Robert I

Robert I (1274-1329), or Robert Bruce, was king of Scotland from 1306 to 1329. Leader of the successful resistance to the threat of English domination of his country, Bruce is regarded as one of the great patriots of Scottish history.

Robert Bruce was the eighth male to bear that name in a direct line going back to the first Robert, who probably took part in the Norman conquest of England and died about 1094. The family subsequently gained considerable lands and prominence in Scotland. The fifth Robert Bruce (died 1245) married the niece of King William, "the Lion," thus establishing a possible claim, albeit a distant one, to the Scottish throne. This claim was advanced by the sixth Robert on the highly complicated succession quarrel that arose in Scotland in 1290. William the Lion's grandson, Alexander III, had died in 1286, leaving as direct heir only a 3-year old granddaughter, Margaret, the "Maid of Norway" (her father was king of Norway). The problems of how to manage the minority reign of a small girl were grave enough, but when she died suddenly in 1290, some 13 competitors claimed to be her rightful successor as monarch of Scotland.

In this situation the commanding nature of England's king, Edward I, was the decisive factor. Any choice opposed by Edward would most likely be untenable, and the question was submitted to him for arbitration. The claims of two competitors clearly stood out: John Balliol, great-grandson of a brother of William the Lion by an eldest daughter; and Robert Bruce (VI), grandson by a younger daughter. Edward decided for Balliol; but before issuing his decision, he took oaths of allegiance from all the claimants, including Robert Bruce (VI) as well as his son Robert (VII).

This seventh Robert was the father of the patriotic leader and future king of Scotland; but, as has been seen, the position of the Bruces was originally that of appellants to, and sworn men of, the English King. Edward's decision had by no means settled the situation in Scotland. Balliol, suspected by the Scots of being an English puppet and by Edward of forswearing his oath, could not rule effectively, and the situation was complicated by the alliance of Scotland with France, an enemy of England. From 1296 Balliol was no longer a factor, and the only choices were direct English domination or Scottish independence, which meant war with England. William Wallace emerged as the leader of the Scottish resistance, winning a great victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297; but he was in turn defeated by Edward at Falkirk the following year, and though he kept up sporadic guerrilla warfare until his capture and execution in 1305, he was no longer a serious threat to the English. Besides, Wallace's movement was, nominally, to restore Balliol, a cause uncongenial to many of the leading Scots.


His Accession

Robert Bruce the eighth (hereafter called just Bruce) first emerged importantly as one of the "guardians" of the kingdom in December 1298, ostensibly on behalf of Edward I. The other principal guardian was John Comyn, nicknamed "The Red," whose affinity with the house of Balliol led to a lasting quarrel with Bruce from at least 1299. Bruce resigned as guardian in 1300, and though on the surface he was at peace with Edward, it is likely that he was thinking of the crown, especially after the death of his father (who had earlier transferred the Bruce claim to him) in 1304. He had apparently entered into a secret alliance with the patriotic Bishop Lamberton of St. Andrews, and perhaps through fear that his plans would be disclosed, he killed Comyn the Red in a church in Dumfries in February 1306. This violent and probably unpremeditated deed at once pushed Bruce to the head of the Scottish resistance. Within 6 weeks he was crowned as Robert I, King of Scotland.

In England, Edward I reacted strongly to the news and at the famous "Feast of Swans" swore to avenge Comyn's death and destroy Bruce (who had also been excommunicated by the Pope for profaning the church at Dumfries). Bruce was immediately in trouble from the well-led English forces, as well as from the adherents of Comyn, and soon found himself a king apparently without a following, hiding in the western highlands, or even in Ireland. But the long final illness and death of Edward I in 1307 marked a turning point. The new English king, Edward II, was from the first unpopular with his nobility and, as a military leader, was beneath comparison with his father. From spring 1307 Bruce's fortunes began to revive. Edward II was vacillating and indecisive in his actions, and Bruce was able to make headway against both the English and his remaining Scottish enemies. In March 1309 a truce was made with England, whose holdings in Scotland were reduced to only a few castles.

In the next few years expeditions were made into the northern parts of England, and the last possession of the English in Scotland, Stirling Castle, was heavily besieged. In a concerted effort to remedy the situation, Edward II in 1314 led a large army to the relief of Stirling, but it was defeated by Bruce and his outnumbered Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. The English fled in confusion, and Bruce was undisputed master of his country. Though tensions with England continued, there was no further major threat from the English in Bruce's lifetime; nor was there further serious dissension in Scotland.

From 1309 Bruce was holding parliaments and could attend in a systematic way to the government of the country. Parliament addressed itself to the succession problem in 1315, 1318 (when Bruce's brother and heir presumptive, Edward, was killed in Ireland), and 1326 (after the birth 2 years earlier of Bruce's first son and eventual successor, David). Bruce's relations with the papacy remained strained, until the papal refusal to recognize Bruce as king was reversed by John XXII in 1328. The Scottish hierarchy had consistently supported the King. In his later years Bruce suffered from what was called, and may have been, leprosy. He died at his country estate at Cardross in June 1329, just before the marriage of his son David to the sister of the new English king, Edward III, as the final provision of a peace treaty between the two countries.


Further Reading on Robert I

John Barbour's long poem, The Bruce (ca. 1375; modern translation by Archibald A. H. Douglas, 1964), is the principal narrative source. The major modern work on Robert I is G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (1965). Older studies are Sir Herbert Maxwell, Robert the Bruce and the Struggle for Scottish Independence (1898), and Agnes Mure Mackenzie, Robert Bruce: King of Scots (1934). For historical background see William Croft Dickinson, A New History of Scotland, vol. 1 (1961; 2d ed. 1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Barbour, John, Barbour's Bruce: a fredome is a noble thing!, Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1980-1985.

Barrow, G. W. S., Robert Bruce and the community of the realm of Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976.

Mackay, James A. (James Alexander), Robert Bruce: King of Scots, London: Hale, 1974.

Scott, Ronald McNair, Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1989, 1982; Carroll & Graf, 1996.

Tranter, Nigel G., A traveller's guide to the Scotland of Robert the Bruce, Harrisburg, PA, USA: Historical Times, 1985.