The Early Years of Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce, or “Good King Robert” is widely recognised as a great national icon and hero of Scotland who secured independence from England. His romantic legacy tells a tale of struggle and determination, and of guerrilla warfare against the English occupation in Scotland. Whilst his story forms a well-documented chapter of history, these stories have been re-told, reworked and embellished over the (nearly) 700 years since his death. Robert played a key role in the First War of Scottish Independence, ruled as the King of Scots for 23 years and saw the liberation of Scotland from English control.

Robert was born into a prominent family, was reasonably educated and trained for knighthood. His father was Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale – of royal lineage, he a landholder in both England and Scotland, and was active in wars through England and Wales, and the crusades of Western Asia, Turkey and Egypt. His grandfather, Robert Bruce (a popular name in the family) had competed against John Balliol for the Scottish throne during ‘The Great Cause’. Robert the Bruce was the child of his mother’s (Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, and an important figure in her own right) second marriage, who met Robert de Brus when he brought news of her then-husband’s death in the Eighth Crusade in Tunisia. Whether struck by grief, lust or the sudden fear of widowhood, she supposedly held him captive until he agreed to marry her – which he did. Their marriage bore a modest ten children. There is some debate as to the birthplace of Robert the Bruce – many accounts say he was born in Essex, but it is more likely that he was born in Ayrshire, in the south-west of Scotland, where his mother held the title of earl. At the age of 12, Robert and his brother had begun their knighthood training and were sent to England to live with allied nobility, where Robert reportedly joined King Edward’s court.

The Great Cause saw many contenders vying for the Scottish throne. The rivalry effectively lay between (grandpapa) Robert Bruce and John Balliol. King Edward I of England was brought in to help settle the dispute, and saw Balliol as more malleable and obliging to his wishes. John Balliol was crowned as the King of Scots and in opposition to his rule, the Bruces pledged their support to King Edward. Loyalties were divided amongst the Scottish people – The Auld Alliance had been formed between Scotland and France in opposition to England, the Bruces temporarily retreated from Scotland and saw their lands in Annandale and Carrick handed over to John Comyn III of Badenoch, an ally to King John Balliol.

The First War of Scottish Independence

In 1296, Robert the Bruce married Isabella of Mar and soon their daughter Marjorie was born. At the same time, England were beginning their occupation of Scotland, which led to the First War of Scottish Independence. The Bruces were now based in the border-city of Carlisle, following the loss of their lands to Comyn. On 26 March, John Comyn led an attack against the city, and the Bruce family. In response, King Edward ordered a strike on the town of Berwick, led his men into Scotland and defeated the Scottish resistance in the Battle of Dunbar. John Balliol was stripped of his crown and imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Scotland was firmly under Edward’s command. Whether driven by ambition or dreams of independence, Robert soon renounced his allegiance to King Edward and joined a rebellion against the English in July 1297. Upon returning to Annandale, Robert addressed the Scottish noblemen and is quoted: “I must join my own people and the nation in which I was born. I ask that you please come with me and you will be my councillors and close comrades”.

Robert was named Guardian of Scotland in 1298, succeeding Sir William Wallace and Andrew Moray, but would have to share the role with John Comyn. This was an unfortunate partnership as both parties had their sights set on the Scottish crown. Failing to set aside their differences, William de Lamberton joined as a neutral member to keep the peace. In 1302, King Edward agreed to a nine-month truce with Scotland, and seemingly motivated by rumours that John Balliol may regain the Scottish crown, Robert again swore loyalty to Edward. The same year following the death of his wife, Robert married Elizabeth de Burgh who was the daughter of the prominent Irish noble, Richard Óg de Burgh (a personal friend to King Edward). Robert and Elizabeth would go on to have four children.

Edward was soon at it again and continued his invasion of Scotland, securing a strong hold of the country. In 1304, all leaders of the rebellion made their surrender to King Edward, except for William Wallace who was captured and executed in London in 1305. Robert the Bruce held a strong claim to the Scottish throne and King Edward was growing increasingly suspicious of Robert’s allegiance. John Comyn also had a strong claim to the throne, as a powerful noble with many important and influential friends. It is believed a secret pact was made between Robert and John Comyn, that John would surrender his right to the throne in exchange for Bruce lands. King Edward ordered the arrest of Robert whilst he was in his court, but Robert was secretly warned and managed to escape during the night, fleeing back to Scotland. Hearing word that John had betrayed him, he arranged a meeting to discuss “certain business touching them both”. They met at the Chapel of Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries on 10 February 1306. Robert accused John of disloyalty and stabbed and wounded him, before fleeing – hearing that John wasn’t quite dead, Robert’s men were quickly sent to finish the job. Robert was crowned the King of Scots in Scone, on 25 March 1306 and soon began his fight for Scottish independence. A furious Edward ordered an attack which saw Robert defeated at the Battle of Methven. His wife and daughters were taken to find refuge in Kildrummy, west of Aberdeen, while Robert and his men fled and went into hiding.

Edward was relentless and soon captured Robert’s wife, eldest daughter, sisters and youngest brother. His brother, Nigel de Bruce was executed and the women were sentenced to imprisonment under the harshest conditions. Robert’s hiding place remains unknown, but he and his followers returned to Scotland in February 1307, launching their successful guerrilla attacks across the south-west of Scotland. Meanwhile on 7 July, King Edward I died and was succeeded by his son, Edward II. In 1308, Robert ordered the Harrying of Buchan (also known as the ‘hardship’ or Rape of Buchan) – the well-populated Comyn-ruled lands were destroyed, castles and strongholds were burned to the ground and many residents were killed, in the hope of quashing any support for the Comyn family and any potential opposition to his rule. By August 1309, Robert and his men had gained control of all lands north of the River Tay. After a failed attempt to make peace with the new King of England in 1310, Robert’s resistance gained momentum and continued through most of Scotland and into northern England and the Isle of Man.

Edward Bruce, Robert’s younger brother, had captured Stirling Castle – while King Edward II was making plans and putting together an army to take it back, and force their surrender. Robert gathered 6,000 men to defend against the advancing English troops. On 23 June 1314, the English troops were making their way across the Bannock Burn and were ambushed by Robert’s army. Outmatched and surrounded by marshland, the English were crushed and suffered huge losses, though King Edward managed to escape. His victory enabled Robert to free his wife, daughter and sister Christina from their imprisonment.

With King Edward subdued, Robert the Bruce continued his advances into England and sent his brother Edward to Ireland in 1315, to overthrow the English powers and recover lands lost to the Crown. Robert soon joined his brother and campaigned for a united pan-Gaelic alliance. He gained support in Ulster and joined forces with the Irish, and together they continued making successful attacks against the English. At the same time, a famine hit the country which led the Scots to pillage both the English and Irish settlements for supplies. The remaining Irish chiefs stood against Robert the Bruce, preventing further success in the south, as the Irish people now couldn’t see the difference between the English and Scottish occupation. Robert and his troops would soon retreat, overcome by hunger, disease and poor weather.

The Final Years

In 1328, Robert’s excommunication for the murder of John Comyn was lifted by Pope John XXII and King Edward signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognised Scotland’s independence from England, and Robert as King of Scots. From 1327, Robert was taken ill – reportedly with leprosy, however it was the fourteenth-century and ‘leprosy’ could have referred to any skin disease. It’s possible he had syphilis, motor neuron disease, tuberculosis, or cancer – but his illness saw his health deteriorate over many years. He made his final journey to the shrine of Saint Ninian in Whithorn in 1328, a pilgrimage either in search for a miracle or to make his peace with God. Robert the Bruce died on 7 June 1329 at the age of 54, leaving his son David II to eventually take the throne once he was of age. His heart was removed and taken on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, before being entombed at Melrose Abbey, and his body was buried at Dunfermline Abbey with the epitaph: “Here lies the invincible blessed King Robert. Whoever reads about his feats will repeat the many battles he fought. By his integrity he guided to liberty the Kingdom of the Scots: May he now live in Heaven”. His legacy lives on as a testament to Scottish determination and he has been memorialised through monuments in Edinburgh Castle, Stirling, Lochmaben and Annan.

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