Robert the Bruce by Richard H. Fay

Robert the Bruce
by Richard H. Fay

Alexander III’s fatal fall down a seaside cliff during a stormy night in 1286 plunged the kingdom of Scotland into a cascade of events that eventually led to a series of wars with England. After the untimely death of Alexander’s young granddaughter Margaret “The Maid of Norway” in 1290, no fewer than fourteen claimants vied for the throne, including members of the Balliol and Bruce families. Edward I of England, described as a “devious leopard” by a contemporary chronicler, acted as judge and feudal overlord in the succession dispute. In 1292 he decided in favour of John Balliol as the new Scottish king. Forced to resign his regal title in 1296 after unsuccessfully rebelling against Edward’s heavy-handed rule, Balliol suffered the humiliation of having the royal arms ripped from his surcoat, thus acquiring the derogatory epithet of “Toom Tabard.” Balliol’s disgrace led to a revival of the Bruce claim. Robert the Bruce, grandson of the original Bruce competitor, overcame the stain of sacrilegious murder, excommunication, and the hardships of a fugitive existence to become the greatest of Scotland’s warrior kings.

Born on July 11, 1274, in Turnberry Castle, an Ayrshire fortress overlooking the Firth of Clyde, Robert was the eldest child of Robert Bruce VI, Lord of Annandale, and Marjorie of Carrick. As a member of the powerful Anglo-Norman elite that held lands on both sides of the Scottish border, Robert learned to speak the Norman-French of his peers as well as the Gaelic and northern English of his future followers. Educated enough to be able to read a French romance to his haggard band of supporters during his darkest days, Robert also gained the typical martial training of a nobleman’s firstborn son. Adept at jousting and swordplay, Robert eventually earned the rank of one of the three greatest knights of his day, a distinction he shared with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry and Sir Giles D’Argentan. Little else is known of his early years except that he appears as a witness on a deed in 1286. His history is again shrouded in darkness until 1292, when he became the effective head of the Bruce family.

 The choice of John Balliol, a lord connected to the Bruce’s rivals the Comyn’s, as king left the Earl of Carrick with a deep conviction that his family had suffered a great injustice. The Bruce family never recognized Balliol’s sovereignty. They swore homage to Edward I of England in 1292, and reaffirmed their fealty in 1296. They then ignored the call-to-arms issued when King John finally defied his abusive overlord, and both Robert and his father participated in Edward’s campaign to depose his rebellious vassal. The English army sacked the border town of Berwick and then proceeded to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Scots at Dunbar. The elder Bruce thought that Edward would reward his family’s loyalty with the Scottish crown, but the “devious leopard” decided to rule his northern province directly, and appointed the Earl of Surrey as Governor. Thinking that the question of Scottish independence was settled once and for all, Edward commented as he crossed the border that it was good to be rid of a turd.

 Resentment toward English rule erupted into revolt in 1297. William Wallace, an outlaw turned rebel leader, orchestrated the murder of the Sheriff of Clydesdale at Lanark and the subsequent burning of the town. Common folk flocked to his banner. Along with many of his lordly peers, Robert Bruce switched allegiance, but this “aristocratic” revolt ended with the humiliating capitulation of the nobility at Irvine. However, Robert refused to produce hostages and forfeited his lands. Wallace continued the fight, and joined forces with a northern army under Andrew de Moray. Together they slaughtered Surrey’s cavalry at Stirling Bridge. Elevated to Guardian of the Realm after this remarkable victory, Wallace lost his lofty position after his defeat at Falkirk in 1298. Robert Bruce and John Comyn “the Red” of Badenoch became joint guardians, but Bruce resigned after he and Comyn quarrelled. Worried that the French, constant enemies of the English, would help reinstate Balliol, Robert made peace with Edward in 1302. This submission was rewarded by a marriage alliance with Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of the Earl of Ulster (Robert’s first wife Isabella of Mar died in childbirth in 1296).

 Still holding out hope that he could acquire the crown that had eluded his predecessors, in July 1304 Robert Bruce entered into a secret pact with William Lamberton, Bishop of Saint Andrews and a tireless proponent of Scottish independence. These clandestine negotiations led to a fateful meeting with John Comyn at Greyfriars Church. Tempers flared, daggers were drawn, and Bruce wounded his hot-headed rival. Robert’s companion Sir Roger de Kirkpatrick then entered the sanctuary and finished the bloody deed. After seeking absolution for his sacrilegious crime, Robert made his way to Scone to be crowned six weeks after the murder of John Comyn. Enthroned as King of Scots on March 25, 1306, Bruce faced an uncertain future. An enraged Edward prepared to hammer his one-time favourite, while the Comyn family and its supporters sought to exact their revenge. And to make Bruce’s situation even worse, Edward persuaded Pope Clement V to excommunicate the new Scottish king, a serious matter in an age of faith. An English force surprised and scattered Bruce’s followers at Methven, his womenfolk were captured, and his brother Nigel was brutally executed by the medieval method of hanging, drawing, and quartering, the same fate suffered by William Wallace. Derisively called “King Hobbe” by the English, Bruce fled to Rathlin Isle off the Ulster coast.

Early in 1307, Robert the Bruce landed near Turnberry Castle. His hopes for a two-pronged attack heralding his return to the mainland were dashed when his brothers Thomas and Alexander were ambushed by the Macdowalls of Galloway and executed. Vanishing into the wild glens of his homeland, and according to legend inspired by the patience and perseverance of a determined spider, Robert decided to set aside his chivalric training and adopt the tactics of forest ambush, sudden raid, night attack, and scorched earth. At times pursued by hounds as well as harassed by the English army and the retinues of rival Scottish lords, the fugitive King of Scots eluded capture and began to strike back at his enemies wherever and whenever he could. A successful ambush of an English force along a narrow loch side track at Glen Trool in April and a more significant victory against the Earl of Pembroke at Loudon Hill in May earned Robert a growing number of allies. When Edward I died in July and his son proved less than enthusiastic about prosecuting his father’s northern campaign, Robert turned his attention toward his Macdowall and Comyn enemies. With the aid of brilliant comrades like Sir James Douglas, Robert the Bruce gradually recovered his kingdom.

Edward II invaded Scotland in 1310, but Bruce’s Fabian tactics frustrated the English attempts to bring him to battle, and Edward’s domestic problems of frivolous favouritism and displeased barons distracted him from his troubles north of the border. Robert raided the border counties in 1311 and 1312, in part to exact “blackmail” from the English, a pattern he continued for most of his reign. By 1314, Bruce’s campaign against strongholds still in English hands had captured all but Stirling castle. The siege of Stirling led to the battle of Bannockburn. In a two-day struggle on June 23 and 24, Bruce’s schiltrons of spearmen decisively defeated Edward II’s arrogant and ill-disciplined knights. It was said that two hundred pairs of red spurs were taken from the bodies of fallen English knights.

Secure in his position as King of Scots after Bannockburn, Robert affirmed the Declaration of Arbroath on April 6, 1320. This document, sent to Pope John XXII, asserted the independence of Scotland and the right of its people to replace their king if he betrayed their freedom. However, fighting with England continued, and Scottish forces launched frequent raids across the border, devastating the countryside and “blackmailing” local populations north of the River Tees. England refused to recognise Scottish independence until the reality of the situation was grudgingly accepted in the treaty of Edinburgh of 1328. Robert I of Scotland died, possibly of leprosy, on June 7, 1329. Scotland remained an independent nation, although one often at war with her stronger southern neighbour, until the union of the crowns in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England.

Robert the Bruce’s contribution to Scottish independence has been overshadowed by the resurgent popularity of William Wallace. Thanks in part to the film Braveheart, Wallace is often seen as a “true” Scottish patriot, while Bruce is thought of as something less due to shifting loyalties prior to his coronation in 1306. However, patriotism as a nationalistic concept didn’t exist in its modern form during the first quarter of the fourteenth century. Robert did what was necessary to endure the turbulent and potentially deadly politics of his age, as well as doing what was needed to ensure the protection of his own lands and familial interests. And The Bruce did eventually emerge as a charismatic, courageous, and perseverant leader of the Scottish cause. His survival against almost insurmountable odds, his resounding victory at Bannockburn, and his willingness to take the fight across the border, were proof of Robert’s unwavering fortitude and military prowess. His affirmation of the Declaration of Arbroath bore witness to his magnanimous nature and his desire to see a Scottish nation free of English interference.

The Swords of Robert the Bruce

Renowned for his strength and skill in both tournament and battle, Robert the Bruce occasionally wielded either a great sword or a two-handed sword during his struggle for Scottish independence. The fugitive King of Scots may have used just such a weapon during a desperate moonlit battle with a Macdowall force in 1307. Defending a narrow ford behind a fallen horse, the Bruce mowed down all foolish enough to climb over the carcass to confront him. Two relic swords dubiously linked to the great warrior are tangible testaments to the enduring legacy of the King of Scots, if not necessarily weapons the Bruce ever truly raised in anger.

One so-called “Sword of Robert the Bruce” is a two-handed claymore currently housed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Previously, this weapon resided at Hawthornden, a Drummond estate. This sword exhibits an interesting and unique configuration of four quillons and an oddly curved, spiralled grip made from narwhal tusk. The ends of the drooping cross guards terminate in the open quatrefoils typical of Scottish two-handed claymores. The sword’s pommel is globular in form, and is capped with a mushroom-shaped button. Even though local lore claims a link between the “Hawthornden Sword” and The Bruce, the weapon most likely dates to the sixteenth century.

The other purported “Sword of Bruce” is a two-handed sword in the possession of the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, Chief of the Bruce Family. The “Elgin Sword” is overall 61 inches long, with a blade length of 44 and 1/4 inches. There is a single, narrow fuller in the upper 12 inches of the blade. The blade’s edges run nearly parallel, with only a slight taper, to a fairly broad point. The sword’s grip, just over 14 inches long, is of wood bound with a criss-crossed leather thong set into helical grooves, all beneath a stitched and tacked leather over wrap. Lacking any trace of gilding or rich decoration, the hilt’s only embellishment consists of some simple vertical lines engraved at intervals along the cross guard and on the edge of its down-turned ends. The centre of the cross guard extends over the blade, forming a pointed langet. The rather plain pommel is of squat “scent stopper” form, circular in plan. There is a small, cylindrical tang button atop the pommel. While some authorities dispute the authenticity of this sword’s link to King Robert I, the Bruce family claim it has been in their care since the fourteenth century, so it may actually be a weapon once wielded by that warrior King of Scots.

Further Reading

Armstrong, Pete. Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce’s Great Victory. Osprey Publishing, Oxford (2002).
Armstrong, Pete. Stirling Bridge & Falkirk 1297-98: William Wallace’s Rebellion. Osprey Publishing, Oxford (2003).
Caldwell, David H. Scotland’s Wars and Warriors: Winning Against the Odds. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh (1998).
Magnusson, Magnus. The Story of Scotland. Grove Press, New York (2000).
Sadler, John. Border Fury: England and Scotland at War 1296-1568. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow (2005).
Scott, Ronald McNair. Robert the Bruce. Peter Bedrick Books, New York (1982).

(Article originally published in Abandoned Towers, Issue #6, July 2010.)

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