Dr Iain MacInnes: Outlaw King, Fact or Fiction?

Many of us have by now watched the new Netflix release, Outlaw King. And many on social media have had questions about the film, the period and its history. As I have written elsewhere “historical accuracy” is a problematic consideration, not least because medieval sources never provide a truly “accurate” portrayal of the past. All historical sources, upon which films like Outlaw King are based, were written with a specific purpose in mind, for a specific audience, and with the intention of telling one very specific version of history. This makes it no more accurate, then, than anything we see on the screen. Still, we historians work to interpret the history that has come down to us. As such, we can at least compare Outlaw King to the prevailing historical narrative to sort out what is likely from what is fantasy.

The things that look right…

The film does a good job portraying various military engagements and events of the period, such as:

  • The siege of Stirling: Edward I did indeed refuse to accept the garrison’s surrender until he had tested the ‘Warwolf,’his specially constructed siege engine and new toy;
  • Comyn’s murder: although Bruce needed help, Comyn was indeed murdered in Greyfriar’s Church, Dumfries. And the Scottish clergy absolved him for it;
  • The battle of Methven: this defeat, an unexpected ambush, and Bruce’s retreat in its wake did occur, as did further defeats during his flight. The MacDougall attack on Bruce, however, conflates two separate episodes (the battle of Dalrigh, and the account of Bruce and his men crossing Loch Lomond during their flight);
  • Bruce’s recovery: Bruce’s return in 1307 was indeed small-scale, with castles like Turnberry seized and slighted. The ‘Douglas Larder’ occurred too, where James Douglas recaptured his familial home before ruining its stores and water supply by poisoning it with the bodies and blood of the massacred English garrison;
  • Loudon Hill: for the most part this is depicted well. While lesser-known, it remains an important point in Bruce’s early recovery. Loudon also witnessed the use of tactics that would also be successful at Bannockburn.

Amongst the more disputed elements, however, a few perhaps stand out:

Bruce the Patriot

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The film is consistent in portraying Robert Bruce as a patriotic Scot. The reality was far more complex. Bruce did not surrender at the siege of Stirling. He had surrendered at least two years earlier and campaigned with the English in 1302-1304. Moreover, the film is clear that it was Robert Bruce senior who decided the family should surrender, disassociating the future king from the act, and echoing Braveheart’s depiction of Bruce senior pulling the political strings. Bruce’s rebellion is portrayed as a response to Wallace’s execution and the anger of “the people.” But Wallace fought for King John of Scotland and a return to the Balliol kingship supported by the Comyns, to which the Bruces were opposed. Indeed, those last patriots who surrendered in 1304 were led by the Comyns. If any group was the patriotic party at this time, it was them. And yet the film depicts the Comyns as traitors. John Comyn denigrates Wallace as “not a man, but an idea.” Comyn plans to betray Bruce to Edward I and take the crown for himself. As a result, and echoing medieval portrayals, Comyn gets what he deserves. But this ignores the very real possibility that Comyn’s murder was premeditated and that Bruce needed rid of Comyn before he could himself seize the throne.

Edward II – mad, bad and dangerous to know?

One of the most interesting depictions is of Edward of Caernarvon, Prince of Wales, and the future Edward II of England. Often portrayed – as in Braveheart– as an effete man more concerned with the social graces than with war, it is interesting to see a different character provided in Outlaw King. There remains a petulance about him, given full force when defeated on the field at Loudon and left to face his humiliation alone. But there is also a dangerous malevolence to him, as demonstrated in his execution of Neil Bruce. His belief that he is stronger than his father is contradicted by events but he displays an extreme streak to his behaviour, evident in his manic actions at the feast of the swans. Whether the historical Edward ever behaved in this way is impossible to know, although modern accounts of the king suggest that there may be more than dramatic licence at work here. So, while not problematic as such, his portrayal does provide an interesting comparison to other images of the king provided in popular culture, and provides food for thought.

Loudon Hill

It is excellent to see an under-appreciated battle given centre-stage prominence, and it is brave of director David Mackenzie to end here, rather than driving the story towards the better-known Bannockburn. The basics of the battle, including the preparation of the battlefield to nullify the English numerical and cavalry advantages, reflect what we know of the battle. But the issue lies with Edward II’s participation. He was, in reality, not present. Indeed, he was not even king nor with his father when Edward I died. Prince Edward remained in London while his father marched to Scotland, and only progressed northwards at news of the old king’s death. He ventured briefly into Scotland, but soon left to oversee preparations for his coronation. There was no defeat of the new king by Bruce and his forces. It was to be at Bannockburn, seven years later, that Edward II met his humiliation at the hands of Bruce. Although not abandoned on the battlefield, he was forced to flee all the way to Dunbar, pursued by James Douglas. Loudon Hill, rather than giving a bloody nose to Edward II, gave Robert Bruce impetus in making his kingship a reality. But it was arguably Edward I’s death that did more to ensure his ultimate victory. It removed the chance of English invasion and allowed King Robert to focus on his Scottish enemies – the Comyns, the MacDougalls, and those others who opposed the sacrilegious murderer who had usurped the throne.

The Hero King

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And this is perhaps the ultimate problem. Just like our medieval sources, films like this are not meant to be nuanced. They lack an ability to engage with both sides of the discussion, as we in history like to do. Instead, they present one view, one perspective. It is Bruce the hero who emerges once more from the narrative, with little consideration of ulterior motives or questioning of his actions. His story is fantastic. His recovery from the defeats of 1306 nothing short of miraculous, and the story as provided in Outlaw Kingis only partially told. Ultimate victory did not come cheap, and nor did it come easily following the success at Loudon Hill. But it was achieved. Bruce made himself king, at the point of the sword, and made his kingship a reality in war-torn Scotland. He established a dynasty and oversaw a period of Scottish military and political success. But we also need to consider the other side of things, if we are ever to get an “accurate” picture of this period, and if we are ever to gain a more nuanced understanding of Robert Bruce and the Scottish Wars of Independence.

Dr Iain MacInnes is a Senior Lecturer in Scottish History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has published several articles and a monograph on the subject of Scotland’s Second War of Independence, 1332-1357, as well work on the fourteenth-century Anglo-Scottish conflict more widely. He is also increasingly investigating modern depictions of the medieval period in his most recent work, focusing on medieval warfare as it is depicted in film, television and comics.

Images (CC) Wikimedia Commons.
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6 thoughts on “Dr Iain MacInnes: Outlaw King, Fact or Fiction?

    1. It’s available on Netflix throughout the country (or at least where decent internet connections allow). Amazon Prime has it listed but you can’t get it through there, unlike some other Netflix product.

      I suspect it costs more than the entire annual budget of BBC Scotland, but then again every episode of Outlander appears to as well. 😉

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  1. One should never expect total historical accuracy from film studios (even “Bohemian Rhapsody” plays fast and loose with some major aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life, and he died well within my lifetime)… however Outlaw King was surprisingly good when it came to accuracy, by the standards of such productions.

    However, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Bruce’s Gaelic heritage is omitted as usual. Most Scots know him as a Norman from southern Scotland and are completely unaware that both him and John Balliol were Gaels as well. The Gaelic language is practically absent from this film, other than one waulking song, if I mind rightly.

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    1. I suppose the oversight of the Gaelic element is worth emphasising, and indeed it would have been useful if he had perhaps started speaking to Angus Og, for example, in Gaelic (before it morphing back into English maybe). But then he should also have been speaking French to Edward I and Edward II, and maybe Scots to the army at Loudon. Language is aimed more at the audience, and what they want to hear, as opposed to being a relfection of “reality”…

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