Robert the Bruce

Route to the Throne

Robert the Bruce statue at Stirling Castle

Robert the Bruce was born on the 11th of July 1274 to Robert de Brus the 6th Lord of Annandale and Marjorie the Countess of Carrick. In 1286 King Alexander III died without a male heir and the throne fell to 3 year-old Margaret of Norway (Alexander's great granddaughter). At the end of 1290 she died in Orkney on her way to Scotland and with no heir apparent events began to slip towards civil war. The two main opposing factions were the Balliol and Bruce families. Fearing an outright war the ill-advised Guardians of Scotland and notable Scots magnates appealed to the English King Edward I to act as arbiter. Edward I had other plans and immediately set about forcing his acceptance as overlord of the country.

In 1292 Edward awarded the throne to John Balliol otherwise known as Toom Tabard which means empty shirt. Balliol was repeatedly humiliated by the English king as he sought to reduce Scotland to a vassal state. King John I of Scotland seemed unwilling or unable to do anything about it and when a new group of Scottish Guardians negotiated a treaty with France in 1295 (the Auld Alliance) Edward I went ahead and invaded. In 1296 the Scots were defeated and Balliol abdicated his throne and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was eventually released into the Pope's custody but despite William Wallace fighting on in his name he never returned to regain his throne and eventually died on his family's estates in France.

After 8 years of war with England culminating in a massive defeat for the Scots in 1304 many submitted to Edward I who tried to impose direct rule from Westminster. The peace did not last long. In 1305 and again in 1306 Robert Bruce, then earl of Carrick, led a full scale revolt. Bruce wanted the throne and so he murdered his main rival, John Comyn, in a church. This rather rash action came back to bite him later as the Pope held a grudge. Bruce then deposed King John and had himself crowned King Robert I in 1306. This act saw the beginning of the Balliol - Bruce civil war.

Bruce showed his ambition by seizing the throne , he also showed his impatience which was to cost him. The Comyn and Balliol faction opposed to Bruce saw him as a greater threat than the English and so they allied with Edward I. The Scottish people now had to choose a side. Most had supported King John but now this meant supporting an ally of the English, either that or support Bruce who had taken the throne from King John but was fighting for the Freedom of Scotland. Most people chose to wait, eager not to back a loser, so Bruce had little support. He led his army to two crushing defeats firstly from the English and then from the lord of Argyll (a kinsman of the Comyn and Balliol faction).

Robert the Bruce had to flee from Scotland in 1306 to evade capture after a defeat at Methven where he was ambushed by an English force. It is believed he fled to Rathlin Island off the coast of Northern Ireland and Walter Scott later wrote the story about Robert the Bruce and the spider. The story told of him observing a spider building a web which was repeatedly broken but the spider tried and tried again until the web was complete, providing Bruce with the inspiration to continue his struggle. Meanwhile, back in Scotland, most of his supporters surrendered or were captured by Edward I who promptly had them all executed hoping to crush the independence cause altogether. He killed most of Bruce's friends and family but could not kill the cause.

King Robert I

Robert the Bruce

In early 1307 Robert the Bruce returned to Carrick, two of his brothers led another group but they were captured and executed by supporters of the Comyn faction. Bruce raised a small army and defeated some English soldiers in Ayrshire. He won the Battle of Loudoun Hill in 1307 against a superior English force and this encouraged many people throughout Scotland to begin supporting him. He then moved north and over the next two years succeeded in beating the leaders of the Comyn and Balliol faction. In 1308 he faced a Comyn force at the Battle of the Pass of Brander and his loyal knight Sir James Douglas succeeded in flanking the enemy, attacking them from behind and routing them.

Robert I now ruled most of Scotland north of the Forth and much of the south-west. This change in fortune for Bruce was largely due to his decision to engage in guerilla warfare and he proved to be a skilled tactician. He avoided major pitched battles, chose to fight on ground suited to his men, and concentrated on ambushing and dismantling enemy strongholds so preventing them from being used against him later.

Luckily events down South also went Bruce's way, first of all Edward I died, then his son Edward II proved himself to be far less talented than his militaristic father and soon there were distracting political problems in England. Bruce went to Moray to appeal for the help of the lesser men, since there was no earl, these men provided most of his army. This was a clever tactical move as Moray split the lands held by the Comyn and Balliol faction and prevented them from joining forces against Bruce. With his power base established Bruce turned his attentions to the English and began to reclaim the rest of Scotland from them. In 1310 he took Linlithgow from the English and Dumbarton followed in 1311, Perth and Roxburgh in 1313 and finally Edinburgh in 1314.

Abandoning his guerilla warfare Bruce faced the English army at Bannockburn in 1314 and utterly defeated them. This victory gave him the support of the Scottish people and the majority of the landed nobles pledged their allegiance, those who refused lost their land which was duly awarded to various families who had fought alongside Bruce further cementing his position. All the major castles were back in Scottish hands, treaties were signed with Norway and France but predictably enough the English refused to acknowledge both Scottish independence and his kingship.

Robert the Bruce and his wife

Over the next few years Robert's brother Edward led a campaign in Ireland against the English in which Robert himself fought. This kept the English busy and prevented further invasions into Scotland. There was brief talk of a Celtic alliance to crush the English (Wales, Ireland and Scotland) but it all ended in 1318 when Edward Bruce was killed in Ireland.

The next setback suffered by Robert the Bruce was the ex-communication from the pope for the killing of Comyn and seizure of the throne. The reply was three letters one of which was the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 which was intended to show that Bruce was fighting a just war against the English, the pope remained unimpressed. Robert continued to raid the North of England mercilessly, he took Berwick in 1320 and in 1323 Edward II signed a truce.

Bruce showed political skill by signing the treaty of Corbeil with France in 1326 making Scotland and France military allies; this was to prove important later. In 1327 Edward III gained the English throne at the age of 14, Bruce seized the opportunity and invaded the North of England appearing to annex Northumberland. Edward III sued for peace which resulted in the Anglo-Scottish treaty of 1328 and England's formal acknowledgement of Scotland's independence.

Robert the Bruce died on the 7th June 1329 and was buried in Dunfermline Abbey. In accordance with his wishes his right hand man Sir James Douglas removed his heart and took it on crusade with him to Spain where he was killed. According to legend the heart was eventually found and returned to Scotland to be buried at Melrose Abbey.

Tales of his Bravery and Chivalry

There are many tales about the bravery and chivalry of Robert the Bruce, mostly recorded in Barbour's epic poem The Bruce. We can't really know the truth about his actions but the stories are at the very least great entertainment.

After his defeat at Methven Bruce escorted his wife and sisters to Kildrummy Castle and was personally attacked by three men along the way. When the first man grabbed his horse Bruce cut off his arm with his battle axe, when the second grabbed his stirrup Bruce crushed the man's hand under his heel and despatched him too and the third man was killed attempting to leap onto the back of his horse. His queen and sisters were captured by the English after Bruce left them at Kildrummy and imprisoned in cages.

When Bruce returned to Scotland he sent a spy ahead of him who was supposed to light a fire to signal that it was safe to cross. When Bruce saw a fire he led his men onto the mainland only to discover it was not set by his spy at all but by some peasants. He pressed on regardless and attacked a superior English force around Turnberry castle, the English lord in charge, Henry de Percy feared Bruce and hid in the castle while Bruce and his men stole supplies and then disppeared back into the hills.

When Aymer de Valence led a force against Bruce who was hiding in the Galoway Hills he used bloodhounds to track the king. Bruce was seriously outnumbered and split his group keeping only his foster brother with him. When five men caught the pair they slayed all five and escaped upstream leaving no scent for the bloodhounds the follow. Shortly afterwards Bruce raised a force and defeated de Valence and his men at Loudon Hill, there were reportedly 3,000 English troops against Bruce's 600.

When Bruce sieged Perth the men surrounded it for six weeks without success and finally he drew the force away. He returned with a small party at night a few days later and they scaled the walls with ladders, Bruce himself was the second man over and they took the town easily. A French knight serving Bruce at the time was reported to have said "What shall we say of our lords of France, that with dainty living, wassail, and revelry pass their time, when so worthy a knight, through his great chivalry, puts his life into so great hazard to win a wretched hamlet."

When the English appealed to the Pope to force a peace upon Robert two cardinals were sent to Scotland bearing a letter. When Bruce saw the letter he refused to open it because it was not addressed to the King of Scotland but instead Robert Bruce Governor of Scotland. He is reported to have said "Among my barons, there are many of the name of Robert Bruce, who share in the government of Scotland. These letters may possibly be addressed to one of them; but they are not addressed to me, who am king of Scotland."

The Battle of Bannockburn itself was a display of chivalry by Bruce. His brother had laid siege to Stirling castle and made an agreement that if the English could not relieve it within the year the castle would surrender. This proved too great a temptation for the English but Robert was said to be furious with his brother when he heard what he had agreed to and felt he had to fight the battle against great odds in the name of chivalry, honouring the agreement.

Bruce offered safe passage to any garrison that surrendered to him unlike the bloodthirsty Edward I who had a habit of making deals and then reneging on them.