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Robert I of Scotland

King Robert I of Scotland and his wife, Isabella of Mar


King Robert I of Scotland and his wife, Isabella of Mar

Robert I, (Roibert a Briuis in medieval Gaelic, Raibeart Bruis in modern Scottish Gaelic and Robert de Brus in Norman French), usually known in modern English today as Robert the Bruce (July 11, 1274 – June 7, 1329), was King of Scotland (1306 – 1329). Although his paternal ancestors were of Scoto-Norman heritage, his maternal ancestors were Gaelic, and he became one of Scotland's greatest kings, as well as one of the most famous warriors of his generation, eventually leading Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England. He claimed the Scottish throne as a great-great-great-great grandson of David I of Scotland.

Background and early life Bruce was born the first child and eldest son of Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale (d. 1304) and Marjorie of Carrick, (d.1292) daughter of Niall of Carrick and Margaret, daughter of Walter Stewart, 3rd High Steward of Scotland. His mother was by all accounts a formidable woman who, legend would have it, kept Robert Bruce's father captive until he agreed to marriage. From his mother he inherited the Gaelic Earldom of Carrick, and through his father a royal lineage that would give him a claim to the Scottish throne. Although his date of birth is definitely known, his place of birth is less certain: it was probably Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire, although Lochmaben in Dumfriesshire is another possibility, but the claim that he was born at Writtle, Essex is very dubious.

Precious little is known of his youth. He was probably sent to be fostered with a local family, as was the custom. We can presume that Bruce was raised speaking all the languages of his lineage and nation and was almost certainly fluent in Gaelic and Norman French, with Latin. Although there is no direct evidence, it is perfectly plausible that he also knew English. According to his acclaimed biographer G.W.S. Barrow, Robert's first appearance in history is on a witness list of a charter issued by Alasdair MacDomhnaill, Lord of Islay. Robert's name appears in the company of the Bishop of Argyll, the vicar of Arran, a Kintyre clerk, his father and a host of Gaelic notaries from Carrick.

He saw the outcome of the 'Great Cause' in 1292, which gave the Crown of Scotland to his families' great rival, John Balliol, as unjust. As he saw it, it prevented his family from taking their rightful place on the Scottish throne. Soon afterwards, his grandfather, Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale — the unsuccessful claimant — resigned his lordship to Robert de Brus, Bruce's father. Robert de Brus had already resigned the earldom of Carrick to Robert Bruce, his son, on the day of his wife's death in 1292, thus making Robert Bruce the Earl of Carrick. Both father and son sided with Edward I against Balliol. In April 1294, the younger Bruce had permission to visit Ireland for a year and a half, and, as a further mark of Edward's favour, he received a respite for all the debts owed by him to the English Exchequer.

In 1295, Robert married his first wife, Isabella of Mar (d. before 1302), the daughter of Donald, 10th Earl of Mar (d. after July 1297), by his wife Helen (d. after Feb 1295), daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of North Wales, 'The Great' (1173–1240) and his spouse Joan, an illegitimate child of King John of England. Robert and Isobel's only child, Marjorie Bruce, married Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland (1293–1326). She died on 2 March 1316, near Paisley, Renfrewshire, after being thrown from her horse. She was heavily pregnant; the child, the future Robert II of Scotland, survived.

The beginning of the Wars of Independence

In August 1296 Bruce and his father swore fealty to Edward I of England at Berwick-upon-Tweed, but in breach of this oath, which had been renewed at Carlisle, the younger Robert joined in the Scottish revolt against Edward in the following year. Urgent letters were sent ordering Bruce to support Edward's commander, John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, (to whom Bruce was related), in the summer of 1297; but instead of complying, Bruce laid waste the lands of those who adhered to Edward. On July 7, Bruce and his friends were forced to make terms by a treaty called the capitulation of Irvine. The Scottish lords were not to serve beyond the sea against their will, and were pardoned for their recent violence, in return for swearing allegiance to Edward. The Bishop of Glasgow, James the Steward, and Sir Alexander Lindsay became sureties for Bruce until he delivered his infant daughter Marjorie as a hostage.

Shortly after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Bruce appears again to have sided with the Scots; Annandale was wasted and he burned the English-held castle of Ayr. Yet, when Edward returned to England after his victory at the Battle of Falkirk, Annandale and Carrick were excepted from the lordships and lands which he assigned to his followers, Bruce was being treated as a waverer whose allegiance might still be retained.

After William Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland after Falkirk, he was succeeded by Robert Bruce and John Comyn as joint guardians, but they could not see past their personal differences. As a nephew and supporter of John Balliol, and as someone with his own claim to the Scottish throne, Comyn was Bruce's enemy. In 1299, William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, was appointed as a third, neutral Guardian to try and maintain order between Bruce and Comyn. The following year Bruce finally resigned as joint guardian and was replaced by Sir Gilbert, 1st Lord de Umfraville (d. before 13 October 1307), Earl of Angus (in right of his mother, Maud, Countess of Angus). In May 1301, de Umfraville, Comyn and Lamberton also resigned as joint guardians and were replaced by Sir John de Soulis as sole guardian. Soulis was appointed largely because he was part of neither the Bruce nor the Comyn camps and was a patriot. He was an active Guardian, and made renewed efforts to have John Balliol returned to the Scottish throne.

In July, Edward I launched his sixth campaign into Scotland. Though Edward captured Bothwell and Turnberry Castle, Edward did little to damage the Scots’ fighting ability and, in January 1302 agreed to a nine-month truce. It was around this time that Robert the Bruce submitted to Edward I, along with other nobles, even though he had been on the side of the patriots until now. There are many reasons that may have prompted his turning, not the least of which was that Bruce may have found it loathsome to continue sacrificing his followers, family and inheritance for John Balliol. There were rumours that Balliol would return with a French army to regain the Scottish throne. Soulis supported the return of Balliol as did many other nobles, but the return of John as king would lead to the Bruces losing any chance of ever gaining the throne themselves. Also, Robert’s father was old and ill, and may have wished his son to seek peace with Edward, who, he was convinced, would be victorious over the Scots. The elder Bruce would have seen that, if the rebellion failed and his son were against Edward, he would lose everything, titles, lands, and probably his life. Edward also came to see that he needed a Scottish noble like Bruce as a friend, rather than as an enemy at this time; he was facing both excommunication by the Pope for his actions and a possible invasion by the French.

However, though recently pledged to support Edward, it is interesting to note that Robert the Bruce sent a letter to the monks at Melrose Abbey in March 1302 which effectively weakened his usefulness to the English king. Apologizing for having called the monks to service in his army when there had been no national call-up, Bruce pledged that, henceforth, he would “never again” require the monks to serve unless it was to “the common army of the whole realm,” for national defence. Bruce also married his second wife that year, Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 26 October 1327), the daughter of Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster, (d. 1326). By Elizabeth he had four children: David II, John (died in childhood), Matilda (who married Thomas Isaac and died at Aberdeen 20 July 1353), and Margaret (who married in 1345 William de Moravia, 5th Earl of Sutherland.)

In 1303, Edward invaded again, reaching Edinburgh, before marching to Perth. John Comyn, who was by now Guardian, could not hope to defeat Edward's forces. Edward stayed in Perth till July, then proceeded via Dundee, Brechin and Montrose, to Aberdeen, where he arrived in August. From here he marched through Moray, before his progress continued to Badenoch, before re-tracing his path back south to Dunfermline. With the country now under submission, all the leading Scots, except for Wallace, surrendered to Edward in February 1304. Terms of submission were negotiated by John Comyn. The laws and liberties of Scotland would be as they had been in the day of Alexander III, and any that needed alteration would be with the advice of Edward and the advice and assent of the Scots nobles.

On June 11 1304, with both of them having witnessed the heroic efforts of their countrymen during Edward's siege of Stirling Castle, Bruce and William Lamberton made a pact that bound them, each to the other, in “friendship and alliance against all men.” If one should break the secret pact, he would forfeit to the other the sum of ten-thousand pounds. Though both had already surrendered to the English, the pact indicated their deep patriotism and commitment to their future perseverance for the Scots and their freedom. They now intended to bide their time until the death of the elderly King of England.

With Scotland defenceless, Edward set about absorbing her into England. Homage was again paid to him by the nobles, and a parliament was held to elect those who would meet later in the year with the English parliament to establish rules for the governance of Scotland. For all the apparent participation by Scots in the government, however, the English held the real power. The Earl of Richmond, Edward's nephew, was to head up the subordinate government of Scotland.

While all this took place, William Wallace was finally captured near Glasgow and brutally executed on August 23, 1305. Edward had made Wallace a martyr, a larger-than-life patriotic hero for the Scots. Rather than settling the “Scottish question,” Edward had wrought enmity that would hound him the rest of his days.

Robert the Bruce of Scotland


Robert the Bruce of Scotland

Excommunication and Coronation as King of Scots

In September 1305, Edward ordered Robert Bruce to put his castle at Kildrummy, "in the keeping of such a man as he himself will be willing to answer for," suggesting that Edward suspected Robert was not entirely trustworthy and may have been plotting behind his back. Bruce, as Earl of Carrick and now 7th Lord of Annandale, held huge estates and property in both Scotland and England and had a claim to the Scottish throne. He also had a large family to protect. If he claimed the throne, he would throw the country into yet another series of wars, and if he failed, he would be sacrificing everyone and everything he knew.

Bruce, like all his family, had a complete belief in his right to the throne. However his actions of supporting alternatively the English and Scottish armies had led to a great deal of distrust towards Bruce among the “Community of the Realm of Scotland”. His ambition was further thwarted by the person of John Comyn. Comyn had been much more resolute in his opposition to the English, he was the most powerful noble in Scotland and was related to many more powerful nobles both within Scotland and England. He also had a powerful claim to the Scottish throne through both his descent from the ancient Celtic monarchy and through his being the nephew of John Balliol. To neutralise this threat, Bruce invited him to a meeting under truce in Dumfries on February 10, 1306 . Bruce attacked Comyn before the high altar of the church of the Greyfriars monastery and fled. On being told that Comyn had survived the attack and was being treated, two of Bruce's supporters, Roger de Kirkpatrick and John Lindsay, went back into the church and finished Comyn off. Bruce was excommunicated for this crime. Realising that the die had been cast and he had no alternative except to become king or a fugitive, Bruce asserted his claim to the Scottish crown. He was crowned King of Scots as Robert I at Scone, near Perth on March 25, by Isabella, Countess of Buchan, (alleged by the English to be his mistress) who claimed the right of her family, the Macduff Earls of Fife, to place the Scottish king on his throne. Though now king, Bruce did not yet have a kingdom, and his efforts to obtain it were disastrous failures until after the death of Edward I.


From Scone to Bannockburn

In June 1306 he was defeated at the Battle of Methven and in August he was surprised in Strathfillan, where he had taken refuge. The ladies of his family were sent to Kildrummy in January 1307, and Bruce, almost without a follower, fled to the islands on the western coast of Scotland.

Edward I marched north again in the spring. On his way he granted the Scottish estates of Bruce and his adherents to his own followers and published a bill excommunicating Bruce. Bruce's Queen, Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie, and his sister, Christina, were captured in a sanctuary at Tain, while his three youngest brothers were executed. But on July 7, Edward I died, leaving Bruce to now be opposed by his feeble son, Edward II and the odds turned to Bruce's favour.

Bruce had returned to the Scottish mainland in February at Turnberry Castle, and began a guerrilla war in southwest Scotland. In April he had his first major victory over the English at the Battle of Glen Trool, before defeating Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke at the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Bruce then left his brother Edward in command in Galloway, while he transferred his own operations to Aberdeenshire. He overran Buchan and, after a serious illness, defeated the Earl of Buchan at the Battle of Inverurie in May 1308. He then crossed to Argyll and defeated another body of his enemies at the Battle of Brander and took Dunstaffnage Castle. In March 1309, he held his first Parliament at St Andrews, and by August he controlled all of Scotland north of the River Tay. The following year, the clergy of Scotland recognized Bruce as king at a general council. The support given to him by the church in spite of his excommunication must have had great importance and was probably due to the example of Lamberton.

The next three years saw the capture and reduction of one English held castle or outpost after another: Linlithgow in 1310, Dumbarton in 1311, and Perth, by Bruce himself, in January 1312. Bruce also made raids into northern England. In March 1313 Sir James Douglas captured Roxburgh, and Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray captured Edinburgh Castle. In May Bruce again raided England and subdued the Isle of Man. About the same time Edward Bruce laid siege to Stirling Castle, whose governor, Sir Philip de Mowbray, agreed to capitulate if not relieved before 24 June 1314.

The eight years of exhausting but deliberate refusal to meet the English on even ground, have caused many to consider Bruce as one of the great guerrilla leaders of any age. This represented a transformation for one raised as a feudal knight. Bruce secured Scottish independence from England militarily — if not diplomatically — at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Freed from English threats, Scotland's armies could now invade northern England. Bruce also drove back a subsequent English expedition north of the border, and launched raids into Yorkshire and Lancashire, forcing Edward II to sue for peace.

Bruce and Ireland

Buoyed by his military successes, Bruce's forces also invaded Ireland in 1315, supposedly to free the country from English rule, but more probably one suspects to open a second front in the continuing wars with England through agreement with his father-in-law, Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster (d.1326), hoping to continue to disappropriate English jurisdiction there. The Irish even crowned Edward Bruce as High King of Ireland in 1316. Robert later went there with another army to assist his brother.

To go with the invasion, Bruce popularized an ideological vision of a "Pan-Gaelic Greater Scotia" with his lineage ruling over both Ireland and Scotland. This propaganda campaign was aided by two factors. The first was his marriage alliance from 1302 with the de Burgh family of the Earldom of Ulster in Ireland; second, Bruce himself on his mother's side of Carrick, was descended from Gaelic royalty--in Scotland. Thus, lineally and geopolitically, Bruce attempted to support his anticipated notion of a pan-Gaelic alliance between Scottish-Irish Gaelic populations, under his kingship.

This is revealed by a letter he sent to the Irish chiefs, where he calls the Scots and Irish collectively nostra nacio (our nation), stressing the common language, customs and heritage of the two peoples:

“Whereas we and you and our people and your people, free since ancient times, share the same national ancestry and are urged to come together more eagerly and joyfully in friendship by a common language and by common custom, we have sent you our beloved kinsman, the bearers of this letter, to negotiate with you in our name about permanently strengthening and maintaining inviolate the special friendship between us and you, so that with God’s will our nation (nostra nacio) may be able to recover her ancient liberty.”

The diplomacy worked to a certain extent, at least in Ulster, where the Scots had total support. However, that may be unsurprising because Ulster was the chosen political beachhead for invasion--with Bruce married to Elizabeth de Burgh (d. 26 October 1327), daughter of Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster (d.1326). Bruce's father-in-law was not going to put up resistance in Ireland to his son-in-law's invasion. Perhaps, the Earl of Ulster even suggested such an invasion of Ireland proactively--as well as reactively (to save his Earldom in Ulster as well as his skin because he was aiding his son-in-law rebel Bruce).

However, geopolitics aside, hardly to malign this larger ideological vision of a pan-Gaelic kingdom, the vision was influential with other Irish chiefs. The Irish chief Donal O'Neill, for instance, later justified his Irish support of the Scots in just such terms to Pope John XXII by saying “the Kings of Lesser Scotia all trace their blood to our Greater Scotia and retain to some degree our language and customs.”

The Bruce campaign to Ireland was characterized by a great deal of initial military success. However, the Scots failed to win over the non-Ulster chiefs, or to make any other significant gains in the south of the island. In the end, Bruce became mythological only for Scottish Independence, though that was hardly the aim from his unheralded string of military victories from spring 1307 onward. Mere Scottish Independence would have represented to him and his followers by default an abandonment of the "Pan-Gaelic" project--since he had already been crowned king in Ireland as well.


Robert Bruce's reign also witnessed some diplomatic achievements. The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 strengthened his position, particularly vis-ŕ-vis the Papacy. Pope John XXII eventually lifted Bruce's excommunication. In May 1328 King Edward III of England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognized Scotland as an independent kingdom and Bruce as its king.


Robert Bruce had a large family in addition to his wife Elizabeth and his children. There were his brothers, Edward, Alexander, Thomas and Niall, his sisters Christian, Isabel (Queen of Norway), Margaret, Matilda and Mary, and his nephews Donald, Earl of Mar and Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray. Alexander, Thomas and Niall were all executed by the English following capture, and Edward was killed in battle in Ireland.

In addition to his legitimate offspring, Robert Bruce had several illegitimate children by unknown mothers. His sons were Sir Robert (died 12 August 1332 at the Battle of Dupplin Moor), Walter, of Odistoun on the Clyde, predeceased his father, and Niall, of Carrick, (died 17 October 1346 at the Battle of Durham). His daughters were Elizabeth (married Walter Oliphant of Gask), Margaret (married Robert Glen), alive on 29 February 1364, and Christian, of Carrick, who died after 1329, when she was in receipt of a pension.

Robert the Bruce died on June 7, 1329 at the Manor of Cardross in Cardross Parish, Dunbartonshire (the exact location is uncertain and it may not have been very near the modern village of Cardross). He had suffered for some years from what some contemporary accounts describe as an "unclean ailment"; the traditional story is that he died of leprosy, but this is now rejected. However it is unclear what his illness actually was, although syphilis, psoriasis, and a series of strokes have all been suggested.

His body lies buried in Dunfermline Abbey, but, according to his wishes, Sir James Douglas removed the late king's heart and took it on a Crusade in Moorish Spain, where he was killed in battle. It was later recovered, taken back to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire.

Robert Bruce left his sole surviving infant son, David II, to succeed him.

Robert Bruce's Daughter, Margorie Bruce, Princess of Scotland, was the Mother of Robert II Stewart, King of Scotland. She Married Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland and they had a Son, Robert II Stewart, King of Scotland. Robert II was delivered on the side of the road following a fall off of a horse at which time Margorie died. This was the first Stewart King of the House of Stewart. He became king after Robert I's son David died.

Margorie's mother was Isabella, Lady of Mar, Robert I's wife who died in 1302. She and her Daughter were held by King Edward I in England for a time.


According to legend, after his defeat at the hands of the Comyns and the subsequent incarceration of his family, Bruce hid himself in a cave, which is located near Gretna and can still be visited today. While in the cave, Bruce observed a spider trying to spin a web. Each time the spider failed, it simply started all over again. Inspired by this, Bruce returned to inflict a series of defeats on the English, thus winning him more supporters and eventual victory. The story serves to explain the maxim: "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again." Other versions have Bruce defeated for the seventh time by the English, then let him watch the spider spin seven webs, fail, then spin an eighth and succeed.

However, this legend only appears for the first time in a much later account, "Tales of a Grandfather" by Sir Walter Scott, and may have originally been told about his companion-in-arms Sir James Douglas (the Black Douglas).

According to another legend, Bruce's heart was encased in silver and the knight Black Douglas was to transport it to the Holy Land to be buried there. When in transit to the Holy Land Black Douglas became surrounded by the Moors in Spain during a skirmish. He is said to have thrown Bruce's heart ahead of him, crying: "Forward, brave heart, as ever thou were wont to do, and Douglas will follow thee or die".

Bruce is also a character in the film Braveheart, although the historical accuracy of this film has been challenged on several counts, e.g. Bruce was probably not present at the Battle of Falkirk.

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