The Story of Robert Bruce

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The Story of Robert Bruce

In 1306, Robert Bruce made himself King of Scots but immediately found himself opposed on many sides. Not only did the English King Edward I wish to defeat him, but his Scottish enemies included the powerful families of Balliol and Comyn. For a period of time, Bruce was driven out of Scotland, but would return to carry out a highly successful campaign against his Scottish enemies and the English presence in Scotland. This campaign would include the dramatic and historic victory at Bannockburn in 1314. With such a success came his reputation as one of Scotland’s finest kings. Yet the story of Robert Bruce is a more complicated one than that, say, of William Wallace. Part I of Bruce’s story will investigate his actions leading up to Bannockburn as you begin to consider whether Bruce deserves his considerable reputation.

Who were the Bruces?
The Bruce family originated from France. They arrived in England in 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, successfully invaded England and took the throne after the Battle of Hastings. The Bruce family received land in England from William and, later, land in Scotland from the Scottish King David I in the early 12th century. Most of the Scottish lands were in the south-west, particularly around Annan and Lochmaben.
The Bruces considered themselves to be Scottish royalty. One of their members had married Princess Isabella, the great granddaughter of King David I. Remember that there was a Robert Bruce who competed for the throne after the death of the Maid of Norway. He had even argued that Alexander II had promised him the throne even before he had a son who would become Alexander III.
In 1295, Robert Bruce (the Competitor) had died. It was his son, the defender of Carlisle, who had asked for the Scottish throne after Edward’s successful invasion in 1296, to which Edward reputedly replied:
Have we nothing to do, but to conquer kingdoms for you?’
It was left to the third - generation Robert Bruce to pursue the family claim to the throne of Scotland.
David I
Henry of Northumberland
David, Earl of Huntingdon
Robert Bruce (the Competitor)
Robert Bruce (the defender of Carlisle)
Robert Bruce

Task 28: Who were the Bruces?

  1. How was the Robert Bruce who became King of Scotland in 1306 related to the Robert Bruce who had been one of the thirteen contenders during the Great Cause?

  2. List as many reasons as you can to explain why the younger Robert Bruce may have felt that he had a just claim on the Scottish throne.

Bruce’s Changing Allegiances
One of the remarkable facts about the future King of Scotland was the number of times that he changed sides during the war against English rule. His dilemma was that there was little chance of him becoming king whilst the English ruled Scotland. However, if he went against Edward, it was possible that the family would lose their lands and also their lives.

Until 1296, the year of Edward’s invasion, Bruce stayed loyal to Edward I. However, in 1297, Bruce decided to join forces with the Scottish rebels and took part in attacks on Irvine. Therefore, at the time of Wallace’s battles against the English, the younger Bruce was supporting Wallace’s cause. His father remained loyal to Edward in order to safeguard their lands in England.

In 1298, following Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk, Bruce became Joint Guardian with his old rival John Comyn. Both Comyn and his uncle, John Balliol, had their own claims on the throne, of course, and Bruce soon fell out with Comyn and resigned as Guardian. He continued to support the Scots until making peace with Edward in 1302.
It must have suited Bruce to do this at this time. It looked as if Edward was almost ready to regain complete control of Scotland. In addition, there had been rumours of a return to Scotland for John Balliol, something Bruce was keen to avoid. He therefore remained loyal to Edward for two years before beginning to question whether he had been sufficiently rewarded by Edward for his support. From 1304-06, therefore, Bruce was heavily involved in plots to free Scotland.

Task 29: Bruce’s Changing Allegiances

  • Copy and complete the table identifying when Bruce supported or opposed English rule in Scotland. Use the third column for noting events or reasons for his decisions.

Did he support Scottish independence or English control?

Events / Explanations for his decisions





  • Can you suggest why Bruce changed sides so frequently? What impact may this have had on his support and reputation?

A Killing and a Crown
Bruce’s father died in 1304, making him now Earl of Annandale and Carrick. Perhaps this new power, or the fact that the English King Edward was now an old man (67), gave reasons for Bruce to be optimistic about his chances for adding to his power. Bruce began to enter into discussions with other important Scots to become King of Scotland. He gained the support of the Bishop of St Andrews, William Lamberton. He also met again with John Comyn to discuss their rival claims.
Initially, it appeared that this first meeting went well. Comyn appeared to accept that Bruce would be King, in return for Bruce’s Scottish lands being handed over to the Comyn family. It is possible, however, that Comyn still had his own ambitions to be King and may have leaked Bruce’s plan to none other than Edward I. Edward was furious and ordered Bruce’s immediate arrest, forcing him to flee back to the south-west.
It was in Dumfries that the second meeting between Comyn and Bruce took place. A church was chosen as the location for the meeting as fighting between these old rivals was forbidden in such a sacred space. 10th February 1306 saw the men meet at Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries. Bruce arrived with his supporters Kirkpatrick and Seaton. Comyn was accompanied by one of his uncles. Historians will never know exactly what was said in this meeting or how the violence began. We do know that the events in the church would force Bruce’s hand in taking control of Scotland.
It can be assumed that Bruce and Comyn argued. Perhaps Bruce accused Comyn of betraying him to Edward. During the struggle that followed, it appears that Bruce pulled a dagger and stabbed Comyn in front of the high altar. When Bruce left the church and told his companions what he had done Kirkpatrick is reputed to have said in response ‘I’ll mak siccar’ (I will make sure). It is likely that Kirkpatrick then executed Comyn and his uncle.

These murders were an extraordinarily serious event. Not only had one of the most important and powerful Scottish nobles been put to death, but the murders had taken place in the sacred surroundings of a church. Bruce would face opposition from other Scottish lords and could face possible excommunication from the Catholic Church. (Excommunication meant expulsion from the church and all its rites eg burial in holy ground, legal marriage, etc, a

terrible punishment at this time.)
A stark choice faced Bruce – go on the run as an outlaw or take this chance to proclaim himself King. Bruce decided to gamble on doing the latter. With his supporters alongside, he rode out to the royal castle in Dumfries (Castledykes) and took back control from English hands. It was here that Bruce first proclaimed himself King of Scotland.

Task 30: The Murder of Comyn

a) Suggest three reasons why Bruce was moving closer to asserting his claim to the throne after 1304.

b) Why was it important that Bruce won Lamberton’s support?

c) What arrangement do we think Bruce had come to with Comyn in the early months of 1306?

d) In what way was it suggested that Comyn double-crossed Bruce?

e) Paste your image of Bruce and Comyn’s second meeting at Dumfries into your jotter. Beside it, write a brief description of what may have happened that day. Include:

  • Where it took place

  • Who was present

  • What discussions may have happened

  • Details surrounding the murders.

The Coronation of Robert Bruce
Bruce’s only hope of avoiding too much Scottish opposition and the threat of excommunication was quickly to gather enough support for his claim to the throne. He had already gained the support of Lamberton and this was followed by support from the Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart. Next, Bruce made sure that he controlled all the main castles in the south-west, including Dumfries, Lochmaben, Annan and Kirkcudbright.
The next step for Bruce was to head north to Perth and Scone. It was important that a formal coronation ceremony take place so other Scots could begin to regard him as their ruler. In two separate events, on March 25th and 27th , Bruce was crowned. The most ‘official’ ceremony was on the 27th, despite the absence of the Scottish coronation robes, crown and the Stone of Destiny. (You will remember that these had been taken by Edward’s men ten years before.)

This was a much smaller ceremony than would normally accompany a Scottish coronation. In attendance were some of Bruce’s brothers, three of Scotland’s leading bishops and a number of important nobles, including Lennox and Sir James Douglas. The Earl of Fife traditionally crowned Scottish Kings but, as the Earl was a child currently living under English control, the task fell to the Earl’s sister Isabel, Countess of Buchan.

In the hastily arranged ceremony, the royal robes were replaced by a bishop’s cloak. The ‘crown’ was a golden collar, donated by the Countess. All these issues did not take away from the fact that Bruce had now officially been crowned King. His next challenge was to strengthen his control of other parts of Scotland and deal with enemies, both at home and in England.

Task 31: The Coronation of Robert Bruce

  1. Give two reasons to explain why the murder of Comyn may have damaged Bruce’s attempts to be crowned king.

  2. Why and where did Bruce first crown himself king?

  3. What two measures did Bruce take to establish more control before heading to Perth and Scone?

  4. Paste your picture of the coronation of Bruce into your jotter and note the date, those in attendance and how the ceremony was carried out.

Early Defeats
Such challenges would prove considerable. Most of the key Scottish castles were under English control. The Comyn family and their allies, for example the MacDougalls of Argyll, were eager for revenge on Bruce. Many Scots had been horrified at the actions of Bruce in killing Comyn, particularly with regard to the manner in which the murder had taken place.
Historian Fiona Watson summed up the situation Bruce faced in 1306:
A large number of Scots saw it as their duty to fight against Bruce. In the years after 1306, most Scots preferred to live under the rule of an English King rather than accept a man who had seized the throne and murdered a rival in church for it.’
On hearing news of Bruce’s actions, Edward appointed de Valence his commander in Scotland with the order that:
All those who were present at the death of John Comyn are to be drawn and hanged. All those who agreed to it or helped them afterwards have to meet the same fate. All those captured bearing arms against the King [Edward] are to be hanged or beheaded.’

Despite all these obstacles, Bruce decided to go on the offensive, attempting to unsettle his Scottish enemies. His opposition was strengthened, however, by the arrival of a large English army led by de Valence. Supported by troops from the Comyns and MacDougalls, Bruce’s supporters began to struggle. Bishops Lamberton and Wishart were captured and imprisoned.

Bruce’s small army came up against a significantly larger force at the Battle of Methven, just outside Perth on 19th June 1306, and was badly defeated. Bruce managed to escape unhurt but many of his commanders were killed or captured. His brother Nigel was soon captured and hanged. His wife and daughter were imprisoned in an English nunnery. The punishment for other supporters of Bruce was even more imaginative. Both the Countess of Buchan and Bruce’s sister, Mary, were imprisoned in cages outside Berwick and Roxburgh Castle respectively. Bruce fled the Scottish mainland. After a few short months, it looked as if his ‘reign’ was already over.

Task 32: Early Defeats

  1. Identify three significant problems facing Bruce as he tried to exert his authority over Scotland.

  2. What was Edward I’s first reaction to Brice proclaiming himself king?

  3. Bullet-point at least seven examples of how Bruce and his supporters struggled against the English over the next seven months.

Bruce Fights Back
A well-known legend is often repeated from Bruce’s time spent away from Scotland from 1306-7. It is said that whilst hiding on an island off the coast of Ireland, Bruce watched closely the determination of a spider spinning its web. Taking heart from the spider’s continued efforts until the web was complete, Bruce apparently resolved to keep on fighting until Scotland had regained her independence. Although this story is almost certainly not true, it is clear that, from 1307 onwards, events and circumstances began to give Bruce’s supporters some hope for the future.
In February 1307, Bruce landed back on the mainland with a small band of supporters. This landing was at Turnberry on the Ayrshire coast. His brothers Alexander and Thomas had arrived with supporters on the Galloway coast but had been captured and executed. Using ‘guerrilla’ or ‘hit and run’ tactics, Bruce fairly quickly established a new army, an army that could move very rapidly. The countryside lent itself to this style of ambush strategy, with Bruce’s men launching surprise attacks, then quickly disappearing back into the dense woodland.
At the Battle of Loudon Hill, on 10th May 1307, Bruce unexpectedly defeated a larger English force, using the soft marshy ground to his advantage, as it did not suit the English knights.
An event of huge significance to Bruce’s chances of success took place on July 7th with the death of Edward I. His death coincided with his march on Scotland to oversee the crushing of this latest rebellion. Reaching no further than Burgh-on-Sands in Cumbria, it is said that, as Edward I lay dying, he asked for his heart to be taken to the Holy Land and for the flesh to be boiled from his body so his bones could be carried at the head of the English army in battle against the Scots. Neither request was carried out.
Edward’s death was an enormous boost to Bruce’s chances, particularly when the character of the new English king, Edward II, is considered. Edward II was neither an able soldier nor a particularly strong leader. He made the decision to postpone his army’s march northwards and returned to London. While struggling to deal with problems in England, Edward II’s reluctance to focus on defeating the Scottish forces gave Bruce the opportunity steadily to gain support and ground across important areas of Scotland’s heartland.

Task 33: Bruce Fights Back

  1. When and where did Bruce’s men return to the mainland?

  2. What setback met his forces in Galloway at this time?

  3. Where and why did Bruce achieve unexpected success against the English in May 1307?

  4. Explain why the death of Edward I was such a significant turning-point in Bruce’s campaign.

Bruce’s Recovery Continues 1308-1314
In 1308 Bruce moved against his Scottish enemies, defeating the pro-English Earl of Buchan and destroying much of the Comyn family’s control in north-east Scotland. In the Battle of the Pass of Brander, Bruce defeated his old enemies, the MacDougalls. As a result of such successes, many more noble families began to switch their allegiance to Bruce.
March 1309 saw Bruce hold a parliament in St Andrews, which formally recognised him as King. Edward II briefly attempted an invasion in 1310 but the English forces were quickly driven back. Bruce retaliated by invading northern England. Historian Paterson wrote that:
Life in Northern England became so bad that normal life could only continue with the permission of the Scots’
By the end of 1310, Bruce controlled all the land north of the River Tay. Over the course of the next few years, his control spread and key castles, including those at Perth, Dumbarton, Roxburgh and Linlithgow, were retaken from the control of the English. Some of the techniques for taking these castles were innovative, including stories of men smuggled in hay carts, or cloaked soldiers stealing up to castle walls in darkness, using cattle as cover.

Edinburgh Castle was retaken in March 1314 after a secret path into the castle was used by one of Bruce’s young commanders, Thomas Randolph.

By the summer of 1314, only the castles of Berwick, Bothwell and Stirling remained under English control. If Edward II was to re-establish control of Scotland, Stirling played the key role. Its central location would provide the stepping stone for reversing all of Bruce’s recent successes. Bruce’s brother Edward had laid siege to Stirling Castle for months but the English troops were managing to hold out. Eventually, Edward Bruce made an agreement with the castle governor that if an English army had not arrived by midsummer, the castle would be surrendered to the Scots. By early summer, Edward had put together one of the biggest armies ever seen on British soil. This battle would play a crucial role in the future of Scotland. Both sides would meet on the field of Bannockburn on June 23rd , 1314.

Task 34: Bruce’s Recovery Continues

  • Using the info on p7-8, construct a basic timeline outlining the key events from 1308-1314. Rearrange and include:

1309 – Parliament at St Andrews

1308 – Scottish enemies, Buchan, north-east Scotland

1311-14 – Taking of key castles

1310 – Control north of the Tay

March 1314 – Taking of Edinburgh Castle

1308 – Battle of the Pass at Brander

1310 – English forces pushed back, invasion of northern England

March 1314 – Taking of Edinburgh Castle.

  • Why was control of Stirling Castle so important to establishing authority in Scotland?

  • Explain the agreement made between Edward Bruce and the English castle governor in 1314.

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