On this day in the year 1298, the English and Scots fought the Battle of Falkirk – the famous battle where the army of King Edward Longshanks defeated William Wallace and his rebel Scotsmen. In the movie Braveheart, it’s the battle where Wallace is almost killed before he’s dragged from the field by Robert the Bruce, who had sided with the English at the behest of his sinister father.
Now Braveheart is a great movie, and that was a dramatic and compelling scene, but many historians have criticized both the scene and the film as being historically inaccurate. For one, Robert the Bruce did not side with the English at Falkirk. He wasn’t even there, although during his reign he did change sides between the rebel Scots and the English several times. Nevertheless, was the artistic license taken in Braveheart defensible in the name of crafting good fiction?
One of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors is Bernard Cornwell. For his novel Heretic, set during the Hundred Years War, he created several fictional places and personages central to the story, including a French count, a walled city and its lord, and a Cardinal from Livorno, which is not a real archdiocese. In my opinion, Heretic is a fantastic novel and Cornwell’s artistic license is entirely justified. In fact, unless you were a student of the French countryside or an aficionado of Italian archbishoprics, you’d not even know artistic license had been taken.
I did something similar in my own novel, whose antagonist is a French bishop. He’s not a nice man – and that’s being kind! So instead of slandering the name and memory of some real bishop, I made this character the Bishop of Blois, even though Blois’ real bishopric was not created until centuries later. I made this call for the sake of my story. And I’m okay with that.
But others may disagree. So what’s your view? When does artistic license go too far in the name of historical fiction?