FODC Winter Talk Series: Dr Callum Watson on Chivalry and Warfare in the Reign of Robert II

Leading the charge into the most romantic weekend of the year, Friends of Dundonald Castle SCIO were delighted to welcome Dr Callum Watson to talk about ‘Chivalry and Warfare in the Reign of Robert II’  – the latest from our online Winter Talk Series on 11th February.

Another sizeable and widely spread audience joined us from as far afield as Australia, Ukraine, Norway, France and Germany for this fascinating presentation where Dr Watson took us through the broader interpretations around what was recognised as chivalry – such as its pageants, heraldry, and ‘knights in shining armour’ – which he revealed through the course of the evening was in many respects “a socially led ideal” which had profound influence on the history of early modern Europe.

Dr Watson looked at how this expectation of what was considered honourable and chivalrous practice in the period of Robert II’s reign by looking at what ‘The Brus’ has to tell us.  This is a widely known narrative poem almost fourteen thousand lines in length which purports to recount the adventures of ‘King Robert off Scotland/That hardy wes off hart and hand,/And gud Schir James off Douglas’ and their combined efforts to recover their rightful inheritances and reclaim the kingdom of Scotland. It was written by John Barbour (1320-1395), who is the first named literary figure to write in the Scots language, and is thought to have been commissioned by Robert II to write this epic piece in 1375, although Dr Watson has implied that there may be reason to believe otherwise.

Dr Watson demonstrated that although it’s still considered to be an important source of the historical accounts of the life of his grandfather, Robert the Bruce, detailing his epic rise to becoming king in 1306, there is room for scrutiny. This poem provides unique information to historians about the chronicle of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, for example, where Robert’s father, Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland was present. But we can imagine him telling his young son about some of the exploits he faced that day and Robert II may well have wanted these valiant deeds to be immortalised in living memory. Yet, can we take it as gospel since his commissioning of this piece of Barbour’s work appears to promote the image of his grandfather as a paragon of noble virtue? Cynically, it might be that he wanted this account to be a means of bolstering the prestige of the early years of this new and unexpected Stewart dynasty – which came about only after he was made king on the unforeseen death of Bruce’s heirless son David II in 1371.

However, in balance Dr Watson pointed out that this doesn’t explain the emphasis placed on the gallant exploits of Sir James Douglas (1286-1330) – who Barbour names ‘The Gud Sir James’ – who emerges from the poem as arguably an even more impressive figure than Bruce! ‘The Brus’ recounts the legends of Sir James’ exploits such as thrice attacking his own castle at Douglas, finally destroying it and the assault made on Palm Sunday in 1307 becoming known as the “Douglas Larder”. In his capture of Roxburgh Castle, Barbour appears to misdate the fall of Roxburgh to 1313, the actual date was 1314. He gained entrance by disguising himself and his men as cows to sneak past the guards.  Most interestingly, Sir James commanded the left wing at the Battle of Bannockburn with none other than Robert II’s father – Walter the Steward – adding to our theory that these stories could’ve been told to young Robert, and the commissioning of this work was intended to be a genuine young man’s appraisal of real events. However, this seems to be based on the claim by Barbour  – that Douglas and Stewart led a division at Bannockburn- because Dr Watson thinks this is almost certainly Barbour’s invention and suggests that Sonja Cameron’s article in the book ‘The Polar Twins’ is worth a read on this -in which she argues Barbour added this invented detail to appeal to Robert II and the contemporary Douglases!

This begs the question that perhaps Douglas is so highly charged in this poetic account, not just because by the 1370s a number of Douglas’s relatives had risen to become major players in Scottish politics. Could it be that Robert II wanted them to be reminded of the extent of Douglas lands that had come about by being bestowed upon them by his grandfather? Albeit as reward for their ancestor’s energetic service, or indeed to ensure unquestioning fealty to him. For we know his many raids on the English earned him the dreaded name of the Black Douglas!

But as we can see there’s a complexity within the realms of medieval notions of ‘chivalry’ which appear to lie within the exploits of physical endurance and war efforts rather than in ‘knights in shining armour.’  Dr Watson explained the need to look at its wider foundations such as the effects of the Crusades, the literature of knighthood, such as the Arthurian legends, and its very ethos as the definition of social and moral obligations of medieval nobility.

We know that Sir James Douglas sadly lost his life as part of the entourage of Scottish Knights escorting Bruce’s heart to holy land to place inside the sarcophagus of Jesus Christ a final gesture of their devotion to him even after his death. This happened through the safe-conduct produced by Edward III and the papal absolution the Scots received for removing Bruce’s heart. Barbour claims their intention was to go on crusade via Spain to firstly assist in the quelling of Moors encroaching on the territory of King Alphonso. In doing so we know Sir James died in action at a terrible defeat for the Scots at the  Battle of Teba near Malaga in 1330.  This makes it clear that Sir James’ chivalrous exploits continued after the Bruce died in 1329 – indeed losing his life for them.  It is likely that Robert II would want this to be known even if as a pledge of his gratitude and nothing more.

Dr Watson has pointed out “Chivalry in this period regularly used kinship in a socio-political context to bolster its emphasis on loyalty as a number one admirable human trait above all the rest.” He also noted that Barbour’s exultancy towards the feats of Bruce would’ve left no doubt in the listening audience that his high status descendants would also expect faithful service from their inferiors, and who should expect to be generously rewarded for their fealty and loyalty in return.

We can imagine excerpts of ‘The Brus’ oft-telt at a gaithrin’ or two inside one of the two great halls of Robert II’s Dundonald Castle. Robert may well have sought to give life to an understanding of his own feeling behind the restoration of Scotland as a thriving society, which Barbour encourages would not have been possible without these great men. 

In our work at Dundonald Castle we regularly walk through the same doorways, looking out through huge stone windows Robert II had built to bring in the light he needed to read his royal correspondence, and to keep a close eye on the courtiers around him as he contemplated the decisions in his life as an unexpected king. For us this was a rare treat as Dr Watson’s talk was like opening a wider window into that world which he patiently expounded on further in response to the questions from the audience in the interactive chat after his presentation had ended.

Again, we’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for our Winter Talk Series this year and many thanks to Dr Callum Watson and to everyone who made it ‘along’. This event is available to watch again, any time, for our members via the Member’s Page on our website. If you are interested in becoming a member, you can check out our membership packages here:

Keep a note in your diary too for we’re in for another treat on 11th March when historian Irene McMillan will be presenting a talk about ‘The History of Dundonald Castle’: space is limited so book early! Again, this will be a free event, but any donations will be gratefully received towards continuing our work here at Dundonald Castle.

Read more: by Dr Callum Watson

Read excerpts from noted works on Medieval Chivalry mentioned in Dr Watson’s Talk:

‘Chivalry’ by Maurice Keen; 2005, Yale University Press.

‘Medieval Chivalry’ by Richard W Kaeuper; 2016 Cambridge University Press


MacDonald, A.j., 2001. Border Bloodshed:Scotland, England and France at War, 1369-1403. Birlinn Ltd

Cowan, Edward.J et al. c1999. The Polar Twins Chapter 5: by Cameron, Sonja. ‘Keeping the Customer Satisfied: Barbour’s Bruce and a Phantom Division at Bannockburn’. John Donald Publishers.


Knight from the Visitor Centre by FODC

Slide: from Dr Callum Watson Talk: ‘Chivalry and Warfare in the Reign of Robert II’