The Book of Glasgow Cathedral

edited by George Eyre-Todd, 1898 (Pages 74 – 82)

Hitherto nearly all the bishops of Glasgow had taken a prominent part in the government of the kingdom, but presently, at the decisive climax of Scotland’s history, Glasgow was to furnish a bishop great enough to checkmate the aggressions of the greatest of the English kings.  Robert Wishart in 1272 succeeded in the see his uncle, William Wishart, apparently an able and ambitious prelate, who had been transferred before consecration at Glasgow to the bishopric of St Andrews.1 Bishop Robert occupied the chair of Kentigern for the long period of forty-four years, and during his episcopate Scotland passed through the greatest crisis of her history. In the pregnant events of that time he used every occasion to fight for his country, both with the crazier and the sword. Already, as we have seen, the English monarchs had begun to cast envious eyes on the Scottish kingdom.  Henry II of England owed his throne to the strong hand of his uncle, David I of Scotland, yet when William the Lion, David’s grandson, fell into his hands, he had not only stripped him of his English possessions, but compelled him to pay homage and to furnish a heavy ransom.2 For the payment of this ransom the possessions of the Scottish Church, contrary to all usage, were heavily taxed.3 At the same time, as part of his advantage, Henry had done his utmost to bring the Scottish bishops under the authority of York.4  At a later day came the effort of Henry III, already noted, to subvert the government of Alexander III.  Thanks chiefly to the prelates of the Scottish Church, and conspicuously to the bishops of Glasgow, these insidious efforts of the Henries had been overcome. But with Edward I. on the English throne, and Scotland divided against itself by rival candidates for the sceptre, the struggle became one of life and death. It forms no part of the purpose here to enter into a detailed account of the devastating Wars of the Succession, but the history of Scotland at that time shews it to have been well for the independence of the country that certain prelates of the Church were staunch, and that the Bishop of Glasgow in particular had neither traditional reason nor personal desire to look with favour on the encroachments of English power.

A collection of state writs and documents published under the authority of the Lord Clerk Register within recent years,5 affords proof of the energetic and important part played in the struggle of the time by Bishop Wishart. It is true that it was at Edward’s suggestion the Scottish regents in 1289 appointed the Bishop of Glasgow with three others as plenipotentiaries to treat with the commissioners of Norway for the return of the young queen Margaret.6 And in his first transactions in this character, at the meeting with Edward at Salisbury, and in the letters written from Brigharn to Edward and to Eric of Norway agreeing to the marriage of Margaret with Prince Edward of England, he seems to have made no opposition to the terms of the intriguing monarch.7 But only five months later, on 12th March 1290, Wishart’s name appears, as one of the Guardians of Scotland, on a writ for the arrest of the Sheriff of Northumberland,8 which was one of the first checks offered to the encroachments of the English king.  Numerous other writs are extant in which, along with William, Bishop of St Andrews, Johannes Cumyn, and Jacobus Senescallus, Bishop Wishart figures as an active administrator of the national affairs. 9 To his caution was also evidentl due a large part of the clauses safe-guarding Scottish interests in the treaty of Brigham.10 In that document Wishart’s name appears first among the three Scottish plenipotentiaries sent to treat with Edward.

It was immediately after this period, in 1291 when the hopes raised by the projected marriage between the young queen Margaret and Prince Edward of England had been suddenly blighted by the death of that queen, and when King Edward had assumed the title of Overlord of Scotland, that the bishop received from the latter a grant of oaks for his cathedral spire, and stags for his table out of the forest of Ettrick.11 The English king also gave him permission to finish building the episcopal castle at Carstairs.12 Wishart next appears in the list of Scottish nobles, whose goodwill, on John Balliol’s ascending the throne in 1292, Edward sought to secure, bestowing on him, “by special grace,” besides the ward and marriage of the heiress of Biggar, and the custody of the manor of Callander, certain sums of money, amounting to £11913.

From first to last, however, Bishop Robert appears to have made no scruple of taking gifts from the English king, and complying with his requests in matters of form, while at the same time he held his own opinion and followed his own counsel in matters of practical moment. He kept no faith indeed with Edward, making no scruple of breaking the oaths of fealty to him which he found himself compelled to make.14 If the fact be brought against him, it may be well to remember that Edward himself deliberately broke his oaths of the treaty of Brigham,15 and thus, by violating on his side the conditions upon which the early oaths of the Scottish prelates and nobles were given, set an example which they were free to follow. Thus it came about that after receiving from Edward, in common with the other Scottish bishops, the right of bequeathing his effects by will,16 and after submitting to Edward at Elgin upon the fall of Balliol,17 Wishart was one of the first to join Sir William Wallace when he raised the standard of independence anew.18  At Irvine, however, in 1297, when the Scottish army fell to pieces through its dissensions, Wishart, along with Bruce, Douglas, the Steward of Scotland, and other nobles, found it necessary again to submit to England.19 For this desertion Wallace accused the bishop of treachery, wasted his estates, attacked his castle, and threw his family into prison.20  Wishart was himself a prisoner in Roxburgh Castle at this time.21  It was owing to the imprisonment of Wishart and other ecclesiastics that Pope Boniface on 5th July 1299 addressed to Edward the spirited admonitory bull which reached the English king at Caerlaverock on the Solway, and induced him, under the threat of the Roman thunders, hastily to disband his army, and dissemble for a time his attempted subjugation of Scotland.22

The bishop presently regained his freedom on taking another oath of fealty to Edward, and during the king’s renewed campaign in 1301, when he spent a fortnight at Glasgow,23 it is possible that Wishart was present to receive him. Probably because the castle was still in ruins Edward resided, during his stay, at the monastery of the Blackfriars, but he frequently made his devotions in the cathedral, and once and again gave offerings there, at the high altar and the shrine of St Mungo.24 But before long the restless prelate appears to have renewed his opposition to the designs of the monarch, and strange to say Pope Boniface then addressed a letter to him, calling him the “prime mover and instigator of all the tumult and dissension which has arisen,” and ordering him to cease troubling the English king.25

Neither the command of the Pope, however, nor the bribes and threats of Edward sufficed to restrain Bishop Robert. Wallace, it is true, was betrayed and seized by Sir John de Menteith at Robroyston,26 almost under the walls of Wishart’s cathedral; but it was seven years since the hero had taken part in public affairs, and the bishop probably knew nothing of his vicinity. The cruel fate of his former comrade in arms, however, must have roused the indignation of the prelate. He had also, possibly, a private grievance against the enemies of his country, for part of the reward to Menteith is said to have been a grant from Edward I of the temporalities of the bishopric of Glasgow in Dunbartonshire, of which Bishop Robert was deprived.27 Scarcely, at any rate, were the limbs of Wallace cold on the walls of Perth and Aberdeen, when Wishart was once more, and for the last time, in arms. On 10th February 1305-6 Bruce slew the Red Comyn at Dumfries. Retreating after the deed to Lochmaben, he sent letters to apprise his friends, and among the first of those to join him was Bishop Robert.28 The little array rode first to Glasgow, and men’s hearts must have beat hard as the cavalcade came up the street of the bishop’s burgh. The leader had slain his man on the steps of the altar, and over his head hung not only the vengeance of the English king, but the thunders of papal excommunication. In full, knowledge of all this, Wishart absolved Bruce from his deed five days after the event; from his own wardrobe furnished robes of state for the occasion, and proceeding to Scone, crowned Robert with his own hand.29 This was on 27th March 1306. Three months later Bruce was defeated at Methven,30 and Wishart, who had been present in the battle, was taken, clad in mail, in the castle of Cupar in Fife.31  The fact that he was a churchman alone saved his life. Besides the part he had played in absolving and crowning the king, it was remembered against him that he had gone about the country preaching against Edward and in favour of Bruce, and at an earlier period had used the Ettrick oaks granted by Edward to build a spire for the very different purpose of constructing engines of war against that king’s castle of Kirkintilloch.32 Withal, while the lay barons taken by Edward were barbarously disembowelled, hanged, and beheaded, Wishart was cast into prison at Porchester,33 where he languished till after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  The esteem in which he was held by King Robert is marked by the fact that Wishart was one of the first to be released. He was exchanged, along with the Queen and Princess, for the Earl of Hereford, captured in Bothwell Castle. By that time he was blind, and he died two years afterwards.34 His ashes rest in the Lower Church of his cathedral.35 At the same time as Wishart, the Archdeacon of Glasgow, John Wishart, was also Edward’s prisoner in England, and to punish both, as well as to further his own ends, the English king wrote to the Pope asking that Geoffrey de Mowbray be appointed to the see.36 His desire, however, was not granted. Nor was this the last effort of the English kings to interfere with the bishopric, and so strike at King Robert through the Pope. Edward II wrote to Rome complaining of Bishop Robert, with what result is unknown.37 On the death of Wishart, again Bruce’s chamberlain, Stephen de Dundimore, a canon of Glasgow, was elected to the bishopric. Whereupon Edward desired the Pope to prevent his consecration. The matter, however, never came to a refusal, for Dundimore died on his way to Rome.


1 “It seemed a marvel to many,” writes Fordoun (lib. x. cap. xxviii.),”that a man of such great reputation Bishop-elect of Glasgow, Archdeacon of St Andrews, the King’s Chancellor, and rector or prebendary of twenty-two churches should be seized by so great an ambition that all these did not suffice him, but he must allocate the bishopric of St Andrews to himself. This he accomplished rather by pretence than by piety, and more through the king’s fear than through his love.” The same historian (x. xxix.) states that Robert Wishart was promoted from the archdeaconry of Lothian at the instance of his uncle and the king, and describes him at the time of his election as juvenis atate, sed moribus senior.

2 Wyntoun,”Cronykil,” Bk. vii. ch. viii.

3 “Liber Ste. Marie de Melros,” p. 14, Doc. No. 16.

4 Wyntoun, Bk. vii. chap. viii. The triumph of the Scottish Church over the pretensions of Henry and the See of York is exultantly recorded by the early chronicler. On the appeal of the Scottish bishops, he says, Pope Alexander

“Renewyd all thare priwylage,

Thare custwmys, and thare awantage,

That thai had lawchful befor thai dayis ;

Owr Bischapys to be always

Submyttyd immedyate to the Pape,

And to nane othir Archebyschape.”

5 “Documents illustrative of the History of Scotland from 1286 to 1306,” ed. Rev. Jos. Stevenson, Edin. 1870.

6 Rymer, vol. ii. p. 431.

7  Ibid., ii. 471-2.

8 “Documents illus. Hist. Scot.” i. 126.

9 Ibid. Also “Rotuli Scotiae,” per indices. It is somewhat curious, considering his after -history, that in many of these cases Wishart was fulfilling without objection writs addressed to him by Edward, in which that king invariably styled himself superior dominus regni Scotia. But Bishop Robert had not yet, apparently, awakened to the actual designs of the English monarch.

10 “Doc. illus. Hist. Scot.” i. 162. “

11“Rotuli Scotiae,” Aug. 18, 1291.

12 Ibid., July 15, 1292.

13 Ibid., Aug. 13, 1291 ; Dec. 13, 1292 ; Aug. 26, 1295.

14 Rymer, June 13, 1292.

15 Rymer, “Foedera,” ii. 489-90.

16 “Rotuli Scotiae;,” Jan. 23, 1291-2.

17 “Ragman Rolls,” pp. 101, 115 ;”Foedera,” July 25, 1296.

18 Hemingford, ii. 130.

19 Idem, ii. 132 ; Rymer, Foedera,” July 9, 1297.

20 Hemingford, ii. 134, “Quod cum audisset ille latro Willelmus Walays, irratus animo, perrexit ad domum episcopi, et omnem ejus supellectilem, arma et equos, filios etiam episcopi nepotum nomine nuncupates, secum adduxit.”  It seems just possible that this occurrence formed the foundation of the traditional story, given by Blind Harry, of Wallace’s battle with Bishop Beck at the Bell o’ the Brae. For an account of this tradition see Mr. Millar’s article, infra, on ” The Bishop’s Castle.” Wallace, of course, as Mr. Millar points out, may have burned, not the Castle of Glasgow, but some other residence of the Bishop.

21 Hemingford, ii. 134.

22 Ibid., ii. 189; Fordoun, lib. xi. cap. xxxvi.

23 “Rotuli Scotiae,” i. 53.

24 “Reg. Epus. Glasg.” No 548.

25 Rymer, Ides of August 1302.

26 Wyntoun, viii., xxii. ; Fordoun, lib. xii. cap. viii. ;”Chron. Lanercost,” sub anno 1305; “The Book of Wallace,” vol. ii. p. 230.

27 Palgrave’s “Transcripts,” quoted in Roger’s “Book of Wallace.”

28 Rymer, April 5, 1306 ; Tytler, sub anno.

29 Tytler, sub anno. Bull of Clement V. excommunicating Bruce ; Rymer, May 18, 1306. The Papal Registers contain a summons from Clement for Wishart to appear at Rome to answer for his conduct. In the event of his failure to comply he was to be given in custody to Bishop Bek of Durham. ” Chron. Lanercost,” notes, p. 410.

30 Fordoun, lib. xii. cap. xi.

31 Tytler.

32 “Documents of Scotland,” p. 348, quoted by Innes,”Reg. Epus. Glasg.” p. xxxvi.

33 Rymer, “Foedera,” ii. 1016. Two petitions for mitigation of imprisonment addressed by Wishart to Edward II. are preserved in the Tower, and printed in the appendix to the “Chronicon de Lanercost,” p. 524.

34 “Chron. de Lanercost,” p. 229 ; Barbour’s “Bruce,” ed. Skeat, Bk. xiii. line 685.

35 It is worthy of note that the other great ecclesiastic to whom Bruce owed indispensable countenance and support, Bishop William Lamberton of St Andrews, had been chancellor of the Cathedral of Glasgow till his elevation in 1297.

36 Rymer, Oct. 4, 1306.

37 “Chron. de Lanercost,” notes, p. 410.