ROBERT the BRUCE – Hero or Villain?

Today the spotlight is on Robert the Bruce. Naturally, he holds a prominent role in my story about his sisters, and it is through their eyes that we see him grow into manhood and his role as king.

As a novelist, I love to speculate on the driving force behind a character’s actions, to imagine the joys and sorrows, the gnawing fear and towering aspirations. I’m not an historian, but many facts about Robert the Bruce are well-known and therefore open to discussion and debate; his actions are best measured, not against our values and beliefs, but within the rich context of his time.

Let’s dive head-first into the murky waters of betrayal! So often the memory of Robert the Bruce is sullied by claims that he was a wily betrayer ─ of King John Balliol; William Wallace; the Scots’ nation; the murdered John Comyn the Red. And let’s not forget, Robert’s second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, and the fact that he had at least one mistress, during Elizabeth’s eight years of imprisonment, who bore him children. Other crimes railed against him include the savage treatment of his enemies ─ the brutal harrowing of Comyn lands and people in Galloway and in the north east ─ and the ill-famed invasion of Ireland.

Was he a selfish, murdering bastard who cared for nought but himself and the aggrandizement of his family’s interests? The answer comes as a resounding ‘Yes!’ on the part of his critics. But let’s take a step backwards and reflect, in a summary of sorts, on the context of Robert’s life and his character, and see where that takes us. In a roundabout way, in time, it will lead us to his sisters, for his decisions catapulted them into grave danger. No doubt they, too, cursed him when their spirits were raw.

  •  Robert the Bruce was truly a flawed hero: the best kind from a literary point of view. He was a living, breathing man who made mistakes and sought to rectify them. He had to out-maneuver his enemies ─ not least the great Edward 1 and all the might and power of the English, as well as his enemies amongst the Scots ─ with few resources but his wits and an indomitable band of loyal supporters. His choices were simple, despite their innate complexity. ‘Adapt or Perish’ might have been his motto. His courage and persistence have never been doubted.  
  • Medieval Scotland was not the country it is today, to state the obvious. Back then, its nationhood was in a state of flux, fractured by competing interests and beliefs. The ‘Celtic highlands versus the Anglo-Norman faction’ is much too simple a dichotomy ─ ‘the ragged poor versus the self-indulgent rich’, too shallow ─ for these reflect our one-dimensional perspective of hindsight. Suffice to say, Robert the Bruce was critical, in propelling Scotland forward towards its current sense of identity. If William Wallace was Scotland’s conscience, then Robert the Bruce was its grit and determination: some might even say its heart and soul.
  • Robert was under the pump, but the punishment came so cruelly – the deaths of three of his brothers; his womenfolk incarcerated; the loss of lands and title, home and hearth, and his health suffered. Sympathy tilted his way. In true Judeo-Christian tradition, Robert was punished for his ‘so-called’ misdemeanors. And his detractors cheered!
  • And then the epiphany, Robert metamorphosed into ‘Good King Robert 1 of Scotland’.  It has been said that the best judge of a man’s character is how he deals with power. During his solid reign of twenty three years, Robert brought Scotland from its oppressed state, via a second war with England, to freedom from physical, political, economic and social chaos. No mean feat, but his detractors put this down to storytellers of the day paid to ‘spin’ out the bad and replace it with good.

Amidst this medieval morality tale, who was the real Robert the Bruce? My novel seeks to follow Robert’s path in all its vivid, compelling complexity. You, the reader, must reach your own conclusions.

Blood Feuds and War!

Medieval Scotland – a more perilous place would be hard to imagine!

There are so many layers and convolutions to the polarizing events of the late 13th and early 14th centuries that to offer even a modest précis erodes clarity and drama from such intricate and calamitous times. I must confess to being stymied by such a task and can offer only a loose sketch to set the scene for the forthcoming interviews with Robert and his sisters. For a more robust and detailed account, delve into Professor Barrow’s esteemed work on Robert the Bruce.

Some describe the Scottish Wars of Independence as a civil war between the powerful Bruce and Comyn families. Could it be that simple? I  suspect not, but tempers were frayed by conflicting interests and volcanic personalities, and kinship links offered security and survival.

Let’s pick up the story…

Were the Bruces Anglo-Norman interlopers as is so often suggested? This claim seems wide of the mark for the Bruces had lived in Scotland for many generations, having befriended King David I and been given lands in Scotland’s southwest. Certainly, they were cross-border lords who owned estates both in Scotland and England, as many nobles did, and carried out high-level, administrative functions for both countries in times of peace. The family descended from David I and thus Robert’s grandfather could put forward his case to be King of Scots with confidence. But his rival claimant was John Balliol, kinsman of the Comyns – mortal enemies of the Bruce family.

Enter King Edward I of England…

He chose Balliol’s stronger legal claim over Bruce, thus igniting the fuse: simmering unrest and division followed. Robert’s father and grandfather refused to support Balliol for they deemed him a poor choice for king and no match for the fiery Edward. Balliol took the Bruce lands for his Comyn kinfolk and the Bruces were forced out of their rightful place in Scottish society. Doubt surrounded the English king’s motives: perhaps a divided Scotland, weakened by internal dissent, would best serve his interests. In time, he defeated the Scots in battle at Falkirk and executed Sir William Wallace most cruelly. More battles! More defeat! And the people of Berwick lay dead in their thousands. Later, Edward stripped King John Balliol of his royal powers and imprisoned him in the Tower, already heaving with Scottish prisoners.

The ancient Kingdom of Scots became a dominion of England, similar to Wales, crushed by the relentless might of a much larger, better-equipped and well-organized foe. Englishmen filled the castles and towns of Scotland and ran the country.

The stage was set for a new rebellion.

Enter Robert the Bruce…

Yesterday, we were left with one hell of a cliff hanger — King Alexander III of Scotland tumbled from the cliffs of Kinghorn. See what happens next? 

 ‘With the death of the king, many put forward their claims for the crown. One such claimant was old Robert Bruce (the Lord of Annandale and grandfather of Robert the Bruce) who became known as the Competitor. Rival factions threatened to split the country. The Scottish parliament sent envoys to seek out Edward I of England in far off Gascony in southern France, and ask for his advice and protection.’ 

 From our perspective, this seems a naïve act but back then …

‘Scotland’s relationship with England’s monarchs had been on favourable terms: respectful, but wary. Even Alexander III had been prepared to acknowledge, as did many Anglo-Scottish barons, King Edward’s overlordship. However, this extended only to their lands in England, not those in Scotland. Encroachment by their capricious neighbour was an ever-present danger. The country threatened to implode.

They even tried a treaty of sorts — to marry the royal heirs of England and Scotland and join the kingdoms. This was a tried and true formula. Did it work this time?

‘With the Treaty of Birgham, six-year-old Margaret, granddaughter of the deceased King of Scots and daughter of Eric II of Norway, was to marry Edward’s infant son. Some objected, concerned this marriage – where Margaret was, but a pawn to be used – could give the English king the pretext to interfere in the affairs of Scotland. Scottish and English nobles were sent to collect the child. During the voyage, the little Maid of Norway sickened and died. The year was 1290.’

Could it get any worse? Oh yes!

From that time on, battle lines were drawn by the attorneys and adjudicators of the thirteen claimants for the Scottish crown, delivering the complexities of claim and counter claim before a far-from-impartial judge: Edward of England. It was achieved by a piece of adroit political manoeuvring on his part, which would spell trouble for Scotland as an independent country.’

The legal battle came down to two claimants who were descended from an old Scottish king, David I. In the Anglo-Norman world of England and Scotland, rules of hereditary decreed who would be king. But Scotland was also a Celtic nation and the Celts had a different system. Civil war loomed for there were two families prepared to fight over the crown.

‘Principal amongst those claims was that of John Balliol who was perceived to have the most direct, and therefore senior hereditary right of primogeniture to the throne. His claim was supported by the closely-related and powerful Comyn family. One of their territories, the region of Galloway in southwest Scotland, bordered that of their long time rivals: the Bruce family, the Earls of Carrick and Lords of Annandale.’

Find out next time who wins…

Coming Soon!

Over the next few months, some of the key figures from ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ will be featured on this blog in a series of interviews. Read about their experiences first hand and ask your own questions as well. They’re a feisty bunch, so don’t hold back…

But first, forget Braveheart! Much too loose with the truth for me. Instead, let’s take a stroll through some of the key issues facing Scotland and the Bruce family.

Cast your mind back in time. Hear the beat of Scotland’s ancient heart…

‘Scotland was a land of rich and ancient beauty, coveted by many. Its wildness was matched by its people. They were a remarkable mix of races and creeds, both ancient and new: native Picts; Strathclyde Britons; Angles and Saxons from the Germanic continent; Celtic Gaels from Ireland; Vikings and Danes from across the cold North Sea; Flemings from Flanders and the feudal Normans, the newest arrivals, from France. These warriors, traders and settlers formed a loose conglomeration of layered cultures. It is hardly surprising this ill-meshed society was torn apart, often from within by bitter rivalry between families and further weakened by external wars. By the late thirteenth century, the volatile kingdom of Scots was as brittle as dry tinder, ready for the spark which would set it ablaze. Civil war threatened and, to the south, Scotland’s great neighbour flexed its muscles, flint-stone at the ready.

One bitter night in 1286, King Alexander III of Scotland crossed the storm-tossed Forth, making haste to lie with his beautiful French queen. Yolande de Dreux was his second wife, and there was no surviving male heir from this marriage. As his stallion tumbled from the cliffs of Kinghorn, so too had Scotland careened out of control…’




Coming Soon!