Bruce, Robert (d.1602) (DNB01)

BRUCE, ROBERT (d. 1602), political agent and spy, was the son of Ninian Bruce, brother of the laird of Binnie. He was first heard of in February 1579, when, on account of some demonstration of catholic zeal, he was summoned, with two other gentlemen, by the privy council of Scotland to answer to the charges brought against him. For neglecting to appear he was proclaimed a rebel and put to the horn (Reg. of Privy Council, iii. 102, 106). He was then described as ‘servant and secretary to James, sometime archbishop of Glasgow,’ and from his own account it seems that he was employed at the time on some affairs of Mary Stuart. Archbishop Beaton was then in Paris, acting as Mary's ambassador at the court of France; and Bruce, retiring to the continent, entered in 1581 the newly erected Scots college at Pont-à-Mousson, sent thither probably by his patron, the archbishop, to complete his studies. Here he remained for over four years. In January 1585 Thomas Morgan (1543–1606?) [q. v.] wrote to Mary Stuart, specially recommending Bruce for her service in Scotland, and enclosing a letter from Bruce himself (Murdin, State Papers, pp. 458–63), who, referring to his former services, states that after devoting himself meanwhile to philosophy and divinity, he had now left Pont-à-Mousson for Paris, to be employed in the projects of the Duke of Guise. Bruce was accordingly sent into Scotland in the summer of that year, accompanied by two jesuits, Edmund Hay and John Dury, disguised as his servants (Forbes-Leith, Narratives, p. 204), and was put into communication with the catholic earls, Huntly and Morton (Maxwell), and Lord Claude Hamilton. These noblemen sent him back to the Duke of Guise with blank letters bearing their signatures. The letters were filled up in Paris at the duke's dictation, and carried to Philip of Spain, to whom they were addressed, by Bruce, who was commended to the king as ‘a nobleman of proved trust and a good catholic.’ The catholic lords asked for their purpose from Philip six thousand troops and 150,000 crowns. Bruce's departure to Spain on this mission was hastened, so Mendoza reported, by orders for his arrest in France, on account of some strong declarations made by him in favour of the jesuits. In September he had an audience of the king, who seemed favourably impressed by him, and sent him back ‘with fair words’ to Mendoza at Paris, and thence to the Prince of Parma. With Parma Bruce remained for some time, completely gaining his confidence and that of all concerned in the Scoto-Spanish intrigues.

Meanwhile the execution of Mary Stuart in 1587 changed the aspect of Scottish affairs, and Philip decided to accede to the request of the catholic lords, so far at least as to promise to give them the 150,000 crowns three or four months after they should take up arms. Bruce was accordingly sent into Scotland, May 1587, with a message from Philip to King James, in the hope of inducing the king to throw in his lot with the catholics and to avenge his mother's death. He carried with him letters from Guise and Parma, with ten thousand crowns in gold, which he was to spend apparently at his discretion for the good of the cause. He went resolved ‘to speak very plainly to the king, and to point out to him the error in which he was living;’ and Mendoza, after despatching him on his mission, spoke highly to Philip of his envoy's piety and zeal, inasmuch as he had ‘given his all in Scotland to the jesuits, there to aid them in their task.’ Bruce had several interviews with James, but without the success he had hoped for. In August 1588 he wrote to Parma that the only course now open to him was ‘to bridle the King of Scots’ and to rely on the catholic lords; and even as late as 4 Nov. of that year he reports that the Spanish king has now the best opportunity ever presented of making himself ‘ruler of this island;’ that the principal catholics have resolved that ‘it is expedient for the public weal that we submit to the crown of Spain;’ and that Huntly, whose letter he encloses, had authorised him to make this statement on their behalf.

Bruce was now an important personage. John Chisholm had brought to him from Flanders another ten thousand crowns. He had from Parma five hundred crowns as a personal fee, and a pension of forty crowns a month. Almost all negotiations of the catholic nobles passed through his hands. But after the escape of Colonel William Sempill [q. v.] from his prison in Edinburgh, Pringle, the colonel's servant, indignant at not being better paid by Bruce, allowed himself to be captured in England, where he sold to the government a packet of letters from Huntly and others, including a long and important letter from Bruce himself directed to Parma (February 1589). Elizabeth sent the packet to James, and the whole conspiracy was exposed, to the consternation of the country. The king was stirred up to some feeble measures against the lords, and thereupon Bruce incited Huntly to the open insurrection which ended in the fiasco of the Brig of Dee. Bruce, whose name had already appeared in a decree of banishment pronounced against certain Jesuits and others, now remained comparatively quiet for some years. In December 1589 he was at Rome.

In the summer of 1592 Bruce reappeared for a moment, under the alias of Bartill Bailzie, on the fringe of the mysterious conspiracy of the 'Spanish Blanks,' mainly directed by Father William Crichton [q. v.]; but in August of that year, while the plot was hatching, Sir Robert Bowes [q. v.], the English agent at the Scottish court, sent to Burghley the astonishing news that Bruce, whom he still calls 'servant of the bishop of Glasgow,' had written to him from Calais, offering 'to discover the practices of Spain' (Cal. State Papers, Scotl. ii. 612, 618).

On 17 Nov. Bruce, still in appearance acting on behalf of his old friends, arrived once more in Scotland with money from Flanders, and on 8 Dec, to the surprise of Bowes, James passed an act of council granting 'remission' to Robert Bruce 'for high treason, negotiation with foreign princes and Jesuits for the alteration of religion,' &c. It is evident that Bruce was in earnest in his new character. He wrote from Brussels, 25 May 1594: 'I have travelled of late to discredit the Jesuits in all parts where they have procured to do harm heretofore ... to serve the queen, and hazard both life, means, and honesty without obligation,' and in July he sent from Antwerp information which proved to be accurate regarding the embarkation of Father James Gordon with others, with money for the insurgent earls (Hatfield Papers, iv. 536, 563; cf. Cal. Scotl. ii. 748).

Against Bruce's name in the register of the Scots college, it is noted without suspicion, in 1598, that he is still following the court. But his double dealing could not much longer escape the vigilance of his former allies. On 8 March 1699 Father Baldwin wrote to him from Antwerp, warning him that reports were in circulation that he had 'made submission to the King of Scots;' and presently Bruce was in custody at Brussels, charged with the misappropriation of funds entrusted to him, communication with English spies, the betrayal of the catholic cause, and, in particular, with preventing the fall of Dumbarton Castle into the hands of catholics for the King of Spain, by giving intelligence of its intended capture to 'the Scottish antipope' (R. O. Scotl. vol. lxv. Nos. 87, 88). Father Crichton, John Hamilton, the Earls Huntly, Errol, and Westmorland, with others, gave evidence against him. He remained in prison for fourteen months, according to Hospinianus, who tells a strange and incredible story of Crichton having become Bruce's accuser out of revenge, because Bruce had rejected the Jesuit's proposal that he should assassinate the chancellor Maitland (Historia Jesuitica, p. 291). After emerging from prison Bruce appears to have visited Scotland (October 1601) under the name of Peter Nerne, with certain companions whom he was accused of attempting to murder. This Robert Bruce alias Nerne, under torture in Edinburgh, 'confessed much villainy,' and said that he was in the pay of John Cecil [q.v. Suppl.]; and in the following month Cardinal d'Ossat, writing from Rome, warns Villeroi against certain spies then in France in the interest of Spain, mentioning Robert Bruce 'fort mauvais homme' and Dr. Cecil. Bruce died in Paris of the plague in 1602. For some time he had been preparing a work against the Jesuits, which an intelligencer from Brussels reported as being 'nearly ready to be printed' (Cal. Dom. Eliz. 18-28 Aug. 1599). His heir brought the unpublished book to the French nuncio, and asked 460 ducats for it, adding that the Huguenots had offered a thousand ducats (Vatican MSS.; Nunziatura di Francia. vol. ccxc. f. 146), The nuncio referred the matter to the pope, and the pope to the general of the society, who declined the offer with the remark that such writings were numerous, and that if he were to buy them all up he would be ruined.

[In addition to the sources referred to above: Spanish Papers, Eliz. iii. 580, 689-90, 595-7, iv. 144, 161. 201, aei, 478 and passim; Teulet's Papiers d'Etat, iii. 412-22, 469-71, 502-86; Calderwood's Church of Scotland, v. 14-36; Hamilton Papers, i, 673, 685; Thorpe's Cal. State Papers, Scotland, ii. 179, 180.]

T. G. L.