‘Robert the Bruce’, King of Scots is best remembered to history for overcoming the might of English imperial aggression, beating back Edward II, most memorably as the victor of the Battle of Bannockburn. In war and diplomacy too, with tact and unbending determination, Robert won his victories against the greatest of odds. He was, in short, the underdog made good.
However, much like many tales from the past, the details are often lost to or embellished by myths, legends and folklore. Bannockburn, as great as this victory was, did not win Robert recognition of his status, either from England or the Papal Curia. Nor did it fully unite his magnates behind him. Many important Scots remained loyal to Edward II after 1314, and it wasn’t until fourteen years after this most infamous of battles, that England finally capitulated under the relatively unstable regime of Isabella and Roger Mortimer, mutually agreeing to a full peace; that peace itself only lasting a handful of years. During his twenty-three year reign (r.1306-1329), it is all to easy to think, seven hundred years later, that King Robert therefore led a united Scotland, pumped up by the rhetoric of Scottish nationalism. Unity such as this falls far short of the actual fourteenth century reality.
Following the deaths of Alexander III in 1286 and his only surviving heir, the Maid of Norway in 1290, Scotland was plunged into a succession crisis, as the ancient royal House of Dunkeld was expunged. Edward I, King of England, overbearing and covetous, sought to meddle in Scottish affairs, at first as a helpful neighbour through invitation, later as a determined conqueror. After arbitrating, appointing and then deposing John Balliol as Scotland’s next king (r.1292-96), Edward attempted to rule over Scotland directly, reducing the kingdom in legal status to a mere ‘land’, an appendage of England. During these calamitous years, Scottish nobles broke traditional ties of loyalty to their country, becoming deeply divided among themselves, guided heavily by self-interest having large lucrative landholdings on both sides of the Scottish-English border. Former friends would now become the bitterest of enemies, and precarious loyalties became fluid and unpredictable. In the decade immediately following the deposition of King John Balliol, the Kingdom of Scotland struggled in a long war of resistance to maintain its freedom from England. By 1306, there were two principal claimants to the throne; Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick and John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. With tensions high, and Edward I now gravely ill and facing imminent death, a small glimmer of hope was felt by some that Scotland could now reassert itself.
However, all was not what it seemed. Desperate to secure the throne Robert Bruce made for the Kirk of the Grey Friars in Dumfries on 10 February 1306, and there, under the pretext of peaceful negotiation, murdered his principal rival, the powerful and well connected John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. The cold bloody murder was sacrilegious, committed at the high altar on holy ground, shocking contemporaries. Robert forever stained his reputation, procuring years of censure from kings and successive popes, and with it, created yet further entrenched hostilities to him from those within Scotland loyal to the House of Comyn, headed up by the powerful earls of Buchan. As relatives to the Balliols to, the Comyn’s remained fiercely loyal to the deposed and now imprisoned John Balliol and his eldest son and heir, Edward. They could call upon the great noble families from the north, north-east and west for support, while the south-east looked towards England. For the newly crowned king, this was a dangerous time. Robert had friends and supporters in the heartlands, to the south and in his homelands in the south-west, but even here the Balliol’s held lands.
After Robert seized the throne in March 1306, he spent the first five years of his reign, resisting the English, while from mid 1307-1309 he hammered his key Scottish opponents into submission, including the MacDougals represented by the likes of John of Lorn, the MacDoualls in Galloway, the Earl of Ross in the north, and latterly the Earl of Buchan himself in the north-east. Many fled to England to the court of Edward II to live out their days in exile and to plot from afar. Following Robert’s stunning victory at Bannockburn in 1314, which appeared to some as an act of divine providence and proof of the legitimacy of his rule, the King of Scots confiscated all the lands and titles of those Scottish lords who still held out against him; including his own nephew, Donald, Earl of Mar, now a great friend of Edward II, along with the earl of Angus and many other notable lords such as the Mowbrays and Cliffords. With riches and lands to dole out to his remaining supporters at home – including some of his most senior allies like James Douglas, Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray; the Stewarts, the de la Hayes and the MacDonalds – King Robert applied a careful application of patronage to ensure he could redraw the map of land ownership in Scotland that would bind men in loyalty to him. By 1320, some fourteen years into his rule, the king must have hoped that while full peace with England still eluded him, he was at least safe and assured within the boundaries of his own realm. He was to be in for a big surprise.
The following is an extract from Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation by Stephen Spinks, published 15 December 2019.
‘Since Bannockburn, either through gifts of individual patronage or through successive parliaments and petitions, the king had been working to engender a period of stability among the landed nobility and thus create bonds of loyalty to him that underpinned his rule and his dynasty. In the medieval world, where land equalled power, the distribution of royal patronage was both significant and highly political. On 1 April 1320, Robert, while staying at Berwick, granted the barony of Staplegarden to his long-time friend James Douglas, which as part of the gift included the castle and various smaller land parcels in and around Jedburgh Forest. It was a lucrative grant, and one possibly designed to lead Douglas into the role of Warden of the West and Middle March. Douglas also received the sheridom of Roxburghshire, which gave him extensive control over much of Teviotdale, including land previously under the influence of the de Soules family. A few months later, the king felt it appropriate to reward his illegitimate son and namesake, Robert, with the barony of Sprouston in Roxburghshire.
With such grants, it was clear that Robert was favouring both James Douglas, his own family and his son-in-law Walter Stewart, who also received lands in the area. Established families like the de Soules maintained their existing lands but did not appear to procure any additional favour. While Robert was careful in his application of patronage, it nevertheless created a simmering resentment among some of his subjects, who, having once fought for the English and eventually come over to his banner, now found themselves out of favour, or with limited influence at Robert’s royal court. This bitterness soon spilled over into outward conspiracy and plotting.
Robert may have been aware of the growing tensions and restlessness among some of his lesser nobility, and he may also have known that something more sinister was afoot. But as yet he sat back to watch events unfold. At the previous Great Council meeting at Newbattle Abbey, the king may well have used the occasion as a test of loyalty, carefully noting who came to seal the declaration documents [the Declaration of Arbroath] that set out to justify, reinforce and uphold his right to rule. At some point in the months that followed, a plot to kill the king was uncovered and formally made public. The contemporary evidence is highly contradictory, but what is clear is someone, possibly Patrick, Earl of Dunbar, or Agnes, Countess of Strathearn, or the Countess of Atholl, approached the king and let him know that his life was in danger. Another chronicler suggested it may have been Murdoch of Menteith.(1) The aim of the alleged plotters was the murder of the king and his replacement by William de Soules, Lord of Liddesdale.
William de Soules was the Hereditary Seneschal of Scotland, and could boast a claim, albeit a very weak one, to the crown of Scotland. His father had been one of the minor competitors during the Great Cause but had quickly been ruled out by Edward I and the jury as he was descended from an illegitimate daughter of King Alexander II. William, by right of his mother, was connected to the former Comyn earls of Buchan, and his maternal aunt was the Countess of Strathearn. Why he felt he had a backable claim to the throne in 1319 is not altogether clear, but he had certainly watched from the side lines as James Douglas, Walter Stewart and others profited from lands in and around his own estates in Roxburghshire. Resentment, and perhaps the encouragement of his mother and other Comyn relatives now in exile, was enough to push him into action.
De Soules gathered about him a number of co-conspirators. At least eleven men were accused, although in the ensuing trials five were acquitted. Robert and his immediate council were quick to act to cut off some of the heads of this Hydra before it could overcome them. The plotters were arrested, and on 4 August the king assembled a parliament at Scone to hear the testimony of the would-be assassins before his justices pronounced sentence. William de Soules confessed to his crimes, but in an act of clemency, Robert had him sent to Dumbarton Castle, where he was to be perpetually incarcerated, and where he subsequently died.(2) The Countess of Strathearn, perhaps not the informer at all but rather a co-conspirator, also met the same fate. Three of the men – Gilbert de Malherbe, John Logie and a squire, Richard Broun – were to face the ultimate sanction, being drawn at the tails of horses before their public hanging and beheading.(3) Malherbe was a baron of Stirlingshire who had been loyal to John Balliol before 1306 and had in recent years coveted Jedburgh Forest, lands which the king had lately bequeathed to James Douglas. Logie had been a ward of the sixth, but not contemporary, Earl of Strathearn, while Richard Broun had fought for Edward I against Robert Bruce and his brother Edward in Galloway, and was in the English garrison at Stirling Castle two years before it fell to Robert following Bannockburn.(4) All three men had received little favour from the king since they had joined his side.
Roger de Mowbray and his brother attempted to flee once they knew the conspiracy had been sprung, but both were killed during their flight. Roger’s body was brought to Scone and presented to Parliament on a litter; his corpse was found guilty and condemned to the hangman’s noose and the headsman’s axe. Robert, never one for excessive violence and perhaps mindful of the horror inflicted on his own brothers at the hands of Edward I who were brutally put to death, commuted the sentence and allowed Mowbray’s body to be buried without mutilation.
The last known conspirator was David de Brechin, who under interrogation claimed he had been made aware of the plot only after his peers had first sworn him to secrecy. Although he did not wish to participate in it, because of his oath he felt he was unable to inform the king of what was afoot. It was a poor defence which found little sympathy among his peers. To make matters worse, if Robert had been using the Declaration of Arbroath as a test of loyalty, he may have remembered that de Brechin, whose family had previously been Comyn devotees, had failed to attach his own seal to the letter, instead using that of his wife, Mary Ramsey.(5) With the evidence stacked against him, David de Brechin was condemned to death on the basis that he more than anyone had endangered Robert’s life by withholding vital information. Consequently, he was dragged through the streets behind a horse, hanged and beheaded. His death more than any of the others engendered great pity, for he, according to Barbour, was the ‘flower of Christian knighthood’, a reputation he had acquired while fighting in the Holy Land.(6) The deaths of these men and the dark deeds that arose as a result of conspiracy led to this gathering being known to history as Robert’s ‘Black Parliament’.
Yet the king himself had shown a degree of mercy. He had been severe with those who had endangered his life, no doubt sending out a message to warn others who felt empowered to challenge his right to rule, but he had also spared the lives of others, most notably William de Soules himself.
Five others were acquitted: Patrick Graham, Eustace Maxwell, Walter de Barclay, Eustace de Rattray and Hamelin de Troupe. Graham had previously been a supporter of John Balliol. Maxwell had held Caerlaverock Castle for Edward II until as late as 1313, when it fell to the king’s late brother, Edward Bruce. De Barclay had joined Robert as early as 1306, while Rattray had a more chequered history of loyalty as a landowner in Gowrie, having joined the king in 1306 only to defect again, fighting for Edward II in the garrison of Perth Castle prior to its fall in 1311. Hamelin de Troupe, Sheriff of Banffshire, had long supported Bruce, but he may have lost out in the patronage game to the Earl of Ross and his son, Hugh, the king’s brother-in-law. (7) Each man had a dubious past, and possibly some connection with the conspirators, yet sufficient evidence was not found or recorded to prove their guilt. Either way, they had aroused sufficient suspicion to be interrogated, which nevertheless tainted their reputations in Scotland.
For the following two months, an air of suspicion hung heavy over the kingdom as people were further interrogated and the plot was finally extinguished. Ingram de Umfraville fell under the watchful eye of the king’s men. He had been a long-time supporter of Edward II and had served the English king as Warden of the West in March 1308. He was eventually captured by King Robert at Bannockburn and subsequently ransomed.(8) After gaining his freedom, Ingram remained in Scotland, but outside of the royal sphere of influence. He was a close friend of David de Brechin, who, like de Umfraville, received little patronage from his king despite being a prominent Angus baron.(9)
According to Barbour, Ingram sought King Robert’s permission to leave Scotland, having given up his lands in the kingdom on account of his friend’s execution, which the king rather chivalrously granted.(10) However, it is more likely that Ingram fled, the interrogators closing in on him after the Black Parliament. His later dealings at the court of Edward II indicate that Ingram was in league with Edward Balliol, who was still serving in the household of the King of England’s half-brother the Earl of Norfolk. Ingram would not be the only defector in the coming months.
Yet, despite the number of people involved, the conspirators were not drawn from the higher end of Scottish noble society. No great lords or office holders were involved beyond William de Soules himself as Hereditary Seneschal. While the plotters had been well connected, they were nevertheless part of the lesser nobility, men at the fringes of the royal court. It was their limited access to the king, and their failure to broker any real power or patronage, that led these men with their dubious loyalties into a desperate act.
The fact that the chroniclers are so confused about who informed the king is proof enough that Robert could still command the loyalty of the most influential members of Scottish society. Nor did the plot change the way he granted his patronage, continuing as he did to provide gifts to family and close friends, along with religious institutions and the royal mausoleum at Dunfermline Abbey.’
So even in the closing years of Robert’s reign, he could not fully count upon the loyalty of all his subjects. In the superstitious minds of the people of medieval Scotland, years of war, attrition and famine were held by some, as a consequence of Robert’s usurpation. As the murderer of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch in February 1306, Robert had permanently sullied his hands and been excommunicated as a result. Scotland until his death lay under interdict, no church services allowed, placing his people beyond spiritual salvation. To his enemies, many who heralded from Scotland, Robert’s rule was divisive and illegitimate. Fortunately for the king, he could also command men of great standing, and through his patronage make them greater still. In binding men to his cause, Robert was able to sufficiently secure his rule, and eventually the independence of his kingdom – at least for a while. His ability to achieve this, only made his kingship, and his long lasting legacy, all the greater.
Stephen Spinks is author of Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation, published 15 December 2019 and available for pre-order ( Waterstones , Foyles , Amberley Publishing) and Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance (Waterstones).
(1) Scotichronicon, vol 7, 3. Penman, 199, Bingham, 274.
(2) Barbour, 700.
(3) Fordun, ii, 341.
(4) Penman, 222. Bingham, 274
(5) Scotichronicon, vol 7, 3. Fordun, ii, 341.
(6) Barbour, 702.
(7) Fordun, ii, 341. Penman, 223–4.
(8) CDS, iii, nos 43, 121, 219, 235, 373–4.
(9) Penman, 204.
(10) Barbour, 702–6.
Nb: Italicised extract taken from Spinks, Stephen. Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation (Stroud, 2019), 212-16.