Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot
Synopsis: This essay describes the political situation and reasons for gamble that Robert I ran when he seized the throne in 1306.
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This period in Scottish history is probably one of the least understood and has had
more written about it from a very few sources than any other. In my opinion a lot of
information has still to be understood much of which probably never will. It is almost
certain that when Bruce entered into a bond of mutual assistance with Bishop Lamberton in
1304, he was laying plans for an eventual coup. It is possible that he wanted to wait for
the death of Edward I and he wished to gauge the support of the Scottish gentry before he
made his move. It is of course impossible to tell if this was in fact the case as no
documented evidence exists. It has been claimed- with reference to an inventory of
documents, now lost, found on the person of William Wallace at the time of his capture
that there were references to Bruce or indeed a document incriminating Bruce amongst them.
This may explain the "fall from favour" which Bruce suffered in the later part
of 1305. G.W.S. Barrow in his book 'Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of
Scotland' suggests that there was an agreement between Wallace and Bruce signed before
1302 ( it could not have been after this date as Edward would have taken action against
Bruce immediately.) and that this was the reason for the distrust in which Bruce was
Sir Thomas Grey, in his work of 1355, wrote that throughout this period Bruce
"retained a strong following through kinsmanship and alliance, always hoping for the
establishment of his claim of succession to the realm of Scotland". If there is
further proof needed to prove that Bruce was planning action then this is it.
It is possible that in the Autumn of 1305 Bruce discussed revolution with the Bishops
Lamberton and Wishart. Certainly by February he was at Lochmaben Castle while Comyn was at
nearby Dalwinston. With Edward seriously ill and not expected to live much longer it was
time for action. In order for Bruce to claim the throne he would first have to either get
the support of the "Red Comyn", which was unlikely or dispose of him and his
supporters. This is because of the powers that he held within the feudal system, with his
vast estates in Lochaber and Badenoch.. In my opinion it is unlikely that Bruce met Comyn
in church at Dumfries with the intention of murdering him.
The later Scottish chroniclers tell a romantic story of Bruce's rising which does not
find any confirmation through sources which have survived. Many modern historians ignore
the story as being fiction. This cannot totally be the case as Walter of Guisborough to
some extent confirms it. The tale is that Bruce and Comyn made a pact that Bruce should
take the crown with the support of Comyn and that in return Comyn would receive Bruce's
lands. The pact was recorded in reciprocally sealed contracts. Comyn then took his half
and told Edward of the contents Edward then summoned Bruce to a parliament, showed him
Comyn's half, and asked if the seal on it was his. Bruce who had forgotten to bring his
seal with him asked for a nights grace in order to produce his seal. The Earl of
Gloucester sent him a messenger, while Bruce was at his Lodgings, with a shilling and a
pair of spurs.
Bruce tipped the messenger with the shilling and rode for Lochmaben as fast as he could
go, having had his horse's shoes reversed to confuse the pursuit. Once reaching Dumfries
and finding Comyn he confronted him with his treachery.
The tale is however purely a literary product possibly the final embellishment of an
originally much simpler story.
The English and the Scottish accounts do not agree in the details of the murder of
Comyn. The English account by Grey, says that Bruce ordered his brothers to murder Comyn.
This is not borne out by Guisborough who claims that the brothers found Comyn so friendly
that they were unable to kill him. Comyn met Bruce at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and as
they walked towards the high alter the accounts differ; one saying that Bruce confronted
Comyn with his treachery while the other says that they spoke of the oppression of their
country. Comyn would have none of this and threatened to expose Bruce's treachery to
Edward, whereupon Bruce struck him with a dagger and his companions finished him off.
The Scottish accounts differ from this in that they agree that the murder of Comyn was
totally unpremeditated. Indeed if we go back to the fact that the rivalries had exploded
to the surface once before at Peebles, it is easy to see what may have happened in the
church when Bruce urged the revival of the kingship. Comyn may have called Bruce a
traitor, but certainly Bruce struck Comyn with his dagger, whereupon Bruce's companions
attacked him with their swords. Mortally wounded Comyn was left in front of the high
It is commonly believed that Bruce rebelled because he was bitter at not getting the
throne and was desperate, as he saw his chance slipping away. However these are not valid
reasons, as has already been shown. The surrender of the Scots at Strathord, the fall of
Stirling, the execution of Wallace and the September Ordinance did not abolish the
Scottish kingdom or the Community of the Realm. For, so long as Lamberton and Wishart were
alive, the idea would survive. This is the one lesson which the English king did not learn
from his experiences of 1296-7.
Why, you may ask, was guardianship not possible again as had been the case during the
years after the exile of Balliol. It can simply be said that it was not possible in the
circumstances, as the feudal might of Scotland would have been unwilling to fight for
something which had failed disastrously only 8 years before. The solution, then, was a
revival of the Kingship and in my opinion it is almost certain that it was suggested by
Bruce to Comyn, with the understanding that Comyn would take Bruce's lands if he helped
Bruce to the throne and vice-versa. It is perhaps not surprising that Comyn refused.
Indeed it may be the case that here he threatened to go to Edward with Bruce's treachery.
In conclusion then, it seems that the reasons for the rising of Bruce in 1306 are tied
up (a) with the feud between the Bruces and the Comyns and (b) the fact that Edward of
England was dying and would be replaced by a man who, it was commonly believed, would be
no worthy successor to the "Hammer of the Scots".
In my opinion the date is of some importance to the issue, because I
think the rising which Bruce was certainly planning took place in 1306 before he was
ready. This can be proved to some extent, although not totally, by reviewing the events
which took place after the murder of Comyn. Bruce appeared in Glasgow where he was
absolved by Wishart for the crime of Sacrilege. Wishart then seemed to exhort his flock to
support Bruce almost as though Bruce's fight was a crusade. Wishart provided the robes for
the king to wear and had in his possession the banner which bore the arms of the last
king. Bruce put the populace of Glasgow on twenty-four hours' notification of
Mobilisation. Lamberton was certainly ready when the time came and was in Berwick at the
time of Comyn's murder. Shortly before the coronation of Bruce he slipped away to appear
at Scone. According to the only source which survives from the time of Bruce's coronation
( A newsletter written by an Englishman in Berwick) Bruce contacted the English and asked
for formal recognition as king. Edward's reply was simple; Bruce should hand back the
castles he had seized from the protection of the English crown. Bruce replied in a like
manner by saying that he would seize castles and strengthen his position as fast as he
could and would defend himself "with the longest stick that he had".
Contemporary English accounts of the Coronation allege that it was a stage-managed
affair. I believe that the need for Bruce's speedy enthronement was balanced by a feeling
that the coronation should follow traditional lines. This gave legitimacy to Bruce's
seizure of the Realm. Bruce then travelled the country receiving fealties and capturing
castles. He was supported in this by his "chief counsellor" Bishop Wishart who
had siege engines made from the wood supplied by the English to fix his church roof.
As can be seen, Bruce was taking his only chance to seize the throne of Scotland, at a
time when the country was ripe for revolution and the English king could be taken by
surprise. However Bruce was soon to be overtaken by disaster when his force was routed at
Methven, and it may be that this was a stroke of good luck as, had he won, he would have
faced the full feudal might of England a full eight years before he was ready.
Ewan Innes, October 1 1989