How Historically Accurate is the Outlaw King
Many of us know the story of Braveheart, where William Wallace leads a major rebellion against Edward I in the late 13th century. That movie did not only show the English as repressing the Scots but it also showed another prominent Scottish figure, Robert the Bruce, as being supplicant to the English and enabling their actions until finally he successfully revolts against the English during the reign of Edward II. Many historians had criticized this aspect, where Robert the Bruce was shown in a negative light. In fact, Robert the Bruce, along with many Scots, did for a time accept Edward I as the king, but Robert the Bruce may have actually simply weighted and calculated for an opportune time rather than risk a rebellion that was likely to fail. The Netflix movie Outlaw King tells his story and the making of Scotland that was free of English rule.
The Main Story
The story begins with Robert the Bruce, along with other prominent Scottish nobles, meeting with Edward I to accept him as their king in around 1306. They had already led a rebellion that was unsuccessful, where Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, had earned his nickname by winning against the Scots. Robert still wants to be king, as his family has ancient lineage to the thrown of Scotland, but other claimants exist for the Scottish throne and none of them are in position to attack the English due to their strength and possession of many key areas of Scotland. John Comyn was another Scottish noble who also had perhaps just an equal or maybe even stronger claim to the Scottish throne.
William Wallace is the last major Scottish figure not to accept Edward I as king. Eventually, after several years of being on the run and hiding in the highlands and other regions, William is killed. This is shown in the movie as inspiring rebellion against the English, that the death of Wallace somehow triggers a nationalist rage that sparks Robert to begin to plot to take back Scotland. As the Bruce begins to plot the rebellion, he meets with Comyn in Greyfriars church. However, the two quickly make their own claims to the throne of Scotland and Comyn does not show willingness to side with the Bruce against Edward I. This leads to Robert the Bruce striking and later Comyn dies, which leads to the Bruce being excommunicated but being absolved by the Scottish church leaders as they promoted the rebellion. Six weeks later, Bishop William de Lamberton crowned the Bruce King of the Scots at Scone, which was the traditional place that Scottish kings were crowned. However, despite this, many Scottish nobles did not join his rebellion and he was betrayed, which almost led to his capture but he escaped with a few followers. In fact, at the Battle of Methven where the Bruce and his army was almost destroyed, Aymer de Valence defeated him in a surprise attack. After this, the Bruce may have spent the winter of 1306-1307 in the Hebrides. His wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, was hiding in Kildrummy Castle after this battle, but she was captured after a siege of the castle that was guarded by Robert the Bruce's brother (Niall Bruce). After the castle fell, Niall Bruce was executed.
From that time on, Robert the Bruce had realized to defeat the English he would have to conduct a most Guerilla war. This proved to be very successful and he began to have some success in attacking the English in places they did not expect. When he did next meet the English in battle, he wanted to choose the ground where the battle would be. In May 1307, the advantage point for him was at Loundoun hill, a place that was trapped on either side by marshes. While the Bruce was aware of this, the English were not. They saw his small army that was poorly equipped and fell into his trap. They had also produced trenches that restricted English movements to areas that were prepared with spears. Robert the Bruce was attacked by Aymer de Valence, once again, but this time he had made conditions perfect for his victory, which he was able to take.
While the movie ends there, it is clear that this was a turning point. Soon after this battle, Edward II took over England from his father after he had died and he was far less able. After more successful operations and defeat of the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, where once again Robert the Bruce had to use creative tactics to makeup for his inferior numbers. After that time, it was Robert the Bruce who launched invasions on the English and was later recognized as the Scottish king by Edward II's successor, Edward III.
While Braveheart has been much criticized for its lack of historical accuracy, and not to mention how it diminishes the role Robert the Bruce played in the war against the English, Outlaw King does a generally better job in showing key events until the Battle of Loundoun Hill. There is still a lot of leeway in the way in which key events are shown and not much agreement as to how they happened. For instance, King Robert is initially shown as reluctant in the movie in accepting that he and the other Scottish nobles are vassals of the English king. There could be some truth to this, but it is also likely that this stage of his career was part of a larger plan that had been at work for some time. He and the other nobles were soundly defeated and were unable to mount a serious resistance. He had already, for instance, made a pact with William Lamberton to always support each other, possibly to lay the groundwork for rebellion. William Wallace was killed in 1305, but it took Robert the Bruce an entire year before he launched his rebellion. In fact, Edward I had likely begun suspecting the rebellion, as he asked Robert the Bruce to keep his castle at Kildrummy (Figure 2).
Other issues include the marriage he had with Elizabeth, his second wife. He married her well before (in 1302) he launched his rebellion, rather than around the time of the rebellion. The depiction that they only gradually got to know and trust each other may not be that accurate as the marriage was more likely to be similar to Medieval political marriages. The depiction of the Bruce's defeat at the Battle of Methven shows treachery by de Valence was not so much treachery as a clearly bad mistake by the Bruce. He would or should have known de Valence would likely be loyal to the English king, as de Valence was English. The other major flaw was the presence of Edward II in the Battle of Loudoun Hill in the film. He would very likely not been there and certainly Edward II would not have challenged Robert to any fight. Even if he did, the Scots would not have let him escape as he did in the film, as he would have been an extremely valuable prize.
Robert the Bruce was shown as a brave, heroic, but also opportunistic character. In many ways, he was such a person who won important battles. He also learned from his mistakes, particularly after major defeats to the English. Effectively he learned that chivalrous battles with the English would never work since they always had the numbers and resources. Once the Bruce switched to battles he can win on his terms and Guerilla tactics, then he began to win.
Elizabeth de Burgh was Robert the Bruce's second wife who supported her husband and eventually learned to love him. We don't actually know much about her, as Medieval women were rarely recorded in historical documents. She did likely take care of his Marjorie Bruce, who was Robert's daughter from his first marriage. However, how brave or inspiring she may have been is not clear.
John Comyn is shown as a competitive figure to Robert the Bruce. His character may not have been as negative as was suggested, as he may have been opportunistically killed as Robert rose in power. His loyalty to Edward was no different than the Bruce's, as both were technically under English authority until Robert decided to make a move and take the Scottish crown for himself.
Aymer de Valence was certainly a loyal English subject throughout his career rather than someone who betrayed Robert. Aymer's family had noble heritage from the time of the Norman conquest and was of French origin.
Edward I and II are both shown as greedy rulers of England who would stop at nothing in subjugating the Scottish kingdom. While perhaps there is some truth to that, they were also usually cautious. Edward I did try to rule Scotland by playing off the Scottish nobles against each other, while his son was likely to be a more indecisive and poor strategic thinker relative to his father.
The Outlaw King does a much better job than Braveheart in depicting events that led to the Scottish rebellions that ultimately led to their independence. Robert the Bruce, both his ambition and bravery, were critical to the ultimate success against the English. The key events between the 1290s and 1307, the first major victory against the English, are sometimes glossed over or not displayed to full accuracy, the rise of Robert the Bruce does show the difficult political landscape that Robert had to navigate in his rise to power and ultimately the Scottish crown.
- For more on the period before and the beginning of the Scottish rebellions against Edward I, see: Traquair, P. (1998). Freedom’s sword: Scottland’s wars of Independence. London: HarperCollins.
- For more on the events at around the time of the Battle of Methven, see: Saunders, C. J., Le Saux, F. H. M., & Thomas, N. (Eds.). (2004). Writing war: medieval literary responses to warfare. Cambridge ; Rochester, N.Y: D.S. Brewer, pg. 107.