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Issue 80 - The Maid of Norway

Scotland Magazine Issue 80
April 2015


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The Maid of Norway

James Irvine Robertson explains the consequences of the death of a seven year old Princess

For the Middle Ages in Scotland the 13th Century was about as peaceful as it could get. Alexander II married a daughter of the English king, and so did his son, the popular Alexander III. The ruling classes of England and Scotland shared the same culture and had enjoyed kinship links for centuries. This ensured amicable relations north and south of the border. A minor niggle between the dynasties was that the King of Scots 200 years earlier had acknowledged William the Conqueror as his overlord but, save William the Lion when he had been a prisoner of the English in 1174, this had been ignored by all his successors.

There was strife with Norway about control of the Hebrides and the northern Isles, but this was resolved when Alexander III wed his daughter Margaret to Erik II. She was 20; Erik was 13. She died in 1283 giving birth to a daughter within 18 months of their marriage. Then, in 1286, the Scots king fell off his horse and was killed and this left the infant as Queen of Scots.

The Scots nation was aghast. Even in those days, the Scots magnates, almost all of Norman ancestry, were a fractious bunch and as much English or even French as Scots. Many owned estates north and south of the border and across the Channel. They were split between the Bruce and Comyn factions and knew they needed a capable monarch to control this rivalry and prevent anarchy or civil war.

Fortunately, the child had a royal great uncle, Edward of England, who had enjoyed a friendly correspondence with Alexander for 20 years. He agreed to step forward to act as guardian to the girl and protect her interests. He even agreed that she should marry his son and heir when the time was right.

At the Treaty of Birgham in 1290, he guaranteed that Scotland should remain 'separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom'. The future seemed bright with a dynastic union between England and Scotland.

But little Margaret became sick on her voyage to Scotland and died on Orkney. No clear heir to the throne was apparent. The Guardians of Scotland invited King Edward to decide which of their number should become the new monarch. The circumstances had changed. Edward's pledge to preserve the independence of Scotland had been overtaken by events.

13 competitors for the Scottish Crown submitted their claims. Edward demanded oaths of allegiance to him from them and the rest of the Scots nobility before he would make his judgement. He chose John Balliol who was supported by the Comyns as King. Balliol had considerable estates, but he was a bookish man and no warrior. He was crowned at Scone on St Andrew's Day 1292. Balliol did his best and proved an effective and popular monarch, but Edward treated him with contempt, constantly undermining him and treating him as no more than a vassal. Inevitably, he began to defy the English king.

In 1294, Edward summoned the Scots to join him in a war against France. Balliol and twenty six of his magnates refused to take part. It was clear that Edward wished the complete subjugation of Scotland. Edward's war never materialised but the Scots sent emissaries to France, which culminated in 1296 with the ratification by King and the Scots Parliament of the Auld Alliance that provided for mutual military support against England. The Scots Parliament also took power from Balliol, perhaps because they did not trust his competence in the event of war.

This was not long in coming. Edward demanded certain Scottish castles, which were denied to him. He gathered an army of some 30,000 just south of the border in March 1296. The Scots countered with a raid on Carlisle, which was successfully defended by 22 year-old Robert Bruce. King Edward promised Bruce's father the throne of Scotland in return for his support and many nobles from his faction left the Scots army and joined the English king who marched on Berwick, then the richest town in Scotland.

After a brief siege, Edward's forces entered the town, led by Bruce's retainers displaying Scottish banners. There followed a massacre the like of which nobody had seen before. Estimates vary, but between 7-10,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered irrespective of age or sex.

Edward stayed on for a month to repair Berwick's defenses. Balliol sent a letter, renouncing his allegiance, and then the English host moved north. The Battle of Dunbar was a clash between cavalry; the English knights had little difficulty in scattering and capturing their Scots rivals. Balliol surrendered himself and his Nation. He was further humiliated by Edward and removed from his throne. Bruce suggested this might be his moment. “Have we no other business than to conquer kingdoms for you?” asked King Edward and appointed the Earl of Surrey the Guardian of Scotland. Bruce retired to his estates in Essex, leaving the path clear for his son.

The rest of the Scots barons swore fealty to the English king, who leisurely toured the country, removing the Stone of Destiny and the national records before retiring south and putting Balliol in the Tower of London.

Of course, there was sporadic guerrilla activity but it was not until the following year that the renegade William Wallace sparked his uprising. This time the Scots army was a truly national force, united against England and not just a single faction in a violent squabble between self-interested barons.

It's one of the great historical 'What ifs?' Had Queen Margaret lived, Scotland and England could have been spared the waste of lives and treasure that ensued over the next four centuries. And it would have been spared the legacy of bitterness and hatred between the people of the two nations. Something that has tragically not entirely disappeared.