Robert Wishart – The Warrior Bishop

Wishart Tree WIS0025

In the annals of history, untimely deaths, whether accidental or intentional, have played significant roles in shaping the course of events that followed.  For example, within the past century, assassinations of an archduke in 1914, or perhaps a president in 1963 would arguably be the catalyst that sent history headfirst along a new trajectory, reverberating for many years afterwards and changing the lives of many millions in the process.

Spin back the hands of time just over seven hundred years to a stormy Scottish night in 1286.  A lone rider, separated from his party takes an ill-judged route along an elevated coastal path, in the darkness his mount loses it’s footing, sending both rider and horse tumbling to their ruin below.  At the same time, perhaps some fifty miles away, a bishop sleeps, unaware that the death of the unfortunate, whose broken body lay slumped undiscovered on the rocky shoreline, would catapult him, and the lives of many others like him, into the forefront of change for his country.

The deceased: King Alexander III of Scotland.

The churchman: Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow; a man of great principle whose courage and convictions were soon to be put to the ultimate test.

Robert Wishart was born about 1240 into a family from the Mearns, and the second son of Adam Wyschard, founder of the House of Logie.  Robert’s childhood and early years are unknown, however, at some point, he followed his uncle William Wishart, who had been an archdeacon of St Andrews since 1254, into the church. In what could be described as nepotic arrangement, William secured Robert’s promotion to archdeacon of St. Andrews in 1267 and subsequently in 1271, while holding the position of Bishop-elect of Glasgow; William resigned, and with his nephew’s backing, was postulated to the See of St. Andrews.  In return, and with his previous position now vacant, William’s influence probably cemented Robert’s election to Glasgow.

Both Wisharts were consecrated in 1273. Robert at Aberdeen on 29 January, William at Scone on 15 October.  During the next thirteen years, Robert became a prominent political figure during the reign of Alexander III and was the king’s representative at the second Council of Lyon in 1274.  Perhaps echoing the favouritism shown to Robert by his uncle William (who died in 1279) Robert was also said to have ‘filled the deanery and two archdeaconries of his diocese with Wisharts’.  In the years immediately preceding Alexander’s death, Robert was said to have seen less activity in public affairs, instead devoting much of his energies to completing improvements to Glasgow Cathedral.

Following the death of Alexander III on 19 March 1286, a parliament was called at Scone in April to set up a provisional government, administer the country for its new ruler. Six ‘custodes’ or Guardians of the realm were appointed – two earls, Alexander Comyn of Buchan and Duncan of Fife; two bishops, William Fraser of St.Andrews and Robert Wishart of Glasgow; and two barons, John Comyn of Badenoch and James Stewart.  The governing role of the guardians was to last until the birth of Alexander’s child with his second wife Yolande of Dreux; however, the child was said to have been stillborn, and the crown fell upon Alexander’s granddaughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway.  Alexander had made sure in 1284 that Margaret would be recognised as “domina and right heir” if he had neither left a posthumous child or children at the time of his death.  Within weeks of Alexander’s passing, Scotland began to divide with John Balliol, aided by John Comyn, attempting to take the crown. The Bruce family captured strongholds in Galloway, and fighting in the name of the Maid of Norway (Margaret), suppressed the rebellion with many important families like the Stewards supporting them.

The Guardians eventually maintained the peace between the competing claims of Baillol, Bruce and the Maid with the treaties of Salisbury (1289) and Birgham (1290), which had been designed to put to rest any such disputes.  In the latter Wishart and the other Guardians (now reduced to four) agreed the marriage of the six-year-old Queen Margaret to Edward I’s son, the five-tear-old Edward of Caernarvon, with the condition that Scotland was to remain “separate and divided from England according to its rightful boundaries, free in itself and without subjection.”  The treaty stipulated that Margaret (who lived in Norway) should travel to Scotland before 1 November 1290; however, both treaties became ineffective when on 26 September, Margaret died en route in the Orkney Islands and her body taken for burial in Bergen.

With no generally recognised heir, the Scottish throne was up for grabs with the principal claimants, being Baillol, Bruce the elder, John Hastings of Abergavenny, and Count Florence of Holland. With the threat of civil war in the air, and fearful of the ambitions of Bruce, Bishop Fraser of St Andrews, one of the Guardians, wrote to Edward I, begging him to intercede. A further letter, from seven Scottish earls, written during the winter of 1290 and 1291, called for Edward’s help.

Edward agreed to judge between the 13 claimants for the vacant Scottish crown. For the most part, the Guardians were happy with this: both Balliol and Bruce believed they had the best argument, and that Edward would favour them. The others knew Edward’s reputation as an expert in the law. Few at this stage were suspicious of his motives.

On 10 May 1291, Robert was at Norham when Edward insisted the Guardians accept him as their feudal overlord. Unintimidated by the English king, or the sight of his army, Wishart stepped forward and proclaimed that ‘the kingdom of Scotland is not held in tribute or homage to anyone save God alone’ and telling him that his actions against a leaderless people did him no credit.  Despite his protestations, the Guardians eventually conceded under pressure to Edwards demands but ensured their continuation in the process.

With the competition now underway, Robert was involved with the diplomatic negotiations with Edward in the ‘Great Cause’ and invited to adjudicate between the rival claimants.  Wishart backed Bruce, but it was John Balliol who would emerge as King of Scots when Edward gave judgment on 17 November 1292.  The bishop was said to have grudgingly accepted the English king’s decision, but perhaps in silent protest, was said to have avoided Balliol’s inauguration.

Despite his disappointment at Bruce the elder not securing the throne, Wishart as a prominent churchman, remained at the forefront of public affairs during the reign of King John and when war broke out between Edward I and Philip IV of France in June 1294, the Scottish leaders decided to take the opportunity to defy Edward.

In July 1295, Wishart became one of the Council of Twelve, elected by a Parliament at Stirling to manage the nation’s affairs, and to fight for its independence. The government was, in effect, taken out of Balliol’s hands and in response to Edward’s demands that the Scots should fight for him in France; Wishart was amongst those who ratified the Franco-Scottish alliance (the Auld Alliance) on 23 February 1296. Edward replied to the new alliance by invading Scotland and crushing any remaining resistance at the Battle of Dunbar.  Robert was compelled to swear fealty to the English king and renounce any alliances made with the king of France on 26 July but by the summer of 1297 had joined the patriotic party, having been one of the first to join Sir William Wallace when he raised the standard of independence.

Wishart’s patriotism has been described as two-fold. In addition to his country, he was intensely loyal to the Scottish church, which was an independent within the universal church and had resisted many attempts to subordinate it to the archdiocese of York, stipulating that nobody came between it and Rome.  Edward’s invasion once again brought the prospect of submission to either York or Canterbury.  The somewhat hostile Lanercost Chronicle (written in England) refers to Wishart and others like him:

In like manner, as we know that it is truly written, that evil priests are the cause of the people’s ruin, so the ruin of the realm of Scotland had its source within the bosom of her own church; because, whereas they who ought to have led them [the Scots] misled them, they became a snare and stumbling-block of iniquity to them, and brought them all to ruin. For with one consent both those who discharged the office of prelate and those who were preachers, corrupted the ears and minds of nobles and commons, by advice and exhortation, both publicly and secretly, stirring them to enmity against that king and nation who had so effectually delivered them; declaring falsely that it was far more justifiable to attack them than the Saracens.Lanercost Chronicle

Robert was named amongst several others as the leaders of a rising against the crown in Ayrshire ‘in defence of the liberties of middling folk under threat from Edward I.’  The Lanercost Chronicle:

Hardly had a period of six months passed since the Scots had bound themselves by the above-mentioned solemn oath of fidelity and subjection to the king of the English, when the reviving malice of that perfidious [race] excited their minds to fresh sedition. For the bishop of the church in Glasgow, whose personal name was Robert Wishart, ever foremost in treason, conspired with the Steward of the realm, named James, for a new piece of insolence, yea, for a new chapter of ruin. Not daring openly to break their pledged faith to the king, they caused a certain bloody man, William Wallace, who had formerly been a chief of brigands in Scotland, to revolt against the king and assemble the people in his support. So about the Nativity of the Glorious Virgin they began to show themselves in rebellion; and when a great army of England was to be assembled against them, the Steward treacherously said to them [the English] — ‘It is not expedient to set In motion so great a multitude on account of a single rascal; send with me a few picked men, and I will bring him to you dead or alive.Lanercost Chronicle

On 7 July 1297, the rising collapsed and Wishart surrendered to the English at Irvine and was imprisoned at Roxburgh.  Along with Robert the Bruce (grandson of Bruce the elder, and future king of Scotland), Douglas, the Steward of Scotland, and other nobles, Robert found it necessary again to submit to England.  For this desertion Wallace accused the bishop of treachery, burnt down his manor and carried off his possessions and children.

Robert was in prison when Wallace won at Stirling Bridge and was held captive for the next three years.  On 27 June 1299, Pope Boniface VIII wrote to Edward, saying that he had heard that he had imprisoned and harshly treated Robert, bishop of Glasgow, Mark, bishop of Sodor, and other ecclesiastics, and urges their release.  A year later in September 1300, Wishart was released and again swore fealty to Edward on 7 October.  Soon after he rejoined Bruce and Wallace with an armed force.  In May 1301, Edward wrote to Boniface requesting that Wishart be removed from the see of Glasgow.  Boniface refused, but now taking the side of Edward, wrote to the bishop on 13 August 1302, rebuking him for his opposition to the king of England and bidding him repent. Boniface also referred to Wishart as the ‘prime mover and instigator of all the tumult and dissension which has arisen.’

Robert was amongst those in the patriotic party who surrendered in February 1304, and he was required to exile himself south of the Trent.  In March 1305 he appeared in parliament in London but was allowed to return to Scotland in May.

On 5 August 1305 Wallace was betrayed and seized by Sir John de Menteith at Robroyston, almost under the walls of Wishart’s cathedral; however, it’s unknown where Robert was at the time. Six months later, on 10 February 1306, Robert Bruce and a small party of others murdered John Comyn in the Church of the Greyfriars in Dumfries.  The murder had been committed in Wishart’s diocese, but far from excommunicating Bruce, the bishop formally absolved him from his sin in being a party to the killing of John Comyn and encouraged people to fight for Bruce. The bishop persuaded Robert the Bruce to take the throne and was present at Bruce’s coronation at Scone on 25 March 1306, when he reputedly crowned him King.

As a result of the coronation, the country was put on war footing, with the English army expected to attack at any moment.  Despite being quite advanced in years, Wishart stepped up to the mark and was at the forefront of preparations.  He even used timber given to him by the English to repair the bell tower of Glasgow Cathedral to make siege engines, and having unsuccessfully attacked Kirkintilloch Castle, he crossed into Fife where he took charge of the assault on Cupar Castle ‘like a man of war’.

Soon after the battle of Methven, in June 1306, the castle of Cupar fell into the hands of Edward’s troops, and among those captured was Robert. He was sent in his coat of mail to Newcastle-on-Tyne, and thence to the castle of Nottingham. Edward gave orders that he should be kept in chains at Porchester Castle in Hampshire. A year after his father died, Edward II made strenuous efforts with the Pope to deprive Wishart of his office and in 1308 Robert, escorted by the bishop of Poitiers, was allowed to go to the papal curia to answer the charges against him. Two years later, he was still in Rome, and in January 1311, by letter, Edward II continued to argue the case against his return to Scotland.  Edward wished the appointment in Wishart’s place of Stephen Segrave. Though Pope Clement V neither suspended nor deprived Wishart, he would not use his influence to have him set free and restored to his diocese.  In 1312 Robert returned to England where he was detained, and despite the king’s best efforts to have an Englishman given Robert’s see, he was again recognised as the Bishop of Glasgow.

On 24 June 1314 King Robert won at Bannockburn and Wishart was released as part of a prisoner exchange at Carlisle.  After eight years of captivity, Robert was now blind and returned to Glasgow, where he died on 26 November 1316, his body entombed at the back of the crypt in Glasgow Cathedral.  The tomb itself is unlabelled, defaced, and said to be on no good authority that of the bishop.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concludes that:

Wishart was no saintly adornment of the bench of bishops, nor even a pedestrian scholar. At another time he would have epitomized all that is meant by ‘nepotist’. In politics, however, he was a man of principle, leaning to Bruce, but not at the cost of his country’s freedom; he was also a man of outstanding courage, protected perhaps by his clerical standing, and outspoken to a king before whom others fell silent. After William Wallace he was the greatest defender of his country’s interests when it was almost overpowered by unscrupulous imperialism.A. A. M. Duncan

Scott Wishart, 2013