Robert Bruce, King of the Scots
The brass rubbing of Robert Bruce, King of the Scots, currently hanging in the Roux Library, is one of 43 brass rubbings of the Allene Sefton Collection owned by Florida Southern College. This particular rubbing was taken from Dumferline Abbey, Scotland, near Edinburgh and represents one of the most important figures in Scottish history.
Born in 1274 to a powerful and noble Scottish family, Robert Bruce (later called “Robert the Bruce” or simply “The Bruce”) successfully won Scotland’s independence from England and in doing so became Scotland’s greatest national hero.
The political situation in late 13th
century Scotland was grim. In 1286, the Scottish king, Alexander III, died without an heir, and the English monarch Edward I, “The Hammer of the Scots,” assumed control. Over the next 10 years the English established a puppet monarch, John Balliol, who, when he finally did stand up to Edward, was forced to abdicate. Edward followed by invading Scotland and brutally sacking several towns such as Berwick, where accounts tell of even a woman in the act of childbirth being put to the sword.
The Scots had of course been trying to resist the English advances, but it took until 1297 and the Battle of Stirling Bridge for them to achieve a notable victory. There, a Scottish army led by William Wallace and Sir Andrew de Moray challenged the English forces under the Earl of Surrey, outmaneuvered them, and crushed them. Yet the satisfaction was short-lived; de Moray was killed in that battle, and Wallace, while an incredibly popular folk hero (both in his time and ours), lost at Falkirk in 1298 and never commanded another army in the field. He was eventually caught and executed by Edward I in 1305.
During the years following Wallace’s initial uprising, Edward tried to re-establish his control of Scotland by again appointing a vassal king. He forced the Scottish nobles to pay fealty to him; Bruce himself did so in 1302 in order to improve his chances of being named king, for he, like his father before him, had a good claim to the throne. But the treatment of the Scots and of Bruce by Edward, culminating in Edward’s preferment of John Comyn, Bruce’s rival, led Bruce to act decisively and assert himself as the leader of Scotland. He knew Comyn had sent letters to Edward accusing Bruce of treason; knowing his time was running out, he thus decided to take the crown forcibly, and early in 1306 he confronted Comyn at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries and mortally wounded him. Bruce then promptly gathered his faithful men and had himself crowned King of Scotland on March 27 of that year.
Though recognized by a significant number of Scots as their king, Bruce still faced great difficulties. Adding to the obvious challenge presented by the English was the fact that many independent and powerful Scottish families (not the least the Comyns) refused to support him. As such, Bruce’s first year as king and defender of Scotland was wretched; he lost battle after battle, his wife and daughters were captured and imprisoned (in suspended, oversized bird cages), and by 1307 three of his brothers had been captured and executed. Faced with a shortage of men and supplies, Bruce by necessity fought a guerrilla war against the English which yielded only small-scale victories.
The death of Edward in the summer of 1307 helped Scotland’s cause greatly, for his son, Edward II, was not at all the military leader his father was. Slowly, over the next few years, Bruce was able to win both victories over the English (even in England) and the support of more and more of the noble families. He truly was uniting the land.
But the English still had much power, and Edward II, trying to finish the work his father had begun, launched an invasion of Scotland in 1314. Bruce was continuing to have success with his guerrilla tactics, but he was forced to fight a pitched battle in June of that year just outside Stirling, near the valley of the Bannock burn (a small creek). There, on Sunday, June 23, the armies gathered; on that day the Scots delighted in seeing their leader slay the English knight Sir Henry de Bohun in single combat in full sight of the two massed armies. The full battle itself began the next day. The Scots held the higher, drier ground; the English forces, especially their cavalry, were hindered by their position in the marshy land around Bannock burn. The Scottish infantry, arranged in schiltrons – groups of men with their spears sticking out like a porcupine’s quills – advanced and cut apart the English ranks. The English forces cracked, then broke, then crumbled as Edward II was forced to flee the field and retreat all the way to England. The Scots had won the most decisive battle in their protracted war of independence.
Bruce had no desire to prolong the war and settled for harassing northern England. (He also invaded Ireland, and his brother Edward served as king of Ireland from 1316-1318.) The English tried to invade again in 1318, but in doing so fared embarrassingly, losing their final stronghold in Scotland in the process.
In 1320 the Scots declared their independence to the Pope with the declaration of Arbroath; so moved was the Pope by the Scottish claim of freedom that he lifted the sentence of excommunication that had been placed on Bruce after he stabbed Comyn in Greyfriars Kirk. The English were more hesitant to acknowledge Scotland’s independent status, in part because of the anger of Edward II. But in 1327 Edward II was forcibly removed from the throne by his own wife and the Earl of Mortimer (his wife’s lover); Edward’s young son, Edward III, was named king (with Mortimer as his regent), and in May 1328 the English signed the Treaty of Edinburgh, recognizing Scotland as an independent country and Robert the Bruce as her King. The treaty was cemented by the marriage of Bruce’s son David to Edward III’s little sister Joan.
Bruce enjoyed the recognized freedom of Scotland but briefly, for he died just a year later, on June 7, 1329. His legacy, though, has lived long after him, for the Scots are still fiercely proud and independent, embracing that stirring statement of freedom found in the Declaration of Arbroath:
“We fight not for glory,
nor riches, nor honour,
but only for that liberty
which no true man relinquishes
but with his life.”
Alexander M. Bruce
Former Assistant Professor of English, and 21st generation descendent of King Robert