Robert the Bruce

For all its historical inaccuracies and myth-takes, Hollywood’s “Braveheart” version of William Wallace’s struggle for Scottish freedom at least got one thing right. It portrayed Robert the Bruce as being somewhat less than the pure and sainted figure Scots historians have traditionally painted him to be.

It is often said that history is written by the winners, and this certainly seems to have been the case with Scotland’s liberator King, venerated by successive generations as its greatest ever hero. Every Scottish schoolboy knows about 1314, the Battle of Bannockburn and all that, and there is no denying that he was indeed instrumental in securing Scottish independence and in that respect at least, he stands undoubtedly as the single most important figure in our country’s history.

The fact remains, however, that the affectionately named “Good King Robert” was by no means all good, at least not in the beginning of his rise to the throne. Power and pragmatism, rather than patriotism, was what drove the young Earl of Carrick.

Bruce was a typically self-seeking nobleman, with his eyes firmly fixed on the prize, the eventual Kingship of the Scots. He frankly wasn’t too fussed about how he won it or who he upset and pushed aside in the process, as long as win it he did. In his eyes, the end would always justify the means.

edward I

Edward I – Longshanks

Initially, Bruce sided with England’s King Edward in the hope that Edward might support his father’s claim for the Scottish Throne over the current incumbent, John Balliol. Although indeed valid, the Bruce claim to that throne was only one of several at the time with equally impressive Royal credentials.

After the royal vacuum left in Scotland by the death of King Alexander in 1292 without an heir, Balliol had been chosen by Edward himself, acting as a kind of “International Referee” at the request of Scotland’s squabbling nobility who, typically, couldn’t agree on the matter themselves.

The appointment of Balliol, on condition that he accept Edward as his “Kingly” superior or “Lord Paramount”, was a sham, a means for Edward to claim “overlordship” of the country, and when Balliol repaid his English master’s generosity by rebelling against him in 1296, Bruce saw his chance to step in.

john balliol

A14th century
showing John
Edward as his
overlord in

Balliol was soon brought to heel, but far from supporting Bruce’s father as a replacement, Edward instead took the opportunity to annexe Scotland as his own, and with Balliol exiled the country was plunged into a state of English occupation and martial law, her people brutally repressed.

As a lesson for their rebellious behaviour and to set an example to any who dared defy him in future, Edward’s troops in just one day massacred virtually the entire population of Berwick and left their mutilated bodies to rot for all to see.

Enter one William Wallace.

william wallace

William Wallace not looking like
Mel McGibson

When it became clear that Wallace had the support of virtually the entire oppressed population in his rebellion, Bruce switched sides and supported Wallace, much to Edward’s anger. The ensuing victory, against all the odds, over Edward’s army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 seemed for a while to have vindicated Bruce’s decision.
Bruce was on the winning side, still in with a shout for the crown, and Wallace meanwhile was appointed by Scotland’s leading nobles, Bruce included, to be “Guardian of Scotland”, a kind of “Caretaker King”, by popular demand.

The golden glow of victory was not to last long, however, and by 1299 it was virtually over for Wallace, his “Braveheart” army devastated by superior English forces at the Battle of Falkirk. Demoralised by the defeat and the constant in-fighting of the Scottish nobility, Wallace resigned his Guardianship, but vowed to fight on, and Bruce was appointed Joint Guardian of Scotland along with his greatest single rival within the country, John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan.

john comyn

A modern poster depiction of John
Comyn – hasn’t he got a lovely
long weapon?

Comyn too had his eye on the throne, although ostensibly his support was for the return from exile of Balliol. The two Guardians never saw eye to eye on anything and before long the country was split into two warring political factions, with Comyn boasting the far greater support.

At this point, knowing he was in severe danger of being edged out entirely, Bruce did another U- turn, and while Wallace and Comyn continued with the rebellion, Bruce meekly and apologetically surrendered himself to Edward and swapped his Lion Rampant for the three lions of the English flag once more.

Edward, not wishing the return of Balliol any more than Bruce did, accepted his old enemy’s apology magnanimously, preferring him as an untrustworthy ally rather than a dangerous adversary. When Edward returned to Scotland at the head of his army to crush the rebellion once and for all in 1303, Robert the Bruce was at his side.

Rather than fight and surely lose, Comyn negotiated a peace settlement with Edward, accepting his “overlordship” of Scotland in return for a place at the head of Scotland’s new ruling council. Edward agreed but, not without a hint of irony, also appointed Bruce onto the Council, doubtless to act as his spy.

Wallace refused to accept the surrender and carried the fight on with a guerrilla campaign against English troops. This was an embarrassment to a Council that supposedly now owed its allegiance to the English King and so Wallace was shamefully betrayed and served up on a plate to the drooling Monarch for execution as a traitor.

Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh

Robert the Bruce and his
second wife Elizabeth de
Burgh (no relation to Chris)

England, and Edward Plantagenet, was now truly the master of Scotland

Before very long, and seemingly putting their differences to one side, Comyn and Bruce entered into a secret conspiracy to rise up in rebellion once again when the time was right, and began to lay the foundations for that uprising. Changing sides once more would mean there was no turning back for Robert. Edward would not be so forgiving a second time.

Comyn, it is believed, pulled a sneaky one and informed Edward of Bruce’s rebellious intentions, knowing that he would certainly be arrested and imprisoned, if not executed for his treachery, in which case the way would then be left open for him alone.

Bruce found out and confronted Comyn in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries where a violent argument broke out that left Comyn severely wounded, but still alive. Several of Bruce’s supporters then attacked Comyn with swords and finished him off in front of the altar.

Under the circumstances, with the cat now well and truly out of the bag, Bruce had only one way to go and this time it really was shit or bust. With his father now dead, and Comyn out of the way, the crown of Scotland was his for the taking, and take it he did. Without the approval of the Scottish Council, he was hurriedly crowned King of Scots in front of just a handful of Scotland’s nobility at Scone.

Edward, not surprisingly, was absolutely livid and vowed to exterminate the entire Bruce family. In addition to confiscating their lands and estates on both sides of the border, he butchered several of the menfolk and imprisoned the women before setting off once again with an invading army.

Bruce, unable to rally support amongst the Scottish nobles and excommunicated by the Pope for his murder of Comyn was forced to go on the run, his dream in ruins. Even the death of Edward before he crossed the border with his army was of little solace to him, his son Edward II, continuing the campaign.

robert the bruce and the spider

Bruce and the spider

Scotland was back where it started, an occupied country, with Bruce now an outcast and a fugitive. A King by name, but forced to hide out in caves, this was his lowest ever point. The story goes that, plunged into despair at this severe dip in his fortunes, the dejected Bruce took inspiration from watching the determination of a spider that kept falling to the ground then picking itself up again in attempting to build its web. It would be a damn good story too, if it were true, but unfortunately Sir Walter Scott made it up.

What is true, of course, is that Bruce did persevere and after a remarkable campaign of guerrilla warfare begun in 1307 he began to drive the English out of the country and gathered the national support he required to assert his rule. The Battle of Bannockburn was the turning point in his campaign and proved to all who still doubted him that here indeed was a man who could unite Scotland and lead the nation to her rightful independence.

glen trool stone

The inscription on this stone in Glen
Trool reads “Robert the Bruce, King of
Scots, whose victory in this glen over
an English force in March 1307,
opened the campaign of independence
which he brought to a decisive
close at Bannockburn”

In a quite remarkable display of machismo, or sheer stupidity depending on your view, on the evening before the battle, Bruce took up the challenge of an English Knight, Sir Humphrey de Bohun, to fight the King’s chosen champion in one-to-one combat, by accepting the challenge himself.

To the horror of his Generals, Bruce took to the field to face his more heavily armoured and heavily mounted opponent, who charged at the Scots King with his lance extended. Bruce, remaining motionless, stood his ground and at the last second neatly sidestepped the Knight with his lighter, more nimble horse, burying his battle-axe into the Knight’s skull as he passed, to the cheers of his onlooking army.


Bannockburn field and statue of
Robert the Bruce

On his return to the front-line, still being chastised by his advisors for such an act of unnecessary foolhardiness, Bruce calmly commented that his only regret was “the unfortunate loss of my good battle-axe.”

The boost to his troops’ morale upon witnessing this can only be imagined.

Having won the decisive battle, the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 further asserted Scotland’s right to self-determination and perhaps just as importantly in Bruce’s eyes, established International and Papal recognition of Bruce’s right to be King.

England finally accepted those rights in 1328 with the signing of the Treaty of Northampton, just a year before Bruce died, apparently of leprosy.

In the period of relative peacetime that followed Bannockburn, Bruce re-established law and order throughout the land, instigated legal reforms and championed the rights of the ordinary people in Scotland, and it is for this, more than any of his battles, that he earned the love of his subjects and the affectionate name of “Good King Robert”.

Had he lost, the history books would probably have called him “Two faced Bob”.

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