I would like to preface what follows by saying that I really, really wanted to enjoy Outlaw King (Netflix, 2018). Part of me, especially, was hoping that a film made about the beginnings of the first War of Independence (1296-1328) during the era of #MeToo would provide a narrative that included the women involved in Scotland’s struggle against Edward I.
Spoilers, it did not.
Of course, there are qualifications to this. The characterisation of Elizabeth de Burgh allowed moments of female agency and influence. I was hopeful when, following a scene where Bruce and his brothers decide to go to war against England, she confronts her husband with the following monologue on power.
I know you have no need of my counsel. It’s true, I have seen very little of the world. However, a young lady of my standing is afforded a great deal of time to read, to form distinct opinions, and to draw her own conclusions about the nature of power. Power is making decisions. Power is not allowing yourself to be buffeted on the tides of history. Instead, it is choosing a boat, climbing aboard, and hoisting the sail. I choose you. And whatever course you are charting. I choose you. My husband.
Metaphors (yuck) aside, it is obvious from this monologue that there were informed choices that guided the writing of Outlaw King, including an understanding of the type of education a women of Elizabeth de Burgh’s standing would have received and her ability to act as a partner in her marriage. This is what makes the remaining hour and a half of the film so frustrating: the writers, producers, and director clearly wanted to make a film that was historically accurate, but, as many histories of Scotland have done before, they happily allowed the women of the Bruce narrative to be ‘buffeted on the tides of history’.
What follows in the film is a conflation of many female experiences into one female character – Elizabeth de Burgh, who isn’t even Scottish. Bruce’s inauguration at Scone was carried out by a woman, Isabella, countess of Buchan, which is depicted in the film. But is she named? No, she’s not. The inauguration of the kings of Scotland was historically carried out by a MacDuff of Fife, it was a privilege associated with the lineage. The fact that a woman participated in this ceremonial power is thus, very significant. Importantly, the countess of Buchan was imprisoned by Edward I in 1307 for inaugurating Bruce. She was one of the caged women, not Elizabeth de Burgh, who hung outside Berwick Castle. The film interestingly uses the harsh treatment and experiences of Scottish women that were imprisoned for their participation in the Scottish cause as plot points for an Anglo-Irish woman, Elizabeth de Burgh. Yes, she was imprisoned, however, she was treated relatively well and kept, more or less, under house arrest in England while even Bruce’s daughter, Marjorie, hung in a cage at the Tower of London (something also missing from the film).
It would be understandable if the male characters in the film had been similarly conflated and combined for the purpose of the film’s narrative, however, this was not the case. Almost painfully, the film introduces the men of Bruce’s retinue, allowing glimpses of their motivations and personal struggles. James Douglas, is perhaps the most poignant of these characterisations. It is obvious from the film’s depiction of him that the script was heavily influenced by John Barbour’s The Brus, an epic, chivalric poem from the late fourteenth century about Robert the Bruce. He had been dispossessed of his lands and joined Bruce’s forces to regain his lands and his title. It is a particularly cathartic moment, then, in the Battle of Loudoun Hill, when he screams ‘What’s my fucking name?’ before fighting an English knight. Douglas’s reclamation of his agency and position had me rooting for him throughout the film. However, the same sort of character development I saw with characters like Douglas I didn’t see with the women in the film.
I assume we are supposed to be grateful that the film didn’t depict women in the way films of this type usually do. You know, the plot line where the woman almost gets raped but then gets saved by her literal knight in shining armour? Yeah, that one. Given the heavy influence of a chivalric poem on this film, I am somewhat surprised that it didn’t use that plot line. And for that, I give the film makers some credit. But also, it’s 2018 and isn’t it about time that we gave as much attention to female narratives as we do to male ones? It is even more frustrating given the fact that their names are listed in the credits of the film, which means the film makers knew who these women were, they just determined their identities were unimportant to the over-arching patriarchal narrative. In some ways, the film and its depiction of women underscores issues within Scottish historiography – women are definitely in the margins of largely male narratives. However, when we look beyond texts like The Brus, investigating alternative sources – letters, charters, material objects – the scope of women’s contributions and importance to the politics of Scotland during this period become more pronounced. Perhaps in the next instalment of this franchise or in the making of a new one, we will see better representation of the female players and we won’t have to scream ‘what’s her fucking name?’
Rachel Davis is a PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis, ‘Elite Women in Power in Late Medieval Scotland, 1296-1458’ investigates how and when women exercised power in their locales.