Although famous for their James’s, the Stewart royal dynasty actually began with Robert II in 1371. For Robert to get things off to a flying start he would need to find a way to deal with the threat of invasion by Edward III, a rebellious nobility in Scotland and the relentless ambition of his own sons. To find out how he got on, listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
The (mythical) origin of the Stewart dynasty was portrayed in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whereby the witches present to Macbeth a long line of descendants from his former ally Banquo, which includes 8 kings. Macbeth arranges for Banquo’s murder but his son, Fleance, escapes, meaning the dynasty would survive.
The actual origins are not entirely known, though the first known individual was a chap called Flaad, whose brother was the steward to the Count of Dol (Brittany). Flaad’s son, Alan, was recruited as a mercenary by the English king, Henry I, and later became the Sheriff of Shropshire. His son, Walter, became friendly with the future King of Scots, David I, who was something of a protege to Henry. Walter became the first High Steward of Scotland – essentially responsible for managing the royal household and military command. “Stewart” became the family surname thanks to the third High Steward, and the family was a key player in the politics of medieval Scotland.
It was not until the chaos of the Scottish Wars of Independence that the Stewarts had any sort of claim to the throne of Scotland. The fifth High Steward (a James – before it was popular!) was one of the original Guardians of Scotland in 1286 and an early supported of Robert the Bruce who became king in 1306. James died in 1309 but his son, Walter, fought at Bannockburn aged just 18 and was afterwards knighted by the Bruce and a year later received the honour of marrying Bruce’s only child of the time, Marjorie. Tragically, Marjorie was thrown from her horse while heavily pregnant and died shortly after giving birth at just 19 years old. However, her son, Robert, now had a very strong claim to the throne.
Robert II was the son of Walter Stewart (6th High Steward of Scotland) and Marjorie Bruce, making him the grandson of Robert the Bruce. He was born on 2 March 1316, meaning he was nearly 55 when he became king in 1371 (an age that most Scottish monarchs don’t ever get to!) The reason that he had to wait so long was that Robert the Bruce did eventually have a son, David II, pushing Robert back one place in the line of succession.
So Robert spent most of his life being a powerful noble under David II, and a rather awkward one at that! Robert was 8 years older than David and consequently when David was sent off to France in 1333 to escape an invasion of Edward III of England, Robert stayed behind and did some of the fighting. Robert does not seem to have been universally popular in Scotland, perhaps because in 1335 he submitted to Edward in order to protect his estates. The recovery was instead led by a knight called Andy Murray, and although Robert was restored as Guardian of Scotland on Murray’s death, when David returned in 1341 he quickly identified Robert as a threat and not to be trusted.
David spent the next five years building up his own power base, only to then get himself captured by Edward in the Battle of Neville’s Cross. Robert had slipped away from the battle and now became Guardian again, adopting the mantle of the patriotic cause in opposition to David’s attempts (from England) to establish closer ties with England. The thought of Edward III or his sons succeeding to the Scottish throne was as abhorrent to the rest of Scotland as it was to Robert himself, but it also seems likely that Robert was quite happy to leave David under lock and key in England leaving him to increase his power and dominance in Scotland! When David was finally released in 1357 (with a hefty 100K mark ransom to his name) he picked up where he left off in 1346, building up his own power at the expense of Robert. Things were looking bleak for Robert after a failed rebellion in 1363 and a new marriage for David II, but in 1371 David died unexpectedly without yet producing an heir, meaning Robert would be king!
It is doubtful if Robert (or anyone else for that matter) would have expected him to have become king at the start of 1371. He was now 55 years old and some chroniclers suggested that this once vigorous man was now worn out by old age and suffering from an eye problem. The crown was something of a poisoned chalice, with David leaving behind a divided nobility and a hefty ransom, plus Robert was not particularly popular. Indeed, before he was even crowned Robert faced opposition from the powerful William Douglas and had to arrange a marriage alliance to see off the threat.
However, Robert’s position was in some ways much stronger than David, because he had three adult sons (all very capable and ambitious men) as well as a number of daughters. His sons were granted the major earldoms (John of Carrick, Robert of Fife and Alexander of Badenoch) and a great deal of power in their regions, while the daughters were married off to other powerful earls across Scotland, meaning that by 1377, seven out of sixteen earldoms were effectively in Stewart control. Robert had a more conciliatory approach to his nobles than David, meaning that he did not threaten existing interests. He also benefited from Edward III being in his dotage, and when he died in 1377 he was replaced by his 10 year-old grandson, Richard II, meaning that Scotland did not face the same threat from her southern neighbour. Raiding continued, but the ransom payments did not.
Unfortunately for Robert, the possession of ambitious sons was something of a double-edged sword. His third son, Alexander, was nicknamed the Wolf of Badenoch for his notorious antics in the Highlands (effectively becoming a brigand) and Robert was heavily criticised for his leniency. In the south, his eldest son, Carrick, was at the head of various border lords hungry for war with England (or at least the opportunity to raid in force) and were critical of Robert’s caution. Angry at Robert’s evasion of war in 1384 after an English raid led by John of Gaunt, Carrick led a coup in Parliament against Robert, declaring his father as physically incapable of dealing with the Wolf or England and had himself appointed Lieutenant of the Kingdom.
Robert II was now 68 years old and if not actually infirm or senile (this may have been propaganda by Carrick) he was certainly little more than a figurehead. Success was not to last for Carrick, who lost his closest ally, James Douglas, in the Battle of Otterburn (1388) and was seriously incapacitated by a horse-kick, leading to a second coup in which the second brother, the Earl of Fife, replaced him as Lieutenant. The implication was that Robert II was happy at the change in government but it is not clear to what extent (if any) he was involved. He made a tour of north-east Scotland in 1390 before returning to his home at Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire and then died on 19 April 1390 at the age of 74, leaving a rather uncertain succession for his sons to deal with.
The young Robert did a lot of battling during the reign of David II. Despite being just 17 years old, he was given the command of the centre of the Scottish Army at Halidon Hill (1333). Technically, this was a terrible defeat for the Scots, the army being massacred marching uphill into a rain of arrows and Robert one of the only leaders to survive, but still, he got involved! As Guardian, he led the successful capture of Perth castle in 1339, which was part of the wider effort in defeating Edward Balliol and Edward III.
As king, he was rather less active. However, he made a useful defensive treaty with France in 1371 while covertly backing attacks on English-held estates in Scotland. After the death of Edward III, the raids became more ambitious – Annandale was recovered in 1376, Robert declared Coldingham Priory as part of Dunfermline Abbey (rather than Durham) in 1378, while in 1384 the Scots recovered Lochmaben Castle and Teviotdale.
Most significant was the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. A rivalry had developed between the border families of Douglas (Scotland) and Percy (England – the earls of Northumberland, including the renowned Harry Hotspur). In a skirmish outside Newcastle, Douglas captured Hotspur’s flag in person. Hotspur subsequently surprised Douglas in an attack at twilight after riding through the night, but Douglas hid his troops in the bushes and launched a surprise side-on attack and led the Scots to victory.
Unfortunately, Robert’s successes are not all that impressive. In the 1330s, the capture of Perth is the exception rather than the rule. He submitted to the English in 1335 and was replaced as guardian by the much more successful Andy Murray. At the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346, many viewed his flight from the battle as highly suspicious (he probably hoped David II would be killed and he would become king). Indeed, the Lanercost Chronicle described Robert as being “overwhelmed by cowardice”.
As king, Robert’s record leaves a lot to be desired. The Scots made some successful raids, but they also suffered some pretty heavy attacks from England (most notably 1384, when John of Gaunt marched all the way to Edinburgh and devastated Haddington). In 1385, the French sent over a force of 1,100 led by a veteran admiral for an invasion of England but after a few ineffectual raids and a disagreement about strategy, it all came to nothing and the French went home. The famous chronicler, Jean Froissart, claimed Robert was too ill to get involved (“one who would rather remain at home than march to the field”) and when the English counter-raided, he retired to the Highlands “and left his subjects to act as well as they could”. Otterburn was a great victory, but Robert was not present or even in charge of government at this point.
Robert was likely the victim of propaganda by David II (who spent most of his reign trying to undermine his dynastic rival) and his eldest son, Carrick, who justified his coup on the basis that his father was not up to the job. His diplomatic work was probably more effective than the demands for constant, unchallenged raiding, and Scotland was probably in a strong position militarily under Robert II than his predecessor, David II. However, even if Robert II was more competent than is sometimes suggested, there really aren’t many great successes to celebrate.
Score = 3.5/20
Robert II seems to have been a very slippery customer of dubious loyalty. He submitted to Edward III in 1335 and was deprived of his office, suggesting he wasn’t trusted. David II certainly never trusted him, which was understandable given how he fled the field at Neville’s Cross and spent the next decade improving his own position rather than seeking David’s release. When David did return, his mistress (whose family represented a threat to Stewart interests) was assassinated in 1360 by one of Robert’s cousins while in 1363, Robert was involved in an armed rebellion against David II.
Robert was no more loyal in the royal chamber than he was in the bed chamber! He had about 4 illegitimate children by Mariota Cardeny, 1 by Moira Leitch and at least another 4 by other women (probably more!) Even his marriages were a little dubious. When he married Elizabeth Mure in 1347, he had to apply to the Pope to have his children legitimised as apparently they had not been properly married in the 1330s. His petition even states that “Robert…carnally knew first Isabella, and aftewards, in ignorance of their kindred, Elizabeth, who was herself related to Robert in the fourth degree of kindred.” So, in effect, he had a number of children by one woman without being married, to whom he was technically related, and had already had a relationship with her sister!
While his bedroom antics are not in question, when it comes to disloyalty there is again the problem of propaganda. An alternative interpretation is that in the 1330s, Robert was suffering attacks on his land while David was safely exiled in France – submission was merely accepting reality. David then spent most of his reign trying to prevent Robert succeeding him as king and was hardly a great ruler himself (indeed, in 1363 he was embezzling his own ransom money, so the rebellion was not without good cause!) The unity and common purpose under Robert the Bruce had been lost and Robert II was a man of a different time in which the nobles (indeed, even the family!) were working as much against each other as they were against their traditional enemies.
Robert II may receive harsh treatment regarding his disloyalty, but he was certainly not a man that could be relied upon to do the honourable thing. Had he been a more straightforward and honourable character, David II’s reign could have been much more successful and then his own reign would have been built on a stronger foundation. And obviously he was clearly very capable of creating bedroom scandal!
Score = 10.5/20
Despite all the bad vibes around Robert II, he was not without success as a ruler. It was a significant achievement to establish the Stewart dynasty as the royal family and by empowering his sons and making strategic marriage alliances, he lay a very strong foundation for what would prove to be Scotland’s final royal dynasty. In contrast, David II’s whole reign was a struggle of finding a source of power when heirs were lacking. As such, Robert could afford to be more compromising with his nobles (such as Douglas in 1371) whereas David was consistently setting people against each other. Until 1384, Robert’s approach in delegating power to his sons worked pretty well.
In terms of governing the country, the end of the ransom for David II after 1377 was obviously of benefit to the countries finances. The wool trade flourished in this period and Robert was enjoying a surplus of £1,800 from an income of over £14,000. David II was largely confined to southern Scotland (if not England and France!), whereas Robert was a much more itinerant monarch. He also had a familial connection to the north and west of Scotland, allowing him to represent the nation as a whole more than his predecessor. He also provided some much-needed stability – the border lords may have been grumpy about his cautious approach to England, but Robert was wise not to drag Scotland back into a damaging war and to largely keep the country out of the Hundred Years War.
However, Robert II also had a lot of problems as king. Many felt that he was a spent force physically. In 1384, the Scottish Parliament declared that “our lord king himself is unable to be attentive continually to the execution of justice and the law of his kingdom in person”. Even if he was fit and healthy in the previous decade, he does seem to have had something of a laissez-faire attitude, allowing his sons and other powerful magnates to do their own thing and consequently diminishing the power of the crown. This would ultimately lead to his overthrow in 1384 and 1388 by his own sons.
This laissez-faire attitude was particularly damaging when it came to his notorious third son Alexander, the Wolf of Badenoch. He used caterans to extort protection money from wealthy landowners (despite being a justiciar), leading to the Bishop of Moray preaching against him in Elgin Cathedral. Robert was heavily criticised for failing to curb Alexander’s powers, creating the sense of a mafia state when the royal family could get away with anything. This also played a key role in his overthrow, both in 1384 and 1388.
In his defence, again, is the issue of propaganda. Many of the chroniclers of the time were based in southern Scotland and were somewhat hysterical about Highlanders, so Robert’s “Gaelic-friendly” bearing would not have won him any friends. The worst of the Wolf’s actions actually came in the aftermath of Robert II’s death, so his failure to address disorder may have been more a justification for the 1384 and 1388 coups.
Robert II did a good job in establishing the royal Stewart dynasty, but unfortunately after this he largely seems to have put up his feet and let everybody else do whatever they wanted. It was not a disastrous reign, but Robert II seems to have had little or no control over the last decade and suffered the indignity of being replaced by two of his sons.
Score = 5.5/20
Robert II was king from 22 February 1371 to 19 April 1390 – a reign of 19.17 years, which gives him a converted score of 11/20.
Ignoring all the illegitimate children, Robert II had an incredibly 9 surviving legitimate children, which gives him a score of 18/20. Only Malcolm III had more in Scotland.
Overall, that gives Robert II a pretty decent total score of 48.5. However, does he have that certain something that we call…
As the first of a new dynasty, Robert II might have hoped to have been in with a shot here, and his impressive bevy of children (both legitimate and illegitimate) and more measured approach to kingship than his predecessor are all in his favour. However, overall his reign is far from impressive – laissez-faire, deposed by two of his three sons while the third wreaked havoc in the Highlands, and a very mixed military record are not the makings of a Rex Factor winner.
Our Verdict = No, Robert II does not have the Rex Factor.
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