Hey everyone, I just conquered Scotland in one battle!”

It didn’t take long for the Scots to recover from these events and respond, “Yeah, screw this.” Within months, there were rebellions all over Scotland. The main revolt was led by Andrew de Moray, who escaped from English custody and raised the banner of John Balliol. It was De Moray who ran the English out of the Scottish highlands through hit-and-run attacks. Meanwhile, a local noble named William Wallace managed to run the English garrison out of Lanark, but it was only after the Bishop of Glasgow blessed his rebellion that any nobles would join his cause – and noble support was essential, since they owned the land and money and property. Most of the nobles had been fine with Edward’s takeover, since a King in London was a far less pressing issue than a King in Edinburgh – but they were still Scots.

So if you’ve seen Braveheart, you know these events cover about the first half of the film – where Mel Gibson’s William Wallace (hereafter referred to as Mel Wallace) comes back to Scotland, which has been ruled by the English for several decades (?!) When he was just a boy, Mel Wallace witnessed Edward Longshanks massacre the Scottish nobles through treachery (?!) Mel Wallace observes how badly Scotland has been abused, especially since Longshanks has given the English the privilege of Prima Nocte – basically, the right to take a bride’s first wedding night (?!) If that wasn’t bad enough, the English capture and execute his new bride, invoking a roaring rampage of revenge against the hated occupiers of his country.

Of course, like 80% of this is bullshit, straight up and down. As we’ve seen, the English had invaded Scotland not during Wallace’s childhood, but literally last year. The massacre of the Scottish nobles is somewhat inspired by the Black Dinner – a much later event in the 1400s committed against Scots, by Scots, that would also inspire Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding.” (To put it bluntly, Edward I never murdered a whole clutch of Scottish nobles. This is literally an invention.) Finally, Prima Nocte was never a thing. Seriously. It is almost certainly a myth, invented by medieval propagandists to horrify and rally public opinion. It is totally made up.

Now here’s the thing: Randall Wallace, the writer of the “Braveheart” film, didn’t invent these events from whole cloth. Blind Harry wrote the epic poem “The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace” in the 15th Century, and that more than anything historical or factual is the true inspiration of Braveheart. It’s where the story of Edward massacring the nobles comes from, it’s where the story of Wallace’s wife comes from, it’s where his innate good goodness comes from. Wallace isn’t even recorded to have had a wife until Blind Harry’s poem came out. (The “secret wedding” was a good way for Blind Harry to avoid the uncomfortable fact that Wallace never married.) Blind Harry portrayed Wallace as the ideal chivalric hero. He basically turned him into the Steve Rogers/Captain America of Scotland, and turned the English into evil dastardly evil-doers. Since this poem was the inspiration for “Braveheart”, it’s not surprising that the movie gets so much wrong.

As if that all wasn’t bad enough, the movie butchers the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Mainly, and most insultingly, by completely leaving out the damn bridge.

After their victories in their various parts of Scotland, Andrew de Moray and William Wallace linked up in the summer of 1297. Edward I had left Scotland to go campaign in France, figuring that the country was conquered, but Daddy would be coming back north within the next year and Daddy would be *pissed.* In the meantime, though, the local English commanders had been piecing together a force to reconquer Scotland and subdue the Moray/Wallace rebellion. (Another thing Braveheart callously neglects is Andrew de Moray, as we shall see. Andrew isn’t even in the damn movie, when he was probably more important at this stage than Wallace.)

Either way, Moray and Wallace together decided to make a stand against the advancing English at Stirling. This only happened after a lot of bickering and arguing among the leaders of the rebellion. No people argues amongst themselves like Scots, and Moray and Wallace had to browbeat the Scottish nobles into joining their uprising. Both in their late 20s, they had to deal with older, more cynical men who were more cautious and less concerned with patriotic pride. Many Scottish nobles still remained dubious of the rebellion, and obeyed their new oaths to Edward I. Moray and Wallace were able to muster enough of a force, though, to garrison the chokepoint at Stirling.

Stirling sits in the armpit of Scotland, where the river Forth divides the southern half of the country from the north. Stirling is a chokepoint much like Thermopylae, with the mountains to the west and the sea to east; at the time of the battle, its bridge was the only crossing of the Forth. It was a pretty simple position to defend tactically: make the English try and cross the bridge, and smash them. After a series of fruitless negotiations where the English tried to convince the Scots rebels to give up, the English decided to attack on September 11, 1297.

The 6,000 Scots dominated the flat high ground north of the river, while the 9,000 English with their superior cavalry and longbowmen camped to the south. Stirling Bridge was a narrow wooden bridge, only broad enough for two men to cross at a time. As the Scots waited, forming a row of pikes on the high ground, the English began to cross. The English troops were puzzled by the Scots’ failure to attack them or resist their approach; it is likely that the English leaders still wanted to negotiate with the rebels. The real reason Moray and Wallace hadn’t approached the bridge is that they knew and respected the power of the English longbow, and standing within range of it was a recipe for disaster. Instead, they would let the English come to them.

Wallace and Moray waited until a large part of the English army had crossed over, about 2,000 men – but not too large that they couldn’t wreck them. At this point, the Scots moved over to the attack. The Scottish pikemen charged down the hill, catching the English in the act of crossing the river and with their forces split on both sides. The pikemen fended off the English knights who tried to counterattack, and as a unit smashed into the flailing English infantry. Wallace directed his main thrust towards the bridge itself, trapping the English on the north side of the river and cutting off their reinforcements. With no hope of escape, the English still on the north side were slaughtered, with a few swimming across.

It was a really anti-climactic battle, to be honest with you. There was still a large English force south of the bridge, and they could have kept the battle going until the Scots broke or were worn down. They outnumbered them, after all. Instead, the English commander lost his nerve and retreated. What could have been a minor Scottish tactical victory turned into a major triumph. Sadly, Andrew de Moray would not be around to celebrate it – wounded in the melee, he died of his injuries some days later. It fell to Wallace to take up the banner of revolt, and he carried it well into raids on northern England (although, again contrary to the film, he never got as far south as York).

So that’s the Battle of Stirling Bridge. And if you’ve seen Braveheart, you know exactly what I’m about to say: this does not AT ALL resemble the “Battle of Stirling” depicted in the movie. For our purposes, we’ll call it Mel Stirling.

The Battle of Mel Stirling doesn’t have a bridge, first of all. I distinctly recall a Scottish exchange student at Virginia Tech screaming at the screen during a viewing of Braveheart, “Where’s the fooking bridge?!” The bridge is the centerpiece of every Scottish kid’s education about the Battle of Stirling BRIDGE, and yet it is absent from the film. Second, of course, the film cuts out Andrew de Moray entirely. Third, and most insultingly, the film portrays Wallace using pikes as some kind of…genius tactical move? Like, a brilliant stratagem that no one could have predicted? Like the Scots were idiots who never figured out that long pointy objects are the best tools to fight knights with?

To me, that’s the worst thing. Ignore that the Scots paint their faces blue (which was a practice of the Picts, not the Scots, who inhabited the same region a thousand years before and the Scots wouldn’t even know about this practice.) Ignore that they wear kilts, which won’t be a big thing for another couple of centuries. Ignore that they’re using claymores, which ALSO won’t be around for another couple centuries and were still foreign to the sword-and-shield fighting of the High Middle Ages. The fact that Mel Wallace has to teach the Scots how to use SPEARS is rank imbecility of the highest order. Spears were literally the most common weapon on EVERY battlefield until the 18th Century, because you know what? A bunch of long, pointy objects is scary to everyone, men and horses alike. It was really not a complicated military strategy. Everyone knew this.

This is what I mean: Braveheart’s mangling of history is not done for narrative, or for clarity, or for character development. It’s done because it disrespects the intelligence of its audience. Everything has to be Hollywoodized. Characters have to be shoehorned into “dead wife=motivation.” Battles are “commander smart=soldiers dumb.” Conflicts are “good guys good, evil bad guys take sex slaves and murder people.” Braveheart the movie assumes its viewers are idiots.

Let me get one thing straight: you are not an idiot for liking Braveheart. It is an extremely well-made movie, with great set pieces, killer music, good acting, and Catherine McCormack (aka Wallace’s wife, who REALLY should have been in more movies). It is a very, very good FILM. It is a very, very bad HISTORICAL film. And there’s one reason I haven’t even mentioned yet: the very title of the damn thing.

See, William Wallace was never known as “Braveheart.” That wasn’t his nickname. It WAS the nickname given to someone else, the true liberator of Scotland, a man slandered and badly treated by the film. “Braveheart” was the name given to Robert the Bruce.

In the movie “Braveheart,” Robert the Bruce is depicted as the perpetual fence-sitter, with his father playing a key role in Wallace’s downfall. This act disgusts Bruce, which causes him to defect to the side of freedom. At Bannockburn several years later, Bruce is ordered to parade in front of the English, but suddenly orders his men to attack and wins Scotland’s freedom.

Nothing pisses me off more than “Braveheart” slandering Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s greatest king and its true greatest hero. Bruce’s father played no role in betraying Wallace. By the time of Bannockburn, Bruce had been leading a rebellion against the English for seven years. William Wallace’s rebellion of 1297-1298 was a stepping stone in a long string of conflicts, and Bruce’s rebellion was the one that actually defeated the English and won Scotland its freedom. It was Bruce who would become the new King of Scotland, who was the real military and political genius who united the nobles and delivered the Kingdom.

On his deathbed in 1327 Bruce asked his champion, Sir James Douglas, to take his heart to the Holy Land and present it to the church in Jerusalem as a mark of penitence for his past sins. After Bruce’s death, Douglas had the heart removed and placed in a silver casket around his neck. With Jerusalem long in Muslim hands, Douglas looked for the next best thing. He joined the Spanish wars against the Muslim Moors in Spain. At the end of a battle, Douglas ended up surrounded by the Muslims. He took the silver casket from his neck and threw it among his foes before fighting to his death, saying “Now pass thou onward as thou would want, and Douglas will follow thee or die.” So fell James Douglas, and so went the earthly heart of Robert the Bruce, forever remembered as “Braveheart.” Until some dumb movie come along.

And that’s why Mel Gibson is a hack.

Also, one year after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, King Edward came back to Scotland and just ROFL-stomped Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk. But that might be a story for some other day...

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