After a century plagued by a lack of male heirs, by 1390 there were too many! Robert III was well past his best when he became king and the country was technically being ruled by his younger brother. With another brother causing havoc in the north, this was not going to be an easy reign for Robert III, but if he could secure the succession for his own children then perhaps the newly established Stewart dynasty would bring some much-needed stability to Scotland. To find out how he got on, listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
From the death of Alexander III in 1286, Scotland had suffered a century of warfare with England struggling to maintain its independence. With the death of Edward III of England in 1377, Scotland’s independence now looked secure, but the country was weak and bitterly divided after the troubled reign of David II. The first king of the Stewart dynasty, Robert II, had been the chief thorn in the side of David II, but unlike his younger uncle, Robert was blessed with numerous children, allowing him to dominate Scotland’s earldoms (rewarding his sons or marrying off his daughters) and delegate authority to his three eldest sons: John, Earl of Carrick (southern Scotland), Robert, Earl of Fife (central Scotland) and Alexander, the Earl of Buchan (better known as the “Wolf of Badenoch”, dominant in the north).
Unfortunately, Robert II’s sons did not prove particularly loyal. The Wolf was notorious as a violent brigand in the Highlands, while Carrick became the leader of the Border lords frustrated that Robert II would not countenance raids against England. In 1384, Carrick led a coup in Parliament, reducing Robert to little more than a figurehead and making himself Lord Lieutenant of the Kingdom. In 1389, he himself was removed from power and replaced by the second son, Fife. When Robert II died in 1390, then, there was the rather awkward situation in which Fife was in charge of government but Carrick was actually the heir. So who would rule?
Robert III was the son of Robert II and Elizabeth Mure, born on 14 August 1337 at Scone Palace, making him nearly 53 when he became king in 1390 (like his father, who was nearly 55, rather past his best). Confusing, Robert’s real name was actually John, meaning it was the Earl of Carrick who became king rather than the Earl of Fife (who actually was called Robert!) Carrick received parliamentary approval to change his regnal name, perhaps wanting to avoid association with various unsuccessful King John’s in European history (not least John Balliol in Scotland). But how could he be king when Fife had removed him from effective power only six months earlier?
As a young man, he had showed great promise. While David II resisted acknowledging Robert II as his heir, he seemed to accept that Carrick would one day be king. He married him to Annabelle Drummond (the niece of David’s queen) and granted him the earldom of Carrick, which formerly belonged to David himself and his Bruce family forebears. Under Robert II, Carrick was recognised as heir by law and given virtual control over Scotland. Dissatisfaction with a lack of raids in the south and a failure to tackle the lawless regime of the Wolf in the north allowed Carrick to make himself Lieutenant and sideline his father. However, as Lieutenant, Carrick failed to bring the north to heel (if anything the Wolf gained in power, becoming Justiciar of the North in 1387) and lost a crucial ally when James Douglas (the 2nd Earl Douglas) was killed in the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. Carrick himself seems to have been partially disabled in this year when he was kicked by a horse, and he was no longer the strong and ambitious man who had taken power four years earlier.
In 1389, Carrick was overthrown by his younger brother, the Earl of Fife, who became the new Lieutenant. Tension between the brothers had been in place for many years after Robert II enacted the succession in the male line only in 1373, meaning that Carrick (who only had daughters) who would see the throne pass to Fife and his sons. However, it was nevertheless the turn of Carrick (now Robert III) to be king, despite the fact that Fife had just had him declared incapable of governing. Unsurprisingly, there was something of an impasse for the next four months, but after much negotiating, Robert III was crowned as king but Fife would remain as Lieutenant (king in all but name).
Battle for Control
Although Robert III had to suffer the ignominy of his brother ruling for him, he had great hope for the future because he had a son, David, aged 12, who inevitably who be able to take the fight to Fife. Robert’s wife, Annabella, took the lead in promoting David’s position, building allies at court and making his household financially independent. In 1393, the General Council ended Fife’s lieutenancy and gave David a prominent role in assisting his father in direct rule. In 1397, David became a member of the king’s council and in 1398, Annabella had him created the Duke of Rothesay (Scotland’s first ever Duke). At 20 years old, the future looked bright for David and Robert’s position finally secure against the Earl of Fife (now himself raised to be the Duke of Albany).
Unfortunately for Robert, history was about to repeat itself. In 1396, David was planning to marry the daughter of the powerful George Dunbar, Earl of March, but Robert intervened to prevent this happening. This seems to have soured relations between father and son, at a time when there was some dissatisfaction with Robert III’s ineffectual efforts to govern in his own stead. His failure to capture Dumbarton Castle in 1398 after a three month siege in a campaign against the Lord of the Isles proved the last straw. Remarkably, the Duke of Albany and Prince David joined forces in 1399 to have Robert III once more removed from executive power on account of his inability to govern, with David made Lieutenant and Albany on a named council to offer advice. Robert III had thus been overthrown by his own brother and his own son.
The family soap opera was far from over in 1399, however. David’s position seemed virtually secure – he would, most likely, soon be king in his own right and his mother arranged his marriage to the daughter of Archibald Douglas, the most powerful non-Stewart in the land. However, he acquired a reputation for being rather wild and unruly, and the death of his mother in 1401 seems to have removed a key restraint on his behaviour as well as the person keeping the alliance of David, Albany and Douglas together. David’s reputation had taken a hit after Henry IV of England invaded in 1400 and he was criticised for pocketing customs money and keeping the see of St Andrews vacant. So, in 1402, while heading to St Andrews Castle he was arrested by two of Albany’s adherents and sent to Falkland Castle. Albany struck a deal with Douglas (David’s former ally) in which Albany became Lieutenant and Douglas was given extensive lands in southern Scotland. Later that year, David died at Falkland Palace (Albany’s residence) – according to the official enquiry due to “divine dispensation and not otherwise” though in reality he was most likely starved to death by Albany.
The Final Struggle
Things now looked very bleak for Robert III. Overthrown by his eldest son and his brother, his wife dead and his son murdered, totally excluded from politics and sent away to live out his days in the old Stewart lands in western Scotland. However, Albany was not having an easy time of it. Scotland suffered two defeats to England in 1402, most notably at Homildon Hill in which Douglas and Murdoch (Albany’s son) were captured. By diminishing the power of the Wolf in the north, the resulting power vacuum had allowed Donald, the Lord of the Isles, and his son to cause serious unrest, forcing Albany to head north to find a solution.
Consequently, Robert III made a remarkably unlikely comeback. He set up court in Lothian, encouraged reports of miracles associated with his murdered son (thus blackening Albany’s reputation) and found himself new allies in Sir David Fleming, Henry Wardlaw (Bishop of St Andrews) and Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney (though actually dominant in the south with Douglas imprisoned). Most significantly, Robert III had a second son, James, now 10 years old and the last chance of defeating Albany. He was given into Wardlaw’s care (hoping Albany would not murder a second nephew if in the care of a bishop) and given huge tracts of old Stewart lands to make him independent.
Robert III was back in control, but his luck was not too last for long. Sir David Fleming was unpopular with the powerful Douglas family after he scuppered a potential deal for the head of the family (Archibald, the 3rd Earl Douglas) to be released from English captivity. In 1406, Prince James was on a progress in East Lothian, possibly because Robert was seeking to secure marriage alliances in the area, in the car of Fleming and Sinclair. Unfortunately, this plan somewhat backfired: Lothian was Douglas territory, and the expedition was ambushed and Fleming killed. Sinclair escaped with James, taking him to the small island of Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth waiting for a boat to take James to France for his safety. They found a ship but it was captured by English pirates off Flamborough Head and James was taken to Henry IV and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Robert heard the news a few weeks later while at Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute. This last blow proved fatal and he died soon afterwards on 4 April 1406 at the age of 66. Supposedly, he provided himself with his own, rather sorry epitaph, when refusing his wife’s suggestion years before of building himself a grand tomb:
“Bury me therefore, I beg you, in a midden [dung heap], and write for my epitaph: ‘Here lies the worst of kings and the most wretched of men in the whole kingdom’.”
For nearly 20 years, Robert III (as Earl of Carrick) was the most powerful man in Scotland. He was largely recognised as the likely heir of David II in 1371 and under his father was the leading figure among the southern border lords. Although details are scanty, he would most likely have led numerous raids into northern England. In 1385, he received a substantial donation from the French crown shortly after taking executive power from his father and would most likely have been involved in the subsequent campaign.
Sadly for Robert III, as king he did not have a lot of success. Shortly before he became king in 1388, he suffered a kick from a horse that left him unable to lead his men in battle, and apart from the occasional siege there is no evidence of his being involved in military affairs.
There was plenty of battleyness in Robert’s reign, but sadly none of it terribly successful from a Scottish perspective. Henry IV is not generally celebrated as one of England’s great warrior kings but he was a highly respected knight in his youth and did significant damage to Scotland. In 1400, the Scots irritated him incessantly by failing to come to terms and continuing to refer to him as Bolingbroke instead of king. This was poorly timed on the part of the Scots as the powerful Earl of March had decided to abandon his nation after Prince David chose not to marry his daughter, taking his retinue to England and providing Henry with an easy route to Edinburgh. Henry brought 15-20,000 soldiers to Scotland, stresses his own Scottish heritage (via the Comyn family) and soon found himself besieging Edinburgh. Robert III was in Bute, Prince David was hiding inside the castle and Albany was unwilling to come south to risk battle. Henry headed home without taking the castle in what would be the last invasion in person by an English monarch in Scotland. Attempting to get their revenge, in 1402 the Scots resumed their raiding and in 1402 Archibald Douglas and Murdoch Stewart led an army of c. 10,000 to Newcastle, only to be captured in a terrible defeat at Homildon Hill. Had it not been for the severity of the rebellion in Wales by Owain Gylndwr, the English forces might have retaken a substantial part of southern Scotland
Robert III promised much as a young man, but by the time he became king he was a broken man unable to do any real battling. The battles fought by others in his reign resulted in terrible defeats to England and ultimately it was all rather disappointing.
Score = 0/20
Again, as king Robert III does not seem to have had the energy to have done anything particularly scandalous, but as a younger man he showed some promise. He fathered at least two illegitimate sons and was sufficiently ambitious and ruthless to overthrow his own father in 1385. While the early Scottish rulers often had troubles with their dynastic rivals (whether these be uncles, nephews, brothers or cousins) a son removing his father from power was going beyond what had been seen before.
Robert III’s later passivity belies a younger man with a ruthless edge who was certainly prone to some scandalous behaviour. But for his injury in 1388, he could well have got up to even more shenanigans as king but sadly, his regal exploits were curtailed prematurely.
Score = 9/20
It’s hard to find a lot of evidence for Robert III as a wise and reforming ruler who made Scotland a better place for his subject. Medieval historian Walter Bower suggested that Robert was a very humble man, which made him “so beloved by his men that all his subjects thought it agreeable to look on him, both for his gentle countenance and for the proof of his humility.” At his coronation, a local canon in Scone was said to have complained that all the attendees were damaging his crops – Robert’s men wanted to punish him for his impertinence, but Robert inspected the damage and granted him compensation. The story of Robert’s desired epitaph was intended to be an example of his humility, in which he says to his wife “let these men who strive in this world for the pleasures of honour having shining monuments”, for Robert was not concerned with such trivialities.
In reality, Bower’s account of Robert III’s humility does not chime with the man who sidelined his own father because he wanted free reign to loot northern England! In reality, Bower was explaining away his failings by suggesting he was too good a man to be an effective king. Instead, Robert III was simply a weak and ineffective ruler (some historians have suggested he may be Scotland’s worst ruler). From 1388-1404, he was publicly declared incapable of governing on no less than 4 occasions while nearly 2/3 of his reign saw power exercised by a regent. It was his queen, Annabella, who led the initial resistance against Albany, only for his own son (and intended source of salvation), Prince David, joining forces with Albany to remove him from power. Robert’s attempts at building up his second son, Prince James, ended with one of his key advisors killed and his son locked up in the Tower of London.
Outside of power politics, there is a sense of a weak and divided realm, suffering from nearly a century of weak rule. “Billon” coins made from debased silver started to circulate, there was continual slippage in rent levels and a sudden drop in the volume of overseas trade. Robert failed to tackle his brother, the Wolf of Badenoch, when he looted his own territory of northern Scotland and even made him a justiciar (i.e. the person in charge of law and order!) The catchily named Chartularium Episcopatus Moraviensis lamented in 1398 that “in those days there was no law in Scotland, but the strong oppressed the weak, and the whole kingdom was one den of thieves…justice seemed banished beyond the kingdom’s bounds.” Robert III was identified in parliament as being incapable of addressing these problems, with the 1399 Parliament declaring that “the king, on account of the sickness of his person may not exert himself to govern the realm, nor restrain trespassers and rebels”, resulting in his removal from power.
Robert III was sidelined for most of his reign and continually declared unfit to rule. All the while, Scotland suffered lawlessness, financial hardship and a terribly divided leadership. While not having to endure English occupation or suffer a truly catastrophic military defeat, Robert III’s reign nevertheless represents something of a nadir in Scottish history.
Score = 0/20
Robert III was king (in name, at least!) from 19 April 1390 to 4 April 1406. We’ll be generous and round that up to exactly 16 years, giving him a pretty decent score (when converted into a score out of 20) of 10/20.
Despite all his difficulties, Robert III did manage to leave four surviving children (a son and three daughters), giving him a score of 8/20.
Overall, Robert III scored a rather disappointing 27, but does he have something about him to make him worth of the…
No. Clearly a no – Robert III may have shown plenty of promise of a young man, but as a king he was weak, hardly ever actually in charge and presiding over a thoroughly unsuccessful reign. He does not have the Rex Factor.
But perhaps you disagree! Let us know what you think in the poll below – does Robert III deserve the Rex Factor?