Robert I, the Bruce (1274-1329)
Robert Bruce is surely the greatest of all the great Scottish heroes, yet the Hollywood movie Braveheart gave all the heroics to his compatriot William Wallace, making Bruce out to be nothing more than a self-serving opportunist. However, it was the patience and cunning of Bruce that Scotland needed, not the impetuousness of Wallace, especially facing such formidable enemies as the English, first under Edward I and then under his son and heir Edward II. Bruce bided his time; he first had to establish his authority as King of Scotland. By the time of Bannockburn, he was ready.
Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce was born at Turnberry Castle, Ayrshire, in 1274, of both Norman and Celtic ancestry. Two years before his birth, Edward Plantagenet had become King Edward I of England. The ruthlessness of Edward, who earned the title "the Hammer of the Scots" brought forth the greatness of Bruce whose astonishing victory at Bannockburn in 1314 over the much larger and better-equipped forces of Edward II ensured Scottish freedom from control by the hated English.
This struggle for control of Scotland began when Alexander III died in 1286, leaving as heir his grandchild Margaret, the infant daughter of the King of Norway. English King Edward, with his eye on the complete subjugation of his northern neighbors, suggested that Margaret should marry his son, a desire consummated at a treaty signed and sealed at Birgham. Under the terms, Scotland was to remain a separate and independent kingdom, -- "separate, distinct and free in itself without subjection from the realm of England" --though Edward wished to keep English garrisons in a number of Scottish castles. On her way to Scotland, somewhere in the Orkneys, the young Norwegian princess died, unable to enjoy the consignment of sweetmeats and raisins sent by the English King. The succession was now open to many claimants, the strongest of whom were John Balliol and Robert Bruce.
John Balliol was supported by King Edward, who believed him to be the weaker and more compliant of the two Scottish claimants. Balliol was an English baron belonging to a house with an established tradition of loyalty to the English crown. At a meeting of 104 auditors, with Edward as judge, the decision went in favor of Balliol, who was duly declared to be the rightful king in November 1292. The English king's plans for a peaceful relationship with his northern neighbor now took a different turn. In exchange for his support, Edward demanded that he should have feudal superiority over Scotland, including homage from Balliol, judicial authority over the Scottish king in any disputes brought against him by his own subjects and defrayment of costs for the defence of England as well as active support in the war against France.
Even the weak Balliol could not stomach these outrageous demands. Showing a hitherto unknown courage, in front of the English king he declared that he was the King of Scotland and should answer only to his own people, refusing to supply military service to Edward. The impetuous man then concluded a treaty with France prior to planning an invasion of England.
Edward was ready. He went north to receive homage from a great number of Scottish nobles, as their feudal lord, among them none other than 21 year-old Robert Bruce, who owned estates in England. Balliol immediately punished this treachery by seizing Bruce's lands in Scotland and giving them to his brother-in-law, John Comyn. Yet within a few months, the Scottish king was to disappear from the scene. His army was defeated by Edward at Dunbar in April 1296. Soon after at Brechin, on 10 July, he surrendered his Scottish throne to the English king, who took into his possession the stone of Scone, "the coronation stone" of the Scottish kings. At a parliament, which he summoned at Berwick, the English king received homage and the oath of fealty from over 2,000 Scots. He seemed secure in Scotland.
Flushed with this success, Edward had gone too far. The rising tide of nationalist fervor in the face of the arrival of the English armies north of the border created the need for new Scottish leaders. Following a brawl with English soldiers in the market place at Lanark, a young Scottish knight, William Wallace, after killing an English sheriff found himself at the head of a fast-spreading movement of national resistance. At Stirling Bridge, a Scottish force led by Wallace won an astonishing victory when it completely annihilated a large, lavishly equipped English army under the command of Surrey, Edward I's viceroy.
Yet Wallace's great victory, successful because the English cavalry were unable to maneuver on the marshy ground and their supporting troops had been trapped on a narrow bridge, proved to be a Pyrrhic one. Bringing a large army north in 1298 and goading Wallace to forgo his successful guerrilla campaign into fighting a second pitched battle, the English king's forces were more successful. At Falkirk, they crushed the over-confident Scottish followers of Wallace.
Falkirk was a grievous loss for Wallace who never again found himself in command of a large body of troops. After hiding out for a number of years, he was finally captured in 1305 and brought to London to die a traitor's death similar to that meted out a few years earlier by King Edward to Prince Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Welsh leader of yet another fight for independence from England. With the execution of Wallace, it was time for Robert Bruce, whose heritage as Earl of Carrick made him much more than "a mere Anglo-Norman fish out of water, grassed on a Celtic riverbank" to free himself from his fealty to Edward and to lead the fight for Scotland.
At a meeting in Greyfriar's Kirk at Dumfries between the two surviving claimants for the Scottish throne, the perfidious, but crafty Bruce murdered John Comyn, thus earning the enmity of the many powerful supporters of the Comyn family, but also excommunication from the Church. On March 27, 1306 he declared himself King of Scots. Edward's reply was predictable; he sent a large army north, defeated Bruce at the Battle of Methven, executed many of his supporters and forced the Scottish king into becoming a hunted outlaw.
Once again the indefatigable Scottish leader bided his time. After a year of demoralization and widespread English terror let loose in Scotland, during which two of his brothers were killed, Bruce came out of hiding. Aided mightily by his chief lieutenant, Sir James Douglas, "the Black Douglas" he won a first victory on Palm Sunday 1307. From all over Scotland, the clans answered the call and Bruce's forces gathered in strength to fight the English invaders, winning many encounters against cavalry with his spearmen.
The aging Edward decided to come to Scotland at the head of a large army to punish the Scots' impudence; but the now weak and sick king was ineffectual as a military leader. He could only wish that after his death his bones were to be carried at the head of his army until Scotland had been crushed. It was left to his son Edward II to try to carry out his father's dying wish. He was no man for the task.
Faced by too many problems at home and completely lacking the ruthlessness and resourcefulness of his father, the young Edward had no wish to get embroiled in the affairs of Scotland. Bruce was left alone to consolidate his gains and to punish those who opposed him. A series of successful campaigns against the Comyns and their allies left him in control of most of Scotland. In 1309 he was recognized as sole ruler by the French King and despite his earlier excommunication, even received the support of the Scottish Church. Thus emboldened, in 1311 Bruce drove out the English garrisons in all their Scottish strongholds except Stirling and invaded northern England. King Edward bestirred himself from his dalliances at Court to respond and took a large army north.
On Mid-Summer's Day, the 24th of June 1314 one of the most momentous battles in British history occurred. The armies of Robert Bruce heavily outnumbered by their English rivals, but employing tactics that prevented the English army from effectively employing its strength, won a decisive victory at Bannockburn. Scotland was wrenched from English control, its armies free to invade and harass northern England. Such was Bruce's military successes that he was able to invade Ireland, where his brother Edward had been crowned King by the exuberant Irish. A second expedition carried out by Edward II north of the border was driven back. Edward was forced to seek peace.
Robert Bruce followed up his outstanding military success by equally successful diplomatic overtures. After an appeal from the Scottish nobility even Bruce's excommunication was lifted by the new Pope at Rome. In May 1328 a peace treaty was signed at Northampton by the weary, helpless English king that recognized Scotland as an independent kingdom and Robert Bruce as king. The Declaration of Independence signed at Arbroath was the culmination of Bruce's career. All his dreams fulfilled, he died one year later. One who for years had been an Anglo-Norman vassal of the King of England had made himself into a truly national Scottish hero.
Under the Declaration, if Robert Bruce were to prove weak enough to acknowledge Edward as overlord, then he would be dismissed in favor of someone else. English kings still continued to call themselves rulers of Scotland, just as they called themselves rulers of France for centuries after being booted out of the continent, but Scotland remained fully independent until 1603 (when James Stuart succeeded Elizabeth i).
If Robert Bruce had done no more than defy the power of King Edward, restore the Scottish monarchy and win at Bannockburn, he would still be listed among the giants, but he did more. His view of his nation was truly international. Under the rule of the one who was later to be known as "Good King Robert," Scotland had become the first nation state in Europe, the first to have territorial unity under a single king. Contained in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 was a letter to the Pope, who had excommunicated everyone in Scotland unless they swore allegiance to Edward II (such were the ways of medieval popes). In the letter, signed by representatives from all classes of Scots society, it was stated that since ancient times the Scots had been free to choose their own kings, a freedom that was a gift from God. And so it was, but a gift that had needed a Robert Bruce to deliver.