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Robert the Bruce

Biography of Robert the Bruce (1274 - 1329)

Robert the BruceThe biography of Scotland's Robert Bruce begs the question: Do the tides of history force certain men into greatness, or is greatness forged within their hearts and executed through their will? If you are a believer, Bruce's history is one that surely shows how evil can be used for good and providence holds the hands of freedom seekers everywhere.

The de Brus family held lands in the southwest of Scotland, their ancestry being Celtic, but their land grants and titles (Bruce was the Earl of Carrick) following in the wake of the Norman conquest - providing them with lands in both Scotland and England and thereby producing hard choices for the Bruces at the time of the Interregnum.

To be as brief as possible: In 1290, Scotland's young queen, the Maid of Norway, died without having ever stepped foot on Scottish soil, throwing Scotland into disarray as no fewer than 13 men made claim to the throne. The two best claimants were John Balliol and Robert "the Competitor" Bruce (our Robert's grandfather). At this time, Edward I was king of England - a very able and ruthless king - and he naturally sought to take advantage of the situation to bring Scotland under English suzerainty. The upshot was a long period of warfare, both amongst the Scots and with England, lasting until the 1320s. This period is known as the Wars of Independence.

The Scots asked Edward I to choose amongst the claimants and he picked John Balliol. There is no doubt that Balliol's claim was strongest, but Edward I also realized King John was a weak man and expected to rule Scotland through him. Balliol ruled (in a manner of speaking) from 1292 through 1296, finally having the courage to renounce his fealty to Edward I. He and his son were taken to England, but eventually allowed to retire to France, and retire from our story. (Ironically, Balliol died in 1314 - the year of Bannockburn.)

At this point, Edward I attempted direct rule of Scotland, installing his own men in all the leadership positions. It was during this time that Edward I stole the Stone of Destiny (Stone of Scone) and took it London. Many believe he took the wrong stone, and that the location of the real stone was (and is) a closely guarded secret. The Scots retrieved the stone Edward I had taken in 1996.

Edward I underestimated the loathing the Scottish people felt for him and for English rule. He was also contemptous of what their armies could accomplish without royal leadership. William Wallace and the Earl of Moray rose up armies against Edward I and gained a rousing victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Though Moray died and Wallace lost at Falkirk, forcing him into hiding, the Scots continued to rebel against English rule and small skirmishes and guerilla warfare continued unabated.

During these years, Scotland's leadership was initially divided between Robert Bruce (our Robert) and John Comyn (the Red Comyn), but the two of them despised each other. In 1299, at a meeting in Selkirk Forest, the Comyn physically attacked Bruce who almost died in the ensuing fight. Bruce resigned his guardianship in 1300, paying fealty to Edward I in 1302 (a very temporary measure).

We can only sympathize with Robert Bruce's wavering and indecision through these dangerous years. His grandfather had died, and his father had fled the conflict by moving to Norway with one of his daughters. Later, Bruce's father gave up his Scottish holdings and titles (Carrick), and retired to his lands in England. Robert was left to head his family (he was the eldest of nine, many of whom gave their lives in his cause and all of whom supported him). He alone had to decide - stay and fight the English, remove himself from the conflict by leaving Scotland, or go for broke and aim for the highest prize of all?

Here is where fate steps in and forces the decision. Robert Bruce's hot temper and loathing for the Comyn got the best of him, and Robert murdered his rival - and in a church to boot. To avoid charges of murder and sacrilege, his figured his best bet was to have himself crowned king. He fled to Scone and had himself crowned on March 25, 1306.

His cause seemed absolutely hopeless - not only was Edward I completely enraged by the audacity of "King Hob" as he called him, but Bruce had very little initial support among the Scots. Excommunicated and under attack almost immediately by the Earl of Pembroke, Bruce fled to the highlands (as so many have done).

The years 1306 and 1307 were terrible and grievous. His wife and daughter were captured, three of his brothers killed, and he himself had a series of narrow escapes as he moved about the highlands trying to bring together an effective fighting force. Just when things were looking bleakest, Bruce managed a resounding victory over Pembroke at Loudon Hill and, of greater import, the great enemy Edward I died.

The tide had turned and Robert Bruce set about securing Scotland for himself, with the help of his loyal friend Angus Og, progenitor of the great MacDonald clan (Lords of the Isles). He also found allies in Mar and Ross and beat the Comyn (the son) at Inverurie. Once the north was secure, he turned west and subjected the MacDougalls, taking their castle at Dunstaffnage. Meanwhile, his brother Edward and great ally and friend James Douglas (the "Black Douglas") took control of southwest Scotland.

Meanwhile, the English under Edward II continued to give battle, but Bruce won more than he lost, taking back the strongholds of Scotland one by one. Edward Bruce surrounded Stirling Castle in early 1314. The garrison agreed to surrender if they were not relieved by the English before midsummer. Edward II could not give up Stirling without a fight - the dishonor would be tremendous.

By now, Robert Bruce had won the hearts and minds of his countrymen and had proved himself a wise tactician and brave war leader. When Edward II came with an army to relieve Stirling, Bruce and his men were ready. The Scots decimated the English troops as they began crossing the small stream ("burn") named Bannock. The Battle of Bannockburn was the greatest victory in all of Scotland's history and ensured the continuance of the Scottish nation for three hundred years.

The war continued sporadically for years, but the English never prevailed. Worn out by troubles at home, Edward II signed a treaty in 1323 that was to last for 13 years. However, time was on the side of the Scots and when Edward died, his son Edward III decided to begin his own campaign against the Scots - nearly being captured in his bed before accomplishing anything. The following year, he ratified the Treaty of Northampton (as had the Scots) recognizing Robert the Bruce as King of Scots and Scotland as a free and independent realm.

Bruce was failing now. Reconciled with the church, he gathered his friends and family around him, requesting Douglas to take his heart on the crusade he was never able to make. Douglas did so, falling in battle against the Moors in Spain.

King Robert I died on June 7, 1329. Six days later the pope issued a bull permitting the crowning of a King of Scots (acknowledging Scotland's sovereignty) and the crown duly passed to David, Robert's young son.

William Wallace and Robert Bruce are Scotland's two greatest national heroes - Wallace for instilling the flame of freedom in the hearts of his countrymen, and Bruce for making that freedom a reality.

Bruce's March to Bannockburn

Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victorie!

Now's the day, and now's the hour;
See the front o' battle lour;
See approach proud Edward's power --
Chains and slaverie!

Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Wha, for Scotland's king and law,
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Free-man stand, or free-man fa',
Let him follow me!

By oppression's woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow! --
Let us do or die!

by Robert Burns

Visit William Wallace
Visit History of Scotland 1296-1603

Good books about Robert the Bruce:

Robert the Bruce King of Scots
Robert the Bruce : King of Scots

by Ronald McNair Scott
Readable, entertaining biography of Robert Bruce. A good choice if you buy just one.

In the Footsteps of Robert Bruce
In the Footsteps of Robert Bruce

By Alan Young, Michael J. Stead
This book is best for the photos - lovely pictures of the places Robert Bruce lived and fought.

Freedom's Sword : Scotland's Wars of Independence
Freedom's Sword: Scotland's Wars of Independence

by Peter Traquair
Readable, well-researched history with lots of maps and photos. Covers William Wallace, Robert Bruce and the aftermath. 5 stars.

The Bruce Trilogy
The Bruce Trilogy/the Steps to the Empty...

By Nigel Tranter
Tranter was Scotland's best modern writer of historical fiction and his passing a true loss. We love his books. 5 stars, highly recommended.

The Crown in the Heather
The Crown in the Heather (Bruce Trilogy, Book 1)

By N. Gemini Sasson
Historical fiction about the young Robert Bruce, matching wits with Edward Longshanks to secure Scotland's throne, and his romance with Elizabeth de Burgh. First in a trilogy by new author Gemi Sasson. 4 stars. The other two books in the series are Worth Dying For and The Honor Due A King.

Robert the Bruce: Our Most Valiant Prince, King and Lord
Robert the Bruce: Our Most Valiant Prince, King and Lord

By Colm McNamee
Entertaining and historical biography written by a scholar to commemorate the 700th anniversary of King Robert I's coronation as King of the Scots.

Robert Bruce: And the Community of the Realm of Scotland
Robert Bruce: And the Community of the Realm of Scotland

By Geoffrey Barrow
Five-star, page-turning account of Scotland's battles for independence with fascinating, in- depth analyses of Bruce's brilliant tactics and strategy in overcoming the English. Barrow is the expert on this period of Scotland's history and this book has been called his masterpiece. If you buy one book on this turning point in the history of freedom, it should be Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland.

Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce's Great Victory (Praeger Illustrated Military History)
Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce's Great Victory (Praeger Illustrated Military History)

By Pete Armstrong
Detailed narrative of Bruce's Bannockburn campaign and the final battle. Great for military buffs. Five stars.

Why We Don't Kill Spiders: A Tale of Bannockburn
Why We Don't Kill Spiders: A Tale of Bannockburn

By Bo Macreery
For the literary minded, this debut novel finely interweaves the story of Robert Bruce and the retelling of it to Sir Walter Scott by Scott's grandfather. As Scott is considered the "father of historical fiction", this is an ambitious undertaking by Mcreery. Highly reviewed and highly rated.