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The Scottish Wars of Independence: Robert the Bruce

Updated on November 10, 2014

The Bruce

A Statue of the Robert the Bruce at Stirling Castle
A Statue of the Robert the Bruce at Stirling Castle | Source

Rise to Power

Just like his grandfather, Robert the Bruce deeply desired the Scottish Crown, and all of his actions thus far in the Scottish Wars suggested that, switching allegiances more times than he had switched clothes, so as to gain both the favour of Edward I of England and the Scottish nobles. So with that piece of information at hand, let’s move on to how Bruce rose to power. On the 10th February 1306, Bruce and John Comyn, Guardian of Scotland were conducting heated negotiations within the confines of the Greyfriars Kirk Chapel in Dumfries. Bruce became increasingly irritated as each of his offers was rejected by Comyn; in turn he rejected Comyn’s offers, probably out of spite. Finally, his temper snapped and he stabbed Comyn in the chest. Stricken, Comyn fell to the floor of the Chapel, mortally wounded; instead of feeling remorse, Bruce committed perhaps the gravest sin you could commit by condemning Comyn’s soul to eternal damnation.

Bruce had in one stroke, eliminated his rival. His next move was to come out of hiding and have himself proclaimed, King of Scotland. He gathered together an assortment of shocked followers and travelled on to Fife, where he was inaugurated as King of the Scots by the Countess of Fife.

Inspiration for a King

Robert the Bruce observing the Spider during his self imposed exile.
Robert the Bruce observing the Spider during his self imposed exile. | Source

The King and the Spider

Within his first few months on the throne, Bruce met with disaster. In the winter of 1306, his small, newly fledged army was defeated at the Methven Woods near Perth. The English response to Bruce’s ascension to the throne was rapid and decisive. The Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence assembled his fast moving Cavalry and ambushed Bruce’s army, as it was camping down for the night.

As he, and the remnants of his army fled; the murder of Comyn came back to haunt him, for he would be ambushed again by a distant relative of the murdered Guardian, MacDougall of Argyll at the Head of Strathfilian. His forces were routed and he was quickly on the run again. To compound the situation even further, Bruce’s family had failed to flee safely and had to seek sanctuary at Kildrummy Castle, which was under siege from Edward’s army. Bruce’s family may have been able to escape, but they were double crossed by one of the defenders and handed over to the English. Upon the capture of the Castle, the English rounded up most of Bruce’s supporters, including his younger brother Neil and executed them all publicly.

Once again, the King of the Scots was on the run, he was now King Hob (King Nobody). At this point, he disappears from the historical record for a while, he may have fled to Ireland or the Western Isles or the Orkney Islands. According to a 19th Century legend written by Sir Walter Scott, Bruce hid in a cave on Rathlin Island, whilst there he took the time to ponder the defeats and setbacks that he had endured, as he did so he became conscious of a Spider tirelessly spinning his web. Time and time again the Spider would falter, but it never gave up trying to craft its silken trap. Bruce took inspiration from this, and resolved not to give up the fight against England.

Civil War

In early 1307, Robert the Bruce re-enters the history books, returning to Scotland with the intention of raising an army, but had minimal success early on. But then he won a stroke of luck; down in London, an elderly Edward I passed away, the English Crown now passed to his son Edward II. With the news of the ruthless King’s death, men flocked to join Bruce’s cause. But before he could carry on his fight with the English, Bruce had one tiny little problem to overcome. The Comyn family and supporters were not prepared to allow Bruce to continue ruling over Scotland, not after the murderous crime he’d committed against John. The scene was set for a bitter Civil War; Bruce elected to take the war to the Comyn faction and marched into Moray with a force of 3000 men. He made lightning attacks on Comyn Castles, capturing them all within a few months with relative ease. The war came to a head at Inverurie, a Battle that would shape Scotland’s short term future. Bruce had been taken ill, his opposing Commander, the Earl of Buchan who had suffered a bitter defeat at Slioch, saw this has his last chance to finally get one over Bruce; he spread rumours through the ranks that Bruce was near deaths door, serving to encourage his men to attack with vigour. Bruce may have been ill, but he managed to recover enough to lead his men from Horseback. Buchan’s army broke down, and with that so did the Comyn faction in the north east.

Bruce gave the order for his men to burn crops, livestock and anything else that belonged to the Comyn faction. With the North East subdued, Bruce proceeded to mount attacks on both Scottish and English strongholds. Edward II’s garrisons fell, and were destroyed by Bruce. By doing this, he was preventing his enemies from using them against him in the future. By 1313, only Berwick and Stirling remained in English hands, this was despite a serious of failed expeditions north by Edward II. Stirling was pivotal to the outcome of the war, as it was regarded by both sides as the gateway to the north. The defenders of the Castle were willing to surrender if not relieved by an English army by Midsummer’s day, 1314. Edward II was nowhere near as ruthless or tactically astute as his father, but it was a challenge that he could not afford to ignore, he marched his army north

The Battle of Bannockburn

A lot has written about this legendary Battle down the long years that have passed, spawning all sorts of different stories, legends and tales. The Battle was actually fought over two days, the 23rd and 24th June. It wasn’t inevitable that the Bruce was destined to face off against Edward, in past instances Bruce had used the customary Scottish trick of retreating to the Highlands, goading the English to follow them, until winter forced them to withdraw. Unlike his father, Edward II could not afford a lengthy winter campaign. What he required was a quick and crushing victory so as to finish off the Bruce and the Scots and complete the work that his father started. You can imagine Edward’s delight when he discovered that he would finally get to face the Bruce in battle. On paper, England had the advantage, through numbers, and also experience, victory seemed certain for Edward.

The King's Challenge

Henry de Bohun challenged Bruce to a duel- which he lost.
Henry de Bohun challenged Bruce to a duel- which he lost. | Source

The Field of Battle

Battlefield positions on the first day.
Battlefield positions on the first day. | Source

The First Day

Early on the first day, the English army approached Stirling Castle along an old Roman road. Representatives from the Castle approached the King and warned of a considerable Scottish force hiding in the woods of Kings Park at Coxet Hill. Edward mulled it over, before sending two scout parties forward, one was under the command of Sir Robert Clifford, his orders were to scout the flat land that lay to the east of the road, the locals called it the Carse. The other scouting party was under the command of the Earl of Hereford; he had to ride directly up the road towards where the Scottish was hiding.

Much to Hereford’s astonishment, he came face to face with Bruce himself, who was inspecting his men at the edge of the woods. A young Knight called Henry de Bohun, called out a challenge to the King. Bruce accepted, and made ready to meet the confident young Englishman. De Bohun charged, Bruce remained motionless and calm, hardly daring to breathe. At the last moment, Bruce sidestepped de Bohun’s Horse, swung his war axe and connected with the back of de Bohun’s head. De Bohun was killed instantly, the challenge was over. The incensed English Knights charged, but were easily repelled by the rows of Scottish Pikemen. Later on, Bruce would make a cheeky complaint about his breaking his axe during the challenge.

Clifford’s advance fared no better; his foray into the Carse had revealed the ground to be littered with holes that had been dug by the Scots, the ground itself was flat, but rather boggy underfoot. All of a sudden, in a flash the English were surprised by the Earl of Moray, Thomas Randolph, who led his Pikemen out of the trees, challenging the Knights to attack, the result was the same as it had been for Hereford’s men.

Edward, upon hearing this discussed the matter with his advisors, between them, they agreed that the best course of action was to move the entire army under the cover of darkness, in order that they could take up positions across the Carse, facing the Scottish, in the hope they might catch them unprepared. This meant that Edward’s troops would have to endure a sleepless night, just in case they themselves were surprised. The defeat of Clifford and Hereford had affected morale in the English camp; there was political infighting among Edward’s advisors. The problem was that the King had gotten rid of many of his more experienced and respected nobles. What’s more, the King was very much a delegator and took very little part in the planning process. As a sign of how much things had deteriorated, a Scottish Knight, whom had been loyal to Edward I, betrayed his son and rode to Bruce’s camp and informed of the whereabouts and position of the English army, he elaborated to Bruce that the army was in disarray, totally organised and that if he wanted to fight, then he should do it now.

State of Play

Battlefield positions on the second day.
Battlefield positions on the second day. | Source

The Second Day

The second day of Battle started with the Scottish troops marching from the forest. Edward, who witnessed it from afar, was amazed that the Scots had not run away. During the night, the English position had become somewhat confused; somehow the Archers had failed to get into a position to fire on the English without hitting their own troops. Nevertheless, the English and Scottish charged towards each other. But, the English were at a disadvantage, the ground was wet and slippery for both Man and Horse. The Scots on the other hand were well drilled in fighting on this sort of terrain, the Pikemen kept their formations closely packed together, making it impossible for the English Knights to break through. Whilst the Scots continued to move forward, the English Knights were pushed back, with no room to move, the Scots cut them down with ease.

Finally, the confusion regarding the Archers was resolved and they could now fire on the enemy safely, but as they took up their final position; Sir Robert Keith and James Douglas attacked with Cavalry, the Archers were completely defenceless and scattered in all directions. Up on the top of Coxet Hill, a force of Scottish Highlanders and reserves charged downhill waving homemade banners. The astounded English thought that somehow Bruce had managed to summon a fresh army, so they retreated en masse. The Scots gave chase, caught up and what followed can only be described as carnage. Knight and Commoner alike met their end on the ends of Scottish blades.

Edward fought bravely in the Battle, and had to defend himself from Scottish soldiers, who tugged on his harness and clothes, in an attempt to claim the ultimate prize, but eventually some Knights came to his aid and he was escorted away from the Battlefield. Bannockburn was a very impressive victory for Scotland, but unfortunately for them, Edward’s escape meant that the war would go on.

Bannockburn Today

A Statue of Robert the Bruce at the Bannockburn Memorial.
A Statue of Robert the Bruce at the Bannockburn Memorial. | Source

The Fall of Berwick

A 14th Century print of the Men at Arms during the struggle for Berwick.
A 14th Century print of the Men at Arms during the struggle for Berwick. | Source

The War goes on

Despite the stunning victory at Bannockburn, the Scottish hadn’t done enough to end the war. A year after the Battle, the Scottish decided to take the Battle to Edward, by invading Ireland with a sizable army under the command of Bruce’s brother, Edward. It was an ambitious plan, Edward Bruce wasn’t a great military leader like his brother was, and he ultimately failed to destroy the English or unite the constantly bickering Irish clans. He died in 1318 at Dundalk.

Meanwhile Robert the Bruce decided to embark on a series of invasions of Northern England, between 1315 and 1318. By the end of 1318, Berwick and much of Northern England was in Scottish hands. Edward, sensing a looming crisis tried to bring Bruce to battle, but the clever Scottish King made canny use of guerrilla warfare to hurt the English, without losing too many of his own men. Desperate, Edward attempted to launch his own series of invasions, but all failed miserably. Bruce, on the other hand launched a number of counter invasions with very desirable results. The Scottish King’s reputation as a very able military commander grew, whilst Edward’s ineptness as a leader was there for all to see.

Desperate Measures

Edward realised that he had little chance of achieving a successful outcome against Bruce on the Battlefield. So he tried his hand at diplomacy instead; he appealed to Pope John XXII to excommunicate Bruce as a punishment for his murder of Comyn, much to his delight the Pope granted his wish.

Mortified, the Scottish nobles quickly sent a letter in response pleading their case; the letter would come to be known as the Declaration of Arbroath. It basically outlined reasons for Scottish Independence by attempting to justify Bruce’s usurpation of the throne back in 1306. The nobles stated that the Scottish people desired freedom above anything else, and were determined to do whatever it took to keep that freedom. The Declaration event went as far to say, that if Bruce was in anyway unfit to rule, then a suitable candidate would be selected to rule in his stead. Such a thing was virtually unheard of in the medieval era.

Literature on Robert the Bruce

Freedom at Last

The Pope heeded the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath and overturned his original decision. Edward had failed again, and Bruce saw his opportunity to pile the pressure on the beleaguered English King. For Edward though, his opportunities had run out, for he was deposed from the throne, by his wife and her young lover, Mortimer. A coalition of Barons seized control and murdered the King; in haste Edward’s young son, was crowned as Edward III, his mother and Mortimer became legal guardians, ruling the Kingdom until he came of age.

Watching these extraordinary events unfold, Bruce quickly ordered his friend, Douglas to carry out an invasion of Northern England, while he led another invasion of Ireland. The English tried to fight back, but were unable to repel the swift Scottish attacks. Fearful of another Baron uprising, the English finally agreed to peace terms.

Finally, in 1328 England and Scotland were at peace. The Treaty of Edinburgh recognised Robert the Bruce as King of the Scots, and Scotland was now recognised as an independent country. Bruce, despite rapidly failing health had lived long enough to see his greatest dream come true, he died the following year, but he died a free man, and left Scotland as a free country at last.

Scottish Independence?

Just out of curiosity; what are people's thoughts on the possiblity of Scotland becoming an independent country again? Feel free to elaborate.

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    • alian346 profile image

      alian346 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      The Bruce was not a very good diplomat but he had tremendous perseverance. He, like Wallace, is a Scottish legend.

      Again - well-written and easy to read.

      Ian.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi again Ian, while I don't admire the Bruce in the same way as Wallace. You have to admire his willingness to do whatever it takes to get his prize, even siding with Edward on occasion. But, like you I admire his perseverance, and it seemed fitting that in his final year, he finally became the undisputed King of Scotland.

    • alian346 profile image

      alian346 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      That he did!

      Ian.

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