Robert I of Scotland

Robert I, usually known as Robert the Bruce (July 11, 1274June 7, 1329), was King of Scotland (13061329). He was one of Scotland's greatest kings, and one of the most famous warriors of his generation, leading Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England. He claimed the Scottish throne as a great-great-great-great grandson of David I of Scotland.

Statue of Robert Bruce at
Statue of Robert Bruce at Bannockburn

Background and early life

Robert Bruce was born the first child and eldest son of Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, and of Marjorie of Carrick, 3rd Countess of Carrick, daughter of Neil, Earl of Carrick. His mother was by all accounts a formidable woman who, legend would have it, kept Robert Bruce's father captive until he agreed to marriage. From his mother he inherited the Celtic Earldom of Carrick, and from his father a royal lineage that would give him a claim to the Scottish throne. Although his date of birth is definitely known, his place of birth is less certain: it was probably Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire, but Lochmaben in Dumfriesshire has been claimed.

Precious little is known of his youth. He was probably sent to be fostered with a local family, as was the custom. Bruce was raised speaking all the languages of his lineage and nation and was fluent in Gaelic, Scots and Norman French. His youth is said by an English chronicler to have been mostly passed at the court of Edward I. He saw the outcome of the 'Great Cause' in 1292, which gave the Crown of Scotland to his families' great rival, John Balliol, as unjust. As he saw it, it prevented his family from taking their rightful place on the Scottish throne.

Soon afterwards, his grandfather, Robert Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale - the unsuccessful claimant - resigned his lordship to his son, Bruce's father. Already on his wife's death in 1292, he had resigned the earldom of Carrick to his son, the future king. Both father and son sided with Edward I against Balliol. In April 1294, the younger Bruce had permission to visit Ireland for a year and a half and, as a further mark of Edward's favour, he received a respite for all the debts owed by him to the English Exchequer.

In 1295, Robert married his first wife, Isabella of Mar, the daughter of Donald, 6th Earl of Mar. Isabella died a year later bearing their only child, Marjorie Bruce, who married Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland and bore him the future Robert II of Scotland.

The beginning of the Wars of Independence

In August 1296 Bruce and his father swore fealty to Edward I at Berwick, but in breach of this oath, which had been renewed at Carlisle, the younger Robert joined in the Scottish revolt against Edward in the following year. Urgent letters were sent ordering Bruce to support Edward's commander, John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, in the summer of 1297; but instead of complying, Bruce laid waste the lands of those who adhered to Edward. On July 7, Bruce and his friends were forced to make terms by a treaty called the capitulation of Irvine. The Scottish lords were not to serve beyond the sea against their will, and were pardoned for their recent violence, in return for swearing allegiance to Edward. The Bishop of Glasgow, James the Steward, and Sir Alexander Lindsay became sureties for Bruce until he delivered his infant daughter Marjorie as a hostage.

Shortly after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Bruce appears again to have sided with his countrymen; Annandale was wasted and he burned the English held castle of Ayr. Yet, when Edward returned to England after his victory at the Battle of Falkirk, Annandale and Carrick were excepted from the lordships and lands which he assigned to his followers, Bruce being treated as a waverer whose allegiance might still be retained.

After William Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland after Falkirk, he was succeeded by Robert Bruce and John Comyn as joint guardians, but they could not see past their personal differences. As a nephew and supporter of John Balliol, and as someone with his own claim to the Scottish throne, Comyn was Bruce's enemy. In 1299, William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, was appointed as a third, neutral Guardian to try and maintain order between Bruce and Comyn. The following year Bruce finally resigned as joint guardian and was replaced by Sir Ingram de Umfraville. In May 1301, de Umfraville, John Comyn and William Lamberton also resigned as joint guardians and were replaced by Sir John de Soulis as sole guardian. Soulis was appointed largely because he was not part of either the Bruce or the Comyn camps and was a patriot. He was an active Guardian, and made renewed efforts to have John Balliol returned to the Scottish throne.

In July, Edward I launched his sixth campaign into Scotland. Though Edward captured Bothwell and Turnberry Castle, Edward did little to damage the Scots’ fighting ability and, in January 1302 agreed to a nine-month truce. It was around this time that Robert the Bruce submitted to Edward I, along with other nobles, even though he had been on the side of the patriots until now. There are many reasons which may have prompted his turning, not the least of which was that Bruce may have found it loathsome to continue sacrificing his followers, family and inheritance for John Balliol. There were rumours that Balliol would return with a French army and regain the Scottish throne. Soulis supported the return of Balliol as did many other nobles, but the return of John as king would lead to the Bruces losing any chance of ever gaining the throne themselves. Also, Robert’s father was old and ill, and may have wished his son to seek peace with Edward, who, he was convinced, would be victorious over the Scots. The elder Bruce would have seen that, if the rebellion failed and his son were against Edward, he would lose everything, titles, lands, and probably his life. Edward also came to see that he needed a Scottish noble like Bruce as a friend, rather than as an enemy at this time; he was facing both excommunication by the Pope for his actions and a possible invasion by the French.

However, though recently pledged to support Edward, it is interesting to note that Robert the Bruce sent a letter to the monks at Melrose Abbey in March 1302 which effectively weakened his usefulness to the English king. Apologizing for having called the monks to service in his army when there had been no national call up, Bruce pledged that, henceforth, he would “never again” require the monks to serve unless it was to “the common army of the whole realm,” for national defence. Bruce also married his second wife that year. Elizabeth de Burgh was the daughter of Richard Og de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster. By Elizabeth he had four children: David II, John, Matilda, and Margaret (who married William, Earl of Sutherland).

In 1303, Edward invaded again, reaching Edinburgh, before marching to Perth. John Comyn, who was by now Guardian, could not hope to defeat Edward's forces. Edward stayed in Perth till July, then proceeded via Dundee, Montrose and Brechin, to Aberdeen, where he arrived in August. From here he marched through Moray, before his progress continued to Badenoch, before re-tracing his path back south to Dunfermline. With the country now under submission, all the leading Scots, except for Wallace, surrendered to Edward in February 1304. Terms of submission were negotiated by John Comyn. The laws and liberties of Scotland would be as they had been in the day of Alexander III, and any that needed alteration would be with the advice of Edward and the advice and assent of the Scots nobles.

On June 11 1304, with both of them having witnessed the heroic efforts of their countrymen during Edward's siege of Stirling Castle, Bruce and William Lamberton made a pact that bound them, each to the other, in “friendship and alliance against all men.” If one should break the secret pact, he would forfeit to the other the sum of ten thousand pounds. Though both had already surrendered to the English, the pact indicated their deep patriotism and commitment to their future perseverance for the Scots and their freedom. They now intended to bide their time until the death of the elderly King of England.

With Scotland defenseless, Edward set about absorbing her into England. Homage was again paid to him by the nobles, and a parliament was held to elect those who would meet later in the year with the English parliament to establish rules for the governance of Scotland. For all the apparent participation by Scots in the government, however, the English held the real power. The Earl of Richmond, Edward's nephew, was to head up the subordinate government of Scotland.

While all this took place, William Wallace was finally captured near Glasgow. With his horrible execution on August 23 1305, Edward created a martyr, a larger than life hero whose unfair and inhuman execution settled poorly in the Scottish psyche and filled them with a yearning for justice and freedom. Rather than settling the “Scottish question,” Edward had wrought enmity that would hound him the rest of his days.

Excommunication and Coronation as King of Scots

In September 1305, Edward ordered Robert Bruce to put his castle at Kildrummy, "in the keeping of such a man as he himself will be willing to answer for," suggesting that Edward suspected Robert was not entirely trustworthy and may have been plotting behind his back. Bruce, as Earl of Carrick and now 7th Lord of Annandale, held huge estates and property in both Scotland and England and had a claim to the Scottish throne. He also had a large family to protect. If he claimed the throne, he would throw the country into yet another series of wars, and if he failed, he would be sacrificing everyone and everything he knew.

The pact which Bruce had made secretly with Lamberton was uncovered by some nobles. This led to a conference with Comyn in which Bruce proposed, as the best means of preventing future trouble and for restoring their own privileges and the rights of the Scots, that they should henceforward enter into an understanding with each other. Under this, Comyn would support Bruce's claim to the throne and receive Bruce's lands as compensation or vice versa. But for some unknown motive, probably a desire to ruin his rival, Comyn revealed the conspiracy to Edward. Bruce was at the English court at this time and, after being warned of Edward's knowledge of the conspiracy, had to flee back to Scotland.

He arrived in Dumfries and found that Comyn was there. At a private meeting with Comyn at the Greyfriars Church, Bruce reproached Comyn for his treachery, which Comyn denied and Bruce, in fury, drew his dagger and stabbed, though not mortally, his opponent. As Bruce ran anxiously from the church, his attendant entered and, finding Comyn still alive, killed him (as Robert I, he was later excommunicated by Pope Clement V for this act). Bruce and his followers then forced the local English judges to surrender their castle. Realising that the die had been cast and he had no alternative except to become king or a fugitive, Bruce asserted his claim to the Scottish crown. He was crowned King of Scots as Robert I at Scone on March 25, by his mistress, Isabella, Countess of Buchan, who claimed the right of her family, the Macduff Earls of Fife, to place the Scottish king on his throne. Though now king, Bruce did not yet have a kingdom, and his efforts to obtain it were disastrous failures until after the death of Edward I.

From Scone to Bannockburn

In June 1306 he was defeated at the Battle of Methven and in August he was surprised in Strathfillan, where he had taken refuge. The ladies of his family were sent to Kildrummy in January 1307, and Bruce, almost without a follower, fled to the islands on the western coast of Scotland.

Edward I marched north again in the spring. On his way he granted the Scottish estates of Bruce and his adherents to his own followers and published a bull excommunicating Bruce. Bruce's Queen, Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie, and his sister, Christina, were captured in a sanctuary at Tain, while his three youngest brothers were executed. But on July 7, Edward I died, leaving Bruce to now be opposed by his feeble son, Edward II.

Bruce had returned to the Scottish mainland in February at Turnberry Castle, and began a guerilla war in southwest Scotland. In April he had his first major victory over the English at Glen Trool, before defeating Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke at the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Bruce then left his brother Edward in command in Galloway, while he transferred his own operations to Aberdeenshire. He overran Buchan and, after a serious illness, defeated the Earl of Buchan at the Battle of Inverurie in May 1308. He then crossed to Argyll and defeated another body of his enemies at the Battle of Brander and took Dunstaffnage Castle. In March 1309, he held his first Parliament at St Andrews, and by August he controlled all of Scotland north of the River Tay. The following year, the clergy of Scotland recognized Bruce as king at a general council. The support given to him by the church in spite of his excommunication must had great importance and was probably due to the example of Lamberton.

The next three years saw the capture and reduction of one English held castle or outpost after another: Linlithgow in 1310, Dumbarton in 1311, and Perth, by Bruce himself, in January 1312. Bruce also made raids into northern England. In March 1313 Sir James Douglas captured Roxburgh, and Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray captured Edinburgh Castle. In May Bruce again raided England and subdued the Isle of Man. About the same time Edward Bruce laid siege to Stirling Castle, whose governor, Sir Philip de Mowbray, agreed to capitulate if not relieved before the 24th of June 1314.

The eight years of exhausting but deliberate refusal to meet the English on even ground, have caused many to consider Bruce as one of the great guerrilla leaders of any age. This represented a transformation for one raised as a feudal knight. Bruce secured Scottish independence from England militarily — if not diplomatically — at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Freed from English threats, Scotland's armies could now invade northern England. Buoyed by his military successes, Bruce's forces also invaded Ireland in 1315, supposedly to free the country from English rule, but in reality to open a second front in the continuing wars with England. The Irish crowned Edward Bruce as High King of Ireland in 1316 and Robert later went there with another army to assist his brother. Bruce also drove back a subsequent English expedition north of the border, and launched raids into Yorkshire and Lancashire, forcing Edward II to sue for peace.


Robert Bruce's reign also witnessed some successful diplomatic achievements. The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 strengthened his position, particularly vis-à-vis the Papacy. Pope John XXII eventually lifted Bruce's excommunication. In May 1328 King Edward III of England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognized Scotland as an independent kingdom and Bruce as its king.


Robert Bruce had a large family in addition to his wife Elizabeth and his children. There were his brothers, Edward, Alexander, Thomas and Nigel, his sisters Christian, Isabel (Queen of Norway), Margaret, Matilda and Mary, and his nephews Donald, Earl of Mar and Thomas Randolph. Alexander, Thomas and Nigel were all executed by the English following capture, and Edward was killed in battle in Ireland.

In addition to his legitimate offspring, Robert Bruce had several illegitimate children by unknown mothers. His sons were Robert (died 1332 at the Battle of Dupplin) and Nigel (died 1346 at the Battle of Durham). His daughters were Elizabeth (married Walter Oliphant), Margaret (married Robert Glen), and Christian (died after 1329).

Robert the Bruce died on June 7 1329 at the Manor of Cardross in Cardross Parish, Dunbartonshire (the exact location is uncertain and it may not have been very near the modern village of Cardross). He had suffered for some years from what some contemporary accounts describe as an "unclean ailment"; the traditional story is that he died of leprosy, but this is now rejected. However it is unclear what his illness actually was, although syphilis, psoriasis, and a series of strokes have all been suggested.

His body lies buried in Dunfermline Abbey, but, according to his wishes, Sir James Douglas removed the late king's heart and took it on a Crusade in Moorish Spain, where he was killed in battle. It was later recovered, taken back to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire.

Robert Bruce left his sole surviving infant son, David II, to succeed him.


According to legend, after his defeat at the hands of the Comyns and the subsequent incarceration of his family, Bruce hid himself in a cave on a deserted island, watching a spider trying to spin a web. Each time the spider failed, it simply started all over again. Inspired by this, Bruce returned to inflict a series of defeats on the English, thus winning him more supporters and eventual victory. The story serves to explain the maxim: "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again." Other versions have Bruce defeated for the seventh time by the English, then let him watch the spider spin seven webs, fail, then spin an eighth and succeed.

However, this legend only appears for the first time in a much later account, "Tales of a Grandfather" by Sir Walter Scott, and may have originally been told about his companion-in-arms the James Douglas (the Black).

According to another legend, when the Black Douglas was surrounded by the Moors he threw Bruce's heart ahead of him, telling it to lead on as it had done before. However it seems that this is also a later embellishment.


  • Bingham, Charlotte. Robert the Bruce (1998)
  • Scott, Ronald McNair. Robert the Bruce: King of Scots

Preceded by:
John Balliol
King of Scots Succeeded by:
David II
Preceded by:
Marjorie de Bruce
Earl of Carrick Followed by:
(Merged in Crown)
Preceded by:
(New creation)
Baron Bruce of Anandale
cs:Robert I. Skotský

de:Robert I. (Schottland) fr:Robert Ier d'Écosse nl:Robert I van Schotland pl:Robert I (król Szkocji) sv:Robert I av Skottland zh:罗伯特一世


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