Brown cover

De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Chris Brown

William Wallace: The True Story of Braveheart

(The Mill, Brimscombe Port, Stroud, 2005) 287 pp. £ 17.99 ISBN 0752434322.

Before reading this book, forget all you have seen in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. If Gibson’s film is a powerful and compelling piece of cinema, it is also far from being an historically accurate portrait of medieval Scotland. Even tough William Wallace is one of the greatest Scottish heroes, and many have written about him, there is no academic biography of the winner of Stirling Bridge. This has led to a general lack of understanding of the society in which Wallace lived. For instance, it is widely accepted that he was a commoner, while he was of noble birth, although not a great lord. Chris Brown’s aim is to provide a realistic account of Wallace’s life and times and keep the truth separated from the myth.

The reader will soon notice that the documents on Wallace are not as many as someone might expect. This is clear in the last chapter, In the Eyes of the Enemy: Wallace in English Records, where the sources concerning him are few. Sadly, we do not know very much on the Scottish hero except that he fought at Stirling and Falkirk, became Guardian of Scotland for a short period, was executed in London and something more, of course, but nothing which can fully satisfy our curiosity. Brown’s merit is to tell what we know for certain on Wallace and leave out the legend, or rather explain it. The author is particularly concerned in making the reader understand how the society in which Wallace lived was. There are many problems, he says, with what many wrote on the Scottish hero: that he was base born, that in his country the ruling families were Anglo-Norman rather than Scottish, that they spoke Norman French, and so on. He then corrects most of the common views concerning Wallace.

No less than three chapters are devoted to the chroniclers whose works cover Wallace’s deeds, that is to say John of Fordaun, Andrew of Wynton, Abbot Bower and Blind Harry, author of a later epic verse narrative, perhaps the most famous composition on the subject. Brown analyzes what these chroniclers wrote about Wallace, quoting long abstracts from their works.

For those who like military history the most interesting section will probably be chapter fourteen, the above mentione In the Eyes of the Enemy. Here the reader will find a large selection of original sources - some of which even taken from this site- , all particularly interesting. To mention some of them, we can find a list of items lost by the commander of Stirling Castle when he surrendered to the Scots in 1299; a document on the enlistment of 300 hobelars from Ireland; an order against desertion in the English army: an account of wages for the garrison at Berwick.

An accurate portrait, which shatters many myths and disembarrasses Wallace of fictional trappings. The Scottish hero needed to be seen in the right perspective, and this is what Chris Brown brilliantly does by getting closer to the real Wallace.

Sergio Mantovani

Independent Scholar <s.manto@infinito.it>

Page Added: August 2006