The Power Behind the Throne: Scotland Under Ada de Warenne, 1153–78

When Ada de Warenne presented her pious son Malcolm with a pretty young maid, she knew exactly what she was doing. Malcolm had recently come to the throne and desperately needed an heir. His mother was just helping him along the way. Unfortunately for Ada, Malcolm’s mind was on higher things. He accepted the lady into his quarters out of courtesy. But Malcolm insisted on giving up his bed for her – in order to maintain his chastity. The next morning, the king was found on the floor by his attendants, wrapped in a cloak. Where most would have been unable to resist temptation, Malcolm resolutely refused to be corrupted.

Or so the English chronicler William of Newburgh reports.1 The account is shot through with saintly motifs and cannot be taken entirely at face value. Nevertheless, William’s remarks neatly encapsulate the political difficulties of the 1150s and 1160s in Scotland. For Malcolm came to the throne at the tender age of twelve in 1153, at a moment of considerable uncertainty. Malcolm’s father Henry had originally been intended to succeed David; but he’d died the previous year, leaving Malcolm next in line. Little more than a boy, Malcolm could scarcely be expected to step into his grandfather’s shoes. That was not all. There may already have been signs that Malcolm was ailing, and this may have inspired his deep piety. Yet while chastity may have helped Malcolm’s cause in the Eternal Kingdom, it only compounded his problems in the earthly one. A weak king without an heir was a double liability.

Keenly aware of these dangers, Malcolm’s mother stuck close by his side. By all accounts, Ada de Warenne was a force of nature. She repeatedly prevailed upon Malcolm to marry, reminding him that he was a king not a monk. Eventually, Malcolm had to ask her to desist. But still Ada kept the interests of her lineage in mind, ensuring that her younger son William was ready and waiting to succeed his brother when the time came.

David I had initiated the settlement of Norman magnates in Scotland, but it was under his grandsons Malcolm and William that these efforts bore fruit. David’s own Francophilia can be traced back to his youth. As a younger son, there was no guarantee that David would accede to the Scottish throne. And so, like a growing number of men of the era, David had set out to make his own fortune. As a prince, his marriage prospects were good. And his subsequent marriage to the wealthy Anglo-Norman heiress Matilda of Huntingdon had brought with it a place at the court of King Henry I of England.

It was in Henry’s interests to encourage David’s ambitions. As prince of Cumbria, David provided a point of contact with the Scottish court; and if David could be made king, Henry would have one of his own leading barons as his neighbour. When David’s brother Alexander died in 1124, Henry was therefore quick to support David’s bid for the throne, against the rival claims of Alexander I’s son. With such exalted backing, David was soon able to establish himself. In Scotland, his position now resembled that of the Confessor in England in the previous century. David had spent much of his adult life among Norman aristocrats and had come to the throne with their assistance. In the coming years, he would look to them to help him rule.

Yet if David was as Norman as he was Scottish, his son Henry was even more so. Born in England shortly after David’s marriage to Matilda (c.1114), Henry entered the world not as a Scottish prince, but as the heir of a leading Anglo-Norman earl. He had had some acquaintance with Scottish affairs from an early age, since David remained prince of Cumbria. Nevertheless, Henry’s future seemed to lie at the Anglo-Norman court, as his distinctively Franco-Norman name reveals.

These connections were maintained following David’s elevation to the Scottish kingship. The death of Henry I in 1135 and ensuing succession dispute in England (the so-called ‘Anarchy’), however, served to sour relations between the English and Scottish courts. As befitted an old friend of Henry I, David favoured the claims of Matilda (Henry’s daughter and preferred heir) over those of Stephen (Henry’s nephew). Nevertheless, this did not preclude a degree of pragmatism. David initially submitted to Stephen, securing his familial interests in England. When revolt broke out in Matilda’s favour, however, David was quick to join this. His forces were roundly defeated by Stephen’s at the Battle of the Standard (1138), forcing David to come to terms once more. The continuing threat of Matilda’s claim meant that Stephen was in no position to press his advantage, and David’s son Henry was able not only to retain the earldom of Huntingdon, but also to add that of Northumberland. David and Henry may have lost the war, but they’d won the peace.

The strength of David and Henry’s position is reflected by the latter’s marriage to Ada de Warenne the following year (1139). As the granddaughter of William (I) de Warenne, one of the Conqueror’s close associates, Ada was an excellent match. Her family lands lay in Surrey, a region which supported Stephen; and her half-brothers, the Beaumont twins (the grandsons of Roger de Beaumont), were among Stephen’s most prominent backers. The union was intended to tie Henry (and thus David) to Stephen’s cause. In this respect, it was only partially effective. For by 1141, Henry and David were back to their old ways, supporting Matilda. Nevertheless, the union would have long-reaching consequences for the Scottish realm.2

With Henry, Ada went on to have three sons and three daughters. Of the former, Malcolm was the eldest, born in the spring of 1141. The choice of a Scottish name is significant: Malcolm was named after his great-grandfather, Malcolm III, and, unlike Henry, he was clearly intended for the Scottish throne from the start. The couple reverted to form for the name of their second son – William – who was born in 1143. William was a Warenne name, and the young prince was named after Ada’s father, William (II) de Warenne, who had himself been named after his father. Their third (and final) son was David, named after Henry’s father. The couple’s daughters bore similarly cosmopolitan names: one was named Ada, after her mother; another Margaret, after her great-grandmother (Malcolm III’s wife); and the third, Matilda, after her grandmother.

After the upheavals of the late 1130s, relations between England and Scotland stabilised over the following decade. David (and Henry) continued to favour Matilda’s claim to the English throne when they could; but the focus of Stephen and Matilda’s warring factions was the south, and the Scottish court was spared the worst ravages of the Anarchy. Of more lasting consequence was the continuing influx of Anglo-Norman magnates to the north. Many of these came from northern England, regions with which the Scottish monarchs and their magnates maintained regular contact. It’s from here that both the Balliols and Bruces hailed. Yet not all the incomers came from the North. A large number hailed from Huntingdon, King David’s southern earldom, and its environs. Rather less self-evident is the connection between Scotland and the West Country, which (for reasons which remain obscure) formed a third major area of recruitment for magnates seeking to settle in Scotland. In most of these cases, the Normans continued to hold lands south of the border; and in many cases, in Normandy too. And while the families soon started to put down roots, the importance of these ties should not be underestimated.3

Much has been made of the ‘Davidian revolution’ in Scottish politics in this connection. By importing Norman magnates and know-how, David I is thought to have dragged the backward Scottish realm kicking and screaming into the twelfth century. David and his Normans certainly stand at the start of a process, but one in which David’s daughter-in-law and grandsons were to have far more important parts to play – not to mention Scotland’s own native magnates. For his part, David ended up being a victim of his success. His longevity meant that he outlived his only son, Henry, by a year. David had already designated Henry his heir, on the Franco-Norman model. With Henry dead, he now did likewise with young Malcolm, Henry’s eldest. When David died peacefully in 1153, the throne therefore passed directly to his twelve-year-old grandson.

The accession of a child was always a test for a medieval kingdom. It produced a power vacuum at the top of the political hierarchy, and success of the child’s reign rested on the ability of friends and associates to steady the ship – and the willingness of the realm’s great and good to support them. That the kingdom of Scots survived its first brush with boy kingship is a testament to the foundations laid by David. It also speaks of the political nous of Malcolm’s guardians, foremost amongst these his mother Ada de Warenne.

Ada’s prominence in these years requires explanation. As the most tangible link to the previous regime, the queen mother frequently played a part in medieval regencies. Nevertheless, this was not a role which could be taken for granted. When King John of England died in late 1216, his wife Isabella was accorded no place in the regency for the nine-year-old Henry III (her son). And even in the case of Malcolm, Duncan I, earl of Fife, was initially foreseen as chief guardian, perhaps on account of the role played by the earl of Fife in Scottish royal inauguration traditions.4 But scarcely had Duncan overseen Malcolm’s accession – itself rushed through shortly after David’s death – than he died. Into this gap stepped the able Ada. Over the coming years, a close-knit group around the queen mother called the shots at court, composed largely of David’s (and Ada’s) Norman favourites – men such as Walter fitz Alan, Hugh and Richard de Moreville, and David Olifard. There was no sharp break when Malcolm came of age, as his earlier guardians stayed on as trusted advisers.5

Ada’s decision to remain with Malcolm was probably informed by the king’s frailty. Certainly by the 1160s, he was suffering from symptoms of a serious illness. And if, as modern historians suspect, this was a case of Paget’s disease (a disease of the bone, which can lead to abnormal growths and even death), then the initial onset may have been much earlier. Malcolm’s insistence on remaining chaste was probably a response to this. With an unwed and ailing son on the throne, Ada’s legacy was far from secure. And while her attempts to encourage Malcolm to produce an heir failed, she continued to do everything in her power to ensure the continuance of her line.

Ada was right to be wary. Soon after Malcolm’s inauguration, a major rebellion started brewing in the northern reaches of the realm. This was led by Somerled, the powerful lord of the Argyll. Northern and western Scotland were regions with a long history of independence, both de facto and de iure. This was, however, not so much a bid for freedom as an attempt to place a rival line on the throne. For Somerled is said (rather cryptically) to have rebelled with ‘the sons of Malcolm’. The Malcolm in question has sometimes been identified as the later earl of Ross; however, he was almost certainly the illegitimate nephew of King David, who’d rebelled before, early in his uncle’s reign. This was thus a continuation of earlier opposition to David and his Franco-Norman rule.6

We know less about the rising than we’d like – detailed sources for internal Scottish politics being slender in these years – but it serves as a reminder of how fragile the grasp of David’s lineage was on the throne. If Malcolm IV failed, there were plenty of others waiting in the wings. Luckily for Ada, first among these was Malcolm’s younger brother, William. And when Malcolm finally succumbed to his illness in 1165, William stepped swiftly into his shoes, ruling the Scottish realm for the best part of the next five decades.

Ada is far less prominent in these years. An adult man in his early twenties, William did not need his hand held in the same fashion as his brother. Ada also had her own reasons for keeping her distance. It was in these years that she began to suffer a series of severe illnesses, which would plague her till her death. She now focused her remaining energies on religious patronage, as was customary for a dowager queen. Still, Ada continued to be the only prominent woman at court – and as such, to command considerable influence. For like Malcolm, William was unmarried in 1165 and would remain so for over two decades. (Unlike his brother, however, William was certainly not chaste, for we know of at least one illegitimate child from these years.) It would seem that Ada fulfilled the role of de facto queen so well that neither of her sons was in a rush to replace her.

It was under William, known to posterity as ‘the Lion’, that many of the processes initiated by David came to fruition. Part of the story here is one of continued Anglo-Norman settlement and influence. For there was not a single influx of immigrants in the 1120s and 1130s, but rather a slow but steady stream under David, Malcolm and William. Three of William’s four grandparents were Anglo-Norman; now the court and kingdom started to take on an ever more Francophone character. The address clauses of royal charters reflect this. And as we’ve seen, when William marched south against Henry II in 1173 and 1174, there was little to distinguish his personal entourage from his southern foes. These were not the only changes. By the time of the reign of William’s son, Alexander II, Scottish kings began to extend mercy to rebels, in much the same manner as their Anglo-Norman counterparts.7

However, the Norman element in Scotland remained small in absolute numbers, even among the nobility. And while William and his household troops might pass for (or indeed be) Anglo-Normans, the bulk of the Scottish army continued to be composed of the native light infantry which so terrified English observers. Indeed, a number of southern commentators present William’s defeat in 1174 as divine punishment for his inability (or unwillingness) to restrain the rapacity of the more barbarous elements within his army.

The most enduring changes were the adoption of new forms of government and documentation. In neither case can these be laid at the feet of the Norman incomers alone, but, in both, they played a part. Before the eleventh century, we have almost no documentary records from Scotland. Over the course of the reigns of David and his grandsons, this changed swiftly. We must be wary here of equating new evidence with new social and political structures. To a considerable extent, these documents allow us to see better patterns which had long existed. Still, there can be no doubt that Scottish government and society was shifting decisively away ‘from memory to written record’.

It’s the form which these records take which is of particular interest. The earliest Scottish charters – in the names of kings and leading magnates – from the early twelfth century are closely modelled on their Anglo-Norman counterparts. The address clauses which first alert us to the growing Francophone element at and beyond court take the form of those in the Anglo-Norman writ-charter (itself the heir of the Anglo-Saxon sealed writ). It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that the earliest surviving document of this type should be David I’s grant of Annandale in 1124 to Robert (I) de Brus.8 Yet these developments were not limited to the small (but growing) cadre of Francophone aristocrats at court. Address clauses speak more frequently of the ‘Scots’ and ‘English’ (Latin: Scotti and Angli) than they do of the French/Normans (Franci). And soon enough, Gaelic-speaking lords were also receiving and issuing such documents. A partial contrast emerges with Wales here, where, despite a significant Norman settlement and influence, local princely charters remained more eclectic in form and nature.9

Closely tied to the adoption of new types of documentation was the patronage of new forms of religious life. As in Wales and Ireland, the native Scottish Church was perceived as backward and corrupt by reform-minded prelates in the south. But while in the former regions religious reform was often the frontline of English imperialism, in Scotland it was the Francophile ruling dynasty which took the lead. Already Margaret is reported to have brought new religious ways to Scotland. And David went on to found a number of houses belonging to new religious orders, including the Tironensians, Cistercians and Augustinians. Many of the earliest royal charters are for these abbeys.10

This growing body of evidence allows us to observe other important shifts in state and society. Far more than David or Malcolm, William the Lion was an innovator in government. It’s in his reign that moves can be discerned to centralise power and authority in the hands of the king and his local representatives (above all, sheriffs and earls). From 1184, there are signs of sheriffs regularly holding local courts; it’s also in these years that steps towards the territorialisation of the office of earl can be seen. William’s own son and heir, Alexander II, was to go even further. As a result, the Scottish kings and their magnates emerged much empowered. It was in these years, too, that the first native coinage was struck, starting under David I and picking up steam under Malcolm and William.11

As part of these processes, we start to see new practices of land tenure and lordship emerge – what historians would once have called feudalism. The ‘f-word’ is now generally avoided by specialists, and rightly so. It’s unclear whether there was ever a coherent ‘feudal system’ in the Middle Ages, with well-defined rules of tenure and service. What is clear, however, is that in Scotland we start seeing grants of land made by kings and lords in the form of fiefs (or feus, to use the Scots term). The fief was a form of dependent holding, granted out in exchange for service (typically of a military nature). While the granting of land for service was hardly itself a novelty, the vocabulary used was – as were the detailed provisions for service.

We can see these processes at work in the granting of Annandale to the Bruces. Though older textbooks have it that David I granted these lands to Robert as a fief, this is not strictly true. The original document simply states that de Brus is to hold Annandale according to ‘those customs which Ranulf Meschin ever had in Carlisle’ (whatever they may have been!). When Robert’s son, Robert II, had these rights confirmed by William the Lion fifty years later, however, it was a different story. Now Annandale is indeed termed a fief (Latin: feudum), and Robert receives this in exchange for the service of ten knights; he is also granted various judicial rights over the lands. Similar terms are used for such arrangements in England and Normandy; and the resulting practices also approximate (without fully replicating) what we see there.12 In this more limited sense, we can indeed speak of Scotland becoming a feudal society. Yet these practices were not imposed from outside, but rather adapted to local circumstances. The classic forms of feudalism were still developing in England and Normandy in the twelfth century; Scottish monarchs were simply treading a parallel path.

Norman influence on Scotland presents us with a paradox. Because the Normans arrived at royal behest and in royal service, they had a far greater impact on government and society than they did in Wales and Ireland.13 Yet the Normans are as much a symptom of change as they are its cause, reflecting the new cultural and political orientation of the native kings. Here we glimpse what might have been in England, had the Confessor had an uncontested heir: considerable Norman settlement and influence, leading to a symbiosis of native and continental forms. In objective terms, Scotland became more Norman than Wales or Ireland ever did. But it did so very much on its own terms. And when it came to relations with the Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings to their south, Scotland always gave as good as it got.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!