The First Scottish War of Independence: Robert the Bruce Vs Edward I

The first Scottish War of Independence was a long series of bloody conflicts between Scotland and England. Amongst the war’s protagonists were William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Edward I.

Apr 25, 2021By Kurt Readman, MA Conflict Archaeology & Heritage, BA History
scottish war independence
Bruce and de Bohun, John Duncan, 1914, The Stirling Smith Gallery; with King Edward I (‘Longshanks’), George Vertue, 1732, National Portrait Gallery; and Battle of Bannockburn, Andrew Hillhouse, 2014, The Stirling Smith Gallery


The First Scottish War of Independence is often split into four separate periods. The initial invasion of Edward I in 1296, the campaigns of the Scottish Guardians from 1297 until 1304, Robert the Bruce’s campaigns from 1306 until his infamous victory at Bannockburn in 1314, and, finally, the Scottish diplomatic missions coupled with military victories culminating in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328. In this article, we will take a careful look into this period of heroic struggle, death, and intrigue.


The First Scottish War Of Independence: A Prelude

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Notable figures in the first Scottish War of Independence, 1898, entrance hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons


King Alexander III of Scotland died in 1286 falling from his horse in Fife. This sudden and dramatic end to his life left him with his only heir being his three-year-old granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway who followed her grandfather to the grave four years later, likely through sickness. 


Under the fear of civil war for the, now vacant, throne of Scotland, the appointed guardians of Scotland, nobility acting as regents, sought Edward I’s advice in a period known as “The Great Cause”. There were several contenders including the two fierce rivals of John Balliol and Robert the Bruce. These two were the most powerful lords in Scotland and had the potential to spark civil unrest. Edward I used the legal precedent of primogeniture to decide that Balliol was the rightful successor to Alexander III on the basis that he had married Alexander’s eldest daughter whereas Bruce his second eldest sister. 


Balliol’s Election And Rule

edward i england suzerain
Edward I Of England Acknowledged As Suzerain Of Scotland 1290, Edmund Evans, 1864, via Google Books


Balliol was inaugurated at Scone on 30th November 1292, whilst Edward was recognized as the feudal superior of the realm as Lord Paramount of Scotland, which was clearly a political coup by Edward I who had now gained formal power in Scotland. Also, by electing Balliol, there was an implied agreement that the Scottish king’s power stemmed from Edward I. 

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This relationship was soon to deteriorate, however. In 1294, Edward demanded that Balliol gathered troops from his Scottish nobles to aid the war effort in France. Scotland was not to be swayed in this way, and a year later signed the treaty of Paris beginning what is now known as the Auld Alliance. Edward was incensed by this and prepared for war. In 1296, he invaded. The Scottish War of Independence was just beginning.


Edward I, Hammer of the Scots 

King Edward I Longshanks
King Edward I (‘Longshanks’), George Vertue, 1732, National Portrait Gallery


Edward I was no stranger to violence. Having aided his father, Henry III, quash the Baronial reform movement of the 1250s and 60s, Edward then joined the 9th crusade where he helped negotiate a truce at Caesarea with Sultan Baibars in 1272 meant to last 10 years, 10 months, and 10 days. 


Upon his return home, Edward was informed that his father had passed, and he was to be crowned King in 1274. He spent his early years brutally subduing and colonizing Wales before turning to European affairs. He had wanted to take another crusade but alas the last stronghold in the Near East, Acre, fell in 1291. Having settled his affairs abroad it was to Scotland he turned. 


The Invasion Of Scotland

edward i attacks scotland
Edward I attacks Scotland, 1850, via University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.


Edward’s Invasion began by taking and slaughtering the population of Berwick, one of Scotland’s most valuable trading ports. Estimates of anywhere between 4000-17,000 people were slain. Such drastic action forced the castle in Berwick to be surrendered upon the promise that the commander and his garrison were spared. Edward stayed here for a month, hoping to entice the Scots into battle. This was not successful. 


The next target for the English was to take Dunbar which had been infiltrated by Scottish troops. This prompted a nearby army to muster and meet the English troops in the surrounding area. The Scots occupied a strong position upon a hill opposite the English and would have stayed on this advantaged position, had they not been fooled into thinking the English were breaking and falling back. Advancing down the hill, leaving their position, the Scots were routed and captured. Deaths in the nobility were few but many were captured and sent to England. 


Much like an unstoppable tide, Edward continued his expedition traveling from the East of Scotland subduing major fortresses, and burning/looting as many ecclesiastical buildings as possible. Edward took control of Jedburgh, Roxburgh, Edinburgh, Stirling, and Linlithgow all within a couple of months. 


The Consequences Of Defying Edward

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The dethroned King John, whom a Scottish chronicler dubbed ‘toom tabard’ (’empty coat’),  from Forman Armorial, 1562, National Library of Scotland


John Balliol and the remaining nobles submitted to Edward in July. Balliol was humiliated as his symbols of power were ripped from him, including the Scottish Crown and his royal insignia. The remaining nobles were taken to England for imprisonment while Edward remained in Scotland, burning and pillaging. When he had finally sated his hunger for bloodshed, Edward returned South taking with him the Scottish crown, the Black Rood of Saint Margaret, thought to be a piece of the cross that Christ was crucified on, and the Stone of Scone, a stone used in the coronation of a Scottish King as symbols of his victory. The Stone itself was not returned formally until 1996. Scotland had been subdued by Edward through fire and war, but for how long would this last? 


The Guardians’ Retaliation 

Unsurprisingly, this show of force by Edward I did little to win over the Scottish. The Scots began to target local England officials to strike back. One of the first Scottish nobles to begin stirring rebellion was Andrew de Moray. He was captured at the Battle of Dunbar but managed to escape back to his own estates in Moray inspiring his people to support John Balliol. 


Braveheart: William Wallace

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Sir William Wallace, John Kay, 1819, National Portrait Gallery


William Wallace was amongst the most famous protagonists of the first Scottish war of independence, perhaps due to his portrayal in Braveheart


Wallace begun his rise to infamy in England when he killed Sir William Haselrig, an English sheriff of the Lanarkshire region. As news of this deed spread, troops began flocking to him. At that point, Wallace received the precious support of Robert Wishart, the Bishop of Glasgow, who granted Wallace and his supporters a reputation and authenticity. Following this, more support flowed in through the Scottish nobility. 


As Edward heard that the Scottish nobility aided the rebel’s cause, he sent his Scottish allies, one of whom was Robert the Bruce, to resolve the problem. It was perhaps during this campaign, that Bruce began to question his loyalty to the English Crown. Small scale rebel activity continued throughout Scotland and, despite a minor setback at Irvine, the cause grew.


The Battle Of Stirling Bridge

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The Battle of Stirling Bridge, from Cliff Hanley’s “History of Scotland”, via Wikimedia Commons


Arguably the turning point for the Scots, during this phase of the Scottish War of Independence came at Stirling Bridge; a battle that cemented William Wallace’s name in Scottish history. 


The two armies met at opposite sides of the bridge. The English with a much larger force relied more on cavalry than the lightweight ranged opposition presented by the Scots. The English attempted to cross the bridge, which forced them into a line of only two men wide. Wallace waited until a substantial English force was on the bridge and then ordered his men to advance. Wallace utilized the Scottish Schiltrons, a compact body of troops often consisting of pikes acting as a shield, to fend off the English cavalry and then pouncing on the counterattack. The boggy ground and narrow approach severely hurt the English and forced them to retreat.  Thousands were likely lost on this day. 


The Downfall Of Wallace And The Submission To England

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Statue of Wallace, Edinburgh Castle, via Wikimedia Commons


This victory led to Wallace’s promotion to Guardian of Scotland throughout the first Scottish war of independence until his execution. Though not without cost, as Andrew de Moray died from wounds in the battle. Edward I again incensed by the Scots, invaded in 1298 and imposed a crushing Scottish defeat at Falkirk.  This was to become a habit of Edward’s who launched yearly raids into Scotland. By 1304, the Scottish nobility had submitted to Edward. This submission was helped by some internal divisions, namely the Bruce’s against the Balliol supporters.


William Wallace maintained his opposition, though he was now outlawed in Scotland as well, until his capture and execution. Edward made a show of this, brutally dismembering, hanging, drawing, and quartering the rebel. His limbs were distributed and displayed amongst England and Scotland. Whilst one hero died, another was to rise. 


The Robert The Bruce Years 

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Bruce and de Bohun, John Duncan, 1914, The Stirling Smith Gallery


In the early years of the Scottish Wars of Independence, Robert the Bruce was a supporter and enforcer of Edward I. However, by 1299, Robert had defected and was appointed as Co-guardian of Scotland along with John Comyn. As heads of the two most powerful families in Scotland, they were expected to maintain resistance. 


The event that sparked Robert the Bruce’s rise to power took place in 1306, when Robert met John Comyn in Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. The two co-guardians were attempting to resolve the issues that prevented them from working together against England. However, instead of settling their disputes, the meeting escalated, and, in the end, Robert killed Comyn. Having “removed” the only other close claimant, Robert seized the Scottish throne in March 1306 signalling a new phase in the Scottish war of independence.


Robert The Bruce’s Reign

king robert i of scotland
King Robert I of Scotland, Louis Philippe Boitard, mid 18th century, National Portrait Gallery


Robert the Bruce’s reign did not start well though. He suffered two early defeats and found himself exiled from the mainland, hiding off the North Irish coast. There, it is rumored that he was inspired by a spider who persevered in spinning its web over a seemingly impressive gap. Newly rejuvenated in 1307, Bruce returned to the mainland arriving in Ayrshire, and began to secure victory after victory, gaining allies throughout Scotland. Meanwhile, Edward I passed away and was replaced by his less experienced son, Edward II


Between 1307 and 1314, Robert the Bruce conducted a hugely successful guerrilla warfare campaign to oust the English. By 1314, an English garrison remained only in Stirling. After a series of victories, Robert besieged Stirling. Edward II mustered a large army, about double the size of Robert the Bruce’s, and marched north to relieve the garrison there. He hoped that by winning at Stirling, he would retain control of Scotland and bolster support from his own nobility. 


The Battle Of Bannockburn

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Battle of Bannockburn, Andrew Hillhouse, 2014, The Stirling Smith Gallery


The Battle of Bannockburn was fought over two days. Bruce had chosen his battleground very carefully, utilizing the nearby woods to hide his troops that surrounded the main route to Stirling Castle from Falkirk. It was also close to the Bannock Burn, a small river or stream, preventing the effective use of cavalry plus he had organized traps on the approach to further dismantle the English army. 


Upon Edward’s initial approach, a slight skirmish took place, where it is said that the English knight, Henry de Bohun, recognized Robert. Seeking to be the hero to end the war, de Bohun attacked. Nevertheless, Robert, bided his time and dismantled the attacker. This raised the spirits of the Scots who attacked, causing confusion and killing de Bohun’s squire.


The following morning saw a recess. Edward II sought to circumvent the Scots by fording the river away from the Scottish camp. Robert the Bruce, though, had been informed of this plan and moved his troops as well. When the English troops were attempting to ford the river, the Scots attacked driving them back. Edward was forced to flee, and the remaining troops were routed. It has been estimated that nearly 10,000 English troops perished.  A valuable victory for the Scottish and a demoralizing defeat for Edward II, the battle of Bannockburn was of utmost importance for the course of the Scottish war of independence.  


The End Of The First Scottish War Of Independence 

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The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320, National Records of Scotland


Edward II refused to acknowledge Scottish independence, despite his defeat. Nevertheless, his attentions were dragged home as his barons began causing domestic troubles. Robert the Bruce continued to push for the recognition of a Scottish independent nation, as well as the consolidation of his own power in Scotland. In 1320, Robert the Bruce and the Scottish nobility wrote the Declaration of Arbroath asserting Scotland’s independence and asking for the Pope to recognize Robert as its lawful king. Whilst it was not immediately successful, this declaration began the process of a truce. 


Despite the pressure from the Pope, Edward II still refused to seek peace and formally bring the Scottish war of independence to an end. It was not until 1328 that peace was granted, and it was conducted by Edward III, who deposed Edward II with help from his mother and her lover. The peace treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton was completed under the terms that the Scots paid a levy of £100,000 and Robert married his son to Edward III’s sister. 


Finally, the first Scottish War of Independence was over. Scotland was now acknowledged as independent and Robert the Bruce as its king


The First Scottish War Of Independence: A Conclusion

After 36 years of struggle and oppression, the Scottish nation had been liberated. Edward I had attempted to use violence and political cunning to subdue the Scots, but this only served to aggravate them. 


This was but a brief outline of the major events and characters in the first Scottish war of independence. The study of this period is wide and ranges from Ireland to France and everything in between. Much Scottish nobility had property in both England and Scotland, so relationships were always tense, and it was because of this that the wars were fought so fiercely. However, what cannot be doubted is that this period saw the military genius of Robert the Bruce and the ferocity of Edward I, two kings whose names still evoke emotion today in both Scotland and England.

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By Kurt ReadmanMA Conflict Archaeology & Heritage, BA HistoryKurt holds a BA in history and a MA in Conflict Archaeology and Heritage from the University of Glasgow. He has studied the political and religious relationships of the British Isles as well as Europe. Kurt’s main specialties lie in the Medieval to the Early Modern Period. In addition to this, he has spent time working with the Siege of Haddington Research Group.