The community of the realm in Scotland, 1249–1424
History, law and charters in a recreated kingdom

The Absolution of Robert I, 1310

by John Reuben Davies,

John Reuben Davies translates and comments on the text of the absolution of Robert I, given in 1310

"Berengar, by the divine mercy cardinal priest with the title of SS. Nereus and Achilleus, sends greeting in the Lord to the religious man, the abbot of the monastery of Paisley of the Order of St Benedict in the diocese of Glasgow.

A petition offered to us on behalf of Robert de Bruys, a layman of the said diocese from Carrick, stated that he, being persuaded by the devil some time ago, and with certain of his own accomplices, killed the knights John and Robert Comyn, as so many opposing him, in the church of the Friars Minor at Dumfries. But since he himself, with his accomplices, could not approach the apostolic see, or even his own diocesan bishop or his bishop’s deputy, on account of the deadly enmity and war and other hazards, he has, by humble supplication, caused himself and his said accomplices to be mercifully provided for by the same See.

We therefore (who willingly provide assistance by the authority of the lord pope, the care of whose Penitentiary we bear) commit to your judgment that, if it is so, as soon as the said Robert and his accomplices have appropriately made satisfaction to the abovementioned church, you may absolve him and his said accomplices from the excommunication which was incurred and from the guilt of lay homicide of this kind, at this time, according to the form assigned by custom; and having diligently heard their confession and considered their crime, that you may enjoin salutary penance to them by the aforesaid authority and the other things which should be enjoined.

Given at Picenum on the tenth kalends of August in the fifth year of the pontificate of the lord Clement [V]."

Here is a translation of the letters of absolution issued in the name of Berengar Fredoli, cardinal priest of SS. Nereus and Achilleus, who was the prefect of the apostolic penitentiary – the office or tribunal of the papal curia which dealt with the absolution of sentences of excommunication. In this case, the cardinal was exercising the tribunal’s special authority to absolve a sentence of excommunication latae sententiae, that is, incurred automatically because of the nature of the crime committed. In the canon law of the Catholic Church, excommunication was the severest penalty, and it deprived the subject of participation in the sacramental life of the Church. In particular, it meant that the excommunicated person could not receive the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion.

The letters of absolution we are dealing with here were addressed to the abbot of Paisley – a large Benedictine abbey of the Cluniac order outside Glasgow – but we do not know the name of the abbot. The letters give authority for this abbot, in the absence of the bishop (who was then in captivity in England), to absolve the sentence of excommunication under which Robert Bruce and his accomplices remained after he and his men killed John and Robert Comyn at the church of the Friars Minor – also known as the Grey Friars or Franciscans – in Dumfries on 10 February 1306.

Almost immediately after Robert had committed the murder, Robert Wishart, the bishop of Glasgow (1271–1316), in whose diocese the crime had been committed, absolved him. The following month, on 25 March –the first day of the medieval year – Robert was enthroned and inaugurated as king of Scots at Scone, but without papal recognition or sanction.

Cardinal Berengar’s letters of absolution are dated 23 July 1310 (see below for a discussion of this date), over four years after Robert’s inauguration, yet he is described only as ‘a layman from Carrick in the diocese of Glasgow’. There is no reference to Robert as king in the document.

Robert, or those around him, obviously wished to secure absolution of his sentence of excommunication. Any absolution by a local bishop was not effective.

We can also note the context of this absolution. Pope Clement V had, on 12 August 1308, summoned the Council of Vienne by the bull Regnans in coelis. This council of the whole Western Church was to institute proceedings against the Order of the Knights Templar, and was originally intended to commence on 1 October 1310. (In the end, it did not meet until 1311.) The Scottish clergy had, in February 1310, already issued a declaration intended for the Council of Vienne, in which they recognised Robert as king, and sought recognition of Robert’s status as king of Scots from the pope, an absolute prerequisite as the pre-eminent international authority in the Latin West. Robert’s absolution, if nothing else, was an essential step before he could have his kingship recognised in this way.

A note on the source

The text survives in a manuscript at Trinity College Dublin, MS. 498 (formerly E.2.28), p. 396. This paper manuscript was created in the mid fifteenth century, its main contents being John of Fordun’s Chronica gentis Scotorum, and other historical materials, including the text of the absolution, and a Life of Saint Serf. It was used by Walter Bower as the basis of his Scotichronicon, which also includes the text of absolution.

The translation offered here is based on the edition of the text by H. J. Lawlor, ‘The absolution of Robert Bruce’, Scottish Historical Review 19 (1922), 325–6.

The text gives the pope as Clement III (died 1191): this is obviously wrong. The pope must be Clement V (1305–1314), which gives (as Lawlor argued) a date of 23 July 1310. The mistake (as Lawlor argued) is most likely a slip of the pen, three minim strokes having been written instead of two, thus giving iii rather u. John Warrick (‘The absolution of Robert Bruce’, SHR 20 (1923) 83–4), on the other hand, argued less plausibly, that the mistake was one of transposition, the copyist writing Clementis iii anno quinto instead of Clementis v anno tertio, thus giving a date of 23 July 1308.

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