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.
– The Scotsman (and The Telegraph… and The Times)
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.