John Barbour’s Bruce, composed in the mid 1370s, is the first long poem in the Scots vernacular. It contains twenty books, the first thirteen of which trace the Wars of Liberty from their origins until triumph at the Battle of Bannockburn. At this point the Irish ‘matter’ enters the poem.
The narrative accomplished on this plane is critical to the foundation, or re-foundation, of royal order after a usurpation, yet it is more than a dynastic expedient;3 rather, it is a story that, even as it bridges the gaps in credibility and legitimacy attendant upon a new royal line, primally reinforces the governing fictions of kingship as an institution.
Tempting though it is to assume that these poems are simply peculiarly Scots, to do so denies them their place in British literature. A survey of English romances, moreover, reveals what appears to be an English equivalent: Richard Coer de Lion. It is also a hybrid poem about a recent king and military leader.