Book Review: Robert the Bruce
by Michael Penman
Yale University Press, 2014
This summer marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the epic confrontation in June 1314 between the English troops of Edward II and the Scottish forces of the near-legendary Scottish national hero Robert the Bruce, who was not only present at the battle but also active in the battle, swinging his broadaxe and dirking his foes at close range. He and his forces were greatly outnumbered by the English and yet, over the course of two grueling days, they routed their opponents and secured the independence of Scotland – which was good news for Scotland but bad news for generations of Bruce biographers to come.
Those biographies have been thick on the ground in the intervening centuries, especially since the Victorians embraced the subject’s unassuming valor and Arthurian idealism, and the result, all too often, has been books that are long on heroism and short on substance. A great many of these biographies have tended to forget that the Robert the Bruce who fought for two days at Bannockburn was also the King Robert I who ruled Scotland for twenty years. Michael Penman’s new book, Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots – a solid brick in the hand – soars above its kindred titles mainly on the strength of its author’s determination to see Robert in the broader context of his reign:
… without denying his undoubted personal drive, magnetism and political and military abilities, arguably the strongest theme to emerge from a detailed survey of all of Robert’s reign is the degree to which he was surrounded and shaped by an impressive circle of community leaders committed to the full restoration of the independent kingdom and its liberties and customs.
The book is prodigiously researched (the tiny-type notes and sources at the back are just about as comprehensive as anything you’re going to find on this subject; this will be the starting-point for all 21st century work on the subject) and fluidly written, drawing the reader into the complexities of Robert’s world with remarkable ease and remarkably few dry patches. We follow the Bruce and his friends, allies, and enemies through time and personal changes, and Penman is particularly skilled at bringing to life the internecine squabbles that will always feature prominently in any story of one country newly gaining its freedom from another. And although Penman tells a more thoroughly contextualized version of the story than any previous biographer, Robert the man has never been more effectively portrayed – so much so that Penman’s descriptions of his long and awful final decline is all the more moving. Even in 1527, still two years before his death, the Bruce’s deteriorating health is a public scandal as he doggedly continues to go about the tasks of kinship in a world far from the bright blood morning of Bannockburn:
In all of this, there is undeniably a growing sense of Bruce impatience not to be denied this time and to effect a lasting settlement with England. The added pressure here was surely Robert’s own deterioriating healt as well as his generally aging Scottish war generation: a pressing need to secure favourable peace terms before the minority of David II began and that of Edward III ended. It was reported back to York that while in Ulster Robert ‘was so feeble and so weak that he will not last much longer from this time, with the help of God because he cannot move anything except his tongue.’
Readers who long ago thrilled to the terrific historical novels of Nigel Tranter’s Robert the Bruce trilogy will find in Penman’s big volume a more complex and grounded figure, clothed more in the latest scholarship than in the oldest legends. And, very winningly, they’ll find much the same man in the center (since Tranter was no slouch himself when it came to research): fearless, prickly, pragmatic, cannily intelligent – and, after all, perhaps just a bit larger than life. One of the year’s best biographies – enthusiastically recommended.