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Significant Scots
Robert the Bruce, King of Scots
Part 1

BRUCE, Robert, earl of Carrick, afterwards king of Scots, and the most heroic as well as the most patriotic monarch which Scotland ever produced, was born on the 21st of March, 1274. He was the grandson of Robert Bruce, lord of Annandale, who in 1291 contested the right to the crown with John Baliol. The events which followed upon the decision of that momentous question are elsewhere detailed to the reader, [in the preceding life of John Baliol, and the subsequent one of William Wallace;] it is therefore unnecessary to advert to them in this place, unless in so far as they have reference to the family of Bruce, and in particular to the illustrious individual now under notice.

Upon the decision of Edward I. in favour of Balliol, the grandfather of king Robert, being possessed of extensive estates in the north of England, resigned the lordship of Annandale to his eldest son, on purpose, it may be supposed, to evade the humiliating necessity of doing homage to his successful rival. No other particular regarding him is known; he died at the family residence of Lochmaben, not long after, at the advanced age of eighty-five.

Robert Bruce, the son of the competitor and father of king Robert, became possessed, by this last event, of the English as well as of the Scottish estates belonging to his family. He had also acquired, in right of his wife, the heiress of Carrick, the earldom of that name, [The circumstances attending this alliance, related by Mr Tytler, were of a romantic and singular description. "It appears that a short time after his return from the crusade, Bruce was riding through the beautiful domains of Turnberry Castle, the property of the widowed Countess of Carrick, who, in consequence of the death of her husband, had become a ward of the crown. The noble baron, however, if we may believe an ancient historian, cannot be accused of having visited Turnberry with any design of throwing himself in the way of the heiress of Carrick; and indeed any such idea in those days of jealous wardship would have been highly dangerous. It happened, however, that the lady herself, whose ardent and impetuous temper was not much in love with the seclusion of a feudal castle, had come out to take the diversion of the chase, accompanied by her women, huntsmen, and falconers; and this gay cavalcade came suddenly upon Bruce, as he pursued his way through the forest, alone and unarmed. The knight would have spurred his horse forward, and avoided the encounter, but he found himself surrounded by the attendants; and the Countess herself riding up, and with gentle violence taking hold of his horse’s reins, reproached him in so sweet a tone for his want of gallantry in flying from a lady’s castle, that Bruce, enamoured of her beauty, forgot the risk which he run, and suffered himself to be led away in a kind of triumph to Turnberry. He here remained for fifteen days, and the adventure concluded, as might have been anticipated, by his privately espousing the youthful Countess without having obtained the concurrence of the king, or of any of her relations"] and, in every respect, might justly be considered one of the most powerful barons in the kingdom. Either from disinclination, or, as some have surpected, from motives of policy, Robert Bruce, the second of the name, early avoided taking any share in the affairs of Scotland. When his son was yet a minor, he made resignation to him of the earldom of Carrick, and, shortly thereafter, retiring into England, left the administration of his ancient patrimony of Annandale in the same hands. During the ill-concerted and disastrous revolt of Baliol, in 1296, the Bruces maintained their alegiance to the English king. The lordship of Annandale was, in consequence, hastily declared forfeited, and the rich inheritance bestowed by Baliol upon John Comyn, earl of Buchan, who immediately seized upon and occupied the castle of Lochmaben; an injury which, there is reason to believe, the young earl of Carrick, long after, but too well remembered, and fatally repaid.

It is asserted that Edward, in order to gain securely the fidelity and assistance of the lord of Annandale and his son, had promised to bestow upon the former the kingdom of which Baliol was now to be dispossessed. It is not probable that the English monarch ever seriously entertained such an intention, and still less likely if he did, that in the flush of successful conquest he should be capable of putting it in execution. After the decisive battle of Dunbar, Bruce reminded Edward of his promise: "Have I no other business," was time contemptuous reply, "but to conquer kingdoms for you I" The elder Bruce once more retired suasion that his family were justly entitled to the throne, was every way natural, and we have already noticed, that hopes of their actually attaining to it were held out by Edward himself to the lord of Annandale. Nurtured and strengthened in such feeling, the young aspirant to royalty could not be expected to entertain attachment to the house of Baliol; and must have regarded with still greater aversion and distrust the sovereignty usurped by the power and stratagem of England over the rights and pretensions of all his race. During the struggle, therefore, of those contending interests—the independence of Scotland under Baliol, or its subjugation under Edward—he necessarily remained more in the situation of a neutral though deeply interested observer, than an active partisan; the success of either party involving in an almost indifferent degree the high claims, and, it might be, the existing fortunes of his house.

Taking these considerations into account, there is little difficulty in reconciling to itself the line of conduct which Bruce had hitherto pursued. By joining heartily with neither party, he prudently avoided committing the fortunes of his family to the hazard of utter destruction, and his right and influence could give, upon any emergency, a necessary and required preponderance to either side. He must have foreseen, too, with secret satisfaction, the consequences which would result to his own advantage from a contest in which the strength and resources of his rivals were mutually wasted, whilst his own energies remained entire, and ready on any favourable opportunity to he called decisively into action. That these were not exerted sooner, the existence of his father down to this period, and his submission to the English government, may suggest a sufficient reason; and his own accession to the regency, in the name of the deposed Baliol, was a circumstance which could not but affect unfavourably, during its continuance, the assertion of his pretensions.

Meantime, while Bruce outwardly maintained the semblance of loyalty to Edward, he was not idle in secretly advancing the objects of his own ambition and when actually engaged in assisting Edward in the settlement of the Scottish government, he entered into a secret bond of association with Lamberton bishop of St Andrews, whereby the parties became bound to aid each other against all persons whatever, and not to undertake any business of moment unless by mutual advice. No measure on the part of Bruce could be more politic than this was, of emlisting in his cause the power and influence of the church ; and the reader may afterwards have occasion to remark that he owed his success more to their firm adherence to his interest, than to all the efforts of the nobility. Lamberton and his colleagues were more alarmed at the prospect of being subjected to the spiritual supremacy of York or Canterbury, than concerned for the temporal subjugation of their country; and thus, in the minds of the national clergy, the independency of the church became intimately associated with the more general cause of popular freedom. In addition to the spiritual power which Lamberton possessed, as head of the Scottish church, the effective aid which he could furnish by calling out the military retainers upon the church lands, was far from inconsiderable. Though we are not informed of any other similar contract to the above having been entered into between Bruce and his partizans, there can be little doubt that this was not the only one, and that he neglected no safe expedient to promote and facilitate the enterprize which he contemplated. Notwithstanding, however, all the prudent caution and foresight displayed in these preparatory measures, the better genius of Bruce would seem utterly to have deserted him at the very critical moment of his fortune when its guidance was most required.

Before entering upon the important event to which we have alluded, it will be necessary to state briefly the relative position of the two great parties in the kingdom as opposed to each other. John Baliol, supposing his tide to hare been well founded, had repeatedly renounced all pretensions to the crown of Scotland; and had for several years remained a voluntary exile in France, without taking any steps towards the recovery of those rights, of which, it might have been urged, the violence of the king of England had deprived him. He was to be considered, therefore, as having not only formally, but virtually, forfeited all claim to the kingdom. His son, Edward, was at that time a minor and a captive. John Comyn, commonly called the Red Comyn, was the son of Marjory, the sister of Baliol, and, setting Baliol aside, was the heir of the pretensions of their common ancestor. As regent of Scotland and leader of her armies, Comyn had maintained for many years the unequal contest with Edward and he had been the last to lay down his arms and accept conditions of peace from that prince. Though the terms of his submission had been rigorous, he was yet left in possession of large estates, a numerous vassalage, and, what in that warlike age was of consequence, an approved character for courage and conduct in the field.

Plausible as were the grounds upon which Comyn might have founded his claim to the crown, and powerfully as these might have been supported against the usurped sovereignty of England, there was little likelihood that in a competition with Bruce they could ever finally have prevailed. That family, according to the ancient usage of the kingdom, ought to have been preferred originally to that of Baliol; and this fact, generally known and acknowledged, as it could not fail to be, would, had they chosen to take advantage of it, have rendered their cause, at any time, a popular one. The award of Edward from the consequences which followed upon it, had become odious to the nation; and the pusillanimity and misfortunes of the abdicated and despised king, would leave, however undeservedly, their stigma upon his race. It was a curious enough illustration of the deep rooted existence of such a feeling, that, nearly a century afterwards, a king of Scotland who happened to possess the same unfortunate name of John, saw fit upon his coronation to change it for another, less ominous of evil in the recollections of his subjects. What might have been the fate of the contest, had it taken place, between two such rivals, it is now needless to inquire. We have seen that Bruce, at the crisis at which we have arrived, was possessed of those advantages unimpaired, of which the other, in the late struggle, had been, in a great measure, deprived; and, there is reason to believe, that Comyn, whose conduct had been consistent and honourable, felt himself injured and indignant at a preference which he might suppose his rival had unworthily earned. Thus under impressions of wrong and filled with jealous apprehensions, for which there was much apparent and real cause, the Red Comyn might be presumed willing, upon any inviting occasion, to treat Bruce as an enemy whom, by every means in his power, it was his interest to circumvent or destroy.

The league into which Bruce had entered with Lamberton, and perhaps other transactions of a similar nature, were not so secretly managed, but that suspicions were awakened; and this is said to have led to an important conference between these rivals on the subject of their mutual pretensions. At this meeting, Bruce, after describing in strong terms the miserable effects of the enmity which had so long subsisted between their different families, by which they themselves were not only deprived of station, but their country of freedom, proposed, as the best means, both of averting future calamity and for restoring their own privileges and the people’s rights, that they should henceforward enter into a good understanding and bond of amity with each other. "Support my title to the crown," he is represented to have said, "and I will give you my lands ; or, give me your lands and I will support your claim." Comyn agreed to wave his right, and accept the lands; and the conditions having been drawn up in, form of indenture, were sealed by both parties, and confirmed by their mutual oaths of fidelity and secrecy.

Bruce shortly afterwards repaired to the English court, where he still enjoyed the confidence and favour of the king; and whilst there, Comyn, from what motive is unknown, but probably from the design of ruining a rival whom he secretly feared and detested, revealed his knowledge of the conspiracy to Edward. The king, upon receiving this information, thought fit to dissemble his belief so its veracity, with a view, it is conjectured, of drawing within his power the brothers of Bruce, previously to striking the important blow which he meditated. With a shrewdness and decision, however, peculiar to his character, he frankly questioned Bruce upon the truth of Comyn’s accusation, adducing, at the same time the letters and documents which he had received as evidences of the fact. The Earl, much as he might feel staggered at the sudden disclosure of Comyn’s treachery, or alarmed at the imminent peril of his situation, had recollection enough remaining to penetrate the immediate object of the king in this insidious scrutiny, and presence of mind to baffle the sagacity by which it was suggested. Though taken so completely by surprise, he betrayed no outward signs of guilt or confusion; and succeeded by his mild and judicious answers in reestablishing to all appearance the confidence of the crafty monarch; who had, indeed, his reasons for this seeming reliance, but who all along was of too suspicious a nature to be so easily convinced. He had in fact determined upon the Earl’s ruin ; and, having one evening drank freely, was indiscreet enough to disclose his intentions in presence of some of the nobles of his court. The Earl of Gloucester, a kinsnman of Bruce, chanced either to be present, or to have early notice of his friend’s danger, and, anxious to save him, yet not daring, in so serious a matter, too rashly to compromise his own safety, sent to him a pair of gilded spurs and a few pieces of money, as if he had borrowed them from him the day before. Danger is said to be an acute interpreter; and Bruce divined correctly that the counsel thus symbolically communicated warned him to instant flight. Taking his measures, therefore, with much privacy, and accompanied by his secretary and one groom, he set out for Scotland. On approaching the western marches the small party encountered a messenger on foot, whose deportment struck them as suspicious. He was searched; and proved to be an emissary sent by Comyn with letters to the King of England. The man was killed upon the spot and Bruce, now possessed of substantial proofs of the perfidy of his rival, pressed forward to his castle of Lochmaben, which he is reported to have reached on the fifth day after his precipitate flight from London.

These events occurred in the mouth of February, 1306 ; at which time, according to a regulation of the new government, certain English judges were holding their courts at Dumfries. Thither Bruce immediately repaired, and finding Comyn in the town, as he had expected, requested a private interview with him, which was accorded; but, either from some inward misgiving on the one side, or a desire to impress assurance of safety on the other, the meeting took place near the high altar in the convent of the Minorite Friars. Bruce is said to have here passionately reproached Comyn for his treachery, to which the other answered by flatly giving him the lie. Time words were scarcely uttered, when the Earl, giving a loose to the ungovernable fury which he had hitherto restrained, drew his dagger and stabbed, but not mortally, his unguarded opponent. Instantly hastening from the church, he called eagerly to his attendants for his horse. Lindsay and Kirkpatrick, by whom he had been accompanied, seeing him pale and agitated, anxiously inquired the cause. "I doubt I have slain Comnyn," replied the Earl. " You doubt ?" cried Kirkpatrick fiercely, "I'ss mak sicker ;" and rushing into the sanctuary, he found Cornyn still alive, but helpless and bleeding upon the steps of the high altar. The dying victim was ruthlessly dispatched on the sacred spot where he lay; and, almost at the same moment, Sir Robert Comyn, the uncle, entering the convent upon the noise and alarm of the scuffle, shared in a similar fate. The tumult had now become general throughout the town; and the judges who held their court in a hall of the castle, not knowing what to fear, but believing their lives to be in immediate danger, hastily barricaded the doors. Bruce, assembling his followers, surrounded the castle, and threatening to force an entrance with fire, obliged those within to surrender, and permitted them to depart in safety from Scotland.

That this fatal event fell out in the heat and reckless passion of the moment, there can be no doubt. Goaded as he had been to desperation by the ruin which he knew to be impending over him, and even insulted personally by the individual who had placed him in such jeopardy, Bruce dared hardly, in that age of superstitious observance, to have committed so foul an act of sacrilegious murder. In the imperfectly arranged state of his designs, without concert among his friends, or preparation for defence, the assassination of the first noble in the land, even without the aggravations which in this instance particularized the deed, could not but have threatened the fortune of his cause with a brief and fatal issue. He knew, himself, that the die of his future life was now cast; and that the only alternative left, upon which he had to make election, was to be a fugitive or a king. Without hesitation, he at once determined to assert his claim to the Scottish crown.

When Bruce, thus inevitably pressed by circumstances, adopted the only course by which there remained a chance of future extrication and honour, he had not a single fortress at his command besides those two patrimonial ones of Lochmaben and Kildrummy; the latter situated in Aberdeenshire, at too great a distance from the scene of action to prove of service. He had prepared no system of offensive warfare; nor did it seem that, in the beginning, he should be even able to maintain himself on the defensive, with any hope of success. Three earls only, those of Lenox, Errol, and Athole, joined his standard; Randolph, the nephew of Bruce, who afterwards became the renowned Earl of Moray, Christopher of Seaton, his brother-in-law; Sir James Douglas, whose fate became afterwards so interestingly associated with that of his master, and about the other barons then of little note, but who were destined to lay the foundations of some of the most honourable families in the kingdom, constituted, with the brothers of the royal adventurer, the almost sole power against which such fearful odds were presently to be directed—the revenge of the widely connected and powerful house of Comyn, the overwhelming force of England, and the fulminations of the church. Without other resource than what lay in his own undaunted resolution, and in the untried fidelity and courage of his little band, Bruce ascended the throne of his ancestors, at Scone, on the 27th day of March, 1306.

The ceremony of the coronation was performed with what state the exigency and disorder of the moment permitted. The Bishop of Glasgow supplied from his own wardrobe the robes in which Robert was arrayed on the occasion; and a slight coronet of gold was made to serve in absence of the hereditary crown which, along with the other symbols of royalty, had been carried off by Edward into England. A banner, wrought with the arms of Baliol, was delivered by the Bishop of Glasgow to the new king, beneath which he received the homage of the earls and knights by whom he was attended The earls of Fife, from a remote antiquity, had possessed the privilege of crowning the kings of Scotland; but at this time, Duncan, the representative of that family, favoured the English interest. His sister, however, the Countess of Buchan, with a boldness and spirit characteristic of the days of chivalry, secretly withdrawing from her husband, repaired to Scone, and asserted the pretensions of her ancestors. It is not unlikely that this circumstance added to the popular interest felt for the young sovereign. The crown was a second time placed on the head of Bruce by the hands of the Countess ; who was afterwards doomed to suffer, through a long series of insult and oppression, for the adventurous and patriotic act which has preserved her name to posterity.

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