by: Christian Niedan
The second installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a deep dive into the the history of Scotland through an examination of Neil Oliver’s landmark television documentary miniseries, A History of Scotland…
At Bannockburn, Scotland, 704 years ago, a battle with modern ramifications unfolded. Today, that battle represents a crucial Scottish victory, serving to help shape a national identity for the country that was separate from England. This fated battle also marked the moment where Scottish King Robert I split an English knight’s head apart with a battle axe — punctuating the victory over the army of England’s King Edward II.
In 2014, Scots voted on whether to secede from Great Britain, and the idea of an independent national identity played a big role at the polls. So, just past the 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, I decided to revisit the medieval Scottish/English dynamic by re-watching BBC archaeologist/presenter Neil Oliver’s landmark television documentary miniseries, A History of Scotland. I then wrote an essay on two of its episodes for my film website, Camera In The Sun, entitled “The Hammers & The Bruce.”
The title of my essay refers to English King Edward I who earned his nickname, “The Hammer of the Scots (“The Hammers”) and to Robert the Bruce (“The Bruce”). Yet, both kings remain overshadowed in American cinematic imaginations by their non-royal contemporary, William Wallace, thanks to Mel Gibson’s acting/directing turn in the Oscar-winning Wallace bio-pic, Braveheart. In regards to that film, I wrote how it provided my own first, and most-lasting, image of Robert the Bruce, as embodied by actor Angus Macfadyen:
“He sits on the battlefield at Falkirk looking at the distraught face of a betrayed William Wallace (Mel Gibson). The Bruce, urged on by his sickly scheming father, has cut a deal with English King Edward I (the late great Patrick McGoohan) to defeat the Wallace-led Scottish army. Robert is allowed to keep his lands, but must be a puppet for the English. Yet Falkirk is the moment when the young Bruce decides to let Wallace escape, inspired by the latter’s purity of conviction for Scotland’s freedom. Later, Robert will tell off his father, and take up the mantle of the executed Wallace. Our final cinematic glimpse of now-King Robert I is signaling an open-field charge at the Battle of Bannockburn.
Almost fifteen years later, I gratefully allowed my cinematic perception of the Bruce to be smashed apart with the battle axe of a BBC documentary series.”
That series is A History of Scotland, and Neil Oliver delivers an absolutely essential televised essay about his homeland — one that harnesses beautiful cinematography, transcendent musical scoring, and evocative reenactments, of which I wrote:
“Though we never hear the actors voices, their faces and gestures vividly convey the nuanced personalities of every major Scot involved in forging the nation north of England. And the faces featured in two episodes in particular struck a chord with me, as they cover an eventful 100-year medieval period that culminates in what many Americans know of only through a twenty year-old fictional film — one that took an Oscar for Best Picture, but which can’t hold a candle to the high drama that Oliver creates with facts as they (probably) were.”
Oliver delivers his narration with the dramatic energy and relatable candor of an expert storyteller. He describes the action as if it happened recently, and often while standing on the historic sites of the Scottish saga. That includes the opening to the Battle of Stirling in 1297, and relating English army commander John de Warenne’s reaction to seeing his heavy cavalry cross a narrow wooden bridge over the River Forth, while a Wallace-led Scottish force looked on from the other side:
Neil Oliver: “The English horsemen began riding across the bridge. Warenne suddenly exploded. He hadn’t actually given the order to cross. So he made his men come back to his side and regroup. Then on his command, they began to cross for a second time. Wallace must have been amazed by this comic display of arrogance and complacency. But Warenne didn’t care how it looked. He didn’t rate Wallace’s army.”
Or, Robert the Bruce’s famous axe-to-the-head of one Henry de Bohun at Bannockburn:
Oliver: “The English opened with their knights, as was tradition – a mass cavalry charge. And one of the knights, Henry de Bohun, found himself charging an isolated figure off to the side of the soldiers — an isolated figure wearing a crown. He lowered his lance and galloped forward. This was his chance at immortality. But the Bruce dodged it. He rose up in his stirrups, and with a single blow of his battle axe split de Bohun’s skull from crown to chin. With that one stroke, the Bruce became legend.”
Despite the Bruce’s victory that day, Oliver gives a blunt assessment of the battle’s immediate impact for Scotland and its king:
Oliver: “Bannockburn had given him his legend, but it had changed nothing else. The road to Scotland’s independence seemed very long, and it was blocked. Progress now depended on Edward II, who had no reason to make any concessions of any kind at all.”
Of William Wallace, Oliver recounts how English prisons and the “Ragman Roll” agreement of 1296 (paying homage to King Edward I) had robbed the Scottish cause of army commanders from the nobility, leading influential Scottish Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, to back a man (Wallace) who “…was no leader of armies. But he was smart, and he could fight, and he had the popular touch.” Oliver also analyzes the myth that subsumed the facts of Wallace’s life:
Oliver: ”The Wallace story is one of the defining legends of Scottish identity, and the epitome of Scotland’s story. And yet, with all the mythologizing, we’ve lost sight of Wallace the man. A remarkable man…but a man nonetheless. The younger son of an obscure knight, Wallace’s destiny would be shaped less by himself, more by the needs of others.”
“He became a brand. Repackaged and rolled out in the centuries to come to suit both nationalist and unionist agendas. 700 years later, the basic vision of a free independent Scotland for which William Wallace fought still haunts the collective Scot’s imagination.”
In the wake of the Battle of Bannockburn, English King Edward II convinced the Pope to excommunicate Robert, seriously damaging the Scottish cause. In response, Scotland’s king, bishops, and nobles all sent letters of appeal to the Pope from Arbroath Abbey — the surviving third letter becoming known as the “Declaration of Arbroath,” and including this famous oft-quoted portion:
Oliver: ”For as long as but 100 of us remain alive, never will we be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting. But for freedom. For that alone, which no honest man gives up, but with life itself.”
Oliver closes episode three of A History of Scotland by articulating the crucial preservation of Scottish identity that Robert the Bruce achieved at the time of his death in June 1329 — most importantly, with his head-smashing victory at the Battle of Bannockburn:
Oliver: “There was a Scottish people now, loyal to a Scottish throne. No more confusion. No more divided loyalties. The bishops and the Bruce had done their jobs. It was a revolution.”
Author’s Note (Update): In September of 2017, Neil Oliver was appointed President of Conservation Charity, The National Trust of Scotland. In September 2018, he published his latest book, The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places. On November 9th, 2018, Netflix released the film Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce. Co-written and directed by David Mackenzie, it is the highest-profile screen version of the Scottish king since Angus Macfadyen’s portrayal in 1995’s Braveheart.