Robert the Bruce: Separating fact from fiction

FRIDAY marked the 716th anniversary of the coronation of Robert the Bruce as King of Scots.

He was crowned at Scone Abbey on March 25, 1306, but by September he had been defeated in battle at Methven. His queen, daughter, sisters and many of his allies of him were captured by the English and he himself was on the run.

The Bruce’s autumn and winter as a fugitive has been much mythologized since, most famously with the story of the king being inspired to keep fighting by watching a spider repeatedly try to spin a web until it succeeded.

The 2019 film, Robert the Bruce, with Angus Macfadyen reprising the title role as an unofficial sequel to Braveheart, depicts this period of the king’s life.

It depicts a disheartened Robert abandoning his troops, until he falls in with a Scottish family who inspires him to continue fighting for his throne, all the while he is being hunted by the local sheriff who is loyal to the Bruce’s rivals, the Comyns, and to the English.

There are several minor inaccuracies, such as potatoes in 14th-century Scotland, or very un-Scottish names such as Yorgi, Vargas, and the unfortunately named Boak. But what about the film’s depiction of Robert the Bruce and his winter as a fugitive?

The movie begins with the fateful meeting between the Bruce and John Comyn (Jared Harris) at Greyfriars Kirk, Dumfries, in 1306. The text on the screen says that Scotland is in turmoil since Alexander III’s death, leaving the nobility to fight over an empty throne, with many sidings with the English – while only Robert still believes in Scotland’s independence.

In fact, there was a Scottish king who had been deposed and forced into exile by Edward I: John Balliol, and many Scots – including the Comyns – still supported his right to the throne. The Bruce’s loyalties were also much more complex than the film suggests. He had twice sided with the English in the years before 1306.

At Greyfriars, Comyn is seen having a sword hidden in the church before their agreed unarmed meeting. After arriving, Robert presents an intercepted letter from the English ordering Comyn to arrest him, causing Comyn to attack, but the Bruce defeats and kills him. There is no evidence that the meeting was a trap set by Comyn, nor was James Douglas (Diarmaid Murtagh), one of Robert’s most important allies in his subsequent reign of him, at Greyfriars that day, as the film has it.

Robert likely tried to persuade Comyn to back his claim to the throne, but Comyn refused, either out of continued loyalty to Edward I or Balliol or in the hopes of pressing his own claim. The Bruce struck him and then his followers came in, killing Comyn and his supporters.

THE rest of the film takes place six years later, in the winter of 1312-13, and shows Robert on the run, having lost six battles in a row. Only James Douglas and a few other soldiers remain loyal to him.

In fact, the Bruce was in a strong position for that time. He had won the civil war against the Comyns and their supporters, and had held his first parliament in 1309. Edward I had died in 1307 and his successor, Edward II, was distracted by conflicts with the English nobility.

When Edward did finally invade Scotland in 1310-1, he failed to bring the Bruce to battle and then returned home. In response, the Scots raided northern England.

In 1312, Robert captured Dundee, followed by Perth, Dumfries, and Linlithgow the following year. Stirling, Edinburgh, and Roxburgh were the only major castles still in English hands.

The film’s depiction of a broken-down Robert would be more suited to 1306-7 than 1312-3. His forces of him had been defeated at the Battle of Methven in June 1306. His younger brother of him, Neil, was captured in Aberdeenshire and executed. Robert’s queen, Elizabeth, his daughter de el Marjorie, and his two sisters were also captured soon after and displayed in cages at Berwick Castle.

His supporters in the church, Bishop Lamberton of St Andrews and Bishop Wishart of Glasgow, were also imprisoned. The Bruce was left with few allies and no doubt did consider giving up his fight.

The movie does not say where the story is set, but it is probably meant to be near Kintyre, as the film ends with the Bruce and the family that rescued him meeting with Angus MacDonald (Daniel Portman), Lord of the Isles.

John Barbour’s poem, The Brus, written decades after Robert’s death, claims that he was given shelter by Angus at Dunaverty Castle in Kintyre. Little is known for certain about the king’s activities in the winter of 1306-7, but he does indeed seem to have spent time in Kintyre, on Rathlin, off the coast of Northern Island, and the Hebrides.

The text at the end of the film says that Robert’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314 drove the English out of Scotland. In fact, they continued to hold on to Berwick, which Edward I had captured in 1296, until 1318. It also makes the odd claim that the Bruce never owned a castle as king, instead making his home with the soldiers and families of those he fought besides. Robert did hold castles as king and one of his first actions from him in 1307 was to recover his own castle of Turnberry in Ayrshire.

Despite these inaccuracies, the core story of Robert the Bruce, of a broken king being taken in by a family who inspires him to keep fighting, is fairly plausible – if placed six years too late.

Scotland was indeed very divided at this time, with many Scots opposing Robert. The king’s murder of Comyn sparked a civil war that lasted until 1309, and there were still plots against him even as late as 1320, six years after his great victory at Bannockburn. This opposition to Robert continued after his death in 1329, and would see his son, David II, facing another war with the English and their Scottish supporters.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *