THIS three-part series about Robert the Bruce has followed the timeline of Nigel Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy – and the final part covers the years from the Battle of Bannockburn until his death in 1329.
With victory at Bannockburn, King Robert I was now unquestionably the leader of the Scottish nation, but unfortunately quite a few of his fellow countrymen – and a pesky English sovereign or two – did not agree with him being the monarch.
Had King Edward II been captured by the Scots pursuing him after Bannockburn – one account has him downed from his horse and barely escaping – there is little doubt that Bruce would have extracted a massive payment for the king’s life. He would quite literally have been worth a king’s ransom and part of the price would have been Bruce insisting on a treaty guaranteeing that no English king would ever again claim to be the overlord of Scotland.
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As it was, Edward had been humiliated, and on returning south was plunged right away into the internal strife that bedevilled his entire reign, and which had seen his favourite – and possibly his lover – Piers Gaveston, executed after a rigged trial in 1312 by the Earl of Lancaster on behalf of the faction of powerful barons that hated Gaveston. It says much about Edward that his main preoccupation on returning to England was to get a proper burial for Gaveston, which took place on January 2, 1315.
The defeat of the English, and Edward’s baronial troubles, gave Bruce the time to consolidate his forces as he knew that there would be challenges to his rule. It also gave him back, through prisoner exchange, his wife Elizabeth and daughter Marjorie, though she lasted barely two years, dying like her mother at the age of 19 after a fall from horseback in March 1316. Her son by Walter the Steward was delivered by caesarean section as she lay dying in Paisley Abbey – the child would later become King Robert II. His Bishops Wishart and Lamberton were also repatriated, the former now blind.
It may seem incredible to modern sensibilities that Bruce had to fight off internal opponents, given Bannockburn, but there were still plenty of people who accused him of usurping the throne and they were led by the Comyn family in their Buchan and other lands. Yet at first they stayed in the background as Edward II still refused to set aside his “claim” to the overlordship of Scotland and set about preparing another war against the Scots.
Bruce, with typical audacity, decided to take the fight to the English first and also open a “second front” in Ireland. The king personally led raiding parties into the north of England, where he and Sir James Douglas, known to the English as the Black Douglas, devastated whole communities and generally caused widespread panic. The mere sight of a Scottish force would cause even Bishops and Barons to lock up their castles, while Douglas in particular proved ruthless with fast raiding forces.
THE Lanercost Chronicle records that in the summer of 1316, “the Scots invaded England, burning as before and laying waste all things to the best of their power; and so they went as far as Richmond.
“But the nobles of that district, who took refuge in Richmond Castle and defended the same, compounded with them for a large sum of money so that they might not burn that town, nor yet the district, more than they had already done.
“Having received this money, the Scots marched away some sixty miles to the west, laying waste everything as far as Furness, and burnt that district whither they had not come before, taking away with them nearly all the goods of that district, with men and women as prisoners.
The country was becoming somewhat richer too, as Bannockburn brought payments for prisoners, and the mere threat of Bruce or Douglas and his fearsome colleague Randolph of Moray invading was enough to make communities pay for the Scots to stay away.
When several English raiding parties came north because Edward still wanted to beat Scotland, all bets were off and Douglas smashed into those small armies, destroying at last three of them and killing the would-be conquerors of Scotland such as Sir Robert Neville, the so-called Peacock of the North, who died in single combat during the successful siege that brought Berwick back to Scotland in 1318-19.
The campaign in Ireland from 1315 was at the invitation of Domnal O’Neil, King of Tyrone, who offered Edward Bruce the kingship of all Ireland if the Scots would help drive out the English, ie the Hiberno-Norman rulers of much of the island. For three years Edward Bruce did indeed conquer most of Ireland, often with his brother’s help, but at the Battle of Faughart in 1318 he was killed and the Scottish army roundly defeated. Robert the Bruce had lost his final brother, but had gained a major advantage as the English could never again think of Ireland or the native Irish as allies against the King of Scots.
Edward II was clearly a man of infinite ability to delude himself, as in 1319 he led an army north to recapture Berwick. King Robert ordered his troops to stand firm while Douglas and Randolph simply rode around Edward’s advancing force with their mounted infantry, known as hobelars, and raided deep into England, eventually routing an English army at Myton in Yorkshire on September 20, 1319. As regular soldiers were with Edward, the Archbishop of York ordered his clerics, many clad in white, to take their place in the army, and as a contemporary chronicle explains “when the great host had them met, the Englishmen almost all were slain ... Alas, for sorrow! for there was slain many men of religion, and seculars, and also priests and clerks; and with much sorrow the Archbishop escaped; and therefore the Scots called it ‘the White Battle’.”
So we come to the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. As we have seen, Bruce had been excommunicated for the murder of John Coymn in Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries in 1306. Like many leaders across Europe, Pope John XXII had been astonished to learn of the Scottish victory at Bannockburn, not least because the fabled English cavalry had been soundly beaten.
So when a letter from Scotland arrived on his desk, there is little doubt that the Pope knew well who was the king of Scots both as the choice of the nobility and the people of Scotland. He knew that too, because Edward II had successfully petitioned him to have Bruce’s excommunication re-confirmed after King Robert defied the Pope’s instruction to cease attacking England.
The Declaration of Scottish Independence made at Arbroath is a classic of mediaeval literature, and most people know of its ringing declaration that “for as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
FEWER people know of the passage that refers to Bruce as another Maccabeus or Joshua and states: “To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by his right and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.”
The Declaration goes on to say: “Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King.”
The letter also declares Bruce’s willingness to go on a Crusade if there could be peace with England, and that appears to have been a genuine wish on the king’s part.
Bizarrely, the Comyn family still thought they should be kings, and Edward de Soules, the Butler of Scotland, conspired with Sir David de Brechin to try and bring back the Comyn puppet king Edward Balliol. Soules confessed his treason before dying of unknown causes in Dumbarton Castle.
Edward II was beaten even more heavily at the Battle of Old Byland in 1322, which followed an extraordinary punitive raid into England by Bruce and his army. Again Edward barely escaped with his life.
The Pope eventually relented and indeed brokered a 13-year truce between England and Scotland, but that did not last. Edward was deposed by his son Edward III, who, though a teenager, thought he could teach the Scots a lesson. At the nighttime Battle of Stanhope Park in August 1327, the new young king was trapped in his tent and almost killed by Douglas and his men. Had he not escaped, the future of Europe might have been different as Edward began the Hundred Years War against France and won the Battle of Crecy. He would come back to Scotland with more success in the 1330s, but in 1328 he signed the Treaty of Northampton/Edinburgh recognising the “magnificent prince” Robert as King of Scots and marrying his sister Joan to the Bruce’s young son David.
Robert the Bruce spent a good deal of the latter part of his life in a country mansion in what is now West Dunbartonshire, though we do not know exactly where. A group from the village of Renton in the Vale of Leven have made a very convincing case that Bruce’s home was located at a place called Mains of Cardross. It seems long overdue that there should be a proper archaeological excavation to discover where the king’s house was, and the Rentonians must be listened to.
There is still to this day some dispute about the illness that killed Robert the Bruce. He had been seriously ill on several occasions in his life, and the most commonly accepted view is that he died of leprosy, which would at least explain the disappearance of his house, as a leper’s property was often burned to the ground after death.
Yet he was never treated as a leper in life and there was no sign of leprosy on his body when it was located in Dunfermline Abbey in 1818. What we do know is that the body that was found in the abbey had its breastbone severed, and that coincides with the version of history which states that Bruce’s heart was cut from his body and taken to the Crusades by his great friend James Douglas.
Douglas was himself killed in battle with the Moors in Spain and Bruce’s heart was repatriated to Melrose Abbey, where it was lost until discovered in 1998. The casket containing the heart was reburied in a private ceremony with the marker stone now etched with the word from John Barbour’s poem The Brus: “A noble hart may have nane ease. Gif freedom failye.”
King Robert I died on June 7, 1329, a month short of his 55th birthday. Without him there would have been no Bannockburn, and Scotland would likely have been brought under the control of England from 1314 onwards. It wasn’t until 393 years after Bruce’s greatest victory that Scotland gave up its independence, sold for a mess of potage by ignoble Lords who were not fit to lace King Robert’s boots.
We have had enough Wallaces crying freedom. Can we now have a Bruce that wins it?