Wishart, Robert (c.1240–1316)

A. A. M. Duncan, first published 2004,

Wishart, Robert (c.1240–1316), bishop of Glasgow, was born into a family from the Mearns. He was the nephew or relative or, possibly, son of William Wishart, bishop of St Andrews from 1273 to 1279, who secured Robert’s early promotion as archdeacon in 1267. It is not known where he studied, but he was MA by 1271. He participated in William’s election at St Andrews in 1271, and William’s influence probably secured election to Glasgow for Robert in that year. He was consecrated on 29 January 1273 and was at the Council of Lyons in 1274. He quarrelled with his chapter over endowments in 1275, but was active in completing the building of Glasgow Cathedral nave in the following years. He was not prominent in public affairs in the next decade, and filled the deanery and two archdeaconries of his diocese with Wisharts.

The death of Alexander III in March 1286 led to Wishart’s appointment as one of two prelates among the six guardians chosen in April to govern until the birth of Alexander’s child. That child’s stillbirth led to their duties lasting until 1292 and involving drastic political decisions amid a divided baronial community. While he was not in the embassy which went to Edward I in Gascony in 1286, he must have agreed to the suppression of the Bruce revolt in the south-west in the winter of 1286–7. Death reduced the guardians to four, but by consultation in colloquia they secured a consensus for the marriage of the heir, the Maid of Norway, to Edward (later Edward II), and Wishart participated in the treaties of Salisbury and Birgham.

It is not known what stand Wishart took, after the death of the Maid, on the agreement of some magnates late in 1290 or early in 1291 to accept the result of arbitration by Edward I between Balliol and Robert (V) de Brus over succession to the throne. He was none the less at Norham on 10 May 1291 to hear the appalling demand of Edward I for recognition of his overlordship; in the ten days after the Scots delivered their response on 2 June, under relentless pressure from Edward to concede, Wishart stood out as the man prepared to defend the liberty of the kingdom and to tell Edward to his face that his actions against a leaderless people did him no credit. The outcome, including the continuation of the guardians in office, was thought to safeguard the kingdom, and Wishart deserves much credit for the undertakings extorted from a reluctant English king.

Wishart was an auditor nominated by Brus to the court at Berwick, and on 6 November 1292 grudgingly accepted the judgment for Balliol and against Brus. He is not known to have shared in the inauguration of King John, and little is heard of him until the treaty with France was confirmed at Dunfermline on 23 February 1296, an act which put him in the opposite camp to the Brus family, who were touting for support from Edward I. He submitted to that king in July–August 1296, but in the summer of 1297 was named, with the earl of Carrick and James Stewart, as leaders of a rising in Ayrshire in defence of the liberties of middling folk under threat from Edward I. The rising collapsed at Irvine on 7 July 1297, and Wishart submitted himself as hostage and was imprisoned at Roxburgh; such submissiveness angered William Wallace, who burnt Wishart’s manor house and carried off his moveables and children. He remained a prisoner until September 1300.

After his release Wishart seems to have pretended obedience to the English while using resources to help the guardians; by 1302 he had probably left his diocese for the north, but he joined in the general surrender of early 1304 and was required to exile himself south of the Trent, which he did. He was at parliament at Westminster in March 1305 with Carrick, and was apparently allowed back to Scotland in May. Final commitment to the Bruce cause came only with the killing of Comyn on 10 February 1306. Carrick turned immediately to ‘the wicked bishop [who] remains at Glasgow as his chief adviser, the earl coming often, and they take counsel together and muster all the support they can from every quarter’ (Stones, 131). It was pretty certainly Wishart who persuaded Carrick to take the throne forthwith. In an adaptation of the donation of Constantine by way of the Life of Kentigern, Wishart granted him absolution and secured ‘an oath that he would abide by the direction of the clergy of Scotland’—as king, that is (Stones, 133). The bishop gave him a long-concealed banner of the royal arms and the robes needed for enthronement, and sent him to Scone, but stayed away from the ceremony there on 25 March, probably because the bishop of St Andrews was expected to attend for the ecclesiastical rites.

Wishart attacked Kirkintilloch Castle unsuccessfully, then crossed to Cupar, Fife, where he was taken prisoner by English forces on 8 June before the battle of Methven. It was the end of his political life. He was taken to Portchester Castle, and for a time was held in chains. Edward I sent charges against him to the pope to obtain his deposition, but Clement claimed jurisdiction, and on 25 November 1308 Wishart was handed over to the bishop of Poitiers to be conveyed to the papal court. He had even been among those Scottish bishops summoned to the Council of Vienne on 12 August 1308, perhaps at the instance of Philippe IV of France; as he was at the papal curia, he was probably also at the council. In 1312 he returned to England and detainment, though not imprisonment; despite many efforts to have an Englishman given his see, he was now recognized as bishop of Glasgow. This suggests that there had been a canonical trial and that Wishart had not been found deprivable. After Bannockburn he was moved to York and Carlisle, and he was released early in 1315 in an exchange of prisoners. He was now blind; he died on 26 November 1316 and was buried in Glasgow Cathedral, where an effigy is said, on no good evidence, to be his. A John Wishart who was archdeacon of Glasgow before 1310 and briefly bishop of Glasgow in 1337 may have been his son; another John Wishart was a member of the chapter of Glasgow as late as 1433.

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


Sources   D. E. R. Watt, A biographical dictionary of Scottish graduates to AD 1410 (1977) · J. Dowden, The bishops of Scotland … prior to the Reformation, ed. J. M. Thomson (1912), 306–9 · E. L. G. Stones, ed. and trans., Anglo-Scottish relations, 1174–1328: some selected documents, OMT (1965) · W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98), vol. 6 · E. L. G. Stones and G. G. Simpson, eds., Edward I and the throne of Scotland, 1290–1296, 2 vols (1978) · P. A. Linehan, ‘A fourteenth-century history of Anglo-Scottish relations in a Spanish manuscript’, BIHR, 48 (1975), 106–22

Likenesses   portraits, repro. in Maitland Club, 61, 2, pl. 2 · tomb effigy, Glasgow Cathedral

Original Article