Isabel MacDuff Comyn-  The Lady in the Cage

As I have said before, do not mess with a Scottish woman.  This is the story of a woman who did her duty to her country and her king and paid the price.  A price that seems like it’s out of a fairy tale or a horror movie, but paid it she did.  This is the story of Isabel MacDuff Comyn, a patriot of Scotland.

Isabel crowning Robert the Bruce
Courtesy of: Martin York

Isabel was born to Duncan Macduff, the Earl of Fife, and Johanna de Clare.  The date of her birth isn’t recorded and estimates range from 1270 to 1285.  Her father was murdered by his classman in 1299, and Johanna and Isabel’s younger brother also named Duncan fled south to England.  Joan’s father had recently married Edward I’s sister, so they received a warm welcome there.  It is not clear whether Isabel remained in Scotland or not.  Her later views on the English indicate that she stayed.  The new Earl of Fife was raised in England with a decidedly English bias to events in Scotland.  Isabel was married in the late 1290s to John Comyn, Earl of Buchan.  Isabel would have been quite young, and Comyn was at least 30 or 40 years her senior.  However, this was a not uncommon and was a good match, which made Isabel the Countess of Buchan.  However, family ties did not make this an easy marriage.

The Comyns were in a struggle against another family for the throne of Scotland.  This was someone you may have heard of, dear reader.  Just a guy called Robert the Bruce.  (For more on Robert the Bruce, please see this post:  Matters between the Bruces and the Comyns came to a head when Robert stabbed to death John “Red” Comyn in the Kirk of Greyfriars in Dumfries in February 1306.  John Comyn was Isabel’s husband’s cousin, but Robert was Isabel’s cousin.  John obviously sided with the Comyns, but Isabel did not go with her husband.  She supported her cousin in his bid for the crown.

After the murder, Robert road hell for leather to Scone in Perth to be crowned King of Scotland at Moot hill.  There were some problems though.  Traditionally, all Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny, but it had been removed to London by Edward I in 1296.  (For more on the Stone of Destiny, please see this post: )  Because of this, it was important that all the other traditions of coronation be followed to the letter.  However, there a couple other problems.  Because Robert murdered a member of the Comyn family in a church, the Scottish Kirk wasn’t about to anoint him.  There was that pesky thing about sanctuary and the Comyn family was very tight with the Pope.  Another important tradition was the king was crowned by a member of the clan of MacDuff.  Slight problem.  Duncan MacDuff was raised in England as a ward of the English court.  Even if he wanted to, Edward I wasn’t going to let him come north to crown a rival king.  Enter his sister, Isabel.  

Isabel was not going to let her family’s part of the coronation be forgotten.  Her husband definitely wouldn’t approve as his family had sided with England after the murder of John “Red” Comyn.  However, he was conveniently in England.  She liberated several of his horses and rode to Scone to join her cousin, Robert.  He had already been crowned on March 26, 1306, but after Isabel arrived he was crowned again with Isabel placing the crown on his head.  Isabel had declared her colors, and she could no longer go home.

Robert sent her to Kildrummy Castle with his wife, daughter, sisters and the other royal ladies.  Rumors went round that Isabel did what she did because she and Robert were lovers.  However, it would have been extremely awkward if they were since she was roommates with his wife.  Stranger things have happened though.  The women tried to escape north, possibly to Orkney to escape to Norway, but were caught at St. Duthac’s Church in Tain.  They sought sanctuary, but were captured by Earl William de Ross.  He turned them over to the English to await their fate.

Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a friend and supporter of Edward I, so she was treated with honor and sent to house arrest in England.  Robert’s sister, Christina, was the wife of a member of the powerful Seaton family, and sent to Sixhills nunnery.  Edward threatened to hang Robert’s 9 year old daughter, Marjorie, in a cage outside the Tower of London, but relented because of her age.  She was sent to  Watton Priory.  He saved the cage for Robert’s sister, Mary, and Isabel.  Because Isabel was a rebellious wife and legitimized Robert’s coronation, she was forced to live in a cage hung outside Berwick Castle.  It was a cage made of lattice wood and iron hinges, and she was completely exposed to the elements.  There was a privy for privacy so she could dress and relieve herself without exposing herself.  However, she was forced to be out in all weathers and on display for all to see, but not allowed to speak to anyone.  Mary was hung in a similar cage outside Roxburgh Castle.  There is some debate as to whether the women were kept in the open, but they were definitely kept in a cage for several years.

No one is sure what happens to Isabel at this point.  Her name is not on the list of prisoners returned after the victory at Bannockburn in 1314.  It is doubtful Robert would have forgotten her and all she suffered, even if from a public relations perspective.  Many believe she died by this time.  There are rumors that she was removed from her cage in 1310 and sent to and placed in the Carmelite friary in Berwick, then released to her niece by marriage, Alice Comyn.  No one knows.  However, Isabel MacDuff Comyn suffered as much in her way for the cause of Scottish Independence as any man.  


Battle of Harlaw

Harlaw Monument
Harlaw Monument

Overshadowed by the more glamourous battles of Sterling and Bannockburn a century before, between the Scots and the English, Harlaw has been long forgotten by many, but remains historically as important to the Scottish line of succession, not to mention being one of the bloodiest battles ever to have taken place.

Historians when asked, will argue at length as to the significance of Harlaw as a battle for the right of lineage, some claiming it as a clan war, others claiming it nothing more than an excuse for looting. But in July 1411, the succession of the Earldom of Ross was the cause of this bloody and inconclusive battle.
In 1370 after laying claim to the Earldom of Ross, a Royal charter, issued by King David II was granted to Uilleam, Earl of Ross confirming his right to the title as legal heir. The charter dictated that in the absence of a male heir the titles, lands and Earldom was to pass, as was standard to the eldest daughter, without division. Two years later, Uilleam died leaving as his sole heir, his daughter Euphemia. Euphemia, married to Sir Walter Leslie, had two children, son Alexander and daughter Mariota. Her lands were held in the name of her husband, as Earl of Ross, Euphemia taking the title Countess of Ross.

Following Leslie’s death, in 1382, the titles and lands passed back to Euphemia to be held in her own right. In 1387, the Countess married the Wolf of Badenoch, Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan. Through this marriage Stewart was able to award lands included in the inheritance to a number of his children. In 1394, Euphemia sought from the Pope and was granted an annulment of her marriage, based on its lack of viability. Stewart had spent most of his married life living with his mistress Mairead inghean Eachann with whom he had several children. Ross, a substantial inheritance, including the rights to large expanses of land and their titles, passed back to the Countess in favour of her son, Alexander and Euphemia died at some point between 1394 and 1398, the latter date being more favourable, as Abbess of Elcho, and was buried in Fortrose Cathedral.

Harlaw Battlefield
Harlaw Battlefield

Alexander Leslie inherited the Earldom from his mother, and married the daughter of Robert Stewart Duke of Albany, Isabel. They had one child, Euphemia who was sickly and weak from birth. Stewart was the son of Robert II and brother of Robert III, the former Earl of Carrick. Between them they had ruled as regents when their father became unfit to rule. Robert III was no better a King than his father and so Albany had continued to act as regent, however his nephew David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay was gaining power through his father, which began to threaten Albany’s own power. The situation was not helped by Rothesay’s subsequent break in his betrothal to Elizabeth Dunbar, daughter of the 10th Earl of March, in favour of Marjorie Douglas, daughter of Archibald the Grim, 3rd Earl Douglas.

The union however produced no children as Albany, using an alliance with Douglas’ successor, Archibald, 4th Earl Douglas, had Rothesay arrested in 1402 on charges of expired Lieutenancy (he had been sworn as Lieutenant of the Kingdom in 1399) on his way to official business in St Andrews. Albany’s men took him to the castle at St Andrews and then blindfolded and ridden backwards on a mule to Albany’s seat in Falkland where he was allegedly starved to death over the following weeks. Alexander Leslie, Duke of Ross died just six weeks later also in mysterious circumstances, also in Falkland whilst under Albany’s guard. Albany subsequently gained guardianship of Leslie’s only daughter the infant Euphemia, which gave him control of the Earldom of Ross. Four years later when Robert III’s remaining heir, 12 year old James, was captured on his way to France, and handed over to Henry IV’s court, Robert III died and Albany was once again named regent of Scotland for the imprisoned James I.

Meanwhile Alexander Leslie’s sister Mariota had married Albany’s rival, Donald Balloch, Lord of the Isles, whose younger brother Alexander had ousted the Earl of Moray from his lands abutting those of Albany. Through his marriage, Donald claimed the Earldom of Ross for himself. Donald of Islay was also a grandson of Robert II and first cousin of Robert III. In 1408. Donald reaffirmed an alliance he had made with Henry IV in 1405. Historians argue that it was this alliance which formed the pretext for the subsequent battle of Harlaw, as Henry’s way of gaining control of the Lowlands of Scotland. Following lengthy preparations, in 1411 Donald attacked the lands of Ross from his forces assembly point at Ardtornish Castle on the Sound of Mull. His invasion went smoothly until he met a defensive force of the clan Mackay outside of Dingwall, the seat of the Earls of Ross, led by Angus-Dubh who was subsequently captured. His brother Rory-Gald Mackay was killed in the Battle. DIngwall Castle fell to Donald, although later he was to give his daughter in marriage to Angus.

He continued his invasion to Inverness where his forces reassembled, combined with those of Boyne and Enzie on Banffshire, and drove forward into Moray where he met no resistance. As his force swept by the lands of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, in Strathbogie and Garioch, his men ravaged the villages, laying waste and pillaging. On July 23rd 1411 he reached and set up camp north of the town of Inverurie, Aberdeen was his goal. The Earl of Mar, anticipating Donald’s advance, had summoned his own forces, formed by the clans, mainly from the Lowland areas, the Irvings, Morays, Stirlings, amongst others, and the gentry of Buchan, Mearns, and Angus. On the morning of 24th July, 1411, the clan forces led by Mar marched north from Inverurie to meet with the Highland forces in battle. Sources vary as to the numbers of men each side held, each numbering several thousand. Mar’s clans were smaller in number to the commonly held figure of Donald’s 10,000 men, however his army consisted of many mounted knights, as well as men of foot.

tomb of Gilbert de Greenlaw who died in the battle, not to be confused with the Bishop of the same name.
tomb of Gilbert de Greenlaw who died in the battle, not to be confused with the Bishop of the same name.

The Highlanders advanced in a wedge, MacLeans to the right, MacKintosh to the left, in waves attacked the forces under Mar, each assault cut down, each replaced with a fresh line of men. Mar in turn sent his cavalry in, they met their end swiftly as their horses were cut from under them and then they were finished. Wave after wave of men advanced and were repelled, one of the Lesleys died alongside six of his sons. Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum is said to have fought a legendary lone duel trading blows of the sword with Hector MacLean until they both dropped dead. As night fell, and the battle concluded, Donald’s losses were recorded as around 1000, to Mar’s 600, although more in number a lesser proportion of his starting force. Mar’s men camped where they fell, expecting the battle to renew the next morning. Under cover of darkness and unknown to their enemy, Donald and the Highland army withdrew. Neither side defeated, both claiming victory, the battle of Harlaw claimed the lives of Alexander Ogilvie, Sheriff of Angus and his son, Sir Thomas Moray, the constable of Dundee Sir James Scrymgeour, William Abernathy and Alexander Stirling, amongst other notables.

The dead of the battle were laid to rest in the church of Kinkell, south of Inverurie. Albany mustered a fresh Army and marched on Dingwall to reclaim Ross in 1412, suspecting that Donald had merely retreated to gather fresh forces himself. He soon after took many of Donald’s land possessions, forcing Donald to cede his claim on the Earldom. In 1415, with the prospect of marriage to Thomas, 3rd Earl Moray, Euphemia surrendered her lands title and claim of Ross to Albany’s son the Earl of Buchan. The marriage did not take place, and Euphemia entered a convent, where she remained until her death. Albany’s son, Murdoch, imprisoned under Henry IV was ransomed in exchange for Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland in 1416, where he had been held with the young James I. Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany died in 1420, his son John Stewart, Earl of Buchan was killed in 1424 in the battle of Verneuil, James was finally ransomed that later that year, by which time Murdoch had taken his father’s title and ruled as regent for four years. James returned to Scotland in 1425 and had Murdoch executed for treason. His brothers were exiled on James’ orders. Following the removal of Stewart heirs, the Earldom of Ross finally passed back into the hands of Mariota, and to her son Alexander, heir of Donald Balloch of Islay, upon her death in 1429. And there begins a whole new chapter…….


William Wallace

The Wallace monument

William Wallace’s birth and early life are very much shrouded in mystery. Some sources state he was the younger son of a minor Scottish land-owner, Malcolm Wallace, born in Elderslie near Paisley. Sir Malcolm was documented to have had three sons, Malcolm Jr, William and John. However, based on his seal on a letter sent to King Philip IV, a Crown tenant, Alan Wallace was his father, he was from the similar sounding Ellerslie near Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, and this is backed up by Alan Wallace’s signature on the 1296 Ragman Roll, which William refused to sign. His age is also disputed with a birthdate range of 1270 to 1276. The Wallace family whichever is correct are presumed to have emigrated North from Wales, from which their name – Waleys – is derived, in the twelfth century by request of King David I, establishing a resettlement of good Norman families from Wales to Scotland, following the conquest some 100 years before. His seal bears the insignia of the archer, leading some historians to theorise that his military experience may have been gained as an archer in Edward’s own army. However, again it could equally be said that this was a mere nod to his probable Welsh heritage.

“Allegedly” Wallace’s sword. Although experts claim he would have had to be around 8 to 9 feet tall to be able to use it.

Following the notion that William was the son of Sir Malcolm Wallace, and his wife Margaret de Crauford, whose father was Sir Reginald de Crauford, Sheriff of Ayr, it seems that Wallace would have received his education from two of his uncles who went on to become priests. He was apparently well-educated in Latin and French and judging by later actions received military training of some sort, possibly in an active role, as well as the necessary skills to accompany a soldier’s career; namely horsemanship, and weapons, particularly archery and swordsmanship.

Wallace was not perceived as a prominent threat to the English, or indeed anybody until a series of events beginning around 1296. Even when these events took place, he was disregarded for the most part as an outlaw, nothing further. But if we look a few years earlier, to 1291, when it is thought his father was killed in a skirmish with English troops, coupled with his allegiance to John Balliol as the rightful King of Scotland in the matter of the “Great Cause” following the deaths of Alexander III and his heir, Margaret of Norway, led to his growing distrust of the English. Further incidents occurred, including the murder of the son of the English constable of Dundee, and two English soldiers at Irvine, who tried to divest a man of his freshly caught fish, both these incidents are attributed to Wallace, although unproven, which gave him his outlaw title.
In 1296, when Balliol was once again forced to pledge his allegiance to Edward and the Ragman Roll was ordered to be signed by 1800 of Scotland’s nobles, Wallace distanced himself somewhat from Balliol. At this point in time, Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, an upcoming member of the aristocracy whose grandfather had contended the throne against Balliol, openly contested the Scottish cause, and stood for Edward. Edward further angered the Scots by imposition of punitive taxes and demanded the Scottish nobles raised armies of their men, to fight for the English cause against the French. At this point Balliol withdrew his allegiance, and summoned the nobles to join him, in opposing Edward. Robert the Bruce, along with his father the 6th Lord Annandale, refused to answer the summons, and their stronghold at Carlisle was attacked by Balliols own forces. Edward granted safety to the Bruces, but Balliol used this defiance to strip the Earl of Carrick and Lord Annandale of certain family’s lands in favour of his own nephew John Comyn.

Statue of Wallace

In 1297, Wallace’s wife, Marion Braidfute, was murdered by the English Sheriff of Lanark, William Heselrig in her home in retaliation for her harbouring Wallace and assisting his escape following a street-fight between Wallace and his associates and several of the Sheriff’s men. It has been theorised that being the daughter of a wealthy man, Braidfute stood to inherit a considerable amount of property, and Heselrig intended to force her marriage to his son. Hearing of the secret marriage between Marion and Wallace infuriated him. When Wallace heard of his wife’s death, he returned to Lanark Castle in the middle of the night, gained entry to Heselrig’s bedchamber and hacked Heselrig to pieces. His head was said to have rolled across the floor and down the stairs in front of his son, who was later to join the English army and be killed, trying to avenge his father.

The incident was soon publically known, and caused a surge in the Scottish cause. As uprising increased, Wallace and his men fought and won several minor skirmishes with the English, including routing the English Regent, William Ormesby, from Scone Palace, alongside of Sir William Douglas. Wallace’s maternal uncle, Sir Ronald Crauford was hung as punishment for his part in the uprisings, and Wallace allegedly retaliated by locking in the English Garrison at Ayr and torching the building, burning everybody to death.

In September 1297, with a widespread uprising in the North, led by the young Andrew Moray (Murray) and Wallace leading his followers from the South, the two factions joined to face the English at Stirling Bridge. Heavily outnumbered, Murray and Wallace lay in wait for the English forces to cross the narrow bridge. Once halfway across, they started to pick off the English, causing panic. A frontal attack by Hamish Campbell, forced the soldiers at the front to turn back, creating chaos on the bridge. As many troops were trapped, unable to move, the extra weight caused the bridge to collapse. Many of the English drowned in the river, struggling to stay afloat under the weight of weapons, horses and drowning comrades. Those who made it to the banks were too weak to defend themselves and were picked off by the waiting Scottish.

Sadly Andrew Moray was severely injured during the fight, and was to die a few weeks later of his injuries. Wallace’s second in command, John Graham also died, leaving William Crauford to take his position. It has been said that if Moray had not have succumbed to his injuries, the Scottish would have found their hero in him, instead of Wallace, as it was Moray’s leadership, and tactics that won the day. However his death left the cap of glory to Wallace to claim. Robert the Bruce later knighted Wallace for his part, and proclaimed him Guardian of Scotland for the deposed King John Balliol, who was by now imprisoned in the Tower of London. Wallace subsequently announced to Europe, Scotland’s independence, and began a series of measures that would reform policy. He went on a “cleansing” mission to England, getting as far as York, in his search for traitors to the cause, and his hunt for supplies. Many chroniclers and later historians would claim that Wallace used the reason of war being a brutal game to allege Wallace’s random butchery in the months that followed, although Scottish historians and the William Wallace society dispute this claim, instead promoting Wallace’s supposed policy of sparing women, children and people of the cloth.

The following year, Wallace and his supporters suffered a blow to their cause when they engaged the English once again at Falkirk, following Edward’s campaign in the Borders. On this occasion, Wallace was solely responsible for the Scottish tactics, and placed his stock in Schiltrons, defended by spearmen against the English Cavalry, backed up by Welsh Archers. Wallace’s forces were decimated, and the Scottish lost their faith in his capabilities. Wallace subsequently resigned his guardianship and was sent instead as an envoy to France to enlist the support of the French court, against the English. During his absence, the Bruce and his rival, John Comyn were appointed joint Guardians of Scotland, despite their loathing of each other, later to be joined by William Lamberton as mediator, who had been appointed Bishop of St Andrews under Wallace.

It has been alleged that Robert the Bruce, at this point was still drawn to the English cause, and may have fought at Falkirk on the English side, however none of the Bruces are recorded on the noble’s roll for this battle, and the Bruce may indeed have sat that battle out. It is stated that he later laid waste to his own castles in Ayr and Annandale to prevent their use as garrisons by the English.
Wallace returned to Scotland in 1301-1302 (sources vary) with assurances that the French would stand up for the Scottish cause. However by the following year, the French reneged on their agreement following their own conflict with Flanders, for which they needed English support. The Bruce along with other Scottish nobles agreed to swear allegiance once again to Edward, in return for a truce. Wallace was the only dissenter. In 1304, Wallace was declared an outlaw to the nation and a traitor, which made him fair game for capture, dead or alive, in return for a reward. Anyone found harbouring him or assisting him would also be declared a traitor. This move served to make Wallace very unpopular with all but his closest, most loyal allies. As a result of his failure at Falkirk, and the lack of French support that he had supposedly gained, most of the Scottish nobles now saw Wallace as an embarrassment and a problem that needed to be dealt with, permanently.

In August 1305, Wallace was captured by Sir John Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, near Glasgow, and turned over to the English. He was taken to London where, despite not requiring a trial, due to his charge of treason, Edward wanted to disgrace Wallace in the eyes of his supporters and the Scottish public, believing that this would sever their allegiance to him. At Westminster Hall, now part of the Houses of Parliament, he was tried as an outlaw and a traitor, some of the charges included the repeated large-scale massacre of innocent women, children babies, nuns and monks. Refused a lawyer, jury or a defence, Wallace nonetheless loudly stated that he could not be considered a traitor, as he had never sworn allegiance to the English Crown. His rightful king was the imprisoned John Balliol. Wallace was found guilty and sentenced to be taken for immediate execution.

On the 23rd August 1305, he was stripped naked, and wrapped in a tanned ox-skin to prevent serious injury which could lead to his unscheduled demise, before being tied to the tails of horses and dragged through the streets of London. Upon reaching Smithfield, He was taken up to the gallows, and hung until he was close to strangulation before being cut down. He was then laid out, and drawn. His entrails were held up for him to see before being cut free and thrown on a burning brazier, he was also emasculated as part of the process, symbolically preventing the continuance of his family line as well as humiliating him. Finally his heart was torn from his body, causing his death, and thrown to the fire. His body was then cut into four pieces, each piece being sent to a different town of the North, where they were nailed in prominent positions to serve as a warning to potential traitors to the English crown, and to prevent his journey to the afterlife – the belief was no whole body, no soul, no salvation. Wallace’s head was boiled in pitch and placed on a spike on Old London Bridge.
Edward believed that Wallace’s death and the oath from the remaining Scottish, would see the end of the conflict and rebellion in the name of Scottish Independence. He was wrong. The following year, the cause would once again be taken up, this time by Robert the Bruce himself, in retaliation for Edwards’s subsequent misuse of his Scottish territories. Edward died in 1306, as did John Comyn (at the hands of the Bruce) and Robert was crowned King of Scotland, when it was clear that John Balliol would not be returning to Scotland. William Wallace’s captor Sir John Mentieth, the man who went down in history as the betrayer of William Wallace, was standing alongside King Robert when the Declaration of Arbroath was signed.

Now finally to dispel those lovely myths. William Wallace’s death and the taking up of the cause by the Bruce, led directly to his place as Martyr for Scotland. The two however were not best pals, may have fought briefly for the same side, and one did not betray the other. William Wallace never cried freedom, nor did he paint his face blue before battle. William did not die simultaneously with Edward – Edward died suddenly of dysentery in 1307 on his way north to engage the Scottish. Robert the Bruce was not forced to betray Wallace on the orders of his father, who did not have leprosy. Lord Annandale died in 1304, before Wallace was captured, and spent as much of his time fighting on the opposite side to his son, as Wallace did. Last but not least, although it is entirely possible he met her during his diplomatic mission to the French court of Philip IV following his resignation of the guardianship of Scotland, William Wallace never had an affair with Isabella of France, wife/future wife of Edward II. During his visit there, Isabella would have been a hefty three to six years of age. By the time she removed to England for her wedding she was twelve years old, and Wallace had been dead for two years.

It is highly unlikely that Wallace was remembered as a martyr until long after his death, considering the relatively minor and short-lived involvement he had with the fight for Scottish independence. Largely forgotten by the majority of the nation, and having passed into the obscurity of history, it was mainly through the 1995 film Braveheart that the legend of William Wallace was reborn. His story was told in the works of Blind Harry some 170 years after his death, in a book that was so popular, it outsold everything but the Bible. However much of the contents are since debated and refuted. Sorry Scotland.

It is fair however, to say that William Wallace helped start the fight for the cause, and he remained true to it. He can be remembered as a man who was willing to sacrifice his life for that cause; the only leading man of the era who refused to give up his belief in the right to a free Scotland, and never swore allegiance to the King of England.


Battle of Bannockburn

overlooking the battlefield of Bannockburn google images
overlooking the battlefield of Bannockburn
google images

Following the death of Edward I in July 1307, to which the Scots openly rejoiced, King Robert the Bruce of Scotland continued on his campaign to rid Scotland of the English, and the supporters of his rival John Comyn, whom the Bruce had killed the year before. Edward II had taken up the reins of his father’s campaign to bring Scotland to submission. He was however unlike his father in matters of warfare and politics, and thanks largely in part to his insistence on rewarding his favourites with positions of power within court, and titled lands without, his senior nobles were rapidly losing patience with and slowly removing allegiance to their King.

The King of Scotland, despite losing three brothers to be hung drawn and quartered following their short winter exile of 1306-7, destination unknown, and the capture of his wife, daughter and sister, had proceeded with the help of his brother Edward, son in law Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray and faithful friend James Douglas, and others, to systematically work their way through Scotland laying siege to and then capturing the key castles and strongholds, including Edinburgh, Roxburgh, Dumbarton, Perth and Linlithgow. Following a demand issued to Edward by King Robert that the remaining Balliols swore fealty to him as King and the English accepted his terms as ruler of Scotland in its own right, to include their removal from Scotland in 1313, Edward Bruce laid siege to Stirling Castle, held as a garrison for the English by Philip, Earl of Mowbray.
Mowbray brokered a deal with Edward Bruce, in June 1313 in which terms stated that if the garrison wasn’t relieved by June 24th 1314, Midsummers day, he would hand over the castle to the Bruces and his army would leave. The agreement was documented and signed and a copy sent to Edward II. Whether Mowbray really did believe in the terms of surrender or whether it was a ploy to bring Edward north to engage in battle is unknown, however Edward Bruce must have been aware of the possibility and discussed this with his brother.

Whatever the strategy, the result was Edward’s call to arms for his nobles and their men at the end of 1313. His aim, allegedly to prepare to march on Stirling to relieve the siege, in reality was to take on the Bruce in a decisive battle and reclaim Scotland for the throne of England. Unfortunately for Edward, his muster fell on somewhat deaf ears for a large number of his senior nobles refused to answer the summons. Their allegiance had been pushed too far with their treatment at the hands of their King and his favourite Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall which ended with his sudden demise by their hands in 1312. Among those who refused the summons were the Earls of Warwick, Warenne, Lancaster and Arundel, all powerful landowners with a large retinue. Edward’s somewhat depleted but nonetheless superior force of 16000 men of foot, and a cavalry of some 2000 heavily armed men on heavy warhorses started North and arrived at Berwick in May 1314. Word soon reached Robert that the English were near the border and preparing to invade and relieve Stirling. Having anticipated this, with prior messages, detailing their progress, he had plenty of time to organise his defence, send word to his supporters and discuss tactics, without the lengthy march the English had endured. He knew the terrain around the area well, and used the natural features to his advantage. Having the advance warning gave Robert plenty of time to position his forces accordingly to maximise the advantage and simply await the arrival of the English.

Edward’s defence hinged on superior numbers and force. His infantrymen were led by the highly trained knights of his noblemen, well-armed, many seasoned veterans of conflict. The Foot soldiers with their skimpy armour and modest weapons, were to provide the numbers needed to occupy the enemy force. They were simply regarded as 14th century cannon fodder. Edward firmly believed that his bigger force would over-awe the inferior Scots with their smaller army of untrained savages, armed with whatever improvised weapons they could lay their hands on. Robert spent a few days before hand with his closest commanders, Moray, his brother Edward, Douglas and so on, going over the ground where they anticipated meeting the English in battle. Sloping upwards away from the Forth, to the right flank, faced on by scrubland and with the Bannockburn to the North past which was an area known as Dryfield, a tributary, the Pelstream burn ran west. Beyond the Pelstream was the marshy ground leading to the bank of the Forth. The Bruce carefully laid plans to hem the English in and bog them down in the marshy banks. He divided his forces into four battalions, or Schiltrons each led by one of his commanders.

commemoration plaque credit: original artist @google images.
commemoration plaque
credit: original artist @google images.

Robert gambled on an attack through the Newpark, the only clear ground aside the steep boggy banks of the Bannockburn. Strategic shallow pits disguised by scrub and foliage in front of his central force would swallow any cavalry charge, and would then be defended by his lance-men, row upon row of impenetrable sharply pointed staves would face directly the presumed attack by Edward’s forces. Edward Bruce’s Schiltron would be the front line, his own at their rear.
Thomas Randolph lay in defence of the path away from the battlefield to Stirling, ready to ambush should a breakthrough occur. Sir Robert Keith, Marischal of the King, who on the day would command the 600 horse and the small force of men at arms, was sent out to scout the English army after their arrival in Falkirk on the night of the 22nd June, following a 20 mile march through the day. The clan forces had arrived at Bannockburn to join their King, and the stage was set.

On June 23rd, after waking as dawn broke, the Scottish Army received blessings and mass, as they prepared to fight. Each was given the offer to abandon their fight if they had no stomach for it. Each took up their position. The “small folk”, cooks, supplies, livestock and wagon men who supported the army took their position on a hill overlooking the battlefield, and prepared for the action.
At nearby Stirling, Philip de Mowbray led a force of men on horse out of the castle towards the field to rendezvous with Edward II. Having crossed the boggy ground of the Bannockburn and getting an overall view of the terrain and conditions they faced, he met with Edward on their march forth to the field. His man were mustered into ten divisions, each commanded by one of his most senior and trusted nobles. Mowbray had sincere doubts about the confidence of his king and how the battle would play out, and tried to persuade Edward to abandon the fight. Edward refused. Leading a reinforcement of 300 horsemen, led by Sir Robert Clifford and Henry de Beaumont, Mowbray began to retrace his path to Stirling. As they passed unhindered by the hidden Randolph, the Bruce gave a stern reprimand to his son in law, “See Randolph, there is a rose fallen from your chaplet. Thoughtless man. You have permitted the enemy to pass.”
Randolph hastily roused his men who rushed forward to block the path of the Englishmen. A fierce skirmish ensued, with the mounted Englishmen unable to break the speared defences of the Earl’s defence. James Douglas looked on from his position in anguish, moving to reinforce, but then saw the English line break and scatter, many running for the castle, the rest attempting to re-join the main force. During the melee, Sir Thomas Grey was taken prisoner and Sir William D’Eyncourt killed.

Meanwhile on the main field, the Earls of Hereford and Gloucester, leading their divisions across the Bannockburn and towards the forest in which the Scots waited, still blithely expected the Scots to retreat or surrender faced by an obviously superior army. They were wrong. Suddenly breaking rank, Hereford’s nephew, the apparently impetuous and definitely intellectually challenged Henry de Bohun charged on the Bruce, laying a challenge of one to one combat with the Scottish King. Robert armed with just a sword and a short axe, rode out on his little palfrey, fearless against the imposing sight of the young knight on his immense war horse, armed with lance and shield. As they clashed, Robert dodged the thrusting lance, stood up in his stirrups and swung his battle-axe over the young man’s helmet which sliced like butter, and cleaved his head in two. Roused into action by their King’s bravery, the Scots rushed on the English who were bottle-necked on horseback down by the ford of the Bannockburn and prevented from advancing by the hidden pits into which they stumbled, they were trapped and unable to proceed. A slaughter ensued until the remaining English gave up their attack and retreated.

The victorious Scots returned to their positions higher up within the forest, and proceeded to remonstrate with their King for his foolish engagement with de Bohun. Robert’s only response was to lament the demise of his axe which had broken over Henry’s head. A discussion followed regarding the next stage of the battle. Although Edward’s forces had retreated, it was firmly believed he would resume his attempts at conquest. The choice was to withdraw and allow Edward to continue in the hope that he would run out of supplies and retire, or to re-commence the battle the next day. A Scottish knight, sworn to the English helped to make the decision. Sir Alexander Seton, crossed camps and requested to swear to the Scottish. He brought with him the news that morale in the English force was low, and that the men felt that God had been on the side of the Scots, and therefore they were to have no success in the battle. Instead they had raided the supply wagons and were consoling themselves in the bottom of the bottle.

taken from the Bannockburn visitors centre website.
taken from the Bannockburn visitors centre website.

The next morning, Edward and his commanders made the tactically inane decision to avoid the devastating pits which had caused so much chaos the day before, and instead cross the Bannockburn further down towards the Forth, before attack towards the Newpark. It was a stupid move, the crossing was too narrow and the English faced being hemmed in on the left flank by the Bannockburn and the right, by the Pelstream. Another bottle-neck was inevitable. You could say Edward was stupid, but he was consistently stupid.
Again that morning, the Scots received their blessing and then the knighting of Walter Stewart and James Douglas took place in recognition for their efforts the previous day. The English King away in the distance witnessed the bended knees of the praying Scots and mistakenly believed they were bowing for allegiance to him. He was soon corrected. The only forgiveness they were requesting said a nearby Earl, was the divine kind.

Following their absolution, the Scots rose, faced their enemy and to the astonishment of the English force, charged on foot, the mounted opposition. The English, spurred into action by the sound of the bugle, charged forward, straight onto the waiting spears of the Schiltron of Edward Bruce. Immediate losses were huge and included Gloucester, De Clifford, and Comyn the Younger. From the left flank appeared Randolph and Douglas, to take down the unengaged cavalry, standing in line. On the right flank of the English, the Welsh bowmen took position. Their response was sharp but short-lived as they were ambushed by Keith and his tiny band of mounted horsemen, causing them to flee.
The Scottish forces congregated and forced the English back, the small folk cheering from the hill were suddenly inspired to join their King and Kin rushed down the hill armed with whatever makeshift weapon was close to hand. The depleted and struggling English forces remaining within the battle mistakenly took this fresh wave of Scots as reinforcements, and fearing others panicked and started a retreat, yet cut off further by the waters of the Bannockburn and the steep bank they had to climb, many of the English, both foot and mounted struggled and tired, unable to cross, pushed down by the weight of numbers. Many drowned, many more succumbed to exhaustion. The gleeful small folk and their short knives took care of the remainder who fell.

The Earl of Pembroke, at the side of the shocked King, took Edward’s bridle and swiftly led him away from the battlefield. All around him thousands of his men lay dead or dying. As he reached safety, his retainers took him to Stirling, under the impression that their King would be safe within the castle walls. Mowbray explained that the castle would be the next place to fall to the Scots, and Edward safety was not guaranteed. Instead he made his way via Linlithgow and Dunbar pursued by James Douglas, to catch a boat and make his escape to Berwick.
Many of the surviving English nobles made their way to Bothwell, where the Constable of the castle Sir Walter FitzGilbert gave them rest until he could hand them over to the Scots. They were subsequently bartered in exchange for prisoners of the English, in particular, Robert’s wife, daughter and sister. The Earl of Pembroke broke for Carlisle with his archers, and made it successfully back to Wales where it is believed one of them chronicled the battle. Following a personal vigil over the slain Earl of Gloucester, his kinsman, Robert the Bruce returned his body and that of Clifford to Berwick for burial by their families.

Although the heavily outnumbered Scots achieved a resounding and well-deserved victory in the Battle of Bannockburn, it sadly did little for the continued conflict between the nations of Scotland and England. A struggle which continued for several more years before the semblance of a lasting peace was reached. In the days of the short sharp one-day only event of medieval battle, Bannockburn stands out as being the exception to that rule, lasting two days. It also serves to define the measure of how having more men does not have to equal having greater strength.


Robert the Bruce

Statue of the Bruce at Bannockburn Google images
Statue of the Bruce at Bannockburn
Google images

Born on 11 July 1274, Robert de Brus was the heir apparent to the Lordship of Annandale, through his grandfather, the 5th Lord, and his father, the 6th Lord. The Lordship of Annandale were established in 1124 by David Fitzmalcolm, when he was named King David I of Scotland, to Robert de Brus, who was a member of the King’s retinue. Originating in the Brix region of France, the de Brus’ were related to William Longsword, Great Great grandfather of William, Duke of Normandy. The Lordship included several lands through England, and Scotland with the seat being in the central border region of what is now Dumfries and Galloway.

Robert 1st Lord Annandale later parted company with David, following the death of Henry I, when David sided with the claim of Matilda to the English throne, rather than that of her cousin King Stephen. David used the unrest caused by ‘the Anarchy’ to settle the claim of Northumberland on his son, a claim which had previously been settled on the Church of Durham, by the late King Henry.
David ignored a plea from Lord Annandale to remember how the Normans had fought and gained lands in Scotland for his brother, from King Alexander at the turn of the century. As a result, Robert and his eldest son Adam fought against David in the 1138 Battle of the Standard. His younger son Robert, fought for the Scottish and was named as heir by his father to the Lordship of Annandale.

Following the death of King Alexander III of Scotland, in 1286. The only heir was his three year old granddaughter, Margaret. Scotland was ruled through regents while she was a child, and in 1290, following her betrothal to five year old Edward of Caernarvon, heir apparent of the English throne, son of Edward I, she made her way to Scotland, to take up her throne. However she died on the journey throwing the Scottish succession into disarray. The council of auditors sensing civil war between the rivals, requested Edward I make a choice of the best contender to take the throne, with 14 possible candidates, in ‘the Great Cause’ of 1290. Most of these contenders had spurious claim on the Scottish throne, but there were four main candidates, all descendants of David I through the daughters of his eldest son, Henry Earl of Huntingdon. Amongst the four were John of Hastings, his brother, Floris V of Holland, their cousin John Balliol and their cousin Robert de Brus, 5th Lord Annandale, later known as Bruce the Competitor.

Grave of King Robert near what was the High Altar of the Abbey church of Dunfermeline, now the parish church. Google images
Grave of King Robert near what was the High Altar of the Abbey church of Dunfermeline, now the parish church.
Google images

In 1292 Balliol was declared King of Scotland through right of primogeniture, although Bruce’s claim had been the stronger with right of proximity of blood. Edward I, hoping to show that Scotland was not a separate kingdom, with entitlement to self-rule, rather a feudal land of England, supported Balliol’s claim, and as part of his coercive role as Lord Superintendent of Scotland, demanded fealty of John and of Scotland. He soon made demands that as vassals of England, Scotland must prepare to fight against the French in the proposed war he was leading to, demanding that Scottish troops be trained, and control of all Castles be turned over to England and his crown. Robert de Bruce refused to swear allegiance to King Edward, and resigned his Lordship of Annandale, the Earldom of Carrick and his claim to the Scottish throne to his son, Robert, the 6th Lord Annandale, who days later bestowed on his own son Robert the title of Earl of Carrick, which was his late wife’s family title.

In 1294, Edward summoned Balliol and demanded the raising of Scottish troops and the supply of funds with which to assist his invasion. On his return to Scotland a war council was convened and emissaries of Scotland were sent to approach the French King and warn him of Edward’s impending invasion. In return for the information, King Phillip IV agreed to an alliance by which, if England invaded France, Scotland would invade England and the French would support the Scots. This treaty ‘the Auld Alliance’ would be re-negotiated and updated many times over the next two hundred and fifty years. As a separate treaty, King Eric II of Norway agreed to lease a number of warships to the French-Scottish cause for a period of four months of the year for as long as the war lasted between France and England.

Edward discovered the negotiations in 1295 and began to make his preparations for invasion, taking control of Carlisle Castle from Balliol and appointing Bruce as Governor. He also demanded the castles of Roxburgh, Jedburgh and Berwick be turned over, and sent a fleet north to meet with a militia of 200 tenants in Newcastle. In response, John hastily summoned all able bodied men to raise arms and muster by 11th March. The majority of the nobles ignored the summons, including Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, whose lands had been seized by Balliol and given to John Comyn earlier that year. In March 1296, the Army of King Edward I invaded Scotland, following the Sack of Berwick. Balliol and Comyn attacked Carlisle Castle, which was defended by the two Bruces. father and son, fighting on the side of the English. The Battle of Dunbar led to a defeat of the Scottish, and the abdication of Balliol in July. Edward had the Stone of Destiny removed from Scone Palace, preventing the traditional crowning ceremony of any further Kings in Scotland, and convened a Parliament in Newcastle at which he forced all the Scottish Lords to swear allegiance to the English Crown.  (For more on the Stone of Destiny, please see this post: )

Cast of Robert the Bruce's skull Google Images
Cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull
Google Images

The following year, 1297 saw the rise of William Wallace, leading some of those same Scottish nobles in revolt against the English monarch. Wallace was named guardian of Scotland following his victory at Stirling Bridge and various successful raids into the North of England. (For more on William Wallace, please see this post:  ) One ‘defeat’ led to the Scottish capitulation of Irvine, at which the young Bruce was present. A document exists to show the signed terms of the capitulation, allegedly brought about by the two opposing armies laying camp on opposite banks of the Loch, and being within earshot of each other, when the Scottish Nobles to the North began to bicker amongst themselves and eventually got so loud and fractious that the English got up and left in disgust. By this it seems that the young Earl of Carrick and future Scottish King had grown tired of his allegiance to Edward, and had been listening to his grandfather’s advisors, leading him to join the rebels. He did however, following the Capitulation, once again swear allegiance to Edward.
In July 1298, Edward retaliated leading his troops into battle at Falkirk and securing a victory at which point Wallace resigned. Robert the Bruce and John Comyn were awarded joint guardianship of Scotland, succeeding Wallace, but unease and distrust lingered between the two men. William Lamberton was appointed a neutral third as a result. In this revolt the senior Bruce, Lord Annandale had chosen Carlisle and remained away from involvement, but his son had joined the Scottish side once again.

In 1299, Edward returned to England, victorious yet not having completely crushed Scottish rebellion and bid for independence. He led further campaigns in Scotland in the following years, leading to a negotiated truce between the two nations in 1302, which was subsequently broken, leading to the siege at Stirling in 1304. When the Castle fell to the English, the Scottish nobles were once again forced to surrender and pay homage to Edward. In 1305, Wallace was captured near Glasgow and executed in London in August.

There appears to have been a level of mistrust between Bruce and Edward, with the King rewarding his service with additional lands, yet revoking them shortly afterwards, and issuing warnings of oath. On the whole it appears Bruce’s allegiance was neither to England nor to the Scottish King, Balliol and his Comyn relatives. His allegiance seemed more to his own rights as contender to the throne and for the preservation of his family and their titles and inheritance. He seemed perfectly willing to fight anybody who threatened those rights, whichever flag they marched under. He had joined with the English King to fight the Scottish one who secured his throne and removed his other rights of estate. He fought Edward when he threatened Bruce’s home.

John Comyn, Bruce’s adversary and main rival for the throne, following the abdication of John Balliol, Comyn’s uncle, allegedly offered Robert the Bruce a deal, whereby he would give up his own claim to the throne, in return for Bruce’s Carrick and Annandale lands, should Bruce lead an uprising against Edward. A signed deal was apparently made between the two. Comyn however, sent word to Edward, while Bruce was at the English court, of Bruce’s part in the arrangement, hoping that Edward would arrest him, leaving the way clear for Comyn to take the lot. The Bruce was however warned of Comyn’s plan, and Edward’s intention to have him arrested before he could leave, by his old friend, Ralph de Monthermer, Edward’s son in law, who sent him by messenger, twelve pence and a pair of spurs. Robert took the hint, and managed to escape in the night with one of his squires. He attended a pre-arranged meeting with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries where he exposed his deceit and the pair came to blows. During this fight, Bruce succeeded in killing Comyn, an act for which he later sought and was granted absolution. Nonetheless he was subsequently excommunicated by the Pope, on request of Edward, hearing of Comyn’s murder. Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, 7th Lord Annandale, was crowned King of Scotland six weeks later in July 1306.

His own campaign against the English continued, with the Battle of Methven and a surprise ambush at Strathfillan. His brother Neil managed to escape with the women and children, although they were later captured and imprisoned; Neil was executed. Edward I died in July 1306 and Bruce and his remaining brothers escaped for the winter, although not much is known of his whereabouts during those months. In February 1307, the brothers, along with the Earl of Lennox, Sir James Douglas and Sir Neil Campbell returned and dividing into two groups began to attack the remaining Comyn family power base. Thomas and Alexander Bruce were captured and executed quite quickly, Edward Bruce was left to consolidate positions around Galloway, whilst Robert continued his campaign against the English under Edward II and the Comyn allies, until by March 1309 he controlled everything north of the river Tay in Dundee and convened his first Parliament in St Andrews.

Casket containing the heart of Robert the Bruce, Melrose Abbey Google images
Casket containing the heart of Robert the Bruce, Melrose Abbey
Google images

By 1314, Bruce had successfully claimed Dumbarton, Perth and Linlithgow. Edward Bruce had laid siege to Stirling Castle, Philip de Mowbray agreeing a surrender if not relieved by June. Simultaneously James Douglas took Roxburgh and Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray took Edinburgh. Robert quelled the remaining uprisings on the Isle of Man, taken in 1312. Eight years of conflict ending with the victory against the English at the Battle of Bannockburn secured Scotland’s independence. But Robert wasn’t finished. In 1315 he led Scotland’s armies into Ireland, using the support of the Irish King of Tyrone, Donal O’ Neil, and the descent of his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, to raise a new front against England. The Irish crowned Edward Bruce High King of Ireland in 1316. But support from the Southern Irish Lords was not forthcoming. They didn’t see a difference between being ruled by the Scottish or the English, and had suffered years of famine and pillaging from both. In 1318, this culminated in the Battle of Faughart, leading to a defeat of the Bruces and the death of Edward. It also put an end to Robert’s plans for a united Scotland and Ireland and a second front against the English.

In 1328, the Pope reversed the excommunication on King Robert, who was by now seriously ill. A formal truce was signed by Edward III, the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton. It isn’t clear what Robert was actually suffering, historians believe it is possible it was leprosy, tuberculosis, syphilis, or motor neurone disease. Contemporary writers of the time describe how the King was too ill to move, only to talk. He did not however isolate himself from friends, family or court which suggests his illness was thought not to be communicable. In 1329, King Robert the Bruce made one last trip to his Carrick seat at Turnberry to see his son and his new wife. He then made a pilgrimage by litter to the Shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn, staying at Glenluce Abbey in Monreith. After staying a few days, the Bruce made his way home, by sea to Cardross.
Between April and June, Robert deteriorated fast. He convened a final council to leave his instruction, from his bed, and made several generous bequests of money, land and plate to religious houses, for the prayers for his soul. On June 7th 1329, the great Scottish King Robert I, The Bruce, died. He was buried in Dunfermline Abbey beside his wife. His heart was removed before his internment and placed in a silver casket which was carried by James Douglas on the crusade that Robert had pledged to complete, but never managed. Douglas however was unable to join a crusade proper, due to a level of peace maintained in the Holy Land at the time, and so he joined the Spanish battle of Teba in Grenada against the Moors.

Douglas allegedly threw the casket containing the heart of the Bruce towards the line of the enemy shouting “Now pass thou onward before us, as thou wert wont, and I will follow thee or die.” The Moors subsequently slayed Douglas and his men. The few survivors managed to locate both Douglas’ body and the casket, bringing them home to Scotland where Robert’s heart was laid to rest at Melrose Abbey, as per his requests.In 1920, archaeologists discovered the casket but reburied it, without marking the place. In 1996, the casket was re-discovered, and analysis confirmed it contained human tissue and was approximately the right age to be that of the Bruce. Again the heart was re-interred in Melrose Abbey as per the Bruce’s wishes. In 1818, workmen building a new Parish Church on the remains of the Abbey of Dunfermline came across a vault, in the place of the High Altar. Subsequent investigation revealed of the remains, which were double coated in lead, and interred in what remained of an old Oak coffin, showed the remains to be that of a tall man, around six feet one inch tall. He had a shroud of cloth of gold and the replication of a crown. A plaster cast was taken of his skull, and the chest upon examination showed the sternum had been cracked to facilitate the removal of his heart.

Knowing the location of the Bruce’s burial, the solid construction of the vault, and the remains of a fine tomb, alabaster and gold leaf, some of which survives in the National Museum in Scotland, that the Bruce was known to have commissioned from Chartres prior to his death, the remains were confirmed to be those of the Bruce. They were put on display for the public and then reinterred in their vault, in a new lead coffin, filled with pitch to preserve the skeleton. The Eastern part of the Abbey was rebuilt to form the parish church where the Bell Tower now stands on this site, and is picked out with the Bruce’s name in stone to mark the position of his tomb. A commemorative window was added to the North Transept on the 700th anniversary of his birth. The Bruce is also commemorated with Statues at Bannockburn, Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle, the latter alongside one of William Wallace. The Bruce is also depicted on the twenty pound notes issued by the Clydesdale bank, showing that seven hundred years after successfully ridding Scotland of the English, the Bruce remains the true Scottish hero.