The Scottish Wars of Independence
In 1286, Alexander III, King of Scots, died when he fell off a cliff at
Kinghorn in Fife while riding to see his wife on a stormy March night. The
successor to the Scottish throne was his granddaughter Margaret (a sickly three
year old girl, the daughter of the King of Norway and the late Margaret,
Alexander's daughter). All of Alexander's other children having pre-deceased
their father. The earls and other great magnates had accepted Margaret as the
heir to the throne and arrangements were made to bring her to Scotland. In the
meantime several Guardians were appointed to govern the realm in the Queen's
absence. Discussions were held with Edward I of England to prevent any
instability. Edward was very generous and kind, and after much diplomacy, a
treaty was signed whereby the new queen was to marry Edward's own son, also
Had this treaty ever taken effect who knows what would have happened to both
England and Scotland. In the event, Margaret died in Orkney, never seeing her
After her death, Edward brought out his claims of overlordship of Scotland.
This was based on a trawl through the records of every monastic house in
England. He used the treaty of Falaise (where William the Lion had signed away
Scotland) despite the fact that it had been canceled by the Quit-claim of
Canterbury. Having been frustrated by the Guardians on the grounds that whether
Scotland was subject to England was a matter for the king of Scots and not
them. Edward therefore got every claimant to the throne to swear fealty to him
for the realm of Scotland if he chose them.
So, the situation is this. Margaret's death had left 13 claimants to the
throne, although only 3 were worth looking at. Bruce, Balliol and Count
Florence. This last claim was important as he claimed that Alexander had signed
a paper whereby the succession went through him in the event of Alexander dying
leaving no heirs. Unfortunately, he was unable to find the paper despite a
lengthy adjournment. So we are left with the Bruce and Balliol claims. Bruce
claimed through the second daughter of David earl of Huntingdon, while Balliol
claimed through the elder daughter of the same man. Bruce argued that he was
closer in line as he was the son of the second daughter while Balliol was only
the grandson of the elder daughter. In the event, after much legal argument,
the stronger claim won, that of Balliol. He was undoubtedly the rightful
claimant to the throne whether or not he would make a good king.
So, Balliol was crowned in 1292, and was faced with constant pressure from
Edward to acknowledge him as his overlord. To Balliol's credit he refused to do
so. In 1295, Edward gave the Scots an ultimatum. He wanted every man of rank to
attend him on his forthcoming invasion of France. This was one step to far and
the Scots instead signed a treaty of mutual aid with France. In consequence,
Edward invaded Scotland instead.
The invasion of 1296 saw the beginning of the wars of independence. Scotland
would now be in almost constant conflict with England for the next 300 years.
To put this in perspective it should be understood that the two nations had
been on fairly friendly terms for the preceding century. Even when there was
conflict it was fairly low key.
Edward began his invasion at Berwick. The town was besieged and after a short
struggle, the town was sacked and the inhabitants put to the sword, literally.
A group of Flemish merchants were burnt to death in their guild hall at the
express orders of Edward. The numbers of dead caused severe problems and they
were ordered to be thrown into the sea, or into deep pits. The English army
stayed at Berwick while a probe in force was sent towards Dunbar. There they
routed the main Scottish army, back from raiding the north of England.
After the defeat of the Scottish army, Edward went on a progress through
Scotland. On the way, he took the Scottish piece of the true cross, the black
rood, the Stone of Destiny (or at least what he was told was the stone!) and
stripped Balliol of his heraldic arms. Having thus secured Scotland, he went
Why you may ask did the Scots not put up much of a fight? Well the simple
answer to that is they hadn't fought a serious battle since 1235, when
Alexander II subjugated Galloway. The last battle had been at Largs in 1265,
but that wasn't really a battle being more of a skirmish on the shore with the
Norwegians. In consequence the Scots were badly equipped to face Edward, and an
English army which had fought many times on the continent. They were moreover
badly equipped to deal with the heavy chivalric horse and archers which English
armies were equipped with.
Having subjugated Scotland, Edward now demanded that all nobles and landholders
swear fealty to him at either Berwick or to their local justiciar or Sheriff.
The names of all those who took this oath were then put on a list, this list is
now known as the Ragman Rolls. One notable exception to this was the son of a
Lanarkshire knight named Malcolm Wallace and his brother William.
The Wallaces had probably come from Shropshire originally sometime during the
twelfth century and had gained land in the parish of Paisley. There they were
subject to the lordship of the Stewarts.
The rising of Wallace in 1297, must be placed into some context. Wallace's
standing and ability to operate required that he have support or at least no
hostility from Sir James Stewart his lord. Moreover, as the son of a knight and
possibly a minor landholder, he would have the ability to bring together some
trained men for his struggle.
It is commonly assumed that Wallace led a band of outlaws and common men. While
there would undoubtedly have been many like this in his band, some of his
exploits required trained men with horses. Moreover, it should be stated that
Wallace was not alone in this struggle. In the north a young knight Sir Andrew
Moray, was engaged in a widespread and highly effective campaign to rid the
English from the north of Scotland. A campaign Wallace certainly was not
After having cleared Scotland of the English, Wallace and Moray brought their
armies together to face the next threat. A huge English army was being led
north by the Earl of Surrey and the Edward's treasurer in Scotland Hugh
Cressingham. The two armies met at Stirling Bridge where the English were
routed. They were routed by an army predominantly of foot soldiers, a fact that
shocked many both in Scotland and England as well as further afield.
After this victory, Wallace and a severely wounded Moray were appointed
Guardians of Scotland and promptly invaded England over the winter of 1297/8
causing widespread havoc. At some point around this time, Wallace was knighted.
The only source for this is a reliable English one. The source states simply
that one of the great nobles had knighted him. At the time, there were only
three present in Scotland, the earls of Strathearn, Lennox and Carrick. It is
from this evidence that the story has grown that it was the earl of Carrick,
Robert Bruce who carried out the ceremony. However it is equally possible that
Lennox or even Strathearn did it instead.
A furious Edward marched north the next year, again with a huge army. Wallace
(Moray died of wounds inflicted at Stirling Bridge) met him at Falkirk having
burned most of Southern Scotland to try and starve Edward out. The Scots were
hugely outnumbered but Wallace had no option but to fight it out. Despite
initial success in beating off the English knights, Wallace had no way to fight
back against the thousands of Welsh and English archers who poured arrows into
the static Scots. After a long period of this, the English knights charged
again and the Scots were wiped out. Wallace escaped the field, resigned the
guardianship and went to France to the French court.
In the meantime, the Scots had elected new guardians. Robert Bruce earl of
Carrick (grandson of the Robert Bruce who had claimed the throne) and John
Comyn lord of Badenoch and cousin of John Balliol. The two men could not work
together often coming close to blows during meetings. Bruce was planning to
marry Elizabeth de Burgh, a marriage which was being held up by Edward's
displeasure at him. So, in 1302 Bruce resigned the guardianship, swore fealty
to Edward (for the umpteenth time) and married.
One of the most decisive battles in the wars of independence took place in
1302. The battle took place not in Scotland but in Flanders. At Courtrai, the
flower of the French army was destroyed utterly by an army of Flemish foot
soldiers armed with pikes who withstood the French knights charges before
butchering them. This battle is decisive because up to that point the Scots had
been if not winning certainly holding their own against Edward. Edward was
fighting a war on two fronts, and was finding it increasingly difficult to do
so. There were several campaigns in Scotland which achieved nothing except the
starvation of the invading army. However with the French king now without an
army, and suing for peace with Edward, the Scots would be faced with only one
option. Stand or surrender. To their credit, they held out until 1305, but when
the crunch came, they packed it in.
Edward still wanted Wallace captured and had offered a fairly large reward for
this. It was not until 1305 however that anyone took the bait. The Scot who did
so was Sir John Stewart of Menteith. He sent one of his men as part of Wallaces
band and had him lead Wallace to a spot where he could be apprehended. Wallace
was then taken south with all speed where he was tried, convicted of High
Treason (amongst other things), then hung drawn quartered and variously
It is often stated that this act of barbarism on Edward's part was unforgivable
and illegal. While this may be so, it should be remembered that while the high
treason indictment was questionable to say the least (Wallace had never sworn
fealty to Edward, so couldn't be charged with breaking that fealty), Wallace
was also subject to a host of other charges,some true others, such as murdering
schoolboys unlikely. The huge propaganda machine which was used in England to
justify the Scottish wars and to get support to continue them left little room
for leniency for a man who had soundly defeated a conventional army by
With Wallace now a decoration for London Bridge, Edward turned his hand to the
governance of his new lands. Various acts were passed for the effective
government of Scotland. None of them had any effect for, within six months of
Wallaces execution, there was rebellion again in Scotland.
The man behind that rebellion was Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, and now lord
of Annandale. The death of Bruce's father had left him the claim to the throne,
a claim he now determined to take on forcibly.
To put Robert Bruce into perspective, we should perhaps look at him in a little
detail. The Bruce family had ties both north and south of the border. The abbey
of Guisborough in Northumberland was a Bruce foundation. Bruce "the competitor"
was involved a great deal with the English court and held extensive lands in
England. he acted as a justiciar for Edward in the north of England. His son
also was involved in the English court and was keeper of Carlisle castle for a
while. The young Robert Bruce was brought up at Edward's court and had
extensive knowledge of it and was also a favorite of Edward. However, he was
also an angry young man feeling that his family had been deprived the crown of
Scotland. In the early years of the rebellion, Bruce was in many ways hamstrung
by both a desire to fight for Scotland, and also well aware that the fight was
being carried out in the name of Balliol. He, along with most Scottish nobles,
changed sides on more than one occasion depending upon how the wind blew.
By early 1306, however things had changed. He was now the head of his family
and therefore did not have any ties to prevent him claiming the throne for
himself. In addition, he was faced with a crisis. While in London, news reached
him that John Comyn, lord of Badenoch, had let Edward know of a plot that Bruce
was hatching to claim the throne. Bruce received a few minutes warning and fled
to Scotland. In a church in Dumfries, Bruce met Comyn, argued with him and then
killed him at the alter. This act changed things dramatically, he was left with
no option but to claim the throne as quickly as possible, and then deal with
the Comyn wrath as king.
He rushed to Scone, passing by Glasgow to be absolved for the sacrilegious
murder of Comyn. he was hurriedly crowned at Scone and shortly after defeated
by a small English force at Methven, outside Perth. Sending his wife and sister
north, Bruce fled West with the remains of his small army. He was defeated
again by Lame John MacDougall at Dal Righ in Argyll, and fled to the isles.
Where Bruce spent the winter of 1306/7 is unknown. Any island from Rathlin to
Orkney has been said to be the location. It is probable that we should look at
a Hebridean location for this sojourn. Probably in the lands of Angus Og
MacDonald, certainly his wife and sister were attempting to flee for a boat
when the were captured at Kildrummy castle and imprisoned.
The situation was bleak for the new king, his kingdom was overrun by English
troops, moreover the north of the country was very hostile to him. Over the
winter, plans were laid for the new year.
1307 brought the turning point in Scotland's fight for independence. Bruce
landed at Turnberry, to discover the area overrun with English soldiers. A
group of troops under his younger brothers were captured and beheaded. Then, a
stroke of genius. At Loudon hill in Lanarkshire, Bruce defeated a large troop
of English soldiers. Edward in an extremely angry mood order an army put
together for a campaign to put down Bruce. Edward was however ill, the army
marched north but never made it to Scotland. Edward died on the Solway cursing
the Scots. He ordered his body boiled and the bones taken with the army. His
son, now Edward II took the more pragmatic view and marched south again.
Bruce was now free to deal with his enemies within Scotland. A battle on the
slopes of Ben Cruachan in Argyll put paid to any involvement from the
MacDougalls and then it was the turn of the Comyns.
During the later part of 1307 and into 1308, the lands of the Comyns in Buchan
and Badenoch were raided, burnt and generally destroyed. The Comyns were then
forfeited and their lands granted out to Bruce supporters. By the new year,
Bruce was in undisputed control of Scotland, now he could turn his hand to
riding it of the English. In this he was aided by the ineptitude, disinterest
and political problems of Edward II. There was no effective English invasion of
Scotland until 1314. By which time the only castles in English hands were
Stirling and Berwick.
Stirling was, due to an agreement with the garrison, to be surrendered by
midsummer 1314. The English got round to putting an army together, advanced to
Stirling and were annihilated by Bruce and an army 1/3 of the size. Scotland
was to all intents and purposes free.
It would be 1329 before this was finally admitted to by the English king.
However, when the news came that the English had agreed that Scotland was free
and Scottish kings could be anointed, Bruce was dead. He had achieved more in
his reign than many others had. He had united a realm behind him. From now on
there would be no conflict of loyalties between Scots who held land on both
sides of the border. After 1318, all Scots landholders had to decide which
lands they wanted and swear fealty to the relevant king. If they wanted their
Scottish lands then they forfeited their English lands and vice-versa.
What happened after 1329, would fill several other postings, so I'll finish
here. This has been a fairly potted history of the period, there are more
details which could be added, but it's long enough already! There's still no
excuse not to read a good Scottish history book!
From psotings on the alt.scottish.clans UseNet Newsgroup from Ewan J Innes