‘Through a glass darkly’? John Barbour and Robert the Bruce

01 January 2021
An 18thC edition of John Barbour's poem The Bruce in the National Museum of Scotland
Historian Dr Steve Boardman explores to what extent Barbour’s poem The Bruce can be relied upon as a historical source and asks whether the poem’s portrayal of dramatic events in the life of Robert the Bruce has any credibility ...

In commenting on the character and personal qualities of Robert I (1306-29) Geoffrey Barrow, one of the modern biographers of that totemic king, argued that ‘To some extent our view of Bruce will always depend on how much credence we give to [John] Barbour’. Barrow’s own conclusion was that ‘We shall not be on unsafe ground if we accept Barbour’s portrait of the king, even though we must correct it by more reliable evidence wherever that is necessary and possible' [*]. 

Barrow’s caution in qualifying the historical reliability of Barbour’s great poem, usually now described simply as The Bruce, has been reinforced and amplified by more recent studies of the work.

Barbour’s celebration of Robert the Bruce’s life and his chivalric and martial achievements was, after all, not a product of the king’s own lifetime, only being brought to completion c.1375, over forty years after Robert I’s death. Moreover, The Bruce was never intended as a straightforward ‘history’, but as an inspiring, perhaps polemical, work of literature addressing an audience for most of whom Bruce was already a semi-legendary figure, and it was inevitably shaped, in terms of structure, theme and narrative content, by Barbour’s familiarity with the conventions of a number of literary genres.

Scepticism about the usefulness of The Bruce as an ‘historical’ source inevitably casts doubt on the authenticity of some of the well-rehearsed stories and episodes derived from Barbour’s work which have played a significant role in securing Robert I’s wide fame and positive posthumous reputation.

Certainly Scottish writers, from the medieval period through to the twentieth century, were happy to pluck or adapt tales from The Bruce to illustrate the bravery, prowess and cunning of the king and his principal lieutenants, figures such as the ‘Good’ Sir James Douglas and Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray, or to show the collective resolve and daring of the Scots during the Wars of Independence.

The most significant figure in the modern re-use of Barbour was, almost inevitably, Sir Walter Scott, who borrowed liberally and directly from The Bruce in chapters on King Robert, Douglas and Randolph, and the battle of Bannockburn in his Tales of a Grandfather; Being Stories taken from Scottish History (1828).

Scott found the descriptions of Bruce at the lowest point in his career especially evocative, as the king fled westwards from his triumphant enemies in the dark winter of 1306-7, on the run like a common outlaw, with bloodhounds and assassins on his trail and traitors in his company. The popularity of Tales of a Grandfather ensured that elements of Barbour’s narrative became very familiar to a wide nineteenth-century audience, although many may have been unaware of the ultimate source of Sir Walter’s stories.


Scott did, of course, make his own original contribution to Brucean lore, famously embellishing Barbour’s account of Bruce’s flight to Rathlin island off the coast of Ulster with the additional detail that the king shared his desolate cave shelter on the island with an indefatigable spider whose repeated attempts to spin a web brought home to Robert the value of perseverance. Sir Walter’s unfaltering arachnid has now become the central element in the tale, but it was undoubtedly incorporated by Scott because it seemed to encapsulate the general theme pursued in much of The Bruce, of a man brought to the edge of ruin and despair and then redeemed through his courage and a renewed determination to maintain the struggle until victory was achieved against all the odds.

Barbour’s account of Robert I’s climatic triumph at the battle of Bannockburn, which you can read about here, particularly the king’s single combat with the English knight Henry de Bohun, similarly became an iconic episode in later popular accounts. The duel with de Bohun was, for example, one of the stirring events from Scotland’s past thought suitable to inspire, instruct and entertain younger readers in H.E.Marshal’s Scotland's Story: A History of Scotland for Boys and Girls (1906).

Barbour’s 14th-century text offered a depiction of Robert I as a resilient and heroic warrior-king that was firmly rooted in, and addressed to, the political, social and literary context of the 1370s. The stories of Bruce and his warlords were recycled by Scott and others in the modern age in order to explore the enduring virtues of loyalty, tenacity, honour and personal fortitude.

In returning to study Barbour’s original work, historians can thus hope to uncover not a series of historical facts, but rather the medieval starting point of an ongoing historical process of debate over, and reinvention of, the character of Robert I.       

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Dr Steve Boardman is a co-author of Barbour’s Bruce and its cultural context: Politics, chivalry and literature in late medieval Scotland, published by Boydell & Brewer.

The book re-assesses the form and purpose of Barbour's great poem The Bruce and considers it from a variety of perspectives, re-examining the literary, historical, cultural and intellectual contexts in which it was produced, and offering important new insights.

[*] G.W.S.Barrow, Robert Bruce, and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, 4th edition (Edinburgh, 1988), 312.