The Scottish Wars of Independence: 1296 – 1313


Notable figures from the first War of Independence as depicted by the Victorian artist William Hole.


  1. Inverurie (1307)
  2. Methven (1306)
  3. Pass of Brander (1307)
  4. Dalry (1306)
  5. Dupplin Moor (1332)
  6. Stirling Bridge(1297)
  7. Bannockburn (1314)
  8. Falkirk (1298)
  9. Dunbar (1296)
  10. Loudon Hill (1307)

The Wars of Independence justifiably occupy a defining place in the history of Scotland. Before embarking on a record of the events which took place during the long, dour Wars of Independence, let us first examine the condition of the country in the remaining years of the reign of Alexander III (1249 – 86). In the latter half of the thirteenth century Scotland’s population was about 500,000. The majority of the people lived and worked in the countryside, earning their daily bread from the land. However, the royal burghs which David I established in the twelfth century in the interests of trade – both domestic and overseas – had increased in number, attracting a significant percentage of the working population to settle in towns on the east coast like Berwick-upon-Tweed. Others such as Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Elgin, Inverness and Perth were not only trading with their less privileged neighbours but Europe as well; we know that by the thirteenth century, Scottish royal burghs were engaged in commerce with towns such as Lübeck and Hamburg, two of the Hanseatic League of trading ports. In the west, Ayr, Dumfries, Glasgow, Irvine and Renfrew exchanged trade with Ireland and even western England.

The country’s wealth lay chiefly in wool; the great Abbeys of Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and others grew rich on the wool-clip from the vast flocks of sheep pastured not only in their own immediate vicinity of the Merse but through the Lammermuir Hills and into East Lothian. (The name Lammermuir derives from the old Celtic lamber-mohr meaning great sheep hills.) Trade in fish, timber and animal hides was also profitable and, like wool, these were exported to the Continent.

As we have seen, Alexander III had made a good marriage to Margaret, daughter of Henry III. Among the honoured guests at their wedding was a prince who would earn the epithet ‘Hammer of the Scots’ when he became Edward I (1272 – 1307). Alexander was determined to present his kingdom as a free, independent nation to the English crown, an equal partner as well as an equally important realm.

Alexander III’s marriage to Margaret of England had produced three children, two sons, Alexander and David and a daughter, Margaret, before she died in 1275. The succession seemed secure. Alexander gave his daughter Margaret in marriage to King Eric II of Norway to cement the new-found friendship between the two countries following the Norwegian debacle at the battle of Largs. However, before the wedding took place, the young Prince David died. A year later, Margaret and Eric produced their only child, a daughter named after her mother; sadly Queen Margaret died giving birth to her daughter. At least Alexander’s remaining son, Prince Alexander, was healthy; he married in 1283 and there seemed every likelihood that his marriage would produce a son and heir. However, Prince Alexander fell ill and died in January 1284.

Immediately after the death of his last male heir, Alexander convened a council at Scone to settle the succession on his granddaughter, known to Scottish history as ‘The Fair Maid of Norway’. His nobles agreed to this, albeit reluctantly, as many held the view that only a male heir should succeed to the throne. However, aged forty-three, Alexander could still produce heirs and to this end he married Yolande, the young and fertile daughter of Robert IV, Comte de Dreux, Dreux being a town near Chartres in France. It was highly likely that Yolande would give Alexander the male heir he wanted. This was not to be.

On 19 March 1286 Alexander held a council in Edinburgh Castle. It was a wild, tempestuous day, with equinoctial gales that brought sleet and hail. It was nightfall before Alexander completed consultations with his nobles. Despite the atrocious weather and against the advice of his counsellors, Alexander insisted on taking horse to join Queen Yolande at Kinghorn. While, to modern eyes, his decision seems foolhardy, we must judge Alexander on the prevailing issue uppermost in his mind – his need for a male heir.

When he reached the Firth of Forth, even the ferryman who would row him to Inverkeithing argued against the journey. Alexander was adamant and disembarked with his small retinue. When the party reached Inverkeithing the night was so dark that his companions could distinguish each other only by their voices and even their words were carried away on the fierce winds. Alexander pressed on with only two guides, trusting on the instincts of their horses to make safe passage. Just before reaching Kinghorn, Alexander’s horse stumbled in the dark and plunged over a steep cliff on to the sands below. The next morning, the King was found dead, his neck broken. When news of his death was broadcast the nation was plunged into despair.

Alexander left Scotland a prosperous and consolidated kingdom but his failure to produce a male heir to succeed him was as tragic as his untimely death. An assembly was convened at Scone on 11 April to discuss the late king’s successor. The sole legitimate descendant of Alexander, his granddaughter Margaret, ‘The Fair Maid of Norway’, an infant in a foreign country, could hardly be expected to rule the country. A regency of six lords spiritual and temporal was appointed to govern Scotland. This unhappy council faced insurmountable problems. An infant female heir was bad enough; quarrels broke out among the nobility which formed into factions and there was a band of competitors eager to profit from the Fair Maid’s death should that occur before she reached her majority, which was years away. Also, hovering in the wings was a ruthless English king who was hell-bent on annexing Scotland and making it his feudal fiefdom. Trouble came in the person of Robert the Bruce of Annandale. In 1238 Alexander II had designated him as his successor before Alexander III was born. Bruce, known in this account as Bruce the Competitor, was in advanced years but his claim to the throne would be supported by his son Robert, known as Bruce the Elder and his grandson, also Robert, known as Bruce the Younger until he became King Robert the Bruce in 1306.

It was in the year 1289 that events began to develop at an ever-increasing pace. In that year Eric II of Norway sent commissioners to England concerning the affairs of his daughter, the Fair Maid and lawful heir to the throne of Scotland. Eric was hardly in a position to act independently of the council of six guardians appointed to rule Scotland during his daughter’s minority. That council was comprised of two clergymen, William Fraser, Bishop of St Andrews and Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, Alexander Comyn, 2nd Earl of Buchan, Duncan MacDuff, Earl of Fife and two barons, John Comyn, 2nd Lord of Badenoch and James the Steward. Together, the six represented the major political parties – the Bruce/Stewart and the Comyn/Balliol factions. (John Balliol, Lord of Galloway had family ties with the Comyns in the north as his sister had married into the Comyn family.)

At the request of Edward I and apparently with the unanimous agreement of the six guardians, four commissioners from Scotland were sent to England to support King Eric of Norway’s claim on behalf of his daughter as rightful queen of Scotland. Three of the commissioners were guardians – Wishart, Fraser and Comyn, 2nd Lord of Badenoch; the fourth was Bruce the Competitor. These commissioners were charged with the task of assenting to whatever King Eric of Norway’s representatives proposed. The resulting treaty did not mince matters; the Scots would receive their young queen only on condition that order would be established in the country and that the council of guardians were to be no more than in nominal command and appointed by Edward I. A further condition was that the young queen could not be married without the consent of her father, advised by Edward. One does not have to be a genius to understand the motives behind these conditions; Edward had his mind set on the subjugation of Scotland and expected her monarch – whoever that would be – to pay homage to him as Scotland’s feudal superior.

Edward I had already decided that the Fair Maid of Norway should marry none other than his son Edward of Caernarfon. Edward submitted no formal overture to the Scottish Council of Guardians, nor to Eric of Norway but by 1290 his intentions became known to the Scots. In March 1290 the Scottish parliament met at Brigham-on-Tweed; it was attended by Scotland’s nobles, clergy and the Community of the Realm. The parliament engrossed a charter signed by twelve earls giving their consent to the marriage of the Fair Maid of Norway to Edward’s son, the future Edward II. This decision was relayed to Eric of Norway and Edward I, both of whom accepted it; a ‘Solemn Treaty’ between the Scottish parliament and Edward’s commissioners was drawn up at Brigham-on-Tweed on 18 July 1290 ratifying the proposed marriage while preserving Scotland’s sovereignty. The treaty also stipulated that no vassal of the Scottish crown would be required to pay homage for their Scottish lands to Edward I; further, Scotland’s laws, rights and ancient liberties would continue entire and inviolate. Eric of Norway was also required to send the Fair Maid of Norway to England at the earliest possible moment.

The Treaty of Brigham was a compromise which Edward I exploited to his fullest advantage. On the surface, his initial reaction seemed favourable; he even took an oath to defend the laws of Scotland, appointing Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham to reinforce his oath in Scotland and to protect the Fair Maid’s interests – meaning his own. This was a cynical move on Edward’s part; Bek’s presence in the Scottish Council of Guardians can be interpreted in only one way; he was thus able to monitor the Council’s activities. Emboldened by this, Edward next demanded that all the main strongholds in Scotland should be surrendered into his hands, a demand the Scots resolutely opposed. Edward apparently took the rebuff in good part – for the moment.

Then, as if the Scots had not suffered enough with the death of their King, a further calamity threw the realm into panic and despair. In the month of September 1290 the Fair Maid set sail from Norway for England and her wedding; tragically, she died at Orkney in October. The Maid’s death denied Edward the special position he had engineered to interfere in Scotland’s constitutional and domestic affairs; however, his hopes were boosted by assistance from an unexpected quarter. On 7 October 1290 William Fraser, Bishop of St Andrews wrote to him, describing the parlous state of the kingdom and claimed that it was poised on the brink of civil war, with factions of Scottish nobles quarrelling with each other. Matters concerning the succession to the throne had come to a head with the rival claims for kingship by Bruce the Competitor and John Balliol. Fraser urged Edward to intervene in the dispute to avoid bloodshed. Edward grasped this opportunity with unconcealed glee. He responded by inviting the Scottish nobles and clergy to meet him at Norham-on-Tweed on 10 May 1291. (Norham Castle was the fortified home of Bishop Bek.) At the outset of the proceedings, Edward described himself as Superior and Lord Paramount of Scotland and that he saw his role as settling the affairs of the country. The Scottish Guardians, nobility and clergy were stunned by his audacity but they had little choice other than to submit to Edward’s demands in the interests of settling the succession question. This became known as ‘The Great Cause’ – the bid to decide the rightful heir to the Scottish throne, with Edward I as judge and jury. Thirteen claimants submitted their petitions, Bruce the Competitor coming first, John Balliol last.

Events had reached a watershed in the spring of 1291. The Scottish Guardians agreed to meet Edward at Norham on 10 May. Edward demanded they acknowledge his rights as feudal superior over Scotland; he gave the Scots three weeks to prepare their reply. The Guardians responded in courteous and diplomatic terms but were unequivocal in one respect. The Guardians informed Edward they had no knowledge of any document confirming his right to claim superiority over Scotland:

Nor did they [the Guardians] ever see it claimed by you and your ancestors, therefore they answer you as far as in them lies, that they have no power to reply to your statement in default of a Lord to whom that demand ought to be addressed and who will have power to answer to it.

On 5 June Edward appointed 140 commissioners to examine the claims of the thirteen competitors – forty each for Bruce and Balliol and sixty for the other eleven. On 6 and 11 June nine competitors solemnly swore that saisin (ownership) of Scotland and its royal castles be surrendered to Edward who by then had promised to announce his decision on the succession by 2 August.

Shabby though the events of June 1291 appear to modern eyes, they were necessary and inevitable. There was not a single direct or legitimate – in terms of birth – survivor from the last three generations of Scottish kings; many of the thirteen claimants were foreign, remote, their claims based on extremely shaky and tenuous grounds. Only four, all descended from Henry, son of David I, had anything approaching a legitimate claim. Of these, Edward himself acknowledged that only Bruce the Competitor and John Balliol had strong claims – hence the appointment of forty auditors each to investigate their merits. Bruce had the claim of nearness of degree, whereas Balliol enjoyed the prerogative of seniority of line.

So, as mentioned above, the demeaning ‘negotiations’ of June 1291 must be viewed in the context of their time. In Scotland, a system of government had collapsed; underlying this were the serious divisions between the nobility and the senior clergymen as to whom should rule the country. Without a king the feudal system could not operate effectively and decisively. Edward I, self-confessed champion of the code of chivalry and feudal law – when these suited his purpose – was a devious and cunning ruler who would brook no challenge to his authority and was devoid of any genuine compassion for a country he knew to be prostrated at his feet. All he had to do was to summon his scribes and dictate terms in the full knowledge that the Scottish magnates could hardly refuse his demands, even if they wanted to.

The way seemed clear for Edward’s decision but he stalled, rubbing salt into already smarting wounds on 13 June 1291 at Uppsettlington, a small hamlet on the north bank of the Tweed (now known as Ladykirk, which has a certain ring of irony in its name). It was there that the Scottish Guardians and other nobles were required to swear fealty to Edward. Among the twenty-seven signatories were the Bruces of Annandale (Robert the Competitor and Bruce the Elder), Balliol, Atholl, Mar, Randolph, Comyn of Badenoch, two de Umfravilles and Stewart of Menteith.

Gradually the thirteen contenders were reduced to two – Bruce the Competitor and John Balliol. Under modern Scottish law, Bruce’s claim was the stronger as he was closer to the throne through his mother Isabella, daughter of William I’s brother, David of Huntingdon. However, under feudal law, John Balliol’s claim took precedence; although he was the great-grandson of Isabella’s sister Margaret, the latter was senior which gave him the edge on Bruce. Bruce argued against Balliol’s claim, declaring it to be weaker than his own since it was based on Balliol’s mother Dervorgilla’s relationship to the royal line whereas Bruce’s claim was based on his father’s marriage to Isabella. He was also at pains to remind Edward’s auditors that he had been named as Alexander II’s heir in 1238. Bruce’s appeals were dismissed out of hand. Edward chose Balliol for legal and political reasons; in Bruce the Competitor, Edward saw a man who would be less compliant than the weak John Balliol. To his credit Bruce the Competitor accepted Edward’s judgement; on 7 November 1291 he quietly transferred his claim to the throne to his son, Bruce the Elder and his heirs. Two days later Bruce the Elder gave his earldom of Carrick to his son Bruce the Younger, then aged eighteen. It was clear that the two senior Bruces saw the younger Bruce as potential ruler of Scotland. By 1310 the propaganda of the Bruce cause would assert that the patriotic people of Scotland had always believed that Bruce the Competitor had had the rightful and legal claim to the throne of Scotland and that his grandson, Robert the Bruce, had inherited the right to be king.

Balliol, that unhappy king, was crowned at Scone on St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1292. He would be the last king of Scotland to be crowned on the Stone of Destiny which would be appropriated by Edward I in 1296.

From the outset Balliol was nothing more than a vassal of the King of England, bending his knee to his feudal superior Edward I at every turn. At Newcastle, on 26 December 1292, Balliol swore fealty to Edward, addressing him as ‘Lord Superior of the Realm of Scotland’. Bruce the Competitor withdrew from what he considered an ignominious and shameful ceremony; he died in 1295, never having sworn allegiance to Edward.

Edward’s true intentions towards Scotland soon became apparent. In 1294 he summoned the English parliament to advise and provide funds for a contemplated expedition into his fiefdom of Gascony, English interests there being managed by Philip IV of France. Edward summoned Balliol to his side and on 29 June ordered the Scottish king and ten of his earls and fourteen barons who possessed lands in England to reinforce him in his expedition. Balliol returned to Scotland to raise money and troops for the forthcoming campaign; he found his nobles and subjects in no mood to defer to Edward’s demands. A defiant council held at Scone agreed that all English subjects were to be expelled from the Scottish court, their Scottish estates being forfeited to the Crown. Edward had other problems to preoccupy him; in addition to his proposed French campaign, a rebellion in Wales had to be subdued and so the expedition to Gascony was postponed. Angered by Balliol’s intransigence, Edward demanded reparation; Balliol protested his loyalty and, by way of appeasing the English King, offered the castles of Roxburgh, Berwick and Jedburgh to the Bishop of Carlisle. It was an empty gesture. By now the Scottish nobles were in despair of their weak King.

On 5 July 1295 the Scottish parliament effectively removed the reins of power from the lacklustre Balliol’s hands. A council, or Standing Committee of twelve magnates – four earls, four barons and four bishops – was appointed to govern the country. Earlier that year Philip IV of France had appealed to the Scots to enter – or renew – an alliance with France against England. The Council of Twelve ratified this, the Treaty of Paris pledging mutual support against England; this formal treaty became known as the Auld Alliance. The treaty was signed by Balliol and Philip IV, ‘Le Bel’, and kept secret from Edward; ratified by the Scottish parliament on 23 October 1295, the alliance would remain in place for over three centuries.

Meanwhile, events in Scotland were proceeding at a pace with a wapinshaw (a medieval muster of able-bodied men) being called in February 1296. Parliament issued a summons for war, an order which Bruce the Elder, de Umfraville of Angus and the Earl of Dunbar studiously ignored; Balliol’s reaction was to declare their estates forfeit to the Crown. The three nobles were hardly troubled; they had sworn allegiance to Edward I and knew he would restore their lands. Edward retaliated to Scotland’s declaration of war by issuing writs for the seizure of all English estates owned by those Scottish nobles who refused to join him against Balliol. Perhaps because Scottish morale was low, more than eighty Scottish nobles met Edward at Wark Castle, Northumberland, to pay homage to him. Among those present were Bruce the Elder, de Umfraville and Dunbar who swore they would serve him

well and loyally against all mortal men, on every occasion we are so required or instructed by our lord the king of England and his heirs …

Even so, there was no mass exodus of the patriotic nobles to France; instead, the common army and the feudal host gathered at the traditional mustering-point at Caddonlee, near Selkirk, on 11 March 1296. An invasion force was organized and led by John ‘the Black’ Comyn, 2nd Lord of Badenoch, his son, John ‘the Red’ Comyn and Badenoch’s cousin, John Comyn, 3rd Earl of Buchan. The expedition entered Cumberland; apart from an orgy of looting and plundering, the raid was inconclusive, although for a single day, the Scots besieged Carlisle Castle held by Bruce the Elder for Edward. Edward would wreak a terrible revenge for this insult. In the spring of 1296 the English army numbered 4,000 heavy cavalry and 25,000 infantry, many of whom were veterans of Edward’s Welsh campaigns. By contrast, the Scottish host was inexperienced, having seen no action in the field since Largs in 1263; it contained few archers and only light cavalry which were scant in number. As for the 40,000 infantry, many were old men and boys, armed with mere farm tools for weapons.

While the Scottish host was attacking Carlisle, Edward’s army had mustered at Newcastle and now confronted Berwick, one of the earliest of the Scottish royal burghs. Crossing the Tweed at Coldstream, Edward exacted a terrible price from the people of Berwick on 30 March 1296, offering no quarter. The siege of Berwick lasted three hours, the sack of the town three days. Between 7,000 and 8,000 were put to the sword; only thirty Flemish merchants occupying the town’s Red Hall put up any resistance but they were slaughtered to a man. Comyn of Badenoch (the Black Comyn) had retreated over the Border after the unsuccessful siege of Carlisle, then he re-crossed the Tweed on 1 April, leading an inconclusive raid in Northumberland. Balliol’s sole response to the sack of Berwick was to withdraw his diffidato (the feudal term for homage) to Edward; this was delivered by the Abbot of Arbroath to the English king in Berwick on 5 April.

War had broken out suddenly and brutally. The populations of the Merse (Berwickshire) and East Lothian were panic-stricken, even if their feudal superior, Patrick, 8th Earl of Dunbar had sworn allegiance to Edward. The knight-tenants who owed homage to Dunbar were obliged – and probably glad – to do so as their lands would hopefully escape the retribution Edward had wrought on Berwick. Then, on 23 April, news reached the English king at Berwick that the Scottish host had laid siege to Dunbar Castle. Edward lost no time in meeting the challenge.

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