Friday, January 31, 2014

Heroes and Villains

by David Hough

Every culture has its mythical heroes. England has Robin Hood and King Arthur amongst others. Neither of them actually existed, but their fictional existence has been no bar to them being portrayed as heroes in books, films and plays. They are part of the legend of England.

Other legendary figures really did exist, but the heroism of some can now be called into question. As an English schoolboy, I grew up with the stories of Sir Walter Raleigh as a great English hero. It came as a surprise when I later discovered he was probably little more than a pirate. He quickly went down in my estimation, but that’s what growing up is all about: putting aside the myths developed in childhood and facing up to historical reality.

I finished my schooling in Scotland where the legend of William Wallace saw him portrayed as a great Scottish hero. That version of the man was in no way diminished by the inaccuracies of the Braveheart film. I learned only later how much the heroic image of William Wallace is called into question by historical records.

There are two principal versions of Wallace’s life. One stems from the tales of a medieval minstrel called Blind Harry who lived one hundred and fifty years after Wallace. It was Harry’s job to make up stories to entertain people and he did that with such a measure of success that his tales last to this day. His account of the life of William Wallace does not stand up to historical scrutiny, but it marks out Wallace as a hero of Scotland, much in the way Raleigh was once portrayed as hero of England.

The other, darker, version of the life of Wallace comes largely (but not totally) from the chronicles of medieval monks who were his contemporaries. Foremost among those chroniclers is Walter Hemingborough, a canon of Guisborough Priory in Yorkshire. The picture that emerges from Hemingborough’s chronicle is not that of a national hero, but of a brutal terrorist.

Guisborough Priory was founded in 1119 by Robert de Brus, an ancestor of the Scottish king known as Robert the Bruce. Walter Hemingborough was probably the most famous of its canons. His historical chronicle is widely regarded by historians for its detail and reliability. In the matter of his portrayal of the Anglo-Scottish wars, historians believe he must have known and spoken with men who fought on some of the famous battlefields. His account of William Wallace’s invasion of England, however, makes uneasy reading for those who view Wallace as a hero.

In the winter of 1297 Wallace, fresh from his overwhelming victory over the English army at Stirling Bridge, began a ferocious and prolonged devastation of northern England. There had been some brief raids in the previous year, but nothing on this scale. Walter Hemingborough’s chronicle describes the extent of the destruction, and its impact on life in the region.

At that time the praise of God ceased in all the monasteries and churches of the whole province from Newcastle to Carlisle. All the monks, canons regular and the rest of the priests and ministers of the Lord, together with almost the whole of the people fled from the face of the Scot.

Hemingborough’s account can be corroborated by the Lanercost chronicle, a copy of which is now in the British Library. It can also be corroborated by records that show tenant farmers unable to pay their taxes after their land had been devastated by Wallace’s army. In the matter of that invasion, Blind Harry’s account doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact it attributes to Wallace much of the story of Bruce’s invasion of Yorkshire in 1322. Such errors were no problem for Harry because he was only a storyteller, not a historical chronicler. His tales can be enjoyed as works of fiction, provided the reader does not ascribe to them any historical legitimacy.

Walter of Guisborough’s chronicle goes on to tell of to the ensuing panic caused by Wallace’s foray through Northumberland:

For the Northumbrians were petrified with fear, and they evacuated from the countryside their wives and children and all their household goods, sending them with their animals to Newcastle and various other places.

In other words, the chronicle tells of a brutal terrorist invasion. In that incursion, Wallace avoided confronting any English army, concentrating instead on killing villagers, and destroying land and property.

Was Wallace a great military leader? On the battlefield, he won a resounding victory at Stirling Bridge. Or did he? When we examine the detail of that battle, we discover that the Scottish victory was the direct result of the appalling incompetence of the two English commanders, the Earl of Surrey and Hugh Cressingham. Wallace’s subsequent defeat at Falkirk was largely down to his own poor leadership in setting up a flawed defence.

So much for historical record. How does Wallace fare in fiction?

When Hollywood came to make the Braveheart film, the writers took as their basis Blind Harry’s account of Wallace’s life and added to it yet more historical inaccuracies. Thirteenth century Scotsmen did not wear kilts or paint half their faces blue. The film incorporates lots of exciting action and beautiful scenery, but it gives a false account of what actually happened.

Novel writers have mostly tended towards the ‘national hero’ image of Wallace. But not all. I shall cite just two examples to show the diversity of opinion.

In his novel, Rebel, (£3.59 on Amazon Kindle) Jack Whyte’s portrayal of Wallace sits firmly in the hero camp. The author goes so far as to equate Wallace with Jesus, a man who came from nowhere to become a great leader.

Edward Lanyon’s novel, The Poisoned Cup, (£1.53 on Amazon Kindle) takes the opposite stance. In particular, it highlights the brutality of Wallaces’s invasion of Northern England. In this book, Wallace’s actions are the result of a pathological hatred of English people, a trait drawn from his Welsh ancestry.

Which version do you favour? More importantly, which portrayal of Wallace do you think was the more accurate? The choice is yours. How you view him as a historical figure could colour your reactions when you read about him in fiction, or see him portrayed upon the screen. It’s worth a thought.


Information on David Hough’s books can be found at:


  1. I don't know much about Wallace but I do know that Isabella of France was a child when he was around. :) So much for the romance. And he wasn't the peasant portrayed in the movie, but a member of the gentry. I vaguely recall him being portrayed as a hero in a Nigel Tranter novel and Tranter wrote a LOT of Scottish historical fiction.

    Was there a Scottish account that we know of? It might be interesting to compare.

  2. I find this fascianting. My maiden name is Wallace and my father had traced our roots back from Australia, through Ireland to Scotland and to the sixteenth century descendants of Wallace. All Dad's information is built on the familiar premise that Wallace was indeed a national hero. I wonder what he would think about his ancestor now, with the information you have delivered here. From my own POV, I don't want to trace my bloodlines back to a terrorist, although I am quite happy to trace my maternal bloodlines back to convicts. Killing a sheep when starving is far less confronting than brutalising people who lived along the Borders.


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