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Benedict XVI should address the papacy’s treatment of Robert the Bruce

Scotland’s hero-king clashed repeatedly with the popes

By on Friday, 13 August 2010

A statue of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn site (PA archive)

A statue of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn site (PA archive)

The papal visit to Scotland is a month away, but already the question has been asked: will Pope Benedict mention the papacy’s treatment of Robert the Bruce? This was nearly seven centuries ago, but Scotland would not exist as an independent country if Robert, the hero-king, had not dared to defy Pope Clement V’s command to submit to the English.

Year after year, the papacy remained adamant that Scotland should be subservient to England. Scotland’s nationalistic clergy, plus the hundreds of thousands of Scots who followed Robert, refused equally steadfastly. All were excommunicated (Robert in 1306).

Nothing better illustrates the passion of the Scots for self-determination than the ceremony of Robert’s crowning by four bishops at Scone on Palm Sunday in the same year, which took place openly in defiance of the Pope – and the English.
Robert’s spirit of self-determination united the people of Scotland as never before. After his victory at Bannockburn in 1314, he restored the majesty of Scotland, entrenching himself as Scotland’s most popular monarch. Staunchly, he defied further notices of excommunication re-imposed by Clement in 1308 and later by Pope John XXII in 1323.

Throughout Robert’s 23-year reign his excommunication was never entirely lifted as the plenary absolution promised by Pope John XXII after the Declaration of Arbroath came to nothing. Instead, Robert’s sentence of excommunication was re-imposed after Scottish raids on England. Although he had been an excommunicant for over two decades, when Robert lay on his deathbed in 1329, he planned an act of penance and devotion. His “bluddy heart” was to be cut out of his corpse, sealed in a silver casket and put in the care of his friend and warlord, Sir James Douglas, otherwise known as “the Black Douglas”.

The gruesome remnant was to lead a crusade to Jerusalem and be buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But neither the heart nor the Scots crusaders reached the Holy City. Catastrophe struck at Teba, near Malaga, where Douglas was killed in battle by Muslim forces. The heart was returned to Scotland and interred at Melrose Abbey, where it remains to this day.
Various gestures have been suggested to redress the exclusion of Scotland’s greatest monarch from the Catholic Church. One is for Pope Benedict to arrange for Robert’s heart to be temporarily interred in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Completing the journey of the royal heart would, at last, fulfil the religious longings of Scotland’s greatest king.

Despite Robert’s long alienation from the papacy, he will be one of the historical figures in the parade ahead of the Pope’s Popemobile in Princes Street, Edinburgh, on September 16. Another will be John Knox, who led Scotland’s revolt against the Catholic Church, which climaxed with the banning of the Catholic Mass and the revoking of the Pope’s authority in Scotland in 1560.

When welcomed at Holyrood Palace by the Queen, Pope Benedict will not be shaking hands with Scottish Protestant bishops. Unlike the Church of England, the Church of Scotland has no bishops. When breaking from Rome, the Scots, like most reformed churches, acknowledged that, by default, they had cut the apostolic succession.

  • LiberalTraditionalist

    Isn’t it a bit optimistic expecting such a quick response from the Holy Father.

    If Rome has just got round to the apology for Galileo’s house arrest from 1632-42, it’s a bit too much to ask to de-excommunicate King Robert this early on.

    If (and I only say if) he murdered John Comyn in Dumfries Abbey in 1308, there must be queues of people in front of him from the intervening 300 years. He did, after all, get absolution the day afterwards, from Bishop Wishart of Glasgow – his soul is probably then free from the stain of mortal sin.

    Still, It’s a nice thought for Pope Benedict’s visit to Edinburgh but there should be no undue haste from the “New Inquisition“ on this one – and I like Robert the Bruce.

    Last in, First out seems to be the Order of the Day.

  • Enna

    Very interesting article- I didn't know the Bruce had been excommunicated. I am also very surprised that the Church in Scotland thinks that John Knox should be included in the parade of characters chosen to greet the Holy Father. The fruits of the reformation in this country are there to be seen by anyone who has eyes and wants to see.

  • EditorCT


    It's not the Church of Scotland who think that John Knox should be included. The Spokesman for the Scottish Bishops is on public record saying that this is as it should be, this shows the “inclusive” Church of the 21 century.

    You can hardly blame the Protestants for not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

  • crouchback

    So….” Robert the Bruce” and “John Knox” are in the parade….pictures of the same, or actors dressed in Historical costumes…???

    Quelle Horreur, as they might have said in the days of the Auld Alliance.

    What about Mickey (Mouse) and Donald (Dewar), will they be represented…????

    Where ever will they get someone with a face long enough to play Donald…????

    As for Donald (Duck)…he'll be on the menu, with an Ecumenical Orange Sauce……perhaps.