Braveheart…brave attempt

Published in Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Medieval History (pre-1500), News, Reviews, Volume 3

Mel Gibson’s recently released film Braveheart, based rather loosely on the life of the Scots hero William Wallace, has engendered much debate and not a little criticism. It is  a far from perfect production with many distortions of fact and some cringe-inducing historical gymnastics. In many cases these misconstructions were not necessary. We could have done without the tartan kilts, the ludicrously named ‘clan’ chiefs, the sacking of York, the love-affair with the future Queen Isabella of England, or the portrayal of Robert Bruce as an indecisive weakling, while, on the other hand, the battle of Stirling Bridge could have done with a bridge.
However, most reviewers have found it within their hearts to forgive Gibson these errors, and attention has concentrated instead on what has been perceived to be a greater sin, the film’s general theme. Fintan O’Toole described Braveheart in the Irish Times as ‘a crass exercise in Anglophobia’, employing ‘the crassest and crudest of make-weights—racism’. Describing the film as a piece of ‘historical hogwash’ and ‘a propaganda service for Scottish nationalism’, O’Toole adds that by employing Irish actors and music, and by featuring an Irish character with violent anti-English tendencies, the film ‘assimilates Irish nationalism to its own Anglophobia’.
The central tenet of O’Toole’s argument is that Braveheart’s Anglophobia is anachronistic: it is ‘Scottish history strained through a late eighteenth-century drawing-room Romanticism’ and ‘Anglophobia dressed up in a garish garb invented by English romantics’. One can well understand the point that O’Toole makes, and he makes it well, but like many modern commentators he labours under the misapprehension that anti-Englishness is a recent development and, in doing so, like them, betrays an ignorance of medieval history. The fact is that Braveheart is at its best when it grapples with this theme. In portraying the events of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries as a struggle for freedom between the men of Scotland and their would-be master, the king of England, the film, rather than being a travesty of history, as O’Toole contends, comes very close to capturing the contemporary perception.
Take the following: ‘For so long as there shall be but one hundred of us alive, we will never consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honours, but it is liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life’. Who wrote that? Not some eighteenth-century romantic, not a Hollywood script-writer, but the men of Scotland in their Declaration of Arbroath sent to the Pope in 1320. It was William Wallace himself who wrote off to Hamburg and Lubeck after his great victory at Stirling Bridge asking them to ‘cause it to be proclaimed among your merchants that they may have safe access to all the ports of the kingdom of Scotland’, because, he says, ‘Scotland, thanks be to God, is recovered by war from the power of the English’. And not long afterwards Scottish emissaries in France wrote home telling the Guardians of Scotland that ‘if only you knew how much honour has come to you throughout many parts of the world from your last fight against the English, you would greatly rejoice’.
When Robert Bruce wrote to the Irish in 1306, trying to enlist their support in his war against the English, he talked of ‘permanently strengthening and maintaining inviolate the special friendship between us and you so that with God’s will our nation may be able to recover her ancient liberty’. When his brother Edward wrote to the Welsh with a similar proposal a decade later, he addressed his letter to ‘all those who wish to be freed from servitude’, and spoke of the Welsh being oppressed by the ‘English yoke’, which had lately come to press down upon the Scots also; he took pity, he said, on the Welsh for ‘the servitude and anguish you suffer at English hands’, and offered ‘to counter your oppression and to expel from your borders the unnatural and barbaric servitude of Englishmen’, so that ‘the Scottish people and Welsh shall league together and live in harmony until the end of the world’. Those Irish who supported the Scots at this time sent a remonstrance to the Pope in which they complained that ‘from the time when the English crossed the borders of our kingdom with evil intent, with all their strength and using every treacherous skill in their power, they tried to destroy our people utterly and to eradicate them completely’, and they add that ‘in order to shake off the harsh and insufferable yoke of servitude to them and to recover our native freedom which for the time being we have lost through them, we are compelled to enter a deadly war against the aforementioned, preferring under the compulsion of necessity to face the dangers of war like men in defence of our right rather than go on bearing their cruel outrages like women’.
So said the Irish allies of the Scots, and these examples could be multiplied many times over. This period witnessed an attempt by the English to conquer Scotland, a war between two kingdoms and two peoples. To think that anti-Englishness played no part in it and in dictating the Scottish reaction to it, is to fail to understand that war and that period of Scottish history. Anglophobia was alive and well and living in medieval Scotland. Congratulations to Braveheart for a brave attempt at portraying it.

Sean Duffy lectures in medieval history at Trinity College, Dublin.

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