Robert the Bruce - the piety of the victor of Bannockburn

18 June 2014
imports_CESC_virtual-st-andrews-1318_15855.jpg St Andrews
Michael Penman, senior lecturer in history at the University of Stirling, explores the piety of Robert the Bruce and his engagement with the churches of his realm. ...

‘St John, St Andrew and Thomas, who shed his blood along with the saints of the Scottish fatherland, will fight today for the honour of the people, with Christ the lord in the van.’

Thus – with apologies to Robert Burns – did King Robert the Bruce reportedly address his troops on the morning of the second day’s battle at Bannockburn, 24 June 1314 (St John the Baptist’s day, midsummer), according to a fifteenth century Scottish chronicle which drew on earlier sources.

In this momentous year of homecoming, great sporting events and an independence referendum, there will naturally be much commemoration of Bruce’s great military triumph over England; this may be followed by ‘constitutional’ reflection upon the legacy of both the ‘Declaration’ of sovereignty issued from Arbroath in 1320 and Robert’s relations with his subjects in annual parliaments. But just as the present-day church seems to have withdrawn from substantive input to the future of the Scottish state, so Bruce’s piety and engagement with his realm’s churches and saints remains one of the most neglected aspects of his rule.


It is an accepted tradition that Robert’s troops at Bannockburn were shriven by Maurice, abbot of Inchaffray, before the relics of such saints as Columba and Fillan. The latter, indeed, was the focus of a Perthshire cult which had provided Bruce with vital succour in flight in 1306. At Bannockburn the arm bone of Fillan (the ‘mayne’) is said to have miraculously re-appeared in its empty reliquary: four years later Robert would dedicate a new chapel to Fillan in Perthshire.

However, the battle for Stirling, in the heart of the realm, would have been an opportunity for Robert to call upon the support of saints from many regional and national cults.

Relics of St Andrew may have been present for the king to invoke beneath the saltire. On 5 July 1318 Robert would hold a great consecration service at St Andrews cathedral [see the Virtual St Andrews project]. This combined celebration of the recovery of the burgh-castle of Berwick-upon-Tweed to Robert’s realm and St Andrews diocese in April to June that year, but also saw the king grant generous patronage to St Andrews in thanks for the saint’s support in battle in 1314.

Relics of royal St Margaret may also have been brought to the battlefield. In November 1314 Robert would hold a parliament at Cambuskenneth Abbey outside Stirling to forfeit his remaining Scottish opponents after Bannockburn: a few days later, on St Margaret’s own feast day, 16 November, Robert made the journey east to Dunfermline Abbey in Fife, shrine of that saintly queen (and her son, King/St David I) and declared his plan to be buried alongside his ancestors.

Passage to Dunfermline also took Robert and his court through the cult lands of St Serf, interred at Culross but with a cult stretching to Lochleven and Scotlandwell (where Bruce would hold several councils): on his death in June 1329 it may have been in a chapel dedicated to Serf near his manor house at Cardross (Dumbartonshire) that Bruce’s viscera were laid to rest while his body was taken to Dunfermline and his heart towards the Holy Land.


Similarly, the terminally-ill Robert’s halting pilgrimage from Cardross to Whithorn in early 1329, to the shrine of St Ninian, may reflect the presence of that saint’s relics at Bannockburn as well as Bruce’s Carrick upbringing. Equally, this final journey may have been penitential, echoing Robert’s earlier grant to Whithorn Priory ‘because of the damage, injury and oppression of the church... by his past wars, and because of the devotion he has to St Ninian.’

Yet, to return to the chronicler’s report of Bruce’s battle-prayer, it is Robert’s bond to the cult of St Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury martyred in 1170 at the hands of knights of Henry II of England, which stands out. The Bruces had strong family ties to the Canterbury cult and supported the Scottish abbey built for the saint at Arbroath by King William I (the ‘Lion’) after his capture in battle while invading England.

As the Scottish wars unfolded after 1296 Robert would invest his faith in St Thomas as a symbol of sacrifice, sacrilegious penance and defiance of English royal authority. In 1297 he was obliged to re-swear loyalty to England on one of the swords used to kill Becket, an oath he would soon break. Spurred on by Edward I’s death on 7 July 1307 – the Translation feast of Thomas – Robert established his Chancery at Arbroath (under Abbot Bernard) and may have paid for a new tomb effigy for its founder William I.

What few small relics of Thomas were held at Arbroath could thus easily have been at Bannockburn, joined by Becket relics venerated at Glasgow cathedral (shrine of St Kentigern) and those of Columba also held at Arbroath by their hereditary keepers (or ‘dewars’). These were thus both strategic and personal acts of worship, arguably as vital a weapon in Bruce’s armoury as his war captains and battle-axe.

M. Penman, “Sacred Food for the Soul’: In Search of the Devotions to Saints of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, 1306–1329’, Speculum, 88 (2013), pp. 1035-1062.
M. Penman, Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots (Yale University Press, 2014)


Michael Penman is the author of Robert the Bruce, published by Yale University Press.

In this new biography of the renowned warrior, Michael Penman focuses on Robert's kingship in the fifteen years that followed his triumphant victory and establishes Robert as not only a great military leader but a great monarch Robert faced a slow and often troubled process of legitimating his authority, restoring government, rewarding his supporters, accommodating former enemies and controlling the various regions of his kingdom, none of which was achieved overnight.

Penman investigates Robert's resettlement of lands and offices, the development of Scotland's parliaments, his handling of plots to overthrow him, his relations with his family and allies, his piety and court ethos, and his conscious development of an image of kingship through the use of ceremony and symbol.


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