Robert the Bruce is one of the most famous names in Scottish history, but can the real man live up to the legend? There was certainly a lot on his plate with Scotland bereft of a king and under the rule of Edward I of England, but could Robert the Bruce restore liberty to Scotland? Listen to his podcast here or read on to find out more.
Scotland had endured a pretty torrid few decades before Robert the Bruce became king in 1306. The country had been strong and prosperous under Alexander III, but the untimely death of his three children and then the king himself in 1286 left only an infant Norwegian granddaughter in the immediate line of succession. When this girl, Margaret the Maid of Norway, died of sea-sickness on her way to Scotland in 1290, things became even more uncertain, with the prospect of civil war looming between the rival families of Balliol and Bruce.
The Guardians of Scotland made the fateful decision to ask the highly respected English king, Edward I, to arbitrate and determine who was the rightful King of Scots (a process known as the Great Cause). Edward I was a strong ruler who had conquered Wales and been on Crusade and had enjoyed a good relationship with Alexander III (his brother-in-law). Unfortunately, Edward was also an opportunistic king and used his newfound influence to assert what he saw as his ancestral rights to dominance in Scotland.
In 1292, Edward selected John Balliol as the rightful King of Scots. However, he then proceeded to undermine Balliol at every opportunity, demanding that he pay him homage as his overlord until eventually Balliol snapped, went to war with England in 1296 and suffered a humiliating defeat. A defeat so humiliating, in fact, that not only was Balliol stripped of the kingship but Scotland itself was no more a kingdom. Edward took the crown jewels and the Stone of Scone back to England, considering his work done. He was soon disabused of this conclusion when the Scots resisted, most famously in the form of William Wallace, but by 1305 Wallace had been executed and Scotland was once more under English dominion.
Robert the Bruce was born on 24 March 1274 at Turnberry Castle in the west of Scotland, and thus was doomed to spend almost his entire life dealing with the Wars of Independence. He was actually the 7th “Robert the Bruce”, the Bruce family clearly somewhat lacking in imagination when it came to naming their sons! The Bruce family were of Norman origin and had come to Scotland in 1124 with David I (Robert’s fourth great-grandfather). The Bruce was a strong and formidable presence – his skeleton measured at 5″11 meaning he was probably 6″1 as a young man. In 2016, Bruce’s face was digitally restored by Professor Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University, revealing a stocky and powerful looking man who would not be out of place on a rugby pitch!
In recent years, Bruce has perhaps been overshadowed in popular history by William Wallace. Partly, of course, this due to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, but also Bruce makes for a more complex hero in Scottish history. While Wallace is an uncompromising freedom fighter, Bruce’s path to power is rather more murky. After Wallace’s defeat in 1298, Bruce became joint Guardian of Scotland with John Comyn (Balliol’s cousin) but the two fell out and in 1302 Bruce submitted to Edward I while Comyn led the resistance against Edward I. When Comyn secured favourable peace terms in 1304, he was the main power in Scotland while Bruce was trusted neither by Comyn nor Edward. However, Bruce did have a good relationship with the influential bishops of Glasgow and St Andrews (Robert Wishart and William Lamberton) and seems to have been plotting to take the throne when the now aged Edward I finally died. However, things came to a head when Bruce met his rival, John Comyn, in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries in 1306 – the two argued and Bruce ended up murdering his rival.
Supported by Wishart, Bruce was quickly crowned King of Scots at Scone but he faced significant challenges. The Comyns were the most powerful family in Scotland and their leader’s murder would mean civil war and crowning himself king guaranteed an invasion from England. Bruce suffered two quick defeats to the English, resulting in the capture of Lamberton and Wishart, as well as his wife, daughter and sisters, one of his brothers (Neil) and the Earl of Atholl. The bishops were thrown into dungeons, some of the women put on public display in cages, while his brother and Atholl were executed. Bruce and his three surviving brothers fled into exile (the Hebrides and/or Ireland). According to legend, on the island of Rathlin Bruce was inspired by watching a spider failing again and again to cast a web across the room until finally it succeeded – so Bruce, too, would “try, try again” and reclaim his throne.
Bruce returned in 1307 with his brother Edward. His other two brothers, Thomas and Alexander, came separately and were captured and executed, but after this disaster things got rather better. Bruce had learned from his mistakes in 1306 and instead of engaging in open battle he now used his knowledge of the terrain to fight guerilla warfare. He was also aided by the death of Edward I and the accession of the rather less capable Edward II, who abandoned his father’s campaign. Bruce fell seriously ill in 1308 but recovered to defeat the Comyns at Inverurie and in 1309 was acknowledged as king by Parliament and France. Now dominant in Scotland, he then focused on the English-held castles in the south, capturing them all with the exception of Stirling, which would fall in 1314 when Bruce led Scotland to its most famous victory against the English in the Battle of Bannockburn.
Bannockburn saw Bruce’s women and bishops returned, but surprisingly it only achieved a decade of stalemate with England. Edward II refused to acknowledge Bruce as king and, as the younger man, could afford to wait it out – not least because Bruce was of uncertain health and had lost his final brother, Edward, after a failed attempt to conquer Ireland in 1318, leaving only an infant grandson to succeed him. Bruce and his lieutenants undertook frequent raids into northern England and forced Edward II into making humiliating retreats in 1319 and 1322, while the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) helped to establish Scottish independence as the just cause in the eyes of the papacy. The birth of a son and heir in 1324 was welcome, but Bruce was now 50 and his health was failing, meaning Scotland would be vulnerable on his death. However, in 1327 he received a stroke of luck when Edward II was overthrown by his queen, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, with the teenage Edward III a mere figurehead for the new regime. A failed English invasion forced Edward III to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which acknowledged both Scottish independence and the Bruce kingship.
Bruce’s final victory came in the nick of time. He was too ill to attend the parliament ratifying the treaty in 1328 and had largely retired to his manor at Cardross where he died on 7 June 1329, aged 55. Intriguingly, contemporaries claimed he had suffered from leprosy and the reconstruction of his skull does suggest a skin condition, though it is hard to imagine a fully functional king in this era with leprosy (which was probably a catch-all term). Nevertheless, Bruce died having achieved his life’s goal: Scotland was independent, the Bruce kingship had been acknowledged and the legacy of Edward I was over.
The odds were certainly against Bruce succeeding in 1306 – defeated and exiled with 3 brothers executed, the Comyns owning land all across Scotland and the most powerful castles under English control. That he had reversed this position by 1314 indicates that he was an outstanding military commander. Supported by a loyal following (most notably his brother, Edward Bruce, Thomas Randolph and James Douglas) he was able to fight on multiple fronts, using local knowledge and guerrilla tactics to come out on top. A series of victories in 1307 created much-needed prestige for Bruce, while the hard-headed approach to warfare (Bruce ordered that all captured castles be burnt down to prevent giving the English a base, including his own castles) made his enemies fearful. In 1308, Comyn’s army were said to have been routed at Inverurie largely by the very sight of Bruce on the battlefield (they had been told he was too ill to fight). By 1309, Bruce had defeated the Comyns and his enemies within Scotland and by 1314 he and his men had captured key castles from the English such as Perth, Roxburgh and Edinburgh.
Bruce’s military record from 1307-14 is impressive in itself, but the legend was made by his victory in the Battle of Bannockburn (23-24 June, 1314). The keeper of Stirling castle had pledged to submit to the Scots if not relieved in time, so an invading army of Edward II came to the rescue. Edward’s army was much larger, with around 3,000 cavalry and 15,000 infantry compared to 500 cavalry and 8,000 infantry for Bruce. However, Bruce’s army was united and battle-hardened whereas Edward and his men were at odds. The English had a disastrous first day, attempting to outflank the Scots during the night only to end up stuck in a poor position. A fully armoured English knight, Sir Henry de Bohund, had tried to win the day by charging at Bruce (on a small horse armed only with an axe) but Bruce had taken the fight, avoided the lance and then killed de Bohun. On the second day, the Scots used the landscape and man-made traps to enforce a narrow front that prevented the English deploying all their forces at once. The Scottish cavalry attacked the deadly Welsh archers in the English army who had previously done great damage to Scottish armies. Poor discipline saw one of the English leaders killed and the English were routed, with around 11,000 casualties (many drowned in the river behind them). Edward himself fled the battlefield at great pace, pursued relentlessly by James Douglas. It was the greatest victory in Scottish history and the worst defeat for the English.
Although there was never another battle as large as Bannockburn, Bruce enjoyed further victories over the English. In 1319, Edward II invaded again with 10,000 men to capture Berwick, only to have to retreat when Bruce sent Randolph and Douglas to York where they slaughtered a local army in the Battle of Myton. Another invasion in 1322 (this time with 22,000 men) was again humiliated, as Bruce wasted the land, meaning Edward could not keep his troops supplied, and then harrying the retreat, forcing Edward to flee a second time. Edward II has been much maligned, but Roger Mortimer fared no better in 1327, failing to bring the Scots to battle and suffering the ignominy of the English camp being sacked during a night-time raid (the young Edward III had the ropes on his tent cut and was said to have been in tears on the march home!) The relentless raids into northern England throughout this period won much plunder for the Scots and demonstrated that Bruce was very much boss in the 1320s.
Despite his many (many, many!) victories, Bruce did have his fair share of defeats. In 1306, soon after becoming king he was defeated in the Battle of Methven when, after chivalrously offering battle to the English and being refused, he returned to his lightly-guarded camp and his army routed when attacked without warning. Bruce was forced to flee (his army largely wiped out) and only narrowly escaped a further ambush in the Battle of Dalrigh. After less than a year as king he had suffered two defeats, three of his brothers had been executed, his women were in cages and he was in a cave in Ireland looking at a spider’s web!
Of course, Bruce learnt the lesson of 1306 and returned in 1307 to avenge these defeats. However, when on the offensive he was a little less successful. All the raids into northern England failed to achieve their purpose of forcing Edward II to the negotiating table, and Bruce was lucky that events within England handed him an opportunity to secure independence in 1327-28. In 1315, he launched an invasion of Ireland, hoping to free the west coast from the threat of invasion and potentially securing a launchpad to inciting rebellion in Wales. The Scots enjoyed some early success and his brother, Edward, was acknowledged as High King of Ireland. However, the invasion coincided with a terrible famine across Europe which prevented further advances and the Scots were never able to dominate far beyond Ulster in the north. When Bruce (along with 3,000 soldiers) were killed in the Battle of Faughart (1318) the campaign was abandoned with not an awful lot to show for the investment of money and men.
Bruce learnt from his early defeats and went on to enjoy a remarkable series of victories – daring skirmishes in the mountains, besieging castles and victory in a major battle at Bannockburn. Perhaps the Irish campaign was over-ambitious (albeit it did prevent an English invasion of the west-coast) but this did not undermine the successes Bruce enjoyed. He was lucky that events in England at the end of the reign played into his hands, but (despite being mortally ill) he took full advantage to secure Scottish independence and enjoy a final victory against the legacy of Edward I. This is about as good as it gets for battleyness!
Score = 20/20
An alternative to the theory that Bruce suffered from leprosy is that he might have had “the pox” (i.e. a venereal disease). He had at least five illegitimate children and, having been a widower from 1296-1302 and his second wife imprisoned from 1306-14, had a lot of pseudo-bachelor time available to him when he wasn’t busy fighting battles.
Despite his status as one of Scotland’s greatest hero, Bruce was also a bit shifty and his loyalty sometimes suspect. From 1292-96, the Bruce family was in a huff with John Balliol and fought for Edward I against the Scots. In 1297, Bruce changed sides when Edward sent him to deal with the Scottish rebellion, only to be part of the Capitulation at Irvine where the Scottish nobles submitted without giving battle. Some chroniclers have Bruce present fighting for the English against William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk (as portrayed in Braveheart), but he then becomes Guardian of Scotland in 1299 only to then return to England in 1302 before finally taking the throne in 1306!
However, Bruce’s most scandalous act was undoubtedly the murder of his rival, John Comyn. Comyn was the most powerful noble in Scotland and was also of royal blood (though Bruce’s claim to the throne was undoubtedly stronger), and was the man who had fought Edward I to a truce while Bruce had been sheltering in England. When they met on 13 February 1306 in Greyfriars Church, it is not clear what they planned to discuss. According to Bruce propaganda, Comyn had agreed to support Bruce’s claim to the throne only to then betray his plans to Edward I. According to the English, however, Bruce was lusting after the throne and tricked and murdered his rival in order to secure his claim. In reality, it is unlikely that Comyn would have betrayed a plot to restore the Scottish crown and likewise Edward clearly had no idea that any of this was happening. More likely is that the two men met either to discuss a local dispute (which then got seriously out of hand) or Bruce demanded Comyn support his bid for the throne and they had an argument (which seriously got out of hand). Either way, Bruce murdered his rival and a powerful noble in a church, starting a civil war. But for the support of Bishop Wishart, he would have been excommunicated.
Bruce certainly had the illegitimate children and murdered Comyn, but perhaps the accusations of disloyalty are unfair. Bruce’s father tended to oppose John Balliol at any cost (i.e. siding with Edward I) but Bruce himself was mostly on the side of the patriotic cause, only submitting to Edward when his position within Scotland appeared hopeless. He probably was not at Falkirk – John of Fordun uses him as a moral that the Scots only lose when they are divided, while Walter Bower uses the battle as a way for William Wallace to inspire him to his later glories.
Robert the Bruce may be a Scottish hero but he also gives us sex, betrayal and murder (and murder in a church, no less!), which is very scandalicious. Perhaps the betrayal aspect is overplayed, but it’s still a highly impressive effort.
Score = 16/20
Robert the Bruce’s greatest legacy for Scotland was to secure the nation’s independence. Since the death of Alexander III in 1286, Scotland had suffered internal divisions, weak leadership and humiliating defeat but Bruce not only defeated England in battle but also secured recognition of Scotland as an independent kingdom in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton (1328). This treaty also saw an agreement for the marriage of Bruce’s son, David, and Princess Joan of the Tower (Edward III’s younger sister). After Edward I’s years of legal manipulation and demanding Scottish homage, the language now left no doubt as to Scotland’s status:
“[Scotland] shall belong to our dearest ally & friend, the magnificent prince, Lord Robert, by God’s grace illustrious King of Scotland, & to his heirs & successors, separate in all things from England, whole, free, and undisturbed in perpetuity, without any kind of subjection, service, claim or demand.”
The 1328 treaty marked the legal victory, but perhaps the historical and rhetorical legacy is best exampled in the Declaration of Arbroath (1320). English pressure saw the Pope excommunicate Scotland’s leaders, irritated that their continued resistance was preventing his planned Crusade. Scotland responded with defiance, pledging never to abandon their independence and to fight to the death for freedom:
“For so long as only a hundred of us stand, we will never yield to the dominion of England. We fight not for glory nor for wealth nor honour, but for that freedom which no good man surrenders but with his life.”
(Declaration of Arbroath)
The reign often reads as a never-ending list of battles but Bruce appears to have been an effective administrator on his rare days off the battlefield. He was the first Scottish king to hold almost annual parliament and seems to have held great store by gaining the consent of the community of the realm (admittedly by necessity after his contested accession). He had a highly capable Chancellor in the form of Bernard of Arbroath (the likely author of the 1320 Declaration), surpassing the annual output of charters enjoyed under Alexander III, suggesting a fully functional bureaucracy. Bruce’s diplomatic efforts were also highly successful, restoring the Auld Alliance with France, renewing the northern trade route with Norway and resuming commercial links with the Low Countries and Hanseatic towns.
However, life was by no means easy if you were Scottish in the reign of Robert the Bruce. A terrible famine from 1315-18 killed millions across Europe and marked the end of the Medieval Warm period, which combined with the deprivations of almost constant warfare (particularly Bruce’s guerilla tactics which involved destroying castles and wasting the land) made for a terrible time. Ironically, the raids into northern England actually backfired slightly as they brought into Scotland diseased cattle which killed c. 50% of bulls and 80% of cows, leading to food shortages, price fluctuations and unrest.
Indeed, Bruce may be a national hero when it comes to independence but he is hardly the most morally upstanding of characters. He came to the throne by stabbing his rival in a church, after defeating the Comyn family at Inverurie he completed wasted local villages, massacring the local populace, destroying crops and cattle and leaving the land barren for a generation. Towns in northern England were forced to pay Bruce not to be attacked and for those who could not pay, the sight of a Scottish army approaching must have been akin to the sight of Viking longships in the ninth century. The Scottish campaign in Ireland was so unpopular that the murder of Edward Bruce was celebrated as the great deed done in the history of Ireland (albeit there were a lot of English atrocities yet to be committed in the full context of Irish history).
Finally, Bruce’s successes are sometimes exaggerated. To keep his supporters and former enemies happy, he distributed lands on an unprecedented scale at the expense of royal prosperity. Crown income fell from £5,413 in 1264 (with £2,896 from crown lands) to £3,793 in 1328 (with just £465 of crown land). The next century of Scottish history would be marked by a weakened monarchy struggling to assert itself against rival nobles who were of a largely equal status when it came to wealth and military might. The wars with England were also far from over – Bruce was almost on his deathbed when the 1328 treaty was signed, leaving an infant son to deal with the powerful Edward III of England on the verge of manhood and determined to reverse the humiliating agreement.
Bruce was certainly no angel and life would have been extremely hard for the Scottish people, both during his reign and after, but overall Bruce’s record is still very impressive. After twenty years of humiliation and division, Bruce governed effectively and secured English acknowledgement of Scottish independence in the short-term, while providing a legacy for all to recall in the Declaration of Arbroath.
Score = 15.5/20
Robert the Bruce reigned from 25 March 1306 to 7 June 1329 – a reign of 26.25 years which, when converted into a score out of 20, gives him a total of 12.5
Robert the Bruce had 3 surviving legitimate children and was the first Scottish monarch to see his son succeed him as king since Alexander II in 1249.
Having 3 children gives Bruce a score of 6/20 for Dynasty and a total score of 70, which is the highest of any Scottish monarch thus far.
Robert the Bruce has the high score, but does he have the great achievement and lasting legacy to win the Rex Factor? Well…yes, yes he does! Admittedly he never quite managed to capture Edward II and his legacy was still uncertain on his death in 1329, but overall this was a remarkable reign. Bruce restored the Scottish kingship and independence, governed effectively, had plenty of scandal and led Scotland to her greatest ever victory in the Battle of Bannockburn. One of the all-time great Rex Factor winners!
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