He was the King of Scots who led the nation to its most famous victory on the battlefield and sent “proud Edward” and his army home to think again.
But although Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314, it seems the historic triumph masked a hidden irony.
A new book by an eminent academic makes an astonishing claim: that Bruce was born in England.
One thing about historians is that you’ll never find two that agree on everything, or even most things. History is as coloured by the interpretations of the historian as they are by the written sources, and I do not think considering it more of an art than a science diminishes it whatsoever. So, much like the notion that Mary, Queen of Scots spoke with a French accent, I feel my inner history nerd steepling his fingers and arching his eyebrows at the notion that Robert the Bruce was definitely, absolutely, positively, certainly born in Essex.
The academic said: “The truth may be unpalatable for some, for a chronicler from Southern England states categorically that Robert belonged to ‘the English nation’ and, more specifically, that he came into this world surrounded by the pleasant meadows, vineyards, grass and grain of Essex.
“There was a strong tradition in the South that Bruce was born in Essex, while there is no direct evidence he was born in Turnberry. In modern times it has been presumed Bruce would have been born at Turnberry, but the evidence points to Writtle.”
– Dr Fiona Watson (as quoted)
Not having the privilege of reading her book (yet), I cannot comment on the evidence or sources that Dr Watson proposes. It could be she’s unearthed some hitherto undiscovered chronicle that turns everything we thought we knew upside down. In the absence of such knowledge, however, I can only surmise that the English Chronicler referred to in the article is Geoffrey the Baker of Swinbrook, who is the source usually cited whenever the alleged English origins of Robert are mentioned:
Robert Bruce also died in this year. He left behind a son David who was seven or eight years old, and the Scots made him their king. His right of succession was as follows. Alexander, king of the Scots, had three daughters but no sons. The first was married to John Balliol, the second to John Comyn and the third to Robert Bruce, an Englishman born in Essex, After the death of king Alexander, with the consent of Edward king of England the Scots had appointed as their king John Balliol, the husband of king Alexander’s eldest daughter, and Balliol on behalf of the kingdom of Scotland did homage to the king of England and swore fealty to him. But later, at the instigation of the disturbers of the peace of the kingdom of Scotland, John Balliol renounced by royal letter and by noble envoys the fealty and homage which he been forced to give and promised various other forms of subjection which he was willing to demand from king Edward.Despite this, he nevertheless kept the kingship of Scotland, but not for long. For the king of England extended a long arm from Winchester and put to flight from Scotland John Balliol king of the Scots and his son Edward.
While the two of them were journeying to France, the English king seized the castles and fortifications of the Scots, and the Scots, in an act of nothing other than witless rashness, took for their king the husband of the second daughter of king Alexander, namely Robert Bruce. For he was a soldier to his fingertips, except that, failing in his ambition of becoming king, he abandoned his loyalty without which no warrior wins praise and dared to rebel against his natural lord.
– The Chronicle of Geoffrey Le Baker of Swinbrook (David Preest translation)
Of course, if this is the “Southern English chronicler” Dr Watson refers to, then the Scotsman (and Telegraph and Times) are a bit behind the times, since Geoffrey the Baker’s account has been well-established since… well, the Middle Ages. As with dinosaurs, there’s nothing the press loves more than to present old news as some sort of bombshell new discovery.
In isolation, one could argue that this is fairly conclusive: as there is no known comparable contemporary evidence for Robert’s birth at Turnberry, the process of elimination leaves only Writtle.
For one thing, Geoffrey as a source was not entirely reliable. In the same passage he refers to Robert, he describes Alexander III as having three daughters but no son, that the first daughter married John Balliol, the second married John Comyn, and the third married Robert. In fact Alexander had only one daughter, Margaret (who didn’t even marry a Scot or Englishman, but the Norwegian king Eric Magnusson on 25th July 1281), and two sons, Alexander and David – it is indeed, as G.W.S. Barrow suggests, “full of error and confusion.”
The cautious words in Dunbar, Scot. Kings., 127, ‘born – it has been supposed at Writtle, near Chelmsford in Essex’ became a categorical statement in Scots Peerage, i, 7. They are based on a passage in the chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook (ed. E.M. Thompson, 1889, p38), which says that Alexander (III) had three daughters but no son, that the first daughter married John Balliol, the second John Comyn and the third Robert Bruce ‘English by birth, born in Essex (at Writtle)’ who later became king. It is hard to know what to make of a statement so full of error and confusion, but there may have been a sound tradition that Bruce’s father was born at Writtle.
Chron. Guisb., 296, reports that Robert Bruce the future king referred to Scotland and (probably) Carrick as his native country; and the Harcla Treaty of 1323 refers to England (under Edward II, born in Wales but clearly not Welsh by nation) and Scotland (under Robert Bruce) each having a king of its own nation. In view of this evidence and of the shakiness of the evidence that King Robert I was born at Writtle, it seems best to prefer the belief traditional in Scotland that he was born at Turnberry, the caput of the earldom of Carrick.
– G.W.S. Barrow, Robert Bruce (1965)
While Geoffrey’s account is valuable as a source, it’s a pretty big thing to get Alexander III’s issue so wildly wrong considering it was foundational to the crisis of succession which led to Edward’s invasion in the first place. Other historians agree with Barrow on the likelihood of Geoffrey’s account:
Turnberry, Lochmaben and even Writtle in Essex have been put forward for that honour. We can safely dismiss the last of these since the sole authority for an English birthplace was the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook whose writings contain the astonishing statement that King Alexander III of Scotland had no sons but three daughters…
– James Alexander Mackay, Robert Bruce: King of Scots (1974)
A letter appeared in the Glasgow Herald newspaper around 1995 claiming Bruce was ‘Essex man’. This story that Bruce was born in England, or Essex to be more precise, is another of the misconceptions which I see once in a while. The story has its origins in the Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker of Swinbrook who claimed Bruce’s Essex bithplace. Others have copied this very unreliable source material, so the myth is perpetuated. A tradition that Bruce’s father was perhaps born there would account for the origin of the story.
Bruce is mentioned in the Harcla Treaty of 1323, which states that ‘Scotland has a king of its own nation’. Various English chronicles refer to Bruce as a Scot, and Bishop Wishart of Glasgow, when absolving him of the murder of the Red Comyn, refers to him as a ‘layman of Carrick’.
– David R. Ross, On the Trail of Robert the Bruce (1999)
Again, I haven’t read Dr Watson’s book, so I cannot say for sure whether this is an accurate representation of her arguments. After all, not only is this not the first time the “Robert was born in Essex” theory was posited, it also wouldn’t be the first time Dr Watson has been grievously misrepresented by the press:
That period has been a gift to Alex Salmond and the SNP. Politicians might not feel much affinity with history themselves, but they know how to make use of it. The problem with Braveheart now is xenophobia: the justification of anti-English sentiment for which there should be absolutely no tolerance in a modern Scotland. It’s not justifiable, and it has happened even after devolution. In 2006 kids were still getting beaten up for wearing an England shirt. That’s why I think Wallace is a harder hero to stomach today.
– What The Radio Times claimed Fiona Watson said
The SNP have done a great job in explicitly not being xenophobic. I sighed when I saw the copy, but it was too late by then. I entirely agree that this will give an impression in these ‘interesting times’ that I said something that I didn’t. I will see how National Geographic reacts. But feel free to state categorically that, while I did make a comment on anti-English sentiment generally, particularly in relation to the 2006 world cup, I most certainly did not refer to the SNP government, which came out with statements condemning the actions of those few.
– What Fiona Watson actually said
I have a lot of time for Fiona Watson: her books on Scottish history and particularly Macbeth are first class, and I heartily recommend them for anyone interested in our nation’s ancient heritage. She clearly knows her stuff, and will doubtless have arrived at her conclusion regarding Robert’s birthplace (one she was once not so quick to make) after much thought & investigation. Regardless of whether or not Robert was born in Writtle, it’s very clear that the king had close ties with the place through his life: it was the venue for Robert’s marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh – herself born in Ireland – in 1302.
But here’s the thing: let’s consider the possibility that Dr Watson has uncovered new evidence, and the long-discredited notion that Robert was born in Writtle has been reconsidered. Such reconsiderations are far from uncommon in history, and nothing should be considered sacred or definitive outside irrefutable evidence. Let’s suppose that the overwhelming evidence says that, yes, Robert was born in his family’s land in Essex – one of the most English places in the whole of England.
Here’s the question:
Would that be such a terrible thing?
Scotland’s patron saint was not born in Scotland, after all. Neither were several saints foundational to the Scottish church. The mythological founder of the Scottish people wasn’t even born in Europe, let alone Britain. Heck, when you get down to it, the Scottish people weren’t “born” in Scotland, whether you’re speaking from a mythological, anthropological, or genetic perspective. Plenty of Scotland’s most famous sons and daughters were neither born within its borders, nor children to generations of Scots. What matters is that they made Scotland their home. In fact, Dr Watson herself makes this observation:
While Bruce is likely to have been born in Essex, more important in terms of his outlook was the Gaelic influence.
He would have spent his earliest years between Essex and Carrick. But fosterage was something noble families did and around the age of eight he would have gone to another household to learn how to be a young nobleman.
Robert’s father decided to send his children to the Gaelic-speaking world – where they would not be brought up with a love of the English. This would have been until around the age of 14 and would have given the young Robert a very different perspective on the world from the one he would have imbibed as a very young child.
These were his formative years and I believe Robert’s first love was for not only Scotland, but the Highlands and the Celtic world. That’s where his heart is.
Whether it be Ninian or Margaret, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham or Regina Kapeller-Adler, Bertold Weisner or Marcella Althaus-Reid, or any of the other folk who’ve made Scotland their home over the centuries, Bashir Ahmad’s maxim rings true: “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what matters is where we go together as a nation.” Were Robert truly born in the “pleasant meadows, vineyards, grass and grain of Essex,” would it make a blind bit of difference to what he did for our nation? Would we think any less of him some sort of “non-native Scot” or – gasp – “really” an Englishman? I hardly think so – and anyone who does doesn’t seem to understand what being a proud Scots actually means.
So I’ll reserve judgement on Traitor, Outlaw, King until I have a physical copy in my hands: whether I agree with Dr Watson’s propositions or not, I’m confident that it will lead to further discussion about Scotland’s history, and what we take from it.