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"Why do you think the rising of 1306 broke out?"

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

1989

Synopsis:  This essay describes the political situation and reasons for gamble that Robert I ran when he seized the throne in 1306.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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 suddenly held.

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 alter.

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