Robert the Bruce: Scotland's Warrior King

Battle of Bannockburn
Robert the Bruce and his troops before the Battle of Bannockburn. Culture Club / Getty Images

Robert the Bruce (July 11, 1274–June 7, 1329) was king of Scotland for the last two decades of his life. An ardent proponent of Scottish independence and a contemporary of William Wallace, Robert remains one of Scotland's most beloved national heroes.

Early Years and Family

Born into an Anglo-Norman family, Robert was no stranger to royalty. His father, Robert de Brus, was the 6th Lord of Annandale and a great-great-grandson of King David mac Mail Choluim, or David I of Scotland. His mother, Marjorie, was the Countess of Carrick, descended from the Irish King Brian Boru. His sister Isabel became the Queen of Norway by marrying King Eric II, long before Robert ascended to the Scottish throne.

Robert’s grandfather, also named Robert, was the 5th Earl of Annandale. In the autumn of 1290, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, who was the seven-year-old heiress to the Scottish throne, died at sea. Her death set off a whirlwind of disputes regarding who should succeed to the throne, and the 5th Earl of Annandale (Robert's grandfather) was one of the claimants.

Robert V, with the aid of his son Robert VI, captured a number of strongholds in the southwest of Scotland during the period between 1290 – 1292. Naturally, young Robert supported his grandfather’s claim to the throne, but ultimately, the role of king was given to John Balliol.

Robert the Bruce. Robert I (1274 – 1329)
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Association With William Wallace

King Edward I of England was known as the Hammer of the Scots, and worked diligently during his reign to turn Scotland into a feudal tributary state. Naturally, this did not sit well with the Scots, and soon Edward found himself having to deal with uprisings and rebellions. William Wallace led a revolt against Edward, and Robert joined in, believing that Scotland needed to remain independent of England.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, in September 1297, was a devastating blow for the English. Shortly afterwards, Bruce family lands were sacked by Edward's troops in retaliation for the family's role in the rebellion.

In 1298, Robert succeeded Wallace as one of the Guardians of Scotland. He served alongside John Comyn, who would become his chief rival for the country’s throne. Robert resigned his seat after just two years, when the conflicts with Comyn escalated. In addition, there were rumors that John Balliol would be restored as king despite his abdication in 1296.

Instead, Scotland functioned without a monarch, and under the guidance of the country's Guardians, until 1306, one year after Wallace was captured, tortured, and executed.

Rise to the Throne

In early 1306, two very important events took place that would shape the future of Scotland. In February, matters came to a head between John Comyn and Robert. During an argument, Robert stabbed Comyn at a church in Dumfries, killing him. When word of Comyn’s death reached King Edward, he was livid; Comyn had been distantly related to the king, and Edward saw this as a deliberate plot to stir up dissent. Comyn’s son, John IV, was immediately whisked off to England for his own safety, and put into the care of a nobleman who was raising Edward’s own children.

Comyn Stabbed By Bruce
John Comyn was stabbed by Robert the Bruce in 1306. Print Collector / Getty Images

Just a few weeks later, at the beginning of March, Robert’s father, the 6th Earl of Annandale, died. With his father now dead, and Comyn also out of the way, Robert was the chief claimant to the Scottish throne. He moved rapidly to take power.

Robert was crowned king on March 25, but an attack by Edward’s army pushed him out of the country. For a year, Robert hid out in Ireland, raising a loyal army of his own, and in 1307 he returned to Scotland. In addition to battling Edward’s troops, he laid waste to the lands of Scottish nobles who supported the English king’s claim to rule Scotland. In 1309, Robert the Bruce held his first parliament.

Bannockburn and Border Raids

Over the next few years, Robert continued to fight against the English, and was able to reclaim much of Scotland's land. Perhaps his most famous victory of all took place at Bannockburn in the summer of 1314. That spring, Robert's younger brother Edward had laid siege to Stirling Castle, and King Edward II decided it was time to move up north and take Stirling back. Robert, upon hearing of these plans, rounded up his army and moved into position above the marshy area that surrounded the Bannock Burn (a burn is a creek), intending to stop English troops from reclaiming Stirling.

The Scottish army was thoroughly outnumbered, with an estimated five to ten thousand men, compared to an English force of more than twice that size. However, despite the larger numbers, the English were not expecting to encounter any Scottish resistance, so they were caught completely by surprise in the narrow, low-lying area of the marsh, as Robert's spearmen attacked from the wooded hillside. With English archers at the far back of the marching formation, the cavalry was rapidly decimated, and the army retreated. King Edward is said to have barely escaped with his life.

Following the victory at Bannockburn, Robert grew bolder in his attacks on England. No longer content to just wait around defending Scotland, he led incursions into the border regions of northern England, as well as into Yorkshire.

By 1315, he had attacked English troops in Ireland, at the request of Donall O'Neill, the king of Tyrone, one of Gaelic Ireland's eastern kingdoms. A year later, Robert's younger brother Edward was crowned as High King of Ireland, temporarily cementing the bond between Ireland and Scotland. Robert attempted for several years to bring about an alliance between the two countries, but eventually it crumbled, as the Irish saw Scottish occupation as no different than English occupation.

The Declaration of Arbroath

In 1320, Robert decided that diplomacy rather than military force might be a viable method of asserting Scottish independence. The Declaration of Arbroath, which later served as the template for America's Declaration of Independence, was sent to Pope John XXII. The document outlined all of the reasons that Scotland should be considered an independent nation. In addition to detailing the atrocities committed upon the country's people by King Edward II, the declaration specifically said that although Robert the Bruce had saved the country from English dominion, the nobility would not hesitate to replace him if he became unfit to rule.

One of the results of the declaration was that the Pope lifted Robert's excommunication, which had been in place since he murdered John Comyn in 1306. Some eight years after the Declaration of Arbroath was sealed by more than fifty Scottish nobles and dignitaries, King Edward III, the fourteen-year-old son of Edward II, signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton. This treaty declared peace between England and Scotland, and recognized Robert the Bruce as Scotland's lawful king.

Statue of Robert the Bruce at Stirling
Statue of Robert the Bruce at Stirling. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Death and Legacy

After a two-year-long illness, Robert the Bruce died at the age of fifty-four. Although there has been speculation that his death was caused by leprosy, there is no evidence to indicate that he suffered from the disease. Western University anthropology professor Andrew Nelson studied Robert's skull and foot bone in 2016, and concluded:

"The anterior nasal spine (the bone support around the nose) in a healthy person is teardrop-shaped; in a person with leprosy, that structure is eroded and almost circular. King Robert’s nasal spine is teardrop-shaped... In a person with leprosy, the end of th[e] metatarsal bone [from the foot] would be pointed, as if inserted into a pencil sharpener. This bone shows no sign of “pencilling.”

After his death, Robert's heart was removed and buried at Melrose Abbey, Roxburghshire. The rest of body was embalmed and interred at Dunfermline Abbey in Fife, but was not discovered until construction workers found the casket in 1818. Statues in his honor exist in several Scottish cities, including Stirling.

Robert the Bruce Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Robert I, also Robert the Bruce, Roibert a Briuis in medieval Gaelic.
  • Known for: King of Scotland and a celebrated warrior in the Scottish fight for independence from England.
  • Born: July 11, 1274 in Ayrshire, Scotland.
  • Died: June 7, 1329 at Cardross Manor, Dunbartonshire, Scotland.
  • Parents’ Names: Robert de Brus, the 6th Earl of Annandale, and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick.

Sources

  • "Letter from Robert the Bruce to Edward II Reveals Power Struggle in the Build Up to Bannockburn." University of Glasgow, 1 June 2013, www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2013/june/headline_279405_en.html.
  • Macdonald, Ken. “Reconstructed Face of Robert the Bruce Is Unveiled - BBC News.” BBC, BBC, 8 Dec. 2016, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-38242781.
  • Murray, James. “Robert the Bruce in Battle: A Battlefield Trail from Methven to Bannockburn.” 30 Aug. 2018, www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/military-history/pre-20th-century-conflict/art487284-Robert-the-Bruce-in-Battle-A-battlefield-trail-from-Methven-to-Bannockburn.
  • Watson, Fiona. “Great Scot, It's Robert the Bruce!” The History Press, www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/great-scot-it-s-robert-the-bruce/.