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29 October 2014
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Scottish Wars of Independence

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History
MELROSE ABBEY

Before King Robert died in 1329, he asked that his heart be taken on Crusade. Sir James Douglas, Bruce's closest friend and nicknamed 'the Good', was given the job of carrying out this wish. He gathered his knights and set out for Spain.

The legend goes that Sir James carried the heart in a silver casket around his neck. In Spain, Douglas fell into a skirmish. Throwing the heart before him, he charged into the enemy supposedly shouting “Lead on brave heart, I'll follow thee”, before being killed. His corpse and the casket containing Bruce's heart were returned to Scotland in 1331.

In 1996, archaeologists working for Historic Scotland found a lead container under the floor of the chapter house at Melrose Abbey. It was taken to Edinburgh and opened. Inside was another lead container and an engraved plaque reading:

'The enclosed leaden casket containing a heart was found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty's Office of Works'

This container was not opened and was reburied at Melrose Abbey in 1998.



Experts
Rory McDonald, Archaeologist, Scottish Borders Council

So what does a lead casket inside a lead casket which may or may not contain the heart of one of the most important men in Wars of Independence tell us? In truth, not a lot. We know that Robert the Bruce had always wanted to go on crusade. So his heart was taken to Spain by Sir James Douglas after his death and upon return to Scotland buried in Melrose Abbey. We don't know that this is the casket and probably never will. The events that lead to Robert's heart being removed have little to do with the Wars of Independence – it's probable that Scottish and English knights fought together whilst crusading! As an object (or symbol) it has value as a way to let us connect with Robert the Bruce today but I don't think that it would be a worthwhile addition to your tour!

Chris Tabraham, Historic Scotland

Melrose Abbey was attacked numerous times by English troops during the Wars of Independence. Robert Bruce sent the money to pay for its repair so it's not surprising that he wanted his heart buried here. However, it's unlikely that the heart found in the chapter house is his. The conical lead container is very plain – not the sort of thing you'd expect for a King's heart – and the chapter house was where less important people were buried. Bruce's heart, we know, was laid to rest in the most important place in the Abbey - in front of the high altar – and is probably still there today.


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