This month I was supposed to be travelling to Scotland with one of my best friends. Scotland has been a dream trip of mine for a while, but it seems 2020 had other plans for me and so many others in similar situations. I hope to re-schedule, but, in the meantime, I would love to share some Scottish history in a new three-part series. This series will focus on the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328). This was a time that was filled with fascinating characters, intriguing military battles, and cunning tactics. On the English side, we have Edward I, “The Hammer of the Scots”. Edward was one of the strongest monarchs in English history, but also has a reputation of being a tyrant. Later, his weaker son, Edward II, will struggle to carry on his father’s legacy. There are some familiar names on the Scottish side such as: William Wallace and the legendary King Robert the Bruce. Along the way there will be a sprinkling of minor characters, including a brilliant sneaky re-capture of Edinburgh by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray. I am greatly looking forward to this series and I hope it will provide an interesting read!
In 1286, Alexander III of Scotland died and ended what had been considered a golden age of the Scottish kingdom. At 45 years old, King Alexander decided to risk it all and take a dangerous ride through a stormy night in order to spend the night with his new young bride of twenty-two years old. The next morning, he was found dead at the rocks at the bottom of a cliff. It was a disaster for Scotland as Alexander III had survived all his children and his new young wife had not yet produced an heir. With the throne up for grabs, powerful factions began to form which threatened the stability that had been a constant in the prior Kings reign. The main players were John de Balliol and Robert Bruce (senior, his grandson will become the more famous Bruce). Rebellion and civil war threatened Scotland due to the succession crisis and infighting between the two factions.
There was still hope as Alexander III did have a living granddaughter in Norway. She was the seven-year-old Margaret, “the Maid of Norway”, who would become the new queen of Scotland. She would be betrothed to King Edward I of England’s young son, Edward of Caernarfon. The “Maid of Norway” was the daughter of Eric II of Norway and Margaret of Scotland (Alexander III’s first child). It was a perfect plan that the Scots and the English could be happy with. It would end the disagreements among the Scots and would form an alliance with the powerful England. When the marriage betrothal was created, Edward I promised Scotland that their independence would be kept intact. Scotland would remain “free in itself and without subjection, from the kingdom of England.”
Yet, things did not go according to plan (or was it fate?). On the course of Margaret’s journey by ship from Norway to Scotland, she had fallen ill (possibly from rotten food). “The Maid of Norway” had passed away before she could be brought south to her new kingdom. The line of Alexander III had now been completely erased. The fight began again between John Balliol and Robert Bruce.
John Balliol was the grandson of the eldest daughter of the younger brother of William I of Scotland (1143-1214) and Robert Bruce (senior) was the grandson of the second daughter of the younger brother of William I. Many Scots saw Balliol as the one with the best claim based on the old family trees, though his father was one of the richest landowners in England. His father had a history of serving the English kings, which caused Balliol to be viewed as more English than Scottish. One of the reasons he was popular was because of his powerful connections in Scotland. This included the influential Comyn family who held great power in Northern Scotland. Their backing to his claim would increase Balliol’s influence.
Yet, Robert Bruce was Lord of Annandale which was a domain in Scotland. He had inherited this from his father and was viewed as the more Scottish choice over Balliol. By this time, Robert Bruce was an elderly man but still quite active in politics. Due to so much infighting, the nobles of Scotland decided that they needed a mediator. They needed some third party who could choose for them who would inherit the throne of Scotland. Interestingly, they choose Edward I of England.
Why would an English King who may have ulterior motives be chosen as a mediator? Edward I had proven himself to not just be a great warrior, but also a peacemaker. In 1286, Edward had helped to mediate a truce between France and the Kingdom of Aragon, which secured the release of the son of Charles II of Naples.
Edward I was also a very powerful king during this period. He had recently completed a successful Welsh campaign where he had conquered Wales and incorporated the land into England. He built castles extensively throughout the principality to show his power and intentions that England was going to hold Wales for the long term. He was also one of the most well-traveled Kings as well as he widely traveled through Scotland, Wales, held lands in France and went on crusades through the continent.
Edward I now had to play the mediator to solve this intense conflict before civil war broke out. It is fair to say, Edward was a bit angry after the “Maid of Norway’s” tragic end. He had lost out on the consolidation of Scotland into his power with the marriage between his son. He was going to use this new situation to his advantage and refused to give up the prize of Scotland.
Here we get to the complicated medieval question: had Scotland had always been independent or were they always inferior to their neighbor England? It sounds silly now, but it really was something that had been a difficulty between the two nations. Marriages between the elite of the two kingdoms and the fact many Scottish nobles owned land in England (thus having to pay homage to the English King) fueled arguments in this conflict. In 1174, King William the Lion of Scotland had to submit an oath and perform an act of homage to Henry II after taken prisoner (though this was later renounced). Despite the renouncement of this claim, this act still lived on in the history. Edward I’s own sister, Margaret, was the first wife of Alexander III. The English themselves believed in their superiority to Scotland and it was sprinkled throughout all their written media at the time. Yet, Scotland held on fiercely to their independence and taught their own histories and held on to their own traditions (including the sacred coronation at scone Abbey). At this moment though, the Scots were in a weak position.
Edward I had long studied legal protocol and had prepared for this situation. First, Edward expected the Scottish delegates to travel to meet with him in England rather than him traveling into Scotland. It was not a happy invitation, but the Scots counted on his promise prior to the “Maids” death that he would not interfere with their independence. Edward then gave the delegates the speech that he was here to consider anyone who had a claim to the Scottish throne. This implied more than two candidates which, per medieval law, would change the way his position was viewed.
When there were more then two candidates, only a judge could give a verdict. Naturally, Edward dug up obscure claimants to the shock of Bruce and Balliol. If he was the judge in this case, he would have to take up temporary overlordship of Scotland until a decision was made. The Scots countered that only the King of Scotland could answer a demand to take overlordship, but all Edward needed was for one of the candidates to swear this allegiance in exchange for the crown. Bruce had already written letters to Edward, prior to his arrival, that he would do just this. Was there some collusion that helped Edward come up with this plan?
John Balliol also quickly agreed to Edward’s terms. The Scots had been tricked and instead of attaining help for their succession problems they received threats and demands.
The Scots were stubborn and held onto their pride, but eventually their resistance crumbled when, in 1292, Balliol knelt and gave an oath of allegiance to Edward I of England. He spoke this oath in English and applied it to the entire kingdom of Scotland. This was a humiliation to the Scots. Edward I had ultimately choose John Balliol to be his new his puppet king in his vassal state.
As a vassal state, taxes and soldiers would be demanded in order to support all of Edward’s military plans. Edward also began to involve himself in the decisions made by the Scottish courts, despite his earlier promises that he would not change the Scottish laws and customs. Essentially, when an unwanted decision was made in a Scottish court it could be appealed to the English court for a better verdict. King John Balliol was humiliated by this treatment and by being used by Edward. The citizens of Scotland, the ones who felt the suffering the most, were also infuriated. John Balliol now regretted his earlier decisions and now searched for a way out.
In 1293, Edward became distracted with a war with France. Ironically, King Philip of France was technically Edward I’s overlord. Edward was a vassal to France through his dukedom of Gascony. King Philip decided that he wanted to take back Gascony and return it to France. King John Balliol used this distraction to form an alliance with France and defied the King of England. He also proceeded to raid the English borders in the Kings absence. Edward’s wrath was to be terrible.
In March of 1295, Edward sent 3,000-foot soldiers and 5,000 cavalry troops to Berwick, which was one of the largest cities in Scotland, and absolutely demolished it. He had his soldiers violently slaughter thousands of the citizens. Walter Bower, writing in 1440 stated in the Scotichronicon, stated “the aforesaid king of England spared no one, whatever the age or sex, and for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain, for in his tyrannous rage he ordered 7,500 souls of both sexes to be massacred.”
Yet, King John still renounced his oath to England that April and attempted to avenge Berwick. Unfortunately, at this time, the armies of Scotland did not stand a chance compared to the strength of the English force that Edward had brought with them. Edward’s army descended upon Scotland and captured major castles, included Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle.
John Balliol was forced to surrender after defeat at Dunbar Castle on April 27, 1296. This ended the first phase of Scottish military resistance. In a humiliating moment, former King John Balliol was forced to ask Edward for forgiveness and was publicly stripped of his kingship. The coat of arms of Scotland was physically torn from his surcoat. John Balliol and his son were taken to England to be held under house arrest. In 1299, he would be allowed to live out exile in France, but he would never return to Scotland. To make matters more humiliating, Edward began to take and destroy important symbols of Scottish heritage (just as he did during the subjugation of Wales). In the ultimate act, he stole The Stone of Destiny. This was an ancient stone that every Scottish King had been crowned upon since the 6th century. Edward I crowned himself upon the stone at Scone then sent it with the Scottish crown jewels to London. He had it built into the throne at Westminster and was used in the coronations of the subsequent monarchs of England. This stone was not returned until 1996 (today it is displayed at Edinburgh Castle). This was an extremely disrespectful act.
“A man does good business, when he rids himself of a turd,” Edward is alleged to have said after these events (Morris, 290).
After this failure, Scotland was under military occupation. John de Warenne was appointed as the warden of Scotland for Edward I and Sir Hugh de Cressingham as the treasurer of the English administration of Scotland (the latter was especially hated by the Scots). English soldiers patrolled castles and the countryside. They would abuse their power against the common folk of Scotland. Abnormally harsh physical punishments (including death) were dealt out for minor offenses. In order to protect themselves, many bands of men were formed to take justice upon the English soldiers. It is not surprising that the people of Scotland enthusiastically took up a new hero who would give them the freedom they desired. It was someone most of the country could relate to, a “commoner” who felt the brutalities of the English occupation firsthand, and his name was William Wallace.
*Stay tuned for parts 2&3!*
Bower, Walter and D E R Watt, ed. A History Book for Scots: Selections from the Scotichronicon. Mercat Press: Edinburgh, 1998.
Captivating History. Wars of Scottish Independence: A Captivating Guide to the Battles Between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England, Including the Impact Made by King Robert the Bruce. Captivating History, 2018.
Hourly History. Wars of Scottish Independence: A History from Beginning to End. Hourly History, 2019.
Morris, Marc. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain. New York. Pegasus Books, 2008.
Goldstein, R. James (1991) “The Women of the Wars of Independence in Literature and History,” Studies in Scottish Literature: Vol. 26: Iss. 1. Available at: https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/ssl/vol26/iss1/22