Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick and seventh Lord of Annandale, is best known to history as Robert I, King of the Scots (r.1306-1329). His dramatic rise to fame, a consequence of war, murder and political astuteness, against the backdrop of the First Scottish Wars of Independence, is well known. Once he had the crown, he fought tirelessly and with great ability to hold on to it, defeating both the English and many internal enemies within his own kingdom. Final recognition of his rule came late in his life; 1328, only the year before his death. His legacy has become legend; a hero, a murderer, an opportunist, a great military genius, a cultural patron and above all, a champion of Scottish liberty and independence. But what of his heritage? Who were the Bruces, and more importantly, why did Robert Bruce VII feel it fit to reach out and claim the ancient crown of Scotland?
The Bruces first arrived on the shores of Britain, not in Scotland, but in England shortly after King Henry I’s accession in 1100. Originally vassals of the Dukes of Normandy, Robert de Brus I held extensive and valuable lands in Brus, or Bruis which is now called Brix, a few miles south of Cherbourg, Northern France. Enjoying the favour of his master, the Duke, who was also Henry I, King of England (r.1100-1135), Bruce may even have been closely related to the ducal house, sharing in their shared viking ancestry.(1) As a boon companion, he was invited by King Henry to settle in England, and so Robert de Brus sailed across the Channel to claim the Lordship of Cleveland. It was a valuable gift, and with the combination of his extensive lands on both sides of the sea, Brus, used his fortune to exercise his conventional piety, founding Guisborough Priory in Yorkshire, a place he himself would be buried at upon his death in 1141.
Brus moved in excellent company. For among the knightly boon companions of Henry I, was David, who in 1124 ascended to the throne as David I, King of the Scots (r.1124-53). David was a man ahead of his time, a great visionary who saw the benefit of expanding the cultural diversity of his kingdom. The Norman Conquest of 1066 had stopped short of Scotland. He also liked what he saw of the English administration, one of the most productive and advanced in Europe at the time. Scotland, long since a melting pot of different cultures, was nevertheless ready to benefit from David’s lessons, and one of his key acts as king, was to invite in and settle large contingents of Norman knights into the south and south-east of Scotland. In 1124, David offered his boon companion, Robert de Brus, the Lordship of Annandale, situated in the south, bordering the south-west of that kingdom. It was another lucrative lordship which controlled the key western approach between England and Scotland at the Solway crossing. David also knew, that once installed Brus could keep check on the powerful, extensive Celtic lordships in Galloway which had distinct laws and customs of its own despite being subject to the Scots crown. Brus promptly moved north and quickly settled, retaining both his English and Scottish lands.(2) The Bruces were most definitely on the up.
However, life as a lord with two masters quickly proved more difficult to manage than perhaps Brus had anticipated, no more so than in 1138. David I chose to invade England under the rule of King Stephen (r.1135-54) during the bitter wars between Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda. Brus felt he ultimately owed his loyalty to England. The night before the Battle of the Standard fought at Cawton Moor in 1138, Robert gave up his lands of Annandale before forming up in the lines opposite his Scottish master. To make matters worse, Brus’ younger son, also called Robert, felt obliged to fight for David, and fearful that father and son would meet across the battle field, they pleaded with each other on the night before battle not to fight. Neither would back down and so went to war, both surviving the day in which David I was routed. Brus’ lordship was duly restored.
Upon his death in 1141, his titles passed to his eldest son Adam, but when that line died out thirty years later, the Brus lands were divided, and the younger son Robert became Lord of Annandale. Known as Robert ‘Le Meshin‘ (the younger or cadet), Robert Bruce II consolidated his power base in the lordship of Annandale, assuming so much presence in that region during his tenure, that the Bruces became unofficial Wardens of the West, long before that Scottish title was created. Their power was centred at Annan castle and they held other castles such as Lochmaben which sat on an iconic spot jutting out from the land into a loch and defended on the landward side by a deep moat.
But while things were good for the Bruce family, life was about to get complicated. According to the chronicler of Lanercost, Robert Bruce II deceived St. Malachy O’Moore, the feisty Archbishop of Armagh, who cursed the family, which lasted generations, and one that the highly superstitious Bruces took seriously. According to tradition, St. Malachy who often went on pilgrimage to Rome, would travel first through the south-west of Scotland, and upon arriving at Annan, sought food and shelter which he was duly given. While feasting in the hall he heard of a man who had been convicted of a local crime and was due to be hung. Asking Robert for a boon and to demonstrate God’s mercy, the Lord of Annandale relcutantly agreed to commute the sentence as a result of the intercession of the Archbishop. The next day, as Malachy walked along the dusty road, he came across the criminal, swinging from a gallows. With his fiery temper getting the better of him, Malachy cursed the Bruce family.(3) The power and fear created by his heated anathema seemed to bear fruit when, shortly afterwards, a great storm raged over the town, and the subsequent flooding swept away the curtain wall and half of the bailey of the castle of Annan. The administration and household were forced to relocate to Lochmaben castle, which became the heart of the Bruce lordship of Annandale thereafter. Robert’s son, Robert III, despite marrying an illegitimate daughter of King William the Lion of Scotland (r. 1165-1214), died prematurely without male issue. The family immediately thought again of St. Malachy and his curse. The titles passed to his nephew, Robert Bruce IV. Robert IV’s greatest achievement was his marriage to Isabel, daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon who was the younger brother of King William the Lion. This marriage would catapult the Bruces to the heart of the Scottish royal House of Dunkeld, and within eighty years would have a profound impact on the family’s fortunes.(4)
Robert Bruce V, Lord of Annandale was born in 1220, the son of Robert IV and Isabel of Huntingdon. To contemporaries he was known as ‘the Noble’, but to history he is ‘the Competitor’. The Lanercost chronicler, who appeared to have a certain admiration for him, described his character;
‘He was of handsome appearance, a gifted speaker, remarkable for his influence, and what is more important, most devoted to God and the clergy…It was his custom to entertain and feast more liberally than all the other courtiers, and was most hospitable to all his guests, nor used the pilgrims to remain outside his gates, for his door was open to the wayfarer’.(4a)
In 1238 he was recognised by the then king, Alexander II, as heir apparent to the Scottish throne, Alexander at that juncture without children of his own. This special status had a profound impact on Bruce, and although he was designated heir apparent for only three years, he never forgot it. In 1240 he married Isabel de Clare, daughter of the English Earl of Gloucester. The marriage, although brought a poor dowry of only one manor in Sussex, came with something much greater than money could buy; a connection to one of the most significant English aristocratic families in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Holding lands in both Scotland and England, and with credentials as good as his, Bruce V found himself swearing homage and fealty to two kings. Henry III, King of England (r.1216-1272) made Bruce Governor of Carlisle Castle.(5) Further still, Robert fought with the king at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 against the king’s rebellious earl, Simon de Montfort. The battle went against them and Bruce, along with Henry III and the king’s son, the Lord Edward (later Edward I), were taken prisoner. Robert’s son, also called Robert, quickly paid the ransom that was demanded in order to free his father. Henry III and Edward were not yet so lucky. In 1270, both Roberts, father and son, joined the retinue of Edmund of Lancaster, younger son of Henry III, and the Lord Edward on crusade to the Holy Land, fighting alongside them for two years before returning to Scotland.(6)
On return from the crusades, the younger Robert headed into Galloway, the neighbour to the Annandale lands, to give a message to its countess, Marjorie of Carrick. While fighting in the Holy Land, her husband, Adam of Kilconqhuar had perished while part of their party, and Bruce was tasked with taking his final words to his late wife. Bruce, young, chivalric and dutiful, promptly fulfilled his promise. Finding the countess out riding, what happened next took everyone by surprise;
‘…she met a distinguished and very handsome young knight by the name of Robert de Bruce,…When greetings and kisses had been given on each side, as is the custom of courtiers, she begged him to stay for hunting and walking about; when he resisted, she by force, so to speak, with her own hand pulled back his reins and brought the knight to her, unwillingly though he was, to her castle of Turnberry. And while staying there, along with his followers for the space of fifteen days or more, he secretly married the Countess, the friends and well wishers of both knowing nothing about it. They had in no way obtained the royal consent for the marriage, and because of this it was the common talk of the realm that she had all but carried off this young man into marriage by force’.(7)
Probably more of a love-match than abduction, although what a lovely idea to think it was, Robert VI and Marjorie needed justification for their quick marriage. Abduction would have helped to take the edge off it, especially as it was Marjorie doing the abducting. The ploy worked, and Alexander III, King of Scots (r.1249-86) soon forgave them, instead levying a fine to underpin his royal authority over noble marriages. The marriage meant that Robert VI became, jure uxoris (by right of his wife) Earl of Carrick. The earldom was valued at £168 in 1260, which was of significant value in its time for Scotland, and effectively doubled the Bruce’s income.(8) Scotland in the thirteenth century had thirteen earls, and in an age before dukedoms were found north or south of the border, Robert VI had overnight become a significant player in his own right as a senior noble. He held precedence over his father, Robert V, Lord of Annandale, but given the latter’s formidable reputation, the father still ruled over the family brood. Robert V would live until the ripe old age of seventy-five, dying in 1295.
The marriage of Robert VI and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick proved a highly successful one. They had at least seven children surviving into adulthood, and on 11 July 1274, most likely at Turnberry castle, their first son and heir was born. Keeping with family tradition he was named Robert, and it was this Robert who would later go on to claim and then wear the Scottish crown in such dramatic fashion. Details of his childhood are frustratingly absent, and there is little we know about him until, at the age of twelve, he first steps out of the shadows of history when he, a long with others, witnesses a charter of Alexander MacDonald of Islay, who grants patronage to the Cistercian abbey of Paisley. There are also no contemporary descriptions of what he looked like, either in childhood or thereafter, although there is a modern facial reconstruction of his features using his exhumed skeleton, but even the colouring of his hair, eyes and other such details can only be guessed at.
In the year that Robert Bruce VII appears as a twelve year old witness, Alexander III, King of Scots died leaving as his only heir of direct descent, his grand-daughter the three year old Margaret, Maid of Norway. When the Maid died unexpectedly in 1290 on her way to Scotland, the kingdom was plunged into a succession crisis, and it is at this moment, that the Bruces, Robert V, Lord of Annandale; Robert VI, Earl of Carrick and the young Robert, later King of Scots, truly enter into the annals of history. That story is one full of dramatic twists and turns worthy of any drama or screen writer’s pen and will be discussed in an upcoming post sometime in the future.
Stephen Spinks is author of ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance’ and is currently writing ‘Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation’, due for publication autumn 2019.
(1) Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots, 322. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, 20.
(2) Bingham, Caroline. Robert the Bruce, 24.
(3) Chronicle of Lanercost, 112-13.
(4) CDS, i, nos 1429, 1431. 1503. Bingham, 26.
(4a) Chronicle of Lanercost, 111-12.
(5) CDS, i, nos 1994, 2472, 2034.
(6) Ibid, i, no 2575.
(7) Scotichronicon, Vol V, Book X, Ch29, 383-5.
(8) Penman, Michael. Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, 14.