Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The British dimension: Scotland

The Wallace Monument, Stirling
an example of 19th-century nationalism

An independent kingdom

Unlike Wales, Scotland was not a single ethnic group. In the south-east the population was mainly of English stock, a relic of the once extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. In the west, however the natives were of Irish or Norwegian descent.  But though Scotland was a cultural and ethnic melting pot, it was united politically under its kings, in part because the Scottish

Replica of the Stone of Scone
monarchy had adopted primogeniture. The kings claimed descent from Scota, daughter of Pharaoh of Egypt, and they were crowned at Scone Abbey over an ancient stone. After 1066, when the Normans moved north, they were absorbed with relative ease into the existing society, drawing Scotland into mainstream European culture. A typical Scottish-Norman surname was Bruce, derived from Brix in Normandy. In addition, like England, Scotland had towns (burghs) and abbeys and priories on the continental model and its regions were characteristically cast as ‘shires’ along English lines.

Scotland, therefore, did not seem an alien territory to the English, and the two kingdoms had reasonably good relations in the thirteenth century. In 1251 Henry III’s daughter Margaret married Alexander III, King of Scots. Balliol College Oxford, was founded by a northern English magnate, John Balliol, and his Scottish wife, Dervorguilla of Galloway. The Scottish nobility spoke French. Most Scottish townspeople spoke English. In many important ways, therefore, Scotland was very like England.  But there was a niggling source of contention – the fact that the kings of England claimed overlordship over Scotland and the kings of Scotland did homage (though only of a limited kind, for their personal estates).

The succession crisis

In March 1286 Alexander III was killed when his horse fell over a cliff.  His children had all predeceased him and his heir was his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway. At a summit held at Salisbury in 1289 it was agreed that ‘the Maid of Norway’ should marry Edward I’s young son, though the Scots insisted that this marriage should not undermine their country’s independence. However, these plans came to nothing when, in September 1290, on the voyage from Norway to Scotland, the Maid fell sick and died. Had she lived and married Edward, the union of the crowns would have taken place three hundred years before it actually happened. Scotland was plunged into a succession crisis. There were two main candidates, John Balliol and Robert Bruce (the elder), both of whom had good but not overwhelmingly convincing claims to the throne.

The Scottish magnates asked Edward to arbitrate. In May 1291 he met the Scots at Norham – significantly, in English territory, where he belligerently asserted that he was their overlord and not a mere arbitrator.  In June he crossed into Scotland, and a compromise deal was struck: he would be given temporary custody of Scotland for a limited period, in which he would decide the succession. The Scots then swore fealty to him as a temporary caretaker. 

John Balliol
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 
On 2 November 1292 Edward decided in favour of John Balliol, the son of the founder of the Oxford college. On 30 November Balliol was crowned at Scone and at Newcastle on 26 December he swore homage to Edward. The Scots had been duped and bullied into submission. Over the next few years Edward systematically undermined the independence of Scotland and its puppet king.

In July 1295 the Scottish nobles deprived Balliol of most of his powers and on 25 October they formed an alliance with France. In the spring of 1296 a border incursion opened the Anglo-Scottish conflict that was to last until the 1330s.  At the end of March Edward I’s army crossed the Tweed. Berwick was taken and its townspeople massacred. At the end of April the Scots were defeated at Dunbar. In June Edinburgh and Stirling fell. Balliol surrendered and was imprisoned in England. In the course of his victory tour Edward confiscated the Stone of Scone and removed it to Westminster Abbey.

William Wallace

In May 1297 there was another revolt of the Scottish nobility. The revolt was joined by Robert Brucegrandson of the failed claimant to the throne.  But in July they were forced to surrender to an English army, but England’s hold on Scotland was now precarious.  By August there was two-pronged rebellion from the north and the south. The leader of the southern rebellion was the hitherto unknown William Wallace
Old Stirling Bridge
with Wallace Monument above
An English army marched north under John de Warenne. To enter northern Scotland they had to cross the river Forth at its first bridging place, Stirling. The Scots were waiting on the other side of the bridge. Wallace sent the message: 
‘Go back, and tell your people that we have not come for the benefit of peace, but are ready to fight to free ourselves and to avenge our kingdom.’  
On the morning of 11 September the English began to cross the narrow bridge, but they were wiped out. In November Wallace led an army across the border and harried the lands between Newcastle and Carlisle.  He was now the ruler of the country until John Balliol could be restored.


Edward’s response was to lead a massive army of 26,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry into Scotland. In July 1298 his army caught up with the Scots army at Falkirk, where they overwhelmed their enemy with their superior numbers and firepower.  In spite of this, however, Scotland was not subjugated. Robert Bruce was in hiding and when Edward returned to England he left behind a military occupation of isolated garrisons. The annual campaigns that marked the seemingly endless war with Scotland rapidly became very unpopular in England.  Parliament began to resist demands for more money, leaving English resources thin on the ground in Scotland.

In 1304, however, Edward succeeded in subduing Scotland. Stirling Castle was captured in one of the first recorded uses of gunpowder.   In August 1305 Wallace was captured, taken to London in chains, tried for treason in Westminster Hall, and executed on 23 August.

Robert Bruce

In 1306 Scotland was again in uproar. On 10 February England’s one-time ally, Robert Bruce murdered John Comyn, author of the surrender of 1304, in the Franciscan church in Dumfries.  Bruce and his supporters then rapidly seized control of the castles of south-west Scotland. In March they arrived at Scone Abbey and on 25 March he was crowned King Robert I. 

Edward sent his son Edward of Caernarfon north with a strong army, and he himself followed more slowly. Faced with the twin threat of the English army and dissentions among the nobility, Bruce went into hiding. Scotland was back under English control. The English reprisals were savage. 

But at the start of February 1307 Bruce returned to Scotland though he continued to evade capture. Edward died on 7 July 1307 at Burgh on Sands near Carlisle on his way to Scotland. His tomb in Westminster Abbey has no decoration. In the sixteenth century an inscription was added: EDWARDUS PRIMUS SCOTTORUM MALLEUS HIC EST. PACTUM SERVA.


From 1311 the Scots began to take the war to the English by destroying villages and farms along the border.  The English hoped that a large-scale campaign, led by the king in person, would achieve a notable victory. In June 1314 the English army was defeated in a two-day battle at Bannockburn near Stirling.  Edward fled from the field.

The Declaration of Arbroath

"Declaration of arbroath" by Scotland barons - site: [1] / direct link: [2].
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

In 1320 the clerks in Robert Bruce’s service composed the Declaration of Arbroatha document that was sent to Pope John  
‘It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’ 
The Declaration expressed the idea of contractual kingship: 
‘Yet if he (Bruce) should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’
The Declaration may have been over-interpreted and overlaid with modern ideas of liberalism and nationalism, but it can legitimately be seen as one of the earliest examples of the idea of national self-determination and of contractual monarchy. 

In 1328 England formally recognised Scotland as an independent country and Robert Bruce as its rightful sovereign. However, this did not end the wars between the two countries.

In 1326 what may have been the first full parliament of Scotland met.

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