Today I have something a little different for you, a fascinating guest piece by historical fiction author Robyn Young about Robert Bruce who her Insurrection trilogy revolves around.
For all his power on the stage of history; for the prominent role he played and his impact on a nation – a nation that, this month at Bannockburn, will celebrate one of his greatest victories seven hundred years on – Robert Bruce remains an enigma.
There are many gaps in our knowledge of him, long periods of silence in the records, which are also littered with contradictions and discrepancies. We still don’t, for certain, where he was born. Writtle in Essex, where his family owned lands, has claimed him as their son, as has Turnberry in Scotland. It is an appropriate split given Robert’s early career during the Wars of Independence, shifting his allegiance back and forth between Scotland and England, fighting at various moments alongside both William Wallace and Edward I. His early life is virtually unknown and can only be glimpsed by looking through the murky windows of what we know about the childhoods of the nobility during this era. We don’t know what his relationships with his family were like – his mother and father, his four brothers and five sisters, his powerful grandfather, who competed for the throne in the wake of the death of King Alexander III. We can only read between the lines to get the merest sense of what they might have been like – the potential fractures, the possible connections.
Even when Robert steps to the fore, there are gaping holes in his narrative; points where he disappears from the records for months at a time. After deserting his father and his family’s
formidable ally, King Edward of England, to join the insurrection raised by William Wallace,
Robert was made Guardian of Scotland. But following a fight with John Comyn, his rival and
head of another influential Scottish family, he resigned the guardianship and exited the stage of history at a crucial time in the conflict. He reappears a year and a half later, surrendering to King Edward and marrying the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, one of Edward’s chief allies. Four years later, we find him at the high altar of the church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries, dagger in hand, the body of John Comyn bleeding out beneath him. Whether this infamous murder was planned, or whether it was self-defence or a heat-of-the-moment act we do not know. We don’t even know the exact sequence of events that brought these two men together at this moment. Soon after Robert crowned himself king, in defiance of King Edward, he lost most of his army during a catastrophic battle against English forces. Forced on the run, he became a king in exile. Where he fled we do not know, only that he appeared six months later on the Carrick coast at the head of a fleet, determined to take back his kingdom.
It is in these moments – these lost years – that myths are born. The most famous is the spider, which Robert is said to have watched trying and failing to spin a web before finally
succeeding, which then inspired his own return. But the earliest reference we have for this
story comes from the mid seventeenth century, when it is Robert’s friend, James Douglas,
who sees the wee beastie. It was attributed to Bruce, much later, in Sir Walter Scott’s Tales
of a Grandfather. Thus, the one thing most people now know about Robert Bruce is born out
Aside from the gaps and myths, as with all historical figures (and many modern ones for
that matter), while we might sometimes know what they were doing, where and when, we
rarely know why they were doing it. What motivated them? What did they hope, or believe
would happen? What did they feel about the outcome? Unlike historians, historical novelists
have to answer these questions. So how do you begin to develop a character out of this sticky mess of contradictions, missing pieces, speculations and chroniclers’ own biases? How do you make a man out of clay?
For me, research is the starting point. For the Insurrection Trilogy I began by reading as many sources as possible, mostly contemporary, but also (where translated) original. Initially, the books were broad views of the era, as well as biographies of my protagonists. I made notes and drew up an extensive chronology – not just of what was going on in Britain, but also in the world, looking for events that may have impacted on my characters’ lives. Once I had a rough picture, I began to fill in the details. I read books on food and clothing, castles and furniture, armour and weapons, hunting, tournaments, medicine, religion and belief. I needed to understand how Robert would have thought, where he lived, what he ate, how he fought and how he might have related to people, to the world, to God. Now, Robert the myth began to lift off the page and started to form in my mind as Robert the man. Of course, how ever much I tried to keep him of his time he almost inevitably became subject in some way to my view of the world – my biases, my understanding.
After the back of the book-based research was broken, I travelled to as many of the locations that feature in the trilogy as possible. This meant weeks in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, walking battle-sites and visiting castles, hiking up mountains in driving rain, catching twelve ferries in one week and something appropriately nicknamed the Vomit Comet, stumbling through lonely bogs, turning lost circles in vast forests, trekking deep into mist-wreathed glens hearing only the bellow of a distant stag. In these places, where the land is slower to change, I found echoes of the past. I got a sense of the men through the landscape – what they would have seen, smelled, touched; witness to the beauty of it and also the obstacles presented by it. What, for instance, it would have meant for a baggage train to cross this marshy plain? I did other physical research in the form of learning to ride a horse, fighting with a sword, wearing armour and trying my hand at archery and falconry, as well as speaking to re-enactors and historians.
After that, I began to write. I let imagination and language shape Robert, until he was walking, talking, thinking, feeling; a man of ambition and doubt, of dubious moral shades and unbelievable courage and endurance, a man capable of honour and great personal sacrifice as well as bloody brutality. A man who was a friend and a lover, an outlaw and a king, a husband and a father, a murderer, a leader.
I cannot say if my Robert is the truth. No one can. But I hope I have parted enough mists to offer at least a glimpse at the man behind the myths.
KINGDOM, the final book in the Insurrection Trilogy, is out on 19 June, in the month of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.