The Wars of the Bruces: Scotland, England & Ireland 1306-1328, Colm McNamee. (Tuckwell Press, £14.99) ISBN 1- 898410 -92-5

Published in Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 5

For Scots the name of Bruce conjures up the struggle against English conquest which began 700 years ago. Despite their distance in the past, the medieval king, Robert Bruce, and his great victory at Bannockburn in 1314 remain central to Scottish historical consciousness, seen as securing Scotland’s place as an independent realm and nation until the union of 1707 and remaining potent symbols of Scotland’s continued separateness. In Ireland, though, the Bruce name evokes a less positive response. Robert and his brother, Edward, arrived with a Scots army in 1315 in the guise of liberators of Ireland from the English king’s misrule. However, by the time of Edward Bruce’s death three years later, the Scots were seen as ‘the common ruin’ of both Irish and English on the island. But, despite this defeat, in Ireland too the Bruces played a key part in weakening English power. The family’s successes turned the tide of, not just Anglo-Scottish conflict, but of the attempt of the Plantagenet kings of England to forge a single realm in the British Isles, three hundred years before such a state was formed.
The achievements of the Bruce brothers in Scotland and beyond form the focus of Colm McNamee’s Wars of the Bruces. Not surprisingly, given the acknowledged importance of Scotland’s survival between 1296 and 1328, the period has spawned many studies. However, with even the best of these there remain problems in gaining a full picture of the conflict which the Bruce brothers dominated and directed. In particular, once Bannockburn has been fought and won and English forces expelled from Scotland, the continuing war has been regarded as a sterile stalemate. The widening of conflict by the Bruce brothers’ campaigns in Ireland and northern England have been treated as ‘side-shows’. Scottish historians have looked for ‘Good King Robert’s’ domestic legacy, English historians have focussed on the internal conflicts of Edward II’s reign, while, although there have been several excellent studies of the Bruces in Ireland, none has been linked to a detailed account of the war elsewhere.
This is the stated aim of The Wars of the Bruces. From the outset McNamee consciously takes a perspective which spans the various regions of the British Isles, placing the origins of the conflict in as wide a context as possible. To do this he relies for his background on the growing number of studies which share this perspective, creating a brisk narrative of Anglo-Scottish conflict up to Robert Bruce’s seizure of the throne in 1306. Even after the emergence of the book’s central figure this pace is maintained. McNamee’s account of Bruce’s winning of Scotland follows the basic lines of earlier studies but emphasises the king’s search for support from the Hebrides and Ireland. The real strength of this work, though, lies in the study of the war after 1314. Here McNamee is setting his own agenda. Previous accounts of a barren and poorly directed war of attrition are replaced by a convincing analysis of a conflict which, though not decisively won by either Scottish or English king, marked an escalation of military activity to a scale and intensity unmatched in the British Isles before the 1640s.
It is through the integrated study of the war in its Irish, English and maritime theatres that McNamee demonstrates the existence of concerted war-aims. Edward Bruce’s search for an Irish throne was no sideshow but the escalation of his brother’s struggles with local enemies in the Hebrides and Irish Sea and remained linked to attempts to disrupt English defences in Cumberland. Attempts to secure Carrickfergus, Carlisle, Berwick and the Isle of Man were designed to secure Scotland from attack and deal wounding blows to Planatagenet power in the British Isles. The character of these wars is demonstrated by McNamee’s detailed study of Scottish attacks on northern England. With the help of excellent maps, McNamee demonstrates the range and impunity of Scottish plundering raids, tracing the passage of Bruce’s armies through the devastation left in their wake. Though the royal government, securely based in the south of England, was not directly affected by such attacks, from Yorkshire northwards England was at the mercy of enemy armies and experienced the full horrors of medieval warfare. Such facts will strike a chord with Irish historians. The carrying of war by the Scots across the Irish sea was part of the same strategy and relied on the same tactics. The major Scottish campaigns were also designed to cause the economic impoverishment of their enemies and to demonstrate the inability of the English king to protect his subjects. Far from being an adventure to occupy King Robert’s troublesome younger brother, as Scottish historical tradition has tended to regard it, McNamee shows that the war in Ireland was central to the Bruce brothers’ efforts to alter the balance of power in the British Isles and was pursued long after Edward Bruce’s death in 1318.
Ironically, the neglected element in McNamee’s account of the conflict after 1314 is Scotland itself. The book focusses on the impact of the Scottish war effort on the rest of the island group. Less is said on the nature of that war effort, on the character of Scottish forces and of Bruce’s position in his kingdom, which, as the existence of a serious conspiracy against him in 1320 shows, remained insecure. Though McNamee’s focus is elsewhere, such issues relate closely to the waging of the war and Robert’s aims and resources. However it is the different perspective which McNamee brings to his subject which is amongst the chief merits of The Wars of the Bruces. By removing Robert Bruce from an overwhelmingly Scottish context, McNamee shows the king to be more (and perhaps less) than the national liberator revered by Scots. In the scale and flexibility of his ambition King Robert appears as the heir to generations of Anglo-Norman and Gaelic adventurers seeking lands and titles around the Irish Sea. The relative achievements of Robert and Edward Bruce owed much to this inherited opportunism combined with their success, or lack of it, in winning support by appealing to national loyalties. The Scots are right to regard Robert Bruce as the defender of their realm and nation but, as McNamee demonstrates, the wars of the Bruces were launched, not just in defence of Scottish liberties but to win lands and crowns for two ambitious aristocrats.

Michael Brown

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