Review by ANTHON`? ROSS, O.P.
ROBERT BRUCE and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, by G. W. S. Borrow (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 50s.).
THIS book is the second in a series which began excellently with Professor David Douglas' biography or William the Conqueror which promises to become indispensable for all students of British history. Not every volume will till a gap as obviously as this study of Bruce.
The Scots have treated their medieval history badly for a long time, resolutely turning their backs on whatever went before the Reformation, or elaborating a few Celtic or antiEnglish legends for patriotic sehoolboys. There have been honourable exceptions to this generalisatiore of course, notably a handful of record scholars and antiquaries, and occasionally a university professor.
At last, as in so many other quarters, a wind of change. Since the war a great deal has happened to revitalise the study of all periods of Scottish history, but perhaps most of all the study of the Middle Ages.
Already Professor Barrow has a major contribution to his name, the magnificent edition of the records of King Malcolm IV, the first volume in a new series Regesta Revert! Scotorom.
And he has shown, in his book Feudal. Britain, an ability to pre
sent complex material lucidly and readably. In this new work scholarship. clarity and readability are most happily combined.
Robert Bruce is a splendid subject for a biographer. To the Scots a national hero, a symbol of nationhood and hard-won independence, he is inevitably a centre of legend. Bruce and the spider illustrating the virtue of perseverance against seemingly impossible conditions; Bruce splitting De Bohun with one stroke of his axe, when weight and armament were heavily against him: the leader of a forlorn hope. a thirteenth century partisan waging guerrilla war against imperial might; details of a picture to allure any boy's imagination. one which reaches a climax in the story of the good Sir James Douglas carrying his dead king's heart to the crusade.
Crying "Forward, brave heart. where thou west wont to be he hurled the casket containing Bruce's heart into the Saracen horde and spurred after it with his band of Scots.
As Professor Barrow points out, "If Bruce had done nothing else he would find an enduring place in history as one of its greatest
adventurers", It is one of the merits of this book that it separates legend and history without destroying the thrill of heroic enterprise.
The interest is heightened by the author's awareness of the hero's failings. Bruce is not like Alfred the Great. a potential candidate for canonisation. it is by no means obvious in his early history that he has more, in him than the stuff of another ambitious baron.
If, for the last 14 years of his life, he was "one of the best of medieval kings, prudent. conscientious. vigorous and patriotic". it was largely because he had learned much during he years of hardship. (He learned also from his great antagonist, Edward I.)
But there appears another explanation for this, something in the Scottish community itself which had much to do with the shaping of Bruce into a king.
It is here that we come to what will be for many readers the main interest in Professor Barrow's work. He is concerned deeply to explore the idea of "the community of the realm of Scotland".
I his idea was in existence before Bruce and it can be argued that more than anything else it shaped the king which he eventually became.
There were two centuries of fairly peaceful development in Scotland, before the war of independence. Under the descendants of Malcolm Canmore and St. Margaret the Scottish kingdom developed as rapidly and as maturely as any in Europe.
It was no stagnant backwater. Both its religious and political institutions suggest a community abreast of whatever progress was taking place in Christendom. Unfortunately there is tantalisingly little written evidence on which to base an appraisal of ideas.
We can see how deeply Bruce's government was indebted to the work of that great king Alexander III. but we are left wondering only too often about underlying theory. Nevertheless there is enough to show that the famous Declaration of Arbroath was no accidental manifesto.
As early as 1278 Alexander had declared to Edward I that he did homage only for the lands which he held in the kingdom of England. and made his position plain in the assertion : "No one has a right to homage for my kingdom of Scotland save God alone, and I hold it only of God."
This had later to be maintained against the 'Pope also. But more was asserted at Arbroath in the key passage which magnificently closes the argument.
"Divine providence, the right of succession by the laws and customs of the kingdom (which we will defend till death), and the due and lawful consent and assent of all the people, made him [Bruce] our king and prince.
"To him we are obliged and resolved to adhere in all things, both upon account of his right and his own merit, as being the person who hath restored the people's safety in defence of their liberties.
"But, after all, if this prince shall leave these minciples be hath so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our kingdom he subjected to the king or people of England, we will immediately endeavour to expel him es our enemy, and as the subverter both of his own and our rights, and will make another king who will defend our liberties.
"For as long as there shall but one hundred of us remain alive, we will never consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is DOI glory, it is riot riches, neither is it honour, hut it is liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life."
The most fascinating theme in Robert Bruce is the development between 1258 and 1320 of the ideas expressed in the passage. In Scotland's later trials these ideas never wholly disappeared.
They inspired John Barbour's poem The Bros. and remained current in less influential strata of society when the nobility had mostly forgotten them.