Is 'Primae Nocta' From 'Braveheart' Real?

Mel Gibson wowed us all when he played William Wallace in the blockbuster Braveheart. However, there’s one scene that’s always piqued viewers’ interest. That would be where the king, Edward Longshanks, interrupts a wedding celebration to invoke his right to primae nocta. The King of England uses the law to “breed” the Scottish out of existence in the film. This is one of the driving factors behind William Wallace’s rebellion. We’ll explain what exactly primae nocta is, its historical roots and whether anybody ever actually got away with it.

Primae nocta is the lord’s right to the ‘first night’

A quick peek at the Braveheart Fandom Wiki tells us that jus primae nocta, meaning “the right to the first night,” is an old medieval law that granted lords and kings “the legal right in medieval Europe, and elsewhere, allowing feudal lords to have sexual relations with subordinate women on their wedding night.” 

Essentially, these rich and powerful men would crash peasants’ weddings and demand to sleep with the new bride and take her virginity before the husband. It’s a practice that’s supposedly happened for thousands of years. According to the website Today I Found Out, the earliest record of this type of law appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to 2900 BC.

So, there have been many accounts throughout the ages, but are any of them true?

The historical truth of ‘prima nocta’

Many scholars have looked into the validity of such ruthless claims. As far as they can tell, it’s more myth than fact. The Scotsman, which points out other historical inaccuracies of the movie, refers to a scholar of the times, Albrecht Classen, who said, “practically all writers who make any such claims have never been able or willing to cite any trustworthy source, if they have any.”

However, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been someone throughout history who hasn’t tried. Still, people don’t take kindly to having their new wives or daughters being assaulted because someone felt it was their “right.” For example, one account from Heraclides Ponticus details how the King of Cephalonia invoked the law. Before ever bedding the new bride, her husband killed him after dressing up as a woman and taking her place. The people of Cephalonia loved it so much, and they made the kingslayer their new ruler.

‘Braveheart’ is not the only movie that got it wrong

Another film, The War Lord, featured jus primae nocta as a prominent plot point. In it, Charlton Heston plays a Norman knight named Chrysagon.  He is given lordship over a small tower and village as a reward for his service. He falls for one of the women soon to be married and decides to invoke prima nocta for a night with her. However, he breaks the law and doesn’t let her return to her husband the next morning. 

Rightly upset, the woman’s husband goes to a neighboring rival lord and instigates an invasion. However, in the end, Chrysagon gets away with his life and is last seen riding back to beg forgiveness from his own lord for the mess he caused.

Though it’s an older movie, released in 1965, The War Lord was praised as one of the best movies to show medieval times accurately. However, that’s one of the glaring mistruths present in the film. The “right to the first night” is undeniably a literary superstition.

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