Bruce and Bannockburn

The second part of our series exposing the myths of Scottish nationalism.

June 24th marked the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn which was just one of many battles between competing Anglo-Norman dynasties for the Scottish crown.

Separating myth from historical truth is no easy matter. Scottish nationalism starts from the assumption that Scotland was a nation from medieval times, if not earlier. Nationalists assert that Scotland achieved nationhood from the ‘War of Independence’ against the Edward the First, and William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge (1297), the battle of Bannockburn (1314), and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) are presented as expressions of Scotland’s national resistance against English colonialism.

The nationalist story of Scotland’s past is that it has been a history of fighting to defend itself from England in a tale of freedom won, and freedom lost. Now with the Independence Referendum there is a chance of a separate state once more. It is, however, a fanciful notion that Scotland achieved national consciousness and nationhood in medieval times in the ‘War of Independence’ against proud Edward’s army.

Edward certainly sought to incorporate the territory of the kingdom of Scotland into his feudal empire. At first the means were peaceful. The Treaty of Birgham in 1290 set out terms of a future dynastic union through the marriage of Margaret, the ‘Maid of Norway’ to Edward’s son. It recognised Scottish independence and the interests of the ruling nobility in Scotland would have been left unaffected. The merger was to be of crowns with no significant change for the commoners. However, Margaret died and this triggered a constitutional crisis in Scotland so with thirteen rival claims to the throne of Scotland, the barons turned to Edward to settle the dispute. He proclaimed himself lord paramount of Scotland, and decided that John Balliol had a better claim than Robert de Brus (Bruce the elder). John Balliol was accordingly crowned king and duly paid homage to Edward in 1292.

Conflicts within the feudal elite in Scotland, and harsh demands made by Edward on his vassals, drove John Balliol into revolt after Edward haughtily ordered Balliol into military service in France. The Scots instead ratified a treaty with Edward’s enemy, Philip IV, and war was inevitable. Edward was free to roam through Scotland taking control of castles and humiliating Balliol until the forced abdication of Balliol in 1296, stripping him of the royal emblems that earned Balliol the insulting name ’Toom Tabard’ (Empty Tabard). He was sent to the Tower of London and thereafter spent the rest of his life in relatively comfortable exile. Edward’s dominance over Scotland was total. He made over 2,000 freeholders swear allegiance to him, in a document which became known as the Ragman’s Roll. Following several shifts of alliances, the feudal elite in Scotland began to turn the tables on Edward, beginning with William Wallace who never fought for an abstract ’people’ or even ’nation’, but always in the name of a legitimate power of which he was but the temporary protector or ’Guardian’ – King John Balliol.


The kings and the nobility of Scotland  were feudal lords, who did not even understand, let alone entertain, modern-day ideas of nationhood, nor could they. They were possessed of a culture drawn from the Norman French, who married across the whole of the north-western part of Europe and were, in this sense, completely cosmopolitan. Their domains of exploitation, their rivalries and their commonalities invariably coincided. They were lords in Scotland who also held large tracts in England. For example, the Bruce family had ties both north and south of the border, the abbey of Guisborough in Northumberland was a Bruce foundation and they held 90,000 acres of land in Yorkshire, while John Balliol, held land in Normandy and England, as well as Scotland. Members of the nobility from the kingdom of Scotland, for example Bruce’s rival, John Comyn, fought on the side of Edward in the conquest of Wales. The armies of Edward were recruited from his feudal realms in France, Wales and Ireland. The internecine struggles between competing feudal dynasties were based on the belief systems of the then-prevailing notions of fief and vassalage, not on the present-day concepts of nationhood. The lords in Scotland were engaged in a desperate struggle to defend and safeguard their traditional monopoly to exploit their estate serfs against the centralising power of Edward.

Robert the Bruce’s conduct previous to Bannockburn was in no sense supporting the ‘patriotic cause’. The young Robert Bruce brought up at Edward’s court had been a favourite of Edward. He probably shared a mixture of the Anglo-French culture of northern England and south-eastern Scotland, and the Gaelic culture of Ulster, French being his paternal-tongue and Gaelic his maternal-tongue, and Latin his written language. The facts speak for themselves. Both Bruce and his father supported Edward’s invasion of Scotland in 1296, hoping to gain the crown after Balliol’s fall. They were understandably disappointed when Edward proceeded to install himself as king. In 1297, Bruce raised the standard of revolt. However, his rising failed whereupon Bruce declined to join Wallace at Stirling Bridge and was also absent at the Battle of Falkirk, in which Wallace’s army was devastated.

He, along with most Scottish nobles, changed sides on more than one occasion, depending upon how the wind blew. In 1302, he resigned as a Guardian of Scotland to make peace with Edward in order to marry the daughter of the de Burgh family of the Earldom of Ulster. Bruce, like all his family, had a complete belief in his right to the throne. However his actions of supporting alternately the English and Scottish armies had led to a great deal of distrust towards Bruce. His struggle for the Scottish crown wasn’t an enterprise born of patriotism. Bruce’s motives were more self-serving than that. The ascension of his family to royalty seemed more central to his long-term plans than Scottish liberation from English rule. His ambition was further thwarted by his chief political rival, John Comyn, known simply as the Red Comyn, and another lord of Norman origin who Bruce murdered in 1306. This set off a chain of events which led to both his excommunication and his coronation as king. He was most certainly a usurper so long as there was a legitimate heir of the Balliol family.

To attribute to the Declaration of Arbroath modern connotations of nationhood is as false as to impart similar meanings to the Magna Carta. Both these documents should be seen for what they really were – an expression of the interests of barons from the respective kingdoms and their determination to hang on to their privileges against the monarch. The rhetoric of the Declaration of Arbroath – ’For as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English’ – was never Bruce’s rhetoric, for he had appealed to English lordship on more than one occasion.

A key passage in the Declaration runs thus:

‘Yet if he [Robert the Bruce] shall give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or to the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and we would make some other man who was able to defend us our king; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. For we fight not [for] glory, nor riches, nor honours, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up without his life’.

The above passage has been represented by some as the prototype for modern nationalism. In truth, this passage suggests the function of the noble estate ‘as the defender of the kingdom against the claims of the individual monarch in a way that was entirely typical of absolutist Europe’ according to the historian Neil Davidson.

Its message was two-fold. First, it was directed at Edward II, informing him that it was pointless for him to attempt to depose Robert with a more subservient king, since the remainder of the Scottish aristocracy would not cease its resistance. Second, it was addressed to Robert the Bruce, making it clear that, in consideration of his past record, they would not brook his jeopardising their interests – which lay in their god-given right to unhindered exploitation of the peasants – through making concessions to Edward.

Bruce at Bannockburn never fought for the people of Scotland – he fought to place a crown upon his head.


Next month: concluding article, on the Covenanters.

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