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Issue 65 - Countess Ada's fortress

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012

 

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Countess Ada's fortress

Roddy looks at the makeup of mediaeval Scotland

On a visit to East Sussex in England, it was probably inevitable that I should find myself at Battle Abbey, the site of William the Conqueror's triumphant victory in 1066, and Lewes Castle, built by his henchman Guillaume de Warenne. What this made me reflect upon was the remarkable way in which those Norman invaders, having subjugated England by sword and arrow, went on to bloodlessly take over lowland Scotland.

While it is accepted that the Scots are a mongrel race of Pictish, Celtic and Saxon tribes, topped up by immigrants during the second millennium, by far and away the most powerful influence on our bloodlines was exercised by the arrival of the Normans in the 11th and 12th centuries.

In 1066, the old aristocracy of England, Wales and Ireland was entirely overwhelmed by a self-seeking Norman colonisation controlled by an overseas-based French-speaking oligarchy. In 1086, the triumphant William the Conqueror, now ruling his territories from Caen Castle at Calvados in Western Normandy on the far side of the English Channel, commissioned a survey of every landholding in England.

This census became known as the Domesday Book. What it revealed was that only one member of the old Saxon ruling order was still in possession of his family's original estates in England. Everything else had passed into Norman hands.

Through force of arms, men from relatively humble backgrounds, the descendants of Norse- Viking marauderers, became autocrats, exercising unrestrained power with relish. Principle among them was Guillaume or William de Warenne, who took his surname from the hamlet of Varenne in Upper Normandy.

Rewarded with holdings in 13 English counties, King William also created him Earl of Surrey. Such was the power and influence passed on to Guillaume's son, the second Earl, that in 1089, his granddaughter Ada was betrothed to the heir to the Scottish throne.

In the sweep of Scotland's story, historians tend to overlook the significance of Ada de Warenne, Countess of Huntingdon, largely because her husband died in 1151, two years before his father. Thus, he did not inherit the Scottish throne and she was never crowned Queen.

She was, nevertheless, the mother of two relatively successful Scottish kings, Malcolm IV, and William the Lion, and the grandmother of Alexander II, and her influence on them was profound. Both William and Alexander subsequently married into the now firmly established Anglo-Norman ascendancy, as did their siblings, and two of William's sisters married into the ruling families of Brittany and Holland.

To understand the make-up of mediaeval Scotland, all of this needs to be taken into account. Where the ruling dynasties led, the populace followed, and the inter-mingling of unions north and south of the Border accelerated. Among the Scottish Anglo-Norman landowning legacies created were King John Balliol; the Comyns; the Douglas dukes and earls of Angus, Buccleuch & Queensberry, and Morton; the Graham dukes of Montrose; the Hay earls of Errol and marquesses of Tweeddale; the Hamilton dukes and the earls of Arran; the de Boyville earls of Glasgow; the Saint Clair earls of Rosslyn; the Lindsay earls of Crawford & Balcarres; the Montgomery earls of Eglinton & Winton; the Barclays of Aberdeenshire; the Frasers of Saltoun and Lovat; the Bruce earls of Carrick and Elgin & Kincardine, and lords of Annadale, and from Brittany, the Royal House of Stewart which would eventually unite all four kingdoms.

As Scotland once again approaches a referendum on political independence from England in 2014, we should perhaps reflect upon our mixed and overlapping inheritance. Although the populations of Scotland and England have become vastly larger nowadays, the passing of 750 years is but a blip in time. In this regard, the underlying squabbles between Countess Ada's great-great-great grandson Robert the Bruce and his cousin, Edward of England, which culminated in the great Scots victory as Bannockburn in 1314, appear strangely familiar.