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Issue 54 - The seeds of revolution

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


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The seeds of revolution

James Irvine Robertson looks at the events that build the second war of independence

The prime interest of the Plantagenet dynasty of English monarchs was their rich possessions in France. There they were Dukes of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony as well as Counts of Anjou, Maine and Nantes. At their peak they controlled four times as much as the French king and were lords of territory from the Channel to the Spanish border. Holding these lands demanded constant attention and much of their time. Yet when they concentrated on France, the Scots would threaten the northern border of their English kingdom or, worse, would ally themselves with the French, the first occasion being 1173 when William the Lion and Louis VII supported a rebellion against Henry II. Though weak and impoverished, Scotland could be extremely irritating.

King David I (1124-1153) spent his early life at the court of his brother-in-law Henry I of England and when he succeeded his brother Alexander I as king of Scotland, he brought with him men he knew and understood to administer the country.

They came from the French-speaking aristocracy of England whose ancestors had arrived following Duke William of Normandy’s conquest. David parcelled land out among these followers and they married heiresses. Soon they had largely supplanted the native ruling class and, 150 years later when the succession to the Scots throne was disputed following the death of Alexander III and his daughter the Maid of Norway, all the claimants came from this stock.

Many of these Scots nobles owned estates on either side of the border and not infrequently in France as well. Blood ties, land and their common language locked the nobility of the two countries in a close embrace. If a man had possessions on both sides of the border, he would have sworn oaths of loyalty to both the kings of England and of Scotland. And, under the feudal system, these oaths were the foundation on which state and society was constructed. It created some sort of order amongst men who considered the acquisition of power and territory through warfare as their raison d’être.

Loyalty to one nation or the other was anything but clear cut. This was why so many barons switched sides so often. Should one fight on the side of one’s Scots overlord or that of England? On which side did one’s best interests and those of one’s family lie?

Would future wealth and power come from throwing in with King Robert Bruce, one of their own who had seized the Scots throne? Or with the much more powerful kings of England? Was it better to be a big fish in the small Scots pool or a smaller fish south of the border?

For instance, John Balliol’s ancestor came to England with William the Conqueror and his family had owned estates in northern England for 200 years. It was through his mother that he had the claim that led to his coronation as King of Scots at Scone in 1292. He gained the support of Edward I and thus the throne through swearing fealty for himself and his kingdom to English king. When the latter treated Scotland as a vassal state and demanded military help to fight France, the Scots invoked the Auld Alliance. His authority gone, Balliol was forced to abdicate and he retired to his estates in Picardy which his family had owned for three centuries. Was he Scots or English?

Or, for that matter, French, Norman or even a Scandinavian Viking whence the Normans came?

But in November 1314, the first parliament after Bannockburn changed the rules of the game by forfeiting the lands in Scotland of everyone who continued to fight on the side of England.

Decisions had to be made. The supporters of the Comyns were bitter enemies of Bruce and amongst those who were forfeit were David de Strathbogie who had rebelled against Bruce in 1307 and thus lost the earldom of Atholl. Robert de Umfraville had been the 8th earl of Angus.

Others claimed swathes of land in Lanarkshire and Galloway and, most dangerously, Henri de Beaumont who claimed the earldom of Buchan.

He had been fighting the Scots since Falkirk in 1298 when his horse was killed under him by the spears of Wallace’s schiltroms.

The battle of Bannockburn was a rare victory for the Scots during the First War of Independence and it established the de facto freedom of the country from English rule but it did not bring peace. In 1326, the Treaty of Corbeil renewed the alliance between France and Scotland.

This may have concentrated English minds because in 1328, the last year of Robert Bruce’s reign, the regents of the young king Edward III negotiated the Treaty of Northampton which officially brought the first War of Independence to an end.

In exchange for £20,000, the English acknowledged Scotland to be a sovereign nation, that Bruce and his successors were its monarchs and set the border between the two countries. But the rights of those known as the disinherited were ignored.

Bruce died in 1329. His heir was his five year-old son David. Thomas Randolph, earl of Murray, who had commanded one of the Scots divisions at Bannockburn became his regent. In 1330 17 year-old Edward beheaded his own regent and took over the English throne. Sensing a hiatus in power north of the border Henri de Beaumont decided to take the opportunity to reclaim the lands and titles that he considered rightfully his. In 1332 with the sanction of the English king, who lent vital support in the shape of a couple of divisions of Welsh archers, Beaumont gathered a small army of about 2,500 men from the barons of Yorkshire. He recruited John’s heir Edward Balliol as his titular leader and king of Scots. On 20th July news came through that the formidable Earl of Murray had suddenly died. Buoyed by this Beaumont’s force embarked in 88 ships and landed in Fife.

The Second War of Independence which would last a generation was underway.

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