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Melrose Historical Association - Bulletin No. 5

Melrose Abbey and the Heart of the Bruce

by Dr.Bill Lonie

Photo: Melrose Abbey from the air.

In August,1289 the quiet Spanish town of Teba in Andalusia was invaded by a Scottish force led by the Earl of Selkirk and bearing a one-ton slab of Dumfriesshire marble. The Earl is chieftain of the Clan Douglas and the slab commemorates the valorous death of Sir James Douglas, the Black Douglas, at the Battle of Teba on 25th August,1330. The Douglas was bearing the heart casketed in enamelled silver of King Robert I, the Bruce, on crucade to the Holy Land. With feasting, piping and dancing, the stone was installed in the Plaza d'Espana, now Plaza Douglas.

From these celebrations came the suggestion that Teba should have a social link with a Scottish town, and what better than one with Melrose, in whose ancient abbey the heart of the Bruce lies buried and with which there such strong Douglas ties. The town link has proved impossible to realise. While there are, in and around Melrose, a surprising number of speakers of Spanish, English is a rare commodity in rural Andalusia, and there are postal communication problems. The fat Teba File slumbers on its shelf. One of its dockets poses the question,, 'why should Melrose Abbey have been so especially dear to Bruce's heart?'.

My enquiries led me to friend and fellow MHA member Muriel Hood who supplied me with abstracts of charters, brievs and letters concerning the Bruce and Melrose Abbey. To each of these I attach account of Bruce's contemporary activities, in the hope that answer to the question may emerge. Whatever your judgement on the matter I am the better of the excercise. The inculcated hero-worship of childhood, dimmed by the cynicism of middle-life, has been replaced by awe of the man.

On July 11th 1274 Marjorie of Carrick, wife of Robert Bruce the younger, bore Robert Bruce the 6th of that name, thereafter Earl of Carrick 1292-1309, Guardian of Scotland 1298-1300, King Robert I of Scotland 1306-1329. He was 55 years old at his death.

1302. Bruce Spares Melrose Abbey Tenants Army Service

Bruce's letter of the 11th.March,1302 to 'the anxious monks of Melrose Abbey' (ML No 351 and Barrow,1988) assures them that, although in the past he had enrolled the abbey's tenants into his army of Carrick and led them all over the country, now 'troubled in conscience' he promises never to demand such service in the future 'unless the common army of the whole realm is raised for its defence'.

Bruce refers to events five years before when, in 1297, William Wallace raised rebellion against the Earl of Warenne, Edward's governor of Scotland subdued, as did others including Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, then 23 years of age. The tenants referred to would seem to be those of the abbey lands of Mauchline and Ochiltree. Lay brothers too may have been liable to impressment.

Two years earlier still, in July, 1295 the Scottish leaders, sick of Edward I's humiliations, had convened a Parliament at Stirling at which King John Balliol was effectively deposed and a Council formed comprising four earls, four barons and four bishops. The closest precedent for such a council was the regency council of six, the Guardians of 1286. In its broad composition it expressed the 'community of the realm' of Scotland (Barrow 1988), a unique concept for the times. A treaty with France was a priority. Robert Bruce and John Comyn were appointed Guardians, essentially Field-Marshalls.

In February 1296 the Scots parliament was again convened and ratified the treaty with France, thus declaring war on England. Edward's demand of October 1295 that the castles of Berwick, Roxburgh and Jedburgh be handed over for the duration of the war with France, and other restraints, were rejected. A number of English merchants in Berwick were reported to have been killed. The feudal host of England, returned from the war in France, met at Newcastle on 1st March.

In late March of 1296 John Comyn of Badenoch, the Guardian's son, and seven earls, crossed the Solway, and burned the villages from Arthuret to Carlisle, not a great enterprise. The city garrison, commanded by Robert Bruce, lord of Annandale, in company with his son, the young earl of Carrick, Robert I of Scotland to be, repulsed the attacking force. In April the same Scottish earls left Jedburgh to devastate Redesdale, Coquetdale and Tynedale, burning Corbridge, and Hexham and its abbey. The raid failed in its purpose, if it ever had one, of diverting Edward. Attrocities by the Scots were alleged, no doubt with some foundation, and probably in retaliation for the sack of Berwick.

In the same late March 1296 of the abortive Scottish attack on Carlisle Edward I stormed and sacked Berwick upon Tweed killing some 10,000 of its common people but sparing the nobility. The wars in France had brutalised the English army, and a feudal nobility lacking man-power was impotent. On 27th April the Earl of Warenne, besieging Dunbar, was attacked by the Scottish feudal host. The host had not been excercised in battle since 1235, when used by Alexander II against rebel Carrick. The Scots suffered total defeat with heavy casualties to the foot soldiers. Numerous Scots lords surrendered. Scottish resistance collapsed, excepting that by Alexander Macdougall, Lord of Lorn. It was one of the tragedies of the War of Independence that Lorn and the Bruce found themselves in conflict, to the lasting forfeiture of the Macdougalls.

After his victory at Dunbar Edward I commanded the Scots earls, barons and lesser lairds to attend him at Berwick for a swearing of fealty, the infamous Ragman's Roll. Edward then progressed throughout the land. All of Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth, Montrose, Aberdeen, Elgin, Rothes, Kildrummy, Brechin, Arbroath, Dundee, St Andrews, and Dunfermline in turn felt his presence. In May, still of 1296, Edward ordered the Scottish records, regalia and the Stone of Destiny to be taken to London. King John Balliol was systematically humiliated, and finally resigned kingship and kingdom to Edward at Montrose on 8th July. With the subjugation of Scotland complete Edward returned to England and his wars with the French, leaving the Earl of Warenne as his governor and English garrisons in castles throughout the land.

The pacifying shock of defeat and humiliation did not last long. In the following year, 1297, William Wallace, a vassal of the Stewart in Strathclyde, raised popular rebellion against Warenne, as did independently the Bishop of Glasgow and James the Stewart. Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, was also active in SW Scotland. Warenne had lost control of the situation. In only one of many guerilla operations Wallace burned some hundred English ships in Aberdeen harbour. Many of these were supply ships for the scattered English garrisons in the north-east. These were cut off and almost all surrendered. Edward's paranoid hatred of Wallace had cause. The battle of Stirling Bridge, another victory for Wallace, did not improve his temper. In July,1298 Edward I in person led his army to Temple Liston, and from there to a slaughter of the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk. The Scots were now led by John Comyn and Robert Bruce, joint Guardians in place of Wallace, but in violent disagreement as to the conduct of the campaign. In 1299 Bishop Lamberton was appointed third Guardian but failed to reconcile the Comyn and the Bruce. Bruce resigned and retired to his own lands of Carrick.

In 1302 Bruce married Elisabeth de Burgh, daughter of the Earl of Ulster. The Earl was a staunch supporter of Edward I. Bruce submitted to Edward and acted as his advisor on Scotland. Despite these acts of homage and service, Bruce thus strengthened the link between Carrick and Ulster, and the latter as a base for operations against Edward I in both Scotland and Ireland. Baigent & Leigh,1989 suggest he had plans for a pan-Celtic confederation, but this is probably a modern political interpretation. The Anglo-Scottish Wars were essentially an 800-year long tussle of kings and lairds on both sides for the dismembered carcase of sister kingdom Northumbria.

Concerning the letter of 1302 to the 'anxious monks' it is difficult to see why Bruce should have shown any special consideration for Melrose Abbey at that time, but by his actions to date he is revealed as long-sighted and ruthless, even of his own honour. As renegade vassal and advisor to Edward he was already planning treason and the resumption of rebellion. The betrayal of William Wallace and his cruel execution in in 1305 brought Bruce to a decision. He was driven into hiding and his family imprisoned and foully treated.

1309. Bruce Grants Eskdale to Melrose Abbey

In or about March,1309 (RRS No 385) Bruce confirmed a charter to Melrose Abbey of the lands of Eskdale held by it of Nicholae de Graham. These lands were originally granted to the abbey by Malcolm IV but the Grahams, not alone in such action, had taken advantage of the Anglo-Scottish wars to repudiate the charter.

Only two years before, in Feb.1307, Bruce, then in rebellion against the English occupation, had landed with a force of Scots and Ulstermen in Carrick and commenced a campaign of guerilla warfare which was to continue for seven years. In July of the same year 1307, en route to restore order in Scotland, Edward I died and was buried in Holm Cultram abbey, Cumbria. The war of liberation and unification continued. In 1308 Bruce led his army in a savage campaign against the Comyns and their supporters. The MacDougalls were defeated in the Pass of Brander and the Comyns at Inverurie. The chiefs of both houses went into exile. The Earl of Ross capitulated in 1309 and in the same year a parliament in St Andrews proclaimed Bruce King of Scotland. His status was recognised by all except the Pope and Edward II.

On the 10th February 1306 Bruce killed John Comyn, the Red Comyn at the altar of Grayfriars church, Dumfries. Barbour,1375 regarded the deed as an act of hot blood, but admitted the possibility of other explanations. Baigent & Leigh,1985 suggest the killing to have been planned and to have had strong Celtic ritualistic elements. Kings have a morality apart from lesser mortals. Whatever his motive Bruce was excommunicated for the murder. Bishops Lamberton of St Andrews and Wishart of Glasgow ignored this development. The Scottish church was ever under threat from Canterbury, but enjoyed Papal protection in that matter.

In 1309 Bruce is seemingly secure and the confirmation of the charter granting Eskdale to Melrose abbey appears no more than a routine item of royal administration.

1315. The 20-Year Gift of a Parish Revenue for Pittance.

In 1315 (ML 293) Melrose Abbey was given a 20-year gift of revenue from a parish, not named, for pittance for the monks. Pittance is food extra to the usual fare, possibly for monks recovering from the privations of vigil.

Edward II's intrusion in the winter of 1310-11 failed as Bruce avoided open battle. While no damage to Border abbeys is specifically recorded they can hardly have escaped unscathed. On the 24th June 1314 Bruce accepted battle at Bannockburn, There the English under Edward II numbered some 20,000 foot and 3,000 knights, the Scots 17,000 and 500 foot and horse respectively. The English, overconfident and on unsuitable ground, were disasterously defeated. The English host had entered and left Scotland by way of Lauderdale, and again the Border abbeys must have suffered.

At 1315 Melrose Abbey and its granges were no doubt in need of repair and restocking after the passage of English armies in 1310 and 1314. The gift was generous, at best to God's servants in gratitude for the victory of Bannockburn, at least a share of the spoils of war, Edward's treasury and noble ransoms.

1316. Charter, Letters Patent, Brieve and Safe Conduct to or from Melrose Abbey.

Early in January of 1316 Bruce had brought a considerable force to Berwick in an unsuccessful attempt to re-take that town. A charter of 8th.June,1316 (RRS 95) shows him to have been at Melrose Abbey at that date. At Kilwinning on 28th.June,1316 he granted letters patent 'of three clauses', to Melrose Abbey (RRS 96). On the 21st.Nov.1316 Bruce was again at Melrose for he signed a brieve there to James, Lord of Douglas (RRS 108). On the 6th.Oct.1316, the Abbot of Melrose was provided with an English safe-conduct to go into England, no doubt bearing Bruce's safe-conducts for English negociators to come north, for on 21st.November two English envoys arrived at Jedburgh to negotiate a truce. Meantime Edward II lodged at York.

These activities at and concerning Melrose took place in the euphoric climate of the English expulsion from Scotland in 1314 and their serious defeats and weakening in Ireland during 1315 at the Battles of Connor and Dunscull. But famine stalked the land in Ireland as in much of Europe, and the starving Scottish army had moved back to Ulster.

For Bruce at that time Melrose appears to have been a convenient and congenial base from which to conduct negociations with Edward II of England. Ecclesiastical buildings in general, including those at Melrose and Jedburgh, appear to have been spared serious damage in the campaigns so far. The austere Cistercian regime might well have had strong appeal for an austere warrior king and the serenity of the mother-house of the Order in Scotland at a time of high hopes become a lasting good memory. Briefly, from 1316 to 1318, Robert I was in communion but, having failed to please Pope John XXII by supporting his own Scots bishops against the Pope's nominees, was again excommunicated.

In May,1316 Edward Bruce, brother of Robert I, was inaugurated King of Ireland, though with less than full Irish support. The English stronghold of Carrickfergus fell after a year-long seige. Famine became desperate in parts of Ireland. Robert Bruce, with reinforcements, joined Edward in Ireland in December.1316. The sea routes to Ireland were evidently under firm Scottish control. Robert Bruce moved into Meath in February 1317 and threatened Dublin. He avoided a seige, but wasted English estates throughout Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny and Tipperary. Even the churches of Kells and Cashel did not escape destruction, acts throwing some doubt on his pan- Celtic ambitions. O'Brian did not greet him at Castleconnel on the Shannon and neither Munster nor Connacht rose for him. Mortimer with fresh English forces threatened. In May of 1317 the starving Scottish army made the long 200 mile retreat through a famine-stricken land from Castleconnel on the lower Shannon to Ulster, with heavy losses. Robert left Ireland, never to return, but he remembered the weapon of starvation. Edward Bruce rashly moved out of Ulster in October 1318 to defeat and death at Fochart near Dundalk. A Gaelic confederation may have been among Robert Bruce's motives for the invasion of Ireland, as suggested by McNeil and Nicholson,1975 but he left instead a bitter memory of Edward Bruce as 'the destroyer of all Erin in general and the worst man since Herod'.

1318. Melrose and Holm Coultram. A King's Cleric Gambit Refused

In early 1318 (CDS iii 605) Edward II 'considering that the abbey of Holm Cultram, a daughter house of Melrose, required to elect a successor to its late abbot Robert, but could not do so without the presence of the abbot of Melrose, therefore grants a safe-conduct to the latter, together with two fellow monks,to attend the election'.

This seems like a conciliatory gesture on the part of Edward II, taking account of the burial at Holm Coultram of the fathers of both monarchs, and deference shown to the rights of a mother house even in an enemy land, for a truce had not yet been acheived. The response of the abbot of Melrose is not recorded but the approach did not soften Bruce's attitude towards either Edward II or to Pope John XXII. In March 1318 continued attempts by the Pope to secure a truce were halted by Bruce's taking of the town and castle of Berwick. Bruce lodged there briefly before appointing son-in-law Walter, Steward of Scotland, as governor. By the end of May the English castles of Wark (on the Tweed), Harbottle (Coquetdale), and Mitford (nr.Morpeth) had fallen and Douglas had plundered Northallerton, Boroughbridge, Ripon and Scarborough. Ripon Abbey was spared, for a blackmail.

In June of 1318 Edward II assembled his army at York but could not, for internal problems, bring them to Berwick until September. Heavy attacks by land and sea sustained until mid-1319 failed to take the town. The seige was lifted when In mid-1319 a raid by Douglas and Murray into Yorkshire was opposed by a tumultuary army of towmsfolk of York with many clerics in its ranks lead by Archbishop William de Meton. At Milton on the Swale the Scots cavalry broke the rabble and slaughtered four thousand of the innocents in the rout. The raiders withdrew with their loot. In a later raid in the same year Douglas wasted Gillesland (south Tyne and upper Tees) to Brough on Stainmore. Returning by way of Westmorland and Cumberland he looted and utterly destroyed the abbey of Holm Cultram, sepulchre of Edward I and Bruce's father, an act that may have sealed the fate of Melrose abbey, destroyed three years later.

With the failure of the seige of Berwick and with the devastating Scots raiding, Edward II sought and obtained a two-year truce. The brief period of peace was used by the Scots to attend to domestic affairs neglected during the war. In 1319 Robert I granted Stocket forest and fishing on the Don and Dee to the city of Aberdeen. Bruce was Lord of Garioch only 20 miles away. His sister was Countess of Mar with Kildrummy Castle the main seat of the earldom. Daughter Marjory was often at Kildrummy as a child. In 1320 either Bruce or Bishop Cheyne of Aberdeen ordered the Brig O' Balgownie to be built. On the 6th. of April,1320 the Declaration of Arbroath, was signed by eight earls and thirty-one other nobles. This famous document, unique in its time, contains an affirmation of Scottish independence and a statement of the duties of a king. In the latter it appears to revive and codify an ancient Celtic form of kingship. In June of the same year, 1320 the Bishops of St Andrews, Dunkeld, Aberdeen and Moray were ex-communicated for their refusal to appear before Pope John XXII to answer for their insubordination. These years of peace and politics did not last long.

In January 1322 the two-year truce ended. Douglas, Moray and Walter Stewart raided into NE England. Tees-side, Darlington, Hartlepool and Cleveland were plundered and Richmondshire, 75miles from the border, blackmailed. The Scots retired without challenge. On July 1st 1322 Bruce led a raid down the Cumberland coast to Furness. The Cistercian abbey there was blackmailed but then plundered, a sad lapse. Bruce then led his force over the Kent estuary to burn out Lancaster and Preston, 90 miles south of the modern border. Edward had his troubles at home.

Edward II's court favourites, the Despensers, had provoked the marcher earls Hereford and Lancaster to rebellion. Lancaster betrayed Edward II by failing to counter the Scots raid on the NE, but in a march to join the raiders was defeated at Boroughbridge by Andrew Harcla and his Cumberland and Westmorland levies. The rebel earls were killed or later executed.

1322. Melrose and Dryburgh Abbeys Suffer their First Destruction

In 1322 Edward triumphant at home and resentful of the Scots raiding, campaigned deep into Scotland to the gates of Edinburgh. The Scots retreated before him, harassing his army in a scorched and empty land. Frustrated of a military victory, Edward despoiled several Scottish abbeys, including Melrose, as he retreated from Edinburgh (CDS No 1018) At Melrose the convent resisted, killing four of Edward's men. Prior William de Peebles and three invalids were killed and the abbey looted, desecrated and extensively damaged. Dryburgh Abbey, a Premonstratensian house founded in 1140. appears to have been spared until 1322 when it too was destroyed by Edward II's army in retreat from Edinburgh. Robert I is said to have helped rebuild it too.

With Edward in retreat Bruce sought to cut him off by a strike through the Eden valley into north Yorkshire with a host drawn from the Forth valley and the Isles. With Edward at Rievaulx abbey only a few miles away Bruce's army over-ran a large English force under Richmond on Scawton Moor, 1322. Richmond and many other nobles were captured. Edward escaped but left his treasure to the Scots for the second time in eight years. Despite the Scots' capture of this treasure at Rievaulx after the battle the abbey appears to have been spared. Neither Barrow,1988 nor New 1985 make mention of any loss or damage at that time. Almost certainly Bruce would have spoken with the abbot of Cistercian Rievaulx, the mother-house of Melrose. That must be a conversation savoured by tomorrow's time travellers.

In 1323 Robert I made a 13-year pact of truce with Edward II. As reward for this good behaviour, in 1324 Bruce was again made communicant and recognised as King Robert I of Scotland by the Pope. It was during this truce that the rebuilding of Melrose abbey became a concern of the king's. The episode at Rievaulx may have brought home to the Bruce just how heavy was the price that had been paid by the abbeys, particularly those of the Cistercian order, for Bruce's ambitions and actions

1326. Grants to Melrose of the King's Dish and for the Reconstruction of the Abbey

In January of 1326 Robert I granted to the abbey of Melrose 100 per annum to furnish every monk with 'The King's Dish' every day (ML ii 326, RRS No 288) This was, in theory at least, a suppliment to the standard rations. In return the monks were to clothe and feed 15 of the poor on Martinmas day. To provide the monies for the King's Dish Bruce chartered Melrose to receive an annual sum of 100 from the 'fermes or new custom' of Berwick, and from the 'new custom' of Edinburgh and Haddington. In March of the same year Robert I granted to the abbey of Melrose specifically for the reconstruction of its church all his feudal incidents from the whole county of Roxburgh until these should amount to 2000 sterling (RMS ii 331/430).

In a letter to the abbot and convent of Melrose a few days later, Bruce made it known that James, lord of Douglas, was appointed superauditor of receipts and expenses, and would enforce payment (RRS No 269) The reluctance to pay implicit in the enforcing role of James Douglas was evidently real for in August 1326 Bruce felt compelled to issue the sheriff of Berwick with a mandate to enforce payment within one month under penalty of !0 merks, which was to be applied to the abbey's fabric (RRS No 308).

Both Tweeddale and the Lothians were thus charged, literally, with the rebuilding of Melrose abbey and the temporary support of the convent, This was the very area that had borne the brunt of Bruce's scorched earth policy on Edward II's intrusion of !322 only three working years earlier.


Whatever Bruce's motives regarding Melrose, the truce that had enabled recovery lasted only four years, until 1327. Then Edward II was deposed and Bruce apparently considered he had no pact with the usurper king Edward III. Bruce struck into NE England again as far south as Barnard Castle. Edward took the field against him and in a parody of campaigning the two armies went up hill and down dale looking for each other. Finally the Scots, who seem to have been the main engineers of the evasions, launched a highly successful night attack on Edward's army in camp, the battle of Stanhope Park, July 4th 1327. Come the dawn the Scots were off home as too, discumfited, was Edward. The Scots continued their raids into both NE and NW England until Edward, beset with problems within his realm, sued for peace. A treaty guaranteeing Scottish independence was concluded in March 1328.

This campaign and treaty of 1327-1328 was a magnificent essay in statescraft, in the bloody language of the times. But the King was dying.

1329. My Heart to Lie in Melrose Abbey Protected for All Time.

The King was dying, it was said of the dreaded disease of leprosy, endemic in medieval Europe. Bruce had built himself a modest hall opposite Dumbarton Castle, ancient Al Cluith, where the River Leven runs into the River Clyde. Dumbarton and Berwick were the only two Royal Castles retained by Bruce. All the others had been slighted on their recapture from the English. From this haven he issued his final instructions regarding Melrose, a Letter Patent of protection and a Letter to his son and heirs urging payments to the abbey with the reminder that his heart was to be buried there (RRS Nos 379, 380). Both documents are dated 11th May 1329. The king died on June 7th 1329, less than a month later. On his death-bed Bruce charged that his heart be taken to the Holy Sepulchre by a knight on crusade. Sir James Douglas took up the charge, and our story comes full circle.

It is not possible to study this period of British history without being awed by Robert I of Scotland, This awe patently filled his nobles, his churchmen and his people The conviction grows that Melrose Abbey was intended as more than the sepulchre of his heart, more perhaps as the instrument by which his being might join the King of Kings.


CDS Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland vol ii 1307-1357
ML Liber de Mailros Bannatyne Club 1837
RMS Register of the Great Seal of Scotland vol i 1306-1324, vol ii 1324
RRS Regesta Rerum Scottorum vol v Robert I 1306-1329

G.W.S.Barrow,1988 : Robert Bruce : EUP
A.New,1985 : Abbeys of England and Wales : Constable
P.McNeill and Ranald Nicholson (Editors), 1975 : Historical Atlas of Scotland : Conference of Scottish Medievalists
M.Baigent and R.Leigh,1989 : TheTemple and the Lodge : Guild.

Next: St.Mary's Church of Melrose Abbey. The Noon Shadow at Christmas.