Robert Bruce, King of Scots


Robert Bruce was born at Turnberry Castle, Ayrshire, in 1274, of both Norman and Celtic ancestry. He was the eldest of ten children. His father was Robert Bruce, Sixth Lord of Annandale, and his mother was the Countess of Carrick. He married twice. His first was to Isabella of Mar, but she died the following year in childbirth, leaving him a daughter named Marjory. Bruce later married Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster. She produced one male heir named David, who would later be David II of Scotland. Marjory married Walter the Steward, whose son later became Robert II of Scotland, and from this union the Royal House of Stewart/Stuart descended, including the current British royal family. Bruce also had a number of bastard children.

Robert Bruce is, without a doubt, the greatest of all the great Scottish heroes, yet the Hollywood movie Braveheart gave all the heroics of the era to co-patriot William Wallace, making Bruce out to be little more than a self-serving opportunist. However, it was because of the patience and cunning of Bruce, not the impetuousness of Wallace, that allowed Scotland to throw off the yoke of England. This was especially true when facing such formidable enemies as the English, first under Edward I, and then under his son and heir Edward II. It is, therefore, helpful to know a little about the chronology of Scotland in order to fully appreciate Bruce’s place in her history.

54 AD – Julius Caesar invaded the island of Britain.

80 – Romans under Agricola occupy the lowlands of Scotland.

122 – Hadrian’s Roman Legions start building the barrier known as “Hadrian’s wall”

140-180 – The Antonine Wall was constructed.

214 – The Romans abandon Scotland.

c. 400 – St. Ninian brought Christianity to Scotland, established a church at Whithorn in Galloway and began converting the indigenous Picts.

410 – The last of the Romans left Britain.

c. 500 – An Irish people, the Scoti, began establishing settlements in Kintyre and the midlands of Argyll. These settlements formed the basis of the Kingdom of Dalriada.

663 – Roman Catholicism came to Britain, and eventually spread to Scotland.

794 – The Norse invasions of Scotland began.

843-859 – Kenneth MacAlpin united the crowns of the Scots and the Picts, and made Scone his capital.

1130 – The ancient Pictish province of Moray was forfeited to the Crown of Scotland. Moray had strong separatist tendencies, and a rebellion was crushed by David I.

1263 – Alexander III defeated Haaken IV of Norway at the Battle of Largs, and effectively ended the Norse threat to Scotland.

1266 – For an annual gratuity the Western Isles and the Isle of Man were ceded to Scotland by Magnus IV, Haaken’s successor.  

Two years before Robert Bruce was born Edward Plantagenet, also known as Edward the Longshanks because of his long legs, become King Edward I of England. He coveted Scotland almost from the beginning of his reign, and spent most of his adult life scheming to add it to his kingdom. The struggle for control of Scotland actually began in 1286, however, when King Alexander III died. His heir was Margaret, his grandchild and the infant daughter of the King of Norway. Edward I, with his eye on the complete subjugation of Scotland, suggested that Margaret marry his son, a desire that was agreed to in the form of a treaty signed and sealed at Birgham. Under its terms Scotland was to remain a separate and independent kingdom, “…separate, distinct and free in itself without subjection from the realm of England." Even so, as part of the treaty, Edward managed to get the Scots to agree to allow English garrisons in a number of Scottish castles.

The first interregnum in Scotland (a period without a recognized ruler) occurred when Margaret, generally known as the “Maid of Norway,” died somewhere in the Orkneys on her way from Norway to Scotland to be crowned.

Some historians say that the circumstances of Margaret’s  death were never properly explained. They point out that her death effectively blocked Edward’s obvious attempts to take immediate control of Scotland, thus vaguely pointing a finger at some of the Scottish nobles. Others, however, believe that Edward actually disputed the ascension of the baby to the throne, and may have had a hand in her death. After all, Edward was a Plantagenet, from a line of rulers renowned for their ruthlessness. It could be that he felt that he could influence the crowning of the next King, one that he could control.

History does not tell us what actually occurred, but the crown of Scotland was nevertheless vacant, with no direct heir. There were, however, a dozen or so aspiring monarchs, with John Balliol and Robert Bruce (the grandfather) having the strongest claims. Feelings ran high and Civil war loomed. To avoid further unrest the major nobles of Scotland asked Edward I of England to mediate the situation and choose a monarch from among the claimants. Edward agreed, but only on the condition that he be acknowledged as Superior and Lord Paramount of Scotland (the claimant selected would, in effect, be a vassal to him). All but two of the aspiring kings greed to his terms.

John Balliol (who actually had the strongest claim) was supported by King Edward, who believed him to be the weaker and more compliant of the two leading Scottish claimants. Balliol was an English baron belonging to a house with an established tradition of loyalty to the English crown. In 1292, at a meeting of over one hundred nobles, Edward proclaimed that Balliol’s claim for the crown was the best. In private, however, Edward forced him to accept vassal status (to Edward as overlord) as quid pro quo. This was the first successful step in Edward’s plan to take control of Scotland.

Later, in a private meeting, Edward further proposed that he have judicial authority over the Scottish king in any disputes brought against him by his own subjects. He also boldly demanded that Scotland contribute to the cost of the defense of England, and that Scotland supply troops as active support in the war against France. Even the weak Balliol could not stomach these outrageous demands. Showing a hitherto unknown courage, he declared that he was the King of Scotland and that he would answer only to the people of Scotland. He further refused to supply military service or funds to Edward. Edward may not have expected Balliol to accept all of his demands, but he was surprised when the new king found the courage to turn him down flat.

As it turned out Balliol was an ineffectual ruler, and Edward a demanding suzerain (feudal overlord), for even though Balliol had refused to knuckle under with regard to Edward’s later demands, he was still bound by the initial agreement that Edward was to be the Lord Paramount (overlord) of Scotland.

In 1295 the Scots tried to take an advantage of an alliance with France to throw off the English overlordship, but Edward was ready. His forces moved rapidly north, taking the “rebels” by surprise. The Scots were finally defeated at Dunbar in April 1296. Soon after, on July 10, 1296, Balliol—under the treat of execution—surrendered his Scottish throne. Edward ordered that the Stone of Scone, the coronation stone" of Scottish kings, be moved Westminster. It would remain there for over seven hundred years. At a parliament, which he summoned at Berwick, Edward I received homage and an oath of loyalty from over two thousand Scottish nobles, including Robert Bruce, the Earl of Carrick, who was the grandson of the Robert Bruce who was Balliol’s runner-up. Edward felt secure in Scotland.

Two years later Scotland was at war with England again. Flushed with his success, Edward had gone too far. The arrival of the English armies in southern Scotland whipped up Scottish nationalist fervor, and the period 1296-1297 saw a series of minor revolts. Edward ruled primarily by fear, this worked well where the common folk were concerned, but he could never be absolutely sure which of the Scottish nobles supported him. But Edward had an inspiration, and it resulted in his prima noctes, or “first night” decree. Basically, his proclamation said that when any Scottish common girl was married their lords (landowners) would have sexual rights to her on the night of her wedding. It was, perhaps, one of his greatest miscalculations.

Robert Bruce, King of Scots

It is said that William Wallace, a young Scottish knight, had married a commoner, and that a local noble decided to exercise his right of prima noctes. After the wedding Wallace’s bride was taken by force in the marketplace at Lanark. During the scuffle of the abduction Wallace killed an English sheriff after a brawl with English soldiers. Although his bride was returned the next day Wallace was by then a fugitive. One thing lead to another, and he soon found himself at the head of a fast-spreading movement of national resistance. Young Robert Bruce was one of the Scottish nobles who supported the uprising.

The Scots, being unable to match the cavalry, infantry and longbow archers of the English army, used guerrilla tactics for the most part. They tended to avoid major battles, and usually dispersed between confrontations. Robert Bruce, while fleeing from Longshank’s forces one stormy night in 1298, took refuge with the Irvings of Bonshaw. When the Irvings learned that Edward’s troops were closing in they "carried him down to the Kirtle Waters" nearby and hid him in a cave in a precipice near Cove Tower, one of the many Irving strongholds. The cave door is in a perpendicular cliff twenty feet above the river and hidden by ivy. The current Bonshaw Tower (constructed in the 1500's), and the modern house adjacent to it, stands some one hundred feet from the edge of the precipice containing the cave.

It is the tradition of the Irvings of Dumfriesshire that when Bruce left the Bonshaw sanctuary William de Irwyn of Woodhousea nephew of the Laird of Bonshaw and eldest son of Alexander de Irwyn, the clan chieftain—left with him and joined his cause. Throughout Robert Bruce’s efforts to gain, and hold, the throne of Scotland, William remained in his service.

At Stirling Bridge a Scottish force led by Wallace won an astonishing victory when it completely annihilated a large and well equipped English army. Yet Wallace's great victory, successful because the English cavalry were unable to maneuver on the marshy ground, and as a result their supporting troops had been trapped on a narrow bridge, was not repeated. Bringing a large army north in 1298, Edward goaded Wallace into forgoing his successful guerrilla tactics. At Falkirk, in a second pitched battle, the professionalism of the English army was evident as they crushed the over-confident Scottish followers of Wallace. The Battle of Falkirk was a grievous loss for Wallace, and he never again found himself in command of a large body of troops.

      After hiding out for a number of years, Wallace was finally captured in 1305 and brought to London. Even though he had never sworn allegiance to Edward, or to England, he was charged with treason, and sentenced to a traitor’s death. Edward I obviously believed that the public humiliation and traitor’s execution of William Wallace would put an end to Scotland’s resistance, but he was wrong. The effect was exactly the opposite. In fact the trial and subsequent horrendous execution caused the Scottish people to unite and seek out another patriot to follow. The one they turned to was Robert Bruce.

Although both Wallace and Bruce were fighting to throw off the yoke of Edward I, their approaches were different. Wallace sought to bring Balliol back to the throne, while Bruce wanted to resurrect the Bruce claim to the throne. The sudden absence of Wallace made Bruce’s task less complicated, but in 1306 he did not have the necessary general support in Scotland for his ambitions. There was a need for Bruce to either come to some arrangement with the Comyns, the power behind the Balliol kingship, or destroy their political dominance.

Bruce feared that “Red” Comyn, the acknowledged leader of the Comyn family, would hinder him in his attempt to gain the Scottish throne. He sent two of his brothers, Thomas and Neil, from his castle at Lochmaben to Comyn’s castle at Dalswinton, ten miles away, to ask Comyn to meet him. The two surviving claimants for the Scottish throne met at Greyfriar's Church at Dumfries On February 10, 1306.  During the meeting an argument broke out and Bruce stabbed Comyn with his dagger. Bruce’s men, as well as those of Comyn, drew their swords and joined the fray. Robert, Comyn’s uncle, was killed as well while attempting to defend his nephew. Red Comyn was mortally wounded, but Bruce’s men returned later to be sure he would not survive his wounds. This rash act cost Bruce dearly. He was immediately at odds with the Comyns, as well as the many powerful supporters of the Comyn family. The Pope later excommunicated him from the Roman Catholic Church as well; not an insignificant thing in that era.

On March 27, 1306, at Scone Abby, Robert Bruce had himself crowned King of Scots. The fact that this occurred only six weeks after the murder of Red Comyn tends to indicate that some preliminary planning had been done. It undoubtedly accelerated plans that Bruce was already preparing with William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, and Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow.

Edward's response was predictable. He sent a large army north, which defeated Bruce’s forces at the Battle of Methven. Edward ordered the execution of many of the Scots who had been captured, and forced the Scottish king into becoming a hunted outlaw. The recently crowned King of Scots had to flee with only a few close supporters, including William de Irwyn. He disappeared for the next four and a half months during the winter of 1306-1307. It is thought that he used his strategic links with the Earls of Carrick on the Antrim coast of Ireland for refuge.

Bruce returned to the mainland in early 1307 to continue his campaign. His army was small at first, and in the beginning there were more defeats than successes. Bruce and his followers experienced their first real success in April of that year when they defeated English forces at the Battle of Glen Trool. Sir Gilbert Hay had been Bruce’s armor-bearer, but after Glen Trool Bruce promoted young William de Irwyn to that post, and he would later have the added responsibility of being King Robert’s secretary. Bruce’s second notable success was in June at Loudoun Hill.

Strategically these were not important battles, but the victories over the English forces, and Bruce’s ability to evade capture, had a very positive effect on the morale of the Scots. His support within Scotland was growing, and he was evolving into a folk hero as well. In 1309 Bruce was strong enough to hold his first parliament at St. Andrews, and a series of military victories between 1310 and 1314 won gave him control of the Highlands.

Edward’s forces, on the other hand, captured a large number of Scottish castles and took many prisoners. Bruce’s family suffered as well. His brother Neil, captured at Kildrummy, was executed at Berwick by being hung, drawn and quartered. His sister Mary was imprisoned in a cage which was placed in a tower at Roxburgh Castle. Bruce’s wife was placed in “honorable captivity in Holderness Castle, but was apparently saved from further punishment by the allegiance of her father, the Earl of Ulster, to Edward. His daughter Marjory was sent to a Yorkshire nunnery. Bruce, at one point, made a serious strategic error by splitting his army. As a result his brothers, Alexander and Thomas, were captured and their forces defeated. They suffered the same fate as Neil Bruce.

Edward I was old and tired, but in 1307 he decided to lead a campaign north to Scotland to put an end to Bruce and his “upstarts.On the way, however, he became ill. He died July 7, 1307. Edward I had been the scourge of the Scots, but  his ruthlessness, which earned him the title of "The Hammer of the Scots," had brought out the greatness of Bruce.

Edward’s death was a major blow for the Comyns as well as for the English interests in Scotland. For Robert Bruce, however, it was just the news he and his supporters were waiting for. Edward I had planed a major Scottish campaign, but his death, and the decision of Edward II a month later to recall the English army, was a huge boost to Bruce’s kingship.

Edward II, faced by many problems at home, and completely lacking the ruthlessness and resourcefulness of his father, had no wish to get embroiled in the affairs of Scotland. Bruce was thus left alone to consolidate his gains and punish those who opposed him. Sir James Douglas, "the Black Douglas," was Bruce’s chief lieutenant, and was instrumental in getting the rallying call out. From all over Scotland the clans answered, and Bruce's forces grew in strength. The tide of battle gradually turned, and over the next few years Bruce and his followers made significant progress against the English, and a series of successful campaigns against the Comyns and their allies left Bruce in control of most of Scotland.

A statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, unveiled in 1964

In 1309 Bruce was recognized as the sole ruler by the King of France, and, despite his earlier excommunication, even received the grudging support of the Pope. By 1311 Bruce had driven out the English garrisons in all of their Scottish strongholds with the exception of Stirling Castle.

The high point of the long struggle for the freedom of Scotland turned out to be the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314 (see poem on page 19). As Bruce was making plans to lay siege to the last English stronghold on Scottish soil, Edward II appeared south of Stirling on June 23 with an army, obviously prepared for a major battle – the thing that the Scots feared most. Bruce had a combined force of no more than 12,000 at his disposal, and faced an army of 25,000 seasoned English horseman and infantry. The road to Stirling was through a forest, however, and it was there that the Scots positioned themselves. Below was a small dry field, backed by a swampy land, or burn, closely intersected by sluggish streams. The little village of Bannock was nearby.

     Edward had no real battle plan, and ignored what local information was available. Immediately on arrival, one contingent of cavalry was sent charging towards the woods, but it was easily beaten off by the Scots. Bruce, with young William de Irwyn at his side, killed Sir Henry de Bohun, the leader of the charge, with one blow from his battle axe. A second party tried to sneak off around the forest, but was driven back by Moray’s brigade, using their famous schildron formation. This maneuver, which utilized rings of men with spears leveled at every point of assault, was deadly to cavalry unsupported by archers. The Scots kept close formation, presenting a wall of spears to the enemy, aiming at the horses rather than the men.

The English spent a confused night camped in the low-lying area of swampy marshes. The next morning, when Bruce’s forces moved out towards their enemy, it was obvious that the English had not learned anything from the day before. Their archers were at the rear, and as a result of the marshy

ground, could not be brought forward easily. In the small area of dry ground the English cavalry held they could not maneuver either; they only got in the way of the infantry. The Scots, again using their schildron formation, moved downhill and massacred the English. Edward II was led off the field by his aids and signaled a general retreat. Stirling Castle was lost to the Scots and Edward II was forced to retreat by boat to Berwick, which was just south of the English/Scottish border.

The main casualties of Bannockburn were the Comyn family. John Comyn of Badenoch, the leader of the Comyns was killed as was Edmund Comyn, Lord of Kilbride. The Comyn hope that they would be returned to political power in Scotland after an English victory over Bruce was shattered.

Trusted and admired by “The Bruce,” William de Irwyn was knighted after the Battle of Bannockburn. Thereafter he was “Sir William,” although according to family tradition Bruce always called him “Willie.”

The Battle of Bannockburn was a decisive victory, and the most crucial military success in all of Scotland’s history. It didn’t end the war with England, but it did prove that even a mighty English army could be beaten in open battle. Scotland was wrenched from English control, its armies free to invade and harass northern England. A second expedition carried out by Edward II north of the border was driven back, and Edward was forced to seek peace.

During the winter of 1316, against his better judgment, Bruce took a force of Scots to Ireland to support his brother, Edward Bruce. Edward had been crowned King of Ireland, but it was mostly in name only since about ninety percent of the island was still controlled by the English. The campaign, in the first few months of 1317, was, for the most part, a failure. Bruce’s forces were not defeated in any of the several skirmishes, but few of the objectives were accomplished. The most notable battle was during the push to take Dublin. Bruce’s force was intercepted by an English army twice the number of his own, under the command of the Earl of Ulster, the father of Bruce’s wife. The Scottish army was successful, but there was a great loss of life on both sides. It was during this battle that Sir William de Irwyn was promoted from armor bearer to commander of the Scottish archers. Edward Bruce was killed in battle shortly after Bruce returned to Scotland.

Bruce ruled Scotland for another fifteen years. There were many more skirmishes with the English, more raids over the Border by the Scots and north into the Lowlands by the English, but the Scots were generally more successful. It was the aim of Edward I and Edward II to subjugate Scotland, but Bruce sought only freedom from aggression and recognition by the English king and the Pope that he, Robert Bruce, was the true King of Scots.

On February 1, 1323, as a reward for long and faithful service, Bruce granted Sir William de Irwyn a Free Barony in Aberdeenshire. The grant included the Castle of Drum (at the time probably just the tower and some primitive living quarters), and about 8000 acres of the original Royal Caledonian Forest. A second grant was made at Kyncross and was dated October 9, 1324. Both of the original grants are still in existence and are kept in a vault at Drum. To honor his father Sir William took the name of Alexander, and thereafter was also known as Sir Alexander I, Laird of Drum.

Bruce followed up his outstanding military success by equally successful diplomatic overtures. In 1323, Edward II and Bruce, finally, agreed to a kind of truce. They agreed that hostilities would cease, and that Bruce would refuse to accept any correspondence not addressed to him as the King of Scots. He sealed the agreement with the betrothal of his sister to Bruce’s son. In 1324 Pope John XXII formally recognized Robert’s title. In May 1328, Bruce, by now an old and stricken man, witnessed the culmination of a lifetime's work when England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh at Northampton, thus acknowledging Scotland's Independence and Robert Bruce as king. After an appeal from the Scottish nobility even Bruce's excommunication was lifted by the new Pope at Rome.

If Robert Bruce had done no more than defy the power of King Edward, restore the Scottish monarchy and win at Bannockburn, he would still be listed among the giants, but he did more. His view of his nation was truly international. Under the rule of the one who was later to be known as "Good King Robert," Scotland had become the first nation state in Europe, the first to have territorial unity under a single king. The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 is a declaration drawn up by Bishop Lamberton and other clergy. It is a long document, but its most quoted lines may be translated as follows: "For so long as one hundred of us remain alive, we shall never in any way submit to the domination of the English, for it is not for glory we fight, for riches or for honors, but freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life." Since ancient times the Scots had been free to choose their own kings, a freedom that they felt was a gift from God. And so it was, but a gift that had needed a Robert Bruce to deliver.

All his dreams fulfilled, Robert Bruce, King of Scots, died on June 7, 1329. He was just short of his fifty-fifth birthday. He was buried in Dunfermline Abby before the High Alter. His body was wrapped in a shroud of cloth-of-gold and encased in a thin sheet of lead before being placed in a marble tomb. The following was inscribed on the tomb:

 “Here lies the invincible Robert, Blessed King. Let him who reads his exploits repeat how many wars he carried on. He led the Kingdom of the Scots to Freedom by his Uprightness. Now let him live in the Citadel of Heaven.”

 Scotland and England fought several more wars during the  next five hundred years or so, even though the two nations were merged peaceably for a time when, in 1603, a Scottish king became king of England as well. Never again, however, would Scotland's very existence be denied. This is Bruce's true legacy. He was the best loved monarch in all of Scotland's long and bloody history, and although the Scots were eventually beaten into submission by the English in the nineteenth century, and their kilts and bagpipes outlawed, their independent spirit has never conquered.

Though still part of the British Empire, today kilts and bagpipes are recognized worldwide as the trademark of the Scots, and in 2004 Scotland regained its Parliament in Edinburgh.  »»»