Part One ( The Great Cause (Part 1) )
Part Two ( William Wallace’s Rebellion (Part 2) )
In 1297, the Robert the Bruce was 22 years old. In part 1 of this series, his grandfather (also named Robert Bruce) was one of the contenders for the Scottish throne but lost to John Balliol. The Bruce family was still one of the most powerful Scottish families and were determined to see their claim to the throne fulfilled. They sided with Edward I when the first rebellions broke out. This was because they refused to back their rival John Balliol and hoped others would support their claim. Now, the young Robert Bruce, against the wishes of his father, decided to join the Wallace’s rebellion in 1297. In 1298, Bruce was named Guardian of Scotland. His rival, John Comyn (the nephew of John Balliol), was also named co-Guardian. The men disliked each other and again were beginning to split into factions, just like their previous relations. Yet, despite these factions, in 1302 Edward received oaths of allegiance from all parties. Was young Robert the Bruce going to honor this oath?
In February 1306, Robert the Bruce stabbed and murdered John Comyn in a Franciscan church in Dumfries. The murder was sudden and a shock to everyone, including Edward I. It was shocking not just because one of the Guardians of Scotland had murdered the other, but because it was committed on sacred ground. Comyn was murdered in front of the altar inside a church. Yet this shocking event did not seem to have been planned. After this attack, Bruce’s plot had been revealed. For two years, it seems that Bruce had been forming alliances and support for his retaking of the throne, which would be viewed as an act of treason by Edward I. It seems that in this secret meeting at Dumfries, John Comyn, refused to collaborate in this conspiracy. In a fit of rage, Robert Bruce destroyed his rival.
Robert the Bruce moved swiftly after this event, for now his plot was exposed. He had to begin his war now before Edward I could register what happened. Bruce and his supporters quickly began to take back castles in south-west Scotland and then moved to Glasgow. The city’s bishop, Robert Wishart, had absolved Robert Bruce for his sins at Dumfries (though the pope still excommunicated Bruce) and provided him with a banner with the Scottish royal arms and vestments fit for a king. It seems that these had been secreted away before the English could confiscate them. By the end of March, Bruce had quickly arrived at Scone Abbey (the traditional place for Scottish coronations) and was crowned as King Robert of Scotland. This was witnessed by many Scottish nobles and churchmen which revealed their approval of Robert Bruce’s rebellion. Scotland was declared a kingdom once again.
Edward I was in shock and furious. Robert the Bruce’s swift treason and coronation had come at a complete surprise to the English King. His wrath was so terrible that it affected Edward’s physical health. By this time, Edward was 67 years old and was not as strong as he had once been earlier in his reign. It was difficult for him to give up control of his armies to others, but he was now being carried by a litter. His son, future Edward II of England, was knighted and took up most of the command.
Edward of Caernarfon set out immediately for Scotland with a military force. His father followed at a laborious pace behind, due to the physical pain he was in. After eight years of conflict with the Scots, his latest success had been overthrown quickly. Yet, Bruce was also out of luck.
Robert Bruce was defeated at Methven in June by the forces of King Edward. Bruce had escaped and was now forced into hiding. The support that he had been attempted to obtain with his coronation was fading fast. His brother, Neil Bruce, was captured and executed. Bruce’s wife, Isabella countess of Buchan, and his sisters were captured and imprisoned in cages that hung off the towers of the castles at Roxburgh and Berwick. They were hung there to send a message to any other rebels that still lurked.
Robert Bruce was on the run from the English. His coronation was only months ago. Was his reign really to end this way? This was likely a distressing and humiliating position for Bruce to be in. He was also worried about his loved ones who had been captured by the English. We know the history now, but at this time Robert the Bruce likely thought he was finished.
There is a legend about Robert the Bruce that is still told today. According to the story, a disheartened King Robert sought refuge in a dark cave during his period of exile. For a long time, he watched a spider who was trying to make a web across the cave wall. The spider would fall again and again, but always get back up to try to spin its web. Finally, after a long period of work, the spider was able to attach a strand of web to the wall and began to spin a beautiful web. The moral of this story is the cliché phrase, “if at first you don’t succeed…try, try again.” Robert the Bruce took inspiration from this spider to stand up again and face the English. He was not going to give up that easily. If not from the spider, Bruce found his courage somewhere and began a guerrilla warfare campaign against the English in the north of Scotland.
In 1307, Robert Bruce began to crack through English defenses and emerge from hiding as the “redeemer”. With these small victories, Bruce was destroying the myth of the English invincibility. The exile king began to obtain the confidence of his people again and they began to follow him. Meanwhile, on the English side, Edward I was now 68 years old and his health was in bad shape. There were worries throughout the kingdom that Edward I would not live, which would doom the Scottish campaign. There was, rightly so, a lack of confidence in his heir (Edward of Caernarfon) who was much weaker than his father and less experienced. When Bruce began his attack, Edward of Caernarfon was summoned back north to return to the war, but it seems he decided to take his time in the south with his favorite, Piers Gaveston.
Edward I was, again, extremely unhappy with the turn of events which led to another decline in health. Yet, in response, he left his litter and again mounted his war horse and rode out to take on the Scots. He did not make it. He died on July 7, 1307 in Cumberland, England on the way to war. The loss of such a powerful king was such a blow to the English that his death remained a secret until the heir could arrive. The death of Edward I at this moment was an advantage to Robert the Bruce. A strong leader was replaced by a weaker one.
Edward II had a difficult legacy to follow and could not have been more different than his formidable father. His devotion to his favorites allowed him to be easily controlled and swayed. Edward II was very attached to his male favorites (more likely his lovers), but his taste in men was not very good. Prior to his fathers death, he had become devoted to a knight called Piers Gaveston. His father had banished Gaveston due to how much Gaveston influenced his son. The first act of Edward II’s reign was to recall this favorite to his side.
Edward II began to gift his favorite coveted earldoms which angered the English nobles. They believed that this “low-born” Gaveston did not deserve the titles that they were entitled too. They demanded the banishment of Gaveston and a restriction to the King’s role in appointments/finances. This eventually led to the nobles capturing and murdering Piers Gaveston. Later in his reign, Edward II found some new favorites in Hugh le Despenser and his son, the young Hugh le Despenser (also likely the kings lover). The Despenser’s took advantage of the weak Edward II and their greed ran rampant. Edward II allowed the Despensers to run wild and put too much reliance in them for the affairs of the kingdom. In the end, Edward II’s own wife, Isabella of France, and her lover Roger Mortimer invaded England and forced Edward II to abdicate in favor of his son, Edward III, in 1326. The Despenser’s were quickly executed.
Though this happens all in the future, it is helpful to see how Edward II differed from his father. His reliance on others, blindness to corruption among his favorites, and his weakness during his abdication shows that Robert the Bruce had a new advantage. Bruce began to chip away at the English strongholds one by one and took back the Scottish castles.
Edinburgh Castle is the most besieged castle in British history. There have been 23 attempts to capture the castle throughout its existence. One of these instances was in 1314, by Robert the Bruce and Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray. Randolph was the nephew King Robert and was personally granted the earldom of Moray by his uncle. In early 1314, Randolph devised the plan to take back Edinburgh Castle from the English. Like Stirling, Edinburgh castle is also built upon an outcropping of volcanic rock and overlooks the city. It is in a great defensive position that would be difficult for armies to reach. Randolph met with a William Francis who knew of a secret way to climb the rocks and enter the stronghold in secret. Apparently, Francis had used the secret way to meet with a lover that lived in town. According to John Barbour’s poem, The Brus, Randolph and 30 men climbed up the rocky cliff under the cover of darkness. It really is an amazing feat when looking at images of the cliff side. One slip would mean a fall to your death. After climbing the wall, Randolph and his men surprised the garrison that was stationed there and seized control of the castle from the inside.
By 1314, Robert the Bruce and his troops controlled almost all of Scotland and began to raid the villages of northern England. The Scots had taken back their castles and were finally united with the same goal. Edward II raised another large army to confront Bruce (which was estimated to be about 15,000-20,000 men). As usual, the Scots were outnumbered with only 6,000 men. Yet, the Scottish army was now experienced after years of raids and guerrilla warfare under the command of Robert Bruce. Bruce, his brother Edward, and Sir Thomas Randolph led the three divisions. These divisions were arranged in the schiltroms formations (as discussed in part 2).
The armies met on June 23, 1314 just south of Stirling castle. The Battle of Bannockburn was a long battle (by medieval standards) as it lasted two days. Edward II’s army found that the road to Stirling had been blocked by the Scots army and was surrounded by boggy terrain. The English division, led by Sir Henry de Bohun, began to charge when they saw King Robert and his troops emerge. Henry de Bohun had hopes of killing the Scottish King himself to gain the fame and valor. Bruce and de Bohun met in single combat which ended with Bruce splitting the knight’s head with an axe. This legendary contest boosted the morale of the Scottish troops. When the Scots rushed the troops, the English cavalry had to withdraw. The English divisions led by Robert Clifford and Henry de Beaumont moved forward to try and outflank the Scots but failed when the schiltrons (led by Thomas Randolph) emerged from their hiding place in the woods. They took the cavalry by surprise. The English cavalry could not break through the mighty spearmen despite attempting to throw their swords and maces at the Scots. The Scottish army had won the first day and gained strong morale, while the English were humiliated.
On June 24, 1314, Bruce’s divisions of schiltrons advanced against the English forces. In this battle, Bruce did not only use the schiltrons as a defensive position, but as an offensive one as well. They advanced slowly and kept the tight formations that would protect them from the cavalry of the English. The Scottish archers were sent out to bait the English longbowmen to shoot at them and distract those archers as the schiltrons advanced. The English bowmen fell for the ruse. The English also had some infighting between their commanders, Clifford and Gloucester, as to who should lead the charge. The English were unorganized.
As the English cavalry ran into the schiltrons, the arguing commanders and their men were destroyed. The Scottish formations held and continued to push their enemies back. Edward Bruce’s schiltrons pushed the English forces all the way to Bannockburn stream. Their goal was to trap the forces between two streams, the Bannockburn and Pelstream. The Scots revealed their strong discipline to hold these positions and how their training during these years had paid off. By this point, the English longbowmen were useless as the Scots were too close and they archers would risk hurting their own forces. Some of the English archers broke out but were quickly stopped by Sir Robert Keith’s Scottish cavalry. As the hand to hand combat took place between the English and the Scots, Robert the Bruce brought in his own division and with their attack the English were broken. The English fled and Robert the Bruce had just won one of the most legendary battles of his career and of Scottish history.
(I thought this video was very good at illustrating the Battle of Bannockburn, much better than I can explain https://youtu.be/TlcZWz0qykQ )
Edward II and the English presence in Scotland was finished. He would never recover from this defeat. The Scots did not stop at Bannockburn and continued to raid into the open lands of Northern England. King Robert the Bruce of Scotland was finally ruler of a united and a free Scotland.
In 1320, The Declaration of Arbroath was created. It was a letter written to the pope by the people of Scotland requesting him to recognize their independence and Robert the Bruce as their king. In 1324, the Pope officially recognized Bruce as the legitimate King. In 1328, Edward III (ruler after Edward II was forced to abdicate) was made to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northhampton. In this treaty the English king recognized Scottish independence and renounced the English claims of overlordship. They sealed this with a marriage between Bruce’s son, David, and Edward’s sister.
King Robert the Bruce had finally achieved what so many Scottish kings, nobles, and military had been struggling for years to do. He received recognition that Scotland was independent and defeated the English. Therefore, he is still remembered today as one of the most famous figures in Scottish history. He died in his fifties on June 7, 1329 and was succeeded by his son David II (who would go on to rule Scotland for over 40 years).
I hope this was an enjoyable series and I hope one day I will be able to see all the places mentioned in person!
Bower, Walter and D E R Watt, ed. A History Book for Scots: Selections from the Scotichronicon. Mercat Press: Edinburgh, 1998.
Captivating History. Wars of Scottish Independence: A Captivating Guide to the Battles Between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England, Including the Impact Made by King Robert the Bruce. Captivating History, 2018.
Hourly History. Wars of Scottish Independence: A History from Beginning to End. Hourly History, 2019.
Morris, Marc. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain. New York. Pegasus Books, 2008.
https://youtu.be/TlcZWz0qykQ -“Battle of Bannockburn, 1314 First War of Scottish Independence” HistoryMarche
Goldstein, R. James (1991) “The Women of the Wars of Independence in Literature and History,” Studies in Scottish Literature: Vol. 26: Iss. 1. Available at: https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/ssl/vol26/iss1/22