Victorian-era depiction of Robert the Bruce, medieval Scottish King
Photo Credit: wiki

Canadian research puts an end to smear campaign against medieval Scots king


He was a legendary figure in medieval times involved in epic battles between the Scots and English, eventually defeating a larger English army at Bannockburn in 1314.

But for centuries historians have alleged the Scottish king was afflicted with the disfiguring and, at the time, scary disease of leprosy.

But maybe not.

Maybe it was part of an English smear campaign against an enemy that has resonated through the ages.

Professor Andrew Nelson (PhD) is a bio-archaeologist and associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario.

Andrew Nelson (PhD) bio-archaeologist, University of Western Ontario © supplied

The latest version of the story begins when the Bruce family gave a plaster casting of the skull of Robert the Bruce to Canadian portraitist/sculptor Christian Corbet and asked him to re-create a bust.

He in turn asked professor Nelson to determine if previous depictions of a leprosy deformed face were based on any forensic evidence or merely on the rumours.

Robert the Bruce was king of the Scots for over 20 years, and is a hero in Scotland having defeated the English to gain Scottish independence, He died in 1329 after years of what is claimed to be some ill-defined affliction.

A 1909 depiction of Bruce instructing his troops before the battle at Bannockburn © Edmund Leighton- wiki

However calling someone a “leper” in those days was a nasty insult, and the English certainly did not like Robert.

Professor Nelson says, ““If you wanted to come up with the worst thing you could say to someone, it was, ‘you leper’”. He adds,  “With just that word, you could besmirch a person and his legacy.”

An English monk was the first to say that the Scottish hero had leprosy, and the label stuck.

Death mask of Robert the Bruce carved into the ceiling at Rosslyn Chapel, Scotland © Rosslyn Chapel Trust

However in the early 1800’s when Robert’s remains were uncovered during new construction at the site of the ruins of the old Dunfermline Parish where he was buried, a plaster cast was made of his skull. While several casts and re-casts have been made of the original, professor Nelson had access to the original.

A copy of the casting of Robert the Bruce’s skull and a facial reconstitution by Richard Neave showing the effects of leprosy

Nelson also studied various documents including that of the official physician who was there at the exhumation who wrote, “His scull (sic) was, 490 years after his death, as entire as yours or mine are at present.”

The bust in progress as the forensic artist Corbet adds muscles over the resin cast made from the original skull cast. © Christian Corbet

In studying the original casting, professor Nelson said it showed no evidence of the typical deformities that would be consistent with leprosy.  A study of a foot bone also showed no evidence typical of leprosy.

Professor Nelson’s research will be published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

Portraitist Christian Corbet works on a clay bust of Robert the Bruce, which included collaborative research with Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson. The bust is the first commissioned by the Bruce family, based on evidence from a cast of the king’s skull. Nelson’s research concluded the skull showed no signs of leprosy, despite contemporary and later rumours Robert the Bruce had the disease.
Portraitist Christian Corbet works on a clay bust of Robert the Bruce, which included collaborative research with Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson. The bust is the first commissioned by the Bruce family, based on evidence from a cast of the king’s skull. Nelson’s research concluded the skull showed no signs of leprosy, despite contemporary and later rumours Robert the Bruce had the disease. © Christian Corbet
Although almost always depicted with a beard, the new bust has none as Lord Elgin, the descendant told Corbet that Robert had a barber who shaved him regularly, and they even have found the instrument that would have scraped the whiskers off. © Tori Weldon-CBC

The finished bust of Robert the Bruce will be unveiled by Lord Charles Bruce, son of heir apparent to Lord Elgin on March 23 at the Stirling-Smith Art Gallery and Museum.

Thus Canada has put paid to a centuries old “insult” to an ancient Scottish king.

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3 comments on “Canadian research puts an end to smear campaign against medieval Scots king
  1. Been working on my family tree since 1999 and just recently came across Robert de Bruce King of Scotland was my 22 great grandpa. I have searched several different resources and they all come up with the same info.

  2. Avatar Merrilee Morrison-COtter says:

    I read once that Edward I also found and destroyed a Pictish library, as in records and also writings, and whatever he could find in a total annihilation program against them to make the Picts appear barbaric and backward. Is there any truth to this?