Far from betraying William Wallace, the Bruce was inspired by him and, after the battle of Stirling Bridge he realised that Edward’s army could be defeated and Scotland eventually freed from English domination, but how best to go about this?
He was also a realist and knew that nothing could be undertaken until the death of Edward. Then it would be necessary to create the structure and support for independence. This could not be achieved without an established leader and this would have to be sorted out quickly. Unfortunately the kingdom could only fall to one of two men, Robert the Bruce himself or his arch enemy John “The Red” Comyn. The two men were always at each other’s throats and distrusted each other completely.
The Bruce suggested that they could both meet in a church and discuss who should be the next king. With their supporters outside, the meeting took place by the high altar of Greyfriars Monastery, Dumfries.
What the two men discussed is unclear, but it is believed that Robert the Bruce offered John Comyn all of his English and Scottish estates if Comyn would support his claim for the crown. As the Scottish king did not normally own land, this sacrifice may not have been as dramatic as it seems, but nevertheless it would have been a substantial inducement for Comyn’s support.
The Red Comyn however rejected whatever offer had been made.
One fact we know about Robert the Bruce’s character is that he had a violent temper and when the Red Comyn rejected his offer he really lost it.
A concealed dagger was drawn and the Bruce stabbed Comyn. Comyn was probably killed by the Bruce, but that has never been proven. There is a story which tells us that Bruce ran out of the church to his supporters crying, “I think I’ve killed John Comyn!” at which point one of his men ran into the church shouting, “You only think you have? I’ll make sure you have!”.
You may imagine from my story telling that a little murder in medieval times is hardly a great surprise, but this was different. It was a murder in a church and such a crime was seen as sacrilege, a mortal sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The supporters would now need to crown Robert the Bruce before the Pope found out about the murder or he would be excommunicated and be unable to be crowned.
The coronation went ahead quickly, but in the rush to get the deed done it was initially thought that they had made a mistake in the procedures and the coronation may have been invalid. A second coronation corrected those concerns, but it was later discovered that both ceremonies had been equally valid making Robert I the only Scottish king to be crowned twice.
Of course, once the Pope discovered what had happened he didn’t just excommunicate Robert the Bruce, neither did he just excommunicate the Scottish Court, he actually excommunicated the entire country, but then the Scots have always had to overcome adversity.
Today we may have trouble understanding the combination of such a violent and aggressive characterisation, coupled with a devout belief in Christianity and God. Robert the Bruce was in absolute anguish over the excommunication and knew that when he eventually met God on his judgement day he would have to face, at the very least, purgatory for the mortal sin of the murder in the church.
But Robert the Bruce was always a great schemer and he put his mind to work on planning his escape from God’s wrath. He got down on his knees in a church and made a solemn vow to God that if ever he became king of a truly free and truly independent Scotland he would go on a religious crusade to the Holy Land … to maim and kill even more people!
These Crusades were the most shameful period in Christian history.
Interestingly, Pope Benedict got himself into all sorts of trouble in 2006 by mentioning a quote about the prophet Mohammed and violence. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, for in the thirteenth century Pope Boniface II stated that it was perfectly all right to kill people as long as they weren’t Christian!
Can you imagine the effect of this statement on the bloodthirsty kings of Europe? Many of them took up arms, disappeared to the Holy Land and murdered Turks, Saracens and Islamic people, all in the name of Christianity. Quite an unbelievable and disgraceful attitude. This perhaps explains why, when a recent President of the United States gaffed that the invasion of Afghanistan was a “crusade”, it upset the world’s entire Islamic population! I wonder if that speech writer kept his job?
In any event, Robert the Bruce truly believed that the promised participation in a crusade would relieve him of the need for purgatory and he could now get on with freeing Scotland from Edward’s tyranny.
The trials and tribulations of Robert the Bruce in his quest for independence are legendary and far beyond the scope of this publication. It is enough to say that it involved victories and defeats, and probably too many of the latter. He had to battle not just the English, but many of Scotland’s own nobility, its church, its monasteries, the Pope and defeatism itself.
A later story popularised by Sir Walter Scott has the Bruce sheltering in a cave after yet another defeat, wondering whether or not to give up the endeavour.
Here the king sat in despair, watching a spider trying to spin a web across the entrance of the cave. It tried, tried and tried again but each time it failed. His troubles slipped into the background as he was mesmerised by this pathetically small creature trying and failing to swing from one side of the cave to the other. He became so fascinated by it that he said to himself that if the spider succeeded in reaching the other side then he too would succeed in freeing Scotland from the English.
Finally the spider reached the other side of the cave and an inspired Robert the Bruce stood up and marched out of the cave into a future which led to a free Scotland. As for the spider, presumably with the king having destroyed its web, it had to begin the task all over again … perhaps just as we need to do, in this new millennium, begin the journey to freedom once more?
Mind you, with the current Queen Elizabeth actually descended from Robert the Bruce and Britain having its second successive Scottish born Prime Ministers and Chancellors, perhaps it is England which needs to strive for independence from us!
Robert the Bruce also instigated the Declaration of Arbroath, a claim for papal support for independence which was submitted to Pope John XXII in 1320. This contains the following oft quoted passage:
“… as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English domination. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
At long last, in May 1328 Edward III of England finally signed the treaty confirming Scotland as a unique and independent kingdom with Robert I at its head. Robert the Bruce had achieved all of his objectives. Scotland was free again.
Only a year later King Robert I died at the age of just fifty-four. We are led to believe that he had leprosy – a disease the erroneous “Braveheart” movie showed his father as having contracted, not Robert the Bruce himself. Perhaps actor Angus Macfadyen was too handsome to be encumbered with such a disease in the film?
So the Bruce found himself lying on his death bed with minutes before he finally met his maker. Around him were friends and family and his great right-hand-man, Sir James Douglas, hero of the Scottish wars of independence.
Robert the Bruce, at some point during that last day, must have realised that his final journey would be down the fiery staircase to hell, for not only did he have the mortal sin for the murder in the church hanging over him, but he had also failed to fulfil his solemn vow to go on the religious crusade. Breaking that vow was a second mortal sin and the Bruce would now be certain in his own mind that there could be no escaping the fires of hell.
But just a minute ... surely one of the greatest schemers and planners of the time should be able to find some sort of escape route. His mind alive within a dying body silently screamed a medieval version of “eureka” and he called Sir James over to his bedside.
Barely able to speak, in a hushed voice the king told Sir James his plans to help him escape the dreadful wrath of God over his mortal sins.
“Douglas, help me.” he whispered, “When I die you must cut my heart from my body and take it on a crusade.”
With a final croak the king passed into eternity and the loyal knight plunged his dagger into the king’s chest, sawed open the rib cage and removed the still heart. This he placed into a hurriedly prepared lead casket which he then hung on a chain around his neck. Marching from the room, he then formed a volunteer Scottish army and set off on the crusade.
Douglas probably wasn’t too keen on undertaking this crusade, but he had promised his king and that was enough.
Off they went but, when they arrived in Spain, Douglas discovered that it was crawling with Saracens and Moors. They weren’t Christian, so they were fair game to be murdered during his crusade. Not only that, but by having his Crusade in Spain he could be back in time for Christmas.
He ordered the Scots to charge … without checking how many Saracens they were facing. They were vastly outnumbered, perhaps even by as many as five to one!
The battle was going badly. The Saracens had fought off the initial charge and began a counter charge.
Fighting a retreating action in medieval warfare is never a good idea and the Scots were dying like flies.
Sir James and some fellow knights found themselves isolated from the main force. They were about to be surrounded and he knew that they would soon be dragged from their mounts and killed. As the army’s leaders, their death would be likely to be long and horrible.
With no real alternative apparently open to him and with the king’s heart still around his neck, Sir James decided that a dramatic gesture was all that was left to him.
He took the heart, held it by the chain, swung it around his head like a hammer at the Olympic Games and hurled it into the affray, charging in after it and screaming at the top of his voice, “Lead on Braveheart, as thou dost!”.
As the heart fell to the ground Douglas leapt on top of it, protecting his king to the last.
What greater love can a man have for his king? And that is where the name “Braveheart” originated. A dead Robert the Bruce, not a live William Wallace, although to be fair to the filmmakers I don’t think they ever actually say who Braveheart is within the film.
Sir Robert The Bruce, King of Scotland and Sir James Douglas, his great and worthy friend paved the way for Scotland’s self determination and they will probably remain among Scotland’s very greatest heroes long beyond the current millennium, growing in stature as the past continues its relentless retreat.
I wonder if Hollywood will make a film about Robert The Bruce one day. Will it be “Braveheart, the Original”?