Robert "The Bruce" and Scotland's Independence

By: Lori M. Netahlo-Barrett

Many historians concur that the most pivotal event in Scottish history was the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Although this event is a legendary battle in Scotland's wars of independence, it represents to the Scottish people a great victory over the English -- testimony that leadership and patriotism can have a profound effect on outcome.

Have historians placed too great an emphasis on Bannockburn? Was it truly the turning point in the creation of an independent Scotland, overlooking lesser-known events, but significant in their own right, the battle at Falkirk in 1298 and Robert the Bruce's succession to the throne in 1306? More importantly, could the battle at Bannockburn have been won without the leadership and perseverance of "the Bruce" that gave Scotland her independence or was William Wallace, a mere peasant but a true patriot, the faithful catalyst to Bruce's leadership?

Following the monumental battle at Stirling Bridge in 1297, Wallace was knighted and proclaimed guardian of the realm, ruling Scotland in John Balliol's name. Edward became entangled in problematic relations with the French, and Scotland was left alone for the next year. This ongoing tension thrusts England into the Hundred Years War in 1337, leaving both countries with countless casualties and devastation until it's conclusion in 1453. Nevertheless, realizing that matters in the North could not wait, in 1298 Edward planted his vast armies at York in preparation to dispense with Wallace and his army.

The English were a formidable force as they marched northward, advancing up the East Coast to meet Wallace and his defenses at the Callander Wood near the town of Falkirk.

Wallace for deciding to fight at all was criticized by many knowing his enemy to be superior in numbers with an advantage in heavy cavalry and military expertise. However, Scotland could not permit the English to continue, allowing the Scottish to loose their gain in position over the last year. "Wallace had chosen the battleground with care: his troops disposed on the southern flank of Callander Wood, the foot covered by the fast-flowing burn which, where it met another stream running down from Glen village, spread wet and miry, a morass which, from their position, the English could not detect" (Sadler, 1998, p. 42).

Regrettably, most of Wallace's troops were volunteers who came to the ranks with little or no military training or experience. At the foot Wallace formed a schiltron, a military tactic of his own creation, which contained spearmen outfitted with twelve-foot iron tipped spears with the first row of men kneeling and a second leveling over their shoulders. "As further protection the men were encircled by a line of stakes, chained or roped together creating a makeshift palisade" (Sadler, 1998, p. 42).

Conversely, Wallace was not the only one who came to battle with new military maneuvers. Edward, fresh from the Welsh wars and with tactics utilized in his campaigns with France, continued to use the longbow as a ferocious and effective weapon against his enemy.

The English began to deploy toward the Scots in battle order but their steady advance halted by the unexpected softness of the ground and forced Edward to reposition his troops to the left finding firmer ground. An unforeseen row ensued between leaders of the two sets of English troops thus forcing their heavy cavalry to push forward. Many English knights fell to their death by impalement from Wallace's speared schiltrons.

Unexpectedly, John "The Red" Comyn, a rival of Robert the Bruce, pulled back from the battle taking his loyal troops with him. Comyn's betrayal left Wallace and his remaining company with no way to struggle from the impeding Welsh.

The Scots resisted with the fury of despair, hundreds dying beneath English cavalry. Wallace and his remaining men were forced to flee "whilst his army and his hopes died around him" (Sadler, 1998, p. 44). The English had won the battle but not the war. Though further resistance appeared pointless, Wallace never contemplated surrender and reverted to the life of a bandit "...enough to keep the tiny flame of defiance alive" (Sadler, 1998, p. 44).

Regrettably, Wallace was never able to recoup from the battle at Falkirk and his whereabouts until 1305 are unknown. It is mystifying why Wallace did not gather an army in the seven years following Falkirk but this might suggest the after effects of battle had a traumatic effect on his self-confidence. Quite possibly this may be the cause of his resignation of his guardianship over Scotland after defeat at Falkirk which was ensued by Robert the Bruce and Sir John Comyn.

In 1303, Edward's ongoing war with France ended as Pope Boniface VIII interceded between the two countries, and Edward was forced to abandon his campaign. Now that peace was made with France, Edward was once again free to pursue his attacks on Scotland, successfully capturing the town of Stirling and its fortified castle.

Although a majority of the Scottish nobles showed fealty to Edward, the English continued to pursue Wallace relentlessly, and in 1305 he was captured and tried. Taken to London, Wallace was condemned as a traitor to the King, although he maintained he never swore allegiance to Edward. Wallace was hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered. His head was impaled on the spikes at London Bridge and his arms and legs were sent to the four corners of England to be displayed as a warning. However, in true Scottish form, they did not heed the warning.

Following the execution of Wallace, the role of joint guardianship of Scotland fell to Robert the Bruce and John Comyn. However, this relationship proved to one of mistrust, murder and intrigue. "Robert Bruce approached John Comyn with a kind-hearted plan to end the endless tormenting of the Scottish people. Bruce gave Comyn the choice of two courses of action: either Comyn should reign, with Bruce gaining all of Comyn's lands or Bruce should become king, with the Bruce's lands going to Comyn" (Young, 1999, p. 80).

As the legend comments, Comyn preferred the latter and a covenant was formed between the two. Nevertheless "Comyn broke his word, and heedless of the sacredness of his oath, kept accusing Bruce before the king of England...wickedly revealing Robert's secrets" (Young, 1999, p. 80).

This in turn forms the background to the infamous murder of John Comyn. In 1306 Bruce confronted Comyn with his treachery in Greyfriars Church at Dumfries, stabbing him and leaving him for dead. Bruce's men entered the church to finish the deed. According to Scottish legend, it is considered that the reason for his murder was due to his treachery. However, English tradition emphasizes that the murder was premeditated so Bruce could become sole ruler of Scotland. Nevertheless, "it is highly unlikely that the murder was premeditated. Bruce struck Comyn with a dagger and his men attacked him with swords" (Young, 1999, p. 80).

Six weeks after John Comyn's murder, Robert Bruce at Scone was crowned King of Scots. In reality, since Bruce's enthronement occurred quickly, may reveal some preliminary planning may have ensued. Comyn's murder only accelerated the plans that the Bruce had been preparing.

Robert Bruce picked up where Wallace's pursuits left off leading battles near Perth and at Dalry the same year he was enthroned. Unsuccessful, Bruce and his troops were defeated at both battles. Every effort was fashioned by the English to crush any military movement made by the Scots. With the English occupation of many castle strongholds in Scotland, Bruce regarded as a traitor, became a fugitive taking refuge on a remote island off the Irish coast. His wife and many of his supporters were captured and three of his brothers were executed.

As fortune may have it, in 1306, on his way to reconquer Scotland, Edward I died. Conceivably, this may account for, in 1307, Bruce's reappearance. Favorably for Scotland, Edward was succeeded to the throne by his weak and ill-prepared son, Edward II. Foremost the Bruce's main supporter was his brother Edward, but over the years that followed, he attracted a larger number of followers. Upon Edward II's coronation, he intended to carry through with his father's campaign on Scotland. "However, in August of that year Edward abandoned it and was not to become personally involved in the Scottish campaign for another three years" (Young, 1999, p. 98).

Over the three years Robert Bruce and his brother Edward, were free to move about Scotland as they pleased as Edward II dealt with even greater problems in his own realm. Following his coronation, Edward gave the premier offices in his kingdom to his fathers most prominent opponents earning hatred by the barons for granting the earldom of Cornwall to his "frivolous favorite (and possible lover), Piers Gaveston" ( 2). Within four years, a baronial committee drafted a document called the Ordinances, which demanded the banishment of Gaveston and placed restrictions over finances and appointments by Edward.

During the time of Edward's plight, Robert Bruce gathered significant forces to overthrow English rule and capture the town of Perth, held by English garrisons. Two other coups by the Scots followed; the capture of Dumfries and an invasion of the Isle of Mann in 1313.

The only remaining Scottish stronghold under garrison rule and English occupation was the town of Stirling. After laying siege to the castle for three months, Bruce made a proposition with Sir Philip Mowbray that "...if an English army had not relieved him by midsummer's day, which was then a year ahead, he would surrender the castle" (Seymour, 1997, p. 90). According to medieval custom, a castle was considered "relieved" when the relieving army approached within nine miles of it. Historians agree that although the gesture was unwise, it was prompted by the extreme difficulties Edward was suffering with the barons at home.

Edward II made preparations as the deadline of surrender approached. He gathered several troops from Ireland, as well as the Midland counties in England. With the death of Gaveston, several barons now rallied to the King's side placing the English troops at roughly 20,000 men, of which 2,000 were heavy cavalry. In comparison the Scottish army, under the command of Sir Robert Keith, "had pikemen that numbered no more than 7,000 and 500 horses, smaller and carrying lighter armor than their English counterpart" (Seymour, 1997, p. 92).

The English army traveled the route originally taken by Edward I before the battle at Falkirk. Regrettably, this allowed the English too little time to move an enormous number of men to reach Mowbray within the allotted time. "As the English reached Falkirk, Bruce ordered his troops to assemble in Torwood, a forest that stretched west of Falkirk almost to the Bannock Burn" (Seymour, 1997, p. 92). Bruce assembled his troops here, thinking the trees would hamper English attack. "Edward, the Bruce's brother's division was stationed on rising ground to the left of him, with the Bruce's' other three troops led by Douglas, Keith and Moray stationed to the right" (Sadler, 1996, p. 48).

Sir Philip Mowbray joined Edward II in battle formation, pointing out to him that "technically the army had relieved Stirling Castle and that not only was there no need for the garrison to surrender, but in all probability Bruce, whose forces were very small, would not risk such a fight" (Seymour, 1997, p. 93). Nevertheless, the King of England would not stand for it - he was there to fight and squash the Scottish rebellion. Thus, the infamous Battle of Bannockburn began.

According to legend, "the battle opened with the English knight, Sir Henry De Bohun, tilting his lance at Robert the Bruce" (Seymour 94). Bruce, with the smaller and more nimble horse, was able to side step the thrust. Rapidly Edward's troops crossed the burn, entangling with Scottish army. Even in the face of repeated charges, the pikemen remained steady. Day one of the battle broke at nightfall with the English returning to their lines while others routed to Stirling castle. The Scots were clearly the victors.

As the second day of battle dawned, Bruce and his brother Edward knelt down in prayer. The armies of Moray and Douglas joined Edward Bruce as reserve forces. Edward II realized that a full frontal attack would not work. His army would need to cross the burn and its tributary the Pelstream, although the banks were steep. Upon crossing the burn, there was no place the English could break through, and the Scots stormed them. Some of the English began a difficult escape across pools and the burn. The king's men held in reserve marched forward. Edward, having no wish to desert his army, was advised to make haste for the safety of Stirling Castle. Regrettably, when he arrived there "Sir Philip Mowbray refused him sanctuary for he could no longer cleave to the castle. Edward made his escape, with some of his troops as escort, and headed back to England" (Seymour, 1997. p. 101).

In the aftermath of battle, it is rather ironic that Sir Philip Mowbray, after relinquishing Stirling Castle, altered sides and followed the Bruce. The number of casualties suffered by the Scots is not known, but the ratio of men killed to the number of men in battle would be much smaller than that of the English army. As Seymour notes, "Certainly the Bruce had won Scotland by the sword, but until his sovereignty was recognized by all, his commission was not complete" (Seymour, 1997, p. 104).

The Pope and Edward II refused the Bruce recognition and his great victory at Bannockburn had yet to be consummated. Upon hearing of the news, the Bruce delivered quite regular raids to the northern areas of England, returning with treasure and the spoils of war.

The Irish, just as disenchanted with the English as the Scots, perceived the battle at Bannockburn as a victory for them as well, and sought to remove the English from Ireland. Over the next several years, Edward Bruce and his troops joined the Irish in several campaigns to expel English armies from Ireland. Robert continued with his raids in northern England, recapturing the town of Berwick in 1319.

At this time, some attention needs to be made concerning the Catholic Church and the role of the Pope during the medieval period. The Vatican was the most powerful and influential power of the known world and monarchs "paid heed to its orders - except with respect to Scotland" (Ross, 199, p. 110). Sadly, the Pope did not accept Scotland's independence from England, conceivably for the reason that Robert the Bruce was excommunicated for murdering his rival John Comyn in 1306. Nevertheless, the Bruce knew that one thing would have an effect on England and that was the influence of the pope.

Bruce was fortunate in the churchmen of his time. Many of the clergy "were mainstays of the independence struggle" (Ross, 1999, p.110). Thus in 1320, in Arbroath Abbey, the Declaration of Arbroath was drafted as a formal Declaration of Independence. "It is not only one of the most outstanding documents of Scottish history, but of world history as well. Even the American Declaration of Independence owes a big nod in its direction" (Ross, 1999, p. 110).

The context of the document is a plea to the Pope to distinguish the Scottish perspective, not allowing English claim on Scotland. The Declaration of Arbroath states, "we fight not for glory nor wealth nor honors, but for freedom alone which no good man surrenders but with life itself." Although the document is more a cry of patriotism than anything else, a statement of deeds of cruelty, massacre and violence inflicted by the English are inscribed in the body of the text.

At a meeting at the Abbey of Arbroath the document was revealed in which eight earls and thirty-one barons added their seals, and the document was delivered to the Pope. Following delivery of the document to the Vatican, the Pope sent a special envoy to Edward II to seek lasting peace with Scotland. However, prior to the Scots drafting of the Declaration, the English made a major coup in conquering one of Scotland's major castles and Edward saw this as an opening to inflict further damage to Scotland by destroying several of it's abbeys, burning them to the ground.

Towards the end of 1326, civil unrest broke out in England, which leads them into the Hundred Years war with France. Edward's wife, Queen Isabel, had Edward assassinated, leaving no wounds so as not to cause suspicion, and had parliament proclaim her son Edward III as King of England. As we might expect, Edward II's son picked up where his father left off - dispatching armies to Scotland resulting in more bloodshed.

"In 1327 negotiations began at Newcastle to hammer out a final peace treaty" (Ross, 1999, p. 126). The Scottish side of the delegation offered terms that were incredibly magnanimous. All the Bruce desired was recognition of Scotland's sovereignty. A final peace the following year was signed a year before Bruce's death and was known as the Treaty of Edinburgh. This treaty recognized Scotland as a separate entity and free from English domination. "It was concluded in 1328 and was signed within the monastery of Holyrood, with Bruce lying on his sickbed" (Ross, 1999, p.126).

Suffering from ill health, the Bruce's final years gave him some relief from the rigors of military life, and fulfilling his role as king. In 1329 the Bruce, a man who had persevered so greatly, accomplishing independence for his country, perished from his beloved Scotland.

William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are not forgotten in their homeland, always to be remembered with admiration and gratitude. Their figures are immortalized forever in the form of statues and monuments scattered throughout Scotland.

It is the battles at Stirling and Falkirk led by Wallace that serve as a catalyst for this movement of independence, and if Wallace had lived to see the battle at Bannockburn and it's outcome, I am sure we would find his name in the history books fighting alongside his king. As historians, we can only speculate why the Declaration of Arbroath or the Treaty of Edinburgh was not drafted prior to the bloodshed - this is something we may never know. Perhaps it took one final battle, the Battle of Bannockburn, to prove Scotland could truly win against one of the greatest military forces on Earth.



  • Ross, David R. "Declaration and Intent." On the Trail of Robert the Bruce. Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 1999.

  • Sadler, John. "Not for Glory...But for Freedom." Scottish Battles. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 1996.

  • Seymour, William. "The Scottish Struggle for Independence:Bannockburn". Battles in Britain 1066-1746. Chatham Kent: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1997.

  • Tranter, Nigel. The Story of Scotland. Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publshing Ltd., 1987.

  • Watson, Fiona. Under the Hammer:Edward I and Scotland. Edinburgh: Tuckwell Press, 1998.

  • Young, Alan. "Bruce's Coup and the Death of Comyn the Red". In the Footsteps of Robert Bruce. Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999.