Book Corner: Robert the Bruce; Champion of a Nation by Stephen Spinks

Robert the Bruce is a man of both history and legend. In his lifetime he secured Scottish independence in the face of English imperial aggression under the successive leadership of Edward I and Edward II. He was the victor of Bannockburn, a self-made king against all odds, and is celebrated as a champion of the Scottish nation. Yet Robert s colourful life is far from straightforward. Stephen Spinks seeks to examine this most enigmatic of kings beyond the myths to reveal him in the context of his time, his people and in his actions.

Stephen shows that Robert was a complex man, confronted by hardships and difficult and often dangerous decisions. He was not born to rule. As the murderer of John Comyn, a rival for the Scottish crown, Bruce sent shockwaves across Europe and was condemned by kings and popes. In war he suffered terrible personal loss, including the deaths of all four of his brothers and the imprisonment of his wife, daughter and two sisters, all at the hands of the English. He was at times a desperate yet focussed and highly determined man. Robert was also astute, breaking the rules of chivalry to even the odds, systematically fighting a guerrilla war against the English which he ultimately won. Yet he also cultivated the symbols of kingship, was pious, careful with his patronage and fought to uphold his fiercely held beliefs.

King Robert unified his deeply divided kingdom and secured its independence from England. His dramatic life as the victorious underdog forged a significant legacy that has survived for 700 years.

I may have mentioned before that I have a soft spot for Robert the Bruce and his family. I have already written of his daughter Marjorie, wife Elizabeth de Burgh and 2 of his sisters, Christian and Mary, women who suffered under the heavy hand of Edward I due to their relationship with Robert the Bruce and his ambition for an independent Scotland. King Robert I (the Bruce) is an enigmatic figure, whose conflicted loyalties saw him change sides on a number of occasions during the early years of his career.

So, of course I have been eagerly awaiting Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation ever since I first heard that Stephen Spinks was writing it. And it does not disappoint. Beautifully written and presented, Stephen Spinks tells the incredible story of Robert the Bruce and the fight for Scottish independence with great passion and enthusiasm. This is a wonderful book for any fan of Robert the Bruce – and Scottish history in general.

Since his surreptitious meeting with Lamberton, Robert may well have been building discreet coalitions to shore up a foundation on which to launch a bid for the Scottish throne. Yet, however successful he may have been at this juncture, there remained a significant contingent of men who would probably not support him, in particular the Balliols and Comyns and their adherents, who still held out for the return of King John or the accession of his heir, Edward Balliol, the latter still in English captivity. Just because Bruce wanted to champion his right did not mean Scotland would unite behind his cause. His greatest challenge now rested with John ‘the Red’ Comyn, lord of Badenoch, who had assumed the leadership of the Comyn family. He was nephew to King John, cousin to the Comyn Earl of Buchan, and brother-in-law to the English Aymer de Valence, soon to be Earl of Pembroke. If Bruce was to secure the crown, he needed to reconcile Comyn to his cause one way or another. What happened next tested the limits of Bruce’s personal ambition, and has gone down in the annals of history.

What is certain is that, on a cold night on 10 February 1306, Robert and John Comyn met at the Church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries. Comyn had been resident at his nearby castle at Dalswinton, not far from Bruce’s family home of Lochmaben. The two men, who had a history of bitter rivalry and had clashed violently at Peebles during the summer gathering near Selkirk Forest in 1299, could guarantee a safe, violence-free meeting constrained by their choice of location. Spilling blood in a church was sacrilegious and warranted excommunication, the gravest of punishements.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation doesn’t sugar coat Robert the Bruce’s actions, it examines the good and the bad in detail, from his support for Edward I in his early years, to the fateful murder of John Comyn that set him on the road to his coronation, a race against time to become king before the inevitable sentence of excommunication could be passed.

The author uses the primary sources of both England and Scotland, to present the story of Bruce’s fight to gain – and hold on to – the Scottish throne. Analytical and highlighting source bias, Stephen Spinks presents Robert the Bruce as a flawed hero, like all kings, whose personal and political ambition is balanced by opposition within a deeply divided Scotland, and a personal cost to him and his family that few of us could bare.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation is a wonderful, entertaining and informative read from beginning to end. Insightful and analytical, it puts every known aspect of Robert the Bruce’s life under the microscope, from his family, ambitions and military capabilities, to his health and leadership. Author Stephen Spinks examines Bruce’s actions and motivations in great detail, painting a fascinating portrait of the man and king.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation by Stephen Spinks is a must-read for anyone interested in Scottish history, and one of the best non-fiction books I have read in recent years. It is thoroughly enjoyable, totally engaging and impossible to put down.

Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation is now available from Amazon in the UK. It will be released in the US on 1 April 2020 and is available for pre-order on Amazon US.

About the Author:

Stephen Spinks wrote his dissertation on Edward II while studying at King’s College, London. He works for the National Trust and manages three Medieval heritage sites with 900 volunteers and 150 staff. He is a columnist for ‘Midlands Zone’ magazine, in which he writes a very well received exploration of life as a gay man today, partly political, partly personal. He has given many interviews on radio and in his capacity at the National Trust, to ‘BBC’s Escape to the Country’ and the ‘Antiques Road Show’. He has been studying the primary sources (and locations) for this book over the past 15 years.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Edward II the Man, A Doomed Inheritance by Stephen Spinks

Edward II is one of the most controversial kings of English history. On numerous occasions he brought England to the brink of civil war.

Author Stephen Spinks argues that Edward and the later murdered Piers Gaveston were lovers, not merely ‘brothers-in-arms’. Influenced by successive royal favourites and with a desire for personal vengeance, his rule became highly polarised and unstable. His own wife took a lover and invaded his kingdom resulting in his forced abdication; the first in British history. Edward’s prevailing legacy remains the warning that all kings can fall from power.

And yet … war, debt and baronial oppression before 1307 ensured that Edward II inherited a toxic legacy that any successor would have found almost impossible to wrestle with. Stephen Spinks explores that legacy using contemporary and later sources. By focusing on Edward’s early years as much as on his reign, and exploring the conflicting influences of those around him, Stephen shows the human side of this tale against a backdrop of political intrigues and betrayals. He peels back the layers to reveal the man who wore the crown. Edward’s belief in his unchallengable right to rule, increasingly at odds with those at his court, and his undeniable thirst for revenge, creates a fourteenth-century tragedy on a grand scale.

I have to say, I had been looking forward to the release of Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance by Stephen Spinks for sometime. It sounded like such an interesting premise for a book, looking at the human side of one of England’s most ineffective kings. And I wasn’t disappointed. This book is a wonderful read, enjoyable from beginning to end.

Meticulously researched and eloquently argued, this book presents Edward II as a man, a king, a friend and a lover. Stephen Spinks uses all the sources available to examine every aspect of Edward’s life – the public and the private – giving us a deep insight into the character of the man and the king. Stephen Spinks presents Edward in all his facets, as a king, father, friend and enemy. He examines those who surround Edward at different stages in his life, discussing how they variously influence or infuriate him.

Entertaining anecdotes help to decipher the character of a king who often made the wrong choice when faced with a decision.

While Edward was working with those around him to seek a political compromise, he heard in late June that the son of a tanner, John Powderham, had arrived in Oxford declaring himself to be the one true king of England. He alleged that he and Edward had been switched at birth. Two days later the arrested Powderham found himself in the presence of the king, who with his characteristic humour, greeted the imposter as ‘brother’. When Edward asked him if such claims were true, not remotely intimidated by his royal audience, simply repeated his claim. What happened next says something about Edward’s character. Whereas most kings would have been apoplectic with rage, the king, still in a playful mood, laughed and suggested John be given a ‘bauble’ and allowed to go around the country as a fool…. Isabella was angry over the whole affair; she rightly saw such claims as a dangerous affront to Edward’s dignity. Powderham was hanged on 23 July…

 

Written in chronological order, Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance discusses the influences that shaped Edward’s character and kingship, highlighting his personal bravery, political judgements and misjudgments, and the way he was influenced by personal favourites, including Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger. Analysing all the major events of Edward’s reign, such as Bannockburn, the death of Gaveston and Isabella’s betrayal, Stephen Spinks manages to bring to life this complex enigma of a medieval king.

As you would expect with any biography of Edward II, the king’s mysterious death is covered in detail, presenting the facts and offering credible theories. The author also makes an eloquent, persuasive, argument for the survival of Edward II after 1327, building a believable timetable of events from the sources available. Although I am still not totally convinced….

Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance is a colourful, full-of-life biography of the controversial king. It is a fabulous book if you want to learn about Edward II, or examine deeper the events and influences on his life. Enjoyable, entertaining and informative, it is a pleasure to read and easy to devour.

 

About the Author

Stephen Spinks wrote his dissertation on Edward II while studying at King’s College, London. He works for the National Trust and manages three Medieval heritage sites with 900 volunteers and 150 staff. He is a columnist for ‘Midlands Zone’ magazine, in which he writes a very well received exploration of life as a gay man today, partly political, partly personal. He has given many interviews on radio and in his capacity at the National Trust, to ‘BBC’s Escape to the Country’ and the ‘Antiques Road Show’. He has been studying the primary sources (and locations) for this book over the past 15 years.

Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance is available from Amazon and Amberley Publishing.

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My Book:

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018. It can also be ordered worldwide from Book Depository.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

 

Poor Little Marjorie Bruce

Marjorie_Bruce_Paisley_Abbey
Tomb of Marjorie Bruce, Paisley Abbey

I’ve always had a soft spot for little Marjorie Bruce. Dead before her 20th birthday, her short life was filled with tragedy and adversity from the moment of her birth. I could find no pictures of her, just ones of her tomb; which just about sums it up for poor Marjorie.

Marjorie was born at a time of great upheaval for Scotland; Edward I was claiming overlordship of the country, and the right to choose its next king. John Balliol was picked as king, only for Edward to humiliate and dethrone him a short time later.

Marjorie’s father, Robert the Bruce, was one of the chief claimants of the Scots crown.

Marjorie was the only daughter of Robert the Bruce, Lord of Annandale and Earl of Carrick, and Isabella of Mar. Isabella was the daughter of Donald, 6th Earl of Mar, and Helen, possible illegitimate daughter of Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales (although this seems to be far from certain).

Robert_I_and_Isabella_of_Mar
Marjorie’s parents; Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar

Isabella and Robert had married in 1295 and Marjorie arrived about 2 years later. At the age of only 19, Isabella died shortly after giving birth and poor Marjorie was left motherless, with a father who was fighting, alternately, for and against the English.

Marjorie was named after her paternal grandmother, Marjorie, Countess of Carrick in her own right. And it seems highly likely that Marjorie’s care was handed to one of her father’s sister, either Mary or Christian.

At 6 years old Marjorie acquired a new step-mother when Robert married Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, and god-daughter of Edward I. Although Edward I appears to have arranged the marriage in order to keep the Bruce’s loyalty, it was only a short while after the marriage that Robert the Bruce finally decided to join William Wallace and fight for Scotland.

In 1306, following his murder of his rival for the throne, John Comyn, Robert the Bruce defied Edward I by having himself crowned King of Scots at Scone Abbey. Little 8-year-old Marjorie was suddenly a Princess of Scotland as the daughter of  King Robert I; although her uncle Edward Bruce was designated Robert’s heir.

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Robert the Bruce and his queen, Elizabeth de Burgh

Unfortunately Robert’s coronation infuriated Edward I even more. After King Robert was brought to battle, and defeated, at Methven in June 1306 he and his family became fugitives in their own land. Edward I of England was determined to hunt him down; sending men after Robert and all his adherents.

In August 1306 Robert split his party; while he headed west he sent Marjorie and Elizabeth to the north-east, possibly hoping they could escape to Orkney and onto Norway, where his sister, Isabel, was queen.

Accompanying Elizabeth and Marjorie were Robert’s other 2 sisters, Christian and Mary, and Isabella, Countess of Buchan, who had crowned Robert at Scone. They were escorted by John of Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, and Robert’s younger brother, Sir Niall Bruce.

By September 1306, the women and their escort had reached Kildrummy Castle in Aberdeenshire; where Edward’s forces caught up with them. While Sir Niall Bruce and the garrison stoically attempted to hold off the English troops, the Earl of Atholl escaped with the women. Having made it to the far north of Scotland, but were apprehended at Tain, near Inverness, by the Earl of Ross, a supporter of the Comyns.

Kildrummy had fallen in the mean time.

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Edward I

Sir Niall Bruce and the Kildrummy garrison were handed over to the English and executed; Sir Niall suffered hanging, drawing and quartering at Berwick. The Earl of Atholl and the Bruce women, along with the Countess of Buchan, were sent south to King Edward.

When they reached London, the Earl of Atholl suffered the same fate as Sir Niall, the first earl to ever suffer a traitor’s execution.

Although Edward did not order the executions of the women folk, it cannot be said he treated them kindly. They were used to set an example; a demonstration of the price of rebellion against Edward.

For Mary Bruce and the Countess of Buchan, he ordered the construction of iron cages. Isabella, Countess of Buchan, who had set the crown of Scotland on Robert the Bruce’s head, was imprisoned in one such cage suspended high from the walls of Berwick castle; open the elements and the mockery of the people of Berwick. The same was ordered for Mary Bruce at Roxburgh.

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Watton Abbey, where Marjorie was confined for 8 years

Christian Bruce, whose husband had recently been executed as a traitor at Dumfries, was ordered to be confined at a convent at Sixhills in Lincolnshire; while Elizabeth de Burgh was confined to various manors and treated more kindly due to her father’s friendship with the king.

For Marjorie Bruce, these events must have been terrifying. Edward ordered her confined in an iron cage in the Tower of London, where no one was to speak to her. Whether Edward relented of his own free will, or was advised against such treatment of a child of not yet 10 years old, the order was rescinded and she was confined to a convent at Watton in Yorkshire.

Although loyal to their king, we can only hope that the nuns took pity on the poor child, and treated her kindly. She was held at Watton for 8 years and it was only her father’s victory at Bannockburn, in 1314, that eventually secured her freedom.

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Paisley Abbey

Robert the Bruce’s resounding victory over Edward I’s son and successor, Edward II, in the 1314 battle meant Bruce was finally in a position to insist on the return of his queen, daughter, sisters and the Countess of Buchan. With so many English nobles taken prisoner, the women were the price demanded in the exchange of hostages.

On Marjorie’s return to Scotland, King Robert almost immediately set about arranging her marriage. With the queen not yet having produced a child, the now-17-year-old Marjorie was needed to produce an heir for the Bruce dynasty.

Just 5 years older the Marjorie, Walter Stewart, the wealthy and powerful 6th High Steward of Scotland was the ideal candidate as a husband. Walter had distinguished himself as a commander at the Battle of Bannockburn, and was the man entrusted by Bruce to bring his family home for their English captivity.

Robert_II_of_Scotland
Robert II of Scotland

Walter and Marjorie were married shortly after, with Marjorie’s dowry including the Barony of Bathgate in West Lothian. Whatever happiness – if any – Marjorie derived from the marriage, however, was short-lived.

In 1316, whilst heavily pregnant, she fell from her horse when out riding near Paisley Abbey. Going into premature labour, Marjorie was taken to the Abbey, where she was delivered of a son, Robert, on 2nd March 1316. It is possible that Robert was delivered by caesarian as his mother was close to death. Marjorie survived the birth by just a few hours and died the same day.

Poor little Marjorie Bruce was dead at the tender age of 19 – the same as her mother before her – having lived through some of the most turbulent years of Scottish history.

Had she lived she would have seen her son succeed her brother, David II, on the Scots throne as King Robert II, founder of the Stewart dynasty.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; Edward I, A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The Plantagenets, The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Kings & Queens of Britain by Charles Phillips; Kings & Queens of Britain by Joyce Marlow; englishmonarchs.co.uk; educationscotland.gov.uk; Sisters of the Bruce; electricscotland.com.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly