Bruce, The

Bruce, The
   by John Barbour
   The Bruce (1375), by John BARBOUR, a 14th-century Scottish poet, is a patriotic 13,000-line poem chronicling the reign and military victories of the Scottish king Robert the Bruce and his disciple, James Douglas, and describing their role in gaining Scottish independence from English domination. The Bruce is composed in octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets, and so marks a break from the older ALLITERATIVE VERSE tradition that had dominated Scottish poetry in previous centuries. The story is introduced as the “true” record of the history of Robert the Bruce’s reign (1306–29), though clearly it is historical fiction by a highly partisan Scottish writer. For example, for reasons that are unclear, Barbour fails entirely to mention the role of William Wallace in the Scottish fight for independence, but spends a great deal of time relating the exploits of the relatively less important Douglas, possibly because of the importance of Douglas’s family in the Scotland of Barbour’s own day. In fact, The Bruce is less a true chronicle than a ROMANCE, in the tradition of the romances concerning the martial exploits of CHARLEMAGNE or ALEXANDER THE GREAT, popular at the time. The 20 books of The Bruce are impossible to summarize in a brief space. The poem opens with the death of King Alexander III (1286) and of his granddaughter, the “Maid of Norway” (1290), events that threw the Scottish succession into turmoil. The Bruce faction disputes the claims of John Baliol, and the Scottish barons entrust the question of succession to their “friendly” neighbor, England’s King Edward I. The Bruce refuses Edward’s condition— that he rule Scotland as vassal to Edward. When Baliol accepts those conditions, Edwards moves quickly to imprison him and to set about conquering all of Scotland. From that point, Robert the Bruce sets out to become king of an independent Scotland.He kills his rival John Comyn and proclaims himself king, and is supported by Douglas, whose lands have been seized by the English. At the Battle of Methven, Robert is defeated and by the third book has become a fugitive. But Edward I dies, and Edward II is slow to continue his father’s attempts to subjugate Scotland.Meanwhile the Bruce continues to elude the English, and in book eight he wins the Battle of Loudoun Hill.He captures numerous castles, and by book 11, Edward II is prepared to bring his full force against Robert. Books 11 through 13 depict, in vivid detail, the apex of the Bruce’s military achievements, the Battle of Ban-nockburn. Barbour includes an account of 15,000 common folk who join the battle and help rout the English army. After his success at Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce can announce that all landholders in Scotland must swear him allegiance.
   In the later books of the poem, Robert’s brother Edward Bruce strikes out on his own to win Ireland from English domination. Edward is presented as a foil to Robert—he is a bold warrior but rash and headstrong, and his designs often end in disaster.When, in book 18, he attacks the English against the advice of his council, his army is overwhelmed and he is killed. The more prudent Robert works toward peace with the English. The young English king Edward III is persuaded by his counselors to accept peace, agrees to a treaty that grants Scotland complete independence, and marries his seven-year-old sister, Joan of the Tower, to the Bruce’s five-year-old son, David.
   In book 20, the ailing Bruce enacts an ordinance that establishes his line of succession through David and Joan if they have a male child, and through his grandson Robert Stewart (Barbour’s own patron,King Robert II) if that line fails. In dying, the Bruce expresses a wish that his heart might go on a crusade against the enemies of Christ. His body is buried at Dunfermline, but the faithful Douglas carries Bruce’s heart in an enameled box, and takes it into battle in Spain against the Saracens. Douglas dies in the battle, but the Bruce’s heart is brought back to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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