Bust of Robert the Bruce

Bust of Robert the Bruce

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Robert the Bruce - the piety of the victor of Bannockburn

Michael Penman, senior lecturer in history at the University of Stirling, explores the piety of Robert the Bruce and his engagement with the churches of his realm. .

&lsquoSt John, St Andrew and Thomas, who shed his blood along with the saints of the Scottish fatherland, will fight today for the honour of the people, with Christ the lord in the van.&rsquo

Thus &ndash with apologies to Robert Burns &ndash did King Robert the Bruce reportedly address his troops on the morning of the second day&rsquos battle at Bannockburn, 24 June 1314 (St John the Baptist&rsquos day, midsummer), according to a fifteenth century Scottish chronicle which drew on earlier sources.

In this momentous year of homecoming, great sporting events and an independence referendum, there will naturally be much commemoration of Bruce&rsquos great military triumph over England this may be followed by &lsquoconstitutional&rsquo reflection upon the legacy of both the &lsquoDeclaration&rsquo of sovereignty issued from Arbroath in 1320 and Robert&rsquos relations with his subjects in annual parliaments. But just as the present-day church seems to have withdrawn from substantive input to the future of the Scottish state, so Bruce&rsquos piety and engagement with his realm&rsquos churches and saints remains one of the most neglected aspects of his rule.


It is an accepted tradition that Robert&rsquos troops at Bannockburn were shriven by Maurice, abbot of Inchaffray, before the relics of such saints as Columba and Fillan. The latter, indeed, was the focus of a Perthshire cult which had provided Bruce with vital succour in flight in 1306. At Bannockburn the arm bone of Fillan (the &lsquomayne&rsquo) is said to have miraculously re-appeared in its empty reliquary: four years later Robert would dedicate a new chapel to Fillan in Perthshire.

However, the battle for Stirling, in the heart of the realm, would have been an opportunity for Robert to call upon the support of saints from many regional and national cults.

Relics of St Andrew may have been present for the king to invoke beneath the saltire. On 5 July 1318 Robert would hold a great consecration service at St Andrews cathedral [see the Virtual St Andrews project]. This combined celebration of the recovery of the burgh-castle of Berwick-upon-Tweed to Robert&rsquos realm and St Andrews diocese in April to June that year, but also saw the king grant generous patronage to St Andrews in thanks for the saint&rsquos support in battle in 1314.

Relics of royal St Margaret may also have been brought to the battlefield. In November 1314 Robert would hold a parliament at Cambuskenneth Abbey outside Stirling to forfeit his remaining Scottish opponents after Bannockburn: a few days later, on St Margaret&rsquos own feast day, 16 November, Robert made the journey east to Dunfermline Abbey in Fife, shrine of that saintly queen (and her son, King/St David I) and declared his plan to be buried alongside his ancestors.

Passage to Dunfermline also took Robert and his court through the cult lands of St Serf, interred at Culross but with a cult stretching to Lochleven and Scotlandwell (where Bruce would hold several councils): on his death in June 1329 it may have been in a chapel dedicated to Serf near his manor house at Cardross (Dumbartonshire) that Bruce&rsquos viscera were laid to rest while his body was taken to Dunfermline and his heart towards the Holy Land.


Similarly, the terminally-ill Robert&rsquos halting pilgrimage from Cardross to Whithorn in early 1329, to the shrine of St Ninian, may reflect the presence of that saint&rsquos relics at Bannockburn as well as Bruce&rsquos Carrick upbringing. Equally, this final journey may have been penitential, echoing Robert&rsquos earlier grant to Whithorn Priory &lsquobecause of the damage, injury and oppression of the church. by his past wars, and because of the devotion he has to St Ninian.&rsquo

Yet, to return to the chronicler&rsquos report of Bruce&rsquos battle-prayer, it is Robert&rsquos bond to the cult of St Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury martyred in 1170 at the hands of knights of Henry II of England, which stands out. The Bruces had strong family ties to the Canterbury cult and supported the Scottish abbey built for the saint at Arbroath by King William I (the &lsquoLion&rsquo) after his capture in battle while invading England.

As the Scottish wars unfolded after 1296 Robert would invest his faith in St Thomas as a symbol of sacrifice, sacrilegious penance and defiance of English royal authority. In 1297 he was obliged to re-swear loyalty to England on one of the swords used to kill Becket, an oath he would soon break. Spurred on by Edward I&rsquos death on 7 July 1307 &ndash the Translation feast of Thomas &ndash Robert established his Chancery at Arbroath (under Abbot Bernard) and may have paid for a new tomb effigy for its founder William I.

What few small relics of Thomas were held at Arbroath could thus easily have been at Bannockburn, joined by Becket relics venerated at Glasgow cathedral (shrine of St Kentigern) and those of Columba also held at Arbroath by their hereditary keepers (or &lsquodewars&rsquo). These were thus both strategic and personal acts of worship, arguably as vital a weapon in Bruce&rsquos armoury as his war captains and battle-axe.

M. Penman, &ldquoSacred Food for the Soul&rsquo: In Search of the Devotions to Saints of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, 1306&ndash1329&rsquo, Speculum, 88 (2013), pp. 1035-1062.
M. Penman, Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots (Yale University Press, 2014)


Michael Penman is the author of Robert the Bruce, published by Yale University Press.

In this new biography of the renowned warrior, Michael Penman focuses on Robert's kingship in the fifteen years that followed his triumphant victory and establishes Robert as not only a great military leader but a great monarch Robert faced a slow and often troubled process of legitimating his authority, restoring government, rewarding his supporters, accommodating former enemies and controlling the various regions of his kingdom, none of which was achieved overnight.

Penman investigates Robert's resettlement of lands and offices, the development of Scotland's parliaments, his handling of plots to overthrow him, his relations with his family and allies, his piety and court ethos, and his conscious development of an image of kingship through the use of ceremony and symbol.

Battle of Bannockburn

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Battle of Bannockburn, (June 23–24, 1314), decisive battle in Scottish history whereby the Scots under Robert I (the Bruce) defeated the English under Edward II, expanding Robert’s territory and influence.

By the time of the battle in 1314, all of Scotland had been cleared of strongholds loyal to Edward II with the exception of the besieged Stirling Castle, which the defenders had promised to surrender if they had not been relieved by June 24. Edward is estimated to have assembled an army of some 13,000 infantry—bolstered by a contingent of Welsh archers and roughly 3,000 cavalry—to aid those still loyal to him in Scotland. His primary objective was the raising of the siege of Stirling Castle. To meet Edward’s army, Robert gathered his smaller force, consisting of perhaps 7,000 infantry (primarily pikemen) and several hundred light horse, at the New Park, a hunting preserve a mile or two (1.6 to 3.2 km) south of Stirling. Robert planned to use the trees there to funnel any attack into his heavy infantry and freshly dug anticavalry ditches. He had taken up his position there when the English vanguard appeared on June 23.

Edward attempted to circumvent the Scottish positions and possibly relieve Stirling Castle with a small unit of cavalry, but Scottish infantrymen rushed to meet them. After those two groups fought to a stalemate, Scottish reinforcements arrived to send the English cavalry fleeing. Meanwhile, a second unit of English cavalry charged the Scottish main position, interpreting their opponent’s movements as a possible retreat. After being rebuffed by the main Scottish force at the New Park, the second English attack climaxed with Robert’s engaging in personal combat with an English knight. The encounter was reportedly observed by both armies, and it ended with Robert’s cleaving the knight’s head with his battle axe. After that, all English troops retreated to the main army as night fell. That evening the two armies experienced very different situations. Scottish morale was high following the day’s victory, and Robert sought to increase it with an encouraging speech. Meanwhile, the English, who feared a counterattack, spent much of the night awake and in formation those who did rest dealt with poor camp conditions in a wet marsh.

The Scots began the second day of the battle by holding mass. Edward supposedly delayed the engagement, initially confused by the disposition of Scottish infantrymen wielding long spears. Nevertheless, he still ordered an attack against the Scots with his cavalry. Upon the initial charge, the English avoided the anticavalry ditches, but they were unable to penetrate the Scottish lines. After multiple cavalry charges failed to break the Scottish defenses, Robert began to move his infantry forward. As the English backed up, the ditches hindered them after multiple horsemen fell in and could not escape. The battle transformed into an all-out rout, with many of the English being slaughtered. Edward himself barely escaped.

English losses included 34 barons and knights as well as thousands of footmen killed or captured while fleeing from the battle. The Scots claimed to have lost only two knights but several hundred infantrymen. The battle is traditionally regarded as the culmination of the Scottish Wars of Independence, although Scottish independence would not be officially recognized until 1328, at the conclusion of the Treaty of Northampton with Edward’s successor, Edward III.

Bannockburn, like the Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302), has been credited with initiating a new form of warfare in Europe in which infantry, not cavalry, dominated the battlefield. The battle also marked the last major victory of the Scots over the English during the Middle Ages.

King of Scots

The new king’s position was very difficult. Edward I, whose garrisons held many of the important castles in Scotland, regarded him as a traitor and made every effort to crush a movement that he treated as a rebellion. King Robert was twice defeated in 1306, at Methven, near Perth, on June 19, and at Dalry, near Tyndrum, Perthshire, on August 11. His wife and many of his supporters were captured, and three of his brothers executed. Robert himself became a fugitive, hiding on the remote island of Rathlin off the north Irish coast. It was during this period, with his fortunes at low ebb, that he is supposed to have derived hope and patience from watching a spider perseveringly weaving its web.

In February 1307 he returned to Ayrshire. His main supporter at first was his only surviving brother, Edward, but in the next few years he attracted a number of others. Robert himself defeated John Comyn, earl of Buchan (a cousin of the slain John “the Red”), and in 1313 captured Perth, which had been in the hands of an English garrison. Much of the fighting, however, was done by Robert’s supporters, notably James Douglas and Thomas Randolph, later earl of Moray, who progressively conquered Galloway, Douglasdale, the forest of Selkirk and most of the eastern borders, and finally, in 1314, Edinburgh. During these years the king was helped by the support of some of the leading Scottish churchmen and also by the death of Edward I in 1307 and the ineptness of his successor, Edward II. The test came in 1314 when a large English army attempted to relieve the garrison of Stirling. Its defeat at Bannockburn on June 24 marked the triumph of Robert I.

Imprisoned and Punished – The Female Relatives of Robert Bruce

The women associated with Robert the Bruce endured imprisonment and punishment during the First War of Scottish Independence. The Bruce women were captured by the English King Edward I, imprisoned in barbaric conditions, placed under house arrest and sent to convents for religious training by the English King, and all because they shared “a common danger of loyalty” to the newly crowned King of Scotland, Robert I.

After the Battle of Dalry in 1306, the Bruce family separated from each other for their own safety during the war. Robert Bruce and three of his brothers Edward, Thomas and Alexander fought against the English King, whilst Robert’s youngest brother Nigel took the Bruce women to Kildrummy Castle for their own safety. The women were discovered by the English King’s forces and captured. They were all separated and sent to various locations as prisoners and hostages against their King, Robert.

The Scottish Queen, Elizabeth de Burgh was taken to Burstwick, Holderness to be placed under house arrest. Her father was an Irish noble on the side of Edward I of England, and therefore her father was able to make her situation more comfortable than perhaps the circumstances of her fellow ladies. Elizabeth’s marriage was also arranged by the English King Edward I for the benefit of political aspirations of her father and the English King and therefore, she was not treated in a barbaric manner as a hostage as her circumstances were not of her own doing.

Robert The Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh

In the manor house, Elizabeth was assisted by “two elderly women, two valets and a page sent by her father.” This meant that for a prisoner of war and the wife of the Bruce who was considered at this time a rebel, she had a relatively comfortable imprisonment, especially compared to that of Bruce’s sisters, Bruce’s daughter Marjorie and the Countess of Buchan, Isabella MacDuff.

The danger Bruce’s daughter Marjorie faced simply by being Bruce’s daughter was large and so when she was captured alongside her step-mother Elizabeth, Marjorie’s imprisonment initially appeared to be a bleak one as “initially King Edward ordered that twelve year old Marjorie de Bruce should be imprisoned in a cage on the Tower of London, but fortunately for her either the King was persuaded otherwise, or a glimmer of mercy prevailed”, as she was sent to a convent instead.”

Although placed in a convent, she was still a hostage of the King of England and separated both from her father and her step-mother Elizabeth. Marjorie’s mother Isabella of Mar had died in childbirth with Marjorie and Marjorie herself at this time was only twelve years old. Being a prisoner of war at such a young age must have been a terrifying experience for the young and at the time only heir of Robert the Bruce. Marjorie was held at a convent in Watton, East Yorkshire.

Bruce’s sisters both had very different experiences during their capture by the English. Christina Bruce faced a similar imprisonment to her niece Marjorie: she was placed in Gilbertine Nunnery in Sixhills, Lincolnshire as a prisoner of war. Her punishment of a lesser degree, suggests that she showed no threat to the English and was merely guilty by association and therefore, used as a prisoner and hostage against the Scottish King.

Notable figures in the first Scottish War of Independence including Isabella, Countess of Buchan. Detail from a frieze in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, photographed by William Hole. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The experiences of Mary Bruce, sister of Robert Bruce and the Countess of Buchan, Isabella MacDuff were brutal and cruel in comparison to that of their fellow women. Their conditions were barbaric even in the standards of medieval punishments for women. Undoubtedly in the eyes of the English Isabella, unlike the other Bruce women, was guilty of elevating Robert Bruce and his kingship and actively acting against Edward I.

Isabella MacDuff had taken it upon herself to crown Robert Bruce King, in the absence of her father. Her role in this made her guilty of acting in a rebellious nature when captured by the English and therefore, the punishment she received was deemed worthy for her crimes. Sir Thomas Gray’s account of the events of medieval Scotland also demonstrates how the crowning and subsequent rise of Robert Bruce ensured a terrible fate upon Isabella, for her role in his enthronement, stating that “the countess was taken by the English” after the siege of Kildrummy in which Neil Bruce lost his life, “and brought to Berwick… she was put in a wooden hut, in one of the towers of Berwick Castle, with criss-crossed walls so that all could watch her for a spectacle.” Whilst, traditionally women were captured in medieval war for the purpose of hostages and ransoms, Isabella’s fate was deemed to be of her own doing and for her own actions and not just because of her association to the newly crowned King of Scotland.

The cage punishment was barbaric and would have been an experience of pure suffering for the Countess. Historian McNamee argues that both Isabella and Mary Bruce, Robert’s sister were subject to this punishment and were punished in “the most inhumane, even by the standards of the time.” Even the cage’s location in the case of Isabella MacDuff was a calculated manipulation by the English King to punish her for elevating Robert the Bruce. The purpose of Isabella’s location at Berwick in these barbaric conditions is also significant in understanding the emotional experiences of the Bruce women. Berwick’s location meant that Isabella would be able to view her beloved Scotland across the sea, to be constantly reminded during her imprisonment of the catalyst to her experiences – the crowning of Bruce. Isabella MacDuff arguably suffered most of the Bruce women as she was never to return to Scotland and never freed. It is believed that she died in 1314 before Robert could secure the Bruce women’s releases from captivity.

Mary Bruce, Bruce’s other sister also faced the cage punishment. Although little is known about Mary in general, it is argued that Mary Bruce must have somehow angered the English king to have been given such a punishment, as her fellow family members did not have to endure such barbarity. Mary’s cage was at Roxburgh Castle, but it is believed that it is possible that she was moved to a convent later in her imprisonment as there is no record of her staying at Roxburgh in later years and she was released with the other Bruce women in 1314 after Robert Bruce’s victory at the Battle of Bannockburn.

By examining the differing positions of the Bruce women during the Scottish Wars of Independence it can be seen that medieval women experienced the horrors and dangers of war as much as the men who fought the wars. In the case of the Bruce women they suffered long enduring punishments simply for their relationship to the man leading the Scottish side of the war.

By Leah Rhiannon Savage, aged 22, Master’s Graduate of History from Nottingham Trent University. Specialises in British History and predominantly Scottish History. Wife and Aspiring Teacher of History. Writer of Dissertations on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation and The Social Experiences of The Bruce Family during The Scottish Wars of Independence (1296-1314).

Robert the Bruce: champion of Scotland or murderous usurper?

On 23 and 24 June 1314, Robert Bruce, king of Scotland, faced King Edward II at Bannockburn in the decisive battle of the Wars of Scottish Independence. Dr Michael Brown takes a closer look at the Scottish king and his often bloody path to the throne

This competition is now closed

Published: August 21, 2018 at 11:40 am

On 10 February 1306, the most important political murder in Scottish history took place. John Comyn, “the Red”, was slaughtered by Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and his followers in an outburst of violence in the church of the Franciscans, the Greyfriars, at Dumfries.

Comyn and Bruce were leading members of the Scottish nobility. They had been rivals and had recently fought on opposing sides in the wars between Edward I of England and the Scots. In early 1306 with Edward finally recognised as ruler of Scotland, the two lords met together in the Greyfriars church. At first the men seemed friendly and Bruce talked alone with Comyn before the high altar.

Suddenly the mood changed. Bruce accused his rival of treachery. Making to walk away, Robert Bruce then turned back with sword drawn and struck Comyn. Bruce’s followers then rushed in, raining blows on John Comyn who fell to the floor. Comyn’s uncle, who joined the melee, was cut down. Bruce left the church. Mounted on Comyn’s horse he led his followers the short distance to Dumfries Castle where King Edward’s justices were holding court.

Breaking in, Bruce arrested the king’s men but then he heard news that Comyn was still alive. He dispatched two of his men to the friary. They found John Comyn tended by the friars in the vestry, wounded but not dying.

Michael Penman will be speaking on ‘Robert Bruce of Scotland (1306-29): Myth and Aftermyth‘ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here

After allowing him to hear confession, Bruce’s men dragged Comyn back into the church and killed him on the altar steps, spattering the altar itself with blood. While Comyn’s corpse was abandoned to the friars, Bruce rode from Dumfries to begin the uprising against Edward I which would climax with his crowning as king of Scots six weeks later.

Those seeking to understand these events saw Comyn’s death as a deliberate step on Bruce’s path to the throne. The English investigation of the murder in 1306 concluded that Comyn was killed because “he would not assent to the treason that Bruce planned against the king of England, it is believed”. In English chronicles of the period, Bruce lured Comyn to Dumfries to kill him. In Scottish accounts, by contrast, Bruce and Comyn agreed to work together for Scotland’s freedom. Comyn, however, betrayed Bruce’s plans to Edward I and was killed in revenge for his treachery.

All these versions agree in identifying Bruce in February 1306 as a man preparing to launch a bid for the kingship and killing Comyn to clear the way. The portrayal of Bruce as either cold-blooded killer or clear-sighted champion of his people suited the conflicting perceptions of later years. It placed the murder at the heart of a planned coup which would also involve Bruce’s seizure of the throne and his war against the English king, a war which ultimately secured recognition of Scotland’s independence.

However, these interpretations also relied on a heavy dose of hindsight. If viewed from the perspective of February 1306 do the conclusions of these accounts seem quite so clear? Was Bruce at that time focused on the seizure of the throne? Was the killing of Comyn on holy ground, an act bound to appal and alienate many Scots, a deed of calculated revolution? Did the immediate aftermath of Comyn’s death, the six weeks before Bruce was crowned king, witness the unfolding of a planned coup? The answers lie in the evidence which emerged before Bruce assumed the reputation and role of hero king or bloody usurper.

The difficult years

In early 1306 Robert Bruce was not an obvious champion of Scottish liberties. He was in his early 30s and his career had been shaped by the decade-long wars between Edward I (ruled England 1272–1307) and the Scots.

The king of England had taken advantage of a succession crisis in Scotland after the death of Alexander III (who ruled Scotland 1249–86). Bruce’s position in this conflict was defined by family interests. Part of this was the Bruce claim to the Scottish throne. This had been rejected in favour of the rival rights of John Balliol in 1292 but with Balliol in exile from 1296 the Bruces did not abandon hope of a crown.

While Bruce was conscious of his family’s royal aspirations, it was his responsibilities as a nobleman which exerted most influence on his activities. As earls of Carrick and lords of Annandale in south-west Scotland and a number of English estates, the Bruces had to preserve lands in two warring kingdoms and protect their friends and tenants in the difficult years since 1296. In these years Bruce had played a shifting role. He had briefly led resistance to Edward I in 1297 and had been a guardian of Scotland between 1298 and 1300 but after both episodes had submitted to the English king.

From 1302 to 1304 he had been active in Edward’s government of Scotland. Bruce’s shifts of side were motivated less by a machiavellian hopes of winning the throne than by the duty to preserve his family’s lands and tenants from the worst effects of war.

His actions were normal amongst the Scottish nobility and were entirely understandable to contemporaries. They do not, though, reveal Bruce as a man committed to the abstract defence of Scotland. Instead they suggest a young lord whose concerns were with more limited and pragmatic issues of lordship and loyalty.

In the months before February 1306 Robert Bruce continued to face these concerns in new circumstances. In 1304 Edward I finally compelled his leading Scottish enemies to submit to his rule. He was now the master of Scotland and during the next year Scotland’s nobles sought his favour and petitioned him for lands and offices. Bruce was one of this group.

In April 1304 his father had died and Bruce approached the king to receive his family’s lordship of Annandale. The succession of enquiries into the Bruces’ ancient rights in their estates probably encouraged Bruce to find allies. To this end, in June 1304 he entered a bond or private alliance with William Lamberton, the bishop of St Andrews.

Deep political rivals

While this was later used by the English to suggest a conspiracy between Bruce and one of the leaders of the Scottish church, its terms do not support this. Instead it was a formal statement of friendship between lords who had recently been on opposite sides in the war but now saw the need to co-operate.

Needing to secure his inheritance and under government scrutiny, Bruce would have found such an alliance valuable, especially as Lamberton became head of Edward’s Scottish council. Issues of land, lordship and influence within this Edwardian Scotland seem to have preoccupied Robert Bruce in 1304–5.

The same issues explain Bruce’s presence in Dumfries on 10 February and his meeting with John Comyn. The king’s justices were holding court in Dumfries and as local landowners it would be natural for Bruce and Comyn to be present. For them to meet in private to discuss the court’s business would also be normal.

However any meeting between these two men came with considerable baggage. There is a garbled tale in several accounts of an indenture between Bruce and Comyn which may indicate a promise of mutual support like that between Bruce and Bishop Lamberton. In the case of Bruce and John however, any written expressions of friendship overlay deep animosity.

The two men were open political rivals. Comyn’s family were long-standing opponents of the Bruces and between 1302 and 1304, while Bruce served King Edward, Comyn had led the king’s enemies. They were also personal enemies. In 1299 Bruce and Comyn were the guardians of Scotland, leading the war against the English. When a dispute broke out between followers of the two men, Comyn turned on Bruce and seized him by the throat.

Accusations of treason were flung at Bruce before the two men were separated. The mistrust and violence between Bruce and Comyn in 1299 may have flared again in February 1306, perhaps sparked by a similarly minor disagreement.

Seeking a deal

The closely contemporary account of Walter of Guisborough hints at this scenario. Bruce and Comyn met to discuss “certain matters touching both of them”. During the conversation Bruce charged Comyn with influencing King Edward against him.

This suggests less the betrayal of a conspiracy than competition for royal favour between rivals which had cost Bruce lands and offices and may have broken a written promise of friendship. Old antagonisms spurred Bruce into an attack on Comyn and others present joined in the fight. The result was not assassination but a bloody scuffle.

The aftermath of the killing suggests that even then Bruce only slowly developed the intention of seizing the throne. It would be six weeks before he was crowned and in this period the consequences of Comyn’s death and the nature of Bruce’s intentions only gradually unfolded.

Vital evidence of this comes from an English report, crucially written in early March before Bruce took the throne. It shows Bruce remaining in the south-west, taking castles and trying to recruit followers in the manner of previous aristocratic rebellions. The report also reveals that Bruce was negotiating with Edward I and his officials and in these talks indicated that he had taken castles “to defend himself with the longest stick that he had”.

This was not the unequivocal defiance of a king in waiting but suggests a man trying to safeguard his position but still seeking a deal, perhaps a pardon for Comyn’s death. However the report shows that such aims were changing.

The writer identifies the key figure in this as Wishart, the bishop of Glasgow. Robert Wishart was a veteran defender of Scottish liberties and in early March, as Bruce’s “chief adviser”, he absolved Bruce from his sins and “freed him to secure his heritage”. This could only mean that Bruce was now determined to bid for the throne. Wishart provided the spiritual support. By releasing Bruce from his oath to Edward and from the sacrilege of slaying Comyn on holy ground the bishop made Bruce a credible leader of the Scots.

It had taken weeks for this move and it was only in March that Bruce started to widen his appeal and win support. On 25 March Bruce was crowned King of Scots at Scone.

The ceremony was makeshift and, if it demonstrated that the new king had gathered support from clergy, nobles and people, a majority stayed away, refusing to recognise the usurper or unwilling to risk sharing in his likely defeat.

Edward I’s terrible retribution

Bruce had taken a huge gamble. He was on a path of no return and by October he and his friends had paid a heavy price. Defeated three times in battle by English and Scottish enemies, Bruce fled the Scottish mainland. Many of his supporters and family suffered worse fates as Edward I wreaked a terrible punishment on those he regarded as perjured rebels.

With stakes so high it would always have been a huge risk to plan a rebellion against Edward. It would not be surprising if Bruce, a wealthy and influential noble with a career of cautious self-interest to his name, baulked at such a gamble. Instead, through lingering personal antagonism which sparked an act of unpremeditated violence, Bruce put his future in jeopardy. By killing Comyn, Bruce had made enemies of John’s family and following. As well as this blood feud Bruce now faced the judgement of Edward I, not a lenient or forgiving ruler.

In these unpromising circumstances and influenced by Bishop Wishart, Bruce took the decision which changed his life and Scotland’s future. He laid claim to the title and authority of king, appealing to his family’s allies and to those Scots who wished to renew the war against the English king. Despite the defeats of 1306 it would be in this role that Bruce would return to Scotland the following year. From 1307 as King of Scots Robert Bruce would begin to win his realm.

Michael Brown is reader in medieval Scottish history at the University of St Andrews. His books include The Wars of Scotland 1214-1371, (Edinburgh University Press, 2004) and Bannockburn: The Scottish War and the British Isles, 1307-1323 (Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

Robert The Bruce

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10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Robert the Bruce

How many of these obscure facts about Robert the Bruce do you know? Test your knowledge ahead of the release of Netflix’s Outlaw King.

Robert the Bruce was one of the most revered warriors of his generation. Often referred to as ‘Good King Robert’, he is best known for his defeat of the English army under Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314.

For the release of the Netflix original film, Outlaw King, we thought we’d dig up some interesting intel about the man of the moment.

Bruce is such a well-known figure in Scottish history that facts you may not already know about him are quite hard to come by. However, we caught up with our historians Nikki Scott and Morvern French to chat about some lesser known bits of information. Take note of our ten facts below, and impress your friends with your knowledge as you watch Outlaw King!

1. Never the twain shall meet

Although they were alive at the same time, and William Wallace was Guardian of Scotland immediately before Robert the Bruce, there is no evidence that the two ever met.

2. Not an axe-ident

The poet John Barbour wrote that Bruce broke a favourite axe killing Henry de Bohun in single combat at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Accounts tell that the English knight lowered his lance and charged at Bruce. The Scot stood his ground. At the last minute Bruce side-stepped the charge, bringing down his axe on the challenger’s head.

3. Family reunion

Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314 enabled him to demand the return from English captivity of his wife Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie, his sister Christina, and Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow.

4. The Peerage of Scotland

Robert the Bruce was Earl of Carrick from 1292 to 1313. This title is now held by Charles, the Prince of Wales.

5. Changing sides

Both Robert and his father were loyal to the English king when war broke out in 1296. They even paid homage to Edward I at Berwick. However, eight months later Bruce renounced his oath and joined the Scottish revolt against Edward, recognising John Balliol as king.

From 1302 to 1304 Robert was again back in English allegiance. His marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of the earl of Ulster (part of English-held Ireland) influenced this change. From 1304 he abandoned Balliol, and planned to take the throne for himself.

6. An important landowner

As well as the earldom of Carrick and the lordship of Annandale, Bruce held land in the Carse of Gowrie, Dundee, and the Garioch in Aberdeenshire.

Before the Wars it was fairly common for Scots to hold English lands. Records show that Bruce held lands in Durham and other large English estates. In 1306, Edward I confiscated the honour of Huntingdon from Bruce.

7. An attack on the Irish

In 1315, Robert’s younger brother Edward led an expedition to Ireland. His aim was to overthrow the Dublin-based English government and become the High King of Ireland.

Robert joined his brother with a sizeable force in 1317. However, bad weather, famine, and disease forced the Scots to retreat when they reached Limerick. Edward held on in the north until he was defeated and killed in 1318.

8. A regal match

As per the terms of the 1328 Treaty of Edinburgh, making peace between Scotland and England, Robert’s son David (aged 4) was married to Edward III’s sister Joan (aged 7).

Other terms of the treaty saw Scotland agree to pay England £20,000 to end the war and England recognise Scotland’s independence with Robert I as king.

9. In the archives

More than 600 written acts by Bruce have survived, including charters, brieves, letters and treaties.

Most of these documents are grants or confirmations of property. This was a key way that Bruce rewarded individuals and families who had supported him.

10. A wee bit more inclusive

During Robert’s reign, parliament became more representative of the full community of the realm. Bruce summoned a small number of burgesses from each royal burgh to attend sessions in 1312 and 1326, after which it became normal practice.

Loved the show? You might also like our behind-the-scenes post detailing six of our sites that feature as filming locations in Outlaw King!

Not sure what we’re on about? This Netflix original film follows Robert the Bruce’s battle to regain control after being made an outlaw by the King of England for taking the Scottish Crown.


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'Using the skull cast, we could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face, 'said Professor Wilkinson, who was also responsible for the facial reconstruction of Richard III.

Robert Bruce was king of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329 aged around 55. One image shows him in his prime, with a large and powerful male head

Hunterian Museum digital collection manager Lizzie O'Neil with the cast of Robert the Bruce skull which was used to re-create a digital image of how his face may have looked

'But what the reconstruction cannot show is the colour of his eyes, his skin tones and the colour of his hair.

'We produced two versions – one without leprosy and one with a mild representation of leprosy.

'He may have had leprosy, but if he did it is likely that it did not manifest strongly on his face, as this is not documented.'

One image shows him in his prime, with a large and powerful male head.

This would have been supported by a muscular neck and stocky frame, the researchers said.

Historians believe Bruce suffered from an unidentified ailment, possibly leprosy, which affected him several times during his reign and likely resulted in his death. Pictured is an image showing his face containing the signs of leprosy

Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Director of LJMU's Face Lab and a world-renowned craniofacial identification expert, carried out the facial reconstruction using a cast of the skull

It also shows him as a privileged individual who enjoyed the benefits of a first-class diet.

His physique would have equipped him for the brutal demands of medieval warfare, the researchers said.

But he may also have had signs of leprosy, disfiguring his upper jaw and nose, so the researchers produced a second version accounting for this.

This is because historians believe Bruce suffered from the ailment which affected him several times during his reign and likely resulted in his death.

For example, in Ulster in 1327, he was said to be so weak he could only move his tongue.


Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Director of LJMU's Face Lab and a world-renowned craniofacial identification expert, carried out the facial reconstruction using a cast of the skull.

The king's facial structure was produced using a 3D replication process known as 'stereolithography'.

'Using the skull cast, we could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face, ' she said.

'But what the reconstruction cannot show is the colour of his eyes, his skin tones and the colour of his hair.

'We produced two versions – one without leprosy and one with a mild representation of leprosy.

He may have had leprosy, but if he did it is likely that it did not manifest strongly on his face, as this is not documented.'

No reliable visual depictions of Robert the Bruce were made in his own time, and written records tell us nothing about his appearance.

The skull was excavated in 1818-19 from a grave in Dunfermline Abbey, mausoleum of Scotland's medieval monarchs and after the excavation the original skeleton and skull were sealed in pitch and reburied, but not before a cast of the head was taken. Cast pictured

No reliable visual depictions of Robert the Bruce were made in his own time, and written records tell us nothing about his appearance.

DNA would offer another way to establish hair and eye colour – but there is a problem.

'The skull was excavated in 1818-19 from a grave in Dunfermline Abbey, mausoleum of Scotland's medieval monarchs,' said Dr Martin MacGregor, from Glasgow University.

The skull was excavated in 1818-19 from a grave in Dunfermline Abbey, mausoleum of Scotland's medieval monarch

The virtual image of what could be the face of Robert the Bruce was reconstructed from the cast of a human skull (pictured) held by the Hungarian Museum

Hunterian Museum director David Gaimster, with the cast of Robert the Bruce skull

The new images of the hero king were created by a collaboration between historians from the University of Glasgow and craniofacial experts from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU)

Using the skull cast, the researchers could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face

No reliable visual depictions of Robert the Bruce were made in his own time, and written records tell us nothing about his appearance

Reconstruction of Robert the Bruce's tomb that was lost in the turmoil of the post-Reformation era

'After the excavation the original skeleton and skull were sealed in pitch and reburied, but not before a cast of the head was taken.

'Several copies of the cast exist, including the one now in The Hunterian, but without the original bone we have no DNA.'

'The Hunterian also holds a piece of toe-bone said to have come from the same grave, and not returned to it.

'We had hoped to try and obtain DNA from this and test it against a living descendant of Robert the Bruce, but the bone would probably have been destroyed in the process.'

Professor Wilkinson added: 'In the absence of any DNA, we relied on statistical evaluation of the probability of certain hair and eye colours, conducted by Dr MacGregor and his team, to determine that Robert the Bruce most likely had brown hair and light brown eyes.'

'There have also been a number of advances in facial reconstruction techniques since previous depictions of this Scottish hero, including better facial feature prediction and more advanced CGI.'

'This is the most realistic appearance of Robert the Bruce to-date, based on all the skeletal and historical material available.'

Dr Martin McGregor (pictured) and his team determined that Robert the Bruce most likely had brown hair and light brown eyes

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Robert the Bruce was a chivalric Knight and came north to learn guerrilla warfare from a young Scotsman named William Wallace who was fighting a successful freedom campaign here in Scotland.

He was targeting noblemen and Knights which sent shock waves throughout Europe.

This intrigued Robert the Bruce and he came north for a period of time to learn how to fight in this unconventional manner.

He learned from the young Wallace how to rid Scotland of her enemies, which he used very successfully in the years to come.

When Longshanks gave the order to his men to capture Wallace by any means necessary John Menteith, a Scottish nobleman who was the commander of Dumbarton Castle, which was held by the English had the opportunity to do so… and he did.

After the False Menteith handed Wallace over to the English he returned to Dumbarton castle.

In 1307 King Robert the Bruce and his army took Dumbarton Castle and captured John Menteith. Robert the Bruce asked of ‘The False’ Menteith to swear fealty to him and Scotland to which John Menteith replied ‘No, I have a master.’

When the Bruce tried to convince Menteith that his master, Longshanks was evil and that he should swear fealty to Scotland. Menteith again says no. Robert the Bruce then tells him ‘I will torture and kill you if you do not.’

John Menteith’s answer shook Robert the Bruce. ‘My Lord, it has nothing to do with King Edward, or you as King of Scotland. You are asking me to give my word to two men at the same time. This I cannot do.’

Robert the Bruce realised he had an honest man on his hands and instead of killing Menteith, imprisoned him in Dumbarton Castle. He was held there for a few months until word arrived that King Edward 1st of England was dead. John Menteith immediately swore fealty to King Robert and Scotland.

Many people in Scotland felt that the decision to keep Menteith a prisoner instead of killing him for his capture of Sir William Wallace made Robert the Bruce a traitor to Wallace. But John Menteith fought the rest of his life for a free Scotland.

One of the biggest myths surrounding King Robert is that he killed John III ‘Red’ Comyn. It is said that they met up at Greyfriars church in Dumfries, where the future King Robert stabbed the Red Comyn to death.

Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick and John ‘Red’ Comyn had agreed with one another to plot and fight against Edward Longshanks, King of England.

This was done with great secrecy as discovery of such a plot would have meant certain death for both men. Robert Bruce was still welcome in the English court at this time and travelled back and forth from Scotland to London regularly. In this period of time there was several correspondence secretly sent to the Red Comyn with plans and arrangements for the freedom of Scotland, which were immediately sent by the Red Comyn to the King of England, betraying Robert the Bruce’s trust.

In one of Robert the Bruce’s visits to London he was confronted by Edward Longshanks about one of these letters.

The King asked if this was one of Robert’s letters and if he had written it. Robert agrees, saying it is signed with one of his seals, but not the one hanging around his neck… His seal. Lifting the letter from the Kings table in anger he protests to the King that someone was using his other seal and he would find out who the traitor was. Storming out, the Bruce and his entourage head to his manor house in Tottenham where one hour later they are met by a messenger sent to warn him, showing him a gold coin with the face on King Edward on it and a Spur.

Watch the video: The Vikings History u0026 Robert The Bruce u0026 The Scottish Invasion of Britain FULL Documentary (June 2022).


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