Robert the Bruce: what do we know?
Robert the Bruce (1274–1329) proclaimed his right to the Scottish throne in 1306 and is remembered as a hero of Scotland who waged a highly successful guerrilla war against occupying English forces. He has been portrayed numerous times in film and television, most recently by Chris Pine in Netflix's original film, Outlaw King. But how much do you know about the Scottish king? Here, medieval expert Chris Brown explores the true facts of Robert the Bruce's life, from his supposed birth in England to his landmark victory over the English forces of Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn…
What most people think they know about Robert the Bruce can be compressed into a single paragraph: He was born in Writtle, Essex (his family were great landowners in England as well as Scotland) and he was a French-speaking Anglo-Norman. He was perfectly willing to serve Edward I (the ‘Hammer of the Scots’) as a client king, if Edward would put him on the throne. He murdered John Comyn, a major rival for the Scottish crown, at Greyfriars church in Dumfries and later embarked on a lengthy guerrilla war, ostensibly because Scottish troops did not have such good horses or armour as their English counterparts. In June 1314, at the battle of Bannockburn, he managed to score his one great victory against the English – with the help of Knights Templar. During the battle, the English attacked Robert the Bruce’s fortified position up a hill and through a bog and, despite being mounted on a mere pony, he dispatched an English knight in single combat. With his war concluded, he promptly died of leprosy.
That’s pretty much it, isn’t it? Yet, with the exception of the murder of John Comyn, the entire paragraph is what historians might call ‘rubbish’; there is not a word of truth in it. Here’s a closer look at some ‘facts’ about the Scottish king…
Edward I and the ‘Great Cause’
The Bruce family first came to prominence in 1291–2, after Robert Bruce of Annandale (grandfather of the man who would become king of Scotland in 1306) was rejected as the next king of Scotland, in favour of John Balliol. After King Alexander III died and left no heir, Edward I of England was invited to decide who would be the next king of Scotland, given that there was some doubt over who – out of 13 contenders – had the best claim. The process is often described as the ‘Great Cause’, and it is widely believed that Edward deliberately chose John Balliol because the king was confident that Balliol would be more amenable to Edward’s desires than Bruce.
Although many English historians (and a few Scottish antiquarians) have repeated the claim that Edward I was invited to arbitrate between the claimants, this is simply not true. Edward I was invited to conduct a court of enquiry, not to make a decision. The court, not including the king, consisted of 104 auditors (jurors), of whom 40 were chosen by the Balliol party, 40 by the Bruces and the remaining 24 were chosen by Edward himself.
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Inviting Edward to oversee the process made perfectly good sense at the time. Edward was a noted jurist who took an interest in legal topics and he had had a good relationship with the late king of Scotland, Alexander III. In practice Edward manipulated the situation shamelessly. He was the root cause of a conflict that would run long after he died and that would poison Anglo-Scottish relations for centuries.
But Edward did not choose John Balliol; the auditors quite correctly decided that John Balliol had the better dynastic claim and appointed him accordingly. Had they chosen Robert Bruce, Edward would have behaved just as badly and there is no reason to assume that the eventual general outcome would have been markedly different.
An English-born, French-speaking Scots hero?
If the popular perception of the ‘Great Cause’ is abject nonsense, what can we say about the younger Robert, born in 1274? We can comfortably reject the claim that he was born in Essex as a simplistic piece of English nationalism. Robert’s father – also Robert – spent a good deal of time in England, mostly at Carlisle, where he served as constable for Edward I. This sort of arrangement had been common enough in the 13th century when England and Scotland were – by medieval standards at least – pretty good neighbours. They did not really have very much to do with one another; they were not much inclined to interfere in one another’s internal affairs; and the border was peaceable, settled and long-recognised.
There was a modest amount of social intercourse (John de Balliol and Devorguilla de Galloway founded Balliol College in Oxford in the 1260s) but other than the small number of Scots with considerable landholdings in England, and English people with similar properties in Scotland, there was very little political interaction of any significance and very little trade. The most significant export for both countries was wool. England produced about 80% of the trade-quality wool of later medieval Europe and Scotland produced virtually all the rest. It is hardly surprising that they did not trade much with each other, given that the chief imports were items like wine, oil and spices that neither could produce domestically.
If the ‘middle’ Robert spent a good deal of time in England, why can we doubt that Robert the youngest was born in Writtle? For one thing, Carlisle is a very long way from Essex, and relatively close to the Bruce family seats at Maybole and Turnberry. More to the point, though Robert’s father spent time at Carlisle we have no evidence to suggest that his mother Marjory ever left Scotland at all. As Countess of Carrick in her own right, she was a more important figure than her husband, who was a mere baron – and was hardly likely to leave the comfort and security of her own castle with a view to having her child elsewhere.
As to the charge that Robert the Bruce was a French-speaking Anglo-Norman, his great-great-great-great-great grandfather did live in Normandy, but that is pretty meaningless. If we applied those values to our own society, the children of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would be German Greeks.
Though there’s a belief that all the nobles spoke Norman French, if that were the case we would have to wonder how on earth they communicated with their tenants, baillies, servants, merchants and tradesmen. We can be pretty confident that those people did not speak French and also that Robert’s childhood was spent in Scots-speaking Annandale and Gaelic-speaking Carrick. It would be a most unusual child that did not grow up speaking his mother’s language. In any case, French was never a language of governance in Scotland. Charters, laws, warrants and legal and business proceedings of all kinds were conducted in Latin or Scots.
It is a different matter as to whether Robert the Bruce could speak French. He spent some time at Edward I’s court, where French was the preferred language, and biographer John Barbour tells us that when Robert was reduced to hiding in the hills he entertained his comrades by reading and translating French romances. Since French was the language of literature, it would be odd if an educated man did not have some grasp of it.
The Bruce family certainly did have landholdings in England, but not on anything like the scale required to make them significant figures in the English political community. They may have held a barony in Essex, but so did a score or more of other families. The Percy family had landholdings in Scotland, but that did not make them Scottish, any more than having a holiday apartment in Barcelona would make one Spanish today.
Did Robert the Bruce murder John Comyn?
So, did Robert the Bruce murder John Comyn, a major rival for the Scottish crown? He certainly did – or at least he was involved in an affray that left Comyn dead. The details of the event are less than clear and very much in the eye of the beholder. Accounts vary from a simple, pre-meditated cold killing by Robert to a clash involving self-defence.
The other part of the tale, that Comyn was a rival for the crown, is more suspect. It has been suggested, claimed or just plain stated that Bruce offered either to step aside and support Comyn as king or that he offered give all his lands to Comyn in exchange for unequivocal support for his own bid for the crown. The weakness of the tale is that Bruce’s own claim to the throne was hardly rock-solid; John Balliol was still alive and had an heir, Edward.
It is true that John Balliol had abdicated, but he had done so at the point of Edward’s sword and medieval jurisprudence recognised the concept of duress. Even if John’s abdication had been valid (and he had rejected the possibility of being restored some years earlier) he had no right to give away his son’s claim to the throne. This was a crucial matter for the rather conservative political community of Scotland; the legitimate heir must have the right to succeed. If Robert’s claim was, at best, legally shaky, any claim by John Comyn would have been much more so, and therefore most unlikely to be acceptable to Scottish society.
In many versions, Bruce kills Comyn, then declares himself king and starts his guerrilla war, which is near to the truth. In the first few weeks of his reign, Bruce was soundly defeated by English forces in two battles, Methven and Dalry, and his forces, such as they were, scattered. He went into hiding over the winter of 1306–7 and then mounted a series of new campaigns against the English occupation forces and his domestic opposition. It is all too easy to conflate these two groups. Some Scots were content to support the occupation for the sake of peace or advancement, some because they simply could not abide the Bruces. Some fought against Robert Bruce because there was still considerable support for the Balliols and of course some fought against him because there was an English garrison on their doorstep or even resident in their castle. It’s not easy to make a principled decision if there is a dagger at your throat.
But was it a guerrilla war fought by Robert the Bruce? Actually, Robert fought a very conventional sort of conflict. He seized towns and castles and set up his own administration – all very much in the typical pattern of medieval war. He also avoided major battles against larger armies, but that is generally termed ‘prudent’ rather than ‘guerrilla’.
There is a persistent belief that during these conflicts, the Scots did not have the kind of armour or warhorses or longbows that the English fought with. If that were the case we could be confident that chroniclers would tell us so. But they do not. English and Scottish soldiers – spearmen, archers and cavalry – were identical. Scottish romanticists do not like to hear that; they want the medieval Scots to be simple ploughmen armed with a stick with a nail through it, but the evidence is quite unequivocal.
The truth about the battle of Bannockburn
There are also a number of myths that surround Bruce’s famed victory at Bannockburn – which he fought against Edward II, in a swamp near Stirling, and was saved at the last minute by a force of Templar knights. The great battle was fought near Stirling, but that’s about it. One chronicler mentions a “great stinking ditch” in which many English soldiers drowned while trying to escape, but by that point the battle was already over. Far from being marshland, all the contemporary accounts are at pains to point out that the fighting took place on ‘good ground’, or ‘dry ground’ or ‘firm ground’. Moreover, the English did not charge recklessly up a hillside to come to grief on great round hedgehogs of Scottish spearmen. In fact, Robert marched his army down from the higher ground of the hunting park (roughly where Bannockburn High School stands today) then deployed across the neck of land between two sizeable streams; the Pelstream and the Bannock burn and advanced on the English, throwing them into confusion.
The notion that the Templars turned up to save the day is a total invention, less than 200 years old, with no evidence whatsoever to support it – and plenty of evidence to the contrary.
But did Robert the Bruce kill an English knight, though he was only riding a pony himself? In fact, we know that the ‘pony’ was a palfrey – a horse for transport rather than combat. The term ‘palfrey’ encompasses quite a range of mounts in much the same way as we might use the term ‘car’: it covers everything from a 1971 Fiat 500 to the latest model of Ferrari. Robert was the king, so something more akin to a Ferrari seems more probable. He did, however, kill a man in single combat before the first engagement of the battle and did so with an axe against a lance – which was still quite a feat of arms.
Death after victory?
So the common misconception goes that Robert the Bruce won his war at Bannockburn and then died of leprosy. There’s little doubt that Bruce’s victory was massive, but the war did not come to an end for another 13 years. Edward II was simply not prepared to give up on the unwinnable war he had inherited from his father, who had been known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’.
Incidentally, Edward I didn’t acquire this nickname until he had been dead for the better part of two centuries, and someone was commissioned to add the inscription to his tomb. Edward I conducted several campaigns in Scotland with varying degrees of rather temporary success, but he only fought one battle, Falkirk, in 1298. It was a major victory, but hardly really changed the course of the war even in the short term.
As for Robert the Bruce’s death, it’s false that he died from leprosy. At the time of his death in 1329, he had been gravely ill intermittently for many years. The nature of his ailment is not certain – possibilities include motor neuron disease, syphilis and muscular sclerosis. It is perfectly possible that he suffered from different conditions at different times, but we can rule out leprosy. However much of a hero he might have been, as a leper he would have been quarantined just as strictly as anyone else. It was a disease that was all-too-familiar to medieval society and quite impossible to disguise.
Beyond the paragraph at the start of this article, there’s much more to be known about Robert the Bruce. Like any other king Bruce generated a huge raft of documentary material and unlike other medieval kings he was a the subject of a major near-contemporary biography; in fact we know more about King Robert than virtually any other major figure of his time.
Medieval expert Dr Chris Brown is the author of King and Outlaw: The Real Robert the Bruce (The History Press, 2018) out now.
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This article was first published on History Extra in November 2018