Post-classical history



THE history of Anglo-Scottish relations seems always to have been characterised by the fierce animosity which was given substance by the outbreak of war in 1296. It is thus hard to envisage a time when bitter enmity was not the norm. However, and despite the familiarity of this well-worn xenophobia, the period leading up to the death of Alexander III witnessed the relationship between the two kingdoms moving in the quite opposite direction; as late as 1280 war was probably one of the least likely scenarios that political pundits might have predicted.

This is not meant to imply that there were no previous points of conflict, up to and including the intermittent outbreak of overt hostilities; nor that racial taunting of the type well-known in modern sporting arenas was alien to thirteenth-century Scots and English.1Abuse and suspicion certainly existed, although it is likely that such sentiments were most prominent among those whose fear of the unknown was directly related to their experience of strangers. Among those whose responsibility it was to shape and steer the destinies of each kingdom – the lay and ecclesiastical élites – there was a deep-seated and fairly comfortable relationship based on shared kin, language, and values.

Indeed, as has already been pointed out by Robin Frame, a constant fixation on borders and distinct kingdoms ‘can obscure as much as it illuminates. This was an age when local and trans-national political associations were often paramount, the national hesitant and fragile’.2 Both in peace and in war, the interests of the thirteenth-century Scottish and English monarchies, together with the landholding class immediately beneath, flowed across and diluted the effects of the border; indeed, there were other, far more significant, dividing factors both between and within each kingdom. According to Frame again: ‘It has been calculated that, at some stage during the thirteenth century, nine out of thirteen Scottish earldoms had English property, while seven out of twenty-two English earldoms had Scottish interests’.3 Equally importantly, intermarriage meant, for example, that Edward I was brother-in-law to Alexander III, and therefore great-uncle to the young Margaret of Norway, heir presumptive to the Scottish throne from 1284; King John Balliol, rather more unfortunately, was brother-in-law to John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, who defeated the Scots at Dunbar in 1296 and then became Edward’s lieutenant in Scotland.

The full extent and effects of the interrelationships among the élites throughout the British Isles are still imperfectly understood, although, as Frame’s book illustrates, much important work is now being done in this area. However, once the main bone of contention – the Scottish claim to the northern counties of England – had been resolved, there was little to hinder a very close relationship indeed.

The Scottish kings had long viewed Northumbria and Cumbria – parts of the defunct kingdoms of Northumbria and Strathclyde which had also included Scotland south of the Forth/Clyde line – as rightfully theirs. They were thus often to be found south of the Solway or Tweed pursuing these claims as belligerently as possible, particularly in times of English weakness, such as the civil war following Henry I’s death in 1135.

The English claim to overlordship was even more long-standing, becoming a consistent expression of the superiority of the West Saxon kings over all other rulers in the British Isles in the tenth century. With the Norman conquest, the concept of an overarching British kingship vested in the kings of England was readily inherited. In 1072 Malcolm III Canmore became King William’s man – the formal feudal method of accepting another’s lordship – after the latter led an army deep into Scotland; this had only become necessary, however, because Malcolm had wrongly presumed that William’s difficulties in the north of England in the aftermath of the conquest provided an ideal opportunity for promoting his own ambitions in the area.

This encapsulates the basic relationship between the two crowns: the English kings remained uninterested in Scotland so long as the border remained where it was and peaceful; the Scottish kings continued to exploit potential English weaknesses but were usually brought round to an understanding, and acknowledgement, of the military superiority of the English crown. A resolution of the problem was not forthcoming until 1237, when the Treaty of York saw the king of Scots finally abandon his claims to Northumberland in return for other English lands.

Whatever the legal arguments, English claims to superiority were really a practical expression of the imbalance of power vested in the two crowns, given the resources available to each. Such an imbalance did not challenge the effective sovereignty of the northern kingdom so long as the English kings continued to focus much of their attention on the continent. Even the Treaty of Falaise (1174), which permitted Henry II to garrison three Scottish border castles, was not an attempt to interfere with Scottish government, but an extension of the usual methods to guarantee good Scottish behaviour.

But times did change and centuries of innocuous acceptance of this big king/little king relationship began to become problematic. In the first instance, the loss of Normandy and Anjou loosened the English crown’s connections with the continent, prompting an increased interest in British affairs, particularly after 1259 when these losses were formally recognised. Secondly, developments in legal definitions of rights and jurisdictions were beginning to make it more difficult to maintain conflicting positions within the hierarchical structure of western European society.

By the mid-thirteenth century the kings of Scots had no problem with paying homage and fealty to the English king for their English lands. However, they would no longer tolerate the idea that their kingship might be dependent in any sense on a greaterearthlyauthority: kings were kings and sovereignty was not relative. The kings of England, of course, maintained the opposite view. Vis-à-vis Scotland the admissions of superiority which had accrued over the years could not be undone and were even being given greater definition as legal rights became more refined. Technically speaking, the issue of holding land of another king and the implications for sovereignty were quite separate, but the two were often interrelated. The issue of the status of the kingdom of Scotland, for example, tended to be brought up when the king of Scots went to pay homage and fealty for his English lands. Both Alexander II and Alexander III categorically refused to accept that this included the kingdom of Scotland; equally, Henry III and Edward I, while not pressing the point, reserved their own rights for the future.

The clash of these conflicting interpretations of rights was not restricted to Scotland and England; indeed, the king of France, Philip IV (who came from a line of kings who pointedly ‘upheld the doctrine that they themselves did homage to no man’4) energetically challenged Edward I’s understanding of his own sovereignty by interfering in the latter’s dukedom of Gascony. However, in the case of Scotland and England, there should be no presumption that these technical difficulties would inevitably lead to war. There was far too much of benefit generally in the current close relationship between the two countries to warrant its deliberate sabotaging. Nevertheless, circumstances have a habit of altering to give one point of view a practical advantage over another.5

And indeed the unthinkable did happen, proving that the fortunes of nations really can rest on the actions of individuals. In one of history’s little ironies, Alexander III, aged only forty-four, brought the dynasty to an end by making a fatally romantic dash to attempt to perpetuate it with his new young second wife. All the children of his first marriage had already predeceased him, leaving as heir presumptive a young Norwegian princess, Alexander’s granddaughter. The Scottish élites had only reluctantly accepted Margaret as the potential ruler of Scotland in 1284, acquiescing primarily perhaps because choosing a male heir from the fringes of the dynasty was far too daunting a task; it was more comfortable to presume that Alexander still had plenty of time to produce another son. However, the Scottish political community’s reaction to the latter’s untimely death and the eventual arrangements made for the Maid and her future as queen of Scots (she was not formally accepted as heir till October, when the queen was shown not to be pregnant) reflected both the maturity of the Scottish political system, and the close familial relationship between England and Scotland.6

Margaret of Norway’s great-uncle, Edward I of England, was in the prime of his life, and his reign, at his brother-in-law’s death. In his late forties, he had ruled the southern kingdom for nearly fifteen years and had already laid down the foundations of the conquest of Wales and the reformation of English finance, administration and law.7 Ahead of him was still the final subjugation of Wales, the outbreak of a very serious quarrel with Philip of France, and the difficult years of domestic political wrangling which was both characteristic of English crown-magnate relations of the thirteenth century and a product of the dynamic and intensive style of government presided over by Edward himself. Despite the historical revisionism popular in our own time, he is still regarded as a great king. Though it is no longer fashionable to define a monarch’s success by his contributions to expansionism and centralisation per se, it is still difficult not to be impressed; Edward’s energy, his fierce intelligence, and even his ruthlessness did indeed provide him with remarkable success in these two areas. Scotland’s bad luck lay not only in the failure of the dynastic line, but in having such a king as neighbour.

However, we must not get carried away by hindsight. In the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death, during the hiatus of Queen Yolande’s alleged pregnancy, Edward showed remarkably little interest in the northern kingdom, other than making conventional expressions of sympathy, until the Scottish guardians themselves approached him in late spring 1286. That they should do so was also entirely conventional, given that the Scottish royal family was so closely related to Edward, that the Scots were quite accustomed to leaning on England’s broad shoulders in times of difficulty (such as Alexander III’s own minority),8 and that Edward was regarded as one of western Europe’s foremost statesmen. Indeed, it was mere courtesy to inform Britain’s most dominant player of events which could have a potential impact on his kingdom, not least because Scotland’s leaders already required to take precautions against the nightmare of a civil war promoted by Robert Bruce of Annandale, a male alternative for the throne.

However, once the approach for advice had been made by the Scottish guardians in the first half of 1286, any search for an understanding of Edward’s intentions immediately becomes shrouded in question marks.9 Frame has tried to let Edward off the hook for his actions by attempting to understand his motivation. Thus his erosion of the Scottish kingdom’s independence can, Frame alleges, be justified because Scotland was an obvious ally of France, with whom Edward was about to go to war. But France and England did not go to war till 1295. And understanding why a policy was pursued does not de facto excuse it, though any judgement must be made from a contemporary, rather than a modern, perspective.

Frame is surely right, however, in acknowledging that a marriage between Margaret and Edward, prince of Wales, was a solution which won general approval; it solved many of the most pressing problems faced by the main protagonists, and reflected the current political relationship between the two kingdoms. That the union of the crowns of England and Scotland envisaged by the marriage did not happen is perhaps as much of a tragedy as the early death of King Alexander; however, the fact that, among other things, Edward took control of the strategically-vital Isle of Man10 around the same time as he was promising to uphold the integrity of the Scottish crown suggests that he was already quite happy to subordinate the northern kingdom’s independence to his own needs. In any event, the Maid’s own demise in the autumn of 1290 meant that the carefully formulated expressions of equality between the two kingdoms laid out in the Treaty of Birgham (July 1290) became null and void; from then on the quest for the peaceful accession of a new king moved Anglo-Scottish relations into uncharted and distinctly murky waters.

A.A.M. Duncan has done a wonderful job in teasing out the threads of what seems to have been a deliberate attempt on Edward’s part to provide a firmer legal framework for his forfeiture and subsequent takeover of the Scottish kingdom in 1296. This involved the rewriting, or deliberate suppression, of evidence connected with the process whereby the English king was accepted as lord superior of Scotland en route to his judgement on the succession in 1291–2.11 Understanding this process – comparing what seems to have actually happened with the version presented a few years later – is a tortuous affair.

In the aftermath of the Maid’s death, Edward certainly maintained an interest in the turn that events might take in the northern kingdom since both the claimants, Robert Bruce and John Balliol, were English landholders. However, the king also recognised that this new situation, although marking the closure of one door, could open up another. To that end, Edward now seized the initiative, summoning the Scots to a parliament to be held at Norham on 6 May 1291.

The Scots duly came south but remained at Upsetlington, just north of the border. Their intention was to have the king come to them, so that there would be no question of admitting Edward’s authority over them by going into England. However, they had not understood that a new game-plan was already in motion, though it soon became very clear that Edward was not budging from Norham. In an attempt to remove the deadlock, a small group of Scots crossed the Tweed on 10 May. This deputation was treated to an extraordinary exposition from Edward through the mouth of Roger Brabazon. Though its main thrust related to the king’s desire to see the situation justly settled, it also contained two extremely portentous elements. The first was the most obvious: a demand for both assent to, and recognition of, Edward’s overlordship as the background to his settlement of the succession. The second was a hint, for the first time, that that settlement was more than a simple adjudication between Bruce and Balliol.

The Scots, led by the bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, reacted with shock and anger, but were then, according to Scottish sources, threatened with military action – such a hint that his temper was only just held in check would not have been untypical of Edward. They thus had little choice but to return across the border to consult with their colleagues, having at least gained a three-week adjournment. It was apparently during this period that they attempted to wriggle out of the noose being prepared for them by devising the strategy of denying their competence to comment on the status of the crown; the onus of defending Scotland’s sovereign rights was thus placed firmly in the hands of the future king.

When the three weeks ran out on 1 June, the Scots rejected Edward’s further exhortations to come south, preferring to send their response to him the following day. They still seem to have thought it worthwhile to appeal to his goodwill, hoping against hope that they could bring him north to arbitrate between the two claimants. But there was to be no change of plan, and there is even a suggestion that Edward used the following days to apply (further) pressure. Nevertheless, he had perhaps got what he wanted – as the Scots themselves admitted, Edward did not need to use force to gain acknowledgement of his overlordship; he could now turn his attention to the men who would be king.

The difference between arbitration and judgement was crucial. The former, which implied, nay, demanded, neutrality on the part of the arbitrator, also required the participation of only two candidates. Judgement, on the other hand, carried with it certain rights, the most important of which was possession of the kingdom in order to execute the judgement on behalf of the successful candidate – a point which Edward seems to have grasped long before the Scots. Duncan has built up a very strong case to suggest not only that the king was the first to intimate that this was a question of judgement, rather than arbitration, but also that he inspired the emergence from the woodwork of the ‘motley group’ which now put in a claim for the throne. There were fourteen candidates in total, including Edward himself, based, as the Scots apparently thought, on his position as judge requiring to have authority to execute judgement on behalf of the other claimants, a necessary legal evil. The order of events taking place between 3 and 12 June is absolutely crucial to our understanding of how Edward emerged both with sasine (legal possession) of the kingdom and as overlord of Scotland; the fact that the king required his notary, John of Caen, to rewrite that order in his Great Roll after the conquest of 1296 is evidence in itself that the way it had actually happened had not been particularly to his liking.

According to the Great Roll of c.1296, the Scots had acquiesced in the need to give Edward sasine of the kingdom by 7 June, by which time the latter was already also overlord. Duncan has shown that this was simply not the case. The key to this was Edward’s own position as a claimant, a factor completely erased from the Great Roll. The reason for this ‘error of commission’ was fairly simple: after 1296 the king needed to present Scottish acquiescence in giving him sasine of the kingdom as a result of his overlordship, rather than, as the Scots believed at the time, as a claimant representing the others. The letters of warrandice to the keepers of the Scottish royal castles absolving them for surrendering their charges to Edward on 12 June makes it clear that only the claimants themselves had thus far admitted the latter’s overlordship, not the community as a whole.

According to Edward also, the process whereby all the candidates, including John Balliol, had accepted his overlordship (called the award of Norham) was over by 3 June. This implied that the king was then more or less at match point, leaving the Scots with little choice other than to solicit a few promises relating to the integrity of their laws and customs before the business of choosing a king who had already accepted English overlordship could finally begin. The award of sasine, accepted by all, was reckoned to have then occurred on 4 June.

The reality was, once again, far less agreeable than Edward could allow the written record to indicate. The Scots almost certainly remained north of the Tweed, having rejected Edward’s continuing attempts to force an acknowledgement of his overlordship from them – something which was clearly still very important to him. Edward then turned to his seven tame claimants at Norham,12 and easily extracted both the acceptance of his overlordship and his right to sasine of the kingdom from Bruce, Count Florence of Holland, and John Hastings on 5 June, and the other four the following day. So far, so good.

It is striking, of course, that one of the main claimants had not yet done either of these things. Duncan places John Balliol’s eventual arrival at Norham on 10 June, at which point the future king was still stressing his hope for arbitration, together with the strength of his own claim. Once more, Edward made it clear that he wanted an admission of overlordship, presumably alerting Balliol to the fact that the other candidates had done this and that it was, in fact, a condition of admission to the contest. After consultation with his council, Balliol conceded this point and, alone of the competitors, was made to repeat it in front of the king himself: this ‘was the key that gave [Edward] entry to Scotland’.13 Finally, John Comyn of Badenoch, the de facto leader of Scotland’s political community, entered his own claim, one which he then put aside for Balliol.

This was indeed the turning-point since it gave the rest of the Scots at Upsetlington no further reason to remain aloof from proceedings; their last chance to keep Edward to arbitration, vested in the man regarded by most as the rightful heir, had failed, and their most important leader, Comyn, as one of Balliol’s council, had seen this and accepted the inevitable. On 12 June the Scottish political community finally came to Norham and, though they did not themselves accept Edward’s overlordship, sasine of the kingdom was granted. This process of Norham, at least as important as the Great Cause itself, was effectively over; the king could now appoint various officers of state, ‘the effect [of which] was to provide each Scottish sheriff with an English associate in charge of the seat and symbol of royal power’.14 The four surviving guardians, Bishops Wishart of Glasgow and Fraser of St. Andrews, John Comyn of Badenoch and James the Steward, continued in their office and were joined by a fifth guardian, Sir Brian FitzAlan. Nevertheless, as Geoffrey Barrow points out, Edward ‘did not get all he wanted from the Scots in the summer of 1291 . . . recognition of his feudal suzerainty from the community of the realm of Scotland in its fullest, most solemn, most representative character’.15 They did agree to recognise his lordship, but only for the duration of the search for a new king.

Although doctoring the evidence may appear immoral to us, the use and abuse of the written record was certainly not confined to Edward I and his clerks. The papacy had for centuries provided the example to secular rulers of the efficacy of such activities, and for the same reasons. As Walter Ullman has stressed, hierarchy was defended by ‘a reliance on tradition’. However, the papacy was quite used to creating ‘a conservatism and a tradition by either antedating documents and ascribing them to earlier authors or by forging documents altogether and dating them in the far distant past in order to be safe enough to escape a check’.16 These rulers believed that, if the written record did not explicitly justify a particular claim, they were quite entitled to ‘adapt’ it because their position of authority by definition entitled them to such rights, however unprecedented. Edward, and later King Robert Bruce, understood well that altering the particular was entirely justified by the general.

The reference to the papacy is no accident. The final chapter of the Process of Norham relates not to the events themselves, but to the reason why Edward found it so necessary, five years later, to doctor his own record account of them. According to Duncan again, the suppression of a recognised Christian kingdom was bound to provoke trouble abroad, not least because the Scottish church claimed special daughter status in Scotland’s relationship with the papacy.17 It was thus absolutely essential that Edward could show, as he would almost certainly be called upon to do, that he had become ‘overlord without fear, by acceptance’, since, under common law, a concession made in ‘fear’ was invalid. However:

the threats of force, the resistance encountered, the concessions made, the fraud in the compromised solution, and, above all, the falsehoods told increasingly in the developing record, all show that Edward’s lordship was built upon the temporary fears and weaknesses of the Scots, and not upon sound law and precedent.18

That Edward I was duplicitous is not really at issue. However, we must be careful not to impose our own values on approaches to politics in the past. The king clearly knew that the events of 1291 would not guarantee his position in the eyes of Christendom after the conquest of 1296 and he acted accordingly. But he himself was surely in no doubt that he had been within his rights, as a king of England who had inherited a long tradition of superiority vis-à-vis Scotland, to deal with the Scottish question in the way that he did, including the use of forfeiture, invasion and appropriation of the northern kingdom.

In the meantime, the conclusion of the process of Norham in June 1291 meant the commencement of the Great Cause.19 Edward could now afford to be magnanimous: the court would sit on Scottish soil, at Berwick. One hundred and four auditors would hear the cases of the fourteen claimants – twenty-four from Edward’s own council, and forty each on behalf of Balliol and Bruce, indicating that, in reality, there were still only two competitors. However, no sooner had the hearing got underway than it was abruptly halted when Count Florence V of Holland came out with the extraordinary assertion that Earl David of Huntingdon, through whom Balliol, Bruce and John Hastings all made their claim, had signed over his and his heirs’ rights to the throne to his brother, King William, in return for the lands of the Garioch. Even more astonishingly, it was alleged that King William had also named his sister Ada, who had married Florence’s grandfather, as his heir, until the arrival of the future Alexander II. The failure of the direct male line from King William, it was argued, meant that Ada’s descendants were therefore the rightful heirs. Unfortunately Count Florence did not actually have any documentary proof of this claim, but was given ten months up until 2 June 1292 to find the relevant evidence.

As Barrow has pointed out,20 Count Florence’s claim was certainly extraordinary, though more for its audacity in the face of its extreme improbability than as a dramatic revelation. The more important question is why it was brought up at all; it was presumably a delaying tactic, but on whose behalf? The most likely candidates were Robert Bruce of Annandale and Edward himself, both of whom appear to have had a hand in the Count’s entry into the fray in the first place.21 Bruce’s involvement probably related to the fact that he was actually fairly convinced that Balliol would win through his strong, straightforward case of descent in the senior line. As a result, the Competitor was keen to adopt a contingency plan which might scupper Balliol’s chances, even if Florence’s claim also ostensibly superseded Bruce’s own. The close relationship between the two and especially the agreement of 14 June 1292, whereby if either won the contest, one-third of the royal demesne would be given over to the other, makes this fairly clear: ‘It seems hardly likely that the count was really anxious for the Scottish throne; if he used his claim in order to defeat Balliol, the Bruces would reward him well’.22

Edward also used these ten months to work on an alternative strategy. Immediately after the adjournment of the court, on 1 August 1291 six Scottish magnates, including James the Steward, were offered lands in England ‘if it happens that the realm of Scotland shall remain in the possession of the king and his heirs’.23 This may well have been an attempt to test the waters of Scottish public opinion for the use of the ultimate argument: that, in keeping with more general feudal law relating to land, Scotland should escheat to its overlord because of the failure of the male line. If so, it met with a stony response: Scotland was not any old estate, but an ancient and sovereign kingdom. The offers were cancelled and the Great Cause was resumed. However, as Ranald Nicholson suggests, ‘After a year of [Edward’s] personal rule it would be difficult for any succeeding king to assert the independent tradition of Scottish monarchy’.24 That may also have been part of the plan.

Given the failure of Count Florence to find any relevant documents, by the deadline the reconvened court now agreed that its first task was to decide between the Bruce and Balliol claims. Yet again the existence of the other competitors seems entirely peripheral to the search for a king. On 6 November, the court finally adjudicated in Balliol’s favour. Bruce the Competitor was forced to accept this decision, but he had certainly not given up. The very next day he transferred his claim to the throne to his heir, the earl of Carrick. Two days later, the latter attempted to pass on his earldom to his own son, Robert (though this move was later blocked temporarily by King John). However, the end result of this careful legal manoeuvring was that the middle Bruce now technically held no lands or title in Scotland. There was a very good reason for this apparent disinheritance: all Scottish landowners would soon be required to swear homage and fealty to Balliol, since it was only a matter of time until he was named as king. The Competitor’s son, in whom the claim to the throne had now been vested, would not need to make such an important and binding oath; he would therefore be free to pursue his claim when the time was right.25

The last acts of this drama took place soon thereafter. In the first instance the eldest Bruce now threw in his lot with John Hastings, who, since November 1292, had argued that the kingdom should be divided among the three descendants of Earl David of Huntingdon. The adjudicators rejected this, deciding that the kingdom must remain intact. Count Florence’s claim was then swiftly dealt with, for the simple reason that he still could not substantiate his assertions. When the latter withdrew, six others followed suit and three more were thrown out for having neglected to pursue their claims. Finally, on 17 November 1292, Edward judged John Balliol to be the rightful king of Scots, demanding an immediate admission of his overlordship; the new king was then enthroned at Scone at the end of the month. Within another month King John had sworn homage and fealty for his kingdom a second time.26

Historians have been aware for some time that Balliol’s reputation as king resulted in part from the very difficult circumstances of his reign, but more particularly from the effect on that reputation of the propaganda of the man who usurped his throne, Robert Bruce, and subsequent pro-Bruce writers, such as John Barbour. Nevertheless, the general impression of the unfortunate John remains that of Toom Tabard, the spineless monarch who did little or nothing to save either his kingdom or his good name from the rapacious Edward. The reality of Balliol’s reign is far less flattering to the Bruces, and rather more conventionally successful than will fit at all comfortably with the ‘weak and incompetent’ stamp usually placed upon it. As Nicholson notes:

Balliol set out to be no less a king than his predecessors: his family had had links with Scotland since the twelfth century; there was nothing to hinder the acclimatisation of the new dynasty, particularly since it was backed by the Comyns, not only the most powerful baronial family but one with the best claim to be regarded as ‘patriotic’. . . . Between February 1293 and May 1294 at least four parliaments were held. On one occasion parliament was to be the seat of ‘the dispensing of justice upon a scale which may have been unprecedented in Scotland’ . . . In general there is ‘remarkable evidence that King John and his council were determined to secure the possessions and authority of the crown’.27

Within the domestic arena, therefore, John’s style of kingship was fairly indistinguishable from that of his predecessors as kings of Scots; his interest in the maintenance of royal authority through the bureaucratic machinery of government and the policy of assimilation of the newly-acquired west highlands and islands both attest to this. Indeed, the creation of the sheriffdoms of Skye, Lorne and Kintyre in 1293, under normal circumstances, would have marked the final stage of the Scottish crown’s forcible acquisition of the area: ‘the immediate consequence [of the creation of the sheriffdoms] – and one which the crown might well have desired to achieve – was destabilisation, even a localised civil war, as other important members of that community fought to maintain their own positions’.28 However, the 1293 legislation was a declaration of intention only: sheriffdoms in the north-west were not firmly established until the later fifteenth century. The outbreak of war, which initially eclipsed the Scottish crown and subsequently took up so much of royal time, largely knocked on its head the process of assimilation which had been so enthusiastically engaged upon in the thirteenth century.29

However, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the reign was overshadowed by Edward’s determination, right from the start, to enforce a new definition of overlordship on the man he had made king. Overt English influence was noticeable at a number of levels. The royal seal bore the style ‘by God’s grace king of Scots’, instead of the traditional ‘king of Scots under God’s governance’. The new chancellor, Master Thomas of Hunsingore, was a Yorkshireman. Most likely to offend, however, was the fact that Master Alpin of Strathearn, the king’s chief financial officer, was described as treasurer, rather than chamberlain, thus conforming to English practice.

But such quibbles over words were presumably of far less concern than what was going on elsewhere. At the beginning of January 1293,30 King John was forced to release Edward from any possible implications of the Treaty of Birgham and his promises at Norham; nothing was to be allowed to stand in the English king’s way of the widest possible interpretation of his rights as overlord. There had already been a test case within the judicial sphere: the speed of the arrival of Roger Bartholomew’s petition (7 December 1292, only one week after King John’s enthronement), together with the remarkably prompt payment of his expenses (6 January 1293), makes it almost impossible to believe that this was not a deliberate attempt to make the redistribution of sovereign power abundantly clear. Further cases ensured that John and the Scottish political community were left in no doubt that the Scottish king could, and would, be summoned to answer for the actions of his own courts before Edward in England.31 Thus, as Professor Barrow has succinctly put it, ‘At every step he took, the new king would have to pause, examine its implications, and find out whether it could be allowed under the new régime . . . It was John’s misfortune that he had succeeded to a kingdom which could not have been ruled by anyone forced to walk such a narrow tightrope’.32

However, the situation had almost reached breaking-point. The main unanswerable question relates to whether or not Edward had always intended to provoke a violent reaction from the Scots in order to justify getting rid of the kingship altogether and taking Scotland directly under his own control. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, though he would certainly not have wanted a Scottish revolt by 1294, when he was planning a war with France. Ironically, however, the breakdown of Anglo-French relations provided exactly the catalyst the Scots needed in order make their bid for freedom.

The demand for military service in France was a powerful reminder not just to the Scots, but also to the recently-conquered Welsh, of Edward’s success in extending and formalising English authority throughout the British Isles. The Welsh reacted first, seeking their independence under Madog ap Llewelyn, head of a junior branch of the royal house of Gwynedd. The failure of this revolt set the seal on Edward’s conquest of Wales.33

The Scots did not rush to follow, partly because they wisely intended to play a card denied to the principality, an alliance with France, and partly because Balliol was very reluctant to commit himself to an all-out war with England. In order to circumvent this reluctance, the political community adopted an extraordinary policy, given their essentially conservative nature: they sidelined the king and installed a caretaker government of twelve guardians. Or did they? It has been pointed out to me that our perception of these events is based on sources, either pro-English or pro-Bruce/Stewart, who were hostile to Balliol. Perhaps this council, led still by the Comyns, was required to indicate widespread support for war with England. Certainly one of the ambassadors to France was Sir John Soules, later chosen personally by the king to be guardian in 1301. These were extraordinary times, when normal procedures sometimes needed adapting. And perhaps King John, too, needs looking at with fresh eyes.

We could blame Balliol for not having stood up to Edward earlier. However, events from 1291 onwards make it fairly clear that nothing short of war would have been sufficient to stop the latter even temporarily in his tracks. Unsurprisingly, the Scottish political community had, until now, also bowed to this implicit threat, primarily because the need for a lawfully adjudged king was imperative to prevent the outbreak of civil war. It was also unquestionably the case that fighting England was likely to do serious damage to the nation’s health and was therefore not a decision to be taken lightly. Ironically, given the extraordinary constitutional events of 1295, the Scots could perhaps contemplate taking Edward on precisely because they now had a king, even if the latter’s executive powers were in the hands of the guardians.34

An embassy of four Scots – William Fraser, bishop of St. Andrews, Matthew Crambeth, bishop of Dunkeld, Sir John Soules and Sir Ingram Umfraville – was despatched to Paris in July. By 23 October they had concluded a treaty with King Philip guaranteeing that they would maintain hostilities against England in return for military aid from the French should Scotland be invaded; a peace could only be made if both sides agreed. It was further stipulated that King John’s son and heir, Edward Balliol, should marry King Philip’s niece, Jeanne Valois. The king and a wide cross-section of the Scottish political community, including representatives of the burgesses, ratified this treaty on 23 February 1296; the need for such an unusually broad acknowledgement of support indicates not only a concern to validate the actions of a council acting on behalf of a mature king, but also the need to impress on the country at large that the French alliance meant war. The army had already been ordered to muster on 11 March 1296 at Caddonlee, the traditional launching-pad for a Scottish invasion of England. Unsurprisingly, the Bruces refused to follow Balliol to war, perhaps reckoning that their hopes for the Scottish throne were now looking distinctly healthier.35

Though Edward could not have known that the Scots had ratified the treaty until after his own invasion of Scotland, he was well aware of the direction that events were taking. His own preparations had begun as early as October 1295, when he ordered the lands of all Scotsmen living in England to be confiscated; two months later the writs of summons for a muster at Newcastle on 1 March 1296 were issued. He left it to the Scots to make the first move of the campaign, however: Wark castle, just south of the Tweed, was surprised by a Scottish force, though soon recovered; a larger Scottish army led by the earl of Buchan then crossed the border and ravaged the countryside round Carlisle on Easter Monday (26 March). Neither action gave the Scots any advantage, but it certainly provided Edward with more than enough excuse to order his own advance across the Tweed.

The army brought to Scotland for the first time in Edward’s reign was intended to be overwhelming. Though the demands for 1000 men-at-arms and 60,000 infantry were vastly over-inflated (the infantry certainly was at least half that number), it was still a hugely impressive show of military might by medieval standards.36 The English army, particularly under the leadership of as formidable a commander as Edward I, was one of the most advanced in western Europe. However, it has been remarked that Michael Prestwich, Edward’s most recent biographer:

has considerably modified the conventional view that Edward I transformed the English army from an old-fashioned and inefficient feudal force into a professional, paid army recruited by contracts and indentures. In fact, the pace of change was slow and the king’s cavalry forces were recruited on very mixed lines.37

The élite group from which the cavalry section of the army could be drawn is reckoned to have comprised in total around 1,250 actual knights, extending to a potential of up to 3,000. Even the upper figure is still a tiny proportion (0.05%) of an English population of 5–6,000,000.38 However, by the end of the thirteenth century the quotas of knights owing the traditional feudal forty days’ unpaid service to the crown had decreased enormously. It has been reckoned that ‘some 90 per cent of the servitium debitumhad, in a word, evaporated . . .’.39 This did not, of course, mean that knights no longer served enthusiastically in English armies, but the ways in which they were recruited had certainly changed from the post-Conquest era. Under Edward I the strict feudal element was certainly fairly small (perhaps around 20% of the total); most served for pay, including foreign mercenaries. However, a significant number of top-ranking nobles seem to have performed their service freely at their own expense, primarily perhaps in order to maintain their independence. Many of these men were extremely experienced and maintained a strong personal association with the king, both as comrades-in-arms and through service in the royal household; they were thus ideally placed to serve Edward in associated military capacities, in the fleet, as constables of castles, as administrative officers.40 However, as we will see, their usefulness to the crown was not necessarily matched by an enthusiasm to serve in Scotland.

Under Edward I, the recruitment of infantry was certainly made more efficient, although the effect of this on local communities was the equivalent of an increased level of taxation. The commissioners of array were the main innovation: often royal clerks,41 their main role was to ensure that only the best were recruited into the royal army. These sturdy yeomen were then to be ‘equipped with white tunics, swords and knives, all at the expense of the local communities’.42 They certainly needed their strength: the long march into Scotland and the difficulties in maintaining the supply line affected them first and hardest. Indeed, the problems inherent in maintaining such large medieval armies (up to 25,000 infantry) was almost too much even for Edward I; time and again he was unable to prevent desertion from forcing him to change his plans as the campaigning season drew to a close. This provided the Scots with one advantage in the military arena: the knowledge that the English army was, until 1303–4, apparently unable to stay in the field over the winter.

The Scottish army itself remains something of a mystery since there are no records relating to recruitment, pay or provisioning as there are for England. Indeed the historian – perhaps like the chronicler – is left to guess even rough working numbers by creating a proportion from English figures relative to the ratio of the two populations (generally reckoned to have been 6:1).43 Thus, we arrive at a total of around 200 actual Scottish knights, with a pool of up to about 500. This paltry figure would certainly accord with the general lack of cavalry attributed to the Scots, who fought battles around their infantry.

As well as its basic numerical problem related to the size of the population and the resources of the kingdom (knights = land), the Scottish knightly class also had a problem with its collective experience. The last military engagement on Scottish soil had been over thirty years earlier, in 1263, when the Norwegians invaded the west coast to protect their overlordship of the western Isles. Though the Scots ultimately won that contest, they did not do so as a result of the inconclusive skirmish at Largs, but through the death of King Haakon of Norway shortly afterwards.44 Some Scottish nobles, including John Comyn of Badenoch and Robert Bruce of Annandale, had fought on the royalist side one year later during the English civil war. Unfortunately, they chose the losing side, although this was also the only battle in which Edward (still heir to the throne) took part and lost.45

That the Scottish crown had diverted its attention away from the military potential of the kingdom and sought to maximise its economic capabilities is a growing theme in thirteenth-century Scottish history. Indeed, the extent of ‘feudalisation’ in Scotland, in the sense of the holding of knights’ fees in return for military service, is also questionable. For example,

. . . after the death of Alexander III, Earl Malise [of Strathearn] issued at least three – and doubtless more – discharges of extraordinary military service to tenants. As these discharges make clear, even Sir William Murray, an important member of the earl’s inner circle, only owed traditional Scottish service for his lands, rather than a quota of knights. This, together with the clear evidence for the continued and increasing exploitation of the area’s economic resources . . . reflects a lack of concern over the exploitation of military resources which is evident throughout most of Scotland.46

Under William the Lion, the crown does seem to have desired the creation of knights’ fiefs more consistently beyond the ‘Normanised’ areas of Lothian and parts of the south-west. Most particularly, the king wanted more feudalisation in the heartland of Scotland – north of the Forth – where the ancient Scottish earldoms, like Strathearn, were located. This policy, presumably motivated by the king’s desire to regain parts of Northumberland, was successful for a while, but only a century later it is clear that the holding of land for knight’s service was highly unusual; both blench-ferme and feu-ferme were the norm. If more proof was needed that the crowns of Scotland and England were growing closer, not further apart, during the thirteenth century, the fact that Scotland’s kings deliberately chose to let the kingdom’s military apparatus decline is surely a good indication of the confidence felt in the relationship.47

Of course, when war did break out, Scotland was even more militarily unprepared than was necessary for such a small kingdom; on balance, the army might be better described as pre-feudal in nature, rather than as a poorer version of the military machine it was about to face. The basic form of recruitment relied on ‘free service’ – that ‘performed by free men – barons, thanes, knights, serjeants and other freeholders’ who were equipped and mounted according to their rank; and ‘Scottish service’, demanded of the earldoms of the ancient kingdom north of the Forth, which entailed ‘the attendance of able-bodied men from the “horseless classes” ’. This ‘essential duality of the Scots army, dating from the reign of David I, seems to have endured till the close of the thirteenth century, at least two converging forces were at work by the mid century which would have a reunifying effect, so that by c. 1300 the army would be more or less what it must have been two centuries earlier, a truly national force diversified by its weaponry and military skills rather than by its method of recruitment.’ Equally, though the army which was defeated by Edward in 1296 was essentially of élite composition, ‘the speed with which Andrew Murray and William Wallace raised their infantry force in the following year suggests that the machinery for summoning and training the non-feudal “common army” was not rusty from lack of use’.48

Nevertheless, the confidence shown by the Scots in 1296 is hard to square with the creaky old military machine with which they were about to defy that veteran commander, Edward I. Equally importantly for the prosecution of the war in the following years, the Scots had no siege equipment. Finally, the grip which the Comyn family exerted on the leadership of the Scottish political community meant that military command often devolved on the earl of Buchan in particular. ‘Unfortunately for the Scots, the earl was not a particularly successful general, though it is perhaps understandable, given Comyn dominance of the political community, that no-one seems to have pointed this out’.49 The contest between Scotland and England was always likely to have been of David and Goliath proportions but the extent of the Scottish army’s backwardness and inexperience says much about the commitment of its leaders to the cause of independence, and their naïvety.

That commitment was perhaps given greater resolve by what happened immediately after Edward and his army crossed the border.50 On 30 March 1296 the English arrived before the walls of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Scotland’s most important burgh. A breakdown in communications caused the English fleet to launch an unsuccessful attack, which in turn prompted Edward to unleash his army. The town, still defended only with a wooden palisade, offered little or no defence and the castle’s commander, Sir William Douglas, promptly surrendered. Sadly, such alacrity did not save many of the town’s menfolk, who were then apparently butchered in their thousands.

The Scottish army, still engaged in attacking the north of England to very little effect, quickly returned home and a force under the earls of Mar, Ross and Menteith seized the castle of Dunbar. Though the earl of Dunbar consistently supported Edward, his countess, a daughter of John, earl of Buchan, seems to have sided with her father against her husband and let them in. They were soon besieged by an English force under Balliol’s brother-in-law, John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, whom the rest of the Scottish army attempted to engage on 27 April. Foolishly misinterpreting English preparations for the engagement, the Scots rushed in too soon and were summarily defeated. The castle surrendered the following day.

Despite the fact that King John himself and, perhaps more importantly, the Comyns of Badenoch and Buchan had not been present at Dunbar,51 Scottish resistance collapsed almost entirely as a result of the defeat. As castle after castle was handed over to Edward, Balliol and his allies moved north, but by midsummer they had accepted the inevitable. After some negotiation, Edward decided that he would be satisfied only with complete surrender and King John was duly summoned to endure the ritual stripping of both his dignity and his kingship. The Scottish seal was broken in two and Balliol, together with the symbols of Scottish independence, the stone of Scone and the Black Rood of St. Margaret, was sent off to ignominious exile in London. Meanwhile Edward enjoyed a leisurely progress round Scotland, accepting the homage and fealty of the vanquished Scottish nobility. Then, in August, he called a parliament at Berwick and set about the business of constructing a suitable administration for his new acquisition.

It is hard not to marvel at the vast array of tactics which Edward I could and did employ in seeking to bring the Scottish kingdom under his direct control. Equally, it is easy to feel sympathy for the Scots, who had very little choice but to employ the unlikely longshot of the military option if they were to have any chance of extricating themselves from Edward’s well-prepared web of powerful argument and legal half-truths. It cannot, of course, be claimed that the English king had all the moves worked out long in advance, nor that the ultimate aim was always to suppress the independent Scottish kingship. However, it surely did not take very much involvement in Scottish affairs after the death of Alexander III to make Edward realise that such an outcome was perhaps on the cards if he played them shrewdly. The Scots certainly did not prove themselves unworthy or ignoble in the decade between Alexander’s death and the conquest of 1296; on the contrary, the political community, as a group, generally acted with sense and a profound commitment to Scotland’s sovereign rights. That they proved unable to prevent the takeover merely attests to the odds against them. Edward’s success, on the other hand, was less a result of his views on the actual rights which he had inherited, but rather stemmed from ‘an awareness of the potential for expanding royal power by cutting through an ambiguous, contradictory and ill-defined body of precedent and tradition which characterised most relationships, including that between Scotland and England’.52

It is important to realise that Edward was quite convinced that the ‘Scottish problem’ had been sorted out once and for all. However, he was foolish to ignore the clear evidence for the depth of feeling towards the independence of the Scottish kingdom evident in the words and deeds of its political community – witness the anger expressed when Edward first brought up the overlordship question in May 1291 and the united front presented by the élites in the build-up to war in 1295. Though we certainly have the benefit of hindsight, the question which political pundits should probably have been asking as 1296 drew to a close was not whether the Scots would seek to throw off England’s rule, but if they would be able to bring together a form of resistance which would have any chance of success against the mighty Plantagenet.


1 T. Wright, Political Poems and Songs relating to English History (London, 1839), pp. 160–81.

2 R. Frame, The Political Development of the British Isles, 1100–1500 (Oxford, 1995), p. 7.

3 Ibid., p. 59.

4 Ibid., p. 130.

5 For the history of Anglo-Scottish relations generally and the overlordship question in particular, see ibid., pp. 14–18, 33–4, 47–9; A.A.M. Duncan, Scotland: The Making of the Kingdom (Edinburgh, 1992), Chapter 9; M. Powicke, The Thirteenth Century(Oxford, 1991), pp. 585–596.

6 See, for example, Frame, The Political Development of the British Isles, pp. 162–4; M. Prestwich, Edward I (London, 1988), pp. 356–8; N. Reid, ‘The kingless kingdom: the Scottish guardianship of 1286–1306’, SHR, 1xi (1982), pp. 105–29; A. Young, Robert the Bruce’s Rivals: The Comyns, 1212–1314 (East Linton, 1997), Chapter 5.

7 See Prestwich, Edward I, Chapters 7 to 9.

8 See A Young, ‘Noble Families and Political Factions in the Reign of Alexander III’, in N. Reid (ed.), Scotland in the Reign of Alexander III, 1249–1286 (Edinburgh, 1990) pp. 1–30, esp. p. 7; Frame, The Political Development of the British Isles, pp. 62–3.

9 See Prestwich, Edward I, p. 359.

10 The Isle of Man and the Western Isles were ceded by Norway to the Scottish Crown in 1266.

11 The following discussion is based on A.A.M. Duncan, ‘The Process of Norham, 1291’, in P.R. Coss and S.D. Lloyd (eds.), Thirteenth Century England V (Woodbridge, 1995), pp. 207–29.

12 These were Bruce himself, Count Florence and John Hastings, together with four ‘no-hopers’ of illegitimate descent, Patrick, earl of March, William de Ros, William de Vescy and Nicholas de Soulis. Another no-hoper, Robert de Pinkeny, was probably not yet present at Norham, while King Eric of Norway, Roger de Mandeville and Patrick Golightly also put in claims at a later date. We will come to Balliol and Comyn shortly.

13 Duncan, ‘The Process of Norham’, p. 220.

14 Ibid., p. 224.

15 Ibid., p. 222; Barrow, Bruce, p. 31.

16 W. Ullman, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages, 3rd edition (London, 1969), p. 177. I am very grateful to Dr. Scott Matthews of the Religious Studies department at Stirling University for this reference and a most fruitful discussion on this issue.

17 The special daughter status ‘no-one between’ was granted to Bishop Jocelyn of Glasgow by Pope Alexander III in April 1175 during the ongoing quarrel with the archbishops of York over the relationship between the latter and the Scottish church: Duncan,Scotland: The Making of the Kingdom, p. 263.

18 Duncan, ‘The Process of Norham’, p. 229.

19 The following discussion on the Great Cause is based on Barrow, Bruce, pp. 39–53 and R. Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages, pp. 38–43.

20 Barrow, Bruce, p. 40.

21 Duncan, ‘The Process of Norham’, pp. 214–5.

22 Barrow, Bruce, pp. 43–8.

23 Rot. Scot, vol. i, p. 3.

24 Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages, p. 41.

25 APS, i, p. 447; see R. A. MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland’s Western Seaboard, c.1100–c.1336 (East Linton, 1997), p. 163, n. 14.

26 Balliol would have sworn homage and fealty to Edward for his English lands when he came of age; these second ceremonies were thus exclusively related to the kingdom of Scotland.

27 Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages, p. 44, also quoting from A.A.M. Duncan, ‘The early parliaments of Scotland’, SHR, xlv (1966), pp. 40–3, 46. For general discussions of the reign of King John and the lead-up to the outbreak of war see Nicholson,Scotland: The Later Middle Ages, Chapter 3 and Barrow, Bruce, Chapter 4.

28 F. Watson, ‘The enigmatic lion: Scotland, kingship, and national identity in the wars of independence’, p. 20.

29 Cf. MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles, Chapter 5.

30 The New Year in the middle ages began on 25 March (nine months – the period of conception – before Christmas). January 1293 was thus still technically January 1292, but the modern dating has been used throughout to avoid clumsiness or confusion.

31 See Barrow, Bruce, pp. 51–2; Nicholson, Scotland: The Later Middle Ages, pp. 45–6.

32 Barrow, Bruce, p. 55.

33 Prestwich, Edward I, pp. 219–232.

34 I am extremely grateful to Dr Grant Simpson for casting enormous doubt on the usual interpretation of the events of 1295.

35 Barrow, Bruce, pp. 66–7.

36 Prestwich, Edward I, pp. 469–70.

37 P. Coss, The Knight in Medieval England (Stroud, 1995), p. 100.

38 Ibid., pp. 83–4.

39 P. Contamine, War in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1986), p. 80. Servitium debitum is, literally, service owed.

40 Coss, The Knight in Medieval England, pp. 100–1; also Barrow, Bruce, p. 68.

41 Hugh Cressingham served as one in Norfolk during the Welsh uprising.

42 Prestwich, Edward I, p. 407; see also Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, p. 151.

43 See A. Grant, Independence and Nationhood: Scotland 1306–1469 (London, 1984), pp. 72–3.

44 Haakon’s successor, King Magnus, decided to cede the western highlands and islands to the king of Scots in the Treaty of Perth (1266).

45 Barrow, Bruce, p. 24; Frame, The Political Development of the British Isles, p. 162.

46 F. Watson, ‘Adapting tradition?: the earldom of Strathearn, 1114–1296’, in R. Oram and G. Stell (eds.), Lordship and Architecture in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland (forthcoming); also F. Watson, ‘Expressions of power: thirteenth-century Scottish castles’, in S. Foster, A. Macinnes and R. Macinnes (eds.), Scottish Power-centres (forthcoming). Earl Malise was acknowledging that the military service required in these traumatic times was unprecedented and that its performance was at the goodwill of the tenant, rather than as an obligation owed to him as lord. However, these grants might also provide evidence of the fact that any form of military service was highly unusual in the more settled times of the later thirteenth century.

47 Watson, ‘Adapting tradition?: the earldom of Strathearn’ (forthcoming). Blench-ferme was the payment to the lord of a token, such as a pair of spurs at Christmas, and was certainly part of the development of feudalism; feu-ferme was a money rent, and was unusual in this period. Money rents were also the norm in burghs.

48 Barrow, Bruce, p. 67, G.W.S. Barrow, ‘The Army in Alexander III’s Scotland’ in N. Reid, Scotland in the reign of Alexander III, 1249–1286 (Edinburgh, 1990) pp. 133–4.

49 Watson, ‘The Enigmatic Lion: Scotland, kingship and national identity in the wars of independence’ pp. 25–6.

50 See Prestwich, Edward I, pp. 470–6 and Barrow, Bruce, pp. 69–79 for accounts of the conquest of 1296.

51 Though John Comyn of Badenoch, junior, the future guardian, was captured in Dunbar castle: CDS, ii, no. 742.

52 F. Watson, ‘Settling the Stalemate: Edward I’s Peace in Scotland, 1303–1305’ in M. Prestwich, R. Britnell & R. Frame (eds.), Thirteenth Century England VI (Woodbridge, 1997), p. 129.

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