To what extent did Robert the Bruce play a significant role in helping Scotland gain independence?
In his winning entry in the Scottish History Network School Essay Prize, Conlan McPherson discusses the role of Robert the Bruce in helping secure Scotland’s victory in the Wars of Independence.
The brutal execution of William Wallace in 1305 ultimately left Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick to continue Scottish resistance to king Edward I of England. Bruce proclaimed himself king of Scots in 1306 and was crowned by bishop Wishart at Scone.
Throughout his reign (1306-1329), king Robert fought successfully to re-establish Scotland’s place as an independent country. Bruce’s attainment of Scottish independence was fundamentally down to three key, and related, aspects: Bruce taking advantage of English mistakes, his successful use of diplomacy and the most crucial factor, his excellent leadership.
Historians such as Angus Konstam argue that taking advantage of English mistakes was an important reason for why Scotlandeventually achieved independence. On 7 July 1307, king Edward I died while on his way to crush the Bruce forces and was succeeded by his son, Edward II. With the English army at the border, Edward II’s first mistake was to withdraw with his father’s body back to Westminster for the funeral, as this allowed Bruce, whose kingship at this time was on the verge of collapse, to regroup from previous defeats.
Furthermore, Konstam argues that Edward II, in remaining in England for three years, gave ‘Robert Bruce a breathing space, just when he needed it most. The Scottish king would make good use of this vital reprieve’. This is important as Bruce was able to turn his attention to his Scottish enemies to prevent the threat of a coup which would damage his plan for an independent country, and so began the ‘Herschip of Buchan’.
Bruce marched into the Comyn heartlands with a force, according to Scottish chronicler Walter Bower, of 3,000 men. He employed a scorched-earth policy, destroying crops and Scottish castles. This is significant as when each castle fell he denied the English a bastion of defence to try and dismantle an independent Scotland.
With the north-east secure, the king was then able to mount a series of successful attacks on English strongholds in the south. One by one, English garrisons fell to Robert or his famous lieutenants, Douglas, Randolph and Edward Bruce (the king’s brother). Edward’s second mistake compounded his initial mistake, in that he did not reinforce his garrisons in Scotland.
By the beginning of 1314, only Stirling Castle and Berwick remained in English hands and an independent Scotland was within Bruce’s grasp. Overall, taking advantage of English mistakes played a key part in Bruce preparing for a strong independent country as being able to defeat his Scottish enemies without an English presence allowed him to enforce his position as king. However, his excellent leadership and consequent victory over the English at Bannockburn achieved independence from English rule as it pushed the English out of every corner of Scotland.
Historian Fiona Watson believes that Robert Bruce’s excellent leadership was the defining reason for Scotland becoming an independent nation. The battle of Bannockburn (23-24 June 1314) was a decisive and resounding victory for Bruce. Under his leadership, the Scots used the terrain to their advantage and defeated an English force considerably larger than their own. This victory, according to Watson, secured Bruce’s position as king of Scots as he ‘was now master of all Scotland’. However, although Bannockburn was an important triumph for the Scots, it did not end the war. Edward II escaped from battle and continued to deny the existence of an independent Scotland and maintained that he was still overlord. As a result, Bruce continued to fight but this time it was no longer a war of independence but a war for recognition.
Further evidence of king Robert’s effective leadership is seen during the Great Raid of 1322, which culminated in the battle of Old Byland. The Lanercost Chroniclerecords that Scottish forces ‘devastated almost all of Northumberland with fire’. After defeating the earl of Richmond at Byland, Bruce advanced towards Edward’s position at nearby Rievaulx, forcing him to flee. Sir Thomas Gray, son of an important English knight who fought in the wars, writes, ‘the Scots were so fierce and their chiefs so daring, and the English so cowed, that it was no otherwise between them than as a hare before greyhounds’.
This is paramount, as faced with continual raids on their lands, and feeling that the crown did nothing to protect them, northern English lords made private arrangements with Bruce. As part of these agreements Bruce partly achieved his main aim – English recognition of Scotland as an independent country, albeit Edward still refused to recognise him. Overall, Bruce’s leadership was key to the achievement of Scottish independence as his resounding victory at Bannockburn pushed English forces almost completely out of Scotland. However, with Edward’s denial of Scotland’s independence Robert’s successful use of diplomacy, was also key to victory.
The use of diplomacy
Successful use of diplomacy was crucial to securing Scottish independence, according to G.W.S Barrow. On 6 April 1320, the ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ was handed to Sirs Adam Gordon and Edward Maubisson for delivery to pope John XXII at Avignon. The letter is an elaborate argument detailing the reasons for Scottish independence and justifying king Robert’s usurpation of the throne in 1306. Barrow states it was ‘the most eloquent statement of the case for national independence to be produced anywhere in medieval Europe’. The letter, often quoted by historians, shows the Scottish people’s desire for freedom and their determination to keep that freedom.
Ronald McNair Scott writes, ‘The impact on the pope was immediate … he sent a letter to Edward II exhorting him to make peace with the Scots’. This is important as papal recognition forced England into negotiating with Scotland, showing that Robert the Bruce would, alongside his total control of Scotland, have documents recognising the country’s independence. However, peace talks collapsed by 1322 and the countries resumed conflict, meaning Bruce had not yet achieved a recognised independent country. It was not until after the deposition of Edward II in 1327 that Bruce was able to negotiate recognition for Scotland with England’s new regent, Roger de Mortimer.
The treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, signed in 1328, brought an end to the war and acknowledged the independence of Scotland. Fiona Watson writes, ‘in return for an acknowledgement that he and his heirs should be free to enjoy the kingdom of Scotland without having to pay homage for it, the Scottish king agreed to pay £20,000’. Overall, Bruce’s successes in diplomatic situations were pivotal for gaining independence as he had won the war of recognition with the ratification of the treaty in which England acknowledged Scotland as independent. However, Bruce’s leadership and victory at Bannockburn put him in a position of strength to demand recognition as king.
To conclude, Scotland gained its independence as a direct result of Robert the Bruce’s excellent leadership. His victory at Bannockburn turned the tide and routed the English from every corner of Scotland. In essence, Scotland was a free and independent country. However, Bruce’s successful use of diplomacy, as well as taking advantage of English mistakes, ultimately led to Scottish independence being recognised by England in the treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328. Thus, king Robert I of Scotland was instrumental in helping Scotland gain independence.
Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, G.W.S. Barrow (Edinburgh, 2005)
Bannockburn-Scotland’s Greatest Battle for Independence, A. Konstam, (London, 2014)
Robert the Bruce-King of Scots, R.M. Scott (Edinburgh, 2014)
Robert The Bruce-Pocket Giants, F. Watson (Stroud, 2014)
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