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Why Braveheart is wrong about Scottish history, in 3 clips

A scene from the movie Braveheart
A scene from the movie Braveheart
(20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

The Scottish independence referendum on September 18 is fast approaching. The most prominent cultural touchstone for Scottish separatism is Mel Gibson's 1995 epic Braveheart, about William Wallace's 13th-century campaign against British rule, so it's unsurprising that the film is enjoying some renewed attention in the run-up to the vote.

If you're inspired by current events to dust off your copy of the Oscar-winner, be warned: you won't learn anything about Scottish history. In fact, the current struggle for Scottish independence has about as much to do with the events depicted in Braveheart as America's ongoing racial struggles have to do with the events depicted in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That is to say, there may be some similarities in theme and audience, but the Hollywood epic is too thoroughly fictionalized to offer much in the way of insight. Too bad there's not a better movie for headline writers to reference in the run up to this potentially historic vote.

Here are just some of the many ways that Braveheart flubbed the story.

Scotland's nobles didn't meet in 1280 to choose their king, and the English didn't massacre them immediately afterward

Braveheart opens in 1280, with a scene of nobles gathering to choose a new king, after the previous king, Alexander III had died. After they select a new ruler, they are surprised by the army of England's King Edward I and slaughtered en masse. Dramatically, this works well. It sets up the English as treacherous and explains why Wallace (who, in the movie, is a young boy during the massacre and witnesses the death of his father and brother) would believe English rule is illegitimate.

However, it's completely historically inaccurate. Alexander III was still alive in 1280, as was his granddaughter Margaret, the "Maid of Norway," who was his heir. (Alexander died in 1286 after falling from his horse, and Margaret died in 1290, while traveling back to Scotland to be crowned queen.)

And although Edward I did mediate Scottish nobles' dispute over the throne following Alexander and Margaret's deaths, he didn't lure everyone to a meeting and massacre them — he selected a king.

When Wallace led his rebellion, the Scottish king was still alive

Cropped Balliol Image

Drawing of John Balliol, the Scottish king who was deposed in 1296, and his wife.(Torstein)

England's King Edward I, known as "Longshanks," took the throne of Scotland in 1296.

Because Margaret died before she could take the crown, Scotland's nobles asked Edward to arbitrate their various claims to the throne and select a king. He chose John Balliol, who became king in 1292. However, in 1296, Edward had a change of heart, and decided that the correct answer was "myself." He forced Balliol to abdicate, and took the throne.

The real William Wallace began his rebellion about a year later, in 1297. That makes it a bit peculiar that he says in the movie that "if we win, we can have what none of us have ever had before - a country of our own." That's an awfully short memory.

Wallace didn't have an affair with Princess Isabella

In the film, Edward I sends his daughter-in-law, Princess Isabella, to negotiate with Wallace, but she falls in love with the charming rebel instead. It is implied that she conceived his child during an affair that took place right before the Battle of Falkirk, which would mean that Wallace's bloodline took the English throne.

In reality, Isabella , the daughter of King Philip IV of France, was born in 1295 or 1296. She would have been about 3 years old at the time of the Battle of Falkirk, and she did not marry Edward II and come to England until 1308.

So the theory that Isabella had an affair with Wallace and that Wallace was the true father of Edward III, suffers from some significant flaws. Professor Elizabeth Ewan, a historian at the University of Guelph, noted in a 1995 article that, "since the real Edward III was born seven years after Wallace's execution, and Isabella first came to England for her marriage three years after Wallace's death, this scenario may not gain wide acceptance among historians."

There's no evidence that English nobles were taking Scottish maidens' virginity on their wedding nights

To firmly establish the English as villains, Braveheart also shows Edward I granting English nobles the right of "primo nocta" in Scotland, an entitlement to take maidens' virginity on their wedding nights.  One scene, in which a preening English lord interrupts a wedding and threatens the life of the groom in order to force his young bride to submit to kidnapping and rape, drives home the message that the English were brutes who needed to be forced out of Scotland.

However, the supposed tradition of "primo nocta" (also sometimes called "jus primae noctis" or "droit du seigneur") is just a myth. Although it pops up in literature with some frequency, there's no evidence that it was ever a real phenomenon, or that Edward I ever used it to subdue Scotland.

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