How a cave spider could had changed the destiny of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, and the destiny of a nation? In 1307, Robert, an outlaw king, had helplessly watched his wife, daughter and sisters being imprisoned. Three brothers executed by the English, and no piece of land he could call his own. To the English, he was a traitor, and to the Scots a murderer and usurper.
#1 The true Braveheart
A reconstruction of Robert’s face, and Chris Pine, who portrays him in the film ‘Outlaw King’. Thanks Hollywood, for making Robert more bearable
Discover how a tiny spider (and it wasn’t the radioactive one that bite Spiderman) reversed the irreversible, and turned Robert into the legendary hero who defeated the English in the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328).
Since I ignore the spider origins, I’ll tell you about the other protagonist.
#2 The Bruce’s ancestry
Robert the Bruce was born 11th July 1274, probably in Turnberry Castle. His father, Robert de Brus, had married Marjorie, the widow of the Earl of Carrick, and thus Robert junior inherited the Earldom of Carrick. The Bruces, or Bruses, were a family with Anglo-Norman origins, and were counted amongst the most powerful of Scotland. And feared because of their ambition.
Scotland had a little problem in 1286, when King Alexander III died, and his granddaughter and heir, Margaret of Norway, followed him to the grave in 1290. When I said little problem, I meant the country was at the brink of a civil war. The Bruces and the Balliols, another powerful family, claimed the throne. To settle the dispute, they had the brilliant idea to invite to tea and biscuits, the powerful and ambitious English King Edward I.
Edward I, jealous of the superior beauty of the Scottish wilderness over England, saw an opportunity to assert his superiority over, the otherwise, poorer northern neighbour. In 1292, he decided in favour of John Balliol, who like most of the Scottish nobility had sworn allegiance to Edward in return.
#3 William Wallace. Freedom!
The status quo remained until 1296, when John replied with an unambiguous ‘Fuck off Edward’ to the latter request for Scottish troops, and sided with Edward’s foe, the French. Comprehensibly, this pissed off the English monarch, who dethroned John Balliol in a swift invasion, subtly leaving English officers to administrate Scotland. What followed was a continuous state of skirmishes and Scottish revolt led by William Wallace, (if you haven’t watched Braveheart, it’s time now. But DO NOT expect historical accuracy), the stubborn champion of the resistance.
In the other hand, Robert swapped allegiance like a football player biding for the highest wage. Under a temporary truce, Robert and John Comyn ‘the Red Comyn’, another of the Bruce’s enemies, shared the office of Guardian of Scotland (the ruler in the King’s absence) replacing William Wallace in 1298.
Different Seals of the Guardians of Scotland after Alexander’s III death
But Robert and John Comyn behaved like a bitter couple, and their ‘marriage’ soon collapsed, after John, in a clearly domestic violence case, put a knife in Robert’s throat during the Selkirk forest conclave. What a dick. Robert went to seek refuge with Edward I in 1302, to the winning side. Or perhaps he attempted to make John jealous?
#4 King Robert the Bruce
But it was plain to see that the affair with the English king was short-lived. Robert had never gave up his family claim to the Scottish throne. On 12th February 1306, tired of being Edward’s little bitch, Robert convinced John Comyn to meet him in the Greyfriars Kirk (Church), in Dumfries. And if there’s an absolute truth in this world is: going back with your ex is never a good idea.
The hopeful reunion ended, when Robert stabbed and killed John in sacred ground, earning an excommunication, the resentment of the Comyn’s and their allies, and a feud with Edward, all in one shot. Not the best idea Robb Stark. (Sorry, wrong dynastic drama) His plan to get Comyn’s support thwarted, Robert was hurriedly crowned King of Scotland, by Bishop William de Lamberton. Meanwhile, his friend the Bishop Wishart absolved him of the murder, and urged the Scots to rally under Robert.
Robert’s coronation sculpture. Edinburgh Castle
#5 Robert battles against England
His clumsy bid for throne didn’t last long, or so it seemed, because on 19th June 1306, his four thousand strong army was routed by surprise, and obliterated. Robert made it alive with fewer than 100 followers, his strength in Scotland shattered beyond repair.
Little better than a fugitive, Robert sent his wife Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie and sister Mary, to safety with his brother Neil Bruce, in Kildrummy castle, while he and his little party hide in the mountains between Argyll and Perthshire.
The worst was yet to come.
#6 The fate of Robert’s wife and daughter
Kildrummy Castle was taken, and Neil Bruce was drawn, hanged and beheaded. Elizabeth, Marjorie and Mary were later captured by Balliol’s adherents. Mary Bruce got the worst lot, locked in a cage suspended in Roxburgh Castle during 2 long years. Edward wasn’t into the deference of opening the doors to women and other sorts of courtesy.
Elizabeth got away with a comfortable confinement because she mocked their enthronement to Robert. She allegedly said, during their coronation, that they were King and Queen of the May. Wives… always so supportive.
7# Escaping to Rathlin island. Bruce’s cave
Robert’s only choice was to flee from Scotland. There are many theories where he spent the 1306-7 winter. Some say in the Norway-controlled Orkney, or Norway itself, where his sister Isabel Bruce was Queen Dowager.
Other plausible alternatives are the Hebrides and Ireland. The strongest theory suggests that Robert stopped in the island of Rathlin, the northernmost point of Ireland. Hungry, cold and fearing of Edward’s loyalists, Robert took his men to a cave, to shelter from the inclement weather.
#8 The legend of the spider
He had lost the throne, his earldom, his allies, his country and family. Edward’s strength was unassailable, and one can only feel sympathy for Robert thinking about giving up. But while sitting on the cave, he was distracted by a spider, which in vain, was trying to spin a web between walls. Six times the spider failed, obstinately climbing the wall to try once more.
When 99% of humans spot a spider, what we do is panic and try to crush it with supernatural strength, using a rolled newspaper, or we spray the whole can of insecticide upon the poor eight-legged bug. But Robert the Bruce had little to lose, and watching the spider struggle, might had been the only amusement in a damp cave offshore.
Robert realized he too had failed six times against Edward. If the spider succeeded, then he vowed to try one last time. The headstrong spider persevered, and leapt against the odds. But succeeded! And reached the opposite wall.
#9 From Loudon Hill to Bannockburn
The terrible loss of his brothers Thomas and Alexander still awaited Robert, and he wouldn’t reunite and hug his wife and daughter until 1314. However, the achievements and battles Robert was soon to heap, could only had been imagined by some script writer of a Hollywood, epic, adventure film. King Robert returned and began his epic legend by defeating a superior English army in Loudon Hill. One by one he conquered all the castles, eliminating the Comyn supporters on the process, and finally met and defeated Edward’s I successor, Edward II, in the battle of Bannockburn on 1314. Robert the Bruce starred in one of the most spectacular comebacks ever.
#10 The spider’s proverb. Try again and again
All thanks to a revolting spider? We’ll never know for sure if Robert was actually inspired by it. Most likely, since motivational books weren’t available before. And is it that unrealistic, considering one of the most popular and iconic superheroes is called Spider-Man?
Nowadays, Robert the Bruce, together with William Wallace, hold a place in the Scots’ hearts, as the achievers of independence, two bulwarks of national pride. And Spidey? The Spider remains equally important, a valuable lesson teaching us that if at first we don’t succeed, we must try, try, and try again. And for that, the spider has earned a spot in one of the most revered pieces of paper: a twenty pound note of a Scottish bank.