Bruce’s Choice

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries . . . 

So wrote Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar. He may  very well have been talking about Scotland’s heroes William Wallace and Robert Bruce. It is played out in the movie “Braveheart” when Wallace talks before the Battle of Sterling,  “. . .  Fight, and you may die. Run, and you’ll live; at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day  till that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom?”  Wallace was willing to pay the price of freedom but he was not in the position of Robert Bruce, the other lead contender with Balliol for Scotland’s throne.

There was another Scottish leader, the Caledonian, Calgacus who also gave a speech to his army before he fought the Roman general Agricola. It was recorded by Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law. Part of it reads, “We have neither fruitful plains, nor mines, nor harbours, for the working of which we may be spared. Valour, too, and high spirit in subjects, are offensive to rulers; besides, remoteness and seclusion, while they give safety, provoke suspicion. Since then you cannot hope for quarter, take courage, I beseech you, whether it be safety or renown that you hold most precious. Under a woman’s leadership the Brigantes were able to burn a colony, to storm a camp, and had not success ended in supineness, might have thrown off the yoke. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, never likely to abuse our freedom, show forthwith at the very first onset what heroes Caledonia has in reserve. ”   Tacitus’s writing makes really interesting reading, allowing for a certain natural bias. Of course, it required translation, being written in Latin. You can find a good copy here.

Whether “the Bruce” was as weak and confused as portrayed in the movie is a matter of conjecture. He was born in July, 1274 to Robert Bruce, 6th Lord of Annandale and Marjorie, Countess of Carrick. The Bruce family (formerly de Brus) were a Norman family that came to Scotland with David 1. His grandfather, Robert was claimant to the throne of Scotland during the Great Cause. The Bruce family were long-time supporters of the English crown. When Edward awarded the crown to John Balliol, Robert joined Wallace in the Scottish revolt. He became a guardian of Scotland along with John Comyn but resigned a few years later because they did not get along. He then submitted to Edward “returning to the king’s peace”. During this time the family supported the English against Wallace and he was captured and executed.

But things started to change when Robert argued with John Comyn at Greyfriars Abbey and stabbed him. This was not a good thing, his father had died and he was in line for the throne. But now he was excommunicated by the Pope, a man more powerful than Kings themselves. The Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, another key player in this drama, saw the necessity of Bruce getting to the throne and had him absolved. Robert moved quickly and was crowned King of Scotland at Scone on 25 March, 1306.

He met Edward at the Battle of Methven and was defeated. While on the run, at Strathfillian, Bruce was ambushed by the McDougalls (often joined by their relatives, the McDowalls, my ancestors). They had been on his side until he murdered John Comyn who was a relative. He barely escaped and went into hiding in Ireland. The next spring, Edward marched north again and captured his wife, daughters and sisters as well as Isabella MacDuff who had crowned him. His sister Mary and Isabella were hung in cages for four years. His brother, Neill was executed .

Robert returned in 1307, having found his strength in guerilla warfare, and defeated the English at Carrick. He went on to gain control of almost all of Scotland. Then he advanced into northern England burning every stronghold as he went. He had sent his brother Edward to Ireland to gain them as allies, but they only gained support from Ulster and Donal O’Neill. Although Edward was crowned as King of Ireland, he was killed at the Battle of Faughart in Louth. The Irish just couldn’t see where there would be a difference between being ruled by the English or the Scots.

Edward I died on the trip north to defeat the Scots in 1307.  In 1314, his son Edward II, moved north to break the siege at Stirling Castle in Edinburgh. His army was considerably larger than Bruce’s. Again, opportunity presented itself which Bruce was quick to use. The geography of the land was such that it would allow him to bring the English army into a vise-like situation, in short they would have no room to manouevre. Potholes were dug into the road which would force the army to bunch up into this position. It took two days for Robert Bruce to win the Battle of Bannockburn.  Edward was actually undone by his own wife Isabella who along with her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England from France and  forced him to give up the throne of England to his son, Edward III. In 1328, Edward  finally recognized the right of Bruce to the throne of Scotland and recognized Scotland’s independence.


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