King of Scots
By Matthew A. C. Newsome
(c)1998 All rights reserved
for information on reproducing this article, please contact the author
“A! Fredome is a noble thing; Fredome mays man to haiff liking; Fredome
all solace to man giffis; He levys at es that frely levys.” These
lines, written over 600 years ago by John Barbour, express the sentiment felt
by nearly all since who have told the tale of Robert the Bruce. It
is a tale told of struggle against hardship, overcoming odds, tyrant kings,
rebel leaders, and most of all a tale told of good v. evil in a battle for
the noblest of all things—freedom! The death of King Alexander III in 1284
had left Scotland with no direct heir to the throne, and in the ensuing struggle
for various feudal lords to come to power, King Edward of England swept in
and established himself as a rightful claimant to the Scottish throne.
The resulting fights by men such as Wallace, Bruce, Balliol, and Comyn to
gain some measure of independence from the English king fill Scottish history
and legend. The hero in this legend is inevitably Robert Bruce, King
of Scots. Stories told in this fashion usually end themselves on June
24, 1314, with the triumphant Battle of Bannockburn, cried as one of the
most outstanding Scottish victories and the first time an English army had
been so decimated in the north in 600 years. This victory makes a fine
ending for a story, and as Barbour says, “Storys to rede ar delatibill, Suppose
that thai be nocht bot fabill.” But the reality is that Robert
the Bruce was still fighting for the secured independence of his nation,
and his own right to hold that kingdom with homage to no man. This
paper is an examination of that struggle. By looking largely at the
letters and documents we have from Robert the Bruce himself, I hope to show
how he became “Robert, by the grace of God king of Scots.”
After Bannockburn, Bruce held all of Scotland with the exception of Berwick. Scotland was also under a papal interdiction, and Bruce himself, as well as the majority of his supporters, was excommunicated. Bruce’s goals were not only to remove the interdiction on his country, but also to gain lasting peace for that country and to gain recognition of its independence and his right as king. Fourteen years separated the Battle of Bannockburn and the Treaty of Edinburgh that ultimately put an end to the wars, and Bruce seems to have shown every indication that at any time during that period he would have accepted peace had his mild terms been met. Yet they were consistently denied by an English king who was attempting in every way possible to regain respect from increasingly hostile barons.
One of the first things the Bruce did after Bannockburn was to allow any Scottish knight or baron who had served under Edward II or his father into his peace and restore their properties in Scotland. This he would do only if they would do homage to him alone for their lands in Scotland, and give up their English titles, for he no longer permitted any Scot to hold lands in both kingdoms. Although not all of the nobles were willing to do this, many did. The Bruce allowed the nobles one year to swear their oaths. Those who did not had their Scottish estates forfeited back to the king. These he granted out to his loyal supporters so that, in the end, the border countries were reformed such that the Bruce was assured of large scale and enthusiastic support from that region.
For his enemy, Edward II, Bruce displayed a noble attitude of good will. Among the items taken in the capture of Edward II’s train after Bannockburn were the Royal Shield and Edward’s own Great Seal of State. These Robert returned to Edward, unasked, as a token of friendship. Edward could not allow himself to be weaker end of any relation with the Scot, however, and did not receive this gesture in a manner befitting a king. In order to receive any recognition from the English king, Robert the Bruce would have to display his might again and again.
The Bruce was very much aware of the trouble Edward II was having controlling his barons, and knew it was a struggle for him to keep his kingdom together, let alone defend it. Beginning in August of 1314 Bruce utilized his southern supporters, Sir James Douglas and Thomas Randolph earl of Moray, along with John Soulis and Robert’s younger brother, Edward Bruce, to lead constant and almost consistently successful raids south of the border into Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, and beyond. The Bruce took control of the Irish Sea and Royally sanctioned privateers terrorized English coastal towns and cut off supplies to northern England. When famine struck in 1316 the combined results were so disastrous that the inhabitants of the region were reported to be living off of horse and dog flesh.
In April of 1315, Robert the Bruce decided to give his brother Edward command of an army to go and “liberate” Ireland from the hands of the English. During this same month, in Ayr, Bruce decreed that his brother Edward should be his heir. Edward Bruce was a warrior and a soldier as capable as Robert, as he would prove himself to be in Ireland.
Edward Bruce managed to defeat the Anglo-Irish barons and on May 2, 1316, was crowned High King of All Ireland , a title he defended until his death in battle in 1318. His military exploits managed to keep the English Edward’s attention for quite some time, preventing him from concentrating on his Scottish border. All of England north of the Tees was effectively under the subjugation of the Scottish nobles.
It was not until 1319 that Edward II could muster together a large enough force to return invasions into Scotland, and attempt to recapture Berwick. Robert Bruce had left his son-in-law, Walter Stewart, in command at of that town, and he was able to successfully repel the English with little trouble. Edward II’s army was only a dim shadow of the force that his father had been able to bring north. In 1296 Edward I had taken the city of Berwick in but a few hour’s time.
Perhaps in light of this embarrassing defeat, Edward agreed, in the Christmas of 1319, to a two year truce with the Scots. While the Bruce held off all attacks on the border regions for that period, Edward II used the time to sabotage his enemy with the Church in Rome. As early as 1316, when the newly elected Pope announced his desire for a crusade against the Turks, Edward had said he would gladly give his support to a crusade if the pope could help him deal with the Scots, so that he could afford the troops.
In 1317, the pope sent letters to both kings asking for peace. The account of how Robert Bruce received his letters tells us much of his character and much of how he viewed himself and his position. In either August or September of that year, two cardinals from England came with a papal proposal for peace. The Bruce carefully listened to their proposal, and told them that he desired peace as well, and greatly so. However, he noticed that the letters that the cardinals brought were addressed to "Our dearest son in Christ, Edward II, illustrious King of England, and to our dear son, the noble Robert Bruce, acting as king of Scots.” The Bruce was no doubt insulted at this lack of respect and recognition of his title, but kept his wits about him. He gave the following reply to the cardinals, which is related in Barrow’s text.
“We cannot say anything in reply to the cardinal’s letters which are not addressed to us as king. There are several Robert Bruces who, in company with the other barons, are ‘governors of the kingdom of Scotland.’ We will inspect and have read out to us the pope’s open letters [which bore only a general address], but we will not open the pope’s sealed letters, for they carry no royal title and are not addressed to us.”The pope tried on numerous subsequent occasions to deliver letters to the Bruce, all of which were refused as they did not bear the king’s proper title. In 1319, when at the urgings of King Edward the pope summoned Robert the Bruce to Avignon to answer for his misdeeds, he addressed the letter to “Robert Bruce, governing the Kingdom of Scotland,” which the Bruce also did not accept. In frustration, the pope decreed that the excommunication against Robert the Bruce should be repeated on every Sabbath and feast day, and subsequently added various Scottish bishops to the list, including St. Andrews, Moray, Dunkeld, and Aberdeen. This action prompted the reply of the Scottish barons known as the Declaration of Arbroath.
Written on April 6, 1320, this letter to the pope begins with a short history of the Scottish people, telling of how they conquered the lands they now hold, and how their kings have reigned over that land independently, despite invasions, asserting that “one hundred and thirteen kings. . . have reigned, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.” The letter then goes on to tell of Edward I’s violent invasion of their country while they were weak and without a leader. The authors make mention of his “wrongs, killings, violence, pillage, arson, imprisonment of prelates, burning down of monasteries. . .”
But from these countless evils we have been set free. . . by our most valiant prince, king and lord, Lord Robert, who, that his people and heritage might be delivered out of the hands of enemies, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and danger. . . . Divine providence, the succession to his right according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all, have made him our prince and king.Thus they assert the right of Robert the Bruce as lawful king of Scotland by making his claim seem as natural and justified as possible, ignoring the actual hardships he suffered in getting those rights recognized in his own country, and Edward’s claims to feudal overlordship of Scotland.
The letter then goes on to declare that if the English would leave the Scots in peace they would gladly aid the Church in the crusades against the barbarians--but it ends in a pointed warning to the pope. “If your holiness, giving too much credence to the tails of the English, will not. . . refrain from favouring them to our confusion, then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe, be imputed by the Most High to you.”
The pope was apparently persuaded as he quickly wrote a letter to Edward II instructing him to make permanent peace with Scotland so that both countries might contribute to the crusades. Once more peace meetings were held, subsequently fell apart, and Edward wrote to the pope blaming the Scots for their failure. And once again the pope repeated the Bruce’s excommunication, also this time instructing that any Scot invading England would be excommunicated as well. Once the two year truce had ended, things went right back to the way they had been.
By this time, however, many had started to see King Edward’s faults in not being more amiable with the Scots and decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1321, Lancaster entered into negotiations with Scotland. Not much came of this initial contact, but when Bruce instructed Douglas and Moray to resume their southern raids, Lancaster did not resist them.
In 1322 Edward II mounted another invasion into Scotland, this time with a larger army of 22,000 men. Bruce had ordered the effective evacuation of all areas south of the Forth and the Clyde, and removed all cattle and foodstock from the region, so that during their march north, the English army nearly starved to death. All Edward could manage to do with his men was sack Holyrood Abbey, suffering heavy losses, and then attempt to do the same with Melrose Abbey, where he was turned back by a force led by Douglas. Starvation, heavy casualties, and lack of morale forced him to turn back to England, but the Bruce pursued and nearly succeeded in capturing King Edward himself. He did manage to capture one Henry de Sully, butler of France. By all accounts, Bruce treated this prisoner with utmost respect, as an honored guest, and de Sully later acted as a go-between in a 1323 truce with the English.
Edward began these truce negotiations by referring only to “the people of Scotland” and not to Bruce himself. The letter Bruce wrote back to de Sully tells exactly what the Scottish King thought of these tactics. He reiterates again how ready he was to make peace had the English king been agreeable. He then continues:
Regarding this, my lord, we have received your letters and transcripts of letters from the king of England declaring that he has “granted a truce to the people of Scotland who are at war with him”. To us this is a very strange way of speaking. In earlier truces, even though the English king has not deigned to call us king, we have at least been named as the principal on one side, as he has on the other. But it does not seem advisable to us to accept a truce in which no more mention is made of us than of the humblest man in our kingdom. . .Once again, it was the stubborn refusal to acknowledge Bruce as king that prevented peace between the nations. But Bruce could not back down on this if he wanted his independent reign to remain secure.
It appears that in England there was much discontent for the way in which Edward II was handling matters in the north. On January 3, 1323, Bruce entered into negotiations with Andrew Harlcay, Earl of Carlisle, who was acting without the support or knowledge of King Edward. They drafted a treaty, which maintained that “because both kingdoms prospered so long as each kingdom had a king from its own nation, and was maintained separately, with its own laws and customs, let it again be done in the same manner.” Under this proposed treaty twelve arbiters, six from Scotland and six from England, were to meet and discuss details of peace. These were to include the Bruce founding a monastery for the souls of those who had died in the conflict; permission for Edward II to choose a bride from his own family as wife for the Bruce’s son; and an offer by Bruce to pay ?27,000 for damages done to northern England. However, when Edward II found out about the dealings, and read the proposed treaty, his comment was that it was “a thing which seems to us, and our council, to bode great evil.” Harlcay was tried for treason and executed.
Two months later on May 20, 1323, a thirteen year truce was agreed upon which did little to address the important points for Bruce, namely the legitimacy of his crown, but it did ease border tensions and pave the way for further negotiations. A part of this agreement was for Edward II not to interfere in Robert Bruce’s attempts at papal absolution. Regardless, in 1324 Edward sent ambassadors to the papal curia to ensure that Scotland remained under interdiction, and when Bruce plead for absolution in 1325 it was rejected by the pope, who once more neglected to use his royal title.
The peace did last, however, until the English barons deposed Edward II on January 20, 1327. On February 1, King Edward III was crowned. Almost immediately the Bruce resumed his hostilities, reminding the English barons that when they removed Edward II they had ended the truce with Scotland. Bruce once more led a massive invasion of Northumberland that resulted in the near capture of young Edward III and demonstrated the complete inability of the English to protect their northern border.
This strong show of aggression in the summer of 1327 encouraged the younger king to negotiate for a firm and final peace. In October of that year, Bruce made it known that for such a peace to exist he required six points be conceded under the Royal Seal of Edward III. These were: 1) that King Edward and the English barons should acknowledge Robert the Bruce and his heirs as the kings of Scotland with no homage due to any man, 2) that King Robert’s son should be married to the sister of Edward III, 3) that no Englishman be allowed to demand Scottish lands, nor any Scotsman lands in England, 4) the Scots would give military aid to the English against all enemies and the English would likewise aid the Scots, 5) Robert Bruce would pay the English a sum of ?20,000 for damages done in northern England, and lastly 6) that Edward would aid Robert in having the papal interdiction as well as his own excommunication removed.
Robert had proven, over the past two decades, that he was the undisputed victor in the wars. Only now did the English have a king that was ready to concede that point. In a quitclaim, Edward III writes:
We, and certain of our predecessors as kings of England, have tried to assert rights of rule, dominion, or superiority over the realm of Scotland, and in consequence a grievous burden of wars has long afflicted the realms of England and Scotland; therefore, considering the killings, slaughters, crimes, destructions of churches, and ills innumerable which so often befell the inhabitants of each realm, by reason of these wars. . . we wish, and grant by the present letter, on behalf of ourselves, our heirs, and all our successors. . . that the realm of Scotland. . . shall remain for ever to the eminent prince Lord Robert, by the grace of God the illustrious king of Scots, our ally and dearest friend, and to his heirs and successors, divided in all things from the realm of England, entire, free, and quit, and without any subjection, servitude, claim, or demand.This letter also implied that the rights of John Balliol as king of Scotland had been false, and therefore any negotiations made between him and Edward I were not binding.
This was seen as very agreeable to the Scots, and on March 17, 1328, King Robert and emissaries from England settled on a final and lasting treaty in Edinburgh. The details of this negotiation included instructions for the enactment of each of the six points discussed above, including harsh trespassing laws among the border counties, detailed instruction for the marriage of Robert’s son to Edward’s sister, and for the absolution of Robert the Bruce, instruction that Edward should “send a private letter of request to the pope and to the cardinals.” This final treaty was similar in nearly every respect to the one proposed by Harclay (except that it involved less retribution money for the English).
This very generous treaty of Edinburgh was ratified by an English Parliament at Northampton in May of 1329, barely one month before the death of Robert the Bruce. Having been ill for over a year, King Robert managed to overcome the odds once again and remain alive long enough to see the peace he so desired enacted and the security of his Crown ensured. His willingness to show a strong military presence in the north assured him respect. And his stubbornness on the battlefield of politics insured not only his own recognition as king, but the same recognition for all of his heirs to come. This was more important than even the Bruce himself could have imagined, for although his line would be but short, out of it grew the impressive dynasty of the Stewarts that would rule Scotland (and England) for centuries to come and shape the history of Britain. And, lest it be forgotten, because of the importance Bruce placed on independence, Scotland remains, to this very day, the only nation in the United Kingdom not to have been taken in force by the English. “A! Fredome is a noble thing. . .”
Barbour, John. The Bruce. 1375. With “The Declaration of Arbroath,” trans. & ed. by A. A. M. Duncan. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Limited, 1997.
Barrow, G. W. S. Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.
Donaldson, Gordon. Scottish Historical Documents. Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 1974.
Lynch, Michael. Scotland; A New History. 1991. London: Pimlico, 1996.
Scott, Ronald McNair. Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. 1982. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.
Stones, E. L. G., trans. & ed. Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174-1328; Some Selected Documents. 1965. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1970.