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King Robert The Bruce's Name Around the Four Sides of the Tower of Dunfermline Abbey Church
King Robert The Bruce's Name Around the Four Sides
of the Tower of Dunfermline Abbey Church

Robert the Bruce, or Robert I of Scotland, or Robert Bruce, lived from 11 July 1274 to 7 June 1329 and was King of Scotland from 25 March 1306 to 7 June 1329. He was the son of Robert Bruce, 6th Lord of Annandale, and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, and was born at Turnberry Castle. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Statue of Robert at Edinburgh Castle
Statue of Robert at Edinburgh Castle
Dunstaffnage Castle
Dunstaffnage Castle

The Bruce family was one of the most powerful in Scotland. They confusingly tended to call the eldest son in each generation Robert. Robert's grandfather, also called Robert Bruce, had been one of the competitors from among whom King Edward I had chosen John Balliol to be King of Scotland in 1292. Edward's involvement had been welcomed as a means of heading off civil war between the older Robert Bruce and the Comyn family over the succession, and had come as Robert Bruce was on the verge of seizing the crown for himself.

In the event the older Robert Bruce's claim was judged by Edward I's assessors to be marginally less strong than John Balliol's. Although probably the legally correct decision, this choice was never accepted by the Bruce family, and their claim on the Scottish crown was passed down via the old Robert's son (yet another Robert Bruce) to the Robert we are considering here.

John Balliol was forced to abdicate by Edward I in 1296 and thereafter Edward ruled Scotland as a province of England. Robert the Bruce (our Robert the Bruce) took part in a revolt of Scottish nobles against Edward I in 1296 that concluded with the Capitulation of Irvine. Under this the nobles, including Robert, had to swear allegiance to Edward I.

After the Scottish victory under William Wallace and Andrew Murray in September 1297 at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Bruce supported the Scottish cause: but after Wallace's defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1297, Bruce's lands were amongst those not confiscated by Edward I. This has led some to suggest that Robert actually fought on the English side at Falkirk, but most feel this unlikely: certainly his portrayal in the film Braveheart has more to do with drama than history. It seems more likely that Edward I felt that Bruce was someone whose allegiance could be won or brought: and he had need of some supporters in Scotland.

Wallace resigned the Guardianship of Scotland after the Battle of Falkirk and dropped out of sight for a number of years. Joint Guardianship of Scotland was bestowed by the collected nobility of Scotland on Robert the Bruce and on John III Comyn of Badenoch, the Red Comyn. The Bruces and the Comyns had been arch-enemies for at least three generations, since a Comyn stood as a competitor against grandfather Robert Bruce's claim to the Scottish crown in 1290, then supported the cause of John Balliol, a close relative, in a move that almost sparked civil war. John III Comyn was Balliol's nephew. As joint Guardians, Bruce and Comyn were unable to work together and in 1299 William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, was appointed as a third Guardian. Bruce resigned his part of the Guardianship in 1300.

Edward I of England invaded Scotland once more in July 1301 and in January 1302 a truce was agreed. As part of this, many Scottish nobles, including Bruce, pledged themselves to the English King. Many reasons have been offered for this: most likely is that he was not prepared to risk his estates in support of a cause that would see John Balliol returned to the throne when Bruce believed that his own grandfather ought to have been made King instead. Edward invaded again in 1303 and in February 1304 the Scots (except William Wallace, who may have been abroad) under the sole Guardianship of John III Comyn, agreed peace terms with Edward.

By the end of 1305 there were signs that Edward I believed that Bruce was plotting against him: but Bruce's repeated switching of sides meant he was also little trusted by many in Scotland. Bruce, it seems, was planning to seize the arguably vacant crown of Scotland for himself. His main obstacle in Scotland was John III Comyn. On 10 February 1306 the two met to discuss their differences in the safe and neutral Church of the Grey Friars in Dumfries. It seems they disagreed, either because both wanted the Scottish crown for themselves, or because Comyn refused to lend his support to Bruce's planned uprising against the English. Robert Bruce drew a dagger and stabbed Comyn in front of the high altar of the church. Bruce fled the church, telling waiting comrades outside what had happened. One of them, Sir Roger Kirkpatrick, went back in and finished off the seriously wounded Comyn.

It is unlikely that Bruce had gone to the meeting intending to murder the leading member of the most powerful family in Scotland: and certainly not in a place that caused revulsion in an age well used to savagery. But the die was cast and Bruce had no choice but to press on with his plans, in very different circumstances to those he had hoped for. His first move was to take the strongholds of the Comyns in Southern Scotland. His second was to confess his crime to the Bishop of Glasgow and receive absolution, on condition that as King he would be suitably respectful of the church. There is strong evidence that Bruce's plans - the murder of Comyn aside - were supported in advance by many in the Church in Scotland.

Robert I of Scotland was inaugurated at Scone on 25 March 1306. The Stone of Destiny and the royal regalia had all been taken south by Edward I in 1296, so it was a simple ceremony. This was lead by Isabella, Countess of Buchan, who claimed the right of her family, the Macduff Earls of Fife, to crown Scottish Kings, even if the crown were notably absent on this occasion. Continues in Robert the Bruce: Part 2.

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