Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 5 - War of Independence

History & Heritage

This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.


Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

War of Independence


In bed with an elephant – the phrase used by author Ludovic Kennedy to describe Scotland’s relationship with its neighbour to the south. The elephant was never a more awkward bedfellow than during the Wars of Independence which began after the death of Alexander III in 1286.

Uniquely in Christendom, the nation had experienced 36 years of peace and prosperity when the king and his horse tumbled over a cliff during a storm. He left as his heir an infant granddaughter, Margaret of Norway. Twelve guardians took charge of the realm. They consulted with the late monarch’s brother-in-law, King Edward I of England, also great-uncle to the little Queen, and agreed to her betrothal
to his eldest son, the Prince of Wales. The crowns would be united but the countries would otherwise maintain their separateness. But the little girl died during the voyage to Scotland, plunging the country into crisis.

In 1124, David I had inherited the throne. Brought up in the English court, he came north with a group of Anglo-Normans to whom he granted Scottish land in return for their military support and services. These aristocratic families often held properties in both countries or in Gascony in France, then under English control. On such terms David himself held two English estates. These incoming Normans settled and intermarried with the natives as well as with the royal house, creating a kinship network that transcended national boundaries. On Margaret’s death, no less than 13 of them had a claim to the throne, and the Guardians of Scotland again turned to Edward to arbitrate.

The English King saw his chance to take over Scotland as he had taken over Wales. He came north with a powerful army and agreed to pass judgement in his self-appointed capacity as Lord Paramount and Feudal Superior of the Scottish realm. Scotland was helpless, not ready for war and divided over the succession. The claimants were whittled down to two, both of whom descended from King David
through the female line – John Balliol and Robert Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale. Both men owed Edward fealty for English or French estates. In 1292 he plumped for Balliol.

Soon the new King’s compliance with Edward’s humiliating demands roused the contempt of his subjects. John was sidelined and a council of prominent Scots elected to rule in his name. In 1296 Edward once again came north with overwhelming force. A raid was mounted by the Scots into north-west England. Edward took Berwick, the richest town in the country, and slaughtered all the inhabitants. He
then captured most of the Scots chivalry at the Battle of Dunbar and occupied the country. He took the Stone of Destiny and most of the Crown records south, and broke the Great Seal of Scotland. “Aman does good business when he rids himself of a turd,” he said.

Smarting from Edward’s adjudication, the Bruces had not answered the summons to fight for Balliol. In fact the original claimant was dead; his son was Edward’s governor in Carlisle and his grandson held the family lands in south west Scotland as Earl of Carrick. The young Earl began to make trouble for the English in his part of the country.

But further north a charismatic warrior leader emerged from obscurity. Largely shunned by the nobility, William Wallace gathered an army of ordinary Scots and, together with Andrew Moray, decisively beat an English force at Stirling Bridge in 1297 and was appointed Guardian of Scotland.

The following year Edward mustered another army and advanced northwards to quell what he saw as treacherous rebellion. He met the Scots at Falkirk in what was the last pitched battle until 1314. Here Wallace proved that foot soldiers could defeat the mounted chivalry. He formed his troops into schiltroms, the long spears bristling outwards to form a giant hedgehog. Any knight coming too close impaled his horse and, once dismounted, was helpless. Edward, however, countered with another military innovation: he pulled back his cavalry and unleashed his 3,000 archers, each of whom could have five arrows in the air at once. The battle was lost; Wallace escaped but lived as a hunted fugitive until his capture and brutal execution in London in 1305.

Edward only had enough men to occupy the Lothians and the great castles. In spite of the fact that the Pope supported the English, the Scottish church and its bishops were at the centre of the opposition and the Bishop of St Andrews acted as mediator between the great rivals Robert Bruce, with his stronghold in the south west, and John Comyn, of Badenoch in the north, and persuaded them to become the Guardians of Scotland.

The example of Wallace had roused patriotic feeling and shamed many of the nobility into considerations other than those driven by elf interest, but duplicity was still rife. In 1306, at a meeting arranged in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries between Bruce and John Comyn, a quarrel erupted and daggers were drawn. In front of the High Altar, Bruce stabbed his rival who was then finished off by supporters.

This was a moment of crisis. Bruce straight away went into action. He captured a string of castles from the English in the south west, received absolution for the crime from the Bishop of Glasgow and was crowned King of Scots at Scone in March. Edward’s response was to dispatch another army, the elite of the English chivalry, who were joined by those Scots who had supported Comyn. Bruce was beaten at the battle of Methven and became a fugitive. His brother Nigel escaped north but was betrayed by supporters of Comyn and bloodily executed.

Bruce now took to the hills and fought a guerrilla war against the invaders over the next eight years. Distracted by war with France and a Welsh rebellion as well as his own ill health, Edward left the capture and final destruction of Bruce to his commanders and, time after time, they failed. Eventually the English King roused himself and, gathering his army, went north to finish the job. He died within sight of the Scottish border.

His successor, Edward II, was gay – not a favoured quality in a mediæval monarch. Tired of the promotion of favourites, his barons would famously dispatch him with a red-hot poker up his backside. Meanwhile he drew his father’s army back south to consolidate his rule. This gave Bruce a breathing space and he used it to destroy or neutralise internal opposition. He was free to begin picking off the English garrisons one by one. Edward initiated negotiations for peace in 1309 but wasn’t willing to recognise Bruce as King of an independent kingdom. This failure brought the English King and his army north in 1310, but Bruce employed the tactic of burning the countryside before the advance and forcing the English to retire for want of provisions.

By 1313 the key stronghold in Scotland still in English hands was Stirling Castle, and that was under siege by Bruce’s brother Edward. Suddenly catastrophe threatened. Bruce’s success had come through avoiding pitched battle with mighty English armies. His brother came to an agreement with the English commander at Stirling. If the castle were not relieved within a year, it would be surrendered to the Scots. Now the English knew both when and where the Scots forces would be. Edward marshalled his troops at Berwick and marched. The two armies met at Bannockburn. The English army was four times the size of the Scots but Bruce had time to prepare the ground.

The 2,500-strong English cavalry was lured into attacking the Scottish footsoldiers but found themselves hemmed in by boggy ground. The bristling spears of the Scots schiltrom drove them backwards into the rest of their army which panicked and fled. The Scots victory was absolute. Edward escaped, but most of his knights were captured. With them as hostages, Bruce negotiated the release of his family, but the humiliated English King refused to recognise him as King of an independent Scotland, resulting in another two centuries of intermittent conflict.

But never again would Scotland’s nationhood be threatened. Wallace and Bruce had forged an indomitable national patriotism that would find words in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath which persuaded the Pope to adopt a peacemaking role between the warring countries:

For so long as there shall be but one hundred of us remain alive we will never give consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honour, but it is freedom alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life.

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue