Robert Bruce: The King Who Forged A Nation

Andrew Fraser

  The King sat at the entrance to the small cave staring into the embers of the fire that had sputtered out from the cold, driving rain, or so the legend goes. Robert Bruce, King of Scots, had little to show for a kingdom that February in 1307. English garrisons, as well as Scottish lords loyal to England's Edward I, occupied the land, civil war pitted clan against clan, and churchmen took sides either in support or in opposition to the Pope's excommunication of the King. 

But that was not all. Within a year of Bruce's coronation, the English had publicly hanged, beheaded, and mutilated three of his four brothers. Edward sentenced Bruce's sister Mary and the Countess of Buchan, a friend who had attended the Scottish King's coronation, to be locked in cages hung from the walls of English-held castles. Bruce's wife, his 12-year-old daughter, and another sister were all captives of Edward. 

Robert BruceNo one in Scotland could have expected that this heart-broken man would successfully evade Edward's armies, mould his small band of followers into an effective fighting force, and finally drive the English out of Scotland for all time. At the moment, it seemed more probable that Robert I's reign would never last until its second year, and that there would never again be an independent Scotland to rule over. [Image: Sixteenth-century depiction of Robert Bruce.]

Robert, eldest son of a Norman family, was born in 1274, in the midst of a bright period in Scotland's often turbulent history. Alexander III governed well. The House of Canmore had already ruled the nation for more than 200 years, and its prospects for the future looked good. 

The situation changed unexpectedly when the King died in a riding accident on a stormy night in 1286. The heir to the throne, Alexander's seven-year-old granddaughter, died in 1290 while being returned to Scotland to claim the Crown. From the security of a long, peaceful reign, a dozen claimants to the throne stepped forward. Unable to settle the succession problem peaceably, the Scottish Parliament called upon Edward I of England to arbitrate. 

Edward, who wanted Scotland for his own, lost no time in turning the crisis to his own advantage. Convincing many of the nobles and lords to sign oaths of allegiance in return for his favours, Edward chose John Balliol as King, setting the stage for three years of ineffective rule characterized by appeasement of the English Crown. Finally. Balliol rebelled against Edward's authority. In 1296, Edward invaded, captured King John, and wrested control of every major town and castle in the country from their Scottish lords. For 25 years, Scotland endured bloody battles, rebellions, and reprisals at the hands of the English.

A short revolt by a minor land owner, William Wallace, kept alive the hope of Scottish independence, but in 1305, a pro-English Scotsman turned Wallace over to Edward, who barbarously executed him. 

Following Edward's reprisals against Scotland, only two major claimants remained who would openly contest the Scottish throne: the Bruces and the Comyns. Both had escaped Edward's wrath by signing oaths of allegiance to him, but both eventually defied the English king by pressing their own legitimate claims to the Scottish crown, 

Robert Bruce called upon his powerful rival, John Comyn, to meet him at Greyfriars church in Dumfries on 10th February, 1306, to discuss their differences. In front of the high altar, either in a fit of anger or perhaps in a deliberate act, Bruce killed his rival. With that one stroke of a dagger, Robert Bruce alienated himself from the Comyns and their many supporters throughout the country, apparently destroying any hope of gaining the throne. Bruce acted quickly, however, and before opposition to him could solidify, he rode to Scone, near Perth, and had himself crowned King of Scots. While many question the manner in which Robert gained the throne, he realized that immediate action had to be taken to stop the fragmentation of Scotland. Greed, avarice, and fear had enticed many Scottish nobles into signing oaths of allegiance to Edward, while those who wanted to remain free had little hope. 

The crowning infuriated Edward, and the man who was known as The Hammer of the Scots' added the new king to his long list of enemies. He sent an army to deal with the rebel, and at Methven, near Scone, Bruce suffered a staggering defeat, Scottish forces loyal to Edward then completed his rout at Dalry. 

For several months thereafter, King Robert disappeared, and his whereabouts during this time remain uncertain even today. According to one tale, Robert Bruce took refuge in a cave, and there on a chilly, wet night he watched a spider trying to spin a web across the entrance to the cave. Each time it spun a strand the wind and rain broke it down, but on the seventh try, the strand held, and the spider completed the web. In admiration of the spider's persistence, Bruce determined that he would not give up. 

His small army could not meet the English or even the larger Scottish families in pitched battle, but he knew he could not stay on the run and hope to rally his people. Developing a plan that was foreign to the medieval concepts of warfare, Bruce adapted the raiding skills of the fleet-footed, and lightly armed Highlanders loaned him by Angus Og, the Lord of the Isles. He turned these Gaelic-speaking tribesmen into a deadly guerrilla force who could travel fast and strike quickly. 

Bruce built a reputation for success by overrunning small outposts and ambushing English patrols. He put any Scots nobles found with the English to the sword with no compassion. With each small victory more supporters came to his aid. Few Scots wanted a foreigner on their throne, and Bruce offered the only alternative. Robert Bruce led by example and his courage, and his daring in battle became legendary. His followers admired the way he fought alongside his men, sharing their meagre rations and their difficult way of life. 

Soon this force grew strong enough to capture small castles, but having taken them, Bruce still did not have the manpower to prevent their recapture, so he ordered that they be destroyed. 

The success of this little band of outlaws incensed Edward I. He rose from his sick-bed to lead a powerful army yet again, but on the way north he died. His son, Edward II, not as eager for battle as his father, returned to England. This gave Bruce a valuable opportunity to suppress the Comyns and other rebellious Scottish lords who took up arms against him. Meanwhile, without aid from England or their former Scottish allies, the English garrisons were reluctant to venture far from their remaining strongholds. 

Ruling Scotland involved far more than waging war, and Bruce proved to be well suited to the challenge. The country had to be restructured, and the people needed a decisive leader to rally around. To do this, Bruce called a parliament at St. Andrews in 1309 the first parliament in 18 years. The fact that it was effective indicated that the Scots were beginning to unite behind their King. 

Finally, Edward II could ignore Bruce no longer and raised an army to invade Scotland once again. Bruce ordered the Scots to burn their own fields in front of the enemy, denying them food and fodder. Then, while the English moved into Scotland, Bruce sent his lightly armed cavalry on fleet ponies into the north of an unprotected England. In 1312, the Scots seized and sacked Chester-le-Street, Hartlepool, Durham and other northern English towns. 

The English, however, relentlessly moved north. Having avoided set-piece battles since 1307, Robert Bruce suddenly found himself confronted with the largest army ever to leave England. Edward intended to relieve besieged Stirling Castle, the last major castle in the hands of the English. Against more than 20,000 English knights, archers, and infantry, Bruce mustered little more than 5,000 battle-hardened veterans, many of whom had been fighting English since 1295. 

Bruce never showed better tactical and strategic judgment than now. He the English at Bannockburn just outside Stirling, choosing his own battlefield preparing his troops, and waiting for the English to arrive on 23rd June. 0n first day of battle, Bruce personally killed an English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun who attacked him in front his army, and the Scots turned back minor thrusts of Edward's cavalry 

The following day, the English found that the ground Bruce had selected to fight on was so constricted that they could not deploy their whole army, and they were forced to fight without most of their decisive archery support. The battle went badly for the English, and when they saw what they perceived to be a second Scots army rushing down a hill they broke and ran, completing their defeat. Edward II barely escaped, leaving behind him all the baggage. Many of the retreating English troops drowned trying to flee through the bogs. 

It was the biggest victory the Scots ever won over the English. The second 'army' the English had seen was nothing more than the 'small people' the baggage handlers, cooks, camp followers, and others who wanted their opportunity to help drive out the hated English who had occupied their homeland for so many years. Despite the devastating loss, however, the English refused to accept the independence of Scotland, and raiding from both sides continued across the border for another 14 years. 

During this time, the Scottish Church supported Bruce, but the Church in Rome opposed him, supporting instead the English authority over Scotland, In 1320, many influential Scots, wanting this changed, signed an appeal addressed to the Pope. The message contained in their Declaration of Arbroath [so named for the 12th-century abbey at which it was made] was almost alien to the medieval mind. The Scots not only told the Pope what he should do, but they informed him that their king ruled by the will of the people, and only the people could remove him. The Declaration concluded: "Yet if he [the King] would give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England ... we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out ... and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition be brought under English rule ...." 

Despite the stirring sentiment and determination of the declaration, the Pope waited four more years before acceding to the will of the Scots people, and recognizing Bruce as King. But they were not idle years for the Scots. When Edward II abdicated because of critical problems at home, the Scots celebrated the ascension of Edward III with more major raids into England. 

By then, the English no longer had the will or desire to continue the war. With the exception of Durham Castle, Scottish raiders had sacked all the northern English towns and cities. Finally, in 1328, a peace treaty acknowledging the independence of Scotland was signed, ending the 26-year-long Scottish wars of independence. 

Robert Bruce had no time to enjoy peace. The years of guerrilla warfare had taken their toll, and after only 13 months of peace, Robert died at 54 years of age on the 7th June, 1329, leaving the throne to his five-year-old son, David II. 

Even in death, Robert Bruce commanded the loyalty of his followers. During his reign, Robert had always wanted to lead a crusade to the Holy Land, perhaps to atone for killing Comyn in 1306. When he realized on his deathbed that he would not be able to fulfil his wishes, he called in his close friend and chief war lieutenant, Sir James Douglas. 

He told Douglas that upon his death, Douglas should remove his heart, place it in a casket, and take it on a crusade. True to the King's wishes, Bruce's body was buried in Dunfermline Abbey, while Douglas, with many Scottish nobles and knights, set off for the Holy Land with the heart of their leader. 

In Spain, the Spanish King asked if they would help him fight the Moors, and in 1330 at Tebas de Ardales, the Scots found themselves completely cut off and surrounded with no hope of escape. Forming up for one last charge, James Douglas threw the silver casket containing the heart of Bruce into the midst of the Moors shouting, "Lead on brave heart as thou was ever want to do. Douglas will follow." The Scots followed their leader's heart. 

The brave charge so impressed the Moors that they allowed the few surviving knights to go free along with Douglas's body and the King's heart. Upon returning to Scotland, the heart was buried in Melrose Abbey, 

Within five years of Robert's death, Edward III renounced the treaty he had signed, and for the next 400 years, both countries intermittently waged war on each other. However, the Scots, despite many defeats, never lost their hard-won freedom. 

Robert Bruce united and freed a nation that until that time had consisted of diverse groups and tribes. He began against tremendous odds, and suffered many setbacks, but by tenacity and leadership, the people came to see him as a leader they would follow. The spirit of pride and independence he created remains strong to this day Perhaps this legacy can be summed up from the closing words of the Declaration of Arbroath: "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we fight, but for freedom, and for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."


Return to Main Index

Return to Our Heritage