Saturday, February 08, 2014

The British ambitions of Robert and Edward Bruce, 1314-1318 - "he now dreamed of the crown of Britain"

The Bruces' ultimate aim?

In June 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated the Anglo-Norman King Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn near Stirling. Throughout history it has been presented as the heroic victory which founded the Scottish nation, and confirmed Bruce as the undisputed King of Scotland. He had spent the previous seven years (ie when he returned to Scotland after his six month sojourn on Rathlin Island) attacking both the English occupying forces and rival Scottish lords, some of whom were pro-Edward and others who were just anti-Bruce.

The Scottish crown had been in dispute for many decades, but Robert the Bruce eventually emerged as the successful claimant, following years of manoeuvering by his father and grandfather. But ending up as rulers of Scotland was not necessarily the endgame of the Bruces' plans. They may have had a far bigger goal in mind. As far back as 1286 they had struck treaties and deals with leading figures across the North Channel - pointing the way to an Ulster-Scottish objective at the very least.

Robert the Bruce is said to have been married at Writtle in Essex (not born as many erroneosuly claim), to Elizabeth de Burgh, the daughter of the Earl of Ulster. Bruce had the title of 'Lord of Hartness' referring to an estate near Hartlepool which Edward II would confiscate from him around 1306. The Bruces knew England, especially the northern parts.

It was a year after Bannockburn, in May 1315, that Robert's only surviving brother Edward was authorised to take the 6000-strong Bannockburn army to Ulster, with the aim of forging an alliance with the powerful O'Neills (who some scholars say were blood relatives of the Bruces) and other lesser Gaelic clans to replicate what had happened in Scotland - to drive out the Anglo-Normans. Edward was crowned King of Ireland by his Irish supporters, probably in Carrickfergus at early June 1315 (although some other traditions say it was Dundalk in May 1316 - a pub there, Michael McCourt's, was once called King Bruce's Tavern and is on the reputed location of Sir Roger Mortimer's former castle. It still has a painted sign over the doorway and in the windows commemorating this tradition). The initial phase of the campaign was brutally successful with victory after victory in Ulster, Louth and Meath.

A pivotal victory for Edward Bruce at Kells in County Meath in November 1315, against the forces of Sir Roger Mortimer, opened up the possibility of a new front. Mortimer's uncle and namesake was an Anglo-Norman overlord in north west Wales. Sir Gruffydd Llwyd, leader of the Welsh, was bent upon rebellion and he invited Edward Bruce to come to Wales. The letters they exchanged still exist.

Further north in Great Britain, Robert was unsatisfied to have taken Scotland and he had spent the year pushing south with attacks into northern England, to Yorkshire (where previous generations of Bruces had been granted lands, and founded at least one priory, at Gisborough) and the Furness district of Lancashire, seizing iron ore which was brought back to Scotland. His army launched a seaborne attack on Hartlepool in 1315, torching the town.

But what of the Welsh invitation? Flushed with his successes in Ireland, Edward Bruce's reply informed the Welsh that he would come and help them... as long as they made him their new leader. They declined.

'… It was probably at this time of peaceful occupation of Ulster by the Scots, that Sir Gruffydh Llwyd, who was in rebellion again Edward II., wrote to Edward Bruce to invite him into Wales, that by the union of the Albanian Scots with the Britons, the Saxons might be driven out, the times of Brutus restored, and the whole of Britain divided between the Britons and the Scots. Edward Bruce, notwithstanding his Norman blood, agreed to the proposal on condition that he was to have such command and such lordship over the Welsh, ‘prout alius hactenus princeps vester liberius habere consuevit.’ These were bright visions for the Earl of Carrick's younger son, the proud and overbearing Edward Bruce; he had been crowned King of Ireland, he had a near prospect of the crown of Scotland, and he now dreamed of the crown of Britain …’
- Annales Hiberniae by James Grace of Kilkenny (c. 1537).

‘… The prospects of Edward Bruce were at this time at highwater mark; he was heir-presumptive to the throne of Scotland had in all probability already been crowned king of Ireland, and now received a communication from Gruffydh Llwyd, who was leading a rebellion in Wales, offering to support him as ruler of that country if he would assist in freeing them from the English, and even holding out the prospect that they might together expel the Saxons and establish the ancient kingdom of Britain …’
- The invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce by Caroline Colvin (1901)

As late as 1322, Robert the Bruce's army fought the English at the Battle of Old Byland in Yorkshire, and burned Preston in Lancashire and wasted much of the north of the county.

The Bruce story is bigger than Scotland, and bigger than nationalistic interpretations of history. 20th and 21st century issues are not the same as the 14th century. The classic themes of ambition, power and control mean that, had the Bruces had their way, they would have become rulers of all of the British Isles. It is a story which, in different ways, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Wales, England - and even the Isle of Man - all share.

But of course, the Bruces failed in their bigger plan. Edward Bruce was killed in October 1318 when he went into battle at Faughart near Dundalk before his reinforcements had arrived.

The Bruces had not ousted the Anglo-Normans, but had certainly broken their hold on east Ulster - and shortly afterwards a branch of the O'Neills moved eastwards from Tyrone to take hold of south Antrim and north Down. Led by 'Yellow Haired Hugh', Clann Aodha Buidhe, they became known as the Clandeboye O'Neills and held the territory for the next 300 years.

In 1603, Robert the Bruce's lineal successor, King James VI of Scotland, became King of England and Ireland as well, succeeding to do politically what the Bruces had failed to do militarily.


Postscript: It was another deal between two Ayrshiremen and the O'Neills which made a lasting impact upon Ulster, when in 1605 King James VI & I's old mates Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton struck a deal with Con O'Neill, chief of the Clann Aodha Buidhe O'Neills. In May 1606 Hamilton & Montgomery began a flood of Scottish families into Ulster - some of whom, like the Boyds of Kilmarnock and the Adairs of Kinhilt, 300 years earlier had fought alongside the Bruce brothers at Bannockburn and were granted their family estates as a reward.

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