A rumour at rest: Western researcher clears a king’s reputation

For almost seven centuries, the Scots have endured taunts that Robert the Bruce had leprosy, a disease that until recently, held a stigma unlike any other. Now, thanks to Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson, this rumor can be laid to rest.

Illustration by Frank Neufeld // Western NewsFor almost seven centuries, the Scots have endured taunts that Robert the Bruce had leprosy, a disease that until recently, held a stigma unlike any other. Now, thanks to Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson, this rumor can be laid to rest.

Robert the Bruce was a warrior-king, hero, champion of Scottish independence. And not a leper.

For almost seven centuries, the Scots have endured taunts that Robert the Bruce had leprosy, a disease that until recently, held a stigma unlike any other.

Now, thanks to Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson, this rumor can be laid to rest. Nelson’s team of researchers recently performed the first descendent-sanctioned examination of a skull cast of Robert the Bruce proving, once and for all, he did not have leprosy.

There’s no apparent degradation of bone structure, nor any lesions that would mark the face of a leper, said Nelson, a physical anthropologist whose ground-breaking research includes solving millennia-old mysteries about the health of Egyptian mummies.

“That (leprosy) diagnosis is made on the basis of something that wasn’t there during his life,” he noted.

Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scotland in 1306. At the battle of Bannockburn, in 1314, he attained legendary status as his small forces defeated and demoralized a well-equipped and better–trained English army. Before he died at the age of 54, contemporaries wrote he was suffering from a debilitating ailment. Long-held rumours of disease became a matter of common interpretation after an anonymous English cleric, in the 1800s, referred to him contemptuously as that “leprous” Robert the Bruce. The adjective stuck like a burr in the Scottish thistle.

“If you wanted to come up with the worst thing you could say to someone, it was, ‘you leper,’” Nelson said.

In 1818, historians got a glimpse of King Robert when his remains were accidentally exhumed from beneath the Dunfermline Cathedral during renovations. A set of plaster casts was made from his skull before his skeleton was re-interred.

In December, a team of historians and scientists from the University of Glasgow and Liverpool John Moores University released new images they’d created from a cast held by the Hunterian Museum. Hedging their bets, these computerized images showed Robert the Bruce, both with and without leprosy.

But those researchers didn’t have access to a cast King Robert’s descendants had in their possession for almost 200 years – one the family believes is the original, not one of the several subsequent casts-of-a-cast. Nelson was able to examine the original cast closely through a partnership with Canadian sculptor and art historian Christian Corbet, a Western alumnus.

Corbet and Nelson had worked together before on two projects that generated international acclaim. The first produced a facial reconstruction of a 2,200-year-old mummy using CT and laser scans; the second helped identify and give a face to Pte. Tom Lawless, a Canadian World War One soldier whose remains were uncovered near Vimy Ridge in 2003.

While visiting the most prominent living descendant of Robert the Bruce – Lord Andrew Douglas Alexander Thomas Bruce, the 11th Earl of Elgin – Corbet saw another opportunity to partner with Nelson.

“I’m not Scottish, I’m not English and I think I’d be able to create something with no agenda,” Corbet told Lord Elgin, who had expressed dissatisfaction with previous portrayals of his famous ancestor.

Corbet returned to Canada with a cast of the Scottish king’s skull and the family’s unprecedented permission to reconstruct Robert the Bruce’s face. He was tasked with finding a definitive answer to the question of the king’s rumoured leprosy. Corbet consulted with Nelson, and the pair worked with internationally recognized paleopathologist and leprosy expert Dr. Olivier Dutour of France, and Dr. Stan Kogon, a professor specializing in forensic dentistry at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

1)Portraitist Christian Corbet works on a clay bust of Robert the Bruce, which included collaborative research with Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson. The bust is the first commissioned by the Bruce family, based on evidence from a cast of the king’s skull. Nelson’s research concluded the skull showed no signs of leprosy, despite contemporary and later rumours Robert the Bruce had the disease.

Photo courtesy of Christian Corbet1) Portraitist Christian Corbet works on a clay bust of Robert the Bruce, which included collaborative research with Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson. The bust is the first commissioned by the Bruce family, based on evidence from a cast of the king’s skull. Nelson’s research concluded the skull showed no signs of leprosy, despite contemporary and later rumours Robert the Bruce had the disease.

Nelson scoured the historical accounts. In the official record of the exhumed remains, the official physician noted, “His scull (sic) was, 490 years after his death, as entire as yours or mine are at present.”

While it is believed four teeth missing from the cast would suggest bone lesions caused by leprosy, Nelson and others believe the plaster-casting process itself broke off the skeletal front teeth, with periodontal disease being a likely contributor to their fragility.

Other parts of the skull hold important clues, according to Nelson. The anterior nasal spine (the bone support around the nose) in a healthy person is teardrop-shaped; in a person with leprosy, that structure is eroded and almost circular. King Robert’s nasal spine is teardrop-shaped.

Nelson also examined images of a foot bone (now in the Hunterian Museum) that a souvenir-hunter had purloined before King Robert was re-interred. In a person with leprosy, the end of that metatarsal bone would be pointed, as if inserted into a pencil sharpener. This bone shows no sign of “pencilling.”

Nelson’s conclusion: King Robert did not have leprosy.

His report has been submitted for publication to the International Journal of Paleopathology.

Meanwhile, Corbet has used that interpretation in overlaying a latex resin copy over the cast to reconstruct the king’s face, muscle by muscle. The portrait bust will be unveiled by Lord Charles Bruce, son of heir apparent to Lord Elgin on March 23 at the Stirling-Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Cast in white, it will be placed on a plinth made from an oak that grew on King Robert’s property. The bust shows the character of a veteran, Corbet said, defiant, strong and battle-worn.

“Did I make him pretty? Nope. He was a king. He was defending his country; he had scars.”

Corbet added the work exemplifies the intersection of science, history and art: the essence of multi-disciplinary collaboration.

“It’s a new face to a great king, a new face for a great man.”

Who was Robert the Bruce?

Robert the Bruce led Scotland during the First War of Scottish Independence against England and was Robert I, King of Scotland, from 1306 until his death in 1329. His most famous battle was at Bannockburn in 1314, when he led his small forces to a rout over a larger, much better-equipped English army. His remains are re-interred in Dunfermline Abbey and his heart is at Melrose Abbey.