Today, I had the good fortune to visit a great museum with an old friend. The destination was the National Museum of Scotland, a treasure-house of Scottish objects dating from the Roman period to the 20th century. While there will undoubtably be many posts inspired by this visit, I wanted to spend today introducing you to one of the museum’s star pieces, the Bute Mazer.
A mazer is a large communal drinking vessel used at feasts, during which it would be passed among the guests. Their association with these lavish social functions as well as their fine materials meant that these objects were prized as symbols of aristocratic status and noble living. It is undoubtedly because of these attributes that this mazer was commissioned by King Robert the Bruce, whose power and authority could always use greater recognition.
When Robert was born, in 1274, he had no direct claim to the throne and probably never expected to become King of the Scots. With the deaths of King Alexander III and his sole remaining heir Margaret (the ‘Maid of Norway’), however, and the subsequent invasion of King Edward I of England, his prospects improved immensely. Siding first with Edward, and then against him, Robert fought successive conflicts in order to consolidate not only Scottish independence, but also his personal control. As a result of his efforts, he was crowned king in 1306, but only wrested his realm definitively out of English oversight in the 1327.
His mazer reflects this chequered career and communicates the importance of lordly support in Scottish politics. Although the basin itself is made of wood, a metal boss in the centre of the bowl provided a surface not only for ornamentation, but also for political propaganda. In the centre is a detailed sculpture of a lion, probably representing not only Robert the Bruce personally, but also the broader realm of Scotland. Surrounding, defending, and supporting the lion are six enamelled heraldic shields, each displaying the coat of arms of Robert’s powerful supporters. These include the arms of Walter Stuart, High Steward and Crawford Sheriff of Ayr, and allude to some of Scotland’s most powerful families.
This symbolism–of Robert buttressed by the loyalty of powerful Scottish magnates–provides an incredibly potent glimpse into the politics of the time. King Robert was no stranger to double-crossing and treachery (he had even stabbed the previous king, John Comyn, in a church,) and his mazer demonstrates his concern to communicate his authority and instil loyalty.
At the same time, however, Scotland’s years without a king had developed a powerful sense of community, embodied in the great men of the realm’s noble families. The mazer’s symbolism, when combined with the highly social setting of its use as a way to unite guests as a feast, thus also communicates a highly personal way of conceptualising the political community of the Scots.