1902 Encyclopedia > Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce
King of Scotland
(1274-1329)




ROBERT, called THE BRUCE (1274-1329), king of Scotland, was the son of the seventh Robert de Bruce, lord of Annandale in his own right and earl of Carrick in right of his wife Marjory, daughter of Neil, second earl, and thus was of mingled Norman and Celtic blood. His grandfather, the sixth Robert de Brace, claimed the crown of Scotland as son of Isabella, second daughter of David, earl of Huntingdon; but Baliol, grandson of Margaret, the eldest daughter, was preferred by the commissioners of Edward I. The birthplace of the Bruce—perhaps Turnberry, his mother's castle, on the coast of Ayr—is not certainly known. His youth is said by an English chronicle to have been passed at the court of Edward I. At an age when the mind is quick to receive the impressions which give the bent to life he must have watched the progress of the great suit for the crown of Scotland. Its issue in favour of Baliol led to the resignation of Annandale by Bruce the competitor to his son, the Bruce's father, who, either then or after the death of the aged competitor in 1295, assumed the title of lord of Annandale. Two years before he had resigned, on the death of his wife, the earldom of Carrick to Robert the Bruce, who presented the deed of resignation to Baliol at Stirling on 3d August 1293, and offered the homage which his father, like his grandfather, was unwilling to render. Feudal law required that the king should take sasine of the earldom before regranting it and receiving the homage, and the sheriff of Ayr was directed to take it on Baliol's behalf. As the disputes between Edward and Baliol, which ended in Baliol losing the kingdom, commenced in this year it is doubtful whether Bruce ever rendered homage; but he is henceforth known as earl of Carrick, though in a few instances this title is still given to his father. Both father and son sided with Edward against Baliol. Towards the end of 1292 the elder Robert had a safe-conduct from Edward to visit Norway with a daughter, Isabella, who married Erik, king of Norway, the widower of Margaret of Scotland,—a fact marking the high standing of the family of Bruce. On 20th April 1294 the younger Robert, earl of Carrick, had a similar safe-conduct or permission to visit Ireland till Michaelmas and a year following, and a further mark of Edward's favour by a respite for the same period of all debts due by him to the exchequer. His father, having done homage to Edward, was entrusted in October 1295 with the custody of the castle of Carlisle by a patent in which he is styled lord of Annandale; and Baliol retaliated by seizing Annandale, which he conferred on John Comyn, earl of Buchan. On 28th August 1296 Robert de Brace " le vieil" and Robert de Bruce " le jeune," earl of Carrick, swore fealty to Edward at Berwick; but (according to Hemingford), in breach of this oath, renewed at Carlisle on the Gospels and the sword of Thomas a Becket, the young earl joined Wallace, who had raised the standard of Scottish independence in the name of Baliol after that weak king had himself surrendered his kingdom to Edward. Urgent letters were sent ordering Bruce to support Warenne, Edward's general, in the summer of 1297; but, instead of complying, he, along with the bishop of Glasgow and the steward of Scotland, laid waste the lands of those who adhered to Edward. On 7th July Bercy forced Bruce and his friends to make terms by the 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, while in return they owned allegiance to Edward. The bishop of Glasgow, the steward, and Sir Alexander Lindesay became sureties for Bruce until he delivered his daughter Marjory as a hostage. Wallace almost alone maintained the struggle for freedom which the nobles as well as Baliol had given up, and Bruce had no part in the honour of Stirling Bridge or the reverse of Falkirk, where in the following year Edward in person recovered what his generals had lost and drove Wallace into exile. Shortly afterwards Bruce appears again to have sided with his countrymen; Annandale was wasted and Lochmaben taken by Clifford, while Bruce (according to Hemingford), "when lie heard of the king's coming, lied from his face and burnt the castle of Ayr which he held." Yet, when Edward was forced by home affairs to quit Scotland, Annandale and certain earldoms, including Darrick, were excepted from the districts he assigned to his followers,—Bruce and the other earls being treated as ivaverers whose allegiance might still be retained. In 1299 a regency was appointed in Scotland in name of Baliol, and a letter of Baliol mentions Robert Bruce, lord of Carrick, as regent, along with William of Lamberton, bishop of St Andrews, and John Comyn the younger,— •a strange combination, Lamberton the friend of Wallace, Comyn the enemy of Bruce, and Bruce a regent in name of Baliol. Comyn in his own interest as Baliol's heir was the active regent; the insertion of the name of Bruce was an attempt to secure his co-operation. For the next four years he kept studiously in the background waiting his time. A statement of Langtoft that he was at the parliament of Lincoln in 1301, when the English barons repudiated the claim of the pope to the suzerainty of Scotland, is not to be credited, though his father may have been there. In the campaign of 1304, when Edward renewed his attempt on Scotland and reduced Stirling, Bruce supported the English king, who in one of his letters to him says, " If you complete that which you have begun we shall hold the war ended by your deed and all the land of •Scotland gained." But, while apparently aiding Edward, Bruce had taken a step which bound him to the patriotic cause. On 11th June, a month before the fall of Stirling, he met Lamberton at Cambuskenneth and entered into a secret bond by which they were to support each other against all adversaries and undertake nothing without consulting together. The death of his father in this year may have determined his course and led him to prefer the chance of the Scottish crown to his English estates and the friendship of Edward.





This determination closes the first chapter of his life; the second, from 1304 to 1314, is occupied by his contest for the kingdom, which was really won at Bannockburn, though disputed till the treaty of Northampton in 1328 ; the last, from 1314 to his death in 1329, was the period of the establishment of his government and dynasty by an administration as skilful as his generalship. It is to the second of these that historians, attracted by its brilliancy •even amongst the many romances of history and its importance to Scottish history, have directed most of their attention, and it is during it that his personal character, tried by adversity and prosperity, gradually unfolds itself. But all three periods require to be kept in view to form a just estimate of Bruce. That which terminated in 1304, though unfortunately few characteristics, personal or individual, have been preserved, shows him by his conduct to have been the normal Scottish noble of the time. A conflict of interest and of bias led to contradictory action, and this conflict was increased in his case by his father's residence in England, his own upbringing at the English court, his family feud with Baliol and the Comyns, and the jealousy common to his class of Wallace, the mere knight, who had rallied the commons against the invader and taught the nobles what was required in a leader of the people. The merit of Bruce is that he did not despise "the lesson. Prompted alike by patriotism and ambition, at the prime of manhood he chose the cause of national independence with all its perils, and stood by it with a constancy which never wavered until he secured its triumph. Though it is crowded with incidents, the main facts in the central decade of Bruce's life may be rapidly told. The fall of Stirling was followed by the capture and execution of Wallace at London on 24th August 1305. Edward hoped still to conciliate the nobles and gain Scotland by a policy of clemency to all who did not dispute his authority. A parliament in London (16th September), to which Scottish representatives were summoned, agreed to an ordinance for the government of Scotland, which, though on the model of those for Wales and Ireland, treating Scotland as a third subject province under an English lieutenant, John de Bretagne, was in other respects not severe. Bruce is reputed to have been one of the advisers who assisted in framing it; but a provision that his castle of Kildrummy was to be placed in charge of a person for whom he should answer shows that Edward not without reason suspected his fidelity. Challenged by the king with the bond between him and Lamberton (according to one account discovered by the treachery of John Comyn, with whom a similar engagement had been made or attempted), Bruce secretly quitted London, and on 10th February 1306 met by appointment, in the church of the Friars Minor at Dumfries, Comyn, whom he slew at the high altar for refusing to join in his plans. So much is certain, though the precise incidents of the interview were variously told. It was not their first encounter, for a letter of 1299 to Edward from Scotland describes Comyn as having seized Bruce by the throat at a meeting at Peebles, when they were with difficulty reconciled by the joint regency.

The bond with Lamberton was now sealed by blood and the confederates lost no time in putting it into execution. Within little more than six weeks Bruce, collecting his adherents in the south-west, passed from Lochmaben to Glasgow and thence to Scone, where he was crowned by the bishop of St Andrews on 25th March, the bishops of Glasgow and Moray, with the earls of Lennox, Athole, and Errol, being present. Two days later Isabella, countess of Buchan, claimed the right of her family the Macduffs, earls of Fife, to place the Scottish king on his throne, and the ceremony wTas repeated with an addition flattering to the Celtic race. Though a king, Bruce had not yet a kingdom, and his efforts to obtain it were till the death of Edward I. disastrous failures. In June he was defeated at Methven by Pembroke, and on 11th August he was surprised in Strathfillan, where he had taken refuge, by Lord Lorn. The ladies of his family were sent to Kildrummy in January, and Bruce, almost without a follower, fled to Rathlin, an island off Antrim (Ireland). Edward, though suffering from his last illness, came to the north in the following spring. On his way he granted the Scottish estates of Bruce and his adherents to his own followers, Annandale falling to the earl of Hereford. At Carlisle there was published a bull excommunicating Bruce, along with another absolving Edward from the oath he had taken to observe Magna Charta and the other charters on which the English constitution rests. Elizabeth the wife, Marjory the daughter, Christina the sister of Bruce, were captured in a sanctuary at Tain and sent prisoners to England. The countess of Buchan was confined in a cage at Berwick and another of Bruce's sisters, Mary, in a cage at Boxburgh. The bishops of St Andrews and Glasgow and the abbot of Scone were suspended from their benefices and sent as prisoners to the south of England. Nigel Bruce, his youngest brother, was beheaded at Berwick, Christopher Seton, his brother-in-law, at Dumfries. The earl of Athole was sent to London and hanged on a gallows 30 feet higher than the pole on which the head of Wallace still stood. Two other brothers of Bruce, Thomas and Alexander (dean of Glasgow), met the same fate at Carlisle. There were many minor victims, but the chronicler of Lanercost notes that the number of those who wished Bruce to be confirmed in the kingdom increased daily. While thus wreaking his vengeance Edward himself was summoned by death at Burgh-on-the-Sands, on the Solway, on 7th June 1307. By his dying wish the inscription " Edwardus Primus, Scotorum Malleus, Pactum Serva" was put on his tomb. In a moment all was changed. Instead of being opposed to the greatest, Bruce now had as his antagonist the feeblest of the Plantagenets. Quitting Bathlin (after a short stay in Arran), Bruce had before Edward's death attempted to take Turnberry and Ayr, out had failed, though he defeated Pembroke at Loudoun Hill. No sooner was his father dead than Edward II. recalled his banished favourite Gaveston. After wasting the critical moment of the war in the diversions of a youthful court, the new king made an inglorious march to Cumnock and back without striking a blow, and then returned south to celebrate his marriage with Isabella of France, leaving the war to a succession of generals. Bruce, with the insight of military genius, seized his opportunity. Leaving Edward, now his only brother in blood and almost his equal in arms, in Galloway, he suddenly transferred his own operations to Aberdeenshire. In the end of 1307 and again in May 1308 he overran Buchan, where at Inverury on 22d May he defeated its earl, one of his chief Scottish opponents, Then crossing to Argyll he surprised Lord Lorn in the Pass of Brander and took Dunstaffnage. In 1309 a truce, scarcely kept, was effected by the pope and Philip of France, and in 1310, in a general council at Dundee, the clergy of Scotland—all the bishops being present—recognized Bruce as king. The support given him by the national church in spite of his excommunication must have been of great importance in that age, and was probably due to the example of Lamberton. The next three years were signalized by the reduction one by one of the strong places the English still held,—Linlithgow in the end of 1310, Dumbarton in October 1311, Perth by Bruce himself in January 1312. Encouraged by these successes, he made a raid into the north of England, and on his return reduced Butel (in Galloway), Dumfries, and Dalswinton, and threatened Berwick. In March 1313 Sir James Douglas surprised Roxburgh, and Randolph surprised Edinburgh. In May Bruce was again in England, and, though he failed to take Carlisle, he subdued the Isle of Man. Edward Bruce about the same time took Butherglen and laid siege to Stirling, whose governor, Mowbray, agreed to capitulate if not relieved before 24th June 1314. Bruce's rapidity of movement was one cause of his success. His sieges, the most difficult part of mediaeval warfare, though won sometimes by stratagem, prove that he and his followers had benefited from their early training in the wars of Edward I. We know that he had been specially employed by that king to prepare the siege-train for his attack on Stirling. By the close of 1313 Berwick and Stirling alone remained English. Edward II. felt that if Scotland was not to be lost a great effort must be made. With the whole available feudal levy of England, a contingent from Ireland, and recruits even out of jails—for murderers were pardoned on condition of joining the army _—he advanced from Berwick to Falkirk, which he reached on 2 2d June. After a preliminary skirmish on Sunday the 23d, in which Bruce distinguished himself by a personal combat with Henry de Bohun, whom he felled by a single blow of his axe, the battle of Bannockburn was fought on Monday the 24th; and the complete rout of the English determined the independence of Scotland and confirmed the title of Bruce. The details of the day, memorable in the history of war as well as of Scotland, have been singularly well preserved, and redound to the credit of Bruce, who had studied in the school of Wallace as well as in that of Edward I. He had chosen and knew his ground,—the New Park between St Ninian's and the Bannock, a petty burn, yet sufficient to produce marshes dangerous to heavily-armed horsemen, while from the rising ground on his right the enemy's advance was seen. His troops were in four divisions ; his brother commanded the right, Randolph the centre, Douglas the left. Bruce with the reserve planted his standard at the Bore Stone, whence there is the best view of the field. His camp-followers on the Gillies' Hill appeared over its crest at the critical moment which comes in all battles. The plain on the right of the marshes was prepared with pits and spikes. But what more than any other point of strategy made the fight famous was that the Scots fought on foot in battalions with their spears outwards, in a circular formation serving the same purpose as the modem square. A momentary success of the English archers was quickly reversed by a flank movement of Sir Robert Keith. The Scottish bowmen followed up his advantage,, and the fight became general; the English horse, crowded into too narrow a space, were met by the steady resistance of the Scottish pikemen, who knew Bruce told them truly that they fought for their country, their wives, their children, and all that freemen hold dear. The English rear was unable to come up in the narrow space or got entangled in the broken ranks of the van. The first repulse soon passed into a rout, and from a rout into a headlong flight, in which Edward himself barely escaped. Like Courtrai and Morgarten, Bannockburn marked the momentous change from mediaeval to modern warfare. The armed knights gave place to the common soldiers led by skilful generals as the arbiters of the destiny of nations. In the career of Bruce it was the turning-point. The enthusiasm of the nation he had saved forgot his late adhesion to the popular cause, and at the parliament of Ayr on 25th April 1315 the succession was settled by a unanimous voice on him, and, failing males of his body, on his brother Edward and his heirs male, failing whom on his daughter Marjory and her heirs, if she married with his consent. Soon after she married Walter the Steward.





The last part of Bruce's life, from 1315 to 1329, began with an attempt which was the most striking testimony that could have been given to the effect of Bannockburn, and which, had it succeeded, might have altered the future of the British Isles. This was no less than the rising of the whole Celtic race, who had felt the galling yoke of Edward I. and envied the freedom the Scots had won. In 1315 Edward Bruce crossed to Ireland on the invitation of the natives, and in the following year the Welsh became his allies. In autumn Robert came to his brother, and they together traversed Ireland to Limerick. Dublin, was saved by its inhabitants committing it to the flames, and, though nineteen victories were won, of wdiich that at Slane in Louth by Robert was counted the chief, the success was too rapid to be permanent. The brothers retreated to Ulster, and, Robert having left Ireland to protect his own borders, Edward was defeated and killed at Dundalk in October 1318. On his return Bruce addressed himself to the siege of Berwick, a standing menace to Scotland. While preparing for it two cardinals arrived in England with a mission from Pope John XXII. to effect a truce, or, failing that, to renew the excommunication of Bruce. The cardinals did not trust themselves across the border; their messengers, however, were courteously received by Bruce, but with a firm refusal to admit the bulls into his kingdom because not addressed to him asking. Another attempt by Newton, guardian of the Friars Minor at Berwick, had a more ignominious result. Bruce admitted Newton to his presence at Aldcamus, where he might see the works for the siege going on by night and day, and was informed that Bruce would not receive the bulls until his title was acknowledged and he had taken Berwick. On his return Newton was waylaid and his papers seized, not without suspicion of Bruce's In March 1318 first the town and then the castle of Berwick capitulated, and Bruce wasted the English border as far as Bipon. In December he held a parliament at Scone, where he displayed the same wisdom as a legislator which he had shown as a general. The death of his brother and his daughter rendered a resettlement of the crown advisable, which was made in the same order as before, with a provision as to the regency in case of a minor heir in favour of Randolph, and failing him Douglas. The defence of the country was next cared for by regulations for the arming of the whole nation, down to every one who owned the value of a cow,—a measure far in advance of the old feudal levy. Exports during war and of arms at any time were prohibited. Internal justice was regulated, and it was declared that it was to be done to poor and rich alike. Leasingmaking—a Scottish term for seditious language—was to be sternly punished. The nobles were exhorted not to oppress the commons. Reforms were also made in the tedious technicalities of the feudal law. In 1319 an attempt to recover Berwick was repelled by Walter the Steward, and Bruce took occasion of a visit to compliment his son-in-law and raise the walls 10 feet.

His position was now so strong that foreign states began to testify their respect. Bruges and Ypres rejected a request of Edward to cut off the Scottish trade with Flanders. The pope, who had excommunicated Bruce, was addressed by the parliament of Arbroath in 1320 in a letter which compared Bruce to a Joshua or Judas Maccabseus, who had wrought the salvation of his people, and declared they fought "not for glory, truth, or honour, but for that liberty which no virtuous man will survive." Moved by this language and conscious of the weakness of Edward, the pope exhorted him to make peace with Scotland, and three years later Randolph at last procured the recognition of Bruce as king from the papal see by promising aid in a crusade. In 1326 the French king made a similar acknowledgment by the treaty of Corbeil. Meantime hostilities more or less constant continued with England, but, though in 1322 Edward made an incursion as far as Edinburgh, the fatal internal weakness of his government prevented his gaining any real success. Some of his chief nobles—Lancaster in 1321 and Sir Andrew Hartcla in 1322—entered into correspondence with the Scots, and, though Hartcla's treason was detected and punished by his death, Edward was forced to make a treaty for a long truce of thirteen years at Newcastle on 30th May, which Bruce ratified at Berwick. The intrigue of the queen with Roger Mortimer led to the end of the ignominious reign by Edward's deposition and murder in 1327; and one of the first acts of the new reign, after a narrow escape of the young king from capture by Bandolph, was the treaty of York, ratified at Northampton in April 1328, by which it was agreed that "Scotland, according to its ancient bounds in the days of Alexander III., should remain to Robert, king of Scots, and his heirs free and divided from England, without any subjection, servitude, claim or demand whatsoever." Johanna, Edward's sister, was to be given in marriage to David, the infant son of Bruce, and the ceremony was celebrated at Berwick on 12th July.

The chief author of Scottish independence barely survived his work. His last years had been spent chiefly at the castle of Cardross on the Clyde, which he acquired in 1326, and the conduct of war, as well as the negotiations for peace, had been left to the young leaders Bandolph and Douglas, whose training was one of Bruce's services to his country. Ever active, he employed himself in the narrower sphere of repairing the castle and improving its domains and gardens, in shipbuilding on the Clyde, and in the exercise of the royal virtues of hospitality and charity. The religious feeling, which had not been absent even during the struggles of manhood, deepened in old age, and took the form the piety of the times prescribed. He made careful provision for his funeral, his tomb, and masses for his soul. He procured from the pope a bull authorizing his confessor to absolve him even at the moment of death. He died from leprosy, contracted in the hardships of earlier life, on 7th June 1329, and was buried at Dunfermline beside his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, whom he had married about 1304, and who bore him late his only son, David, who succeeded him. Of two surviving daughters, Matilda, married Thomas Ysaak, a simple esquire, and Margaret became the wife of William, earl of Sutherland. Marjory, an only child by his first wife, Isabella of Mar, had predeceased him. Several children not born in wedlock have been traced in the records, but none of them became in any way famous.

In fulfilment of a vow to visit the Holy Sepulchre, which he could not accomplish in person, Bruce requested Douglas to carry his heart there, but his faithful follower perished on the way, fighting in Spain against the Moors, and the heart of Bruce, recovered by Sir William Keith, found its resting-place at Melrose. When his corpse was disinterred in 1819 the breast-bone was found severed to admit of the removal of the heart, thus confirming the story preserved in the verses of Barbour. That national poet collected in. the earliest Scottish poem, written in the reign of Bruce's grandson, the copious traditions which clustered round his memory. It is a panegyric ; but history has not refused to accept it as a genuine representation of the character of the great king, in spirit, if not in every detail. Its dominant note is freedom—the liberty of the nation from foreign bondage, and of the individual from oppression. It is the same note which Tacitus embodied in the speech of Galgacus at the dawn of Scottish history. Often as it has been heard before and since in the, course of history, seldom has it had. a more illustrious champion than Kobert the Bruce. (AE. M.)



The above article was written by: Aeneas J. G. Mackay, LL.D.



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