How Robert the Bruce, Inspired by a Spider, Won Scottish Independence

By: Dave Roos  | 

Robert the Bruce
This statue of Scotland's hero king, Robert the Bruce, was unveiled in 2011 at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Diane Macdonald/Getty Images

One of the most famous — fine, infamous — episodes in the biography of Robert the Bruce occurred Feb. 10, 1306, when Robert arranged a meeting with his longtime political rival, John "the Red" Comyn, inside a church. The two men openly despised each other, says Michael Brown, a professor of Scottish history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The last time they'd met, Comyn had to be pulled off Robert's throat.

The meeting took place at a moment of high political tension in Scotland following the failure of William Wallace's armed uprising against the English King Edward I, who refused to allow Scotland to crown its own monarch. But that didn't stop people like Robert and Comyn, both leaders of powerful Scottish clans, from hatching schemes and hastily forming alliances to claim the Scottish throne for themselves.

"There's an awful lot of plotting going on in Scotland in 1305 and 1306," says Brown, author of "The Wars of Scotland: 1214-1371."

No one knows exactly what went down inside that church in the town of Dumfries or what kind of deal Robert proposed to his bitter rival, but the negotiations quickly broke down.

"It gets out of hand, the two men draw swords and Robert the Bruce's men are quicker or perhaps better prepared," says Brown. "Comyn and his uncle are cut down."

Whether it was a planned assassination or a crime of passion, Robert murdered Comyn at the church altar, simultaneously breaking the laws of God and man, and turning him into both an outlaw and an outcast.

While that's a wild story, what's even more amazing is that Robert the Bruce, this brazenly ambitious character, mounted a comeback in which he not only became king of Scotland, but won Scottish independence from the hated English. While Robert the Bruce isn't as "pure" a Scottish hero as Wallace, who was immortalized by Mel Gibson in the movie "Braveheart," he's still a legendary figure of Scottish national pride.

Robert the Bruce
Isabella MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, crowns Robert the Bruce at Scone in 1306, from a modern tableau at Edinburgh Castle.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)

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What's the Backstory on Robert the Bruce?

Robert was born July 11, 1274, into the wealthy and politically connected Bruce family. His father's line came from Northern France as part of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, so they all spoke French. His official name would have been Robert VIII de Bruce (as in Robert VIII of the Bruces), and historians like Brown have no idea why it shifted to Robert le Bruce (Robert the Bruce) not long after his death in 1329.

He wasn't the first Bruce to set his sights on the Scottish throne, either. The whole brouhaha with Comyn dated back to a rivalry between Robert's grandfather, nicknamed "the Competitor," and Comyn's uncle, John Balliol. When the Scottish king died without an heir, both Robert's grandfather and Balliol lobbied Edward I with claims to be the next rightful ruler of Scotland, but Balliol prevailed and was crowned king in 1292.

Brown says that Robert and his grandfather's royal ambitions wouldn't have been seen as selfish or power-hungry in their day. Scottish nobles of the medieval period were raised to be fierce competitors whose sole purpose was to increase the clan's landholdings and status.

"You defend and extend what you inherit and pass it on," says Brown. "If an opportunity comes and you don't take it, that shows that you're 'lacking.' Both Bruce and his grandfather are of that same mold. It's something that's built into their job as the head of the family."

As it turned out, Robert's grandfather dodged a bullet. Balliol's rule was short (just four years) and unpopular (the Scots nicknamed him Toom Tabbard or "Empty Coat"). In 1296, a band of Scottish noblemen seized power and aligned with the French. Edward I invaded, stripped Balliol of the throne and decided to rule Scotland as a feudal holding of England.

William Wallace wasn't having it. In 1297, the Scottish rebel launched a guerilla military campaign against English rule in Scotland. In "Braveheart," the movie depicts Robert the Bruce betraying Wallace at the fateful Battle of Falkirk, where the kilted rebel was routed by the English. But Brown says such a meeting likely never happened. What's true is that Robert originally backed Wallace's rebellion before capitulating to Edward I in exchange for keeping his lands.

Wallace famously made no such deal and paid a horrific price for it, with Edward ordering him hung, disemboweled, drawn and quartered, and his head placed on a spike on London Bridge.

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Robert Credited His Comeback to a Spider

That brings us full circle back to the moment when Robert kills Comyn at the church altar. In England, Comyn's murder was decried as an "outrageous sacrilege inhumanly committed against God and the holy Church" and Robert was declared public enemy No. 1.

Instead of laying low, Robert saw this as his moment to cement power. He won absolution from the Bishop of Glasgow and rallied support among Scottish noblemen. (Not all of them, though. Many, says Brown, still saw Robert as a "terrorist.")

On March 26, 1306, just weeks after killing Comyn, Robert the Bruce was crowned king of Scotland in direct repudiation of the authority of Edward I, who didn't take open rebellion lightly. Edward recruited Scottish clans still loyal to Comyn and went after Robert's forces.

During the summer of 1306, Robert's army was handily defeated in a string of battles. Far worse, three of his brothers were captured and brutally killed (hung, drawn and quartered, of course), and Robert's wife and daughter were held prisoner in England.

According to legend, Robert fled to an island off the West Coast of Scotland to hide out for the winter. It was there, in a coastal cave that Robert had a life-changing vision. He saw a spider dangling from a silken thread trying over and over again to weave its web. And each time it fell, it pulled itself up to try once again. Robert vowed that he, too, wouldn't give up until the battle was won.

"Scottish writers intended [the apocryphal spider story] to be seen as a kind of penance," says Brown. "Robert the Bruce had done wrong, broken God's law and had to pay a price. The defeats, the slights, the death of his brothers, the imprisonment of his wife and daughter, are all part of that. Once he's expiated the sins he committed, it's all about Robert not giving up, not capitulating."

Robert the Bruce
Historic King's Cave, set in sandstone cliffs near Blackwaterfoot on the Isle of Arran, is one of several locations in which Robert the Bruce is said to have had his famed encounter with a spider.
Atw Photography/Getty Images

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Victory at Bannockburn and Independence

Back in the fight, Robert used guerilla tactics to inflict damage on the English forces, but those small victories failed to align all of the Scottish noblemen behind his authority as the true king of Scotland. In 1313, Robert issued an ultimatum — that all of Comyn's loyalists join him or give up their lands, and that the English forces in Scotland surrender.

Edward II, the new (and inept) heir to the English throne, led a massive invasion of Scotland with 25,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry riders, to face down a regular Scottish army of some 6,000 and change.

The turning point came at Bannockburn, an epic battle that quickly became shorthand in Scotland for independence and national honor. Over two days, the undermanned Scots outwitted and outfought the English, and Robert more than proved his mettle as a fierce fighter and inspiring leader of men. Edward II fled back to England and released Robert's wife and daughter in exchange for captured English noblemen.

More importantly, the decisive victory at Bannockburn convinced the last of Comyn's supporters to throw their full weight behind King Robert I of Scotland. The war with the English went on for another 14 years before another English King, Edward III, finally signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328 that granted full independence to Scotland.

Robert the Bruce died just a year later, having achieved everything he sought out to achieve for both his clan and his country. It wasn't always a clean fight, but victory was his.

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