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.