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The Scottish Wars of Independence

Part I

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay summarizes the history of the Scottish Wars of Independence up to 1329.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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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 Edward.

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 kingdom.

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 south again.

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.

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