Still Defending the Scots

Katie Stevenson

  • Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots by Michael Penman
    Yale, 443 pp, £25.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 14872 5

The political commentator Iain Martin, who claims that he fled Scotland before the 2007 Scottish elections rather than live under an SNP-led government, wrote a few months ago in a blog for the Telegraph of a Treasury aide who’d said to him that ‘Alex Salmond wants to be William Wallace.’ ‘No,’ Martin corrected him. ‘Alex Salmond wants to be Robert the Bruce.’ Wallace has been cast as ‘the people’s champion’, a role he played in the 1975 novel The Wallace by the prolific Nigel Tranter and, twenty years later, in Braveheart. But Martin was right that the appeal of Bruce would be significantly stronger to Salmond. Bruce re-established something that could be called Scotland and imbued it with a sense of identity and a belief in its right to sovereignty. During his reign, which lasted from 1306 to 1329, he ended England’s claims of overlordship and secured recognition that Scotland was an independent sovereign entity.

Bruce took the throne in 1306 after a long period of wrangling over the succession. The death of Alexander III in 1286 without surviving issue and the subsequent death in 1290 of his young granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway, while she was being brought to Scotland, left no clear heir and the kingdom plummeted into political turmoil. The main competitors for the throne in the ensuing Great Cause (overseen by Edward I of England) were soon established as Robert de Brus, fifth lord of Annandale, and John Balliol, lord of Galloway. Both claims originated in the marriages of the daughters of David, earl of Huntingdon, the youngest grandson of David I of Scotland. Balliol had a claim by primogeniture, as the grandson of Earl David’s eldest daughter, Margaret. The strength of Robert de Brus’s claim lay in proximity by degree: he was the son of Isobel of Huntingdon, a younger daughter of Earl David, and so a degree closer to David I than Balliol. The Brus claim was rejected in 1292 and Balliol was crowned king of Scots. Undeterred, and incensed by Edward I’s success in having his own son declared Balliol’s heir, the Brus family continued to pursue its claim to the throne, gathering powerful allies with substantial military resources. After Balliol was crowned, Robert de Brus formally transferred his claim to his son, Robert, sixth de Brus, who in 1295 refused homage to Balliol. Instead, this Robert and his son – the future king – pledged homage and fealty to Edward I in Northumberland on Easter Sunday 1296. This piece of medieval realpolitik has tarnished Robert the Bruce’s reputation in the eyes of those for whom the perceived unfaltering patriotism and anti-English animus of Wallace remain the benchmark.

Balliol’s abdication in 1296, after a collapse in his authority, brought a complete reversal of Robert the Bruce’s political stance. Seeing new opportunities to press his claim Bruce joined the Scottish revolt against Edward’s occupation of Scotland. During the next decade he continued to play a leading role in the efforts to restore Scottish sovereignty, while at times allying himself with English policies. In 1305 Bruce was appointed by the English parliament to the governing council of Scotland and began machinations to gain more support for his claim to the throne, already backed in secret by powerful figures including William Lamberton, bishop of St Andrews.

The defining moment in Bruce’s campaign came in February 1306, when he met another member of the governing council, John Comyn, lord of Badenoch, at the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries. Comyn, too, had claims to the throne, but was a staunch supporter of Balliol. Bruce, it seems, tried to press Comyn to renounce his support for a Balliol restoration and instead to support Bruce’s own bid. Comyn refused. In a rage, Bruce – even though he was at the high altar of a church – stabbed Comyn to death. Despite this sacrilegious act, he secured the immediate support of the bishop of Glasgow. Word was sent throughout Scotland that Bruce was to be crowned at Scone in Perthshire, the traditional site of the coronation of the Scottish kings. Defiantly, Bruce also sent a message to the English that he would defend himself with maximum force until Edward accepted his right to the throne.

Bruce’s coronation was a triumph, though a temporary one. Much was missing from the ceremonial and ritual paraphernalia required to make a king of Scots. The most notable absence was the Stone of Scone, on which Scots kings sat to be crowned, which Edward I had removed in 1296 and installed under the English coronation throne in Westminster Abbey. The earl of Fife, who traditionally invested the kings of Scots, was firm in his fealty to the English crown and so was replaced by his aunt, Isabel, countess of Buchan. So grave were the repercussions of Isabel’s role in the ceremony that she was pursued by the English and eventually imprisoned in a wooden cage in Berwick Castle. Bruce and his supporters were quickly defeated by English force. With Bruce now a fugitive – and the queen and princess in English captivity – his rising was labelled a treasonous rebellion.

Relief came in 1307 with the succession of Edward II to the English throne, which brought a slackening in pressure from the south. In 1309 Bruce held a parliament at St Andrews at which the community of the realm made a declaration of his rights and of the independence of his kingdom. Over the next few years, he consolidated his grip and slowly regained control, though several key sites remained in English hands.

One of these sites was Stirling. According to the terms of an agreement, it would be ceded to the Scots unless relieved by midsummer 1314. Determined not to surrender it, Edward II led a large army north, and it was evident that a decisive battle would ensue. The immediate dividends of the celebrated Scottish victory at Bannockburn included the return from captivity of the queen and the king’s unmarried daughter and heir presumptive, Marjorie. Also, some Scots chose to sacrifice their Scottish estates in order to retain their English landholdings: this gave Robert I large amounts of land to redistribute among his own allies and supporters. Bannockburn forced many nobles to select a future in either England or Scotland and so helped to establish the solidity of the border between the two kingdoms.

Although after 1314 there was broad international support for Bruce’s royal authority, it stopped short of papal acknowledgment that Bruce was the rightful king of a realm independent of overlordship. In 1317, in a letter to Bruce, Pope John XXII failed to address him as the king of Scots and begged that the Scots observe a truce with England. Bruce refused. ‘I have possession of the kingdom, my royal title is acknowledged throughout the kingdom, and foreign rulers address me as king,’ he responded. ‘Our father the pope and our mother the church of Rome seem to be showing partiality among their own children.’ The Declaration of Arbroath, written in 1320, was part of the diplomatic correspondence concerning this dispute. The declaration was a mixture of rhetoric and carefully crafted propaganda. The case for the independence of the realm of Scotland was painstakingly presented. The validity of Robert the Bruce’s royal credentials was stressed, and it was made clear that they were based not only on heredity but also, crucially, on the consent of the people. It was this reference to a contractual basis for authority which ensured that what was otherwise a standard if beautifully phrased piece of diplomatic correspondence has influenced constitutional debates across the centuries. Unharnessed from its historical context, the declaration has been reified as a precocious statement of popular sovereignty that has informed the content of the American Declaration of Independence and the language and sensibility of modern Scottish nationalism. Despite all this, however, the declaration was not immediately successful with the papal curia.

In 1327 Edward II was deposed and succeeded by his son, Edward III, a minor governed by his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. An English army, including the 14-year-old king, met a sizeable Scottish force at Stanhope Park in County Durham in the summer of that year, where they were decisively beaten by the Scots and Edward nearly captured. The defeat caused the English government to agree to the terms enshrined in the 1328 Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognised that Scotland was a free realm, ruled by a king who bore the lawful title of king of Scots. The treaty envisioned an Anglo-Scottish alliance, cemented by a substantial cash payment from the Scots to Edward III and the marriage of Robert I’s son David to Edward III’s sister Joan. Scotland’s boundaries were restored (Berwick and the Isle of Man became part of the realm again) and the treaty stated that no king of England could claim overlordship of Scotland. To cement this key principle, provision was made that any documents supporting or suggesting the rights of the English to overlordship should be presented to the Scots for destruction. This never happened and so no agreement was reached on the return of the Scottish symbols of sovereignty looted by Edward I’s armies. The Stone of Scone remained at Westminster Abbey (apart from its theft and picaresque journey north in 1950) until its hasty and somewhat unexpected return to Scotland in 1996, brokered by the then Scottish secretary and Conservative MP for Stirling, Michael Forsyth.

Contemporaries, like later generations, were moved by the notion of a rightful king struggling to have his authority recognised and to free his kingdom from oppression. In his new book Michael Penman makes clear that Bruce succeeded not just in gaining recognition of Scottish independence, and in securing his family’s claim to the throne, but in restoring the kingdom to peaceful order. His final resting place at Dunfermline Abbey is visible for miles around thanks to the vulgar early 19th-century stone belltower that spells out in giant tracery letters ‘King Robert the Bruce’ – one word on each side. The royal military strongholds of Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle both display prominent statues of Bruce. At Edinburgh, the early 20th-century statue greets all those who pass through the castle gate. From 1887, the esplanade at Stirling has been home to a large statue of Bruce surveying the landscape, still defending the Scots from attack from the south. Stirlingshire, the historic heartland of the kingdom and where much of the action of the Wars of Independence took place, is full of Bruceana and a new visitor centre at Bannockburn has just opened to mark the 700th anniversary of the battle.

Monuments to Bruce continue to be built. In 2011, a new statue costing £120,000 was unveiled outside Marischal College in Aberdeen. Bruce is depicted on horseback, not brandishing his sword but raising an unfurled scroll – the charter he granted on 10 December 1319 to the burgesses of Aberdeen enabling duties to be paid to the city treasurer rather than to the crown. These funds were placed in what is now called the Common Good Fund of Aberdeen, currently worth about £100 million. The fund was in a poor state until well into the 19th century, when some crafty investment set it on its current course, but it is Bruce who is seen as the visionary who provided the means for capital investments for the good of the city. The ceremony at Marischal College was held just a few days after the landslide victory of the SNP in the Holyrood elections which gave them the mandate to call this month’s referendum. This coincidence was not lost on the councillors of Aberdeen, who in their speeches and comments to the press made much of Bruce’s struggle for the recognition of Scottish sovereignty.

The monuments, which tend to celebrate martial values and mark military victory, imply that medieval kingship and leadership rested on the exercise of power or on brute force. Penman portrays Bruce as a devout and pious king, whose killing of Comyn and subsequent excommunication weighed more heavily on him than historians have tended to admit. His biography, well researched, fresh and distinctive, knocks off the top perch G.W.S. Barrow’s Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, published in 1965.