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Robert the Bruce: King of Scots - Ronald McNair Scott The Scots were so divided among themselves that sometimes the father was on the Scottish side and the son on the English and vice versa: also one brother might be with the Scots and another with the English; yea, even the same individual be first with one party and then with another. But all those who were with the English were merely feigning, either because it was the stronger party, or in order to save the lands they possessed in England: for their hearts were always with their own people, although their person might not be so.

With the death of Alexander III in 1286 it was the beginning of the unraveling of strong Scottish rule.

Quhen Alysandyr oure kyng was dede,
That Scotland led in luve and le,
Away was sons of ale and brede,
Of wyne and wax of gamyn and gle.
Oure gold was changed into lede,
Cryst, born into vyrgynyte,
Succoure Scotland and remede,
That stat is in perplexyte.

Edward I King of England wanting to unite the kingdoms of Scotland and Wales with the lands he
currently controlled in England and France. He was determined, ambitious, intelligent and frankly rather brutal. He supported the ascension of John of Balliol in 1292 after Alexander’s children all died, conveniently, in quick succession. King John, he felt would be weak and easy to undermine and soon a council of Scottish barons, tired of the way the English King was treating them as vassals of his empire, was appointed to help the King. Edward not liking this turn of events invades Scotland in 1296, captures John, and hauls him off to England for an all expense paid vacation to the Tower of London. John abdicates.

Edward I

The Bruces had been sitting on the sidelines through all the ruckus feeling that their claim to the throne was stronger than John of Balliol. They had sworn fealty to Edward on one day, but then continued to fight against him on the next day. This was an era of barons, dukes and earls hedging their bets, blowing with the wind, with the ultimate goal being in the end to land on the side of the victor. If they chose the wrong side for too long or were too vigorous in their support for the loser they lost their head, and their lands were confiscated by the crown.

William Wallace appears on the scene becoming the Guardian of Scotland. He proves to be a real pain in the English Royal Arse. He introduces an effective form of guerilla warfare and develops a new fighting concept involving spears formed in a hedgehog called a schiltron. The better armoured and mounted English soldiers had been decimating the foot soldiers of the Scots in open battles. With the development of this new method the Scots could stand up better to the onslaught effectively taking away the advantage of mounted soldiers. At the Battle of Falkirk this method allowed them at least at chance against the English. The problem of course was that Edward had brought along a deadly weapon.

Again and again the schiltrons were charged by the mounted knights but their ranks remained unbroken. It was then that King Edward ordered up the Welsh longbowmen and the crossbowmen and sligmen of Gascony. A deadly hail of arrows, bolts and stones was poured into the schiltrons until the gaps in their ranks became too wide to be filled and the mail-clad knights broke into the weakened rings. Once the human fortress was breached hundreds upon hundreds of the Scottish foot were slain.

Wallace escaped, but due to the enormity of the loss, and finding his support that was based on victories was dissipating in the wind with a defeat, resigned as Guardian of Scotland. This brings in a joint guardianship of Robert the Bruce and John Comyn both with claims to the Scottish throne. Edward wasn’t done with Wallace. When he was captured in 1305 vengeance was swiftly and brutally perpetrated and certainly sent a message to all those that chose to oppose him.

He was chained flat to a hurdle and for the greater entertainment of the populace was dragged by horses along a circuitous route over four miles of cobblestones from Westminster to Smithfield. There he was hanged but cut down half-strangled and still alive. Then he was castrated and disembowelled. His genitals and entrails were burned before his eyes and, after his unspeakable agony had been ended by the headman’s axe, his heart was ripped out and added to the flames. His body was then hacked into four pieces. His head was mounted on a pike on London Bridge and the four quarters were distributed to Newcastle-on-Tyne, Berwick, Stirling and Perth to be displayed to the public eye as menacing symbols of King Edward’s might.

Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce and John Comyn had a signed agreement between themselves. Given a choice Comyn decided to give up his claim to the throne in exchange for the Bruce lands. Robert the Bruce would be crowned king when there was a kingdom to be crowned for again. In one of many moments of double crossing and underhanded dealings in the war for independence John Comyn took the agreement to Edward to curry favor and also to hopefully eliminate a powerful rival. Robert by the nearest of margins escaped from the English court before he could be arrested. He later meets with Comyn to discuss this change of events and with the help of his closest supporters kills Comyn. Bruce is crowned King of Scotland.

His destiny was sealed. His family would be pay a large price in the coming years. His brothers are captured and beheaded. His wife and daughter from a previous marriage along with other female members of his family are captured and hauled back to England where Edward comes up with a particularly horrific punishment.

For them he ordained that wooden cages should be built jutting from the battlements of Berwick and Roxburgh castles respectively, and that within them they should be shut up as animals in a zoo, exposed to the gaze of passers-by with the only concession to their modesty the provision of privies within the walls.

The women would stay there under those conditions for four long years. He’d planned the same for Bruce’s twelve year old daughter, but public opinion changed his mind. Bruce’s wife Elizabeth de Burgh because of her connections to English royalty was not put in a cage, but placed under strict house arrest and would remain a prisoner for eight years.

Robert the Bruce catches a break with the death of Edward I in 1307. His son Edward II is a brave young man, but was much more distracted by pursuits of pleasure. He also had issues with his own barons mainly over the overt showering of affection and treasure on his male favorites a man named Piers Gaveston and another named Hugh Despenser. He fathered five children by two different women, but it is fairly obvious he was bisexual. During the upheaval with his barons his first favorite Gaveston was beheaded and later Hugh Despenser was also gruesomely executed for treason.

Battle of Bannockburn

Robert begins a campaign of guerrilla warfare and stealthy castle attacks that culminates in the battle of Bannockburn and defeats Edward II ensuring independence for Scotland and solidifying his right to be King. Edward’s troubles do not end there. His wife, sister to the king of France, Isabella, raises an army and captures her husband and imprisons him in Kenilworth Castle. There they force him to abdicate and his son Edward III is crowned king of England. He attempts to escape and is recaptured, but after a second attempt his wife decides he is just too much of a problem.

Systematically he was ill-treated and starved in the hope that this would bring about his decease, but when his robust constitution failed to succumb to this treatment, a marrow bone was thrust up his rectum and through it a red hot poker to cauterize his entrails so that his body could be displayed to the public gaze without sign of injury, the victim of natural death.

Isabella, controlled a kingdom at the point of a red hot poker

Robert the Bruce along with William Wallace have become enduring legends of Scottish freedom. They waged war against a superior enemy and found that patience and stealth were the best weapons to eroding the endurance of the English. My disappointment with this book is that Robert the Bruce remained a shadowy figure. His exploits are of mythic proportions. He was a warrior, a gifted fighter, a great strategist, and a man who inspired his people. I’m afraid that the source documentation that Scott had to draw on was from the heralds of the day who obscured the man in hyperbole. The book did fill in some historical blanks for me that will make future reading about the period much easier to comprehend.