Happy Birthday Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce, was born on 11 July 1274, the first son of Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, and died the King of Scotland on 7 June 1329. The bits in between his birth and death were quite interesting.

  Robert the Bruce

Although he is a hero of Scottish Independence, Bruce is another exemplar of the historical truth that successful leaders are usually self-serving, ruthless, cut-throat bastards. The Medieval period was no time for nice guys. Nice guys lost their kingdoms and often their lives. Bruce was not a nice guy.

Bruce was the scion of one faction of potential Scots monarchs, while John Balliol was the other. In November of 1292 Edward I of England (with the rubber-stamped submission of the Guardians of Scotland) awarded the Scots’ throne to Balliol with the understanding that Scotland would be a vassal state to England. The newly-crowned King John did not want to be a puppet-sovereign and thus allied himself to France and went to war against Edward Longshanks.  

Hoping to uncrown Balliol and make himself King of Scots, the Bruce family sided with England against the Scotland’s monarch. This was unpatriotic but a canny political move, since Edward I decisively won the Battle of Dunbar in the spring of 1296, after which he captured the erstwhile King John and took him to Tower of London to cool his heels. By August of that year 21 year old Robert the Bruce, his father, and more than fifteen hundred of the Scots gentry swore an oath of fealty to King Edward I at Berwick.

Robert the Bruce must have had his fingers crossed because he joined the Scottish revolt against England in the summer of 1297. The revolt ended in a whimper rather than a bang, because too many Scots lords were too well supplied with English lands to give full commitment to the cause and none of them could agree on the correct way to wipe their butts let alone agree with political aims. On 7 July, Bruce and the other rebels made their peace with Edward via the Capitulation of Irvine, when they promised to be good vassals in exchange for never being forced to fight a foreign war.


Again, the Bruce had crossed his fingers behind his back and joined the Scots in thumbing their nose at Edward in 1301. Again, Bruce left the Scots cause to make peace with Edward in exchange for English concessions to Scotland’s nobility. In fairness, this is what most other Scots peers did as well. Nevertheless, Robert the Bruce’s firmly-until-not support of Scottish Independence was not winning him admirers among his countrymen. This was problematic, since Bruce really, REALLY wanted to be king.

The biggest roadblock between Bruce and the throne was the captive King John’s nephew, John Comyn, “who had been much more resolute in his opposition to the English. Comyn was the most powerful noble in Scotland and was related to many more powerful nobles both within Scotland and England … [and] had a powerful claim to the Scottish throne through his descent from Donald III on his father’s side and David I on his mother’s side … Bruce arranged a meeting for 10 February 1306 with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries and accused him of treachery,” and the resulting fight between them ended with Comyn’s death.


Having murdered his chief rival, Bruce had himself crowned King of Scots in March 1306. It came at a high price though; the Pope was so irked that Bruce had slaughtered Comyn in a church during a parley that he excommunicated the new monarch. Not only was Bruce’s soul endangered, he still couldn’t be the real king until he prized Scotland out of Longshanks’ firm grip. As it so happened, he would only take Scotland out of Edward I’s cold, dead hands.

“In June 1306 Bruce was defeated at the Battle of Methven. His wife and daughters and other women of the party were sent to Kildrummy in August 1306 under the protection of Bruce’s brother Neil Bruce and the Earl of Atholl and most of his remaining men. Bruce fled with a small following of his most faithful men …Edward I marched north again in the spring. On his way, he granted the Scottish estates of Bruce and his adherents to his own followers and had published a bill excommunicating Bruce. Bruce’s queen, Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie, his sisters Christina and Mary, and Isabella MacDuff were captured in a sanctuary at Tain and sent to harsh imprisonment, which included Mary and Isabella being hung in cages at Roxburgh and Berwick castles respectively for about four years, while Bruce’s brother Neil was executed by being hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

However, Bruce caught a break when Longshanks died 7 July 1307. Now Bruce was up against Edward II, and poor Edward II was much nicer than his dad. Robert the Bruce was finally the most vicious leader in the contest, and therefore had the advantage. Bruce knew he had little chance of defeating the English head on, so he developed a campaign of guerilla warfare – which was not much different than modern terrorism if we tell the truth. Finally, Bruce won a decisive victory in the field on 23 June 1315 at the Battle of Bannockburn, when the English army got caught between Scots warriors and marshland and were slaughtered.

Battle_of_ Bannockburn_from_Holkham_Bible

Rallying his troops, King Robert I was able to hold Scottish territories and even invade Northern England. From his stronger position he could now start trying to repair diplomatic relations with Rome and in 1320 he signed the Declaration of Arbroath which led to the lifting of the king’s excommunication. Finally, after years and years of continued skirmishes, Bruce and the English regents for Edward III of England agreed to the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which declared Scotland independent and acknowledged Robert the Bruce as its king.


By the time King Robert I died on 7 June 1329 at the Manor of Cardross he was the undisputed monarch and his heir would ascend to the throne after him. All he had to do to get there was lie, cheat, and kill. Par for the course, vis-à-vis kingship in the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, David Cameron may have secured Scottish Independence by pandering to the racists in UKIP with a Brexit Referendum without having to fight a single battle. Top that, Robert the Bruce.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *