Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Robert I [Robert Bruce]locked

  • G. W. S. Barrow

Robert I (1274–1329)


image reproduced courtesy of Museum Casts International/ National Archives of Scotland

Robert I [Robert Bruce] (1274–1329), king of Scots, son of Robert (VI) de Brus (1243–1304) and Marjory, countess of Carrick (d. in or before 1290), was born on 11 July 1274, probably at Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire.

Ancestry and early life

On the paternal side, Bruce was the great-great-grandson of William de Brus (or Bruce), who was the grandson of Robert (I) de Brus (d. 1142), lord of Cleveland and Annandale and, until the last few years of his life, a firm adherent of David I, king of Scots. His mother, Marjory (or Margaret), was in her own right countess of Carrick, being the only child of Neil, earl of Carrick (d. 1256), great-grandson of Fergus, lord or king of Galloway (d. 1161). Countess Marjory was first married to Adam of Kilconquhar, descendant of a twelfth-century earl of Fife. Adam died at Acre in 1271, having accompanied the Lord Edward (the future Edward I) on an extension of St Louis's crusade. About 1272 (it is said at her instigation), his widow became the first wife of Robert (VI) de Brus, eldest son and, in 1295, successor of Robert (V) de Brus, fifth lord of Annandale, who is famous for being one of the two principal competitors or claimants to the Scottish throne on the death of the Maid of Norway in 1290. The claim of this elder Robert de Brus, like that of his chief rival, John de Balliol, lord of Barnard Castle, stemmed from the marriages of the two elder daughters of David, earl of Huntingdon (d. 1219), youngest grandson of David I. Earl David's eldest daughter, Margaret, and her husband, Alan, lord of Galloway (d. 1234), had a daughter, Dervorguilla, married to John de Balliol the elder, who carried the claim by seniority of birth to her eldest surviving son, another John. Earl David's second daughter, Isabel, married Robert (IV) de Brus (d. 1226×33), and their eldest son, born c.1220, was Robert (V) de Brus (the Competitor). The strength of his claim to the throne was derived from nearness of degree, the proposition that the son of a younger daughter was nearer to the crucial ancestor, in this case David I, than the son of a daughter of an elder daughter. The Brus claim to the Scottish throne, although formally rejected in 1292 by a court specially convened to settle the succession, remained a persistent leitmotif during the period from Alexander III's death in 1286 to Robert Bruce's assumption of the kingship twenty years later.

In 1286 Bruce's links were with his mother's earldom of Carrick, and the first occurrence of his name in record may well be as witness, with his father, to a confirmation (c.1286?) in favour of Paisley Abbey of a grant of the church of Kilkerran in Kintyre (now Campbeltown) by Alexander MacDonald, eldest son of Angus, lord of Islay. The connection between Carrick and those western isles which, like the peninsula of Kintyre, lay to the south of Mull and Loch Linnhe, and also the connection between Carrick and the northern part of Ireland, exerted a profound influence on Bruce throughout his life.

BruceBalliol rivalries

Although Alexander III's death was quite unexpected, the succession had been settled on his only grandchild, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, and in any case the king's second wife, Yolande de Dreux, might give birth to a son. Nevertheless, the senior Bruses, Robert the Competitor and his eldest son, Robert, earl of Carrick, prepared almost immediately to defend their claim to the throne, if need be by armed force. Their powerful allies included the earls of Atholl, Dunbar, Fife, Menteith, and Mar, as well as the hereditary steward, or seneschal, of Scotland, James (d. 1309), and the MacDonalds of Islay. Record of this period drops no hint as to the views or conduct of the youngest Robert, but we may assume that he adhered to his father and grandfather. His mother, who had probably died by 1290, may also have been influential in guiding his opinions. As soon as it was certain that Balliol would get the throne—he was installed as King John on 30 November 1292—the Competitor transferred his claim to his son, who in turn handed on to his son, the youngest Robert, the earldom of Carrick (9 November 1292), the succession being formalized in King John's parliament of August 1293. It was provided that the sheriff of Ayr (at that time James the Steward) be put in possession of the earldom, of which he would carry out a valuation, until the new earl had done homage to King John. To the confusion of many later historians, Robert (VI) de Brus, who had been earl of Carrick only in right of his wife, retained the title by courtesy until his death in April 1304.

The next two years strained the Bruses' loyalty to their new king beyond breaking point. John's yielding to Edward I's imperious demands (including a summons for military service overseas) drove the magnates of Scotland, together with some senior prelates, including the bishops of St Andrews and Glasgow, into a coup d'état by which power was transferred from the king to a council of nobles. Moreover, an offensive–defensive treaty was made (1295–6) between the Scots and the king of France, Philippe IV. Brus the Competitor died in March 1295. His son, the sixth lord of Annandale, had taken his daughter Isabel to Norway in 1293 to be married to Erik II. He had declined homage to King John and served Edward I as commander of Carlisle Castle. The new earl of Carrick may in the meantime have gone to Ireland. Both father and son were loyal to the English king and remained so after war had broken out between England and Scotland at the end of March 1296. What part if any was played by the young Robert is not recorded: the only matters of record are a command that he should receive the men of Carrick into King Edward's peace (May 1296) and his homage and fealty, along with those of his father, to Edward I in August, when the English king held his ‘victory parliament’ at Berwick.

Patriot and collaborator

Eight months later, however, Robert Bruce took the momentous decision to become one of the leaders of the Scottish revolt against Edwardian conquest and the English occupation of Scotland. When the rising led by William Wallace began in May 1297, the bishop of Carlisle, John Halton, suspicious of Bruce's intentions (for it was publicly said that he was bent on taking the throne), induced him to swear a solemn oath of fealty to Edward I. Immediately afterwards Bruce assembled his father's knightly tenants in Annandale. Repudiating his oath as made under duress, he told them that, as a Scot, he must take up the cause of his own people. He invited them to join him, but they refused. Together with Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, and James the Steward, Bruce staged what proved to be an abortive military gesture of defiance, easily countered by the English. For the next four and a half years Bruce took a part, at times a leading part, in the national movement of resistance. Whether or not he calculated that King John (released from captivity in 1299 and exiled in France) had effectively been removed from the Scottish political scene, the official policy and conduct of all the guardians of Scotland from 1297 to 1304—and that included Bruce himself from 1298 to 1300—was to recognize Balliol as king and to campaign for his restoration.

At the time of the English victory at Falkirk in 1298 Bruce burnt the castle of Ayr to prevent its becoming an English base. Despite the report by the late fourteenth-century historian John Fordun (repeated and elaborated in the fifteenth century by Walter Bower) that Bruce fought at Falkirk in Edward I's army, the evidence points to Bruce's consistently patriotic stance from 1297 to 1302. It is possible that his father was with King Edward at Falkirk (if so, that might explain why Bruce himself was not in Wallace's army); but no Bruce appears in any version of the seemingly comprehensive Falkirk roll. By the end of 1298 Bruce had been made guardian, along with his arch-rival John Comyn of Badenoch, whose links with King John were close. In August 1299, when it had been decided to send Wallace to the French court to renew the alliance of 1295, friction between Bruce and Comyn reached the point of physical violence, and the two men had to be separated and pacified by James the Steward and other nobles. Bruce must have given up his role in the guardianship at some date in 1300, but his resources were still at the guardians' disposal.

It seems to have been the imminent prospect of King John's return to Scotland in 1302 that persuaded Bruce, by February, to abandon the patriotic leadership—chiefly John Comyn, John Soulis, and the bishop of St Andrews, William Lamberton—and return to the peace and fealty of Edward I. A further factor in his submission may have been his desire to re-establish the family relations which had formerly existed between Carrick and Ulster. In 1302 Bruce married, as his second wife, Elizabeth (d. 1327), daughter of Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster. From 1302 until the fall of Stirling Castle in July 1304 Bruce took part in the political and military activity to be expected of a magnate in allegiance to the English crown. He attended parliament (October 1302), served as sheriff of Lanark and mustered local forces (1303), and also helped to pursue the patriot leaders, Wallace and Simon Fraser, who did not join the general submission of the Scots magnates in February 1304. Bruce was present for at least part of the prolonged siege of Stirling Castle (April–July 1304), which was held for Balliol by Sir William Oliphant. On 11 June 1304 Bruce and Bishop Lamberton, then at Cambuskenneth, beside Stirling, sealed a secret agreement, promising to help each other in times of peril, conspicuously not saving their fealty to Edward I or any other king. It may be inferred from this document, and from subsequent events, that Bruce and the bishop (a friend and strong supporter of Wallace) had taken the decision to restore Scottish kingship, but to abandon Balliol.

It seems clear that between the fall of Stirling on 20 July 1304 and February 1306 Bruce was preparing the ground for an attempt to win the throne. Ostensibly he co-operated with Edward I's settlement of a realm which the English had apparently conquered for the second time, helping to choose representatives who would attend the English parliament of September 1305, at which an ordinance for the future government and administration of Scotland was promulgated. Under the scheme of 1305 Bruce, along with the bishops of St Andrews and Glasgow and John Comyn of Badenoch, was appointed to a council, largely composed of Scots, to assist the English lieutenant and his staff. Bruce's own power base, though by no means overwhelmingly strong, was substantial. He had the earldom of Carrick and (since his father's death) the lordship of Annandale and a third of the old lordship once held by David, earl of Huntingdon. This gave Bruce a footing in the carse of Gowrie, Dundee, and the Aberdeenshire district of the Garioch. Also in the north-east he had custody of the earldom of Mar and its young earl, Donald (d. 1332), nephew of his first wife, Isabel of Mar. Thus he held the strong castle of Kildrummy in Strathdon, which the 1305 ordinance somewhat pointedly required him to place in the care of a man for whom he must be answerable.

King of Scots

The Edwardian settlement of 1305 had no chance to prove its wisdom or unwisdom. On 10 February 1306 Bruce and some of his closest supporters met his fellow councillor and rival, Comyn of Badenoch, attended by only a small retinue, in the Franciscan church at Dumfries. An inevitably violent quarrel between the two antagonists led to the death of Comyn and his uncle. The great Comyn family and its large network of kinsfolk became Bruce's mortal foes. Bruce at once made contact with the bishop of Glasgow and sent word round Scotland that he would be enthroned at Scone at the end of March. In a message he managed to convey to John Sandale, the English official who as chamberlain was supposedly in charge of Scotland, Bruce said that he would seize castles and towns as fast as he could, until the king of England replied to his demand (presumably for recognition of his right to the throne), and if that were not granted he would defend himself with the longest club that he had.

There was evidently widespread awareness of Bruce's intentions. Four earls and three bishops led the large throng attending the ceremonies. The stone of Scone (on which new kings of Scots had customarily been placed by earls of Fife) had been taken to Westminster Abbey by Edward I, but Isabella, aunt of Duncan, earl of Fife (also in English custody), in spite of being the wife of Bruce's enemy John Comyn, earl of Buchan, crowned Bruce on 25 March 1306, while two days later the bishop of St Andrews celebrated pontifical high mass for the new king. The English reaction was swift: King Robert was defeated at Methven on 19 June; by August his queen and several other members of his family, along with the earl of Atholl, had fallen into English hands; by September he himself, with his closest friends and supporters, was a fugitive, hunted by his enemies in northern Ireland and the Western Isles. Yet despite the disasters and personal tragedies marking the first year of his reign, King Robert knew that if he showed enough determination he could count on genuinely popular support.

The English knight Thomas Grey of Heaton-on-Till says in his Scalacronica that on the eve of his enthronement Bruce 'retained a strong following through kinsmanship and alliance, always hoping for the establishment of his claim of succession to the Scottish realm' (Scalacronica, trans. Maxwell, 28). His allies were widely based geographically and commanded impressive military resources. They included the hereditary steward, James (towards whom Edward I displayed remarkable forbearance), the earls of Atholl, Lennox, and Menteith, as well as a broad assortment of substantial lairds (for instance, Hay of Erroll, Crawford of Crosbie, Lindsay of Barnweill, Boyd of Noddsdale, Logan of Hartside, the two Campbell brothers of Loch Awe, the two MacDonald brothers of Islay, Christina MacRuairi, lady of Garmoran, and Fraser of Oliver Castle), the heads of the families who took their surnames from the estates of Cambo, Folkerton, Fullarton, Seton, Skene, and Wemyss, and also numerous lairds from Fife, Gowrie, Moray, Aberdeenshire, and Perthshire. The enormously influential bishops of St Andrews and Glasgow and a wide cross-section of the clergy, ranging from bishops such as Moray and Brechin and heads of important religious houses to parish incumbents and friars, likewise backed Bruce's bid for the throne. Contemporary evidence emphasizes clerical influence on the populace at large. 'The people believe that Bruce will carry all before him', wrote one observer in 1307, 'exhorted by false preachers from his army' (CDS, vol. 2, no. 513), while two years later it was reported that 'the people of the diocese of Dunkeld are much led by the churchmen, who are on Bruce's side' (Calendar of Chancery Warrants, 1244–1326, 294). The Scottish clergy, indeed, were largely motivated by concern for the independence of their church as well as nation.

The conquest of Scotland

Bruce returned to Carrick four months before the death of Edward I on 7 July 1307. Even before the old king died the Scots had inflicted defeats on two senior English commanders, in one of which, at Loudoun Hill, on about 10 May, Bruce anticipated tactics later employed at Bannockburn. There is no doubt, however, that the succession of Edward II gave Bruce's cause a tremendous boost. English pressure slackened and the king of Scots could concentrate on his formidable enemies at home. Apart from Galloway, still loyal to Balliol, and Lothian and Berwickshire, where the English grip was tight, southern Scotland was well disposed towards Bruce. Already by the end of 1307 the people of Tweeddale and the forest of Selkirk, although close to the English border, had joined his cause, no doubt 'helped' by vigorous pressure from James Douglas (d. 1330). That left the anti-Bruce northerners.

Their leader was Comyn of Badenoch's kinsman John Comyn, earl of Buchan, whose prominent supporters included the earl of Ross, John MacDougall (effectively lord of Argyll in place of his father), John Mowbray, and Alexander Abernethy. Territorially, they were in a good position to dominate the north of Scotland. A brilliant campaign (October 1307–May 1308) put Bruce in control of the Great Glen, the Moray littoral, and the earldom of Buchan, which was ravaged and plundered without mercy. During this winter Bruce had been so ill that his life was despaired of, but he recovered health and strength in the spring and is not reported to have suffered any sickness until the later years of his life. In August 1308 the royal forces (as they must now be called) overwhelmed the MacDougalls in the pass of Brander, within their own heartland, putting John MacDougall to flight, destroying his fortress of Dunstaffnage, and compelling his elderly father to come into King Robert's peace and fealty. The first, and for his survival and success by far the most critical, phase of Robert I's reign culminated in the parliament held at St Andrews in mid-March 1309, to which French envoys (strikingly provided with English safe conducts) brought a letter from Philippe IV, who had now recognized the validity of Bruce's claim to the throne. At this parliament the community of the realm of Scotland published a declaration of King Robert's right and of the independence of his realm, anticipating the declaration of Arbroath eleven years later.

The next five years saw Robert I consolidate his grip upon the kingdom. Many former enemies and fence-sitters came into his allegiance, while the lands of irreconcilable foes were given to loyal supporters. One by one, the garrisons holding castles for the English crown were driven out by force or starved into submission. Perth was recovered early in 1313, the Isle of Man by June of the same year; by the beginning of 1314 only Berwick, Roxburgh, Edinburgh, and Stirling remained in English hands. Berwick, converted since 1296 into a strongly fortified English bastide, would have to wait until 1318 before it was once again a truly Scottish burgh, but Roxburgh and Edinburgh were recaptured early in 1314, while Stirling was committed to surrender by midsummer 1314 unless relieved by Edward II. The English king himself led a large army to Scotland in June, and it was well understood by contemporaries that this would be the decisive trial of strength between the two realms.


The Scottish army, numbering perhaps 8000 or 9000 effective soldiers, occupied a naturally strong position in the New Park, on rising ground between Stirling to the north and the Bannock Burn to the south. The picked troops were grouped in four brigades, commanded by King Robert, his brother Edward Bruce, his nephew Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray, and James, lord of Douglas, on behalf of the steward, the youthful Walter, who had succeeded his father in 1309. Up to the very last moment the king may not have meant to fight a full-scale pitched battle, since even after Stirling Bridge and Courtrai it was still assumed that well-equipped and experienced cavalry would have a decisive advantage over infantry on open ground. Honour therefore might be satisfied, and even the country saved, if the English relieved Stirling, but were then bogged down in a prolonged guerrilla campaign. But preliminary encounters on 23 June ended very much in the Scots' favour—in the first, indeed, King Robert himself felled an English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, in full view of both armies. During the night of 23–4 June, moreover, the English foolishly put themselves into a perilously weak position.

The main battle occupied Monday 24 June (the feast of St John the Baptist) and proved to be a hard contest between the English knights, armed with lance, sword, and mace, and the Scots on foot, relying on wooden-shafted iron-tipped spears. Bruce's army was a well-disciplined force made up of men who had campaigned together for seven or eight years. The English command was feeble and discipline ragged. Slowly but surely the Scots, in their close-knit formations known as schiltroms, pressed back the flower of English chivalry to the lower boggy ground of the carse of Stirling, where they became hopelessly entangled with the main body of English infantry, which was scarcely engaged in the fight at all. Part of this infantry consisted of archers who might have done much harm to the Scots had they been deployed, but crucially King Robert ordered his marischal, or marshal, Sir Robert Keith, to lead the small Scottish cavalry force in a charge which broke up and scattered the corps of archers before its fire-power could be brought to bear. In the English ranks casualties were heavy, many being drowned or crushed to death. Those who fled the field were apt for the most part to be captured or killed, though a large Welsh contingent reached home. By the end of the day the Scots had won one of the relatively few decisive battles of British history, and won it comprehensively. Yet King Robert's great victory was not quite complete: Edward II escaped to Dunbar and took ship for England. His ransom alone, had he been captured as he ought to have been, would have enabled Scotland to recover quickly from the years of pillage and destruction, and a minimum condition of his release would have been unqualified English recognition of Robert I's title and of Scottish independence.

The pursuit of Scottish independence

Bannockburn's immediate dividends included the restoration of Queen Elizabeth and the king's daughter and presumptive heir, Marjorie, as well as numerous other Scots notables, including the aged bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart. International recognition came quickly, but stopped short of papal acknowledgement of Bruce as rightful king of an independent realm. Pope John XXII, although by no means as submissive to the English crown as Clement V had been, was nevertheless disposed to regard the Scots as contumacious trouble-makers who stood in the way of his aim to unite France and England in a crusade against the Turks. For a decade after Bannockburn an important theme of Scottish royal policy was to secure recognition from the papacy. Pope John tried in 1317 to compel the Scots to observe a truce with England, sending letters to Bruce to this effect which failed to address him as king of Scots. Bruce naturally refused to receive them, explaining that neither the mother church of Rome nor the holy father should show partiality as between two of their children: 'if the papacy was unwilling to prejudice Edward II's case by styling Robert Bruce king of Scots, then it ought not to prejudice the Scottish case by denying Robert his title' (Rymer, Foedera, 2.340)—which other foreign rulers agreed to use.

This measured response proved of no avail, and in 1319–20 Scotland was threatened by a papal interdict and even the excommunication of the king and senior bishops. A major exercise in public relations was clearly called for: letters were dispatched to the papacy from the king and the bishops (these have not survived) and, most famously, from the earls and principal barons, calling themselves the community of the realm of Scotland. Their letter was dated at Arbroath Abbey on 6 April 1320 and (along with the other letters) was entrusted to three emissaries, two Scots and one Frenchman, who must have reached the papal curia, then at Avignon, by early July if not sooner. The document they brought to the pope, now invariably called the declaration of Arbroath, is a rhetorical masterpiece. It sets out the case for the independence of the Scottish realm, free since time immemorial, and for the validity of Bruce's royal credentials, based not solely on heredity and valour, but also on the consent of the people.

Although papal policy was not altered immediately in response to these powerful representations, there can be little doubt that they marked a turning point, and at least prompted the pope to write to Edward II asking him to desist from attacking the Scots. It perhaps goes without saying that King Robert cannot be regarded as the author of any of these letters, not even of the one which went in his name. None the less, it is inconceivable that this propaganda effort, the high water mark, intellectually, of the independence struggle, was carried out without close consultation with the king. The actual documentation was doubtless the work of skilled clerks, of whom there was no shortage in contemporary Scotland. But it is noteworthy that when between 1323 and 1325 Robert I made a determined effort to win papal recognition, his chief agent was not a churchman, but his own nephew Thomas Randolph, and it was his mission which proved to be successful.

Involvement in Ireland

Another important theme of royal policy following Bannockburn concerned Scottish relations with Ireland, of which Robert I had close personal experience. In May 1315 the king's sole surviving brother was declared to be heir apparent to the throne of Scotland, in a drastic reversal of the accepted rules of succession. Almost immediately Edward, a hero of Bannockburn and many other campaigns, led an army of fellow veterans to Ulster. Their purpose was nothing less than to overthrow the Dublin-based English government of Ireland, and to ensure that Edward Bruce became king of that country. Contemporary accounts differ as to whether Edward had been 'very frequently invited by a powerful man of Ireland' (Stevenson, 3) to come and be king, or had taken the initiative and negotiated with the Irish chiefs or minor kings to be received as high king. Amid much that is obscure or unknowable are the two certainties: that King Robert strongly supported his brother's Irish venture and that such co-operation as Edward found in Ireland came almost exclusively from native Irish chiefs, especially Domnall (son of Briain) Ó Néill, king of Tyrone, hardly at all from English settler families—and emphatically not from the king of Scots' father-in-law, Richard, earl of Ulster.

For Robert I the overriding necessity was to obtain lasting peace on the English front and a solemn, public acknowledgement by the English crown and parliament that he ruled Scotland lawfully and freely. The Scots' intervention in Ireland was to be judged by how effectively it contributed towards the attainment of that end. If English resources had to be diverted to Ireland on a big enough scale, that would make easier the programme of raids on northern England begun by Bruce as long ago as 1308 and carried out far more devastatingly after 1314. Consequently, the king of Scots took a sizeable force to Ireland in January 1317 and joined his brother on an extended southerly expedition, aimed at knocking out the English governmental forces and probably at capturing Dublin. Neither goal was achieved, and harsh weather, famine, and disease drove the Scots into retreat when they had reached Limerick. King Robert returned to Scotland in May. His brother held on in Ulster for more than a year, but was defeated and killed near Dundalk on 14 October 1318. Robert remained mindful of Scotland's Irish frontier until the end of his life, sailing to Ulster in 1327 and 1328; but after 1317 he never let himself become embroiled in the domestic politics of Ireland. The death of Edward Bruce brought the succession to the king's grandson Robert, child of the marriage in 1315 between his daughter Marjorie and Walter the Steward. Only if the king and queen had a son would Robert Stewart's claim take second place.

War and peace with England

The harrying of northern England was not a purely destructive policy of violence at any price. Because the Scots obviously could not mount an armed invasion of southern England to bring the monarchy to its knees, attrition must take the place of conquest or outright defeat. The threat of raids could yield a rich income in blackmail. Districts which would not or could not pay to be left in peace had their crops burnt and their beasts taken away to Scotland. The king delegated much of the raiding to trusted lieutenants, especially Randolph, Douglas, and the Steward, but he might on occasion lead a raid or conduct a siege personally. Strenuous efforts and considerable resources were put into the siege of Carlisle (14–31 July 1315), presided over by King Robert himself. This may have been the first or even only time when the Scots employed elaborate siege machinery, and their lack of expertise in its use, coupled with torrential rain which made the ground a quagmire, caused the siege to fail.

In 1319 the Scottish king gave his own guarantee to relieve the English siege of Berwick, held against Edward II by Walter the Steward, King Robert's son-in-law. In the autumn of 1322, following a futile penetration of Lothian by Edward II, King Robert led as far as north Yorkshire what was in effect a national army, recruited from north and south of Forth, Bute, Argyll, and the Western Isles. This army narrowly missed capturing the English king in the region of Rievaulx Abbey, but inflicted a sharp defeat upon a strong English force at Sutton Bank. Personal leadership and risk taking were very much part of Robert I's style. None the less, the king of Scots was never tempted to think complacently that he had gained the upper hand over his English enemies. Almost all the royal castles of Scotland were dismantled or destroyed by the king's orders so that they could not easily be used by English invaders. One upshot of the 1322 campaign was that the ablest of the north-country English leaders, Andrew Harclay of Westmorland, earl of Carlisle, entered on his own account into peace negotiations with the Scots which were concluded early in 1323. His dealings with King Robert were betrayed and he was executed for treason on 3 March, but the record of this abortive 'peace treaty' anticipates in some important respects the treaty of Edinburgh of 1328, and in particular is interesting for its provision that each kingdom, England and Scotland, should have a king 'of its own nation'.

The English government's willingness at last to make a treaty of peace resulted mainly from the deposition of Edward II in January 1327 and the comparative weakness of his fifteen-year-old successor, Edward III, governed as he largely was by his mother, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. But Scottish aggressiveness, possibly inspired more by Randolph and Douglas than by King Robert, must have played its part. The two Scots commanders, by now long tested in battle, took a sizeable force to co. Durham in June 1327, and lured an English army, with the young Edward III in its midst, to a location near Stanhope in Weardale, where on 4 August Edward himself was nearly captured and his whole force humiliated. It was evidently the Stanhope Park campaign that prompted the English government to agree to the terms of peace, enshrined in the treaty of Edinburgh (17 March 1328), which the English parliament ratified at Northampton on 4 May. The treaty of Edinburgh represented the culmination of Robert I's achievement in recovering the independence of the Scottish kingdom after conquest and warfare lasting for over thirty years. The treaty provided for an unqualified English recognition that Scotland was a free realm ruled by a king with lawful title. Scotland's boundaries, including the Isle of Man and Berwick, were restored to what they had been in 1286. No king of England was henceforth to claim overlordship over Scotland. In future there was to be an alliance between the two kingdoms, but without prejudice to the treaty which the Scots had renewed with the French in 1326. Friendly Anglo-Scottish relations would be cemented by a marriage between Robert's son David, born to Queen Elizabeth in 1324, and Joan of the Tower, sister of Edward III, born in 1321. On the Scottish side the biggest sacrifices were, first, the failure to persuade the English to agree to mutual exclusion of cross-border landholding and, second, a payment of £20,000 to Edward III 'for the sake of peace' (Stones, An addition, 29). The treaty provided that documents suggesting English overlordship over Scotland should be restored to the Scots for destruction, yet this record was not in fact given back; and, though their restoration was mooted, the stone of Scone and black rood of St Margaret, looted by Edward I but not referred to in the treaty, remained in London.

Government and its image

As ruler of Scotland, Robert is chiefly remembered for the reconciliation of former enemies, for healing many of the wounds left by the long war, for dispensing justice, and, with parliament, for promulgating the laws. He aimed to return his kingdom to the peaceful order which it was believed to have enjoyed under Alexander III. He had a strong sense of Scotland's rightful place within the comity of Christian nations. Foreign relations were important for him. Friendship with France was beginning to be restored from 1309, Norway was brought closer by the renewal in 1312 of the treaty of Perth (1266). From 1321, if not before, principalities in the Low Countries such as Holland, Hainault, and Flanders were resuming commercial links with Scotland, while Hanseatic cities such as Lübeck were encouraged to trade as they had been wont to do in King Alexander's golden days. Even Genoa was approached as a port from which to obtain good ships and weapons.

Much of what we know about Robert I's formal activity as king is derived from documents issued in the king's name under one or other of the numerous seals made to authenticate government business. He seems to have had a privy seal from the outset of his reign, and he was probably using a great seal by 1308. More than 600 written acts, for instance, charters, brieves (writs, in modern English usage), letters, and treaties, have survived in whole or in part. The vast majority are grants or confirmations of property, usually lordship over land, tenancies, offices, rents, and so on. In this way individuals and families who had supported Robert, especially in the earlier days of his reign, were duly rewarded, often with new property and privileges. Those who had been lukewarm towards his cause, or even outright enemies, might at least have their old possessions confirmed or restored. Some of these grants give evidence of astonishing generosity on the king's part. For example, the English baron Henry Percy (d. 1352), to whose father Robert's own earldom of Carrick had been given by Edward I in 1306, was allowed to pursue a claim in the Scottish courts to whatever property in Scotland he believed was rightfully his. Sir Henry de Beaumont and Thomas Wake were other Englishmen by no means well disposed towards Bruce's Scotland, who recovered lands acquired at the expense of patriot Scots.

All this business meant that Robert I was served by an efficient writing office, the head of which was traditionally the chancellor. Here the king was fortunate: at the start of his reign he obtained the services (and through his reign he clearly won and kept the loyalty) of a remarkably able man, who held the chancellorship for the exceptionally long term of twenty years. This was Dom Bernard, a Tironensian monk who had been abbot of Kilwinning in Ayrshire, and probably belonged to the strongly pro-Bruce circle of James the Steward. Bernard (formerly referred to, mistakenly, as Bernard Linton) may have composed, or at least inspired, the declaration of 1309, issued at the St Andrews parliament, which affirmed Bruce's right to the throne. There are echoes of this document in the more famous declaration of Arbroath (1320), but Bernard's authorship of the later document seems doubtful. An official as exalted as royal chancellor, who also held the busy post of abbot of Arbroath, would hardly have time or opportunity to compose major state papers, a task more likely to have been delegated to an experienced but relatively subordinate clerk.

In the 1370s John Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen, wrote his famous poetical work known as The Bruce, modelled on the old French gestes, poems which told of the great deeds of valour performed by the heroes of ancient times. The modern picture of Robert is still largely derived from Barbour. He aimed to portray a man of immense courage, chivalrous openheartedness, and humane clemency. Barbour passed over the awkward facts of Bruce's early life, for example the obsequious manner in which his grandfather and father sought Edward I's favour in their efforts to win the Scottish throne, the acceptance of John Balliol's royal title by a preponderant majority among the prelates and magnates of Scotland, the oaths of fealty which the young Robert Bruce must have taken to both Edward I and King John not once but several times, and, above all, Bruce's abandonment of the national cause from 1302 to 1306. Incredible as it may seem, Barbour makes no mention of William Wallace, whom we would now see as the giant incorruptible emblem of Scottish patriotism, and towards whom Bruce's attitude seems at best ambivalent.

In many respects Bruce did not stand aside, as Wallace did, from the era in which he lived, nor did he often rise above the instincts and outlook of the social class to which he belonged. Nevertheless there seems to be no doubt that his ambition to realize his inherited royal claims gradually fused with the concept of a free and independent Scotland embodied in the community of the realm. Precisely when this happened is impossible to say, but it does not seem fanciful to envisage the future king, both before and after his change of loyalty in 1302, discussing the political future of Scotland with the bishops Robert Wishart, David Murray, and especially William Lamberton, who told the French king in a letter of 1309 that he had suffered greatly because of his love for his native land. When Bruce made his decisive bid for the throne in 1306 two of his supporters were Neil Campbell and Seton of that ilk: two years later they were members of a knightly trio which swore a solemn oath to defend King Robert and the liberty of his kingdom with their last breath. In the declaration of 1309 the notables assembled in the St Andrews parliament said that the faithful people had established Robert as king and with him they were willing to live and die.

Eleven years on the author of the declaration of Arbroath, inspired by a passage in the books of the Maccabees, has the nobles and community of the realm proclaim that as long as one hundred of them survive they will never submit to English dominion. Thus, when Barbour puts into the Scottish king's mouth at Bannockburn a speech (likewise borrowed from Maccabees) which rallied his troops with the words

we for our lyvis,and for our childer and our wyvis,And for the fredome of our land,Ar strenyheit in battale for to stand

Barbour, ed. Mackenzie, 217even if the report is Barbour's imagination it strikes an authentic note of early fourteenth-century patriotism. Much the same may be said of Robert's Bannockburn speech to be found in the Scotichronicon of Walter Bower (1440s), where it is said to be quoted from a narrative written by Abbot Bernard of Arbroath, who was very probably present at the battle: 'My lords, my people, who are wont to put a high price on freedom, think of the hardships we have suffered for eight years as we have struggled for honour and freedom and for our right to the kingdom' (Bower, 5.363–4).

Law and legislation

The legislation associated with Robert I is chiefly to be found in the record of the Scone parliament of December 1318. As far as property law was concerned, the general drift of this law making was to stabilize a situation which, against a background of war, turbulence, and bitter feuds, might easily have degenerated into the chaos of civil strife. The biggest upheaval in landholding in Bruce's Scotland was occasioned by his own change in status from great feudatory to king. He parted with the earldom of Carrick to his brother (then to his son David), the lordship of Annandale to his nephew Thomas Randolph, and the lordship of the Garioch to his sister Christian Bruce. He himself of course succeeded to the royal demesne possessed by Alexander III. Beside this considerable shift of ownership there were forfeitures of the anti-Bruce Comyns (Badenoch and Buchan), of the MacDougalls, and of the main Balliol line. The remarkable feature of major landholding in Scotland is how little the pattern had changed between the 1290s and 1329, a testimony to Robert I's caution and conservatism. Consistently, he aimed to conciliate and win over his enemies and those whose loyalty might have seemed lukewarm.

The unity of Scotland for which the king strove was symbolized in the parliaments he held. Here were discussed and decided the great issues of state, for example treaties with foreign powers and the provisions for the succession to the throne. Here also the king obtained the consent of the community to such taxation as was judged essential. Twice towards the end of the reign parliaments agreed to the raising of a tenth of rents and income derived from land held directly or tenanted; on the second occasion the purpose was specifically to meet the large sum of £20,000 promised to England by the treaty of Edinburgh. The capacity of parliament to represent the full community of the realm was much enhanced by the practice of summoning a small number of burgesses from each royal burgh to attend the parliamentary sessions. This was done in 1312 and again in 1326, after which it became normal.

The problem of the succession

If parliament was an expression of unity, however, it could also deal with matters which might threaten unity or give evidence of serious disunity. The drastic overturning of the accepted rules of inheritance agreed at the Ayr parliament of 1315, when King Robert's still young and unmarried daughter Marjorie was passed over in preference for his brother Edward Bruce, might have caused disquiet among the king's feudal tenants, but the recollection of what had happened in 1286 and the absence of any firm peace with England must have swayed the minds of those present. A compromise allowed for the succession of Marjorie Bruce if neither Robert nor Edward left direct male heirs; and it was provided that she should marry forthwith, the husband chosen for her being Walter the Steward, who had distinguished himself on the field of Bannockburn. Their son Robert, born probably in March 1316, eventually became the successor of the childless David II.

Less easily explained is the threat of disunity evidenced by the plot uncovered in 1320 to remove King Robert and replace him with William Soulis, great-nephew of the Sir John Soulis who had served as guardian of Scotland at the turn of the century. The plot largely involved individuals who belonged to the BalliolComyn party, and there is no evidence that it had any popular support. The Black Parliament of August 1320 gave judgment on Soulis, David Brechin, and Roger Moubray, convicting them of treason. Moubray was already dead, Soulis was to be imprisoned for life, Brechin was to be drawn and hanged. Others accused were acquitted, while at least one had fled to England. The treatment of the Soulis plot showed that the country was firmly behind Robert I, but its existence and the identity of those in it presaged, ominously, the failure of the country to rally unanimously behind King Robert's young son David after Thomas Randolph's death in 1332.

Relations with the church

While there is little evidence to show that Robert was a deeply religious man, his concern to see that the Scottish church was maintained in its old liberties and in the care of able bishops is well attested. He faced serious obstacles in respect of the two largest and foremost dioceses, St Andrews and Glasgow. Robert Wishart, the king's stalwart friend and supporter, was an English prisoner until 1314 and died two years later, by then old and blind. Not until 1323 could the king persuade the English-influenced papacy to confirm in office as Wishart's successor John Lindsay, the king's own choice. William Lamberton, also a staunch supporter, regained his liberty to some extent in 1308, assisted by Sir Robert Keith, who was on the point of returning to Scottish allegiance. By 1312 Lamberton was fully restored to King Robert's trust and favour. He lived to see one of the high points of the reign, the solemn dedication in the king's presence of his great cathedral church of St Andrews, on 5 July 1318, now completed after a building history of a century and a half. Other bishops whose appointment Bruce secured, sometimes with difficulty, were Nicholas Balmyle and Maurice, abbot of Inchaffray (Dunblane), William Sinclair (Dunkeld), John Pilmuir (Moray), and his own chancellor and friend Dom Bernard, abbot of Arbroath (Sodor and Man).

Bruce's support of the religious orders, amply demonstrated by his surviving charters, may not have been more earnest than would be expected of any medieval monarch. But there is good evidence for his veneration of the saints of the church, especially Andrew the Apostle, John the Baptist, Thomas of Canterbury, Malachy of Armagh, and, closer to home, Fillan (remembered in Strathfillan and many other Scottish localities), Columba of Iona, and, perhaps held in special affection and reverence, Ninian of Whithorn, to whose shrine the king made a slow and painful pilgrimage at the end of his life.

Robert's cultural awareness was by no means confined to the cults of saints. Barbour tells us how, at the very nadir of his fortunes in 1306, while waiting beside Loch Lomond with only a handful of friends for the earl of Lennox to provide escort and transport to help them to reach Ireland, the king regaled his companions by reciting the tale of Oliver, one of Charlemagne's twelve peers, who defeated in single combat ‘Ferambrace’ (‘Iron Arm’), son of Balan or Laban, sultan of Babylon. The romance was part of the semi-Christian, semi-pagan folklore of western Europe, the secular counterpart of the crusading motives which inspired the king's dying wish that his heart at least should be borne into battle against God's foes, 'sen God will nocht that I have power thiddirward till go' (Barbour, ed. Mackenzie, 365). It was human touches such as these which were recalled in later times and carefully collected by Barbour to produce his convincing personal portrait. It is Barbour who has preserved the story of how, when the Scots were withdrawing from the neighbourhood of Limerick in 1317, the king halted the whole army until a laundress in their following, brought to labour and likely to be abandoned, could be delivered of her child and led to safety with the rest.

Last illness and death

It was widely believed that in his later years Robert I suffered from leprosy. There is no doubt that he was severely disabled by illness, and although fifty-five was not an unusually young age for the death of a man who had endured so much physical hardship, it seems likely that Bruce's death was the result of some specific malady which meticulous analysis of the skull cast has confirmed as leprosy. The king died on 7 June 1329 in the house which he had built for himself at Cardross, on the right bank of the River Leven a little over a mile north of Dumbarton Castle. He had chosen this obviously favourite place of residence with care, and its acquisition from other landowners involved trouble and expense.

There can be little doubt of Robert's love for the west of Scotland, where he had been born and brought up, as also for the southern Hebrides, across the seas of which he liked to sail. He kept a large yacht at Cardross in which voyages were made to Arran and Loch Fyne. It may be significant that Tarbert and Dumbarton were among the very few royal castles which the king did not order to be destroyed. In view of his apparent fondness for sailing, his overland pilgrimage to Whithorn, to which he could surely have gone by sea, is surprising; his return to Cardross was probably by ship. Although the king died at Cardross, his body was taken to Dunfermline for burial in the abbey choir beside the graves of his predecessors. The heart was removed from the body, embalmed, and taken to southern Spain by Sir James Douglas, who was carrying it when in August 1330 he was slain in battle against the forces of the Muslim ruler of Granada. Bruce's heart and Douglas's body were brought back to Scotland, the former to be buried in Melrose Abbey. The sources are in conflict on the question of where Robert wished his heart to be buried. The English government believed that Douglas intended to take the heart to the Holy Land, while both the Flemish chronicler Jean le Bel (d. 1370) and Walter Bower in his Scotichronicon report that the king wished his heart to be taken to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But Barbour says only that King Robert's wish was for his heart to be taken into battle against God's foes, echoing a papal absolution of 1331. Moreover, there survives a letter of the king himself in favour of Melrose Abbey, stating that he had bequeathed his heart to be buried there. In 1996 archaeological investigations on the south side of the abbey church revealed a lead container in which what remains of Robert I's heart is probably enclosed. This heart casket was reinterred at Melrose Abbey in June 1999.

From his first marriage (c.1290), to Isabel, daughter of Donald, earl of Mar, Robert Bruce had an only child, Marjorie Bruce [see under Stewart family (per. c. 1110-c. 1350)], mother of the future Robert II. His second marriage (1302), to Elizabeth de Burgh, eventually produced four children: Maud, who made a mésalliance by marrying a simple esquire, Thomas Isaac; Margaret, who married the fifth earl of Sutherland; David II, who succeeded to the throne in 1329, and John, who died in infancy. Five illegitimate children are recorded, two sons and three daughters; the elder son, Robert Bruce, was killed at Dupplin Moor in 1332 and the younger at Nevilles Cross in 1346. The surname of Bruce was not carried to posterity by any of these children.

Significance and reputation

Until the end of the nineteenth century most Scottish historians took their cue from Barbour, Fordun, and Bower in their estimates of the character of Robert I and of the value of his contribution to the Scots' struggle for survival. Except for Fordun's curious story of Bruce's role at Falkirk, the accounts of the three medieval writers are agreed in portraying him as a patriotic hero who saved the Scottish realm from annihilation. John Mair (d. 1550), despite his conviction that the Scots and English kingdoms should unite on a footing of equality, in his Historia Majoris Britanniae of 1521 rated King Robert more highly than Wallace as a national leader. George Buchanan (d. 1582) judged him to have been brave in war, moderate in peace, and admirable in adversity, 'in every point of view a great man' (History of Scotland, trans. J. Aikman, 1827, 1.452). David Hume (d. 1776), as a patriotic Scot, dealt more sympathetically with the Scottish struggle for independence in his History of England than English historians were apt to do. He wrote of 'the wise and valiant Robert Bruce, who had recovered by arms the independence of his country' (History of England, 1834 edn, 2.295). The austere David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes (d. 1792), not given to encomiums, at least saw Robert Bruce as the restorer of the Scottish monarchy, though he was much warmer in his praise of Thomas Randolph. It was Dalrymple's younger contemporary Sir Walter Scott (d. 1832) who in his Tales of a Grandfather (1828–30) first put into circulation the subsequently well-known story of Bruce and the spider, telling how, at the lowest point of his career, as a desperate refugee about the end of 1306, Robert's watching the repeated, and finally successful, efforts of a spider to attach its web to a beam encouraged him to continue in his attempts to establish himself as king, and thereby to win freedom for his country. Presumably Scott took the story (which later embellishment would place on the island of Rathlin) from an unpublished manuscript, then at Chatelherault beside Hamilton, Lanarkshire, of the History of the House and Race of Douglas and Angus (1820) by David Hume of Godscroft, where it is in fact told of James Douglas, and reattributed it to the fugitive king in order to add a moral dimension to his career, illustrating the virtues of resilience and perseverance, as well as of patriotism.

Nineteenth-century Scottish historians were united in their praise of Robert I: P. H. Tytler (d. 1849), J. H. Burton (d. 1881), and, at the end of the nineteenth century, P. Hume Brown (d. 1918) all portray him in heroic terms; Tytler, indeed, goes so far as to say that in the conduct of the war with England 'Bruce stood alone, and shared the glory with no one' (History of Scotland, 3rd edn, 1845, 1.369). Hume Brown, who saw no reason to alter his opinion in the second edition of his History of Scotland (1911), wrote: 'it may be confidently said that [Bruce] was the greatest king that ever sat on the Scottish throne' (1.136). Robert I never attracted the sort of cult that came to be attached to the name of William Wallace. He was represented in notable statues by Andrew Currie (1877) and Thomas Clapperton (1929) on the esplanades of Stirling and Edinburgh castles respectively, and in 1965 was the subject of an equestrian statue erected at Bannockburn to celebrate the 650th anniversary of the battle. But there is no visual equivalent of the Wallace Memorial. Nevertheless, it is only when we reach Andrew Lang (d. 1912), whose History of Scotland was published in 1900, that we hear a discordant note struck in the chorus of praise: Bruce is presented as 'that ever-shifting politician' who, before Comyn's murder, was 'unscrupulously and perfidiously self-seeking'. Strangely, however, once Comyn was dispatched and Bruce enthroned as king, he was then allowed by Lang to display 'unflinching resolution, consummate generalship, brilliant courage, perfect courtesy … and wisdom' (History of Scotland, 1.188, 236). Gordon Donaldson too shows a marked lack of enthusiasm for King Robert, although he calls him 'the liberator king' (Donaldson, 30). More recently, the biographical study by G. W. S. Barrow, published in its third edition in 1988, and the edition of Robert I's Regesta regum Scottorum by A. A. M. Duncan (1988) have continued to develop the assessment of King Robert's life and significance.

Robert Bruce, who in later ages became Good King Robert, left a reputation for courage and magnanimity, compassion, fairness in his dealings with friend and foe, sagacity in political decisions, and brilliance in generalship. As far as the independence and survival of the kingdom of Scotland are concerned, it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of his role, even allowing for the fact that he was able to build upon the achievement of Wallace. Barbour's epitaph may suffice: 'Better governour than he mycht in na cuntre fundyn be' (Barbour, ed. Mackenzie, 368).


  • G. W. S. Barrow and others, eds., Regesta regum Scottorum, 5, ed. A. A. M. Duncan (1988)
  • J. M. Thomson and others, eds., Registrum magni sigilli regum Scotorum / The register of the great seal of Scotland, 2nd edn, 1, ed. T. Thomson (1912)
  • G. Burnett and others, eds., The exchequer rolls of Scotland, 1 (1878)
  • CDS, vols. 1–5
  • W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98), esp. vols. 5–7
  • The chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, ed. H. Rothwell, CS, 3rd ser., 89 (1957)
  • Scalacronica, by Sir Thomas Gray of Heton, knight: a chronical of England and Scotland from ad MLXVI to ad MCCCLXII, ed. J. Stevenson, Maitland Club, 40 (1836)
  • E. L. G. Stones, ed. and trans., Anglo-Scottish relations, 1174–1328: some selected documents, OMT (1965)
  • J. Barbour, The Bruce, ed. W. W. Skeat, 2 vols., STS, 31–3 (1894)
  • A. H. Dunbar, Scottish kings, 2nd edn (1906)
  • G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the community of the realm of Scotland, 3rd edn (1988)
  • G. Donaldson, Scottish kings (1967)
  • Johannis de Fordun Chronica gentis Scotorum / John of Fordun's Chronicle of the Scottish nation, ed. W. F. Skene, trans. F. J. H. Skene, 2 vols. (1871–2)
  • Scalacronica: the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III as recorded by Sir Thomas Gray, trans. H. Maxwell (1907)
  • Rymer, Foedera, new edn, vol. 2
  • J. Stevenson, ed., Illustrations of Scottish history, from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, Maitland Club, 28 (1834)
  • E. L. G. Stones, ‘An addition to the Rotuli Scotiae’, SHR, 29 (1950), 23–51
  • J. Barbour, The Bruce: selections for use in schools, ed. W. M. Mackenzie (1909)
  • W. P. Macarthur, ‘Some notes on old-time leprosy: the case of King Robert the Bruce’, Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 46 (1926), 321–30
  • I. MacLeod, ‘Bodies, faces and teeth’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 128 (1998), 1126–9


  • Durham Cath. CL, charters
  • NA Scot., charters


  • drawing, 15th, repro. in Bower, Scotichronicon, frontispiece
  • W. Scoular, plaster cast of skull, 1819, Scot. NPG
  • A. Currie, statue, 1877, Stirling Castle
  • T. Clapperton, statue, 1929, Edinburgh Castle
  • C. P. Jackson, statue, Bore Stone site, Bannockburn National Trust for Scotland Memorial, Stirling
  • bronze cast of skull (after W. Scoular), Scot. NPG
  • seal, NA Scot. [see illus.]
Camden Society
Oxford Medieval Texts
Scottish Historical Review
T. Rymer & R. Sanderson, eds., , 20 vols. (1704–35); 2nd edn, 20 vols. (1726–35); 3rd edn, 10 vols. (1739–45); new edn, ed. A. Clarke, J. Caley, & F. Holbrooke, 4 vols., RC, 50 (1816–69); facs. of 3rd edn (1967)
Scottish Text Society