Monday, August 28, 2017

Where in the World is the Heart of King Robert Bruce?

Guest again: Michael J. Cooper has returned to answer that question we asked on his last visit.  Here’s his Mystery at a Great Divide.

The Church of St. Andrew's occupies a unique position in Jerusalem. With a dramatic view of the walled Old City a few hundred yards to the north and of the Mount of Olives and the Mountains of Moab to the East, the church sits on the Jerusalem watershed ridge. Like the Continental Divide of the Americas, the Jerusalem watershed ridge is a hydrological divide; rain falling a few feet to the west ultimately drains into the Mediterranean Sea while water falling a few feet to the east moves toward the Dead Sea—that is, if it can make it without evaporating or seeping into the parched red earth of the Judean Desert. But whereas the Jerusalem watershed ridge offers a clear choice, the Church of St. Andrew's contains a brooding ambiguity.

In the chapel of the east-facing church, a burnished plaque set in the floor of the sanctuary reads; “In remembrance of the pious wish of King Robert Bruce that his heart should be buried in Jerusalem.”

Along the plaque’s outer margin, a wrap-around inscription reads; “In celebration of the sixth century of his death – 1329, 7th June, 1929. Given by citizens of Dumfermline and Melrose.” The plaque was, indeed, presented to the church by the people of these two Scottish cities: Dumfermline, where the body of Robert the Bruce was buried and Melrose where Bruce’s heart was actually interred. 

Why was Bruce’s heart initially buried at Melrose Abbey and not in Jerusalem despite his “pious wish?” To answer this question, we must return to June of 1329, as Bruce lay dying in Scotland, possibly from leprosy (the great sickness).

According to an English translation of the 14th century Chronicles of Jean Froissart; “…it fortuned that King Robert of Scotland…was charged with the great sickness, so that there was no way with him but death…then he called to him the gentle knight sir James Douglas, and said before all the lords, “Sir James, my dear friend, ye know well that I…promised in my mind to have gone and warred on Christ’s enemies…to this purpose mine heart hath ever intended…I have taken such malady…that my body cannot go nor achieve that my heart desires. I will send the heart…to accomplish mine avow…as soon as I am trespassed out of this world, take my heart out of my body and embalm it…and present my heart to the Holy Sepulchre…”

After his death on June 7, 1329, Bruce’s body was interred at Dunfermline Abbey—reflecting the fact that many members of Scottish royalty are buried there.  Before his burial, his heart was taken from the body, embalmed, placed in a silver casket, and given to his “dear friend,” Sir James Douglas, whom Bruce had charged to carry his heart to the Holy Land for burial. With the embalmed heart in its silver casket hung on a silver chain and close to his own heart, Sir Douglas set out for the Holy Land in the spring of 1330 with six other knights. Among them was Sir William St. Clair of Rosslin, whom I single out since the St. Clair bloodline, along with Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, are the two threads that connect all three books of my Temple Mount series.

The knights sailed across the North Sea, stopping briefly in the Netherlands then south to Spain, to make their way overland and take ship on the Mediterranean coast for the Holy Land. But they never reached that coast. In Granada, they came upon King Alfonso XI of Castile commanding a Spanish army that was laying siege to the Moorish castle of Teba.

According to historical accounts, and embellished by legend, the small band of Scottish knights joined the fight and soon found themselves surrounded by a host of Moors. In the extremity of this circumstance, Sir Douglas lifted the chain and the silver casket off his neck, spun the heart of Bruce around and around over his head shouting, “Brave heart, that ever foremost led, forward as thou wast wont, and we shall follow!” With that, he threw the heart of Bruce toward the Moors, and the vastly outnumbered knights charged forward with drawn swords to their death.
In homage to their bravery, the Moors returned the bodies of the Scottish knights to Scotland along with the silver casket containing the heart of King Robert Bruce. As with the remains of other Scottish kings, Bruce’s heart was buried at Melrose Abbey.

But it didn’t stay buried. Six hundred years later, in 1921, during an excavation by His Majesty’s Office of Works, a lead container holding the embalmed heart of the Bruce was unearthed in the ruins of the chapter house at Melrose Abbey.  Once the contents of the cone-shaped container were examined and ascertained, the lead receptacle was encased within a larger one with the following engraving: “The enclosed leaden casket containing a heart was found beneath Chapter House floor, March 1921, by His Majesty's Office of Works.” The box containing Bruce’s heart was then reburied at the abbey.  

I couldn’t resist recreating and embellishing this episode in my historical mystery novel, Foxes in the Vineyard. In my fictionalized account, the protagonisttwenty-three-year-old Evan Sinclair, is among the graduate students who unearth Bruce’s heart during a dig at Melrose Abbey in 1921. Evan immediately begins planning a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to fulfill Bruce’s “pious wish,” but when he returns to the locked and secure holding room for antiquities, Bruce’s heart is gone.  The now 50-year-old Evan recounts this episode in a 1948 conversation that takes place in the Church of St. Andrew’s in Jerusalem. He is told that the heart was reburied at Melrose Abbey soon after it was unearthed. I won’t spoil the plot twist by telling you who reburied it, but I can tell you the reason: it had something to do with the fact that in 1921 there was no fitting place for the heart of Bruce to be reburied in Jerusalem.  Only in 1927 was the building of St. Andrew’s begun, as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers killed fighting the Turkish Army during World War I, which brought to an end seven hundred years of Ottoman rule over Palestine–a watershed moment in history commemorated by a church on the watershed ridge! This was the reason given to Evan for the reburial of the heart at Melrose Abbey instead of in Jerusalem.

But is the heart of King Robert Bruce still at Melrose Abbey?

Little did I realize when I began writing Foxes in the Vineyard following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, that there would be another archeological dig conducted at Melrose Abbey in 1996 with the discovery in late August of an outer leaden receptacle containing an inner leaden casket with the engraving from 1921 as noted above. The find was taken to a laboratory in Edinburgh for safekeeping and extensive examination. According to press accounts, the heart remained in Edinburgh for almost two years until it was returned to Melrose Abbey where it was reburied on June 22, 1998 in a private ceremony, followed two days later by the public unveiling of a sandstone marker.

Here’s a photo of me at Melrose Abbey a few months ago, looking down at the marker and wondering if the heart of Bruce is a few feet away or if it’s really in Jerusalem.

And speaking of Jerusalem…

I traveled to the Holy City at the end of 1999, since I figured that it would be good to be in Jerusalem in case the world really ended at the stroke of midnight 12/31/99 as proposed by a host of “Y2K” fringe groups. So, instead of “stocking up on food and guns” as suggested by Jerry Falwell, I took the family to Jerusalem. Since I expected that the world wouldn’t end, I was still working on Foxes in the Vineyard and took the opportunity to speak to a long-time friend, a session elder at St. Andrew’s, and the director of the West Jerusalem YMCA. I showed him the New York Times clipping about the discovery of Bruce’s heart at Melrose Abbey in 1998 and asked him directly if it had then been reburied in Jerusalem beneath the plaque at St. Andrew’s Church.  The Scots had, after all, at the moment, an opportunity to fulfill Bruce’s “pious wish.”  My friend didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no. He became uncharacteristically taciturn and evasive, refusing to discuss the issue. I next tried inquiring at the church itself, and with the same non-response. I persisted, but to no avail and was left feeling that someone wasn’t telling me something.

So, where is Bruce’s heart?

Was the heart truly reburied at Melrose Abbey during a private ceremony, or was it smuggled into Israel and secretly buried beneath the plaque on the altar of St. Andrew’s Church in Jerusalem? I suspect the latter, but I don’t know for sure. The truth is shrouded in ambiguity, which is ironic since it’s only fitting that the position of St. Andrew’s on the watershed ridge warrants a clear binary answer; east or west, yes or no.

Instead, we’re left with ambiguity, and short of prying open the burnished brass plaque in the floor of the chapel at St. Andrew’s or digging under the marker at Melrose Abby, I’ll never know. But since it was the wish of a dying king that his heart be buried in Jerusalem, wouldn’t it be fitting to fulfill that wish?

Has that wish finally been granted? I’d like to think it has.

And, does it matter?

It does to me.

King Robert Bruce - One of the thousands of mysterious
images carved into the walls and pillars at Rosslyn Chapel

For more about Michael J. Cooper and his books, visit him at:


  1. Thanks for writing, Michael, fascinating story.

  2. This morning, Michael, it occurred to me to wonder where I would want my heart buried. (A moot point since I intend to leave my body to science.)

    I ruminated about places I love. My gorgeous turbulent, high-energy, never boring New York? The African wilderness? Florence claims a big piece of my heart. Rome, the most gorgeous city in the world to my eyes? Siracusa--splendid city of my ancestors?
    In the end, my heart chose an exact spot: in the flower bed next to the north Library Lion, the one called Fortitude, that graces the facade of the glorious New York Public Library.
    What about you? Where, exactly?

    1. Hi Annamaria
      I'm happy where my heart is right now - in my chest just left of midline.
      It appears that Scottish royals took the heart metaphor very seriously - it wasn't uncommon to bury it in some significant soil and far from the body.
      You mention places special to you - NYC, Rome, Africa and of course the NY Public Library. I'm sure you're so much more pleased to visit all these with your heart still beating.

    2. It's beating! And I am glad. Extremely so. And you are right; it makes me happy to go to the places where it takes me.

  3. Thanks, Michael, for the incredible journey across time and place. I guess the take away is, "Beware [or be where?] of Scots burying gifts of hearts."

    1. Wow, Jeff - a nicely turned double pun! Well played!

  4. OK, so Scottish people getting involved in fights and carrying body parts around. Sounds like one of my books!
    Do you know the language of the original text that translation is from? I think it would be a translation of a translation....of?
    I think Robert The Bruce's heart is in Melrose. But then I live in Elderslie, William Wallace was born at the end of my garden. The tourist board put up a sign and now nationalists appear playing bagpipes, quoting Mel Gibson and upsetting the dog.
    And Jeff? Just beware of Scots! But you have known that for a while......

    1. Dear Caro
      Of course I must defer to your native and authentic Scottish-ness.
      I mean, you're a neighbor of William Wallace for God's sake! How more Scottish can one be?
      As to the translation of The Chronicles of Jean Froissart...the text I mangled was derived from a 1904 English translation of the French with the very long URL (and my apologies) herewith;
      Sorry about that...
      Love your description of the devolution of Wallace adoration upsetting the dog!
      Damn you, Mel Gibson - his efforts certainly created a double-edged claymore.