Robert I (11 July 1274 – 7 June 1329), popularly known as Robert the Bruce, was King of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329. Robert was one of the most famous warriors of his generation, and eventually led Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England. He fought successfully during his reign to regain Scotland’s place as an independent nation and is today remembered in Scotland as a national hero.
Descended from the Anglo-Norman and Gaelic nobilities, he was a paternal fourth-great grandson of David I. Robert’s grandfather, Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale, was one of the claimants to the Scottish throne during the “Great Cause”. As Earl of Carrick, Robert the Bruce supported his family’s claim to the throne and took part in William Wallace’s revolt against Edward I of England. In 1298, Bruce became a Guardian of Scotland alongside his great rival for the Scottish throne, John Comyn, and William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews. Bruce resigned as guardian in 1300 due in part to his quarrels with Comyn but chiefly because the restoration of King John seemed imminent. In 1302, he submitted to Edward I and returned to “the king’s peace”. When his father died in 1304, Bruce inherited his family’s claim to the throne. In February 1306, following an argument during a meeting at Greyfriars monastery, Dumfries, Bruce killed Comyn. He was excommunicated by the Pope but absolved by Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow.
Bruce moved quickly to seize the throne and was crowned king of Scots on 25 March 1306, at Scone. Edward I’s forces defeated Robert in battle, and Bruce was forced to flee into hiding in the Hebrides and Ireland before returning in 1307 to defeat an English army at Loudoun Hill and wage a highly successful guerrilla war against the English. Bruce defeated the Comyns and his other Scots enemies, destroying their strongholds and devastating their lands from Buchan to Galloway. In 1309, he held his first parliament at St Andrews, and a series of military victories between 1310 and 1314 won him control of much of Scotland. At the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, Bruce defeated a much larger English army under Edward II, confirming the re-establishment of an independent Scottish monarchy. The battle marked a significant turning point, and, freed from English threats, Scotland’s armies could now invade northern England; Bruce launched devastating raids into Lancashire and Yorkshire. He also decided to expand his war against the English and create a second front by sending an army under his younger brother, Edward, to invade Ireland, appealing to the native Irish to rise against Edward II’s rule.
Despite Bannockburn and the capture of the final English stronghold at Berwick in 1318, Edward II refused to give up his claim to the overlordship of Scotland. In 1320, the Scottish magnates and nobles submitted the Declaration of Arbroath to Pope John XXII, declaring Bruce as their rightful monarch and asserting Scotland’s status as an independent kingdom. In 1324, the Pope recognised Bruce as king of an independent Scotland, and in 1326, the Franco-Scottish alliance was renewed in the Treaty of Corbeil. In 1327, the English deposed Edward II in favour of his son, Edward III, and peace was temporarily concluded between Scotland and England with the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, by which Edward III renounced all claims to sovereignty over Scotland.
Robert I died on 7 June 1329. His body is buried in Dunfermline Abbey, while his heart was interred in Melrose Abbey. Bruce’s lieutenant and friend Sir James Douglas agreed to take the late King’s embalmed heart on crusade to the Lord’s Sepulchre in the Holy Land, but he only reached Moorish Granada. Douglas was killed in battle during the siege of Teba while fulfilling his promise. His body and the casket containing the embalmed heart were found upon the field. They were both conveyed back to Scotland by Sir William Keith of Galston.
Background and early life
The first of the Bruce, or de Brus, line arrived in Scotland with David I in 1124 and was given the lands of Annandale in Dumfries and Galloway. Robert was the first son of Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, and claimed the Scottish throne as a fourth great-grandson of David I. His mother was by all accounts a formidable woman who, legend would have it, kept Robert Bruce’s father captive until he agreed to marry her. From his mother he inherited the Earldom of Carrick, and through his father a royal lineage that would give him a claim to the Scottish throne. The Bruces also held substantial estates in Garioch, Essex, Middlesex, and County Durham.
Although Robert the Bruce’s date of birth is known, his place of birth is less certain, although it is most likely to have been Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire, the head of his mother’s earldom. Very little is known of his youth. He was probably brought up in a mixture of the Anglo-Norman culture of northern England and south-eastern Scotland, and the Gaelic culture of south-west Scotland and most of Scotland north of the River Forth. Annandale was thoroughly feudalised and the form of Northern Middle English that would later develop into the Scots language was spoken throughout the region. Carrick was historically an integral part of Galloway, and though the earls of Carrick had achieved some feudalisation, the society of Carrick at the end of the thirteenth century remained emphatically Celtic and Gaelic speaking.
Robert the Bruce would most probably have become trilingual at an early age. He would have spoken both the Anglo-Norman language of his Scoto-Norman peers and his father’s family, and the Gaelic language of his Carrick birthplace and his mother’s family. He would also have spoken the early Scots language. The family would have moved between the castles of their lordships — Lochmaben Castle, the main castle of the lordship of Annandale, and Turnberry and Loch Doon Castle, the castles of the earldom of Carrick. Robert had nine siblings, and he and his brother Edward may have been fostered according to Gaelic tradition, spending a substantial part of their youth at the courts of other noblemen (Robert’s foster-brother is referred to by Barbour as sharing Robert’s precarious existence as an outlaw in Carrick in 1307-08). As heir, Robert would have been schooled by tutors in all the requirements of courtly etiquette, and he would have waited as a page at his father’s and grandfather’s tables. This grandfather, known to contemporaries as Robert the Noble, and to history as “Bruce the Competitor”, (because he competed with the other claimants to the throne of Scotland in the “Great Cause”), seems to have been an immense influence on the future king.
Robert’s first appearance in history is on a witness list of a charter issued by Alexander Og MacDonald, Lord of Islay. His name appears in the company of the Bishop of Argyll, the vicar of Arran, a Kintyre clerk, his father, and a host of Gaelic notaries from Carrick. Robert Bruce, the king to be, was sixteen years of age when Margaret, Maid of Norway, died in 1290. He must have followed this and subsequent events with interest, perfectly aware that his own fate would be profoundly affected by the success or failure of his grandfather’s claim to the throne. It is also around this time that Robert would have been knighted, and he began to appear on the political stage in the Bruce dynastic interest.
Robert’s mother died early in 1292. In November of the same year Edward I of England, on behalf of the Guardians of Scotland and following the “Great Cause”, awarded the vacant Crown of Scotland to his grandfather’s first cousin once removed, John Balliol. Almost immediately, his grandfather, Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale, resigned his Lordship of Annandale and his claim to the throne to Robert’s father, possibly to avoid having to swear fealty to John as a vassal lord. Days later that son, Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, resigned the earldom of Carrick he had held in right of his late wife to their son, Robert, the future king.
Even after John’s accession, Edward still continued to assert his authority over Scotland and relations between the two kings soon began to deteriorate. Naturally, the Bruces sided with King Edward against King John and his Comyn allies. Robert the Bruce and his father both considered John a usurper. Against the objections of the Scots, Edward I agreed to hear appeals on cases ruled on by the court of the Guardians that had governed Scotland during the interregnum. A further provocation came in a case brought by Macduff, son of Malcolm, Earl of Fife, in which Edward demanded that John appear in person before the English Parliament to answer the charges. This the Scottish king did, but the final straw was Edward’s demand that the Scottish magnates provide military service in England’s war against France. This was unacceptable; the Scots instead formed an alliance with France. The Comyn-dominated council acting in the name of King John summoned the Scottish host to meet at Caddonlee on 11 March. The Bruces and the earls of Angus and March refused and the Bruce family withdrew temporarily from Scotland, while the Comyns forfeited their estates in Annandale and Carrick, granting them to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan. Edward I had, however, provided a safe refuge for the Bruces, having appointed the Lord of Annandale to the command of Carlisle Castle in October 1295. At some point in early 1296, Robert married his first wife, Isabella of Mar, the daughter of Domhnall I, Earl of Mar and his wife Helen.
Beginning of the Wars of Independence
Almost the first blow in the war between Scotland and England was a direct attack on the Bruces. On 26 March 1296, Easter Monday, seven Scottish earls made a surprise attack on the walled city of Carlisle, which was not so much an attack against England as the Comyn Earl of Buchan and their faction attacking their Bruce enemies. Robert Bruce must have helped his father in defending Carlisle on this occasion and would have gained first-hand knowledge of the city’s defences. Both his father and grandfather were at one time Governors of Castle, and following the loss of Annandale to Comyn in 1295, it was their principal residence. The next time Carlisle was besieged, in 1315, Robert the Bruce would be leading the attack.
Edward I responded to King John’s alliance with France and the attack on Carlisle by invading Scotland at the end of March 1296 and taking the town of Berwick in a particularly bloody attack upon the flimsy palisades. At the Battle of Dunbar, Scottish resistance was effectively crushed. Edward deposed King John, placed him in the Tower of London, and installed Englishmen to govern the country. The campaign had been very successful, but the English triumph would only be temporary.
Although the Bruces were by now back in possession of Annandale and Carrick, in August 1296 Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale, and his son, Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick and future king, were among the more than 1,500 Scots at Berwick who swore an oath of fealty to King Edward I of England. When the Scottish revolt against Edward I broke out in July 1297, James Stewart, 5th High Steward of Scotland, led into rebellion a further group of disaffected Scots, including Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, MacDuff, the son of the earl of Fife, and the young Robert Bruce. The future king was now twenty-two, and in joining the rebels he seems to have been acting independently of his father, who took no part in the rebellion and appears to have abandoned Annandale once more for the safety of Carlisle. It appears that Robert Bruce had fallen under the influence of his grandfather’s friends, Wishart and Stewart, who had inspired him to patriotic resistance. With the outbreak of the revolt, Robert left Carlisle and made his way to Annandale, where he called together the knights of his ancestral lands and, according to the English chronicler Walter of Guisborough, addressed them thus:
“No man holds his own flesh and blood in hatred and I am no exception. I must join my own people and the nation in which I was born. I ask that you please come with me and you will be my councillors and close comrades”
Urgent letters were sent ordering Bruce to support Edward’s commander, John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey (to whom Bruce was related), in the summer of 1297; but instead of complying, Bruce continued to support the revolt against Edward I. That Bruce was in the forefront of fomenting rebellion is shown in a letter written to Edward by Hugh Cressingham on 23 July 1292, which reports the opinion that “if you had the earl of Carrick, the Steward of Scotland and his brother…you would think your business done”. On 7 July, Bruce and his friends made terms with Edward by a treaty called the Capitulation of Irvine. The Scottish lords were not to serve beyond the sea against their will and were pardoned for their recent violence in return for swearing allegiance to King Edward. The Bishop of Glasgow, James the Steward, and Sir Alexander Lindsay became sureties for Bruce until he delivered his infant daughter Marjorie as a hostage, which he never did, and he was soon actively fighting for the Scots again.
Shortly after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Bruce may again have defected to the Scots; Yet, when King Edward returned to England after his victory at the Battle of Falkirk, the Bruce’s possessions were excepted from the Lordships and lands that Edward assigned to his followers. The reason for this is uncertain, though Fordun records Robert fighting for Edward, at Falkirk, under the command of Antony Bek, Bishop of Durham, Annandale and Carrick. This participation is contested as no Bruce appears on the Falkirk roll, of nobles present in the English army, and two 19th Century antiquarians: Alexander Murison and George Chalmers have stated Bruce did not participate and in the following month decided to lay waste Annandale and burn Ayr Castle, to prevent it being garrisoned by the English.
William Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland after his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk. He was succeeded by Robert Bruce and John Comyn as joint Guardians, but they could not see past their personal differences. As a nephew and supporter of King John, and as someone with a serious claim to the Scottish throne, Comyn was Bruce’s enemy. In 1299, William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews, was appointed as a third, neutral Guardian to try to maintain order between Bruce and Comyn. The following year, Bruce finally resigned as joint Guardian and was replaced by Sir Gilbert de Umfraville, Earl of Angus. In May 1301, Umfraville, Comyn, and Lamberton also resigned as joint Guardians and were replaced by Sir John de Soules as sole Guardian. Soules was appointed largely because he was part of neither the Bruce nor the Comyn camps and was a patriot. He was an active Guardian and made renewed efforts to have King John returned to the Scottish throne.
In July 1301 King Edward I launched his sixth campaign into Scotland. Though he captured the castles of Bothwell and Turnberry, he did little to damage the Scots’ fighting ability, and in January 1302 he agreed to a nine-month truce. It was around this time that Robert the Bruce submitted to Edward, along with other nobles, even though he had been on the side of the Scots until then. There were rumours that John Balliol would return as to regain the Scottish throne. Soules, who had probably been appointed by John, supported his return, as did most other nobles. But it was no more than a rumour and nothing came of it.
Although Bruce had recently pledged to support King Edward, it is interesting to note that he sent a letter to the monks at Melrose Abbey in March 1302 that effectively weakened his usefulness to the English king. Apologising for having called tenants of the monks to service in his army when there had been no national call-up, Bruce pledged that, henceforth, he would “never again” require the monks to serve unless it was to “the common army of the whole realm”, for national defence. Bruce also married his second wife that year, Elizabeth de Burgh, the daughter of Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster. By Elizabeth he had four children: David II, John (died in childhood), Matilda (who married Thomas Isaac and died at Aberdeen 20 July 1353), and Margaret (who married William de Moravia, 5th Earl of Sutherland in 1345).
In 1303, Edward invaded again, reaching Edinburgh before marching to Perth. Edward stayed in Perth until July, then proceeded via Dundee, Brechin, and Montrose to Aberdeen, where he arrived in August. From there he marched through Moray to Badenoch before re-tracing his path back south to Dunfermline. With the country now under submission, all the leading Scots, except for William Wallace, surrendered to Edward in February 1304. John Comyn, who was by now Guardian, submitted to Edward. The laws and liberties of Scotland were to be as they had been in the days of Alexander III, and any that needed alteration would be with the assent of King Edward and the advice of the Scots nobles.
On 11 June 1304, with both of them having witnessed the heroic efforts of their countrymen during King Edward’s siege of Stirling Castle, Bruce and William Lamberton made a pact that bound them, each to the other, in “friendship and alliance against all men.” If one should break the secret pact, he would forfeit to the other the sum of ten thousand pounds. The pact is often interpreted as a sign of their deep patriotism despite both having already surrendered to the English. With Scotland defenceless, Edward set about destroying her as a realm. Homage was again obtained under force from the nobles and the burghs, and a parliament was held to elect those who would meet later in the year with the English parliament to establish rules for the governance of Scotland. For all the apparent participation by Scots in the government, however, the English held the real power. The Earl of Richmond, Edward’s nephew, was to head up the subordinate government of Scotland. While all this took place, William Wallace was finally captured near Glasgow, and he was hanged, drawn, and quartered in London on 23 August 1305.
In September 1305, Edward ordered Robert Bruce to put his castle at Kildrummy, “in the keeping of such a man as he himself will be willing to answer for,” suggesting that King Edward suspected Robert was not entirely trustworthy and may have been plotting behind his back. However, an identical phrase appears in an agreement between Edward and his lieutenant and lifelong friend, Aymer de Valence. A further sign of Edward’s distrust occurred on 10 October 1305, when Edward revoked his gift of Sir Gilbert de Umfraville’s lands to Bruce that he had made only six months before.
Robert Bruce as Earl of Carrick, and now 7th Lord of Annandale, held huge estates and property in Scotland and a barony and some minor properties in England, and he had a strong claim to the Scottish throne. He also had a large family to protect. If he claimed the throne, he would throw the country into yet another series of wars, and if he failed, he would be sacrificing everyone and everything he knew.
Murder of John Comyn
Bruce, like all his family, had a complete belief in his right to the throne. However, his actions of supporting alternately the English and Scottish armies had led to a great deal of distrust towards Bruce among the “Community of the Realm of Scotland”. His ambition was further thwarted by John Comyn, who had been much more resolute in his opposition to the English. Comyn was the most powerful noble in Scotland and was related to many more powerful nobles both within Scotland and England, including relatives that held the earldoms of Buchan, Mar, Ross, Fife, Angus, Dunbar, and Strathearn; the Lordships of Kilbride, Kirkintilloch, Lenzie, Bedrule, and Scraesburgh; and sheriffdoms in Banff, Dingwall, Wigtown, and Aberdeen. He also had a powerful claim to the Scottish throne through his descent from Donald III on his father’s side and David I on his mother’s side. Comyn was the nephew of John Balliol.
According to Barbour and Fordoun, in the late summer of 1305, in a secret agreement sworn, signed, and sealed, John Comyn agreed to forfeit his claim to the Scottish throne in favour of Robert Bruce upon receipt of the Bruce lands in Scotland should an uprising occur led by Bruce. Whether the details of the agreement with Comyn are correct or not, King Edward moved to arrest Bruce while Bruce was still at the English court. Fortunately for Bruce, his friend, and Edward’s son-in-law, Ralph de Monthermer learnt of Edward’s intention and warned Bruce by sending him twelve pence and a pair of spurs. Bruce took the hint, and he and a squire fled the English court during the night. They made their way quickly for Scotland and the fateful meeting with Comyn at Dumfries.
According to Barbour, Comyn betrayed his agreement with Bruce to King Edward I, and when Bruce arranged a meeting for 10 February 1306 with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries and accused him of treachery, they came to blows. Bruce assaulted Comyn in Dumfries before the high altar. The Scotichronicon says that on being told that Comyn had survived the attack and was being treated, two of Bruce’s supporters, Roger de Kirkpatrick (uttering the words “I mak siccar” (“I make sure”)) and John Lindsay, went back into the church and finished Bruce’s work. Barbour however tells no such story. Regardless, for Bruce the ‘die was cast’ at the moment in Greyfriars, and he had no alternative except to become king or a fugitive. Bruce asserted his claim to the Scottish crown and began his campaign by force for the independence of Scotland. Swords were drawn by supporters of both sides, the burial ground of the Monastery becoming the battlefield.
Bruce and his party then attacked Dumfries Castle. The English garrison surrendered and for the third time in the day Bruce and his supporters were victorious. Bruce hurried from Dumfries to Glasgow, where, kneeling before Bishop Robert Wishart, he made confession of his violence and sacrilege and was granted absolution by the Bishop. The clergy throughout the land was adjured to rally to Bruce by Wishart. In spite of this, Bruce was excommunicated for this crime.
English records still in existence today tell a completely different story. They state that the Comyn murder was planned in an attempt to gain the throne of Scotland. For this reason King Edward of England wrote to the Pope and asked for his excommunication of Robert Bruce. No records have ever been found in England stating that King Edward had any knowledge of treachery by Robert Bruce before his acts against Comyn. They state that King Edward did not hear of the murder of John Comyn until several days after his death.
War of King Robert I
Six weeks after Comyn was killed in Dumfries, Bruce was crowned King of Scots by Bishop William de Lamberton at Scone, near Perth, on 25 March 1306 with all formality and solemnity. The royal robes and vestments that Robert Wishart had hidden from the English were brought out by the Bishop and set upon King Robert. The bishops of Moray and Glasgow were in attendance as well as the earls of Atholl, Menteith, Lennox, and Mar. The great banner of the kings of Scotland was planted behind his throne.
Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan and wife of John Comyn, 3rd Earl of Buchan (a cousin of the murdered John Comyn), arrived the next day, too late for the coronation. She claimed the right of her family, the MacDuff Earl of Fife, to crown the Scottish king for her brother, Donnchadh IV, Earl of Fife, who was not yet of age, and in English hands. So a second coronation was held and once more the crown was placed on the brow of Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, Lord of Annandale, King of the Scots.
In June 1306 Bruce was defeated at the Battle of Methven, and in August he was surprised in Strathfillan, where he had taken refuge. His wife and daughters and other women of the party were sent to Kildrummy in August 1306 under the protection of Bruce’s brother Neil Bruce and the Earl of Atholl and most of his remaining men. Bruce fled with a small following of his most faithful men, including Sir James Douglas and Gilbert Hay, Bruce’s brothers Thomas, Alexander, and Edward, as well as Sir Neil Campbell and the Earl of Lennox.
Edward I marched north again in the spring. On his way, he granted the Scottish estates of Bruce and his adherents to his own followers and had published a bill excommunicating Bruce. Bruce’s queen, Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie, his sisters Christina and Mary, and Isabella MacDuff were captured in a sanctuary at Tain and sent to harsh imprisonment, which included Mary and Isabella being hung in cages at Roxburgh and Berwick castles respectively for about four years, while Bruce’s brother Neil was executed. On 7 July, King Edward I died, leaving Bruce opposed by his son, Edward II.
It is still uncertain where Bruce spent the winter of 1306–07. Most likely he spent it in the Hebrides (possibly sheltered by Christina of Garmoran) although Ireland is a serious possibility, and Orkney (under Norwegian rule at the time) or Norway proper (where his sister was queen dowager) although unlikely are not impossible. Bruce and his followers returned to the Scottish mainland in February in two groups. One, led by Bruce and his brother Edward landed at Turnberry Castle and began a guerrilla war in south-west Scotland. The other, led by his brothers Thomas and Alexander, landed slightly further south in Loch Ryan, but they were soon captured and executed. In April, Bruce won a small victory over the English at the Battle of Glen Trool, before defeating Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, at the Battle of Loudoun Hill. At the same time, James Douglas made his first foray for Bruce into south-western Scotland, attacking and burning his own castle in Douglasdale. Leaving his brother Edward in command in Galloway, Bruce travelled north, capturing Inverlochy and Urquhart Castles, burning Inverness Castle and Nairn to the ground, then unsuccessfully threatening Elgin.
Transferring operations to Aberdeenshire in late 1307, he threatened Banff before falling seriously ill, probably owing to the hardships of the lengthy campaign. Recovering, leaving John Comyn, 3rd Earl of Buchan unsubdued at his rear, Bruce returned west to take Balvenie and Duffus Castles, then Tarradale Castle on the Black Isle. Looping back via the hinterlands of Inverness and a second failed attempt to take Elgin, Bruce finally achieved his landmark defeat of Comyn at the Battle of Inverurie in May 1308; he then overran Buchan and defeated the English garrison at Aberdeen. The Harrying of Buchan in 1308 was ordered by Bruce to make sure all Comyn family support was extinguished. Buchan had a very large population because it was the agricultural capital of northern Scotland, and much of its population was loyal to the Comyn family even after the defeat of the Earl of Buchan. Most of the Comyn castles in Moray, Aberdeen, and Buchan were destroyed and their inhabitants killed. Bruce ordered similar harryings in Argyle and Kintyre, in the territories of Clan MacDougall. With these acts, Bruce had successfully destroyed the power of the Comyns, which had controlled much of northern and southwestern Scotland for over a hundred and fifty years. He then crossed to Argyll and defeated the MacDougalls (allies of the Comyns) at the Battle of Pass of Brander and took Dunstaffnage Castle, the last major stronghold of the Comyns.
In March 1309, Bruce held his first Parliament at St. Andrews, and by August he controlled all of Scotland north of the River Tay. The following year, the clergy of Scotland recognised Bruce as king at a general council. The support given to him by the church in spite of his excommunication was of great political importance. Over the next three years, one English-held castle or outpost after another was captured and reduced: Linlithgow in 1310, Dumbarton in 1311, and Perth, by Bruce himself, in January 1312. Bruce also made raids into northern England and, landing at Ramsey in the Isle of Man, then laid siege to Castle Rushen in Castletown, capturing it on 21 June 1313 and denying the island’s strategic importance to the English. In the spring of 1314, Edward Bruce laid siege to Stirling Castle, whose governor, Philip de Mowbray, agreed to capitulate if not relieved before 24 June 1314. In March 1314, James Douglas captured Roxburgh, and Randolph captured Edinburgh Castle. In May, Bruce again raided England and subdued the Isle of Man.
The eight years of exhausting but deliberate refusal to meet the English on even ground have caused many to consider Bruce as one of the great guerrilla leaders of any age. This represented a transformation for one raised as a feudal knight.
Battle of Bannockburn
Bruce secured Scottish independence from England militarily – if not diplomatically – at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. An English army led by Edward II in person trying to relieve the siege of Stirling Castle was decisively defeated in an atypical set-piece battle.
Further confrontation with England then the Irish conflict
Freed from English threats, Scotland’s armies could now invade northern England. Bruce also drove back a subsequent English expedition north of the border and launched raids into Yorkshire and Lancashire. Buoyed by his military successes, Bruce’s forces also invaded Ireland in 1315, purportedly to free the country from English rule (having received a reply to offers of assistance from Donal O’Neil, king of Tyrone), and to open a second front in the continuing wars with England. The Irish even crowned Edward Bruce as High King of Ireland in 1316. Robert later went there with another army to assist his brother.
In conjunction with the invasion, Bruce popularised an ideological vision of a “Pan-Gaelic Greater Scotia” with his lineage ruling over both Ireland and Scotland. This propaganda campaign was aided by two factors. The first was his marriage alliance from 1302 with the de Burgh family of the Earldom of Ulster in Ireland; second, Bruce himself, on his mother’s side of Carrick, was descended from Gaelic royalty in Scotland as well as Ireland. Bruce’s Irish ancestors included Eva of Leinster (d.1188), whose ancestors included Brian Boru of Munster and the kings of Leinster. Thus, lineally and geopolitically, Bruce attempted to support his anticipated notion of a pan-Gaelic alliance between Scottish-Irish Gaelic populations, under his kingship. This is revealed by a letter he sent to the Irish chiefs, where he calls the Scots and Irish collectively nostra nacio (our nation), stressing the common language, customs and heritage of the two peoples:
Whereas we and you and our people and your people, free since ancient times, share the same national ancestry and are urged to come together more eagerly and joyfully in friendship by a common language and by common custom, we have sent you our beloved kinsman, the bearers of this letter, to negotiate with you in our name about permanently strengthening and maintaining inviolate the special friendship between us and you, so that with God’s will our nation (nostra nacio) may be able to recover her ancient liberty.
The diplomacy worked to a certain extent, at least in Ulster, where the Scots had some support. The Irish chief, Donal O’Neil, for instance, later justified his support for the Scots to Pope John XXII by saying “the Kings of Lesser Scotia all trace their blood to our Greater Scotia and retain to some degree our language and customs.”
The Bruce campaign in Ireland was characterised by some initial military success. However, the Scots failed to win over the non-Ulster chiefs or to make any other significant gains in the south of the island, where people couldn’t see the difference between English and Scottish occupation. Eventually it was defeated when Edward Bruce was killed at the Battle of Faughart. The Irish Annals of the period described the defeat of the Bruces by the English as one of the greatest things ever done for the Irish nation due to the fact it brought an end to the famine and pillaging wrought upon the Irish by both the Scots and the English.
The reign of Robert Bruce also included some significant diplomatic achievements. The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 strengthened his position, particularly vis-à-vis the Papacy, and Pope John XXII eventually lifted Bruce’s excommunication. In May 1328 King Edward III of England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognised Scotland as an independent kingdom, and Bruce as its king.
Robert I had been suffering from a serious illness from at least 1327. The Lanercost Chronicle and Scalacronica state that the king was said to have contracted and died of leprosy. Jean Le Bel also stated that in 1327 the king was a victim of ‘la grosse maladie’, which is usually taken to mean leprosy. However, the ignorant use of the term ‘leprosy’ by fourteenth-century writers meant that almost any major skin disease might be called leprosy. The earliest mention of this illness is to be found in an original letter written by an eye-witness in Ulster at the time the king made a truce with Sir Henry Mandeville on 12 July 1327. The writer of this letter reported that Robert I was so feeble and struck down by illness that he would not live, ‘for he can scarcely move anything but his tongue’. Barbour writes of the king’s illness that ‘it began through a benumbing brought on by his cold lying’, during the months of wandering from 1306 to 1309. None of the Scottish accounts of his death hint at leprosy. It has been proposed that, alternatively, he may have suffered from tuberculosis, syphilis, motor neurone disease, or a series of strokes. There does not seem to be any evidence as to what the king himself or his physicians believed his illness to be. Nor is there any evidence of an attempt in his last years to segregate the king in any way from the company of friends, family, courtiers, or foreign diplomats.
In October 1328 the Pope finally lifted the interdict from Scotland and the excommunication of Robert I. The king’s last journey appears to have been a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Ninian at Whithorn; this was possibly in search of a miraculous cure, or to make his peace with God. With Moray by his side, Robert set off from his manor at Cardross for Tarbert on his ‘great ship’, thence to the Isle of Arran, where he celebrated Christmas of 1328 at the hall of Glenkill near Lamlash. Thence he sailed to the mainland to visit his son and his bride, both mere children, now installed at Turnberry Castle, the head of the earldom of Carrick and once his own main residence. He journeyed overland, being carried on a litter, to Inch in Wigtownshire: houses were built there and supplies brought to that place, as though the king’s condition had deteriorated. At the end of March 1329 he was staying at Glenluce Abbey and at Monreith, from where St Ninian’s cave was visited. Early in April he arrived at the shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn. He fasted four or five days and prayed to the saint, before returning by sea to Cardross.
Barbour and other sources relate that Robert summoned his prelates and barons to his bedside for a final council at which he made copious gifts to religious houses, dispensed silver to religious foundations of various orders, so that they might pray for his soul, and repented of his failure to fulfil a vow to undertake a crusade to fight the ‘Saracens’ in the Holy Land. Robert’s final wish reflected conventional piety, and was perhaps intended to perpetuate his memory. After his death his heart was to be removed from his body and borne by a noble knight on a crusade against the Saracens and carried to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, before being brought back to Scotland:
“I will that as soone as I am trespassed out of this worlde that ye take my harte owte of my body, and embawme it, and take of my treasoure as ye shall thynke sufficient for that enterprise, both for your selfe and suche company as ye wyll take with you, and present my hart to the holy Sepulchre where as our Lorde laye, seyng my body can nat come there.”
Robert died on 7 June 1329, at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton. He died utterly fulfilled, in that the goal of his lifetime’s struggle – untrammelled recognition of the Bruce right to the crown – had been realised, and confident that he was leaving the kingdom of Scotland safely in the hands of his most trusted lieutenant, Moray, until his infant son reached adulthood. Six days after his death, to complete his triumph still further, papal bulls were issued granting the privilege of unction at the coronation of future Kings of Scots.
The king’s body was embalmed and his sternum was sawn to allow extraction of the heart, which Sir James Douglas placed in a silver casket to be worn on a chain around his neck. The body was taken to Dunfermline Abbey, and Robert I was interred in what was then the very centre of the abbey, beneath the high altar, and beside his queen. The king’s tomb was carved in Paris by Thomas of Chartres from alabaster brought from England and was decorated with gold leaf. The tomb was transported to Dunfermline via Bruges and was erected over the king’s grave in the autumn of 1330. Ten alabaster fragments from the tomb are on display in the National Museum of Scotland and traces of gilding still remain on some of them.
When a projected international crusade failed to materialise, Douglas and his company sailed to Spain where Alfonso XI of Castile was mounting a campaign against the Moorish kingdom of Granada. According to tradition, Douglas and his company including Sir William de Keith, Sir William de St. Clair of Rosslyn and the brothers Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig and Sir Walter Logan, were received by Alfonso. In August 1330 they participated in the Battle of Teba. As he was pursuing the Moorish cavalry after having fought back a feigned attack, Sir James Douglas took the silver casket containing the heart of Robert the Bruce from his neck, and threw it before him among the enemy, saying, “Now pass thou onward before us, as thou wert wont, and I will follow thee or die.” The Muslim cavalry, realising the small number of their pursuers, turned around and renewed the fight. Douglas was about to retreat when he noticed Sir William de St. Clair of Rosslyn being surrounded by Moorish warriors, and with his remaining men attempted to relieve him. As the knights were hard pressed and outnumbered by the Moors, Sir James Douglas and most of his men were slain, among them Sir Robert Logan and Sir Walter Logan. A few of the surviving companions of Douglas found both his body and the casket on the battlefield and took care that they were sent back home. The Bruce’s heart was brought back to Scotland by Sir Symon Locard of Lee (later Lockhart) and Sir William Keith of Galston.
In accordance with Bruce’s written request, the heart was buried at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire. In 1920, the heart was discovered by archaeologists and was reburied, but the location was not marked. In 1996, a casket was unearthed during construction work. Scientific study by AOC archaeologists in Edinburgh, demonstrated that it did indeed contain human tissue and it was of appropriate age. It was reburied in Melrose Abbey in 1998, pursuant to the dying wishes of the King.
Discovery of the Bruce’s tomb
On 17 February 1818, workmen breaking ground on the new parish church to be built on the site of the eastern choir of Dunfermline Abbey uncovered a vault before the site of the former abbey high altar. The vault was covered by two large, flat stones – one forming a headstone, and a larger stone six feet (182 cm) in length, with six iron rings or handles set in it. When these stones were removed, the vault was found to be seven feet (214 cm) in length, 56 cm wide and 45 cm deep. Within the vault, inside the remnants of a decayed oak coffin, there was a body entirely enclosed in lead, with a decayed shroud of cloth of gold over it. Over the head of the body the lead was formed into the shape of a crown. Fragments of marble and alabaster had been found in the debris around the site of vault several years earlier, which were linked to Robert the Bruce’s recorded purchase of a marble and alabaster tomb made in Paris. The Barons of Exchequer ordered that the vault was to be secured from all further inspection with new stones and iron bars and guarded by the town constables, and that once the walls of the new church were built up around the site, an investigation of the vault and the remains could take place. Accordingly, on 5 November 1819, the investigation took place. The cloth of gold shroud and the lead covering were found to be in a rapid state of decay since the vault had first been opened 21 months earlier. The body was raised up and placed on a wooden coffin board on the edge of the vault. It was found to be covered in two thin layers of lead, each around 5 mm thick. The lead was removed and the skeleton was inspected by James Gregory and Alexander Monro, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh. The sternum was found to have been sawn open from top to bottom, permitting removal of the king’s heart after death. A plaster cast was taken of the detached skull by artist William Scoular. The bones were measured and drawn, and the king’s skeleton was measured to be 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm). It has been estimated that Bruce may have stood at around 6 feet 1 inch (186 cm) tall as a young man, which by medieval standards was impressive. At this height he would have stood almost as tall as Edward I ( 6 feet 2 inches; 188 cm).
The skeleton, lying on the wooden coffin board, was then placed upon the top of a lead coffin and the large crowd of curious people who had assembled outside the church were allowed to file past the vault to view the king’s remains. It was at this point in the proceedings that some small relics – teeth and finger bones – were allegedly removed from the skeleton. The published accounts of eyewitnesses such as Henry Jardine and James Gregory confirm the removal of small objects at this time. Robert the Bruce’s remains were ceremonially re-interred in the vault in Dunfermline Abbey on 5 November 1819. They were placed in a new lead coffin, into which was poured 1,500 lbs of molten pitch to preserve the remains, before the coffin was sealed.
A number of reconstructions of the face of Robert the Bruce have been produced, including those by Richard Neave from the University of Manchester and Peter Vanezis from the University of Glasgow.
Bruce’s descendants include all later Scottish monarchs and all British monarchs since the Union of the Crowns in 1603. A large number of families definitely are descended from him.
Monuments and commemoration
Depictions in Art
Robert I was originally buried in Dunfermline Abbey, traditional resting-place of Scottish monarchs since the reign of Malcolm III. His tomb, imported from Paris, was extremely elaborate, carved from gilded alabaster. It was destroyed at the Reformation, but some fragments were discovered in the 19th century (now in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh).
The site of the tomb in Dunfermline Abbey was marked by large carved stone letters spelling out “King Robert the Bruce” around the top of the bell tower, when the eastern half of the abbey church was rebuilt in the first half of the 19th century. In 1974 the Bruce Memorial Window was installed in the north transept, commemorating the 700th anniversary of the year of his birth. It depicts stained glass images of the Bruce flanked by his chief men, Christ, and saints associated with Scotland.
A 1929 statue of Robert the Bruce is set in the wall of Edinburgh Castle at the entrance, along with one of William Wallace. In Edinburgh also, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has statues of Bruce and Wallace in niches flanking the main entrance. The building also contains several frescos depicting scenes from Scots history by William Brassey Hole in the entrance foyer, including a large example of Bruce marshalling his men at Bannockburn.
Statues of the Bruce also stand on the battleground at Bannockburn, outside Stirling Castle and Marischal College in Aberdeen.
From 1981 to 1989, Robert the Bruce was portrayed on £1 notes issued by the Clydesdale Bank, one of the three Scottish banks with right to issue banknotes. He was shown on the obverse crowned in battle dress, surrounded by thistles, and on the reverse in full battle armour in a scene from the Battle of Bannockburn. When the Clydesdale Bank discontinued £1 banknotes, Robert The Bruce’s portrait was moved onto the bank’s £20 banknote in 1990 and it has remained there to date.
According to a legend, at some point while he was on the run during the winter of 1306–07, Bruce hid in a cave on Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland, where he observed a spider spinning a web, trying to make a connection from one area of the cave’s roof to another. It tried and failed twice, but began again and succeeded on the third attempt. Inspired by this, Bruce returned to inflict a series of defeats on the English, thus winning him more supporters and eventual victory. The story serves to illustrate the maxim: “if at first you don’t succeed, try try try again.” Other versions have Bruce in a small house watching the spider try to make its connection between two roof beams.
But this legend appears for the first time in only a much later account, “Tales of a Grandfather” by Sir Walter Scott, and may have originally been told about his companion-in-arms Sir James Douglas (the “Black Douglas”), who had spent time hiding out in caves within his manor of Lintalee, which was then occupied by the English. The entire account may in fact be a version of a literary trope used in royal biographical writing. A similar story is told, for example, in Jewish sources about King David, and in Persian folklore about the Mongolian warlord Tamerlane and an ant.