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.
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.
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).
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. □
Then however he made his peace with Edward. He still nursed hopes of the crown; but he had little chance in Scotland while Balliol was still being treated as the legitimate sovereign. He was also regularly at odds with the Comyn family who were Balliol's leading supporters. Bruce's desertion certainly reduced the chances of Balliol's restoration; and resistance to Edward collapsed in 1304.
Bruce's next move, the coup of 1306, remains hard to explain. We know that in 1304 he made a secret pact with Bishop Lamberton of St Andrews, a future ally. We know also that he tried to negotiate with John Comyn of Badenoch just before he revolted openly early in 1306, and that the result was a quarrel in which Comyn was murdered. But Bruce's decision to seize the throne was clearly already taken, since his actions after Comyn's death were carefully planned and rapidly executed. Barrow has suggested that Bruce had been biding his time till Edward was close to death, and that in 1306 he judged the time ripe. Events proved him right, though only just.
Bruce was crowned as Robert I on 25 March 1306; but though Edward was sick he was not to be trifled with. Robert himself was defeated at Methven (19 June 1306) by Edward's newly appointed lieutenant Aymer de Valence; and, probably in July, at Dalry in Perthshire, by a Scot, John Macdougall of Argyll. Kildrummy castle was captured by Valence in September. Robert's supporters and relatives were hunted down and executed; he himself had to go into hiding.
He reappeared in Ayrshire in the spring of 1307, and Edward I died in July. Edward II had little energy to spare for Scotland for some years, and this enabled Robert to overcome his internal enemies. The power of the Comyns was destroyed at the battle of Inverurie. Others, such as the earl of Ross, were won over. The king's brother Edward Bruce gradually reduced English authority in the south-west, while Robert himself concentrated on the western Highlands and Islands. By 1314, effective English power was limited to Lothian.
The years from 1308 also saw King Robert's grip over government tightened. In a parliament at St Andrews in 1309, declarations were issued in the name of the nobles and the clergy, asserting Robert's right to the throne as the lawful successor of Alexander III, and denouncing the aggression of Edward I in terms which set the pattern of Scottish national propaganda for centuries to come. Robert I was now widely accepted in Scotland as the rightful king. His authority was confirmed by the decisive victory of Bannockburn (24 June 1314), following on the recapture of Edinburgh and Roxburgh castles earlier in the year. Only Berwick and a few other border strongholds remained in English hands; and the rest of the war was fought by raids into the north of England. Berwick itself was recaptured in 1318.
In the rest of his reign, Robert I showed himself a masterful king. He was willing to be reconciled with his former enemies, and readily accepted the loyal service of those who were willing to submit; those who would not were exiled. His two chief problems were to secure the succession (his lack of a direct male heir until the birth of his son David in 1324 required three successive ‘tailzies’ (entails) of the crown in the parliaments of 1315, 1318, and 1326); and to secure his recognition by other rulers. He fell foul of the papacy by his refusal to comply with a papal truce in 1317, as a result of which he was eventually excommunicated in 1320. An earlier excommunication for the sacrilegious murder of John Comyn may have been lifted in 1308. That of 1320 was respited as a result of the appeal usually known as the ‘declaration of Arbroath’; from then on, the pope was prepared at least to give King Robert his proper title. English recognition was more difficult. Edward II would not concede it; and it came only after his deposition. At last in 1328, by the treaty of Edinburgh/Northampton, the English government admitted that Robert was king, and agreed to a marriage between his heir and a sister of the young Edward III as an earnest of a settled peace between what it recognized were two separate and independent nations.
Robert died, perhaps of leprosy, on 7 June 1329, having secured both his own position and the independence of his country. It was hardly his fault that Edward III overturned the settlement of 1328 only five years later. Robert I did not create the sense of an independent identity for Scotland: that had roots that went back long before the death of Alexander III and the conflicts that followed; but ever since his death, he has been the great hero of the Wars of Independence, the man who foiled Edward I's attempt to assert his authority over Scotland, and who defeated all efforts by Edward II to recover the position which Edward I had lost in 1306.
Barrow, G. W. S. , Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (3rd edn. Edinburgh, 1988);
Duncan, A. A. M. , ‘The War of the Scots, 1306–1323’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser. (1992), 125–51;
Nicholson, R. , Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1974).
Robert was 55 when he eventually succeeded the childless David. For a time he proved more capable than his earlier career would have suggested. Too old to take the field himself, he made good use of the younger nobles to exploit the weakness of English authority during the senility of Edward III and the minority of Richard II. Payment of David's ransom was stopped in 1377; and by the early 1380s most of the lands in English occupation had been recovered. By that time, however, Richard II was emerging as a determined ruler, while Robert II's age was telling. In 1384, as more open war was breaking out, a general council, apparently with his consent, deprived Robert of control of justice, which was given to his son John, earl of Carrick, the future Robert III. He was in turn succeeded in 1388 by the king's second son Robert, earl of Fife, and future duke of Albany. Robert II died in April 1390, at the age of 74.
The 15th-cent. chronicler Walter Bower stressed the prosperity of Scotland at the time, the maintenance of peace and order, and the fact that Robert left Scotland almost entirely free of English control. Later writers have been less flattering, though it seems that at least till 1384 he was an effective and successful ruler. Unfortunately he left a large number of descendants from his two marriages, and rivalries between the various lines repeatedly disturbed the peace of Scotland, at least until the death of James I.