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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

Robert Bruce

D. C. MacNicol

Banner of Truth

In the year of the publication of the Authorised Version, I thought it was appropriate to begin to read around some of the influences on the life of King James. As I suspect most of you are aware, after the death of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth she was succeeded to the throne by a Scottish Stuart King. This James IV of Scotland, became James I of England and was responsible for commissioning the ‘Authorised Version’ of the English Bible.

Robert Bruce is one of the more significant names in the history of the Scottish Church, yet many only know the name of his Royal ancestor King Robert. While they should not be confused, Robert Bruce was born in 1554 in Airth Castle near Stirling and his wife (Janet Livingstone) was the great-granddaughter of James I of Scotland (not James VI of Scotland who was only James I of England). Robert Bruce was the 2nd son born into a noble family and was educated at St. Andrew’s University at St. Salvators College (not the newer St. Leonards which was associated with the Reformation). Nevertheless, Bruce would have heard Rev. John Knox preach while he was at university.  After St. Andrews he went on to study at Louvain in Belgium. After his return to Scotland he was faced with a choice of entry into law or into the ministry. On the night of the 31st August 1581 he was praying in the loft at Airth Castle, and was deeply impressed with his sins and his need of salvation in Christ. He went back to St. Andrews and became a close friend of Andrew Melville.

By 1586 he is preaching in Edinburgh, sometimes with the King in attendance. One day the King was seated in the gallery while Bruce preached. James was notoriously rude during services  often chatting to his courtiers during the sermon. He began to do this, Bruce fell silent and the King stopped. The minister resumed and the King repeated his action and had it checked in the same way. On the third offence, Bruce turned to the King and said ‘It is said to have been an expression of the wisest of Kings ‘When the lion roars all the beasts of the field are quiet’: ‘The Lion of the Tribe of Judah is now roaring in the voice of His Gospel, and it becomes all the petty kings of this earth to be silent.’

In 1587, Andrew Melville designated Bruce for the succession to Knox’s Pulpit in the Kirk at Edinburgh. His ministry at St. Giles was blessed and it is said that he was above all else, a preacher to the conscience of his hearers.

In 1590, James IV married Anne of Denmark and at the coronation it was Robert Bruce who anointed the Queen with oil and then preached. The next few years brought trouble, as James tried to balance the Protestant and Catholic parties in his realm. In 1592, the Earl of Moray was murdered  by the Earl of Huntley (a Catholic) to popular indignation. Huntley was shielded by the King, leading Patrick Simson (minister at Stirling) to preach before the King on the text ‘where is Abel thy brother?’ including a point at which he turned to the King and said ‘ the Lord will ask you, where is the Earl of Moray, your brother’. Indeed, the King withdrew from the capital for a period, such was his unpopularity.

Bruce continued to minister in Edinburgh and his labours were popular and soul searching. A book of his sermon addressed at the Lord’s Table was republished by William Cunningham. On the 17th December 1596, the King was involved in an incident from which he want his deliverance celebrated in the same way that we still celebrate his deliverance on 5th November, from the Gunpowder plot. There was  a heated meeting between the King and the Church, the Church was supported by a popular uprising and the King withdrew his court to Linlithgow as a result. Bruce was instrumental in trying to bring the King back to Edinburgh but a falsified letter was given to the King which cast him in a poor light. The King returned on 1st January 1597, by 24th July he and Bruce were meeting at Holyrood with a reconciliation.

By 1598, the King was attending the General Assembly and doubts were being cast on the ordination of Robert Bruce to Edinburgh. This brought fresh quarrels and the English Ambassador wrote to Robert Cecil that the cause was the jealousy of the King towards Bruce’s popularity in the city and country. James then sought to cut off Bruce’s stipend.

On the 5th August 1600, the King was caught in an incident with the Earl of Gowrie and his brother where he was nearly killed and instead the brother’s died. The King demanded thanksgiving for his deliverance, and the ministers at Edinburgh were suspicious about his involvement in the proceedings. Bruce’s suspicions and refusal to consent to the King’s demands earned him banishment from Scotland and England. He fled to Dieppe, in France. The Earl of Mar, spoke with the King on Bruce’s behalf and he was allowed to return to Scotland as long as he remained at the family home in Kinnaird.

In 1603, James succeeded to the throne of England. In February 1605, the Church commission recommended that Bruce should be removed from his Edinburgh charge and refused to preach elsewhere. He continued to preach. On 18th August 1605, he was banished to Inverness, a sentence worse than a Siberian exile, to a place full of clans and lawlessness. His labours in Inverness saw some blessings.

By 1613, he was permitted to return home to Kinnard House. He stayed at Kinnard until 1622, and repaired the local church at Larbert at his own expense in 1621. Around 1615, he was preaching near Leuchars and was responsible for delivering the sermon that saw the conversion of Alexander Henderson. He was preaching on the text ‘he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way the same is a thief and a robber’.  In 1622, he visited Edinburgh to arrange some money matters as his wife had died (who had looked after his financial affairs). This was drawn to the attention of the King and in April 1622, he was banished to Inverness for a second time. Departing he commented ‘I go to sow a seed in Inverness that shall not be rooted out for many ages’. It is said that the inquirers were soon crowded into Inverness to hear him on a Sabbath day.

In 1625, he was permitted to return home (James had died and Charles was not as insistent on his banishment).  On 21st June 1630 he alongside David Dickson, Robert Blair and John Livingstone preached at the famous Kirk of Shotts communion, that saw services maintained for five days without intermission. This communion was responsible for the Monday services that we still associate with our communion seasons.

He died on 27th July 1631, he came down for breakfast (without pain or sickness) with his daughter by his side and enjoyed the meal. As he mused, he said ‘hold, my master calleth me’ and asked for the Bible to be brought to him and he read Romans 8, when he came to the last two verses he asked for his finger to be placed on them. He said ‘God be with you my children. I have breakfasted with you and will sup with the Lord Jesus this night. I die believing in these words’.

An immense number of people attended his funeral, with between four and five thousand present. In accord with his wish no memorial sermon was preached. He was buried at Larbert just outside the church.

The overriding impression of the life of Robert Bruce is the saintliness of his character. He was a man for whom wealth and privilege were his by birth and who brought his ambitions into subjection to Christ.