Face of King Robert The Bruce is Brought Back to Life 700 Years After His Death

Face of King Robert The Bruce is Brought Back to Life 700 Years After His Death


Almost 700 years after his death, a team of scientists and historians have produced comprehensive virtual images of the face of Robert the Bruce, a 14th century King of Scotland, and one of the most famous warriors of his generation, eventually leading Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England.

The images were recreated from the cast of a human skull held by the Hunterian Museum and are the result of a two-year research project by researchers at universities in Glasgow and Liverpool.

Robert the Bruce Arguably the Greatest Scottish Historical Figure of All Time

Even though most historians will agree that Robert the Bruce is the greatest of all Scottish heroes, the famous Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart gave all the heroics to his compatriot William Wallace, making Bruce out to be nothing more than a self-serving opportunist. In reality, however, Robert Bruce played probably the most significant role in Scotland’s national resistance that later developed into a war of independence. After many years of bloody and heroic battles that lasted for nearly three decades, in 1320 Bruce and the Scottish nobles issued the Declaration of Arbroath asserting Scottish Independence, “For as longs as one hundred of us shall remain alive we shall never in any wise consent to submit to the rule of the English, for it is not for glory that we fight … but for freedom alone”.

However, a truce with Edward II of England failed to stop hostilities which continued until Edward II was deposed in 1327. The Treaty of Edinburgh between Robert Bruce and Edward III in 1328 recognized Scotland's independence, ending the 30 years of Wars of Independence. Edward agreed to the marriage of Robert Bruce’s son David to his younger sister Joan daughter of Edward II. Robert Bruce died at his house in Cardross a year later of a serious illness described by some as leprosy.

Statue of Robert the Bruce (1929) in front of the gates at Edinburgh Castle.

Statue of Robert the Bruce (1929) in front of the gates at Edinburgh Castle. (CC by SA 3.0 / Ad Meskens)

The Reconstructed Face of Robert the Bruce Shows that He Could Have Had Leprosy

Robert the Bruce actually did suffer from leprosy, according to the conclusions of the scientists after recreating his face from his skull. For years, scholars have argued about whether the legendary Scottish king was infected with the disease, with some suggesting there was a medieval cover-up so he would not have to relinquish the throne, while others claiming that he was the victim of a smear campaign. However, his newly reconstructed images of his face highlight that his skull shows the telltale signs of leprosy, including a disfigured jaw and nose. Professor Caroline Wilkinson, director of the Face Lab at LJMU, who also reconstructed the face of Richard III, said at Archaeology News Network, “We could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face. We produced two versions – one without leprosy and one with a mild representation of leprosy. He may have had leprosy, but if he did it is likely that it did not manifest strongly on his face.”

Two versions of Robert the Bruce’s face were produced. This one shows how he may have looked after leprosy disfigured his face.

Two versions of Robert the Bruce’s face were produced. This one shows how he may have looked after leprosy disfigured his face. Credit: FaceLab / Liverpool John Moores University.

DNA Could Answer Many Questions About the Legendary Scottish King

Even though we do not have any reliable visual depictions of Robert the Bruce and all the written records referring to him tell us nothing about his appearance, the good news is that DNA testing could offer us all the information we need to establish his hair and eye color.  However, there is a problem according to Dr. Martin MacGregor, a senior lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Glasgow and the project’s leader, “The skull was excavated in 1818-19 from a grave in Dunfermline Abbey, mausoleum of Scotland’s medieval monarchs. After the excavation the original skeleton and skull were sealed in pitch and reburied, but not before a cast of the head was taken. Several copies of the cast exist, including the one now in The Hunterian, but without the original bone we have no DNA.” Professor Wilkinson adds: “In the absence of any DNA, we relied on statistical evaluation to determine that Robert the Bruce most likely had brown hair and light brown eyes.” And continues saying that for now this is the most realistic image we can have about Bruce’s appearance, “This is the most realistic appearance of Robert the Bruce to-date, based on all the skeletal and historical material available.”

The plaster cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull

The plaster cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull (CC by SA 3.0)

Top image: The digitally-reconstructed image of the face of Robert the Bruce. Credit: FaceLab / Liverpool John Moores University.

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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