Posted in Historic Characters

The Heart of a King

Robert the Bruce-King of Scotland

Robert the Bruce (also known as Robert I) is one of the most celebrated and respected kings of Scottish history. Even to this day, 700 years later, monuments and statues are still being erected in his honor, books are still written about him, and movies are still being made.

Monument to Robert the Bruce~Stirling, Scotland / photo: Tonya U. Brown, 2017

A Little Back History

In the late thirteenth century, Scotland was plunged into a period of political turmoil. The seven-year-old heir to the Scottish throne, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, had died before her coronation, leaving the throne empty and thirteen men vying for the position.

However, the King of England, Edward I had other plans. He exerted a feudal superiority, treating Scotland like a vassal of England. Edward appointed John de Balliol to take the Scottish throne. John was heavily influenced by Edward, putting him out of favor with the Scottish nobility.

The nobles deposed John and set up a council to rule instead. This, of course, angered Edward and goaded him to invade Scotland, starting the Wars for Scottish Independence. When Scotland was defeated in 1296, John abdicated, leaving Scotland without a king once more.

Enter Robert the Bruce

Robert was one of the many men who claimed a right to the Scottish throne. He was known to have led supporters of the rebel, William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) during the Wars for Scottish Independence. However, he was also known to be in good graces with the English king from time to time as well. But any goodwill that might have been shown to him by Edward came to an end in 1306, when Robert killed the cousin of the appointed Scottish king, John.

1797 painting of Robert the Bruce by unknown artist~The Granger Collection, New York

Questionable Actions

When Robert’s loyalty to Edward was called into question, he went right to the traitorous source: the cousin of John de Balliol, John (“The Red”) Comyn. Adamant opposer to English Rule, and another rightful heir to the Scottish throne, Comyn may have tired of Robert’s vacillations between English rule and Scottish rights. He met with Robert at a church at Dumfries on February 10, 1306. An argument broke out when Robert confronted Comyn on his reports to King Edward about Robert’s possible betrayal.

Here is where history gets a little cloudy. Some say Robert met John Comyn with all intentions of killing him. Other historians think that an argument broke out, and in a fit of passion Bruce struck Comyn, taking him down. When he asked after Comyn’s wellbeing afterward, one of Bruce’s supporters decided to take it upon himself to make sure the job was done.

The difference in that time period is comparable to our current U.S. laws differentiating between murder and manslaughter.  Was it cold-blooded premeditated murder, or a hot-blooded lashing out that resulted in someone’s death?  Opinions vary and depending on which way you look at it could determine Robert’s popularity among the people, or lack thereof.

Either way, one thing remained: he had taken someone’s life within the walls of a holy sanctuary. This caused him to be excommunicated from the church and may have tormented Robert for the rest of his life.

Death of a Warrior

Many years later, the man who is most famous for breaking the English hold over Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn, died at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton.  His body was buried in the Dumfermline Abbey, but his sternum was cut open and his heart removed so that it might be buried elsewhere. Some historians say that it was Robert’s one unfulfilled wish to go on a crusade. For this reason, his heart was put into a metal casket and borne about the neck of his close friend, Sir James Douglas as he set off for a crusade to Jerusalem.  However, the crusade never came to fruition and instead Bruce’s men were sidetracked to Spain where Alfonso XI of Castile was instigating a campaign against the Moors of Granada. There, Douglas was killed, and Sir William Keith brought Robert’s heart back to Scotland. It was buried at Melrose Abbey, (a place repaired several times throughout Robert’s reign and with his funding),  according to his wishes.  

Other tradition holds that Bruce wanted his heart to be buried at Jerusalem. The reason for this wish could lead back to his excommunication from the church. Local tradition believes that Robert the Bruce wanted his heart buried in Jerusalem to atone for the sin of his murder of John Comyn at the Franciscan church 23 years earlier.

Whatever the reason, we know that his heart unfortunately did not make it to Jerusalem (unless you believe some conspiracy theories that hold that it was actually smuggled into Jerusalem hundreds of years later). However, what we do not know for sure is whether the small casket unearthed at Melrose Abbey in 1920, reburied, then unearthed again in 1996 are the actual remains of Robert the Bruce.

The heart was reburied again in 1998 and a marker has been set at the new burial place. For the most part people accept that it truly is Robert’s heart. Although it may have been Bruce’s wish to have his heart buried at Jerusalem, no one can deny that the rightful place for the heart of this beloved Scottish hero belongs in the soil of his hard-won land.

The heart of Robert the Bruce, buried at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire, Scotland / photo: Tonya U. Brown , 2017

The above inscription on the stone comes from a long, narrative poem by John Barbour called The Brus. It is a historic account of Robert the Bruce’s heroic deeds during the Scottish Wars for Independence. In Early Scots it reads: “A noble hart may have no ease, gif freedom failye” In English it is translated as: “A noble heart cannot be at peace if freedom is lacking”. Notice how the heart is entwined with the Saltire, the symbol used on the Scottish flag.

Here are a few more pictures I took at Melrose Abbey. You can click on the picture to open and expand for a bigger, better view. I hope you enjoy!

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