Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Edward II did not have much cause to celebrate during his reign as King of England. However, his mood in October 1318 must have been singularly improved by the arrival of a package from Ireland containing the head of one of his most notorious enemies. The head belonged to Edward the Bruce, a Scottish warlord who had caused Edward II considerable indigestion when he crowned himself High King of Ireland in 1316. In the ensuing period, Bruce had caused much mayhem for the Anglo-Norman lordship of Ireland.

Not that Edward II expected anything but hardship from the Bruces. After all, Edward the Bruce was the younger brother and heir apparent of Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, who gave the English such a massive drubbing at the battle of Bannockburn, fought on 24 June 1314.

The House of Bruce came to the fore during the Scottish War of Independence, the early years of which were characterised by the rise and fall of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. In 1306, less than a year after Wallace’s execution, Robert slew his arch-rival and was crowned King of the Scots.

King Robert spent much of the next eight years engaged in a form of guerrilla warfare, defending his throne against the English forces of Edward I (‘Longshanks’) and his feeble successor Edward II.

By the summer of 1313, Bruce’s army were in the ascendance across Scotland and all that stood between them and total victory was Stirling Castle. King Robert sent Edward, his brother and his most trusted commander, to negotiate with Sir Philip de Mowbray, the castle’s Governor. A glutton for chivalry, Edward struck a deal that favoured de Mowbray. From Midsummer’s Day, the Governor had one year to secure reinforcements from Edward II. If none arrived, de Mowbray would surrender the castle.

King Robert was understandably livid this arrangement as it not only green-lighted an English invasion of Scotland but gave them an entire year to organize. Moreover, the Bruces may have excelled as guerrilla fighters but they had little experience of pitch battles.

One year later, the two armies met at Bannockburn for a battle that was to become the most seminal victory in Scottish history. During the battle, the Scots ‘schiltroms’ advanced forward ‘like a thick-set hedge’, protected by closely locked shields, bonded by immense courage, carrying sharp axes at their sides and deadly lances in their hands. The English cavalry were simply unable to penetrate. When Robert Clifford, one of the English commanders, lost his cool and charged at a schiltom, he was quickly overcome and slain. By the end of the battle, Edward II had lost two thirds of his men and the English king fled the battlefield. Mowbray duly surrendered Stirling Castle, making the Scots victory absolute.

In the wake of England’s meltdown at Bannockburn, the Scots mounted a series of invasions into northern England. King Robert also decided to open up a second front in Ireland to further deplete England’s resources.

The task fell to his brother Edward who, having commanded one of the schiltroms at Bannockburn, was forgiven for his blunder at Stirling Castle. On 26 May 1315, Edward sailed for Ireland with 6,000 men who duly disembarked along the Antrim coast between Carrickfergus and Larne.

The immediate catalyst for the Bruce invasion of Ireland was an invitation from their cousin Domnall mac Brian Ó Néill, King of Tyrone, who sought an ally against the Anglo-Normans in Ulster. King Robert agreed to assist on condition that the Irish accept Edward as High King of Ireland.

Aside from a short-lived attempt by the Ó Néill’s in 1258, Ireland had not had a High King in 130 years. The Bruce brothers were the sons of Sir Robert de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, and had a tentative claim to the dormant throne through their paternal grandmother Lady Isabella de Clare, a descendant of Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster.

Edward the Bruce is believed to have spent a good deal of his childhood in Ulster, either as a foster child of the O’Neill’s, kinsmen of his mother, or with the Bissett family, Lords of the Glens of Antrim.

Even as Bruce’s ships powered across the North Channel to Ulster, King Robert’s propaganda chiefs were highlighting the Bruce’s Irish lineage as the key to their ideological vision of a ‘Pan-Gaelic Greater Scotia’ in which the family would rule over Scotland, Ireland and, in due course, Wales. In a letter addressed to the leading Irish kings and chieftains, Robert spoke of the Scots and the Irish as ‘nostra nacio (our nation) … stemming from one seed of birth’, united ‘by a common language and by common custom.’

The Bruce’s had hoped the Irish would arise in their favour, oust the Anglo-Normans and proclaim Edward as High King. The reality was infinitely more complex, not least because so many of the Irish kingdoms were already locked in bitter internecine warfare between rival claimants to the various thrones.

When Edward arrived, he was merely another player in this game of thrones, albeit one of the most powerful. He quickly secured control of much of Ulster, capturing Carrickfergus and defeating an army raised by Richard de Burgh, the Red Earl of Ulster, who was, to further complicate matters, King Robert’s father-in-law.

In early June, 13 of Ulster’s Kings and lords swore fealty to Edward at Carrickfergus. The annals would later claim that ‘all the Gaels of Ireland agreed to grant him lordship’ but many were clearly hedging their bets. Two of the 13 men at Carrickfergus subsequently orchestrated a failed ambush on Edward as he marched south from Newry. Dundalk was to experience the full hell of Scottish vengeance; the town was destroyed and its entire population, Norman and Gael alike, brutally put to the sword.

In early November, Edward convincingly defeated Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, in a pitched battle at Kells, Co. Meath. Kells was a smouldering ruin by the time the Scots moved south and over the ensuing months they similarly pillaged and burned towns across Counties Longford, Westmeath and Kildare. Such anarchy simultaneously prompted the O’Toole, O’Byrne and other clans of the Wicklow Mountains to rise up against the Anglo-Normans.

Pillage was arguably necessary; how else was Bruce to feed the thousands who served under him? However, it came at a serious cost to his reputation and the marauding Scots were soon as despised as the English. The situation was by no means helped by a series of severe winters between 1315 and 1317 which led to widespread famine across Ireland.

Bruce was also consistently let down by Irish leaders whose promise of support frequently failed to materialize. Without their support, Edward was compelled to withdraw to his safehaven in Ulster. On his return trip, he cemented his ambitions on 2 May 1316 when he was crowned High King of Ireland on the Hill of Maledon near Dundalk.

Meanwhile, the English were regaining their composure under the guidance of John de Hothum, the sagacious Governor of Ireland. Under his watch, several of Bruce’s key allies, including the pirate Thomas Dunn, were captured and killed.

In February 1317, the reinforced Scots launched a massive campaign for which King Robert joined his brother upfront. Perhaps they still hoped the Irish would rise up as ‘Gaelic brothers’, although they must have by now realized that most of the Irish were opportunists who could not be relied upon.

As the Bruces advanced on Dublin, Hothum prepared the city’s defences, burning the suburb of St Thomas and dismantling the church at St Mary’s del Dam on Dame Street to strengthen Dublin Castle. Such defences had the desired effect and the Scots instead wheeled west from Castleknock to Leixlip before laying waste to Naas, destroying the Franciscan friary at Castledermot and advancing south through County Kilkenny towards Limerick.

The King of Connaught were supposed to join the Bruces but the kingship was in crisis and, harried by hostile forces, the Scots were once again forced to return to Ulster. Robert abandoned Ireland in May and returned to Scotland.

Edward the Bruce’s morale also took a further blow in 1317 with the failure of a major campaign to convince the Pope to accept him as King of Ireland.

On 14 October 1318, Edward’s army met a superior Hiberno-Norman force at the Hill of Faughart near Dundalk, Co. Louth. Three columns of Scots were defeated in succession and at least 30 Scottish knights were killed, including Philip de Mowbray, the former Governor of Stirling Castle, as well as the Kings of Argyll, the Western Isles.

Edward the Bruce also fell in the battle, slain by John Malpas from Dundalk. The news was greeted with much joy in certain quarters. Perhaps under the watchful eye of the Red Earl of Ulster, the authors of the Annals of Ulster lambasted Edward as ‘the destroyer of Ireland in general, both Foreigners and Gaels’ and applauded his death as the best ‘deed’ since the beginning of the world, because his time in Ireland caused such hunger that ‘people undoubtedly used to eat each other throughout Ireland.’

According to the Lannercost Chronicle, ‘Edward was beheaded after death; his body being divided into four quarters, which were sent to the four chief quarters of Ireland.’ While Edward II almost certainly received his head, his remains are believed to have been buried in the churchyard at Faughart beneath a large flat stone that can still be seen today.

Following his death, the Scots position in Ireland collapsed. The House of Bruce would retain the Scottish throne until 1371 when a new dynasty came to the fore – the House of Stuart whose destiny would also ultimately be dictated on the battlefields of Ireland.