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Robert the Bruce

Although he died six centuries ago, Robert the Bruce remains a symbol of Scotland’s identity.

Bruce reviewing troops before the Battle of BannockburnRobert the Bruce - Robert I, King of Scots, to give him his formal style - was born at Turnberry Castle in south Ayrshire on 11th July, 1274 and died on June 7th, 1329 six hundred and fifty years ago at Cardross on the Clyde, in the house which he had built for himself during the last decade of his life.

A classic example of the national hero highly characteristic of Europe in the later middle ages, Bruce is remembered for two achievements - restoring the Scottish realm and monarchy to the strong position they had enjoyed in the time of King Alexander III (1249-86) and securing recognition of the independence and integrity of his kingdom from the English crown and parliament, from the Papacy, and from the community of Christendom.

Bruce was not a man born out of his time. His life and career stand almost exactly at the point at which western Europe turned decisively into a Europe des patries, that is a Europe consisting predominantly, though by no means exclusively, of ‘national countries’ or ‘national kingdoms’ which could be firmly identified and even personified. These have formed a relatively stable pattern ever since.

The details may often have changed, but the fundamental pattern has remained astonishingly constant. France and England are among the oldest of these ‘national countries’, Prussia and Spain appeared rather later, Germany and Italy did not grow into true ‘national countries’ until the nineteenth century. Scotland, like the Scandinavian lands, can be discerned about the turn of the eleventh century.

The United Kingdom would be an expression empty of meaning without the centuries-long development of the two kingdoms of England and Scotland, however much that may be forgotten nowadays, or submerged in the interests of a monolithic ‘English history’.

A kingdom of the English already existed by the end of the ninth century and was converted into a true kingdom of England by the Norman and Angevin kings after the conquest of 1066. Hindsight makes it easy for us to feel that the growth of this kingdom, a territory called England inhabited by the English people, was inevitable. In reality it was a slow creation whose achievement was complicated by the conquest of Wales between c. 1090 and 1283, and by the annexation of Ireland towards the close of the twelfth century - somewhat paradoxically followed by attempted physical conquest which in this first phase reached its fullest extent c. 1300.

If we leave Wales and Ireland out of the reckoning we can say that the realm of England under Edward I formed a real political community. The majority of Edward’s subjects thought of themselves as English, were bound by English law, spoke (even if they did not yet widely read or write) the English language, and hoped for the salvation of their immortal souls through the intercession and ministration of clergy organized within the English church. In short, nationality was being welded on to political, feudal and even ecclesiastical power, a mixture which would prove immensely tough and resilient.

Whereas before only kings or lords could wage war, by 1296 a chronicler could write of ‘a general war between England and Scotland’. Whereas before treason was a crime only against one’s own liege lord, in 1319 Robert the Bruce could be called a ‘traitor to England’ by a Huntingdonshire jury. Whereas before men and women were lieges of various lords from the king downward, often simultaneously of several lords, without this having any marked national aspect, in 1296 Edward I ordered the arrest of all the King of Scotland’s lieges in England, thus giving Scots a political nationality.

Two years later he underlined this by issuing a proclamation that all Englishmen, by which he can only have meant his own subjects normally domiciled in England, were to depart from Scotland on pain of arrest and suspicion of treason. It may be objected that these definitions were mere technicalities, but the same cannot be said of the complaint lodged with the English King’s council in 1305 by the English burgesses settled at the old Scottish royal burgh of Roxburgh. Their grumble was that they had to live cheek by jowl with Scots burgesses, whom they asked the King to eject forthwith.

Two years later we have an eye-witness (or ear-witness) account that preaching friars were travelling through Scotland telling people of Merlin’s prophecy that in the time of ‘the Covetous King’ (i.e., Edward I) the Scots and Welsh would unite and drive the English from their lands. Common sense applied to a considerable volume of evidence of this kind tells us that the idea of nationality had not only taken a strong hold in both. England and Scotland by 1300 but was already associated with political authority and loyalty.

It is necessary to make this point when assessing the significance of Robert the Bruce, partly because it is often denied by those who believe that political nationalism is a modern invention, partly because we cannot make sense of his career and ambitions without appreciating his background. The kingdom of Scotland in which he grew up was no less artificial than England. It was largely the creation of the royal house between 1107 and 1286. The Kings of that period seldom missed an opportunity of insisting on the dignity of their throne, trying to march in step with the admired and vastly richer monarchies of England and France.

Even though their kingdom was a racial and linguistic medley where ‘Scots’ in the strictest sense formed only one element, the kings emphasized the unity of the regnum Scottorum. By erecting barriers against foreign encroachment in church and state, they compelled outsiders to see Scotland as a distinct entity and their subjects as simply Scots. Their realm stretched from the Pent-land Firth to the Cheviots, and in 1266 Alexander III, by his treaty with King Magnus VI of Norway, had added Man and the western isles to his dominions.

This mixed Gaelic, English and Norse society found itself without a natural head or leader after the unexpected death of Alexander III in 1286 had been followed by that of his only direct heir Margaret, the little ‘maid of Norway’, in 1290. At that time Robert Bruce was sixteen. He had been taught that by descent from David I’s son Henry his family had a strong claim to the throne should the ancient line fail. He must have known of his grandfather’s obsequious toadying to Edward I in 1291 in the vain hope that his claim would be preferred to that of his nearest rival John Balliol, who in fact became king in 1292.

He must have known of the scorn with which Edward dismissed the over-sanguine pleading of his ineffectual father to be handed the throne once Bal-liol had been brusquely deposed (1296): ‘Have we nothing else to do but win kingdoms for you?’ Another thing he knew was that to an extent untrue of his grandfather or father he was a Scotsman born and reared, the holder from his mother Marjorie, after whom he named his only child by his first marriage to Isabel of Mar, of the strongly Gaelic earldom of Carrick which looked westward to Ireland and the southern Hebrides.

Friends of the family included the hereditary Stewarts and their kin, powerful in the Firth of Clyde, the Macdonalds of Islay, the Earl of Lennox and the Campbells of Lochawe. Robert Bruce’s next younger brother Edward was brought up with the king of Tyrone, another brother Thomas seems to have had Irish connections and ‘had always hated the English’. In later years Bruce would count for his very life on the support and loyalty of Angus Macdonald, Neil Campbell and Robert Boyd lord of Noddsdale near Largs, men who were with Bruce in the months from June, 1306 to February, 1307 when he was a refugee in the highlands and islands.

Bruce formally accepted the kingship of John, but he was surely never reconciled to the idea of a Balliol dynasty. Neither did he relish the prospect of annexation by Edward I. In the rich town of Berwick and on Spotts Muir south of Dunbar smouldering ruins and thousands of dead and wounded brought it home to the Scots in the most painful manner that Edward I’s resolve to be ‘superior lord’ of Scotland could only be thwarted by a dour and bloody struggle.

William Wallace, a young man in the Stewart’s circle of tenants and vassals, saw this at once and acted accordingly. Bruce came to see it slowly, yet a well-informed contemporary says that in 1297 he decided to leave Edward’s service and join ‘his own people’. His fellow leaders of a too-gentlemanly resistance movement were James the Stewart, the Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, and William, Lord of Douglas. They claimed to act on behalf of the ‘community of the realm’ of Scotland, an expression used since 1286 to denote the kingdom as a whole, the commonwealth (respublica) as James the Stewart called it on another occasion.

Wallace, with his colleague young Andrew Murray from the north, also acted for the Commonwealth, raised the ‘common army’ of Scotland and won the brilliant victory of Stirling Bridge after the noble lords had dithered and faltered. Wallace became ‘Guardian of the realm’ and Bruce and other magnates had to accept eclipse, none too graciously. We do not know whether Bruce was at Wallace’s side when the champion of Scotland was defeated with heavy loss at Falkirk (1298), but thereafter Bruce burned Ayr to make it useless for the English. When Wallace gave up the Guardianship, possibly under aristocratic pressure, the office was bestowed jointly upon Bruce and John Comyn the younger of Badenoch, King John Balliol’s nephew by marriage.

Here was an uneasy partnership which could not endure. Yet the collective Scottish war effort from 1298 to 1304 was impressive and did not depend on either Bruce or Comyn. It was waged in the name of the absent King John, for whose cause Bruce can have had little enthusiasm. His joint Guardianship ended in 1300, but he can hardly have sulked in the wings for the next two years, for much of the fighting took place in the south-west and he himself admitted in 1302 that he had been leading his army of Carrick all over the country despite the fact that there had been no general call-up. He was gaining that incomparable knowledge of Scottish geography which would stand him in good stead when he made his bid for the throne and for years afterwards.

Bruce’s military resources must not be underrated. As earl he could summon the ‘common army’ of Carrick, unarmoured but hardy foot soldiers with spears, bows and Lochaber axes. As a feudal lord he could gather about him a retinue or ‘meinzie’ of vassals and adventurous young men glad of wealthy patronage. The striking thing about Bruce’s retinue is that its members were drawn from so many different parts of Scotland.

Although on occasion Bruce might forget an enemy he never forgot a friend. Between 1304 and 1306 his following included a quartet of ‘my knights’ (as he called them), Alexander Menzies (Lothian and Tweeddale), Reginald Crawford (Cunningham), Walter Logan (Clydesdale) and Robert Boyd (Cunningham), with Alexander Keith (Annandale), Patrick Skene (Aberdeenshire), Peter Gray den (Berwickshire) and Robert of Annan. At least six of these men were deprived of their lands and outlawed by Edward I in 1306, and of those who survived several were duly rewarded when Bruce came into his own.

Already he was determined to take the throne of an independent Scotland. His submission to King Edward early in 1302 is not an inexplicable contradiction of this ambition. Resentful of Balliol, impatient of his fellow nobles’ ineffectual manoeuvring, aware that old King Edward had not long to live, Bruce at twenty-eight had time on his side. Formally he aided the English and was allowed to marry (as his second wife) the earl of Ulster’s daughter Elizabeth, and, on his father’s death in 1304, to succeed to his English inheritance, a large part of the earldom of Huntingdon.

He took part with other Scots magnates in the planning of a new government of Scotland under King Edward’s supervision in 1305. It was while these plans were being made that Wallace, betrayed at Glasgow, was captured and taken south for trial at Westminster and punishment as a traitor at Smith-field.

In 1304 Bruce nevertheless made a secret pact with William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, who was a friend of Wallace. In the winter of 1305 he negotiated with other magnates to win support in his bid for the crown. No doubt he would have preferred to await Edward I’s death, but matters were brought to a head prematurely when an attempt to win over John Comyn only prompted his indignant refusal. Instead of gaining agreement the interview ended with the murder of Comyn and his uncle Robert in the Franciscan church at Dumfries (February, 1306).

Bruce at once rushed to Glasgow to consult Robert Wishart. The bishop urged immediate enthronement at Scone and even produced from hiding the necessary robes and regalia. Word was brought to the bishop of St Andrews at Berwick, who slipped away from the garrison under cover of darkness and reached Scone in time to celebrate pontifical high mass at Bruce’s enthronement (Palm Sunday, March 25th, 1306).

The coup had come too soon, leaving Bruce woefully unprepared and short of friends. It still seems barely credible that he survived. Edward I was provoked into a paroxysm of vengeful fury. Scores of men who had come out for Bruce, nobles, knights and commoners alike, were drawn on hurdles to the gallows, hanged and quartered at Carlisle, Newcastle upon Tyne and elsewhere.

Bruce’s twelve-year-old daughter Marjorie, his sister Mary and Isabel of Fife countess of Buchan, who had deserted her husband to take part in the inauguration ceremony as representative of the Clan Macduff (for her brother Earl Duncan of Fife was in English hands) were confined in special cages of iron and timber, respectively at the Tower of London and in the castles of Roxburgh and Berwick.

‘King Hob’, as Bruce was derisively nicknamed by his enemies, was forced to tramp the heather, lurk in caves and hide on uninhabited islands of the western sea. He grew used to being hunted. At one time, while he was relieving himself in a Galloway wood, he scarcely had warning before three pursuers sprang upon him - only to be despatched one after the other by a swordsman of consummate skill. So much for the king’s majesty, acquired the hard way.

Bruce came out of hiding in the early spring of 1307, winning ground steadily in South-West Scotland although his foe Edward lay only sixty miles away near Carlisle, already on his deathbed. A groundswell of support for their new King surged through Scotland, encouraging Bruce to march north after Edward’s death in July and, in a series of brilliant guerrilla campaigns, knock out his main Scottish opponents, the Comyns of Badenoch and their kinsman the Earl of Buchan, the Earl of Ross, and not least important, the Macdougall lords of Lorn or Argyll whose numerous castles commanded the approaches to the South-West Highlands. This accomplished, Bruce was able to celebrate his first Parliament at St Andrews in March, 1309.

From then until 1314 it was sheer hard slogging, fending off Edward II’s invasion of 1310-1311 without risking a pitched battle, raiding deep into northern England, recovering the Isle of Man (June, 1313), recapturing (and thereafter normally destroying) the major castles or strongholds garrisoned by the English and their Scots collaborators, Perth and Dumfries (1313), Roxburgh and Edinburgh (1314). Berwick, unsuccessfully attacked in 1312, was not finally taken until 1318. Stirling was besieged by the King’s brother Edward in the summer of 1313. With rash chivalry, he gave its commander a twelve-month respite, thus ensuring a full-scale invasion by Edward II.

Nowadays we are so accustomed to an inferiority complex being the well-nigh universal syndrome in Scotland, that it calls for a severe effort of imagination to sense the atmosphere of the years 1306-1314 in the kingdom which Robert I had revived. The nation slowly forming itself in the generations prior to 1286 in loyalty to an ancient monarchy, torn asunder by the tragedies and challenge of 1286-1305, had discovered a leader who knew how to win.

Not surprisingly, the clergy hailed him as a second Joshua or Judas Maccabaeus. An acute English observer wrote of Wallace in 1305: ‘he had for long been the captain of the Scots nation against Edward I’. Wallace had been tortured to death at Smithfield, but in Robert Bruce the Scots now had a leader who was both captain and king.

Even so, King Robert would have preferred not to fight the English army, led by its king in person, in a pitched battle. The harshest experience, perhaps some kind of west highland instinct, taught him to go for scorched earth and guerrilla harrying. But to bar Edward II’s path to Stirling the King of Scots assembled what must have been one of the toughest and best-disciplined armies of Western Europe.

That army was forced into a full-scale battle on June 24th, 1314 by the fateful English decision to advance on the previous night into a confined space on the Scots’ left flank, down on the low-lying carse. Bruce swung his groups of spearmen, ‘schiltroms’, leftward and instead of waiting to be charged by the much feared heavy cavalry gave the order to attack, footmen against horse.

‘Meet them with spears hardily’ was part of Bruce’s order for the day, ‘and wreak on them the meikle [great] ill that they and theirs have done us till’. In reminding the Scots that they fought with justice on their side and with the prospect of riches, the King concluded in words which echo Judas’s speech to the Maccabees, the Jewish freedom-fighters of the second century B.C.:

‘We for our lives

And for our children and our wives,

And for the freedom of our land,

Are bound in battle for to stand’.

The English knights were pressed back, their horses speared under them, themselves trampled in the melee. The great army was destroyed and a vast treasure of booty and ransom fell to the victors.

Most dangerously from a Scots point of view, Edward II escaped from Bannockburn and once safely in England refused to recognize Scottish independence. For another fourteen years King Robert was compelled to devote much energy and time to putting pressure on the English government, raiding northern England year after year, virtually annexing parts of Cumberland and Northumberland, attacking English shipping in the Irish Sea and elsewhere, acquiring a dominant position in eastern Ulster and even conducting a major but quite unsuccessful campaign in Ireland, where his brother Edward had been made ‘King of Ireland’ by certain native leaders who over-optimistically believed he would rid them of English occupation.

France was relatively easy to win over to the Scottish cause; the treaty of 1295 between John of Scotland and Philip IV was renewed in 1326 between Robert I and Charles IV. Friendship was renewed, formally and informally, with Norway (1312) and the Low Country principalities. But the Papacy, having strongly backed the Scots between 1298 and 1302, had reasons to be pro-English after 1305 and Robert I had an uphill struggle to convince Pope John XXII that his was an independent realm and he himself a lawful King.

The breakthrough came in 1320 with the famous letter addressed to the Pope by the barons of Scotland and the community of the realm, now known as the Declaration of Arbroath (although probably emanating from a ‘great council’ meeting at Newbattle Abbey in Midlothian). Eloquently asserting the independence and separate national identity of Scotland, the authors of this letter made the bold claim that if King Robert should ever desert the Scottish cause his lieges would drive him from the throne and choose another King to lead them.

In truth, ‘Good King Robert’ showed more steadfast loyalty than a good many of his subjects, especially those seduced by the blandishments of Edward Balliol, son of King John Balliol, who attempted to take the throne in 1332. His optimistic courage, straightforward dealing and sacrifice stand in starkest contrast with the defeatism, snobbery and greed which prompted the leaders of the Scots nation to dismantle their country in the reign of Queen Anne.

Hampered increasingly by ill-health (perhaps including the superstitiously dreaded disease of leprosy), Robert I never flagged in the service of his countrymen. His genius did not lie in law-making or administrative innovation, although at one of his parliaments (Scone, 1318) he promulgated an important statement of certain of the laws of Scotland. The hallmarks of his rule were restoration, reconciliation and the dispensing of even-handed justice.

For a Scottish king of his time he was exceptionally aware of the importance of the west highlands and western isles. He maintained close links with Ireland right up to his death, not merely to embarrass the English government in Dublin but because he knew the importance of a peaceful Ulster for Scottish security. Yet he was a man of truly European outlook, buying ships from Genoa, trading with Scandinavia and the continent, moved also by a genuine desire for the recovery of the Holy Land for the Christians.

He was never anti-English. Not only did he enjoy close friendship with many prominent English magnates, but more significantly he had a number of English people fighting on his side against Edward I and his son, some of whom, such as the Yorkshire knight, Sir Christopher Seton, foully betrayed at Loch Doon by a man Barbour simply calls Macnab, paid the cruellest price for their actions. However ironically, the Scots even stormed Norham Castle in 1327 in protest against the deposition of Edward II by his own subjects.

The treaty of Edinburgh made with the young Edward III in 1328 and ratified by the English parliament was an admirably statesmanlike document whose moderation could have ushered in generations of friendship between the two countries if the rather older Edward III had not brutally repudiated it in 1333.

John Barbour, who wrote his famous poem on the life of Robert the Bruce in the reign of the King’s grandson Robert II, almost certainly had access to a collection of Gestes - tales of heroic deeds - collected during Bruce’s lifetime, possibly even under Bruce’s own supervision. Barbour does not tell the story once familiar to every Scots child of how Bruce, on the point of despair, took courage from a spider that would never give up trying to spin its web.

That story in fact is hard to trace before the time when Sir Walter Scott (who surely did not invent it) put it into his Tales of a Grandfather. But Barbour’s work is full of stories at least as attractive and perhaps truer to life. When in 1306 the King with his small band of followers was ferried across Loch Lomond in a boat which could take only three at a time, he entertained those who had crossed first and were waiting for the rest by reading to them a romance of Oliver and the Twelve Peers of France battling against enormous odds as they held at bay the Muslim forces of Sir Fierabras and his father the Sultan of Babylon.

Such cheerfulness in extreme adversity was matched by compassion, as when in Southern Ireland, Bruce kept his hard-pressed expeditionary force waiting until a poor laundress, one of the camp followers, had been safely delivered of her baby. The King was also admired for his courtesy and patience, as when he told Papal emissaries who bore him letters addressing him merely as ‘Sir Robert de Bruce’ for fear of offending Edward II of England that Mother Church was showing partiality between her children.

He would not give the envoys a rough answer nor receive the misaddressed letters; he would wait till the Pope showed him the same respect that he showed to other Christian kings. Barbour’s account of Bruce’s death at Cardross, however literary it may be in form, is perfectly credible. When the dying King asked that his heart should be taken to where crusaders were fighting against ‘God’s foes’ and borne into battle, Sir James Douglas stood forward and undertook the pilgrimage. Bruce thanked him tenderly, and:

Then was none in that company

That did not weep for pity.

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