Reputations in Scottish History: King Robert the Bruce (1274-1329)

Reputations in Scottish History: King Robert the Bruce (1274-1329)

By Michael A. Penman

Études écossaises, Vol. 10 (2005)

Introduction: The initial concerns of this Reputations study were twofold. Firstly, that it would find that Robert Bruce only existed in the shadow of his predecessor in Scotland’s medieval fight against England, the purer patriot William Wallace (d. 1305). Secondly, in working its way through works of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, that it would find that Bruce’s image had become effectively fossilised as a result of the acceptance and perpetuation by writers like Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) of Archdeacon John Barbour’s near-contemporary poem, The Bruce, of the 1370s. An initial glance at the structure of most works on Bruce from the late fourteenth-century to the present day seems to justify this fear. Barbour’s poem, some 14,000 lines long, takes over three-quarters of its length to follow Bruce from his seizure of the throne in 1306 through many struggles to his triumph in battle against England at Bannockburn in 1314: the remaining fifteen years of ‘Good King Robert’s’ reign is then covered quickly by Barbour. This shape to the story of Bruce can, as we’ll see, be found in general histories, biographies, fiction, poetry and even visual imagery to the present day.

However, a selective look at works on Bruce to c.1945 may help us tackle two important questions, the first of which our introduction has already aired. That is – can professional historians really make an impact on the popular image of an iconic national figure or does the essence of reputation remain the preserve of oral and local tradition, fiction, verse, song and the visual arts – a popular image that has even come to dictate the establishment view? And beyond this, have peculiarly Scottish circumstances and processes of change over time coalesced to leave this hero king with a reputation which would, in another country, have taken a more vibrant form far sooner?

Since its first publication in Edinburgh in 1571, John Barbour’s The Bruce has been issued in some twenty subsequent editions, although eleven of these were issued before the Parliamentary Union of 1707 and only one further by 1800: in the same period to 1800, some thirty-three editions of the medieval counterpart of Barbour’s Bruce, Blind Hary’s The Wallace of c.1470, were printed. However, whereas the historical authenticity of Hary’s verse on William Wallace was queried in print as incredible as early as the 1520s, it was not until the late eighteenth-century that historians and editors began to tentatively question the value of Barbour’s epic as fact, even then only to continue to reproduce many of the tales it contained as ‘traditionary’ or ‘typical’ of Bruce’s adventures, especially of the years 1306-14. The courtly romance value and antecedents of Barbour’s 13,000 lines of vernacular middle Scots verse have been well discussed by modern literary commentators. Sufficient comment has also been made about the Anglo-Scottish political context of the 1370s in which Barbour’s take on Bruce formed part of the emergent ‘mirror of princes’ tradition, giving loyal advice to rulers, using history as allegorical lesson.

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