Friday, August 6, 2010

Robert and Elizabeth Bruce: A Love Story

In August of 1306, Elizabeth Bruce was captured by the Earl of Ross at St. Duthac on the shores of Dornoch Firth. With her were the Earl of Atholl, her stepdaughter Marjorie Bruce, and her sisters-in-law Mary and Christina. They had been on their way to the Orkney Islands, where they could later board ship to either Ireland or Norway. But instead of finding refuge, they were handed over to King Edward I of England, Robert the Bruce’s enemy.

Awhile ago, I blogged more in depth about The Capture of Elizabeth Bruce, but today I’d like to take a step back and examine the bigger picture about the far-reaching effect that Robert the Bruce’s love for her had on his decisions and actions.

When Robert first met Elizabeth de Burgh in 1300 at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, she was staying with her aunt Egidia, who happened to be married to James Stewart, predecessor of the royal Stewart line of kings. Robert’s first wife Isabella, sister to the Earl of Mar, had died in childbirth four years prior and Elizabeth was now caring for his daughter Marjorie. While Robert only stayed part of the winter at Rothesay, he has obviously fallen very deeply in love with her in that short period of time.

At the time, Robert was estranged from his father, who was then living in England and had remained obedient to Edward I, sometimes known as Longshanks. Robert and his father had been at odds ever since Robert had joined with the Scottish rebels at Irvine in 1297 against English forces. Although no battle took place at Irvine, Robert had marked himself as an enemy in defiance of Edward’s overlordship.

After meeting Elizabeth, he was faced with an impossible dilemma – because Elizabeth’s father was the Earl of Ulster, another steadfast adherent to the English king. As long as Robert remained a rebel, he could not have Elizabeth, nor could he have Scotland’s crown.

For months, Robert struggled with how he could marry the woman who had so undeniably stolen his heart, while still retaining his pride. In the end, he swallowed his pride and love won out. Robert submitted later that year to Longshanks at Linlithgow, vowing his loyalty. For nearly five more years, Robert deftly played the part of the faithful liegeman, doing Longshanks’ bidding, even though it earned him the spite of his fellow Scotsmen. Because of this, Robert is often looked upon as an opportunist and in some ways he was. Longshanks had intimated that the throne of Scotland, having been stripped from the inept John Balliol, would pass to a Bruce. Robert, seeking a way to win the crown without bloodshed, played along, because he was well aware of the power of the English army and the blood feuds that divided Scotland, preventing its unity.

As the years passed, it became increasingly clear that Longshanks had no intention of letting a Scot rule Scotland. And so Robert began to plot his rebellion, lining up allies in Scotland well in advance of any action. But when John the Red Comyn betrayed his plans to Longshanks, events rapidly precipitated. There was no longer any reason to hide his ambitions.

Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots at Scone in 1306. But following a battle at Methven, in which the Scottish forces were soundly defeated by the Earl of Pembroke, the remnants of Robert’s army fled through the wilderness. Eventually, his wife, daughter and sisters rejoined them. But another defeat at the Pass of Dalry, this time by the Scottish lord, John of Lorne, resulted in Robert sending his womenfolk away. Which brings us back to Elizabeth’s capture.

For eight years, they were separated . . . until, following his historical victory at the Battle of Bannockburn, Elizabeth and Marjorie finally came home – their return bargained for by an exchange for The Great Seal of England, which had been captured in the aftermath of the battle. Obviously, his wife and daughter were the first thing on his mind.

While much is made of Robert the Bruce as warrior and diplomat, it often amazes me that more is not made of a man who was obviously so deeply in love with this woman that he relinquished his pride and scraped his knees before the very man he detested for denying his family its proper inheritance.

It is hard to say what might have happened had Robert never fallen in love with Elizabeth - whether he would have eventually claimed the crown anyway, whether he would have succeeded in uniting a kingdom fractured by age-old blood feuds, or whether Bannockburn would have ever occurred in light of all those other challenges and possibilities.

That, my friends, is a love story worth telling. History has a human side to it, sometimes very tender and noble.

***Drop by Historical Novel Review August 8th-10th for a chance to win a copy of The Crown in the Heather!***

Until later,


Undine said...

What a story! I'm surprised no one has made a movie of it (so far as I know, at least.)

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Me, too, Undine!