Statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

(Publisher’s Note: Originally published in August of 2014)

Scotland votes on the question of independence from Great Britain this September, but June marked an important date in the shaping of a Scottish national identity. It was the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when King Robert I led a Scottish force that defeated King Edward II’s English army. History also knows the winner as Robert the Bruce, and his campaigns against the English will echo in the September vote. But myth often clouds fact, which seriously complicates the legend of the Bruce himself — though that myth does make for entertaining cinema.

My earliest image of Robert the Bruce was actor Angus Macfadyen in the 1995 film Braveheart. He sits on the battlefield at Falkirk looking at the distraught face of a betrayed William Wallace (Mel Gibson). The Bruce, urged on by his sickly scheming father, has cut a deal with English King Edward I (the late great Patrick McGoohan) to defeat the Wallace-led Scottish army. Robert is allowed to keep his lands, but must be a puppet for the English. Yet Falkirk is the moment when the young Bruce decides to let Wallace escape, inspired by the latter’s purity of conviction for Scotland’s freedom. Later, Robert will tell off his father, and take up the mantle of the executed Wallace. Our final cinematic glimpse of now-King Robert I is signaling an open-field charge at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Almost 15 years later, I gratefully allowed my cinematic perception of the Bruce to be smashed apart with the broadsword of a BBC documentary series.

In 2009, Scottish archaeologist and television presenter Neil Oliver gave his viewers a definitive portrait of Robert the Bruce in his landmark BBC series, A History of Scotland. Featuring gorgeous cinematography, a sweeping score, and detailed on-screen narration from Oliver, the 10-episode series is a sight to behold. This expert distillation of a very rich history deftly wields its stylish cinematic reenactments to maximum effect. Though we never hear the actors voices, their faces and gestures vividly convey the nuanced personalities of every major Scot involved in forging the nation north of England. And the faces featured in two series episodes in particular struck a chord with me, as they cover a very eventful 100-year medieval period that culminates in what many Americans know of only through a 20 year-old fictional film — one that took an Oscar for Best Picture, but which can’t hold a candle to the high drama that Oliver creates with facts as they (probably) were.

First, it’s important to understand what was at stake for the Scottish kings involved — such as the significance of being a “Scot”, rather than a “Pict”. In episode 1, Oliver highlights his series-long reliance on rare ancient documents by visiting the National Library of Paris, where he shows us Scotland’s “birth certificate” — a very-rare list of kings of the House of Alpin. It chronicles the period between 878 and 889 when the region stopped being referred to as “Pictland”, and the term “Albanium” [Gaelic for "Scotland"] first emerges with the reign of Donald II, who died in 900. In 906, his successor and cousin Constantine II went to the city of Scone to sit upon a block of red sandstone known as the “Stone of Destiny“, and there was blessed by Bishop Cellach I — first “Bishop of the Scots“. The Stone of Scone would be used in the coronation of future Scottish kings, and Scottish bishops would play a critical role in legitimizing any claimants to the throne.

Episode 3 begins 400 years later, at the dawn of the 1300s, and is titled “Bishop Makes King” — referring to the dynamic between Bishop of Glasgow Robert Wishart and Robert the Bruce. The two strike a deal to bypass ineffective and exiled Scottish King John Balliol, and give his crown to the Bruce. This, after the Bruce murders a rival to his claim inside a church, and nearly undoes his kingship before it begins. Bloody deeds, untimely deaths, and vindictive agreements are running themes in the previous episode as well, titled “Hammers of the Scots” — where Oliver takes us 100 years earlier to weave a tale of two men whose own bloody acts put the Bruce’s in context:

“Alexander II, who forged Scotland — and William Wallace, whose resistance to the nation-breaking King of England hammered national consciousness into the Scots.”

In December 1214, Alexander II was crowned King of the Scots at age 16. He’d led his father William’s army at age 14, and was already known for a quick temper and boundless ambition. Descended from the Canmore dynasty of kings, Oliver tells us that Alexander took over a Kingdom of Scots far more fractured than the unified Scottish state of today:

“To the north, the earldoms of Caithness and Sutherland. To the West, the Gaels of the Hebrides and the Isles. And in the South, the fiercely independent lordship of Galloway. But England… England was bigger, stronger, richer than them all. And for nearly 200 years, the English kings said the Kingdom of Scots belonged to them.”

Alexander was determined to free Scotland from English overlordship, and stake a definitive claim to the disputed territories of Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumbria. His chance came soon after he took the throne, when he lucked into a moment of political upheaval in England. King John had angered many English barons by, among other things, taxing vast sums of money to fund his French wars. In protest, the barons drew up what has become known as “Magna Carta” — a list of over 60 demands, which originally included Alexander’s claim to the disputed territories (clause #59). John agreed to the barons demands, signed and sealed the paper… and then almost immediately rejected it. This led to a civil war, and Alexander jumped into the fray by invading the north of England.

With John on the defensive, the barons in the North swore allegiance to Alexander in January 1216 at Melrose Abbey, bringing their disputed borderlands under his sway. The barons in the South had turned to the French, and invited Prince Louis to cross the English Channel with an army to take the English crown. This, exactly 150 years after William the Conqueror had successfully done the same. Louis accepted, and Alexander planned to cut a deal with him to cement the northern territories as Scottish. And so…

“He did a thing that no Scottish monarch had done before or since: he marched an army all the way to Dover. Meeting little resistance, he joined forces with the French army, and together they laid siege to Dover Castle, the key to England.”

The 17 year-old was on the cusp of victory… and then disaster. John died, and took with him the unity of the barons. They switched sides to the new King Henry III, and both Alexander and Prince Louis were told to return home. Henry reissued Magna Carta, but without Alexander’s claims. On top of this, Alexander was excommunicated by the Pope, and the powers of the Scottish church were suspended. He was ordered to return the captured northern territories, and pay homage to the 9 year-old King Henry.
Alexander did so, grudgingly, and then set about getting his own house in order. He unified the allegiances of the Scottish nobility with brutal efficiency. Oliver highlights that brutality by relating an incident where a baby girl was gruesomely put to death in a public marketplace, simply for being a distant Canmore relative and representing a rival claim to the throne:

“This terrible and shocking act was remembered for generations to come. And that was the point. Loud and clear, the King of Scots let it be known, ‘This is what will happen to anyone who crosses my path, however young, however innocent.’”

Yet Oliver adds that Alexander’s move to unify the Scottish lands and lords under one banner had a decided effect:

“Alexander’s victories had not only brought peace, but something far more enduring: One People. One Kingdom. Now everyone was subject to one king, and that made them one people: Scots.”

In 1237, Henry III agreed to the first border between the two kingdoms, and Oliver notes the psychological importance of a Scot being able to look south and say, “This is Scotland. That is England. And we are different.” When Alexander died 12 years later in July 1249, his kingdom above the new border was much larger than the one he had taken over 35 years earlier. A “Golden Age” of Scottish culture blossomed under his son and heir, Alexander III, who married English princess Margaret in 1251 in a ceremony attended by her young brother, the future King Edward I. Yet golden times wouldn’t last for the Canmore dynasty. In the space of nine years, Alexander’s wife and three children died, leaving him without an heir. In March 1286, while journeying to meet his new young bride, Yolande, Alexander himself died after falling from his horse. This left one last Canmore heir, Margaret “The Maid of Norway“, who was soon married to the future King Edward II of England. But in September 1290, the 7 year-old Maid died during a voyage from Norway to Scotland, and her kingdom was plunged into a succession crisis. Two well-armed camps had already developed, backing either John Balliol or Robert the Bruce the Elder — who were descendents of an extended royal branch. A group of six men chosen to govern in the absence of a royal family, known as “Guardians”, worked to avert civil war. To keep the peace while deciding on a new king, the Guardians asked Edward I to arbitrate the process. This would turn into a disaster for Scotland.

Now, Edward seems to have had genuine affection for his late brother-in-law, and was the son of a king who had recognized Scotland’s sovereignty. Yet his reign was marked by an overlord’s view of his northern neighbor, which Alexander II had fought to shake off. So when Edward was asked to arbitrate the succession, he replied he would only do so after all sides agreed that he was superior overlord of Scotland. One of the Guardians was Bishop Wishart, who replied to Edward in person that “the Scottish kingdom is not held in tribute or homage to anyone, save God alone.” Edward hit back by producing 11 additional royal claimants to compete with Balliol and Bruce, who could now only stay in the running by agreeing to English overlordship. Outmaneuvered, the Guardians and the now-13 claimants agreed. Eventually, Balliol was chosen as Scotland’s king, but he was forced to pay homage and swear fealty to Edward. That dynamic was soon played out when, in 1294, Edward demanded Scottish troops to fight France, and ordered Balliol himself to fight as well. This humiliating turn stoked the fires of resentment within influential Scots like Wishart, whose radical view of the situation prevailed at a Parliament in Stirling. A new council of 12 men was chosen to run the country, with Balliol as a figurehead… and Edward in the cross-hairs.

In the summer of 1295, a Scottish delegation journeyed to France and made a mutual-aggression pact against England. The following year, when the English warred with France, Scotland duly made war on Edward. So in March 1296, Edward sent the English army to invade Scotland with around 30,000 soldiers, and laid waste to Berwick-upon-Tweed in what Oliver describes as one of the worst atrocities of the era:

“For his tyrannous rage, [Edward] ordered 7,500 souls of both sexes to be massacred. Mills could be turned around by the flow of their blood. Despite the surrender of the local garrison, Edward set about the wholesale slaughter of the town’s population. The orgy of violence only came to an end when the frantic pleading of local clergy moved Edward to show at least some pity.”

Other such bloodlettings followed as Edward marched deeper into Scotland. After a Scottish army tried and failed to stop the advance at the Battle of Dunbar, the English were unhindered in capturing many castles and most of the country’s nobility. Balliol surrendered too, and was stripped of his crown, imprisoned and exiled to France. In addition, Edward plundered Scotland’s most precious national possessions, including its holiest relic (the Black Rood of St. Margaret) and the Stone of Scone. To solidify the loyalty of the Scottish nobles, Edward forced them all to pay homage to him by signing and sealing what Oliver describes as “the most infamous document in Scottish history: The Ragman Roll.” Preserved in the UK National Archives, the Roll of 1296 bears nearly 1900 names and wax seals, including those of Balliol, Bruce and Wishart.

With Scotland now subdued and left to English lieutenants to govern, Edward rode back south to battle the French, quipping, “A man does good work when he rids himself of shit.” Yet, when Edward imposed taxes on Scotland to pay for English wars that Scots were already helping to fight, the fires of rebellion burned once more — stoked now by a fear of Scottish culture being wholly subsumed. Seizing the moment was William Wallace, whose life Oliver tells us has blurred with myth:

“The Wallace story is one of the defining legends of Scottish identity, and the epitome of Scotland’s story. And yet, with all the mythologizing, we’ve lost sight of Wallace the man. A remarkable man… but a man nonetheless. The younger son of an obscure knight, Wallace’s destiny would be shaped less by himself, more by the needs of others.”

Prime among them was Wishart, who needed a military leader to step up. But English prisons and the Ragman Roll had hamstrung the nobles ability to answer the call. In Wallace, Oliver tells us that Wishart found a man who “was no leader of armies. But he was smart, and he could fight, and he had the popular touch.” Wallace finessed that touch by killing the unpopular English sheriff of Lanock, William Heselrig, and accepted conscripts from among the peasantry who received the brunt of Edward’s oppression. In the summer of 1297, Wallace set about training them to be a disciplined army, and joined with a noble named Andrew Moray — whose own force was fresh off a successful revolt further north. Together they marched to Stirling, and faced off against a larger English army boasting heavy cavalry, and led by John de Warenne. But unlike Braveheart‘s open-field recreation, the battle fought on September 11th 1297 actually featured the English crossing a deep river (the Forth) via a narrow wooden bridge to engage the Scots on the other side. Like the film, though, the arrogance of the English commander was on full display:

“The English horsemen began riding across the bridge. Warenne suddenly exploded. He hadn’t actually given the order to cross. So he made his men come back to his side and regroup. Then on his command, they began to cross for a second time. Wallace must have been amazed by this comic display of arrogance and complacency. But Warenne didn’t care how it looked. He didn’t rate Wallace’s army.”

He would pay for that underestimate in blood. The bridge’s crossing was at a bend in the river, and boxed the English in on three sides — with the Scots bearing down on them from the fourth. 5,000 English soldiers and 100 knights were cut down in the resulting Scottish victory. The English treasurer, Hugh de Cressingham, was taken and the skin flayed from his back — revenge for doing the same (financially) to the Scots. Wallace then had the skin made into a sword belt, “a memento of the day’s victory.” Such a defeat was bad enough for Edward, but to be inflicted by an army of Scottish peasants added insult to the royal injury upon his ego. On the other side, the Scottish elite would have preferred a noble like Moray to lead. But his death after Stirling left only Wallace, who was knighted and declared a Guardian. He would soon be tested again, when an English and Welsh army invaded Scotland in summer 1298. Wallace’s force played cat-and-mouse, leaving scorched earth in Edward’s path. After weeks in these barren fields, the invaders began starving for supplies, and there was dissent in the ranks. Finally, Wallace chose his ground at Falkirk and dug in. Meanwhile, Edward had strategically exaggerated the legend that had already grown around Wallace, and his infamous sword belt:

“The English weren’t expected to see Wallace the man. Rather, Wallace the monster. An ogre who would quite literally skin them alive. And of course, it was Edward who had unleashed the monster. He had unmade Scotland, taking it apart bit by bit… and Wallace was the result.”

But a monstrous reputation was no protection from English arrows, which cut the Scottish army to pieces, and was then finished off by cavalry.

Wallace resigned his Guardianship, but the fighting went on for another 5 years, until the French withdrew their support. And when the Scots sued for peace, Edward wanted Wallace as part of any deal. So in 1304, a parliament of Scottish nobles declared Wallace an outlaw. Then another document, “The Ordinances of 1305″, compelled 129 landowners (including Bishop Wishart) to declare Edward their liege lord — completing what Oliver describes as “the second conquest of Scotland.” In August of that year, Wallace was betrayed and captured near Glasgow. He was presented with an indictment on a variety of charges, and was then hung, drawn and quartered. Afterward, we’re told “Wallace’s head was spiked on London Bridge, and his quartered body sent north to New Castle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth as an example of the fate that would befall anyone who challenged Edward.” Immediately after that, and ever since, Oliver says Wallace’s legacy has been up for grabs:

“He became a brand. Repackaged and rolled out in the centuries to come to suit both nationalist and unionist agendas. 700 years later, the basic vision of a free independent Scotland for which William Wallace fought still haunts the collective Scot’s imagination.”

Oliver argues that while Wallace failed in his time to free Scotland from English rule, he served as a powerful example for those who took up the struggle after his death. Moreover, the brutal conquest of Edward I (“Hammer of the Scots”) had helped unify and define Scottish national identity more than it had ever been. Yet for any patriotic Scot to capitalize on that, they would need the help of Scottish bishops whose influence was threatened by an English takeover. These bishops appealed to the Pope for help freeing Balliol to return to Scotland — thereby preserving its crown. The Pope was swayed to do so, but the demoralized Balliol chose to remain in France, and the problem remained.

Bishop William Lamberton sought the council of renowned Scottish philosopher Duns Scotus, whose advice Oliver tell us would have “explosive implications”. Scotus dismissed royal succession as the root of Scottish royal authority, and instead claimed that all kings had a social contract with their people. If they couldn’t fulfill it, then they should be ousted, and a new king would be found. In 1305, Lamberton looked for his new king in 29 year-old Robert the Bruce, whose grandfather had competed with Balliol for the throne a decade earlier. John Comyn, blood relation of Balliol, was now pressing to succeed him as king. So Lamberton and the Bruce swore a pact to claim the crown with the Church’s help. The pact depended on both men not revealing it, at least until after the ailing Edward I’s death. But the Bruce let it slip nonetheless, and Comyn found out. In February 1306, both the Bruce and Comyn were attending an English sheriff’s court at Dumfries Castle. The two met at nearby Greyfriar’s Church, and during a conversation where the Bruce argued for his claim with Comyn, the latter was stabbed. The impulsive Bruce then went back to Dumfries Castle, broke up the English court, and the revolt was on. But would he have holy backing? As Oliver put it:

“This was ugly. This would be hard to spin. He had murdered someone… in a church. The sin alone was deadly. The place he had committed it, God’s house. That made it infinitely worse. He faced ruin, certain excommunication, expulsion from the Catholic church.”

The same church whose Pope had recently saved the Scottish crown from oblivion. So now the Bruce went to Glasgow Cathedral to ask for a longshot absolution from Bishop Wishart — who was likely disgusted, yet had little choice but to do so. The wheels of revolt were set in motion, and the Bruce was the last Scot standing. But Wishart also extracted a promise from the Bruce that Scottish bishops would retain their power and influence under his kingship. On March 25th 1306, Robert I was crowned (without the Stone of Scone) and set about seizing back territory from the English, who in turn captured both Lamberton and Wishart. In June, Robert marched his army to meet the English at Perth, but was ambushed as he camped in the woods of nearby Methven. The ensuing slaughter left Robert alive with only a few hundred survivors, who then lost another battle near Tyndrum. So the king went far westward into hiding, and waited 8 years for another decisive battle with the English.

Meanwhile, Robert’s wife and daughter were captured and put in convents, and three of his brothers were killed by the English. Also dead was Edward I, in July 1307, on his way to Scotland. He told son Edward II to send his heart along with a crusade to the Holy Land, and for the English army to take his bones with them to help fight the Scots. Instead, Edward II delayed his onslaught of Scotland for another three years. Robert used that time to forcefully unify Scottish loyalty to his cause, and do away with those supporting the Balliol claim on the throne — including the murdered John Comyn’s cousin, the Earl of Buchan (also named John Comyn). The earl’s lands were laid waste to by Robert’s brother, Edward Bruce, like some manmade version of the Black Death that would sweep Europe 40 years later:

“He didn’t just burn the crops. That would have made the land fertile in the coming year. He ordered the slaughter of the livestock — and not only the animals. But those who tended them, and who grew the crops: men, women and children. Parts of Buchan were left barren for a generation… because there was no one left alive.”

When Robert called his first Parliament at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in 1309, it saw the issuing of an open letter known as “The Declaration of the Clergy”, wherein Scotland’s bishops spelled out the ideas on kingship of Duns Scotus. It strengthened Robert’s claim on the crown by declaring that he ruled as the choice of the Scottish people, and by their consent. The clergy echoed its message in churches throughout the country. For the next five years, Robert went on trying make all of Scotland’s nobility accept him as their king, and by Spring of 1314 had actually pushed the English to the brink — leaving just two occupied castles at Berwick and Stirling.

In June, Edward II hit back by invading with an army of 15,000 soldiers and 3,000 horsemen. In the forests south of Stirling, around 6,000 Scottish soldiers and 500 light horsemen prepared for battle. Again, unlike the open-field affair glimpsed at the close of Braveheart, the Battle of Bannockburn featured tree cover to limit the English superiority in horses, and broken ground that produced the close-quarter fighting
preferred by Robert’s men. But when the English knights opened that fighting with a charge, one of them (a Henry de Bohun) found himself with a clear striking path at Robert — easily identifiable by the crown he wore. Oliver describes what happened next:

“[de Bohun] lowered his lance and galloped forward. This was his chance at immortality. But the Bruce dodged it. He rose up in his stirrups, and with a single blow of his battle ax split De Boon’s skull from crown to chin. With that one stroke, the Bruce became legend.”

The Scottish army was packed into schiltron formations bristling with spears, and used the treacherous terrain to their advantage. They repulsed English offensives, and countered with their own. After two days, the invaders pulled back and retreated, and the battle was won. Though Edward escaped south, Robert took enough prisoners to exchange for his long-captive wife and daughter, and even the elderly Bishop Wishart. But the victory also raised Robert to mythical status — and unlike Wallace, he lived to enjoy it. Not that such feelings were on his mind, as Oliver narrates:

“Bannockburn had given him his legend, but it had changed nothing else. The road to Scotland’s independence seemed very long, and it was blocked. Progress now depended on Edward II, who had no reason to make any concessions of any kind at all.”

Edward took the battle to the papal court in Avignon, convincing Christianity’s highest arbiter that England’s conflict with Scotland was the latter’s fault. Robert was excommunicated. In response, three letters (from Robert, from Scotland’s bishops and from its nobles) were crafted at Arbroath Abbey, and sent to Pope John XXII in April 1320. The surviving letter from the nobles has become known as the Declaration of Arbroath. Likely written in their name by Abroath Abbot Bernard Kilwinning, Oliver notes the Declaration’s importance to the idea of an independent Scottish identity. Though it played up Scotland’s religious identity as “Rome’s special daughter”, it also boldly stated that the Scottish crown was only worn by consent of its people (no matter what the English had to say about that), stating:

“For as long as but 100 of us remain alive, never will we be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting. But for freedom. For that alone, which no honest man gives up, but with life itself.”

Such phrases will adorn t-shirts and signs come September’s independence vote — an example of the influence still exerted by a document which swayed the Pope to suspend Robert’s excommunication, and tell Edward to negotiate a lasting peace. And though years of frustrating back and forth negotiations followed, Edward’s death in September 1327 (overthrown by his wife and her lover) prompted Robert’s armies to push south once more, putting the English on the run. At Berwick, Robert issued his peace terms — which boiled down to the demand that English kings recognize Scottish kings as sovereign in perpetuity. Accepted, the immediate physical guarantee of the new peace was the July 1328 marriage of Robert’s 4 year-old son David to the late Edward’s 6 year-old daughter Joan at Berwick. Renewed hostilities followed soon after that wedding, but Papal recognition of (and therefore most of Europe’s recognition of) Scotland’s royal independence had been solidly established.

On September 18th, it will be up to modern Scots to decide if they leave behind a United Kingdom for a democratic independence. The turbulent century leading up to (and past) the Battle of Bannockburn may or may not play a part in their motivations to vote “yes” or “no”. However, Robert I’s victory helped preserve the unique Scottish identity whose continuity will loom large for so many of those voters when they go to the polls — an identity that meant something new when the Bruce died in June 1329, as Oliver articulates at the close of episode 3:

“There was a Scottish people now, loyal to a Scottish throne. No more confusion. No more divided loyalties. The bishops and the Bruce had done their jobs. It was a revolution.”