Alternative Histories: Inaccuracies of Braveheart & How Multiple Deaths Stopped England Dominating Britain Sooner

The 1995 Mel Gibson epic Braveheart won acclaim and Oscars for the Australian-American Hollywood legend. In the movie that he also directed, Gibson plays the Scottish rebel, William Wallace, whose insurrection against the English overlords freed Scotland from oppression but it cost Wallace his life in the process. Such a concise assessment of the storyline is not needed because this is about as accurate as the film gets.

In truth, William Wallace did rebel against the English several years after a succession crisis occurred in Scotland, resulting in the installation of a puppet king. With no clear heir in sight and the Scots unable to select a candidate among themselves, they turned to the King of England to arbitrate and finally choose a king. Edward I — England’s king at the time — known as “Longshanks,” agreed to help the Scots pick a ruler, on one condition, they make him overlord of Scotland and the Scottish nobles acquiesced. Edward I came north and chose John Balliol as king — which was a fair choice but an easier one, compared to the most popular candidate, Robert the Bruce, as Balliol proved easier to manipulate.

Edward’s riding roughshod over the Scots soon prompted uprisings, which came to a head at Stirling Bridge, after John Balliol’s eventual resistance to English rule caused Edward’s forces to sack Berwick-Upon-Tweed. In 1297, Andrew Moray and minor noble William Wallace (not just a simple man of limited means as portrayed in the movie) met the forces of John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and Hugh de Cressingham. Using the bridge to his advantage, Wallace’s forces pulled a surprise victory over de Warenne and Wallace became Guardian of Scotland. Edward I, in Flanders at the time, learned of the defeat and reaching a truce with the King of France, made for Scotland, preparing a vast army that sacked southern Scotland. English forces routed the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, meaning a disgraced Wallace renounced the Guardian of Scotland position. Meanwhile, Edward stopped off at Scone Abbey and retrieved the Stone of Destiny, used to crown Scottish kings, where he placed it in a specially made throne in Westminster Abbey, allegedly announcing as he sat: “a man does good when he rids himself of a turd!” Wallace remained a fugitive until his execution in 1305, he never met Isabella, Edward’s daughter-in-law, let alone got her pregnant — Isabella being 10-years-old at the time of Wallace’s execution — never sacked York (Robert the Bruce did after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314) and Longshanks never died at the same time as William Wallace, he died in 1307.

William Wallace Statue, Aberdeen

If alternate histories are anything to go by, then it is fairly easy to play this game and ponder what might have happened if Wallace’s uprising did not need to occur. England had exerted authority over Scotland since the Norman Conquest, as they had with Wales and even Ireland since the days of Henry II. Arguably one could say that the real tension between England and Scotland was birthed in the latter part of Edward I’s reign — his moniker being “Hammer of the Scots” after all. Although less than a decade prior to Wallace’s uprising the king of Scotland — Alexander III — was like a brother to Edward.

Alexander III became King of Scotland aged seven, which sparked tensions between nobles wishing to become the boy-king’s regent. Alexander often sought sanctuary in England and married the king at the time, Henry III’s, daughter Margaret, both she and Alexander were 10 at the time of their marriage. Henry III wanted a condition of that marriage to be him becoming overlord of Scotland, which Alexander refused. Gaining maturity at the age of 21, Alexander was instrumental in driving out the Norwegians from the Western Isles but he was met with tragedy himself. Having lost his wife in 1275, all of the children from Alexander’s first marriage didn’t survive past their early twenties. His daughter Margaret, married to King Eric II of Norway, died shortly after giving birth to her daughter, aged 22; his sons, Alexander and David dying aged 20 and 12 respectively. With all of his children dead, Alexander needed to marry again; as his sole surviving heir was granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway, heir presumptive to the Scottish throne. Alexander married a second time, to Yolande de Dreux, great-niece of Simon de Montfort, whose uprising in the Second Barons’ War in England resulted in de Montfort being slain by his protégé, the future Edward I. It was on his way home, eager to create a son with his new wife that caused Alexander III’s death, thrown by his horse during stormy weather.

Monument marking the site of Alexander III’s death

Alexander’s death meant that his granddaughter Margaret, a three-year-old girl in Norway, became queen in 1286. Edward I had a two-year-old son, also named Edward and saw an opportunity that had passed when his sister died, for some clever England/Scotland intermarriage to produce a king of both nations. Margaret and Prince Edward — the future Edward II — were soon betrothed but at the age of seven, while sailing from Norway to Scotland, she succumbed to her weak constitution and died. Margaret, the Maid of Norway’s death resulted in the succession crisis that led to Wallace’s uprising and eventual death. If Margaret had stayed alive, she would have married Longshanks’ son, Edward, and with a future King of England wed to a Queen of Scotland. Any son born of that union would have been destined to both England and Scotland as rightful heir to both, unifying the two countries nearly three centuries before the death of Elizabeth I and ascension of James VI of Scotland to James I of England in 1603. A legitimate ruler of both England and Scotland would have made the entire island one whole kingdom by birthright, stopped wars between the two countries and presented a united front against Europe. Much more time could have been devoted to expansion elsewhere, despite meaning no existence of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, started by Edward III claiming the French throne via his mother’s bloodline. There is a good chance that relations in the European mainland would have progressed through negotiation and marriage as opposed to military actions… all of which are probably more accurate depictions of history than Braveheart!