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Response to Review of Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots

I am very grateful to Dr Watson for such a generous and engaging review. Her own book, Under the Hammer: Edward I and Scotland, 1286–1307 (1997) – along with such works as Colm McNamee’s The Wars of the Bruces: Scotland, England and Ireland, 1306ံ–28 (1997) and A. A. M. Duncan’s The Kingship of the Scots, 842–1292: Succession and Independence (2002) (1) – provided a major contribution in monograph form to deeper understanding of the Scottish wars of succession. Together with a number of recent research articles and essays, such studies made it clear that there was still much to say about the period, and Robert I’s reign in particular.

Indeed, to echo this review and to be perhaps more blunt than I was in the opening to my book, G. W. S. Barrow’s 1965 study and its four subsequent editions (2) – a pioneering, classic book which I still love – arguably now disappoints in key areas. For example: omitting recent work drawing out the far greater uncertainty and ambiguity of the evidence for the competing Balliol and Bruce cases during the ‘Great Cause’ succession hearings of 1291–2; continuing to date Robert’s letter to the Irish to 1315 (ignoring work dating it to 1306); persisting in accepting John Barbour’s medieval spin about a one-year siege respite for Stirling Castle leading to the battle of Bannockburn; covering the brutal, costly slog (mistake?) of the Bruces’ Irish invasion 1315–18 in just two pages; downplaying the ‘Soules conspiracy’ rather than seeing it for the wider Balliol plot it really was; condensing Robert’s resettlement of lands and offices over 15 years to an all-too neat, ‘conservative’ process; omitting evidence for Anglo-Scottish peace-talk terms in 1324; not integrating research which showed the degree to which the 1328 peace treaty terms struggled with the issue of the restoration of the ‘disinherited’; and generally overplaying consensual ‘community’ politics in what remained a factional civil conflict well after 1310–14.

Thus, in many ways, Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots, seeks to provide a synthesis of important post-Barrow works. Here Dr Watson is correct to emphasise my particular concern to extend detailed chronological knowledge and wider debate about this king and his times into the crucial 15 years after Bannockburn. Patronage, parliament and piety are indeed some of the key themes which emerge, continued but also recast and contested from the Interregnum-Balliol-Wallace phase of the wars. Analysing Bruce’s patronage necessitates close prosopographical work with place-dates and witness lists (and as with my book on Robert’s son, David II (1329–71) some readers have criticised the level of detail provided of names and lands – an instance of being damned if you do/damned if you don’t as a historian). Similarly, reconsideration of Bruce’s interaction with his estates in parliament – in real-time as it were – has drawn on the invaluable new critical edition of the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 project (3), a source which far too-many historians continue to ignore in favour of the incomplete, faulty 19th-century edition.

But it is Robert’s religious observances and his participation in ceremony and liturgy which have became especially important to me in reconsidering this king and reign and I am further appreciative of this review’s openness to their importance and illumination. I mention this as – of the new work presented in this book – the coverage of Robert’s piety has so far provoked the most mixed reaction. Some colleagues, students and readers have dismissed Robert’s interest in particular saints, feasts, relics and churches as ‘coincidence’ or mere cynical lip-service serving purely political or aggrandising ends (Barrow, too, dashed through it as ‘conventional’ in his concluding summary of Robert’s character). Yet I would persist in arguing that faith and organised religion should be at the very top of a medieval historian’s concerns, even in analysing war and high politics, and not least here in seeking to understand the central role of Scotland’s prelates in shaping ‘King Robert’ and his community. Moreover, in a biography these themes must also play a vital part in probing for Robert’s character and experiences, through what were incredibly difficult years. In that regard, there are some aspects of piety in the book which I do now feel I might have developed further: for example, the personal support Robert drew from key cults and clerics in his wilderness years c.1297–1309; or the personal and communal meaning of the consecration of St Andrews cathedral overseen by Robert in 1318.(4)

However, here I should also agree wholeheartedly with Dr Watson in underlining the need to always be aware of the ambivalence of the evidence for Robert’s life and reign – a perennial problem for Scottish medieval historians. In that sense I did very often try to have my cake and eat it, presenting the competing chronicle-record or medieval-early modern evidence (or inference) for where Robert was born, where he spent key formative moments of his youth and what his motives were at vital, controversial turning points after 1300. But, in one point I hope if have been less ambivalent about the ambivalent evidence available to us: that is, that on balance – weighing up later chronicle and scant archaeological/antiquarian evidence – there is a strong likelihood that the grave marked in Dunfermline Abbey in Fife as the resting place of Robert I (and where his bones were believed to have been unearthed in 1818) in fact belongs to an earlier king of Scots, probably David I (1124–53), founder of that abbey. As with this week’s further publicised findings about the remains and fate of Richard III of England, this perhaps is a solvable problem, one which ground-penetrating radar and/or archaeology might tackle? That hunt would serve as a further prompt to reconsidering the reign and legacy of Robert I. And it is the ‘aftermyth’, Bruce’s evolving reputation after death as a national icon right up the present-day referendum, which I hope to investigate in a forthcoming book.(5)


    1. Fiona Watson, Under the Hammer: Edward I and Scotland, 1286–1307 (Edinburgh, 1997); Colm McNamee, The Wars of the Bruces: Scotland, England and Ireland, 1306–28 (East Linton, 1997); A. A. M. Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, 842–1292: Succession and Independence (Edinburgh, 2002).Back to (1)
    2. G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce: And the Community of the Realm of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1965).Back to (2)
    3. Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 <> [accessed 17 September 2014].Back to (3)
    4. See my ‘Who is this King of Glory? Robert I and the consecration of St Andrews Cathedral, 5 July 1318’, in Medieval and Early Modern Representations of Authority, ed. K. Buchanan, L. Dean and M. Penman (Farnham, forthcoming).Back to (4)
    5. For now, see my taster article in the free on-line International Review of Scottish Studies – Michael Penman, ‘Robert Bruce’s Bones: reputations, politics and identities in nineteenth-century Scotland’, International Review of Scottish Studies, 34 (2009), <> [accessed 17 September 2009].Back to (5)