Peter Jones: Led astray by a mythological Bruce

With Bannockburn behind us, it’s time to take a clearer eyed look at an ambivalent historical figure, writes Peter Jones

Arguably driven by self-interest, Robert the Bruce was not so different from modern politicians. Picture: Getty
Arguably driven by self-interest, Robert the Bruce was not so different from modern politicians. Picture: Getty

Now that the Bannockburn commemorations are done, here’s a dangerously heretical thought: was Robert the Bruce not in fact a fine patriotic Scot, but actually an Anglo-French colonising, murdering homophobic chancer on the make?

Alright, alright, don’t get upset – I’m not disputing that he played a key role in what are now known to historians as the Wars of [Scottish] Independence, nor that if it had not been for his victory at Bannockburn, Scottish independence might well have ended in 1314 rather than in 1707.

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But I am suggesting that we should not get all dewy-eyed and just accept at face value the folk-myth story of a great patriot riding to the rescue of his beloved country to repel an invading and rapacious English overlord. The effects of what he achieved may be obvious, but his motives may well have been rather different to what we, from our modern perspective, impute to him.

So why might he be regarded as Anglo-French? His family were Norman – the de Brus, from Brix, in Normandy. It seems they sided with Henry I of England while he was reasserting the English throne’s claim to much of northern and western France. A Robert de Brus was rewarded with land in what is now Cleveland in northern England, arriving there in the first decade of the 12th century.

In 1124, his son, also called Robert, was granted the lordship of Annandale in Scotland by Scottish monarch David I, probably because he had married Annandale’s heiress. Several generations later, Robert the Bruce was born near Turnberry, Ayrshire in 1274.

Whether that makes the future King Robert a colonist or a settler in Alasdair Gray’s pernicious typology, I don’t know, but pure bred Scot he wasn’t. The family links with England remained strong – several of the Scottish Brus/Bruces (including his grandfather and father) were interred at Guisborough, Cleveland, where there is a cenotaph and quite a bit of touristry celebrating the family.

Robert certainly knew his family heritage for he spoke Norman French as well as Scots and Gaelic. And he only owed his titles and status in Scotland to Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots”. The family lost the Annandale title after David I died, the succession to the throne was unclear and a court of nobles, under pressure from Edward I, chose John Balliol as King of Scots in 1292 in preference to his grandfather, known as “the competitor”.

King John’s reign was a disaster; he was forced to pay homage to and serve Edward I, which eventually prompted a rebellion during which the Bruces were forced out of Scotland.

In 1296, Edward I invaded to deal with the rebels. The Bruce family didn’t side with the Scots and swore loyalty to the “Hammer”, for which Edward I rewarded them with the restoration of the Annandale title and lands.

Between this point and 1305, things get a little murky. There are accounts which lay stress on his Scottish patriotism and his support for revolts against Edward I. But he was absent from William Wallace’s victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Another (unreliable) account places him on Edward’s side when Wallace was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 – more likely, he just wasn’t there.

The best-fit explanation for this behaviour is that Robert the Bruce was primarily concerned with the advancement of himself and his family rather than Scotland and the nation. He allied with Edward I when it suited his purposes and rebelled against him for similar reasons.

Explanations that suggest his periodic obeisance to the English monarch were just clever feints at times of weakness which in fact show his deep love of the nation entail endowing him with the kind of strategic vision only available with hindsight.

It also gives the concept of nation a very different status to what the word meant in medieval times, when it was really about strong leaders with land, people and God on their side.

Leaders also don’t want rivals. In 1306, he met John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who had as good a claim to the throne as Bruce and a more consistent record of opposition to Edward I.

Rival accounts agree only that they met to discuss some sort of deal, a fight broke out, and Comyn wound up dead. Six weeks later, Bruce was crowned King Robert I.

A few months after that he was defeated by English forces at the Battle of Methven and went into his famous hiding when a spider is said to have taught him the “try, try, again” lesson. Returning in 1307, he won a couple of minor battles against English forces and then went north, engaging in a now largely forgotten and bloody civil war which killed off any remaining opposition from the Comyns and their allies, the MacDougalls. He then went on to maul English garrisons in central Scotland.

In 1307, Edward I died and his less effective son Edward II became king. As historian Neil Oliver showed in the recent BBC programmes on Bannockburn, the new king was almost certainly gay, and showered gifts and titles on one particular love, Piers Gaveston.

The established nobility hated Gaveston and did their best to get rid of him, by any means. Edward II offered Robert I a deal – give Gaveston sanctuary, and he would recognise Robert as King of Scots and lay off Scotland. Robert refused and Gaveston was murdered shortly afterwards.

Robert may have thought Gaveston was more trouble than he was worth, that any such deal would probably be reneged on, that the English establishment might depose a weak king and come after him, or he may just have been homophobic.

That’s the weakest explanation, but no-one can know for sure, just as no-one can know to what extent Edward II’s march that led his army to Bannockburn was partly a revenge raid for Robert’s refusal of sanctuary.

Whatever, history offers bits and pieces of evidence for each of the alternative views of Robert the Bruce presented at the start of this article. He certainly isn’t the saintly patriot some imagine him to have been; in his rise to the top, he may have killed as many Scots as English.

The evidence suggests he was much more interested in advancing his family’s status and wealth than he was in the national interest. And in that, many might think, he wasn’t all that different from modern politicians.