Scottish myths 29

 Robert the Bruce

Legendary to some extent, but the story of Robert the Bruce is also based on 'historical facts'. They depend on the nationality of who records them, on whose side they were on, and if they were in reasonable physical and mental health when they wrote them down.

It's recorded that after William Wallace was captured and cruelly executed, King Edward of England was sure that there was no further obstacle between him and the realisation of his ambition to rule Scotland as well as England. But the Scots are never short of heros.

Despite his relatively short life 1274-1329, Robert the Bruce (Gaelic- Roibert a Briuis) was the essential founder of Scottish monarchy, and reputed to be one of Scotland's greatest Kings.
As fourth great-grandson of David I, he claimed the throne of Scotland and fought so valiantly for Scotland's independence, that he will always be acclaimed a national hero.

Although it has been said that the Bruce's loyalty to Scotland alternated with his compromising with the English, his engagement to the Scottish cause eventually became total.
Beforehand however, there was a certain amount of distrust amongst the Scottish clans regarding the Bruce. His right to the throne of Scotland was also contested by a certain John Comyn, who had always shown uncompromising resolution to oppose the English. He was also a powerful Scottish noble, due to his benefiting from the support of eminent Scottish and even English nobles.

It is also recorded that in 1305, a sworn, signed and sealed agreement was made on the understanding that John Comyn, as the alternative pretender to the Scottish throne, would renounce his claim to the crown if Robert the Bruce bestowed him with his lands and led an organised army to counter any attempt of English domination.

On being informed of this, King Edward II of England tried to arrest the Bruce during one of his visits to the court of England. Aware of his father-in-law's intention, Ralph de Monhermer sent the Bruce 'twelve pence and a pair of spurs' by way of a warning. On receiving this, although Robert the Bruce already owned a pair of spurs and probably had a couple of sixpences in his sporran, he immediately understood and took his leave with delay.

Whether it's true that he had time to persuade a smithy to re-nail his steed's horseshoes in reverse so that the traces in the snow indicated the opposite direction from where the Bruce actually galloped, has never been certified, but the fact remains he successfully escaped.

As it was generally thought that Comyn had betrayed the Bruce, the two men met in the Chapel of Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries in February, 1306, where the Bruce accused him of treachery. This led to a fight between them, and to the Bruce finally slaying John Comyn.
The Bruce then knew that he had no other choice but to become an outlaw, or king of Scotland.

After a victorious attack against the English garrison at Dumfries Castle, the Bruce hastened to Glasgow to seek absolution from Bishop Wishart for having committed sacrilege at Greyfriars Monastery. Although this was granted and generally accepted by the clergy throughout Scotland, he was still excommunicated by the Pope.

(English history records a different story devoid of any treachery. King Edward was never informed by Comyn. In view of the sacrilege he wrote to the Pope to seek and obtain the Bruce's excommunication).

At Scone, the 25th March, 1306, six weeks after the death of Comyn, Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scotland by Bishop William de Lamberton.

The most well known legend recounts how during his period in hiding, after his properties had been seized, his wife and daughter captured by the British, and the Countess of Buchan, present at the Bruce's coronation at Scone, was confined to a iron cage where she starved to death suspended from the castle walls, the Bruce sought refuge in a cave.

The cave was in Raithlin Island, off the coast of northern Ireland. It was there where Robert the Bruce was alleged to have been intrigued by a fat spider trying to climb up a thread of its web. No matter how many times the spider failed in its attempt, it never gave up. And eventually it finally succeeded.
This simple reality of nature was said to have been an inspiring source of encouragement to the Bruce. Enough to help him succeed in winning a series of battles against the English, including the glorious crowning victory in 1314 of the Battle of Bannockburn (Blàr Allt a' Bhonnaich in Gaelic).

Alternatively, Robert the Bruce, cowering in his cave, didn't have much time or care for spiders. Exhausted and wishing to sleep undisturbed by creepy-crawlies, aghast at the notion of having any wee beasties scuttling about under his grubby kilt, he cleaned up the cave as best he could, brushed away all the murky cobwebs and squashed their owners. But as this version lacks the boldness, charm and poetry of the famous legend, it would be churlish to even consider it.

The battle was fought at Stirling. Robert the Bruce had chosen an ideal location south of the city, his right flank protected by Bannock Burn and his men on a slope above marshland.
In addition trenches had been dug below them. They were hidden with bracken and heather.

The ten, glinting, banner waving battalions of the English army were an awe-inspiring sight, but the clansmen, armed with their long spears, were resolute.
Robert the Bruce thought it fitting there and then to commemorate mass with his men.

Inexperienced Edward II, took this to be a sign of surrender and joyously declared 'They crave mercy'.  He was respectfully corrected by a Sir Humphrey Umfraville: 'It is of Heaven, and not of Your Highness; for on that field they will be victorious or die'.
The English archers caused great havoc with their thick rain of arrows, then the heavily laden foot-soldiers trundled towards the Scottish lines, but ended up in the pits. Any who managed to reach the lines of the Highlanders were immediately slain by spear or claymore.
Again and again the English cavalry foolishly tried to break through the lethal defence of the spear armed, stoic Scots, but in vain. The few who were able to withdraw, allowed the English archers to take over once more.

The Bruce then ordered the Scots to charge, and this was enough to cause the already dispirited English army to panic and retreat in all directions.
The victory of Battle of Bannockburn led to the Treaty of Northampton which (in return for the tidy sum of £100, 000 sterling) assured Scottish independence for as long as four hundred years. It also established Robert the Bruce as a most worthy king of Scotland and a legendary hero. 

The famous Declaration of Arbroath (1320) reinforced the position and prestige of Robert the Bruce. Pope John XXII granted the reintegration of the Bruce, and in 1328 the young King Edward III signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northamton which was ratified by English Parliament on the 1st May of that year. It recognised Scottish independence and Robert the Bruce as legitimate King of Scotland.

Scottish myths 30
Scottish myths 28

Text © Mirino. Top image- Drawing by Andrew Hillhouse (Robert the Bruce slaying the English Knight, Henry de Bohun, on the first day of the Battle of Bannockburn). I came across Andrew's work quite by chance here and was very impressed with his skill as a historic illustrator. With grateful thanks for allowing me to use this particular drawing.   
Second image- a frame from a film re-enacting the Battle of Bannockburn. With thanks.                                              
August, 2013

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