Robert the Bruce: champion of Scotland or murderous usurper?

On 23 and 24 June 1314, Robert Bruce, king of Scotland, faced King Edward II at Bannockburn in the decisive battle of the Wars of Scottish Independence. On the 700th anniversary of the battle, Dr Michael Brown takes a closer look at the Scottish king and his often bloody path to the throne.

This feature was originally published in the March 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine

Statue of Robert Bruce at Bannockburn © Dreamstime

On 10 February 1306, the most important political murder in Scottish history took place. John Comyn, “the Red”, was slaughtered by Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and his followers in an outburst of violence in the church of the Franciscans, the Greyfriars, at Dumfries.

Comyn and Bruce were leading members of the Scottish nobility. They had been rivals and had recently fought on opposing sides in the wars between Edward I of England and the Scots. In early 1306 with Edward finally recognised as ruler of Scotland, the two lords met together in the Greyfriars church. At first the men seemed friendly and Bruce talked alone with Comyn before the high altar.

Suddenly the mood changed. Bruce accused his rival of treachery. Making to walk away, Robert Bruce then turned back with sword drawn and struck Comyn. Bruce’s followers then rushed in, raining blows on John Comyn who fell to the floor. Comyn’s uncle, who joined the melee, was cut down. Bruce left the church. Mounted on Comyn’s horse he led his followers the short distance to Dumfries Castle where King Edward’s justices were holding court.

Breaking in, Bruce arrested the king’s men but then he heard news that Comyn was still alive. He dispatched two of his men to the friary. They found John Comyn tended by the friars in the vestry, wounded but not dying.

After allowing him to hear confession, Bruce’s men dragged Comyn back into the church and killed him on the altar steps, spattering the altar itself with blood. While Comyn’s corpse was abandoned to the friars, Bruce rode from Dumfries to begin the uprising against Edward I which would climax with his crowning as king of Scots six weeks later.

Those seeking to understand these events saw Comyn’s death as a deliberate step on Bruce’s path to the throne. The English investigation of the murder in 1306 concluded that Comyn was killed because “he would not assent to the treason that Bruce planned against the king of England, it is believed”. In English chronicles of the period, Bruce lured Comyn to Dumfries to kill him. In Scottish accounts, by contrast, Bruce and Comyn agreed to work together for Scotland’s freedom. Comyn, however, betrayed Bruce’s plans to Edward I and was killed in revenge for his treachery.

All these versions agree in identifying Bruce in February 1306 as a man preparing to launch a bid for the kingship and killing Comyn to clear the way. The portrayal of Bruce as either cold-blooded killer or clear-sighted champion of his people suited the conflicting perceptions of later years. It placed the murder at the heart of a planned coup which would also involve Bruce’s seizure of the throne and his war against the English king, a war which ultimately secured recognition of Scotland’s independence.

However, these interpretations also relied on a heavy dose of hindsight. If viewed from the perspective of February 1306 do the conclusions of these accounts seem quite so clear? Was Bruce at that time focused on the seizure of the throne? Was the killing of Comyn on holy ground, an act bound to appal and alienate many Scots, a deed of calculated revolution? Did the immediate aftermath of Comyn’s death, the six weeks before Bruce was crowned king, witness the unfolding of a planned coup? The answers lie in the evidence which emerged before Bruce assumed the reputation and role of hero king or bloody usurper.

The difficult years

In early 1306 Robert Bruce was not an obvious champion of Scottish liberties. He was in his early 30s and his career had been shaped by the decade-long wars between Edward I (ruled England 1272–1307) and the Scots.

The king of England had taken advantage of a succession crisis in Scotland after the death of Alexander III (who ruled Scotland 1249–86). Bruce’s position in this conflict was defined by family interests. Part of this was the Bruce claim to the Scottish throne. This had been rejected in favour of the rival rights of John Balliol in 1292 but with Balliol in exile from 1296 the Bruces did not abandon hope of a crown.

While Bruce was conscious of his family’s royal aspirations, it was his responsibilities as a nobleman which exerted most influence on his activities. As earls of Carrick and lords of Annandale in south-west Scotland and a number of English estates, the Bruces had to preserve lands in two warring kingdoms and protect their friends and tenants in the difficult years since 1296. In these years Bruce had played a shifting role. He had briefly led resistance to Edward I in 1297 and had been a guardian of Scotland between 1298 and 1300 but after both episodes had submitted to the English king.

From 1302 to 1304 he had been active in Edward’s government of Scotland. Bruce’s shifts of side were motivated less by a machiavellian hopes of winning the throne than by the duty to preserve his family’s lands and tenants from the worst effects of war.

His actions were normal amongst the Scottish nobility and were entirely understandable to contemporaries. They do not, though, reveal Bruce as a man committed to the abstract defence of Scotland. Instead they suggest a young lord whose concerns were with more limited and pragmatic issues of lordship and loyalty.

In the months before February 1306 Robert Bruce continued to face these concerns in new circumstances. In 1304 Edward I finally compelled his leading Scottish enemies to submit to his rule. He was now the master of Scotland and during the next year Scotland’s nobles sought his favour and petitioned him for lands and offices. Bruce was one of this group.

In April 1304 his father had died and Bruce approached the king to receive his family’s lordship of Annandale. The succession of enquiries into the Bruces’ ancient rights in their estates probably encouraged Bruce to find allies. To this end, in June 1304 he entered a bond or private alliance with William Lamberton, the bishop of St Andrews.

Deep political rivals

While this was later used by the English to suggest a conspiracy between Bruce and one of the leaders of the Scottish church, its terms do not support this. Instead it was a formal statement of friendship between lords who had recently been on opposite sides in the war but now saw the need to co-operate.

Needing to secure his inheritance and under government scrutiny, Bruce would have found such an alliance valuable, especially as Lamberton became head of Edward’s Scottish council. Issues of land, lordship and influence within this Edwardian Scotland seem to have preoccupied Robert Bruce in 1304–5.

The same issues explain Bruce’s presence in Dumfries on 10 February and his meeting with John Comyn. The king’s justices were holding court in Dumfries and as local landowners it would be natural for Bruce and Comyn to be present. For them to meet in private to discuss the court’s business would also be normal.

However any meeting between these two men came with considerable baggage. There is a garbled tale in several accounts of an indenture between Bruce and Comyn which may indicate a promise of mutual support like that between Bruce and Bishop Lamberton. In the case of Bruce and John however, any written expressions of friendship overlay deep animosity.

The two men were open political rivals. Comyn’s family were long-standing opponents of the Bruces and between 1302 and 1304, while Bruce served King Edward, Comyn had led the king’s enemies. They were also personal enemies. In 1299 Bruce and Comyn were the guardians of Scotland, leading the war against the English. When a dispute broke out between followers of the two men, Comyn turned on Bruce and seized him by the throat.

Accusations of treason were flung at Bruce before the two men were separated. The mistrust and violence between Bruce and Comyn in 1299 may have flared again in February 1306, perhaps sparked by a similarly minor disagreement.

Seeking a deal

The closely contemporary account of Walter of Guisborough hints at this scenario. Bruce and Comyn met to discuss “certain matters touching both of them”. During the conversation Bruce charged Comyn with influencing King Edward against him.

This suggests less the betrayal of a conspiracy than competition for royal favour between rivals which had cost Bruce lands and offices and may have broken a written promise of friendship. Old antagonisms spurred Bruce into an attack on Comyn and others present joined in the fight. The result was not assassination but a bloody scuffle.

The aftermath of the killing suggests that even then Bruce only slowly developed the intention of seizing the throne. It would be six weeks before he was crowned and in this period the consequences of Comyn’s death and the nature of Bruce’s intentions only gradually unfolded.

Vital evidence of this comes from an English report, crucially written in early March before Bruce took the throne. It shows Bruce remaining in the south-west, taking castles and trying to recruit followers in the manner of previous aristocratic rebellions. The report also reveals that Bruce was negotiating with Edward I and his officials and in these talks indicated that he had taken castles “to defend himself with the longest stick that he had”.

This was not the unequivocal defiance of a king in waiting but suggests a man trying to safeguard his position but still seeking a deal, perhaps a pardon for Comyn’s death. However the report shows that such aims were changing.

The writer identifies the key figure in this as Wishart, the bishop of Glasgow. Robert Wishart was a veteran defender of Scottish liberties and in early March, as Bruce’s “chief adviser”, he absolved Bruce from his sins and “freed him to secure his heritage”. This could only mean that Bruce was now determined to bid for the throne. Wishart provided the spiritual support. By releasing Bruce from his oath to Edward and from the sacrilege of slaying Comyn on holy ground the bishop made Bruce a credible leader of the Scots.

It had taken weeks for this move and it was only in March that Bruce started to widen his appeal and win support. On 25 March Bruce was crowned King of Scots at Scone.

The ceremony was makeshift and, if it demonstrated that the new king had gathered support from clergy, nobles and people, a majority stayed away, refusing to recognise the usurper or unwilling to risk sharing in his likely defeat.

Edward I’s terrible retribution

Bruce had taken a huge gamble. He was on a path of no return and by October he and his friends had paid a heavy price. Defeated three times in battle by English and Scottish enemies, Bruce fled the Scottish mainland. Many of his supporters and family suffered worse fates as Edward I wreaked a terrible punishment on those he regarded as perjured rebels.

With stakes so high it would always have been a huge risk to plan a rebellion against Edward. It would not be surprising if Bruce, a wealthy and influential noble with a career of cautious self-interest to his name, baulked at such a gamble. Instead, through lingering personal antagonism which sparked an act of unpremeditated violence, Bruce put his future in jeopardy. By killing Comyn, Bruce had made enemies of John’s family and following. As well as this blood feud Bruce now faced the judgement of Edward I, not a lenient or forgiving ruler.

In these unpromising circumstances and influenced by Bishop Wishart, Bruce took the decision which changed his life and Scotland’s future. He laid claim to the title and authority of king, appealing to his family’s allies and to those Scots who wished to renew the war against the English king. Despite the defeats of 1306 it would be in this role that Bruce would return to Scotland the following year. From 1307 as King of Scots Robert Bruce would begin to win his realm.

 

Michael Brown is reader in medieval Scottish history at the University of St Andrews. His books include The Wars of Scotland 1214-1371, (Edinburgh University Press, 2004) and Bannockburn: The Scottish War and the British Isles, 1307-1323 (Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

 

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