Happy Boxing Day everyone! We hope you all had a lovely day yesterday! We thought today we would look at a late Christmas present that King Robert gave to his 'marischal' Robert Keith (a veteran of Bannockburn) on this day in 1324.
The Keith family originated in East Lothian and had been hereditary marischals (marshals) of Scotland since the end of the twelfth-century. Originally, the role involved managing supplies and provisions for the royal household, but over time these more mundane aspects of the role had faded. The marischal still played a practical function as a administrator of justice during wartime, and he also had ceremonial duties at tournaments and oversaw judicial combats. Robert Keith had inherited the role from his father in 1293 and had fought for the 'patriotic' cause in the early years of the First War of Scottish Independence. However, he had been captured by the English in 1300 and afterwards submitted to the English. This early submission seems to have made him seem more trustworthy to the English authorities, and he was given considerable responsibility as Edward I sought to establish a workable English-backed Scottish administration after 1304. Keith did not immediately defect to the Bruce cause after King Robert's inauguration in 1306, but by Christmas 1308 he had abandoned his English patrons and was present for Bruce's first parliament at St Andrews in 1309. Probably his most famous contribution to Scottish history, recorded by the late fourteenth-century Scottish poet John Barbour, was leading a group of around 500 'light' cavalry at the Battle of Bannockburn, scattering the few English archers who had managed to get into a good position for shooting at the tightly-packed Scottish spear formations. In the years after Bannockburn, Keith was rewarded for his service with grants of land in north-east Scotland (forfeited by Bruce's rivals the Comyns), and his name also appears on the Declaration of Arbroath.
The gift that Keith received from the king on Boxing Day 1324 served as a rationalisation of Keith's widely-spread lands and helped to clarify the succession of these lands in the event of Keith's death. Bruce had been at Berwick-upon-Tweed since at least 1st November and spent the entire Christmas period there (not until 24th January 1325 is he found to have moved on to Arbroath). On 7th November ('the Wednesday after the Feast of All Saints' as the charter puts it), Keith resigned all of his lands to King Robert, a common practice in cases like this where the crown and a landowner wanted to 'reset' the terms by which certain estates were held. The lands in question were Keith Marischal and Keith Simon in East Lothian, Covington in Lanarkshire, the forests of Aden and Kintore, 'Inuerpefrie' and four 'davochs' in Strathbogie in Aberdeenshire, as well as the office of marischal itself. Then on 26th December, King Robert re-granted all of these possessions to Keith and his *male* heirs. Keith had had a son, John, but John had sadly died by the end of 1324. It may be that this is what had prompted Keith and the king to clarify their preferred line of succession for the Keith estates. The charter identified Keith's grandson and namesake Robert (John's son) as Keith's heir, adding that if the younger Robert should die without heirs then the lands would pass to the elder Robert's brother, Edward Keith. It seems that with his son dead Robert Keith feared that his estates would pass to a female relative and through them would pass out of the Keith kindred altogether. King Robert meanwhile was probably anxious to guarantee that his marischal would be someone who, by the standards of the time, would serve as an active military asset. Thus, the charter emphasises that Keith's heirs should have 'the surname of Keith' and be capable of 'bearing arms'.
In the event, Robert Keith survived not only his son John and King Robert, he also outlived his grandson as well. When he died - probably in his sixties - in 1343 or 1344, he was succeeded by his brother Edward, just as the charter of 1324 had stipulated. From 1309 right up until the king's death in 1329, Keith had been one of Bruce's closest councillors. Recent research has even shown that statistically Keith appeared in more surviving documents associated with Bruce than any other individual. While the re-grant was primarily motivated by the socio-political anxieties outlined above, we'd like to think that it also reflects a genuine friendship on the part of the king and his marischal.