Monday, September 20, 2010

The Bruce Brothers

While sources disagree on the numbers and names of Bruce's younger sisters, there is widespread agreement on his brothers. Only one leaves out Alexander, the youngest. Nobody could argue that Bruce's sisters had easy lives. Much less so he and his brothers. Of the five, Bruce, Neil, Edward, Thomas, and Alexander, only Bruce died peacefully, though he hardly was able to live so.

Bruce himself was born in 1274, the first son and third child. Neil--also known as Niall or Nigel--arrived soon after in 1276, followed by Edward around 1279, Thomas i 1284, and Alexander, the youngest, in 1285.

War with England shaped, and eventually took, the lives of all Robert Bruce's brothers. As a novelist, asking what if is important. No doubt we all do it in our lives, and it is easy to ask of the Bruce family, what if? What if Alexander III had not died, trying to get home to his bride on that dark and stormy night? What if his young widow had in fact been pregnant with an heir to the throne, as she first claimed? What if his granddaugther, the Maid of Norway, had survived her journey to Scotland to claim the throne? What if the lords of Scotland could have agreed on a successor instead of, fearing internal war, asking Edward I (Longshanks) to choose? Had any of these things been different, perhaps the Bruces would have lived a relatively peaceful life; perhaps more of the five brothers would have had families and lived to old ages.

But the fact is, Alexander was determined to get home to his bride, and given the personalities involved, it led inexorably, step by step, to prolonged war with England, in which Bruce, and thus his brothers, were major players.

Neil, the second brother, was the first to die at England's hands. The beginning of the end, for him, were Bruce's defeats at Methven in June 1306 and Strathfillan two months later in August. At the time, Bruce was a newly-crowned king with no power, and in fact no home, in his own kingdom. His wife, daughter, and sisters had been traveling with him and his men, but his defeats at Methven and Strathfillan raised concerns for their safety. So he sent them, under the protection of most of his men, including Neil and the Lord of Atholl, to Kildrummy Castle for safety. Bruce, along with Edward, Thomas, and Alexander, and a few close followers, headed into hiding on Rathlin Island off the northern shore of Ireland.

When the English marched against Kildrummy, the women were sent further north on their way to Orkney, under the protection of the Earl of Atholl. Neil defended Kildrummy admirably against the younger Edward. Unfortunately, he was betrayed from within by a blacksmith bribed with 'all the gold he could carry' to set fire to the grain stores. With no food, the men of Kildrummy were forced to surrender. Neil was captured, and in September 1306, hanged, drawn, and quartered at Berwick-on-Tweed. (The blacksmith, on being caught by the Scots, did indeed receive his reward for betraying the King's brother: all the gold he could carry was melted and poured down his throat. I'm thinking he would have done better to remain gold-less but loyal.)

Neil (or Nigel) would have been about 30 at the time of his death. (The year or his birth is given as circa 1276, and so far in my research, without a month.)

The death of his brother Neil, the first of the five brothers to die at England's hands, was a devastating blow to Bruce, both personally and in his quest to reclaim his country. The sickening feeling to all of them, Robert, Edward, Thomas, and Alexander, on hearing of the vicious torture, mutilation, and execution of their own brother, can only be imagined. Bruce, who, as the eldest brother, ultimately had made the decision for all of them, to fight, had known from the start that he risked bringing this on his own family. Of course, succumbing to Longshanks' brutal rule was no guarantee of a long and peaceful life, either. In fact, knowing how Longshanks treated Scotland, it was a guarantee of the opposite. Still, the death of his brother, resulting from his decisions, is believed to have weighed heavily on Bruce's heart.

One can imagine the thoughts of all the Bruce brothers, knowing any of them could be next. And, indeed, it was less than a year later--on February 9, 1307, that Thomas and Alexander would die at Carlisle the same way Neil had. During the winter months of 1306-1307, many believe Bruce and his company rested and re-grouped in the western islands under the hospitality and protection of Christina MacRuairi. It is from there that Bruce and his followers launched their two-pronged return to the mainland of Scotland in February 1307.

Robert and Edward landed at Turnberry Castle in the southwest, while Thomas and Alexander led 18 galleys in the landing further south still, at Loch Ryan. They were immediately overwhlemed by the local forces of Dougal MacDougal, a supporter of the Comyns. Keep in mind that Robert Bruce killed John Comyn at the altar of Greyfriars Kirk not quite a year prior to this, on February 10, 1306. Alexander would most likely have been short of his 22nd birthday, and Thomas short of his 23rd.

Thus, within six months, the English executed three of Bruce's four brothers, leaving himself and the third of the five brothers, Edward. It is easy to imagine that they felt the executioner's rope heavy around their own necks at that point. It is easy enough, reading history 700 years later, and knowing they would live for many years to come--especially Robert--but they did not have the comfort of such foreknowledge. They could only push on, most likely feeling that, with all their brothers so quickly captured and executed, the odds were heavily against them. Still, they did push on.

Edward Bruce comes down through history as forceful, hot-headed, and willful. Because he lived much longer, the historical record is full of stories of Edward Bruce. In brief, he fought beside Robert through the years leading up to Bannockburn, a loyal supporter and a thorn in his side. On the one hand, he re-captured many of the castles taken by Edward I. On the other, he made the rash agreement with Phillip de Mowbray, the English commander of Stirling Castle, which led to exactly the pitched, face to face battle with the English which Robert had always tried to avoid.

(Again, ask what if? What if Bruce had chosen Edward to lead the attack on Loch Ryan? I have not done the research to know if history tells us why Bruce chose as he did, but years of reading on Edward makes it easy to guess that he may have kept Edward at his side exactly to keep his rashness under control. What if the more level-headed Thomas or Alexander had survived and been sent to conduct the siege at Stirling? The Battle of Bannockburn likely never would have happened.

It was a huge, but unavoidable, risk at the time, once Edward Bruce opened his mouth and put Robert into that unenviable position. It is probably not completely possible for most of us to imagine marching to battle with a force three times the size of our own. But Robert was thrown into that position, and turned it into Scotland's greatest moment. Does this make Edward Bruce the villain and fool of the story or the accidental hero? Or the full-blown hero for having the courage to face the largest army the world had ever seen?

Edward Bruce commanded the men of Galloway in one of four schiltrons (rings of spears, against which even knights on warhorses could not stand) at the Battle of Bannockburn, on June 23 and 24, 1314. After Bannockburn, Edward was among those who pushed for continued attacks on England, in order to force England to acknowledge Scotland once again as an independent nation and Robert Bruce as its rightful king.

To this end, Edward Bruce also pushed Robert to lead the Irish in rebelling against their English overlords. His argument was that a few thousand Scots, with the aid of the Irish who also disliked England's rule, could harry England further, harassing them on so many fronts that they must finally give in to Scotland's very minimal demands.

Due to Edward's manipulations behind his back, Robert was somewhat forced to agree to Edward's plan, and on May 26, 1315, Edward's fleets landed in Ireland. In 1316, he was crowned King of Ireland. His brief reign ended with his death at the battle of Faughart on October 14, 1318. De Birmingham, the opposing commander, had his body quartered, and the pieces sent to various towns in Ireland. His head was delivered to Edward II.

He was about 39 years old. He left behind at least one son, Alexander de Brus, fathered with his probable wife, Isabelle, daughter of John de Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl. Records suggest an intended second marriage, after Isabelle's death, to Isabella Ross, and a second son, Thomas, by this other Isabelle. Many historians doubt the marriage actually took place.

This left Robert, the eldest, as the sole survivor of his father's five sons. He spent the rest of his years working to ensure Scotland's freedom from England. He died on June 7, 1329, at the age of 54, at his new manor of Cardross. He had suffered for years from a painful skin ailment, that has been called everything from psoriasis to leprosy. He is buried at Dunfermline Abbey. At his request, however, James Douglas, his closest friend and companion, removed his heart, embalmed and enclosed it in a silver casket, and carried it to the Crusades, to atone for his murder of John Comyn 23 years earlier. James Douglas died in the Crusades, but the silver casket with Bruce's heart was recovered and buried at Melrose Abbey.

For pictures of Turnberry Castle's remains, see Happy Birthday Robert the Bruce.

The Bruce Sisters

It is a shame that only the broadest strokes of Bruce's family portrait have come down through history, because with an abundance of brothers, sisters, and, later, children, there must have been many wonderful stories to tell of their younger years. What remains, however, is a list of names and fates, and a few sketchy ideas of a few of the individuals.

Bruce was Scoto-Norman and Franco-Gaelic, and a direct descendant of David I of Scotland on his father's side. It is believed that, as a result, he spoke the several languages of his heritage, in addition to Latin. He was the third child, but oldest boy, of 10, 11 or 12 siblings, depending on the source. The confusion seems to lie in the fact that multiple names are often attributed to the same person, much like our Roberts and Bobs, Williams and Bills. For instance, one source lists seven sisters for Robert Bruce: Isabella, Christina, Maud, Mary, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Marjory, while another source lists Isabella, Christina, Elizabeth, Mary, and Margaret, but calls the sixth and last daughter Matilda/Marjory. Yet another source lists only five sisters, leaving out Elizabeth, and listing Isabella, Christina, Margaret, Matilda, and Mary. Undiscovered Scotland says there were ten Bruce siblings. There is no confusion about his brothers, Niel/Nigel, Edward, Thomas, and Alexander, perhaps because, being deeply involved in politics and warfare, there are clearer records of them.

The older Bruce siblings may have remembered the time of peace before Alexander III's death, but for the most part, they would have grown up in a world of turmoil, as Scotland fought Edward Longshanks' continued efforts to subdue and control Scotland. This was almost certainly the motivating force on all their lives. Only Isabella could be said to have had anything like a peaceful life, as queen of Norway. (And I say that in comparison to the harsh fates of so many of her siblings.)

Bruce himself, spent years living in conditions most of us will never suffer, in caves and hunted both by the English and various Scottish clans who for various reasons sided with the English (or against Bruce, which of course had the same effect, if different motives) and fighting battles. His sisters did not routinely fight battles, but they did suffer for his stand against the English.

Christina, or Christian, the second child and daughter, was betrayed and captured, along with Bruce's wife and daughter, at Kildrummy, shortly after Bruce's crowning at Scone in defiance of Longshanks. She was 'lucky' enough to only be held in a convent from 1306 until after the Scots' victory at Bannockburn in 1314.

But life was hard, and she lost three husbands. Her first, Gartnait Earl of Mar, died of natural causes in 1305. Her second, Christopher Seton, was brutally executed by the English in 1306. Not the long marriage she had perhaps hoped for. Her third, Andrew Murray, spent his life in battle against the English and serving Scotland.

Deborah Richmond Foulkes, in her novelized and very detailed account of James Douglas and his family, does an excellent job of portraying life for the wives and children left behind throughout countless battles and years of warfare, highlighting the fear and waiting which must have colored so much of Christina's life.

She had three children, at least as recorded by history: Donald Earl of Mar and Helen with Gartnait and Lord John and Sir Thomas with Andrew Murray.

Even apart from her sufferings on behalf of her brother's and husbands' politics, Christina must have been yet another remarkable woman in her own right. Of course, this would undoubtedly come from her mother's forceful personality, which deserves an article of its own. But one of the few things that is remembered about Christina is that she successfully commanded the defending forces of Kildrummy Castle in Aberdeenshire, against David de Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, leader of the English forces, in 1335. She was in her 60's. It is unusual enough for a woman in medieval times to command an army; it is unusual in any time for a woman in her 60's to do so. It is a brief story that speaks volumes about who Christina must have been. She lived to be 84.

Little enough is said of Mary Bruce, but we do know she was one of the younger sisters. Along with Christina, Isabella MacDuff, Robert's wife Elizabeth and daughter Marjory, Mary was betrayed and captured by the Earl of Ross. Not treated so well as Christina, she and Isabella MacDuff were both held prisoner in wooden or iron cages, suspended from castle walls, for the amusement of crowds who mocked and threw things. Mary lived like this, exposed to all seasons, from 1306 until 1310 on the walls of Roxburgh Castle.

She was kept in captivity even afterward, only being set free in exchange for English prisoners after Bannockburn in 1314. Shortly after, she married one of Bruce's closest companions and most loyal supporters, Neil Campbell. He died very soon afterward, in 1316, and she later married Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie (how would you like to fill that name out on your children's school and medical forms!)

Like so many, very few details of Mary have survived, but Nigel Tranter, the historian and novelist, paints her as a forceful and colorful personality. Given her family background, it seems likely.

Virtually nothing has come to us of Bruce's other sisters. It is not even clear how many of them there were. Is it because they were the younger siblings and so less involved in the immediate events of the time? Perhaps more sheltered? Given how long the wars of independence lasted, it seems unlikely they were that fortunate. Is it because their names, Elizabeth, Marjory, Maud, and Matilda, are so easily confused with Bruce's wife and daughters? Were they less forceful or colorful personalities such that they left no records? At this point in my research, it is impossible to say, but if anyone knows more of Bruce's youngest sisters, I would very much welcome the information.

Tomorrow, Bruce's brothers. Next week, his wives and children.

Medieval Easter

Easter is here! Is your peacock re-feathered and dressed for Sunday dinner!

medieval easter, easter sepulchre, easter traditions, food and feast,
It is easy to view medieval times as a dreary, colorless life of drudgery and hard work at best, and warfare, torture, and deadly plagues at worst. A study of the holidays, however, spins the kaleidoscope and breathes color and joy into the picture, as well. Our modern vacation and feasting doesn't hold a flickering beeswax candle, much less a torch, to theirs! Christmas, for instance, was two weeks of feasting and celebration. Easter, Christmas, and Whitsunday (or Pentecost) were the three most important holy days of the year.

Feasting is an expression of joy, and to that end, it's important to remember Easter is a religious feast celebrating the miraculous event of a man rising from the dead after a horrific crucifixion. This event being the evidence that the long-awaited Messiah had walked among us, it is the very crux of the Christian faith, and therefore the most important day of the year, religiously. A popular current view of the medieval Church is of a grim and stern overlord. In contrast, however, John Chrysostom's Easter sermon, found at the Medieval Sourcebook, brims with joy and hope.

Are there any weary with fasting?

Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,

let them receive their due reward;

If any have come after the third hour,

let him with gratitude join in the Feast!

And he that arrived after the sixth hour,

let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.

And if any delayed until the ninth hour,

let him not hesitate; but let him come too.

And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,

let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

It's a world of beauty and wonder, he's saying!  Join us!  It's not too late, no matter what went before.  This, of course, is something that both Shawn is coming to terms with throughout The Blue Bells Chronicles.

Like Christmas, Easter in the medieval world often involved plays, in this case depicting the angel at the empty tomb, and telling the Resurrection story. Similar to the Christmas creche, was the Easter sepulchre, dating back to at least the tenth century, and common all over Europe and Britain by the 16th Century. They were displays of sorts. They might be set in a small niche in a church or they might be extravagant wooden displays mounted atop tombs. Still others were free-standing. There might be brackets for candles, and carved depictions of angels or scenes of Christ's Passion.

The ceremonies surrounding these sepulchres involved responsories being sung while placing a crucifix and consecrated host in the tomb on Good Friday, surrounding it with candles and incense, and having either minor clergy or the sexton and his assistants watch the 'tomb' until Easter morning. At that time, the Host and crucifix were removed with much ceremony and processed around the church.

The feasting and celebration, of course, is a big part of what comes down to us, hundreds of years later. Maybe it is partly our fascination with what is so different from our time. The Easter message, after all, has not changed in all this time. Medieval and modern Easter sermons carry the same, eternal message: He is risen. Hallelujah. But we can hardly conceive, in our hasty modern world, of celebrating as they did.

Of course, to the modern world, giving up chocolate for 40 days is typical of Lent. To the medieval populace, with, metaphorically speaking, more churches and fewer grocery stores, seasons and religious belief made for a very different Lenten experience. The winter season offered little enough meat as it was. Lent, however, was a time of fasting from meat, dairy, and eggs. Fish might be the daily special for a full six weeks, with herring being particularly common--salted, says one site, and cooked with onions and cabbage. Mmm, good! Or, in the probably more accurate and less sarcastic words of one medieval boy: "Thou wyll not beleve how werey I am off fysshe, and how moch I desir that flesch wer cum in ageyn."

A medieval Easter feast, then, featured all the things that had been missing for so long, whether due to religious stricture or lack of grocery stores: meat, eggs, greens. More specifically, lamb, veal, rabbit, herbs. In case this wasn't enough meat, a medieval master chef also prepared a variety of birds for the table: swan, peacock, partridge, pheasant, blackbirds, pigeon, woodcock, sparrows, curlew and capon. A capon is a castrated rooster.

And the food was not just prepared for gastrointestinal delight, but to be aesthetic masterpieces. The peacock, for instance, would be stuffed and sewn back together, and served in full feathered regalia with its neck propped up and tail feathers fanned behind it. One article tells of a fanciful creature that might appear at the medieval table: the back of a pig joined to the front of a capon. When combined with such things as the Unicorn tapestry, mysterious myths of strange creatures and events, and the rich symbolism rampant at the time, it is a unique look into the medieval mind, perhaps full of mystery, romance, and possibilities beyond what they could see, to think of such things being created. Or perhaps it just makes some people squirm!

For those with a sweet tooth, the tansy was a favorite. It was something like a butter-fried pancake or omelette, flavored and colored with spinach, spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, and flavored with cream. It vied with pain perdue (bread dipped in egg, fried, and topped with sugar, which sounds very like French toast), gilded marchpanes, and a form of gingerbread which involved honey, saffron and ginger baked into a biscuit. And for a society that did not have our regular access to candy and chocolate of all sorts, nuts and fruits also would have been a wonderful treat bursting from the barren winter back into their diets.

Dining in medieval days, of course, was not just about fueling the body. Without facebook, phones, or movies, feasts were a social and entertainment mega-event. The feast proceeded over many courses, with jugglers, minstrels, acrobats, and other entertainment, along with the chance to meet and greet.

Like today, medieval families often marked the day with new clothes, yet another sign of new beginnings. And of course, no Easter story is complete without mention of eggs. Even in medieval times, they were an integral part of the day. Children took eggs to church to be blessed, tenants brought eggs to their lords (a hen tithe so to speak), and kings dispensed gilded eggs to their underlings and favorites. Records survive of the Countess of Leicester purchasing eggs to distribute to her tenants in 1265. The number ranges from 1,000 to nearly 4,000. Edward I of England is said to have distributed 450 eggs, many covered in gold leaf, on his last Easter in 1307. (It's a safe assumption he didn't share any with Robert the Bruce.)

And now, after a day of alternately writing and hunting for my boys' Easter clothes, I am off to dye eggs--no gold plate here, I'm afraid--and buy a ham. It doesn't seem like much in comparison to a medieval Easter, but then, I have had plentiful meat these past few months, which they didn't. Still, maybe I can find feathers somewhere to stick in the ham, and call it a peacock.
Happy Easter!


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        Christina MacRuairi

        Castle Tioram
        Christina MacRuairi is one of those fascinating characters of whom history records far too little. Maybe it is only that my first 'sight' of her was through the eyes of Nigel Tranter, in his Bruce Trilogy, who portrayed her as standing cool as Scottish mist on her ship while enemies attacked and her men fought around her, a woman who stepped easily into the life of heiress of vast holdings and clan chief in her own right in a day when men typically ruled, a woman who commanded, made bold decisions in the face of dramatic consequences, consorted with kings, and very clearly marched to her own drummer. (Actually, the MacRuairi family is better known for its pipers than drummers.) The beautiful Castle Tioram, on a spit in Moidart that leaves the castle on an island except at low tide, was her home.

        Sadly, little is really known about Christina, sometimes called Christian or Christiana, Christina of Garmoran, or Christina of Mar. The daughter and only (legitimate) child of Alan MacRuairi, she inherited vast portions of the western isles: Knoydart, Rum, Eigg, Moidart, Barra, Uist, and Gigha, in the early 14th Century. She married Duncan, second son of the Earl of Mar, and brother to Robert Bruce's first wife. She was, therefore, a sister-in-law to the woman who would have been queen, had she lived, and related by marriage to Bruce himself.

        While Nigel Tranter portrays Christina and Bruce meeting at sea when Bruce comes unexpectedly upon her ships being attacked and sails to her aid, Clan Donald by Donald J. MacDonald says that they met in Carrick, on Bruce's land (not at sea at all), when she brought fifteen men to join him. Ronald McNair Scott, in his book Robert the Bruce: King of Scots, says that Bruce went to Christina seeking her aid.

        Says Barbour: A lady of that country [Carrick], who was his near kinswoman, was wondrous glad at his arrival and made haste to join him, bringing fifteen men whom she gave the king to help him in his warfare. Fordun says: "the lady was a certain noblewoman, Christian of the Isles and it was by her help and power and goodwill that Bruce was able to return to Carrick."

        A modern historian, Dr. Louise Yeoman, makes the case much more strongly, stating that it was not a spider (as per the legend), but a woman, Christina MacRuairi, who really inspired Bruce to keep fighting, by backing him with ships and hundreds of men.

        At the time, living as a fugitive from Edward I of England, with very few at his side, even resorting to caves for shelter at times, Bruce would have been grateful regardless of where they met, regardless of whether it was fifteen men or hundreds, and this would indeed have made her a brave woman, following in the footsteps of Isobel MacDuff, to stand at his side at a time when few others had.

        She is believed to have sheltered Robert Bruce in the months between his loss at the Battle of Methven in June 1306 until his return to Carrick on the mainland in February 1307, according to Fordun. Others go further and say that she not only sheltered him, but helped organize his armed return to his lands. We do know that she was a consistent and loyal supporter and did at various times support him with food and shelter, in addition to ships and men.

        Beyond this little bit, most scholarly reports of Christina concern her brother Roderick, Alan's illegitimate son, to whom both she and Bruce gave land, or the mention of her in connection with her niece Amie.

        Less academic sources mention Christina's strong friendship, and possible affair with Bruce during the eight years his wife, Elizabeth, was imprisoned by the English; yet she became fast friends with
        Elizabeth in the years after her release. James MacFarlane and Nigel Tranter both portray Christina and Bruce's relationship in this light. MacFarlane says, through Bruce, that Christina was first and foremost a warrior and clan chief.

        I have been lucky to find a series on James Douglas, written in story form, but based on two or more years of on-site research with primary sources in Scotland and England. It is my hope that some day someone will do as thorough a job researching Christina of Garmoran, and perhaps tell the world a great deal more about the life of this remarkable and fascinating woman.

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        Strategy at Bannockburn

        How do the Davids of history fight the ever-present Goliaths? Sometimes, a well-aimed stone and a bit of luck (or God's help) does the job. In the case of Robert the Bruce and the small country of Scotland, standing up to the might of England, with a much larger population, bigger horses, better-equipped knights, stones might not quite do the job.

        Bruce did have one piece of luck on his side: Edward II was not his father. He was not the knight, king, or commander his father had been. He was not liked or respected by his people. Some sources, not worrying about his feelings overly, say he 'lacked the dignity' of his father, and 'failed miserably' as a king. His lavish spending, including on male favorites such as Piers Gaveston, made him unpopular with the lords. This, and other issues led to the baronial revolt, and of course, it was easier for Bruce to re-take his country with the invaders pre-occupied with fighting amongst themselves.

        Despite this, Bannockburn was still a pitched battle--something the Bruce had done his best to avoid throughout his years fighting England, and for good reason. The English routinely had much larger forces, and guerrilla warfare gave the Scots a fighting chance (no pun intended--well, maybe not). But faced with two forces meeting face to face on open field, Bruce found other methods.

        The first of his strategies in defeating an army rumored to be anywhere from three to five times larger than his own, was to get there first and choose his ground. Bruce had long been a master of this, in battles which will be discussed later. Bannockburn was no exception. He knew the road the English must take to reach Stirling Castle. Remember, Bannockburn stemmed from the agreement between de Mowbray, the commander of Stirling Castle, and Edward Bruce, that de Mowbray would turn Stirling over to the Scots if Edward II did not send reinforcements by Midsummer's Day. This is what Edward II was attempting to do, and what Robert Bruce and the Scots were trying to prevent. With that destination in mind, Edward's mighty army, his 2,500 warhorses, 500 light cavalry, 2,000 Welsh bowmen, and tens of thousands of foot soldiers, marched up the old Roman road.

        The Roman road ran, at one point, between woods (The New Park) on the west and a bog (the Carse) on the east. The deadliest part of England's army was its cavalry. But everybody has their Achille's heel. Even a highly trained knight armed with deadly weapons, atop a charging warhorse. The one thing such a knight on his warhorse really needs is firm ground to support the weight. And at this stretch of the old Roman road, there was very little of that. By arriving first and staking out this section, Bruce created a situation in which 1) only a small part of the 20 mile long army could come through at any given time and 2) those that strayed from the solid path, or were forced to fight beyond it, would have one of their greatest assets--size and weight--turned against them, as they found themselves mired in the boggy ground.

        Bruce did not rise to power in Scotland, however, by relying only on what the landscape gave him. He came early, and did not sit idle while he waited. In the weeks before England arrived, he set his men to digging 'murder pits' all over the carse across which the English would charge. These pits were deep, and filled with spikes sticking straight up. The pits were covered over with a camouflage layer of branches and leaves culled from the New Park wood. Normally, I'd have to say that's not very nice. But then again, if I knew a knight was going to be charging at me swinging a mace and sword to crush in my skull, I think I'd do the same thing.

        Bruce had used this strategy in previous battles. Nigel Tranter novelized the results in The Path of the Hero King. The first wave of cavalry hit the first row of murder pits and went down. The knights behind them were unable to stop, their horses simply not being so agile. Eventually, enough horses had gone down in these pits that further waves were able to simply ride over the bodies. They did not count on there being a second row of murder pits. Or a third.

        For those horses who escaped the murder pits, Bruce had another surprise: caltrops. A caltrop is a giant, four-armed jack. No matter which way it lands on the ground, a spike is sticking straight up, waiting to pierce a hoof. If your name is Drummond, they may be part of your family history, as Sir Malcolm de Drymen is credited with strewing them on the ground that day. It is said that the caltrop on the Drummond arms, and the motto Gang warily stem from this moment in history.

        For those cavalry who survived both murder pits and caltrops, Bruce had his schiltrons waiting. Those who saw Braveheart will likely remember the scene in which the Scots wait, with 15 foot pikes flat on the ground, until it is too late for the charging English cavalry to stop. The pikes come up, and the charging horses impale themselves, and sometimes their riders, on the pikes.

        The drawback to this method was that it was purely defensive. Bruce shortened the pikes to a more manageable length and trained his men to march together, hundreds together, with pikes pointed outward, thus making the schiltron a mobile, offensive force, the only power in the world that could take on mounted cavalry. Bruce had six schiltrons at Bannockburn.

        One of the more famous stories to come out of the battle is that of Sir Robert Clifford and his 700 English cavalry attacking a schiltron. He succeeded in getting himself and a large number of his knights killed or captured. (One of these was Sir Thomas Gray, whose son later gave us one of the few written records of the battle based on first hand accounts.) The rest scattered, realizing the futility of the attempt.

        Knowing from past experience that the archers were a danger to his strongest weapon, the schiltrons, Bruce dispatched Keith's cavalry to deal with them.

        Bruce's plans and choice of battleground not only destroyed much of the English cavalry before they could even begin to fight, but prevented tens of thousands of footmen from ever fighting at all. Because of the narrow entry through which they must come, these soldiers were trapped behind the knights, and unable to fight.

        Finally, there is the storming from Coxet Hill (or Gillies, according to some). Some say it was the Knights Templar. Others say it was Bruce's reserve army, and still others that it was the 'wee folk,' or townfolk, racing to battle with their homemade weapons and farming tools, waving blankets and homemade banners on poles, and thus appearing to the English to be another army.

        The English had gone into the main battle already demoralized. The destruction of their archers by Keith's light cavalry and the apparent appearance of a fresh army were the final blows. Edward II, with a host of his followers, turned and ran. In the chaos that followed, many of the English drowned trying to cross back over the many waterways--the River Forth, the Pelstream, and the Bannock Burn--which hemmed them in.

        Sources contradict one another, and arguments rage as to how many fought on each side at the battle of Bannockburn. (The number I've given above are only one source, and vary widely in others.) But what is undeniably true is that the Scottish forces were heavily outnumbered, at least three to one, and some say as much as five to one. And yet, with the foresight of Robert the Bruce and his years of creative warfare against a much stronger army, they were able to not only win, but completely rout their Goliath.

        The Historian

        My game plan is to stick with reviewing books with some similarities to mine: medieval Europe, time travel, or music. The Historianby Elizabeth Kostova takes place in 1972, but it is a story within a story within a story, as various characters pursue the historical truth of Vlad Tepes, 15th Century prince of Wallachia. He has come down in history better known as Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Dracula (Vlad, Son of the Dragon).

        I am currently only a small way through this 704 page book, but I'm in love. Take it as a comment on her writing that I, who have never had the least interest in, or intention of reading, any vampire books, am engrossed in this novel. It is partly that it is a fascinating human interest story, combined with history and mystery, delving so far more into the search, the questions, and the hunt for the real story, than in vampires per se.

        But it's also the quality of the writing itself. The more I write, the more I find myself looking at the structure of stories, and, much like The Keep by Jennifer Egan, this one is fascinating. There are three stories, all masterfully woven together, all pointing back to the story of Vlad himself. Like a Chinese puzzle box, it draws the reader in, deeper and deeper, farther and farther back in history.

        The book opens with a Note to the Reader,purportedly by the 52 year old historian, and goes from there quickly back to the woman's days as a 16 year old, traveling Europe with her diplomat father. As we read her story of the events of 1972, her father gradually reveals to her his story of the events in the 1950's, which in turn gradually reveals the mysterious events of 1930 which were gradually revealed to him by his mentor and professor who lived them. And piece by piece, we learn the story of Vlad Tepes himself, prince of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula, Son of the Dragon.

        This is a complex structure, yet Ms. Kostova handles it masterfully. I find myself flowing from one story to the other seamlessly, always knowing where we are, feeling as if more layers and intricacies and mysteries are constantly being revealed by one or the other. This may not be to everyone's taste. Some may prefer a more straight-forward storyline, but I enjoy it very much.

        Also in the quality of writing department, I am savoring Ms. Kostova's prose. She has a beautiful way with words, unique turns of phrases, and beautiful imagery. I find myself wanting to stop and re-read just for the lyrical sound and the images the words evoke. I find myself wanting to mark certain sentences just so I can find them later and re-read them. Generally, I charge through books, eager to find out What Happens! I'd rather spin this book out over days, enjoying every locale and scene she conjures. Even now, I feel as if I actually experienced the cloistered monastery and enchanting music of the fountain there, high in the Pyrenees-Orientales. I feel as if I sat on the wall myself, looking down on the waterfall that poured down so far the character could only see mist shimmering back up; I feel as if I watched the eagle circling below. I do not often have this feeling with books.

        The characters are well-drawn, interesting. They are real and believable, in how their curiosity and disbelief propels them on to look for answers until shocking events create the fear that pulls them back. Like all of us, they are a mix of qualities, better and worse, one moment vowing with selfless courage to find the killer of dear friends, and at another, vowing to live their lives peacefully after all and hope to be left alone.

        I am also enjoying the history of this book, as I learn steadily more about the real Vlad Dracula and his wars with Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire.

        Will I enjoy the book as much as the book plunges deeper into encounters with the undead? It's not my usual fare, but then, I suspect this is not a typical vampire story, either. I am very much looking forward to the rest of the book.

        Read more reviews at: Cym Lowell's Review Party