Robert the Bruce (Robert I): Life, Reign & Accomplishments of the Warrior-King of Scots
For many centuries during the medieval period, England remained one of the most powerful kingdoms, dominating over the smaller, less powerful neighboring kingdoms, including Scotland. And for many years, Scotland and England would find themselves bitter rivals, with many Scottish fighters playing key roles in the struggle for independence from England.
One of such freedom fighters was Robert the Bruce, who served as the King of Scotland from 1306-1329 after a tumultuous race for the crown. But Robert was more than just a king, he defended Scotland’s independence against the English Crown, using exceptional military and diplomatic strategies.
So, who really was Robert the Bruce and how did he become king? Read on to learn more about one of Scotland’s national heroes.
The Bruce Family History
Robert the Bruce was born to Robert (VII) the Bruce and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick, on July 11 1274. He was the eldest son out of the ten children born to the couple. It is most likely that he was born in Turnberry Castle, Ayrshire in sout-west Scotland; but other sources suggest that this future hero of Scotland could have been born in Lochmaben, Dumfriesshire or Writtle, Essex in England.
The Bruces were a prominent family, having served as lords in Annandale in southern Scotland during the 1120s. Robert’s ancestor Robert de Brus served as the 1st Lord of Annandale during Scottish King David I’s reign. The Bruces also owned several lands and properties across Scotland, England, and Ireland.
Not much is known about Robert’s childhood. However, his Anglo-Norman lineage meant that he probably could speak multiple languages, including Latin. It is also possible that due to the diverse lands and properties that the Bruces had, Robert spent most of his childhood between Scotland and England.
When his mother Marjorie died in 1292, Robert became the Earl of Carrick. Three years later, he married Isabel of Mar. But she died the following year in 1296 either before or after giving birth to their daughter Marjorie Bruce. He later married Elizabeth de Burgh. With Elizabeth, he had four children; two girls (Matilda and Margaret) and two sons (David and John).
He also had a number of illegitimate children, including Niall Bruce, Margaret Bruce, and Robert Bruce. The latter, who held the title Lord of Liddesdale, was said to have killed at the Battle of Dupplin Moor in August 1332.
The Great Cause: Bruce’s family make a claim for the Scottish throne
In March 1286, the King of Scotland, Alexander III, embarked on a trip to Fife to see his new wife, Yolande de Dreux, whom he had married in 1285 with the sole purpose of having a male heir.
Sadly, Alexander died on March 19, on his way to see Yolande. Prior to his death, he had convinced leading Scottish nobles and lawmakers to recognize his granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, as his successor and heir. Margaret, who was the daughter of Alexander’s first daughter, Margaret of Scotland, was only three years at the time.
Initially Alexander’s unborn child by Queen Yolande was seen as heir to the throne; however, that all changed when Yolande suffered a miscarriage. The nearest surviving relative of the deceased king was therefore Margaret, Maid of Norway, whose young age made it difficult for her to be crowned queen.
In 1290, Margaret, aged 7, died in Orkney. As a result, Scotland’s throne was left undecided, and the kingdom plunged into a state chaos, which ultimately led to a war with arch rivals, England.
The untimely death of Margaret in 1290 gave birth to a succession dispute for the throne of Scotland. Known to historians as the Great Cause, the crisis witnessed thirteen people make claims to the throne.
Perhaps the two leading claimants of the thirteen men were Robert’s grandfather Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale, and John Balliol, the Lord of Galloway.
As the crisis looked like tipping Scotland into a civil war, the Guardians of Scotland, i.e. regents who ruled the kingdom from 1286 to 1292, solicited the help of Edward I of England to arbitrate on the issue.
Ultimately, John Balliol’s claim to throne was deemed the best by the arbitrators. Much to the annoyance of the Bruces, Balliol was crowned King of Scots on November 30, 1292.
As price for his efforts in arbitrating the succession crisis, Edward forced Scottish nobles to recognize him as Lord Paramount of Scotland – which in effect almost made Scotland appear as a vassal of England.
The Fall and Abdication of John Balliol
Despite the loss, the Bruces didn’t give up their claim to the Scottish throne. They believed Balliol had only won because Edward I saw him as a weaker option and more vulnerable to manipulation. The English monarch’s goal was turn Scotland in some kind of vassal kingdom of England. This explains why Edward not only undermined Balliol’s authority, but he also tried squeeze money out of the Scots. Basically, Edward did not hide his intention of turning Scotland into a vassal state.
In the years that followed Edward and Balliol found themselves at odds as the latter tried his hardest to fend off England’s attempt to subjugate Scotland.
The Bruces were ever glad to capitalize on the fallout between Edward and Balliol. Additionally, many other Scottish nobles could not wait to see the back of Balliol; hence, a new council of regents (i.e. the Council of Twelve) was set up in July 1295 to reestablish Scotland’s sovereignty.
Fearing the reaction of Edward, the Scottish nobles signed a treaty (i.e. the Aulld Alliance) with France in October 1295. Basically, the treaty stipulated that France would defend Scotland were there to be an attack from England.
As expected Edward did not take kindly to the Franco-Scottish treaty. He prepared his troops to invade Scotland in order to restore his feudal control of the kingdom.
When Edward finally invaded Scotland in 1296, the Bruces sided with the English king in a bid to get rid of Balliol, who had lost favor among the Scots.
English army faced off against the Scots, who were led by Balliol, at the Battle of Dunbar in April 1296. Edward secured a victory, and Balliol was imprisoned (in the Tower of London) and later abdicated the throne. The deposed king was then exiled to France, where he lived the rest of his life until his death in 1314.
Scotland’s Fight for Independence
Edward I realized how challenging it was to exercise full control over Scotland. It wasn’t long until rebellions started occurring all over, with the most successful revolts led by Scottish national heroes William Wallace and Sir Andrew Moray. Wallace and his men even emerged victorious at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297.
With that victory, the state set up a ruling council which included Wallace, Bishop Lamberton, and John Comyn. The Bruces refused to lend their support to the council because Comyn, and his family, were supporters of Balliol.
At this point, the Bruces hadn’t fully thrown in their support to either of the parties (Wallace or Edward) and used that time to see who had a better chance in the conflict, which eventually became known as the First War of Scottish Independence.
Initially, Robert supported Scotland, especially since he was involved in an attack against the English at Ayr Castle. However, it appeared his alliance shifted yet again when he married Elizabeth de Burgh, whose father, Richard Og de Burgh, supported Edward I.
Another reason for the shift in alliance was the release of Balliol from prison. Robert had to ensure that the deposed king was prevented from claiming the throne again.
Meanwhile, Wallace, who was at the time the Guardian of Scotland, suffered a huge blow at the Battle of Falkirk on July 22, 1298. A month later, Wallace was captured and executed in London, but his attempts to free Scotland did not go unnoticed and he inspired many others to continue to fight for independence.
Robert started to question his own support for the English side after Wallace’s death; and the more he started to have doubts, the less likely Edward was going to give him the crown. So, the aspiring king decided to adopt a new strategy: forming alliances with important Scottish barons in order to end England’s influence in the kingdom.
To ensure that Balliol never made a return, Robert – or perhaps his supporters – killed John Comyn in the Church of Greyfriars in Dumfries. Subsequently, Robert confidently declared himself King of Scotland. His coronation took place at Scone Abbey on March 25, 1306, and he became known as Robert I.
Robert I’s Reign (1306-1329)
Robert’s 23-year reign did not start well. He experienced two major defeats, one to the English army and the other to the Scottish army in a revolt.
As a result of those defeats, he fled to Rathlin Castle in Rathlin Island off the coast of today’s County Antrim in Northern Ireland.
However, that did not stop the English. Now that they couldn’t get to him, they directed their attention to his family, killing three of his brothers, including Niall Bruce (aka Nigel de Brus), imprisoned his sister Mary, and held his wife Elizabeth hostage.
When Edward I died on July 7, 1307, his son Edward II succeeded him. It was obviously not the best time for Edward II to inherit the English throne. Aside from his lack of experience, he had to deal with an internal crisis in England, which was a welcome distraction Scotland used to strengthen itself.
Robert was able to return from exile and almost immediately went right back into combat. Together with his younger brother, Edward Bruce, he defeated the English army, as well as the remaining supporters of Balliol.
His guerilla warfare tactics against the English paid huge dividends, as he was able to take back seized territories and lands from the English.
He also seized properties belonging to the Comyn family and was prepared to forgive all Scots who had once turned their backs on him. By 1309, the Scottish parliament (i.e. the Estates) announced that they fully supported him.
Scotland’s Independence and the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton in 1328
With Edward II distracted by happenings in England, Robert launched successful sieges against most of northern England. He seized many English castles, often participating in those raids in person. It took several years for the English king to respond.
In 1314, Edward led the English army to Scotland to defend Stirling Castle. Despite being numerically disadvantaged, the Scots were able to secure victory at the Battle of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314 using smarter military tactics. The results were terrible for England, with Edward barely escaping with his life.
This victory over England allowed Scotland to break free from the control and manipulations of the English Crown, thereby securing its independence.
Robert continued to seize lands belonging to Scots who had initially supported England as he continued his raids throughout northern England.
In 1323, there was another attempt by England to invade Scotland, but this attempt failed. Three years later, both parties agreed to a truce.
In 1326, France and Scotland signed the Treaty of Corbeil which stated that both countries had an obligation to attack England whenever the later attacked any of them.
England finally recognized Scotland as an independent kingdom in the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton in 1328. To ensure that the treaty was sealed, Robert gave England £20,000, and his son David married Joan, who was the sister of King Edward III.
In 1329, Pope John XXII agreed for Scottish rulers to be bestowed with a crown as well as receive holy anointment during their coronation. This move placed Scotland on the same pedestal as other kingdoms throughout Europe.
Death & Legacy
In his later years, Robert’s health declined. It’s believed that he eventually died of leprosy in 1329 at his home in Cardross, Dumbartonshire.
The King of Scots’ body was buried at Dunfermline Abbey in Fife, while his heart was buried at Melrose Abbey.
One of his lifelong dreams was to embark on a Crusade to the Holy Land, Jerusalem. Unfortunately that journey forever remained a dream.
Robert the Bruce’s heart
Robert’s last request before his death was for Sir James Douglas to take his heart upon his death to Jerusalem. After his demise, Douglas in a quest to fulfill the final wish of Robert embarked on a journey to the Holy Land with the heart placed in a silver casket. Unfortunately he never got to his destination. He was killed in Spain after being caught up in a battle between Muslims of Granada and Alfonso XI of Castile. Robert’s heart was reportedly sent back to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey.
Who succeeded Robert the Bruce?
Robert’s son David (1324-1371), who was five years old at the time, succeeded him. David went on to be crowned King David II of Scotland in November 1331.
During the minority years of David II, many leading Scots fought each other, trying to get a hold of the throne. For example, John Balliol’s son, Edward Balliol, who was supported by Edward III of England, fought very hard to seize the throne from David and ruled from 1332-1336. David was however reinstated later, ruling until 1371.
The fate of Robert’s family members who were captured by the English in 1306
As stated above, the Scots suffered a very bad defeat at the hands of the English at the Battle of Methven on June 1306. Many leading Scots were captured, including Robert’s nephew and the royal standard bearer, Thomas de Randolph.
After Methven, Robert decided to send his wife, Queen Elizabeth; his two sisters, Christina and Mary; and his daughter Marjorie (from his first marriage) to the north, where they took refuge in a castle under the protection of his brother Niall.
After receiving a tip-off from the camp of Balliol’s camp, the English laid siege to the castle. Ultimately the castle was overran by the English forces, and Niall was hanged, drawn and later quartered. All the men in castle suffered similar fate.
In the end, English forces captured the female members of Robert’s family. Mary was imprisoned, while Marjorie was sent to live with nuns at a convent in Watton in East Riding of Yorkshire, England. Robert’s sister Christina was also sent to live in a convent.
Owing to her being the daughter of Richard Óg de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, who was a close ally of Edward I of England, Elizabeth was only placed under house arrest.
The Scottish royal ladies were held prisoners by the English until 1314, when a prisoner-swap deal was struck between Robert and Edward II of England.
Reigning as King of Scots from 1306 to 1329, Robert I, also known as Robert the Bruce, etched his name in the annals of Scottish history as one of the fiercest warrior-kings and defenders of his kingdom’s independence.
Even in death, Robert the Bruce’s reputation as Scotland’s liberator continued to grow. He has been glorified in several medieval poems and stories as a national hero. He continues to remain a prominent historical figure in modern times.
Robert the Bruce, King of Scots
Born: July 11, 1274
Died: June 7, 1329
Parents: Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick
- Isabella of Mar
- Elizabeth de Burgh
- David II of Scotland
- John of Scotland
- Robert Bruce, Lord of Liddesdale (illegitimate child)
- Niall (illegitimate child)