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. Bruce's astonishing victory at Bannockburn in 1314 over the much larger and better-equipped forces of Edward II ensured Scottish freedom from the hated English.
This new struggle for control of Scotland began when Alexander III died in 1286. Alexander's heir was 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, though Edward wished to keep English garrisons in a number of Scottish castles. On her way to Scotland, somewhere in the Orkney, 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.
For those brought up to revere Robert Bruce as one of the great Scottish heroes, it was something of a mystery to watch his portrayal in the Hollywood movie "Braveheart" which gave all the heroics to his compatriot William Wallace. The movie portrayed Bruce as nothing more than a self-serving opportunist. Yet it was the patience and cunning of Bruce that Scotland needed, not the impetuousness of Wallace, especially facing such formidable enemies as Edward I and then his son and heir Edward II. Bruce bided his time; he first had to establish his authority as king of Scotland.
King Edward supported John Balliol, who he believed was weaker and more compliant to the two Scottish claimants. At a meeting of 104 auditors, with Edward as judge, the decision went in favor of Balliol, who was declared 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. He also demanded judicial authority over the Scottish king in any disputes brought against him by his own subjects and defrayment of costs for the defense of England as well as active support in the war against France.
Even the pathetic Balliol could not stomach these outrageous demands. Showing a hitherto unknown courage, he declared in front of the English king that he was the King of Scotland and should answer only to his own people. He refused to supply military service to Edward. Overestimating his strength, he 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 Robert Bruce, who owned estates in England. Balliol immediately punished this treachery by seizing Bruce's lands in Scotland and giving them to his own brother-in-law, John Comyn. However, 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 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.
But, 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. With the killing of an English sheriff following a brawl with English soldiers in the market place at Lanark, a young Scottish knight, William Wallace 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. He then completely annihilated a large, lavishly equipped English army under the command of Surrey, Edward I Viceroy.
We can imagine the shock of the over confident Edward and the extent to which he sought his revenge. Yet, Wallace's great victory, successful because English cavalry were unable to maneuver on the marshy ground and because 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. This time the English cavalry was more successful and the archers (many of whom had been recruited in Wales following that country's virtual annexation by the Statute of Rhuddlan less than 20 years before) inflicted heavy damage on the massed ranks of the Scots. Following the battle, a campaign began to ruthlessly suppress all attempts at reasserting Scottish independence.
Falkirk was a grievous loss for Wallace who never again commanded 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 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 Robert Bruce murdered John Comyn, thus earning the enmity of the many powerful supporters of the Comyn family. He was also excommunicated from the Church. His answer was to strike out boldly, raising the Royal Standard at Scone and, 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 to become a hunted outlaw.
Again, the indefatigable Scottish leader bided his time. After a year of demoralization and widespread English terror, 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.
Chapter 3: An Independent Scotland