Robert the Bruce
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From the Book



Although only two monarchs came from the House of Bruce, at the end of their brief tenure of power Scotland had emerged from her Wars of Independence a free and independent nation once more.

ROBERT I 1306 - 1329 Born: 1274. Died: 1329. Marriage: (1) Isabella of Mar; (2) Elizabeth de Burgh. Children: By Isabella of Mar: Marjory; By Elizabeth de Burgh: David, John, Matilda and Margaret.

Like Francis of Assisi, in his early life Robert Bruce did not give much indication of future greatness. Indeed, when he claimed the throne in 1306, at the age of 32, he could quite rightly have been described as a self-seeking turncoat and sacrilegious murderer. Yet his death 23 years later would cause doughty warriors to weep and tear their clothes in anguish.

Robert Bruce was the grandson of the Competitor of the same name who died in 1295. His son, who does not appear to have been an ambitious man, in turn handed on the family claim and title to his son. The new Earl of Carrick, to put a charitable interpretation on his actions, was torn between his loyalty to his country and his feudal superior, Edward I. Five times he changed sides, often beneath a bewildering cloak of conviction, as in 1297 when he sided with Wallace, declaring: 'No man holds his flesh and blood in hatred, and I am no exception. I must join my own people and the nation in whom I was born.' A few months later he was back with the English.

The first signs that Bruce was coming round for good to the cause in which he was to make his name occurred in 1304, when he made the Bond of Cambuskenneth with Bishop Lamberton of St Andrews, head of the Scottish church. Bruce knew that he was now the obvious natural leader of the Scottish nation and a bid for the throne would stand a better chance if backed by the kirk. Now that Wallace was out of the way, by the autumn of 1305 Robert's plans began to harden. It took an impulsive gesture on his part to bring them into the open. In February 1306 he met John, 'the Red Comyn', one of the country's most powerful magnates, in the Creyfriars church, Dumfries. Though we do not know exactly what passed between them, tempers rose and Bruce stabbed Comyn to death in front of the altar. As the crime was heinous and must surely have led to his arrest, Bruce decided to turn it to his advantage and make it the first dramatic gesture in a bid for the throne. He made his way to Scene where he was proclaimed King in a simple ceremony, endorsed by the Countess Isabel, who gave Robert I the traditional blessing of the MacDuffs.

The events of the next few years are too well known to need detailed repetition here. The Scots both high and low rallied round their vigorous new leader who, after initial setbacks, defeated a major English force at Loudoun Hill in 1307. The timely death of Edward I and the accession of his less ambitious son, Edward II, then enabled Robert gradually to make himself master of his kingdom. He used the Scottish parliament to launch an international propaganda campaign, and by 1314 only Berwick and Stirling remained in English hands. A declaration by the commander of Stirling that he would surrender his fortress to the beseigers unless relieved by the English finally galvanised Edward II into action. On 24th June the flower of English chivalry was cut down on the banks of Bannockburn by a Scottish army of half their numbers.

The victory at Bannockburn did not end the fighting, but it gave the Scots the upper hand in a war which dragged on, punctuated with raids, seiges and truces, until the treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328. This agreement was Robert's crowning triumph, for it gave him Scotland 'free, quit, and entire, without any kind of feudal subjection'. He had saved the nation. Although much of Robert's reign was taken up with military exploits of Hollywood-style daring, when he could afford the time he worked hard at repairing the ravages of civil war and foreign invasion. Efforts were made to replenish royal finances, encourage the revival of trade, and restore law and order in outlying areas so that to the common people the Bruce became known as 'Good King Robert'.

He also proved a considerable patron of the church and demonstrated genuine Christian remorse for his past misdeeds. Yet his relations with the papacy were often shaky and not until the vear before Robert's death did John XXII lift the sentence of excommunication pronounced upon him previously. The explanation to the Pope of the Scottish nation's case for independence, known as the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), stands as the most remarkable statement of nationalism in medieval Europe.

For a while Robert had declared his brother, Edward, to be his heir. When this capable warrior was killed in 1318 while trying to establish himself as High King of Ireland, the succession was handed to the family of Robert's daughter, Marjory, who had married Waiter the Steward. However, in 1324 the king finally fathered a legitimate son, the future David II. (Like many medieval monarchs Robert was far more adept at siring bastards than children born on the right side of the blanket.) Thus, at peace with England, reconciled to the Pope, master of an ordered realm and with the succession secured, Robert finally succumbed to an enemy which even his bravery could not outfight: he died of leprosy on 7th June 1329. His heart was cut from his body and taken on crusade as a final gesture of atonement to God for the sins of his youth. But his people had forgiven him long before.

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