King Robert III of Scotland (1337-1406) was a gentle and hesitant man, who lacked the ruthlessness of his devious and ambitious brothers, Robert of Fife and Alexander the Wolf. Depressed and disabled by a kick from a horse, Robert III was unable to protect his sons against their wicked uncles.
III was born in 1337 as John Stewart of Carrick. His father, Robert II Stewart
(1316-1390), was related within the forbidden degrees of kinship to his mother, Elizabeth
Mure. John and his brothers had already been born when their parents asked the pope for a
dispensation and were finally properly married in the late 1440s. The uncertainty
surrounding John's legitimacy undermined his authority as King and even led to a bitter
conflict between his descendants and the unquestionable legitimate descendants of Robert II
Stewart's second marriage.
The elder Robert Stewart was a son of Marjorie Bruce of Scotland (±1297-1316). He had fought in the Scottish independence wars and on occasion he had acted as Guardian of the Realm. After the death of Marjorie's half-brother in 1371, he became Robert II, King of Scots. By then, his youthful vigour had deserted him and he was nearly blind with 'red bleared eyes'. His control of the government progressively weakened until he appointed his eldest son, John of Carrick, in 1384 to enforce authority on his behalf. John ruled Scotland until 1389, when he was crippled by a riding accident. Afterwards he was unable to engage in military pursuits and trusted the management of the government entirely to his brother, the ambitious Robert of Fife (±1341-1420).
A year after his accident, John of Carrick succeeded his senile father as King of Scots. John assumed the style of "Robert III", because the Scottish King John Balliol had been a rival of King Robert I Bruce and - even worse - a vassal of King Edward I of England. The new Queen was his wife, Annabella Drummond (±1350-1401), who had given birth to seven children. Their eldest son, Robert, died in infancy. In 1378 David was born and a third son, James, followed in 1394. Sickly and limping John Stewart had always been a gentle, kind and warm-hearted man, but he was hesitant. He had the best of intentions and he looked dignified with his long snowy beard, but he lacked the ruthlessness needed to control the Scottish nobles. On his accession he was already a chronic invalid and a depressive. Living in troublesome medieval Scotland, his invalidity undermined Robert III's authority and probably worsened his depression. Gradually he became an ailing recluse. Once, when discussing his end with his wife, Robert III asked to be buried in a dunghill, beneath the epitaph "Here lies the worst of Kings and the most miserable of men".
Soon it became apparent that the ruthless regent Robert of Fife was mainly concerned with his own advancement and turbulent Scotland plunged into total disorder. Another brother of the King, the ruffianly Alexander "the Wolf of Badenoch"1, was Justiciar of the North. He entertained his guests by burning down parts of the great Ruthiemurchus Forest to drive out and hunt down deer, wild boar, wolves and clansmen. In his castle on an isle of Loch Indorb, the Wolf had a dark dungeon with about three feet of icy water, so that incarcerated suspects had to remain standing, or drown. If they survived a few days and nights, they were believed to be innocent. His wife had brought the Wolf the Earldom of Ross, but Alexander refused to be separated from his mistress and contemplated a divorce. When he was reprimanded by the bishop of Moray in an ecclesiastical court, The Wolf took revenge in 1390 by burning down the bishop's beautiful cathedral, two monasteries and much of the town of Elgin.
A notorious tournament was held in 1396 on the North Inch of Perth as an entertainment before the King and court and vast crowds. Thirty men of the Clan Chattan fought against thirty men of another clan. They were clothed in a short kilt and armed with sword, dirk, axe, crossbow and three arrows each. To the music of the pipes they slaughtered each other until after a long time only a dozen survived - all badly wounded. As a result of the acceptance of the outcome of this judicial combat and the slaughter of so many local champions in it, the following years the central highlands were more peaceful.
Robert III's eldest son, David, was a high-spirited and charming, but spoiled young man. He rivalled for power with his uncle, Robert of Fife. In 1399 the Queen persuaded her husband to proclaim their eldest son Duke of Rothesay and delegate Royal authority to him. However, David was wild and irresponsible and often lacked good judgement. He was betrothed, but repudiated the girl, turning her father into an enemy. Moreover, Robert of Fife was not so easily set aside. In 1402, a few months after the Queen's death, he persuaded Robert III to order his own son's arrest. David was incarcerated in his uncle's Falkland Palace, where he died. Historians assume he succumbed to dysentery, possibly as a result of neglect, but many contemporaries believed he had actually been starved to death.
Robert III began to fear for the fate of his only surviving son, young James. In February 1406 he had James taken in secrecy to Dirleton Castle to wait for a ship to transport him to France. Robert of Fife sent a large force after the Crown Prince and when a battle was fought near-by, James was put in a rowing boat and ferried to the Bass Rock (to the right) in the Firth of Forth. The 11-year-old heir to the throne and his guardians were left for about a month on the tiny, windswept, rocky island among the boiling seas, before a ship arrived to bring James to France. Robert of Fife informed the English King, who arranged the ship's interception. Thus James became a prisoner of the King of England for 18 years. When Robert III heard of his son's capture, he became even more depressed. He refused any food and died within a few days on April 4, 1406. At his own request he was not buried with the other Kings at Scone but in nearby Paisley abbey, because he did not believe himself fit for such an honour.
Copyright © 1997-2000 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
" A Prince for Peace, that had for Mars no Mind,
Abhorring Warrs and all Intestine Strife.
Noght to be Cross'd with Kingly Cares Inclined,
Bot loving more a calme and quiet Life:
A King indeed, and yet in Sho bott sitts,
For to his Brother he the Care Committs. "