Robert the Bruce
Or: Just Sick to Death of Playing Second Banana to William Wallace

Robert the Bruce, as many know, defeated the English King Edward II's army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Well, not just him. He had an army, too. Regardless, the victory helped usher in an era of Scottish independence with the Bruce on the throne.

You may be familiar with a certain film.

But who the hell was this guy, really? What actually happened? And how can he be distinguished from other bearded Scotsmen?

Timeline: The Bruce
(Our man always hereafter referred to as 'Robert the Bruce' or RTB)

  • 1274: Robert the Bruce born at Turnberry Castle on the Firth of Clyde to Robert Bruce and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick. Already his life is far cooler than mine.

  • 1286: The death of Scottish King Alexander III throws the country into turmoil over the succession. The Bruces are among the families with legitimate claims to the throne. Or families among the throne are claiming to be legitimate Bruces.

  • 1292: The competition for the throne boils down to two: John Balliol, and the aptly named Robert the Competitor. The latter, Robert the Bruce's grandfather, has the stronger claim, but is considered by Edward I's advisors to have too much power already. Balliol is announced the King; the Competitor resigns all his powers, place in the succession, and earldom to his eighteen-year-old grandson. They never pay homage to Balliol.

  • 1295: Robert the Bruce marries Isabella, daughter of the Earl of Mar.

    The Scottish Council of Twelve allies with France in an offensive/defensive pact. This is not only far more useful to the French, but very annoying to Edward I, who starts building an invasion army as a result.

  • 1296: A sticky year for the Bruces. Still after the throne, and still believing the way lay through Edward's heart, the Bruces stick by their fealty to the English king and respond to the Council's Call to Arms in the name of King John with a firm 'bugger off.'

    RTB's wife, Isabella, dies just after giving birth.

    The Scottish King confiscates the Bruce lands.

    Edward I promises that when the dust and tartans settle, it'll be a Bruce on the throne.

  • 1297: All kinds of misery. RTB is sent to quash a part of the Scottish uprising, but is torn among his Father's preference for the English lifestyle, the promise of the throne, and his own loyalty to Scotland. Ultimately, he chooses Scotland, and refuses to give up hostages to the English, which were to have included his infant daughter. RTB goes into hiding.

    Meanwhile, that Wallace character is off slaying noblemen for killing his love, and thousands are flocking to his banner. But he fights for the Balliol clan, and is suspcious of RTB's apparent conversion to a solely Scottish cause.

  • 1298: the Bruce, along with a newly knighted Wallace, is appointed guardian as Edward I invades.

    The Battle of Falkirk

  • 1299: The Scots take Stirling Castle. They begin redecorating almost immediately.

  • 1302: After heavy fighting and casualties on both sides, a truce is reached. As per its conditions, Robert the Bruce submits himself to Edward I.

    RTB marries Elizabeth de Burgh

    No one is particularly happy with anything.

  • 1304: RTB's Father dies.

    Edward I retakes Stirling Castle. They begin redecorating almost immediately.

  • 1305: Wallace is executed. It is the event of the season.

  • 1306: RTB has worst year ever. Though crowned King, he loses battles at Methven and Dalry. His brother is captured and executed, and his wife, sisters, and daughter are taken.

  • 1307: Well, finally. Edward I, the Longshanks, as he was known, does the right thing by Scotland and dies. Despite losing two more brothers, things start to turn around for Robert the Bruce.

  • 1308-1313: By 1313, RTB has had a series of victories and reconquered Scotland from the highlands to Perth and the Isle of Man. A weakly Edward II anxiously clutches at his collar, and decides not to invest in Glaswegian real estate after all.

  • 1314: The big one, the Battle of Bannockburn. The English suffer devastating losses, much to their surprise.

  • 1322: Edward II takes one last stab at Scotland, and is counterinvaded in short order, finally losing on English soil, in Yorkshire. Puddings for all.

  • 1324: The Vatican gets into the act, recognizing Robert the Bruce as King of Scotland. Don't ever say they never do nuthin' for ya.

  • 1327: The English King is deposed. Guess we're going to need another Edward. We get one, and number III goes for it--but doesn't get beyond Northumberland.

  • 1329: Robert the Bruce dies, enjoying less than two years of invasion-free Scotland.

Mythology of the Bruce

As the ultimate leader of the Scots to independence--we won't go into the 1707 Act of Union, here--the Bruce became the subject of many stories and aggrandizements. For example:

The Spider Myth

It's one of the most famous stories about the Bruce, and it comes to you courtesy of Scotland's most famous press agent-Sir Walter Scott. He recorded it in his 1820 Tales of a Grandfather, and, violently paraphrasing, claims this:

One day, while he was moping about his cave wondering what to make of himself, the Bruce encountered a spider having trouble with its web. After watching it fail to climb it six times, the would-be King became despondent. On the seventh attempt, however, the spider achieved success, and thus was the Bruce inspired to reinitiate his quest to free Scotland.

I saw a cockroach struggling with some crumbs the other day but experienced no such revelation.

Happily, new evidence suggests that the Bruce probably didn't, either; Sir Walter seems to have 'borrowed' the story from Hume of Godscroft's History of the Douglas family. Hume said--two hundred years earlier--that Sir James Douglas was the actual witness, and merely repeated the event to the Bruce. And the spider tried thirteen times, not seven.

But be it spider or uncomfortable kilt, something in the Bruce's soul led him to challenge English authority, and eventually win out.

His Heart Was In It

Even if his body wasn't. If the Spider story is a web of deceit, this one is probably true.

In the months before his death, the Bruce requested of his son that he be buried at Melrose Abbey. Simple enough. But just before he died--literally while on his deathbed--he asked his friend James Douglas (see above) to take his heart to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades.

Not being big on figures of speech, if it was one, Douglas took out his heart when he died and brought it along in a small casket. When mortally wounded, he used some of his last strength to throw the casket at the enemy, crying--get this--'forward, brave heart!'

And you wondered where they got it from. The winged heart emblem can be seen all over Drumlanrig Castle, the original site of the Douglas stronghold.

A lead casket was found in 1921 at Melrose, but reburied under a new marker without being opened. The heart, unless clearly marked and stamped with return postage when chucked at the Infidel, probably isn't in it. has all the RTB info you could want; more info on the Spider Myth, more of a timeline, and more about William Wallace!

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