Robert the Bruce
Biography of Robert the Bruce (1274 - 1329)
The 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.
Good books about Robert the Bruce: