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Robert the Bruce, or Robert de Brus, as his Norman surname was spelled, was born on 11 July, 1274. He was the first born son of one of the richest and most powerful of the nobles in Scotland. His father had both Norman blood, as the surname suggests, and royal Scots blood in his veins, and his mother was from one of the oldest noble Celtic families in Scotland. Bruce was educated, learning Latin, English, Scots and Gaelic, and he was also trained in warfare, later to become unsurpassed in Europe in his use of the battle axe. He was raised with the knowledge that he would have a claim to the Scots throne if anything ever happened to the Balliol line, the Balliols having taken the throne when the daughter of the last king, Alexander III, died.
Not long after ascending the throne, Balliol submitted to Edward I, giving up his crown and ostensibly giving Edward control of Scotland. Bruce, however, like many other Scots, would not stand for such an affront to Scotland -- being ruled by a foreign power -- especially when such was aggravated by the bloody sacking of Berwick at English hands in March of 1296, and so he eventually called his knights to stand behind him in rebellion against Edward.
Bruce did not reside at Edinburgh Castle, as portrayed in the film, it was occupied by the English from 1296 until 1313. And, though the character of the Bruce in Braveheart was depicted as being a man more of words than of battle, that was not the case. While William Wallace and Andrew Murray took control of the heart of Scotland, Bruce gave the English trouble in southwest Scotland.
Most historians cannot be sure of Bruce's actions at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but it is thought that he may have been the highest-ranking noble who knighted William Wallace in Selkirk Forest in March of 1298, after the victory at Stirling. As far as the battle of Falkirk, while it is accepted that Bruce supplied forces for the Scots army, most historians cannot agree as to what role he played there, though he was instrumental in helping Wallace escape as was shown in the film.
After the loss at Falkirk, once Wallace had resigned as Guardian of Scotland, Bruce and John "The Red" Comyn, Bruce's cousin, were given joint positions as Guardians late that year. There had been trouble before between Bruce and Comyn, but they apparently were able to get along at least for a time. However, the Bruce gave up the Guardianship in 1300, though it is not known why. Bruce's next unexplained move was his submission to Edward I in 1302. This was depicted rather symbolically in the film by his appearance on the Falkirk battlefield under Edward's banner. Of course, the Bruce had not submitted to Edward at the time of the Battle of Falkirk, but the message is clear nonetheless: he wavered. He wavered from his previous driving desire to free Scotland. There are many theories as to why he did so.
Perhaps he wanted to protect his lands, titles and power, as the character of his father suggested in the film. Or perhaps, as his staunchest fans today suggest, he was simply a brilliant man who knew that he could not win just then, and that he had to go to Edward's side in order to survive, though he planned to join the side of rebellion again when he was on his feet again. This seems possible, for eventually he did join the rebels once again.
In 1304, Bruce and Bishop Lamberton surreptitiously allied with one another. Lamberton had been working long and hard to find nobles and clerics alike who were willing to join together to end English occupation and rule of Scotland. Bruce's desire to be allied with the rebels was strengthened when William Wallace was executed in 1305. Interestingly, Bruce included his old rival John Comyn in the secret alliance and workings of the rebellion, promising Comyn lands if he would help Bruce win the crown of Scotland. Sadly, in early 1306, Comyn told Edward I of Bruce's promise. Bruce barely escaped London before being arrested by Edward's men, for he had been tipped off to Comyn's treachery.
Of course Bruce was furious with Comyn, but he did not let on that he was aware of Comyn's betrayal of him. He asked Comyn to meet him at Greyfriar's Church in Dumfries on February 10th. When he realized that his betrayal was known, Comyn moved to attack the Bruce, but Bruce struck first, injuring Comyn. Comyn's uncle then attacked Bruce, but Bruce's brother-in-law killed him. Historians do not agree on what happened next: either Bruce killed Comyn on the altar of the church, or Bruce left and one of his knights killed Comyn there. Whatever happened, Bruce realized that his involvement in Comyn's death could not be hidden, and he made his defiance of Edward I known. Many Scottish nobles came to openly support Bruce after the death of Comyn. He was crowned king at Scone on 25 March, 1306. However, things began to go awry thereafter, for Bruce's presumption angered Edward I terribly. The English imprisoned both Bishop Wishart and Bishop Lamberton.
Bruce and his army were defeated at Methven, and Bruce fled to Rathlin Island, though he was almost found by the English several times as he made his way through the Highlands. Sadly, his wife and daughter and his sisters, whom he had placed in his brother Nigel's hands, were captured and imprisoned, and his brother was beheaded. Despite such horrible losses, Bruce worked to gather an army. He returned from Rathlin Island in 1307, and though his brothers Thomas and Alexander were executed, he forged ahead and assembled his army. Edward I died in July of 1307. This was wondrously fortunate for Bruce and the Scots, for Edward II was not as keen on crushing Scotland as his father had been. Bruce had the opportunity, then to continue amassing his forces for the inevitable clash with the English. That clash did not come until July of 1314 at Bannockburn, when Bruce and his men decimated the English (although, despite the film's depiction, Bruce was not at Bannockburn to have the English accept his kingship -- in fact, he and his men were there besieging Stirling Castle and the English had come to try to end the siege).
The Declaration of Arboath was signed in 1320 by many Scottish nobles and bishops and was sent to the Pope (and a portion of it read: "For as long as one hundred of us shall remain alive we shall never in any wise consent to submit to the rule of the English, for it is not for glory we fight...but for freedom alone"), but true independence for Scotland would not be achieved for another 14 years, when the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed in March of 1328 and Edward III formally recognized Bruce as king.
However, during that interim, Bruce was able to rule his kingdom, and he was well-liked by his subjects, for he had a reputation of fairness. He was also a faithful Christian, and he granted large sums of money for the rebuilding and upkeep of the great abbeys in southern Scotland which were damaged or sacked by the English. Bruce was cursed by a skin disease which, today, historians believe was psoriasis or the like, but which for centuries was believed to be leprosy. Bruce himself believed it to be that dread disease, and he felt that it was a punishment for his involvement in the death of John Comyn on a sacred altar. This may explain his generosity to the abbeys. He also asked that, when he died, his heart be taken on crusade to the Holy Land.
Therefore, when he died in 1329, his body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey, the resting place of other Scottish monarchs, and his heart was taken by Sir James Douglas to the Holy Land. However, Douglas was killed in one of the many battles of the Crusades before he could reach his destination. The Bruce's heart, carried in a small casket about Douglas' neck, was returned to Scotland and buried in Bruce's beloved Melrose Abbey. Like William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, or Robert 1st of Scotland, lingers in the mind and hearts of Scotland today because of his fierce determination and his overcoming of many obstacles and losses in his fight for the freedom of Scotland. Compiled by Melanie Campbell