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Robert Bruce in Scotland

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Robert the Bruce Period

He was the hammer of the English - the legendary Scots war hero who commanded the Flower of Scotland and sent proud Edward home to think again.

Yet the great Scottish patriot, king and fighter Robert the Bruce may well have been an Englishman himself. It is rumoured that he was born in Essex, and he was wily enough to know when to pretend to be England's friend.

But of one thing there is absolutely no doubt. Robert I, King of Scots, was the architect of our country's greatest ever victory over the English at Bannockburn, driving them out and uniting all Scotland in a burning desire for independence.

Bruce took up the reins of Scotland's freedom as the other great patriot of the age, Sir William Wallace, was forced to let them go. Robert was crowned King a year after Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered by the English in 1305, and he became determined to achieve the one feat his heroic predecessor had never managed - to free Scotland of the marauding English.

Many modern Scots do not realise that Robert spent virtually as much of his time fighting his own countrymen as he did attacking the armies of Edward I and Edward II - or that the greatest achievement of Bannockburn was not that it drove out the English, but that it finally united Scotland.

Robert the Bruce - the name comes, ironically, from the Norman surname De Brus - was the eldest son of one of the richest and most famous Scottish nobles, also called Robert, who had royal Scottish blood in his veins. Because of the Bruces' Anglo-Norman links to William the Conquerer, the family were also strongly linked to the English court.

Robert was born, possibly in Essex or in Turnberry in Ayrshire, on July 11, 1274. During his early life, the young man was well educated - he learned Latin, English, Scots and Gaelic and was also trained in the arts of warfare. He was always aware he could be a contender for the Scottish throne because of his father's royal lineage.

Robert's chance to seize the throne came after the Scots king John Balliol abdicated in 1296 following a raid on Scotland by Edward I. Edward then imprisoned Balliol and decided to rule the Scots himself.

Robert then saw his opportunity of taking the Scottish crown, but knew that in order to do so, he would have to defeat the forces of powerful Scots families such as the Comyns and McDougalls who supported the continuation of the Balliol line.

The peace between the Bruces and the Comyns was kept when Robert and John "The Red" Comyn were both appointed joint guardians of Scotland after Wallace resigned the position in 1298. Two years later Bruce gave up this title and, despite his driving desire to free Scotland, suddenly decided to submit to Edward.

"Why this happened is a mystery, although there are a number of theories", explains one historian. "It could be that Robert wanted to protect his land, his titles and his influence at the time, and felt this was the best way of going about it.

"It might also be that Robert knew that he couldn't take Edward on at that moment in time, and the best solution was to join him until an opportunity presented itself. This would also have given him the chance to spot Edward's weaknesses at close hand."

In 1304, William began to secretly work with Scottish rebels, and his desire to see Scotland free was strengthened when Wallace was executed in 1305. But the following year, John Comyn tipped off Edward about the Bruce's divided loyalties, and Robert was lucky to flee London with his life.

Furious at Comyn's treachery, Robert put together a plan for vengeance. He asked Comyn to meet him at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries on February 10 1306. There was a struggle, and Comyn ended up dead - either slain by Bruce on the altar, or killed by one of Bruce's knights after Robert left.

With Comyn dead, the way was open for Robert to take the Scottish throne. He was crowned at Scone the following months, and many of the nobles rallied to him. The Bruce then also started to openly defy Edward, who saw him as a traitor and attempted to crush him.

After defeats in battle by the English at Methven near Perth in June and then by Comyn's close colleague the Lord of Argyll at Dalry near Tyndrum in August, Robert was forced into hiding. He fled to Rathlin Island off the coast of Ulster and stayed there until February 1307, when he felt the coast was clear and returned to Ayrshire.

Years of internal bickering followed, with Robert desperate to establish his kingdom. He defeated an English force at Loudoun in 1307, and also won a battle against John Comyn, Earl of Buchan and cousin of the slain John. The Bruce's supporters steadily captured Galloway, the forest of Selkirk and the eastern Borders, and between 1310 and 1314, he swon control of northern Scotland from his enemies.

During this time of internal war within Scotland, Robert had one huge piece of luck running in his favour. In 1307, Edward I had finally died, leaving the throne for his son Edward II, who was not nearly so enthusiastic about crushing the Scots as his father. As the new English king prevaricated, so the Bruce was able to capture more and more control of Scotland and build up his forces.

Professor Geoffrey Barrow, Emeritus Professor of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh and Bruce's biographer, says Robert played a clever strategy against his Scottish enemies, picking them off one by one. "These people were strong in their own areas of the country, but they were never able to get together and fight him as a single unit. It is also clear that Bruce had a fairly sizeable force of troops."

By 1314, Robert had captured control of all of Scotland's main castles except Berwick - not yet an English town, as it is today - Bothwell and Stirling. But Edward II was finally stirring against Scotland, and a clash was inevitable. It came when the Bruce and his forces laid siege to Stirling Castle, which was under the governorship of the pro-Balliol Scot Philip Mowbray, and a massive English army was sent north to relieve it.

Both sides knew that the clash which would certainly follow was about far, far more than the capture of the castle. For Edward, it was a last ditch, all-out attempt to finally seize control of all Scotland and subjugate its troublesome people once and for all. For The Bruce, it represented the opportunity to give the English a hiding they would never forget.

Edward came north with the cream of his cavalry and infantry in a force of up to 30,000 men, and the two sides finally squared up to each other on June 24, 1314. Bruce, who had only between 5000 and 10,000 men, positioned his soldiers in a spot south of the town where he knew trees would hamper an attack by the well trained English horsemen.

As a genius at guerilla warfare, The Bruce knew how to make best use of the terrain. The English found themselves confined in a small and marshy area between the River Forth and the Bannock Burn. Their cavalrymen and infantrymen could not manoevere and Robert took advantage of their confusion and launched an attack.

The Scots forced the English back into the burn, where self defence proved almost impossible. A charge of about 2000 Scots came down from the nearby hills then sent Edward's army reeling. Many of those English who were not put to the sword perished in the Bannock Burn or died in their attempts to escape.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Edward attempted to flee to the safety of the castle along with 500 of his best knights. However, by this time Philip Mowbray had seen the way the tide had turned and refused to open the gates. The deeply dejected English king then tried to escape across country with the Scots at his heels. He finally found safety at Dunbar, where a ship was waiting to take him back to England.

Bannockburn was Scotland's greatest ever military victory against the English. Edward's army was completely smashed and he had to abandon hopes of conquering Scotland, though the English did not then recognise Robert as king of Scots and it was not until 1328 that they finally conceded the independence of Scotland.

While the Bruce's victory as Bannockburn was important in terms of disposing of the threat from England, it was even more important in neutralising the threat against Robert from the Scottish nobles who still despised him. Says Geoffrey Barrow: "The victory absolutely silenced Bruce's enemies completely. They either fled to England or came over to his side."

From then on, King Robert could finally devote his energies to the affairs of his kingdom. All, though, was not yet well. One immensely powerful figure who refused to recognise Scotland's nationhood was the Pope. Robert and his nobles saw that they had another crucially important battle to fight - this time not with the sword, but with the pen?..

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