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Issue 30 - Written in the blood (Auld Alliance)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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Written in the blood (Auld Alliance)

The Auld Alliance was an ancient series of treaties that allied Scotland and France against their mutual enemy. James Irvine Robertson reports

‘Gardy loo’ was the famous shout from the upper floors of the Edinburgh tenements. It behoved the pedestrian to be quick on their feet, as it presaged a shower of effluent from a chamber pot onto the street below.

In the taverns they burned brown paper to counter the stench. The shout was actually gardez l’eau – “beware the water” in French.

A Scots cook still puts a gigot on an ashet; if English she would place a leg of lamb on a serving plate. Such words came to Scotland during the centuries that the French were our partners in the Auld Alliance against the Auld Enemy. For England, the old enemy was France, but for Scots, it was England.

It did not begin that way. Britain emerged from the Dark Ages split into a myriad of little kingdoms squabbling amongst themselves for power and territory. As centuries passed, some were swallowed up by larger neighbours or united through marriage. Three nations were left on the mainland: Scotland, Wales and England and, aside from the ever-tendentious question of the border between England and Scotland, relationships were generally amicable. The ruling elites of both countries (for the most part of Norman origin) held land and estates in France as well as in each other’s territory. Perhaps the greatest of the early medieval kings of Scotland David I (c1084-1153) was also Earl of Huntingdon, and spent much of his early life at the English Court where his sister was the Queen.

He installed a largely Anglo-Norman aristocracy in Scotland when he took his throne in 1124.

But it all went awry in 1286. Late in the evening after a long council meeting in Edinburgh and much drinking, Alexander III of Scotland decided to cross the ferry to Kinghorn and the bed of his new young wife, from whom he needed a prince as his heir. The weather was foul, the March night dark and the king rode over a cliff to his death.

Next in line for the throne was his granddaughter Margaret. She died before she was crowned, and the kingdom was without a ruler. Alexander’s brother-in-law from his first marriage agreed to adjudicate on the succession, but he was Edward I of England who would thereafter win the soubriquet of Hammer of the Scots.

Edward chose John Baliol as the new king of Scotland. This much maligned and short-lived monarch understood his nation’s peril. It could go the same way as Wales, swallowed up and subjugated into little more than an English province. Another monarch equally alarmed by the territorial ambitions of Edward was Philip the Fair of France. The English occupied half his country and in October 1295, a Franco-Scottish agreement planned a combined attack against England. It did not happen, but Robert Bruce in the Treaty of Corbeil of 1329, which pledged mutual military support, renewed the diplomatic link and this provided the basis for subsequent concords.

For France the alliance proved most useful in the 15th century during the Hundred Years War.

After the French defeat by Henry V at Agincourt in 1415, several Scots armies, each numbering several thousand men, crossed to help their allies in the struggle. These were instrumental in the first significant English defeat, the Battle of Baugé fought on Easter Saturday 1421, but the Scots were catastrophically beaten at Verneuil in 1424 when the Earl of Buchan, by then Constable of France, and the Earl of Douglas, aka Duke of Touraine, were killed. A French embassy came to Scotland in 1428 and won another 6,000 Scots soldiers from James I – and his daughter Margaret who wed the Dauphin. These troops were a significant component in the army of Joan of Arc and it is said that a Scot, Hamish Polworth, painted her banner.

For Scotland, the real importance to the alliance was diplomatic. Instead of being seen on the continent as an obscure barnacle of a country attached to the northern extremities of England, the nation was linked to the greatest state in Europe and its independence was of international concern. French troops did sometimes come to Scotland, but the clash of cultures led to unhappy experiences. The Scots found their allies arrogant and effete. The French found the Scots barbaric and poverty-stricken and resented the habit of the peasantry of killing troops who tried to plunder and rob them.

The association worked even less well when the Scots invaded northern England to divert attention from France. David I was utterly defeated and captured at the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 and, nearly two centuries later, when James IV tried to aid the French in their struggle against Henry VIII, it resulted in what may be the most catastrophic of all Scottish defeats by the English – at Flodden in 1513.

In the 1540s when Henry VIII tried to solve the Scottish problem by marrying the infant Mary Queen of Scots to his son, he initiated a series of devastating raids against Scotland, trashed Edinburgh and killed 10,000 Scots at the Battle of Pinkie. The Regent, Mary of Guise, invited French troops to Scotland and engineered the marriage between Mary and the Dauphin of France. For a brief period, Mary Queen of Scots was therefore Queen of France, perhaps the apogee of the Auld Alliance. Of course, Mary’s son became King James I of England and that was really that.

Arguably the military and diplomatic ties preserved both countries from English domination. There can be no argument, however, about the cultural ties. The Scots renaissance, particularly in architecture, was greatly influenced by France. Free Trade between the nations attracted thousands of Scots who established thriving colonies in French ports.

Wine was the most prized commodity being traded with Scotland in staggering quantities. In 1539, Cardinal Beaton of St Andrews imported 165,000 thousand bottles of wine from Bordeaux.

French claret was the tipple of Scotland and, to the irritation of the English, the Scots wine merchants always were given first choice of the vintage.

More than half the books that survived the Reformation in Scotland were printed in France.

Seventeen rectors of the University of Paris up to the Reformation came from Scotland and often found themselves teaching Scots students. And the influence still lingers. An English school child uses a rubber, an American an eraser, the Scot a cahootchie – its origin in French, cautchouc.