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Issue 87 - Wealth and Influence

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016

 

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Wealth and Influence

James Irvine Robertson tracks the history of Cambuskenneth Abbey

Tucked into one the serpentine loops of the river Forth, Cambuskenneth Abbey lies a mile due east of Stirling Castle. The name means the field or creek of Kenneth and is said to commemorate a battle between King Kenneth MacAlpin and the Picts. Today, the visitor can see its 13th Century bell tower but the rest of the buildings are down to their foundations. It holds the tomb of James III, killed at Sauchieburn in 1488, and his queen. The last great excitement there took place at the end of the 19th Century, when Farmer Anderson saw one of his cows peering worriedly down at him from the top of the tower. It had wandered through an open door and up the spiral staircase but could not be persuaded to return.

The abbey was founded by David I around 1140 and its prosperity was ensured by proximity to the royal burgh of Stirling, whose castle was often the seat of the court. Sea-going merchantmen from the continent could float up the river with the tide to the harbour at Stirling, which became an important trading centre. A meander upstream, the abbey had its own harbour which was used by kings and abbots as well as trading ships. ‘A loop of the Forth is worth an earldom in the north’ goes the old rhyme, and certainly the fertile alluvial soil provided the basis of the abbey’s wealth. It owned land; fishing on the river that teemed with salmon; the customs due on ships' cargoes and it also received many endowments from kings and rich men, keen to insure their immortal souls. It became one of the richest such institutions in the country, which led to jealousy and rivalry with the burgesses of the town, who coveted its privileged status and position of influence.

The abbey had been there for 150 years when Wallace and Moray beat the English, trapped in one of the loops, at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. History does not mention the abbey in this connection; but when Scotland's great hero was hung, drawn and quartered in London eight years later, part of his torso and arm were nailed to the re-built bridge. As well as a declaration of the fate of those who crossed Edward I, this was intended to prevent resurrection and an afterlife for the deceased’s immortal soul. Nevertheless, monks are said to have removed the remains and buried them in the precincts of their abbey.

In 1305 Cambuskenneth was where William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, signed a bond of friendship with Bruce, supporting his claim to the throne. In 1313, the king's brother Edward Bruce besieged Stirling Castle. He came to an agreement with the governor Sir Philip Mowbray that the citadel should be surrendered to the Scots if it had not been relieved by the following midsummer. This was contrary to the policy of King Robert, who avoided full-scale battles in favour of picking off the English in guerrilla warfare. Now a formal engagement was inevitable, Edward II's host rolled north – its baggage train 60 miles long – but the Scots had a year to gather an army together and prepare the field. The abbey was chosen as the depot for stores and munitions for the forthcoming battle.

The engagement took place over two days. On the evening of the 23 June 1314, David Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, switched sides for the third time in his career and ran through Cambuskenneth with his horsemen, killing Sir William Airth and carrying off the Scots food rations. After the battle, the grounds of the abbey were used as a hospital for the wounded. Rather than celebrate his victory, King Robert spent the night there in a vigil over the body of the Earl of Gloucester, the most prominent casualty on the English side and the Scots queen's brother-in-law. He made the error of attacking a schiltron without displaying his coat of arms. Had he done so, he would have been taken as a prisoner for ransom rather than killed.

In November 1314, King Robert held a parliament at the abbey that disinherited all those nobles holding lands in Scotland who were not present at Cambuskenneth. This included the sons of those who had died fighting for Edward II at Bannockburn. Absentees were judged to have declared themselves as Edward's subjects rather than Robert's.

The king held several more parliaments at the abbey, but the most significant came on 15 July 1326, when Bruce asked for money from his people to meet the expenses of war and the needs of the realm. A tenth of all rents were granted to the monarch for his lifetime and all further taxes and impositions without the authority of parliament were declared illegal. This was the first occasion when the town burgesses joined the nobility and clergy to form the three estates, thus creating the ‘fundamental principles of a representative constitution.’ This parliament swore fealty to David Bruce, as heir apparent to the crown and, if he died childless, Robert the Steward, grandson of the king, as the next heir. Robert was to be the first of 14 Stewart monarchs.

James III's queen, Margaret of Denmark, died at Stirling Castle in 1486 and was buried at the abbey. Her husband joined her, following his murder after the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. An imposing tomb for them was paid for by Queen Victoria, who thought a king should have an appropriately grand monument.

The abbey fell into disuse during the Reformation, before being looted and burned; but it did not go to waste as Stirling Castle quarried it for building improvements. The remarkable Mar's Wark, a renaissance mansion whose facade dominates Broad Street on the approaches to the castle, was built by the Regent of Scotland around 1571 and is thought to have used some of the best stone salvaged from Cambuskenneth.

Today, a footbridge rather than a ferry gives access from Stirling to the abbey. It's well worth the walk across the river to one of the most important places in early Scottish history.

Visitor Information

Cambuskenneth Abbey
Cambuskenneth, Stirling, FK9 5NH