‘For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound who shall prepare himself to the battle?’
1 Corinthians 14:8
THE SEVEN YEARS OR so between Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk and Robert Bruce’s final commitment to the nationalist cause proved cruel ones for Scotland, despite the country’s fleeting diplomatic and military successes which delayed Edward’s programme of conquest and at one stage even promised to unravel it. At no time did the Scottish forces feel themselves capable of standing in battle against the main English armies. By 1304, when Edward extinguished the last remnants of Scottish resistance by capturing Stirling Castle, prospects for Scotland’s survival as an independent kingdom seemed extremely poor. Its former allies had disappeared like snow in springtime, with France moving into the English camp and a papacy becoming unsympathetic. Equally serious was the disunited nature of Scottish leadership during the period. With the absence of the lawful king, John Balliol, attempts to rule through guardians acting on his behalf were seriously hampered, largely because rivalry between the Bruce and Comyn factions prevented them from acting with the same authority and single-minded commitment shown earlier by Wallace. The most notable result was that, after taking part in the uneasy system of joint guardianship, Robert Bruce, heir elect of his powerful family and a man with the potential to become a genuine leader of the first rank, both on and off the battlefield, had, by 1302, deserted the Scottish national cause and made his peace with the English king.
It was a less surprising decision than might be considered today. While the Comyns had continued throughout to support John Balliol, for much of the time the Bruces offered their fealty to Edward I, the scourge of their countrymen, in the conviction that if Balliol were deposed Edward would support their own candidature for the Scottish kingship, even if he was likely to demand some restrictions on its power. Indeed, it was Edward’s reneging on his promise to Bruce’s father with regard to the Scottish throne and his attempt to incorporate Scotland within the English crown that in 1297 first led Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, to take the momentous decision of taking a contrary course to his father – who remained true to the English king – and join the opposition forces in Scotland.
At the time Edward I was still confident enough of both Bruces, father and son, for him to order Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale and Governor of Carlisle, to charge his son with seizing the Douglas estates after Sir William Douglas had united with Wallace. Unexpectedly Bruce, who had only recently regained his lands from Comyn control following the English victory at Dunbar, made no more than a mock attack on Douglasdale and, after assembling his father’s knights of Annandale, explained that his oath of fealty to the English king had been given under duress and as a consequence he had decided to move into the nationalist camp. He justified his decision by citing the loyalty he felt for his followers on the Carrick estate and to his country of Scotland. ‘No man holds his own flesh and blood in hatred and I am no exception … I must join my own people (the men of Carrick) and the nation in which I was born.’1 There seems no reason to doubt Robert Bruce’s feelings for both his own followers and the land of his boyhood, those wide Carrick estates that he had ridden and hunted across with his brothers and sisters. Allied to this was the belief which had also fired his grandfather, that his family’s royal blood gave them an undeniable right to occupy the throne of Scotland. It was this that became the very purpose of his life and with the removal of John Balliol he might well have considered that many Scottish patriots would now turn to him as the most likely contender for the Scottish throne. In the event most of the Annandale knights refused to join him since their own lord still took the part of the English king.
Robert Bruce, however, was not to be deflected and, after raising additional recruits from among his followers at Carrick, he took the dangerous step of moving to join James Stewart and Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, at Irvine. Following their tame surrender to the English, Bruce paid the price for his show of patriotism – and possible early bid for the Scottish throne – by being deprived of his lands once more. This time they were required by the English who also directed him to hand over his daughter Marjorie, as surety for his continuing good behaviour, a directive he managed to avoid.
It was as well Bruce did so for after Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge in September 1297, he and his men of Carrick were out again. In March 1298 it was probably Bruce who knighted Wallace for his achievements and, although Bruce himself remained in the southwest of Scotland it is likely that he provided mounted elements for Wallace’s army at the battle of Falkirk in July 1298. Having defeated Wallace at Falkirk, Edward I showed he recognised Bruce’s ability and potential threat by attempting to go on and deal with him as well, but Bruce was too quick for him; after burning Ayr and destroying its castle he and his followers moved into the desolate hill regions of Carrick out of the king’s reach.
When Wallace was compelled to surrender his sole guardianship of Scotland young Bruce became an obvious candidate to replace him in heading the opposition to the English king, the other outstanding contender being another young nobleman, John Comyn the Red, head of the senior branch of the Comyn family. Unlike Bruce, John Comyn had never wavered in supporting his kinsman John Balliol. In April 1296 he had accompanied the Scottish forces that crossed the English border during the first engagement of the Independence Wars, and he was not likely to forget that when the Scottish forces failed in their attempt to take Carlisle Castle it was being held on behalf of the English king by Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale, Robert Bruce’s father. Following the Scottish army’s defeat at Dunbar and the fall of John Balliol, John Comyn had been one of the many Scottish nobles imprisoned in England, whereas Robert Bruce had been granted the return of his lands at Carrick which John Balliol had confiscated on behalf of the Comyns. Although the senior Scottish prelates and nobles appointed them as joint guardians to orchestrate resistance against the English, the chances of their success were not helped by the fact that, powerful figure as he was, Comyn entirely lacked Bruce’s magnanimity and could never equal his powers of leadership. The intense rivalry between their two families did not augur well for a smooth working relationship and, in addition, by all accounts John Comyn was a most difficult man to deal with. Their uneasy relationship was first dissolved after an attempt was made in July 1299 to retake Roxburgh Castle in Lothian. The attack failed and as the disappointed party moved back into Peebles woods to reconsider their options a disagreement occurred over lands held by William Wallace, who, as Sir David Graham (a Comyn supporter) maintained, was leaving the kingdom without the guardians’ permission and, therefore, should forfeit them. In the argument that followed John Comyn leapt upon Bruce and seized him by the throat. The quarrel was only patched up when Bishop William Lamberton agreed to be appointed senior guardian over them both.
In the light of such disunity it was as well for Scotland that the English king was experiencing serious difficulties with his own nobles over mounting another ruinously expensive expedition against Scotland. Due largely to Edward’s inactivity the Scots were able to take the initiative. By the end of 1299 they succeeded in retaking Stirling Castle and plans were raised to bring the men of Galloway over to Scotland’s national cause. The latter, however, brought additional strains on the Scottish leadership. The Gallovidians were not only traditional separatists but long-standing enemies of the Bruces, whose estates adjoined their territory. Bruce undoubtedly had other serious disagreements with John Comyn but the need to preserve his family’s interests against the Gallovidians was the likely cause of his final resignation as joint guardian in early 1300. His place was taken by Sir Ingram Umfraville, a strong ally of the Comyns, while Bruce returned to his estates in the southwest where over the next two years he continued to direct opposition against the English.
Edward I pre-empted all Scottish plans affecting Galloway, however, when, in the summer of 1300 after much lobbying with his senior nobles, he headed another army into Scotland with the intention of subduing the southwest, including Galloway. This force was almost as large as that which faced Wallace at Falkirk but because of incessant rain and the Scots’ refusal to offer battle Edward had to be content with the capture of just one castle, that of Caerlaverock. On one occasion the guardians moved to prevent him crossing the River Cree in Galloway but at the approach of his heavy cavalry they thought better of it and fled into the hills. By the end of August Edward had returned to Sweetheart Abbey near Caerlaverock and while there, as a result of Scottish approaches to the Pope, he received a visit from Robert Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. Both countries had been protesting to the Pope about whether or not Edward’s occupation of an independent Scotland was legal and, as the result of Scottish advocacy in Rome, the archbishop brought the English king a papal bull ordering him to cease inflicting injuries upon the Scots and to withdraw from their country. Infuriated as he was Edward recognised the need for a pause in his military operations to marshal his counter-arguments, and therefore agreed to the request from Philip of France for a truce until May 1301 and to the release of Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, from prison. However, it did not change his determination to conquer Scotland for, while his experts were composing his response to the Pope, Edward started preparing for his sixth invasion in the summer of 1301.
On the Scottish side, during the spring of that year Bishop Lamberton attempted to keep the Bruce and Comyn factions from breaking apart completely by persuading John Comyn and Ingram Umfraville to resign in favour of a single ‘neutral’ guardian. The proposed candidate was Sir John Soules, related by marriage to the Comyns but a close neighbour of the Bruces. Soules assumed his post in the spring of 1301 in time to meet the next English invasion. A strong indication that Soules was in fact a nominee of John Balliol came through the new procedure that was adopted for documents sent under the seal of Scotland. These were issued under the name of King John, or of Edward Balliol as his heir, with the guardian standing as witness.
For his 1301 campaign which again aimed at destroying Scottish resistance in the southwest Edward I split his invading forces in two. One detachment under his command was to advance from Berwick on the east coast towards Stirling, while his son, Edward Caernarvon, Prince of Wales, was to move along the western side of Scotland; the intention was to close the pincers near Stirling and catch the defenders in a great net. However the strategy failed, largely because Soules slowed the king by threatening his lines of communication, while in the west Robert Bruce, who had built up his forces in Carrick, succeeded in holding on to Turnberry Castle until September. As a result the Prince of Wales got no further than Whithorn on Galloway’s southern coast and eventually returned to Carlisle before joining his father, who decided to spend the winter at Linlithgow.
Edward I chose Linlithgow as a convenient base in readiness for a further campaign during the spring of 1302 but in the face of French pressure he agreed to a nine-month truce which, in fact, meant there could be no further invasion of Scotland until early 1303. Throughout 1301 political events had swung in the Scots’ favour: at the papal court their brilliant advocate, Master Baldred Bisset, effectively demolished Edward’s arguments over his right to occupy Scotland and in the summer of the same year John Balliol was released from papal custody and allowed to return to his estates at Bailleul in Picardy. There was even talk of a French army being sent to reinstate him in Scotland.
These events were not to the liking of the English king nor Robert Bruce. While as a patriot he had demonstrated he would do everything possible to oppose English invasions, the restoration of John Balliol promised to bring Balliol’s son, Edward, to Scotland who would effectively block Bruce’s claim to the throne. In any case, while Bruce had fought for Scotland since 1297 he had arguably not exercised the influence in affairs he considered his position warranted. He had been unable to exercise his due powers as joint guardian through the hostility of his fellow titleholder towards him and his supporters. His Scottish estates had been devastated and the chance of John Balliol resuming power not only threatened his ambitions for the throne but endangered his chances of inheriting Annandale on the imminent death of his sick father. The prospect of the country being run by Comyns along with French forces committed to holding in trust any lands of nobles who, like himself, had opposed Edward I, was his worst nightmare. His best chance of securing his rightful estates lay with Edward I and because the Scottish patriots had turned to the Balliol family as their regal leaders, any chance Bruce might have with regard to the Scottish throne also seemed to lie in the hands of the English king. On the basis of such reasoning Bruce left the Scottish patriots and joined his father in the service of Edward I.
Despite their undoubted successes during 1301 the loss of Bruce, a leader of outstanding potential and de facto leader of his powerful family, was a major setback in Scotland’s struggle for independence and a great bonus for Edward. The importance of Bruce’s change of allegiance can be seen in the wording of the open memorandum drafted by the English king upon Bruce’s submission. By it Bruce’s titles and claims were acknowledged, including the key one to the Scottish crown – although how much Edward would have supported the latter in reality is open to question – ‘… (if) the Kingdom of Scotland may be removed from out of the King’s hands (which God forbid!) and handed over to Sir John Balliol or to his son or that the right may be brought into dispute, or reversed and contradicted in a fresh judgement, the King grants Robert that he may pursue his right and the King will hear him fairly and hold him to justice in the King’s court.’2
Along with Bruce’s defection the Scots suffered other serious setbacks during 1302. On 11 July the French cavalry were defeated by Flemish peasant soldiers at Courtrai and the importance of France’s support for Scotland was weakened proportionately. At about the same time relations between France and the papacy broke down and by August Pope Boniface was writing to the Scottish bishops ordering them to recognise Edward I as their legal ruler.
Notwithstanding, military resistance continued to be mounted against the English. In November 1302, immediately after the expiration of the truce between the two countries, the English king despatched a large reconnaissance force into the countryside southwest of Edinburgh to gather information for his projected expedition the next year. The Scots, under John Comyn and Simon Fraser, with William Wallace a likely addition to their ranks, fell upon the leading elements and at Roslin inflicted heavy casualties upon them. However, no such reverse could prevent Edward I’s full-scale invasion in the following spring. In early 1303 the Scots took the field first and succeeded in capturing Selkirk Castle but the English appeared unstoppable; Edward was determined to conquer Scotland once and for all, whatever men and resources it required. Using prefabricated pontoon bridges (built at enormous expense) he moved across central Scotland and from there to Kinloss on the Moray Firth, which he reached in September. Returning to southern Scotland he stayed at Dunfermline Abbey while his forces were kept in the field until, on the 22 December, the Scots signalled they were willing to negotiate for peace.
On 19 January, 1304, terms were agreed between the two sides. The senior Scottish leaders were treated leniently but Edward summoned a parliament to meet at St Andrews to commence discussions on the full incorporation of the country. This time he determined to bring Scottish nobles into the process and in September 1305 ten Scottish representatives joined twenty-one English officials to draft a new constitution. In accordance with a new legal code, the land – no longer a realm – was to be ruled by a lieutenant appointed by the English king aided by a chancellor and chamberlain.
From the time of his submission early in 1302 Bruce was used by Edward I to help him conquer Scotland, but although Bruce was careful to convince the English king of his loyalty, in reality he offered little more than lip service and displayed scarcely anything of the military brilliance evident in his later years. He seemed determined to contribute nothing more than was absolutely necessary against his native country. For instance, in March 1302 he assured the monks of Melrose Abbey that he would not bring out his ‘army of Carrick’ again for his own purposes ‘unless the whole realm is raised for its defence, when all inhabitants are bound to serve’. In other words he would not bring his men out in support of Edward I.3 During Edward’s twin-pronged invasion of Scotland in 1303 Bruce’s role was limited to serving as Sheriff of Lanark and Ayr and acting as keeper of the castle there, hardly a demanding one for a gifted young leader.4 During the spring of 1304, when the English king asked him to forward siege engines for Edward’s planned assault on Stirling Castle he did so, but omitted to send a vital piece of machinery without which they could not function.5 Following an order from the king to provide troops for the siege he wrote to him explaining his difficulties in doing so.6
In March 1304 Bruce, together with Sir John Seagrave, was ordered to lead a mounted raid on William Wallace and Simon Fraser in Selkirk forest, which was singularly unsuccessful, for while some of their followers were taken, both leaders were alerted to the raid and escaped. This earned Bruce a surprisingly gentle scolding from the king with the words, ‘as the cloak is well made, also make the hood’.7
Shortly afterwards on 21 April Bruce’s father died and there was now no question that the Bruce claims to the throne depended upon him. With his past record and strong ambitions he was playing a highly dangerous role but until late 1305 it appeared to be working. In spite of a secret compact to help Bruce gain the crown of Scotland made between him and Bishop William Lamberton at Cambuskenneth Abbey during the siege of Stirling Castle from May to July 1304, Bruce succeeded in remaining Edward’s favoured son. The written part of the Cambuskenneth compact included the enigmatic clause, ‘that neither of them should undertake any important business without the other of them’. This was accompanied by a spoken agreement that Bruce would assume the Scottish throne following Edward’s death. Meanwhile Edward’s grants to Bruce continued; he made him guardian to the young Earl of Mar, a concession that allowed Bruce effective control of the extensive Mar estates along the Scottish northeast coast, together with the castle of Kildrummy. In March 1305, Bruce was granted the Umfraville lands in Carrick and enjoyed a leading role in advising Edward I on the feasibility of his proposals concerning the government of Scotland.
After October 1305 things changed markedly. While Edward I was seriously ill (and not expected to recover), according to the Scottish chroniclers Bruce made a daring proposal to his rival John Comyn. If John Comyn would be prepared to help Bruce become king of Scotland he would receive all Bruce’s estates and if, on the other hand, Comyn gave Bruce his estates Bruce would undertake to support him for the crown. It is difficult to believe that Bruce would keep his word to help a man he disliked so heartily to gain the throne but Barbour – always sympathetic to Bruce – had Comyn opting for the additional estates rather than the crown and even signing an agreement between them to this effect.8 On the other hand, although the English chronicler Walter of Guisborough also has Bruce contacting Comyn he maintained it was after Bruce had fled from the English court and followed the visit by Bruce’s two brothers, Thomas and Neil (sometimes called Nigel), to Comyn’s castle at Dalswinton with a request for Comyn to meet him at the Greyfriars Church, Dumfries, to discuss certain business, most likely the placing of Bruce on the Scottish throne.9
To everyone’s surprise Edward I quickly recovered and, with the capture of Wallace, certain documents were found which, while not directly incriminating Bruce, served to confirm his ambitions for the crown of Scotland. Edward’s attitude towards him cooled markedly and in September he ordered Bruce to place Kildrummy Castle into the hands of someone ‘for whom he would be responsible’, and Umfraville’s lands were returned to their original owner.
Any trace of friendly relationship still remaining between the king and Bruce was destroyed when, according to the Scottish sources, John Comyn told Edward I of Bruce’s plotting against him, even informing him about their mutual covenant concerning the throne of Scotland and undertook to produce the document signed and sealed by Bruce as proof.10 Edward decided to wait until he had the evidence and took pains not to arouse Bruce’s suspicions about the altered situation but, one evening when he had taken a large measure of wine, the king let slip he intended to arrest Bruce the next day and try him for treason. Among his guests was Raoul de Monthermer, Earl of Gloucester, a long-standing friend of the Bruces, who sent the keeper of his wardrobe to Bruce with twelve pence and a pair of spurs. The coins carried the king’s head and no doubt implied being sold or betrayed while the spurs clearly indicated the need for haste.11 The two men must have agreed on the signal beforehand for Bruce returned the twelve pence with his thanks and, after telling his staff he was not to be disturbed, took a squire for escort and leaving London, rode by day and night to Scotland. One Scottish chronicler, Fordun, even had them meeting a Scotsman travelling south to England whose suspicious conduct caused them to search him and find a letter from John Comyn enclosing the bond supporting Bruce’s bid for the Scottish throne.
Five days after leaving the English court Bruce reached his family at Lochmaben and told them what had happened. By chance the local magnates, including John Comyn, were attending sessions held by English justiciars at neighbouring Dumfries and Bruce sent word for the Comyn to meet him in Greyfriars’ Kirk there. There are conflicting versions of how their conversation went on 10 February 1306. The English chronicler Sir Thomas Grey said that after traditional words of greeting Bruce turned on Comyn and accused him of betraying him, while Guisborough – no lover of Bruce – has John Comyn refusing to listen to Bruce’s planned treason against Edward I.
Whatever was said there was a quarrel, daggers were drawn and the Comyn fell wounded on the steps of the altar.12 Comyn’s uncle, Sir Robert Comyn, struck Bruce with his sword but Bruce’s armour deflected it and Sir Robert was killed by Christopher Seton, Bruce’s brother-in-law. As Bruce came out of the church there is a strong tradition that another of his followers, Roger Kirkpatrick, asked what had happened and, being told he returned to the church and made sure John Comyn was dead.
Whether or not Bruce killed, rather than wounded, the Comyn is intriguing but not important. Responsibility for Roger Kirkpatrick’s actions rested with his master. In any event the murder was most unlikely to have been pre-planned. In medieval times a strong contender for the throne would never deliberately commit both murder and sacrilege. Undoubtedly Bruce and Comyn hated each other and if Comyn had alerted Edward to Bruce’s projected bid to be king and had caused him to flee from England these were even more reasons for a heated exchange to take place between them. Both were young, powerful and proud men and they had already come to blows over William Wallace.
Whatever the reasons the murder in the Greyfriars’ church committed Bruce irrevocably to the Scottish patriotic camp and caused him to face the justifiable anger of a failing but still formidable English king along with the full enmity of the powerful Comyns and their followers, who with the exception of the southwest, controlled most of Scotland. At this time, before Bruce or the Comyns were able to come out on top, Scotland’s leadership was more divided than ever.
Facing such terrible dangers Bruce needed above all to establish the legitimacy of his position, without which uncommitted men were unlikely to join him, while simultaneously securing a base from where he could build up his military forces. As his sister was Queen Dowager in Norway he could have moved away from his enemies and assembled a following with the object of returning to Scotland after Edward’s death. In fact he opted for the more hazardous course of remaining in his country from the beginning. In Scotland he could call on the support of his family and their traditional adherents who together with their retinues of fighting men offered him the framework of an army, however poorly it might compare with the strength of his opponents.
Of equal importance was the question of his legitimacy. This received a powerful boost from the Scottish church where men like Bishop William Lamberton had already acknowledged him as the best hope to recover their country’s independence. Bishop Wishart of Glasgow absolved him for his dual sin and in return Bruce agreed to respect the church’s traditional liberties.
In his perilous situation it was Bruce’s personal attributes that were likely to prove all-important. While he had already shown outstanding skills in the jousting field and before 1302 his activities as a guerrilla leader in the southwest had acted as a thorn in England’s side, after joining the English king he had given little indication that he had the ability to become a genuine military commander. Energy and resilience were vital now and the hot-headedness that had characterised his conduct against John Comyn – and which had placed him and his whole family in such jeopardy – had to be curbed.
To survive at all Bruce needed practical and strategic awareness. John de Soules, as guardian, had already demonstrated the effectiveness of manoeuvre and evasion against the English. Conversely Wallace’s victory at Stirling along with the initial achievements of Scottish spearmen at Falkirk showed that Bruce needed stand-up battles to win back Scotland from his Comyn enemies and hopefully eventually against the English too.
With so many powerful opponents and the strong likelihood of defeat and capture before him Bruce had little time for exhilaration at assuming what he had so long believed was his rightful role. Nor was there at this stage much opportunity to consider possible tactics before he knew the size or nature of the force he could raise. Decisions would have to be made in the saddle and longer-term thinking would be restricted to his short periods of rest. Whether the one-time self-seeking nobleman had the ability to take on the mantle and responsibilities of a warrior king was soon to become evident.