War and the fourteenth-century kingdom Scotland


Scottish soldiers in the period of the Hundred Years’ War, detail from an edition of Froissart’s Chronicles


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

During the century from 1296, Scotland was a kingdom at war. The conflict was rooted in the efforts of Edward I of England to establish his personal dominance in Scotland, and the claims of the rulers of England to authority over the northern kingdom were never fully abandoned in the later Middle Ages. From Edward I in the 1290s and 1300s to Henry IV in 1400 all the kings of England led armies northwards to press their rights to Scotland in war. All these attempts failed in the face of Scottish resistance. However, warfare in fourteenth-century Scotland was not simply a case of the opposition of a unified community to foreign conquest. In the opening decades of the century, Scottish political society was split by civil war, and local warfare persisted as a fact of life in many places. If the outcome of these wars was the survival of Scotland as a separate realm and community, it was one which was significantly altered in structure and outlook from the thirteenth-century kingdom.

The key moment in the wars was the seizure of the Scottish throne by Robert Bruce in early 1306. In late 1305 Scotland appeared to be a conquered land. Through war and diplomacy, many Scots had opposed Edward I’s attempts to gain control of their country during the previous decade. The lightning campaign of 1296 in which Edward defeated and deposed King John of Scotland proved a short-lived triumph. The uprisings across the kingdom in 1297 erupted in opposition to the absorption of Scotland into the Plantagenet state. These risings were fuelled by the active participation of many lesser men in renewing the war, as symbolized by the emergence of the Lanarkshire squire William Wallace as war leader in the victory at Stirling Bridge (1297) and then guardian of the realm. He and his aristocratic successors as guardians put up dogged resistance to Edward on behalf of the exiled Balliol king. Their ability to withstand repeated major offensives suggests the depth and durability of the support they received from many Scots. However, after eight years of war, abandoned by European allies, divided amongst themselves, and ultimately defeated by Edward I’s devastating campaign of 1303-4, the last Scottish leaders had reached the end. Though Edward made some concessions to secure peace, 1305 marked the defeat of his Scottish enemies.

The war that was renewed in 1306 was Bruce’s war. He launched it to secure the throne for himself. His usurpation of the crown united Edward I and those Scots who still adhered to Balliol against him and Bruce was initially defeated by the coalition. However, as Robert I, Bruce could call on traditions of kingship established during the previous two centuries. From 1307 Robert skilfully exploited these traditions to achieve his aims; the expulsion of English lordship and English garrisons from the kingdom, and the secure establishment of his dynasty as rulers of Scotland. In achieving these goals, Robert altered the shape of his realm. In fighting the English, he learned from past lessons, using ambushes, night attacks, and raids, and defending prepared ground. By 1314 these tactics had reduced English control to Berwick (itself captured in 1318) and Bruce had inflicted a crushing defeat on Edward II at Bannockburn near Stirling. Bannockburn did not end the war but it confirmed that military initiative had passed to Robert. He took the war onto Edward II’s ground. Northern England was systematically devastated by raiding, and Robert’s brother Edward sought, ultimately unsuccessfully, to replace the English king as the lord of Ireland. Robert’s main goal was English recognition of his rank and rights as ruler of Scotland. It took fourteen years of war after Bannockburn to secure this. The peace of 1328 was the final and greatest achievement of Robert I, who died the next year.

Peace outlived Robert by only three years. In 1332 Edward Balliol, son of the king accepted by most Scots before 1306, invaded Scotland, defeated a far larger Bruce force at Dupplin Moor near Perth, and was crowned king at Scone. His invasion triggered the intervention of Edward III of England who regarded the peace of 1328 as `shameful’. In return for English support, Balliol ordered the cession of southern Scotland and recognized Edward III’s overlordship. In 1333 these allies crushed a second Bruce army at Halidon outside Berwick and overran much of Scotland. The young king, David II, was sent to France for safety. Yet, as in 1296 and 1305, final victory eluded the English. Though Edward III led an army to the Moray Firth in 1336, he found his grip on Scotland slipping. Under a series of competent guardians and skilled local captains, the Bruce regime defeated Balliol partisans and English garrisons. When David II returned in 1341 he found his realm had been largely recovered. Keen to emulate his father and his lieutenants, David led a series of invasions of England. The last, and most ambitious, of these in 1346 ended at Neville’s Cross outside Durham, where the Scottish army was defeated and David captured. Earlier in the century, the capture of the Bruce king would have spelled disaster for his cause. However, though Balliol renewed his claims and Edward III led a final invasion in 1356, there was no fresh effort to subjugate Scotland after Neville’s Cross. From the 1340s Anglo- Scottish war was largely confined to the marches of the two realms. Campaigns like those of 1356, the Scottish offensives of the 1380s or Richard II’s invasion of 1385 were increasingly rare. The war was mostly fought between small, local forces over the allegiance of Scottish border communities and control of the last English strongholds. By 1409 only Roxburgh and Berwick remained of English lordship in Scotland.

Despite the disparity in resources, the subjugation of Scotland had proved a task beyond the Plantagenet kings of England. From Dunbar in 1296 to Neville’s Cross fifty years later the English found it impossible to turn battlefield success into decisive victory. Armies were kept in the field and strongholds taken and garrisoned but these repeatedly proved to be insufficient to deliver complete control of the country, especially the north and west. The reach of such forces was limited. Their cost placed massive strains on the Plantagenet state. Moreover, only in the early 1300s and mid-1330s was the Scottish war the prime concern of the English kings. Continental wars and domestic conflicts detracted from the war effort in Scotland. Significantly, when he freed himself to concentrate on the Scots in 1303, Edward I unleashed a campaign which forced his enemies to seek peace.

Yet even this effort failed before renewed rebellion. English victory ultimately depended on Scottish submission and, though there were always Scots supporting the Plantagenets, even at the point of apparent defeat some Scots still resisted, continuing to place strains on their enemies’ resources. What linked these Scots together was a desire to uphold the Scottish realm and its rights. This was no abstract ideal but a fight for established laws and customs, structures of government and local community, even for personal and family loyalties, which depended on the existence of a kingdom of Scotland and were threatened by the English king’s lordship. It was not always easy to agree on this Scottish cause or its leaders. The roots of war lay in a dispute for the kingship that divided Scots from the 1280s to the 1350s, and when Bruce seized the throne in 1306 he was rejecting the rights of John Balliol and the efforts made on his behalf. To many who had fought hard in the previous decade, this made Bruce a criminal, and they now sided with Edward I against the usurper. Bruce’s struggle to secure recognition from Scots was as hard as the war with England.

Throughout his reign Robert I sought to turn his personal search for power, the Bruce cause, into the Scottish cause. At first, authority rested predominantly on success in war. Between 1307 and 1309 Robert took on and defeated his Scottish enemies. Some of these, like the earls of Ross and Sutherland, accepted his kingship, others, like his main rivals the Comyns, were driven from the land. Moreover, Robert’s victories over the English, culminating in Bannockburn, must have convinced many doubters that his leadership was the best way of preserving the Scottish realm. Yet military success was an uncertain basis for claiming royal rights. Robert also tried to justify his rule in other terms. In documents like the Declaration of the Clergy (c. 1309) and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), statements were made on behalf of the community which identified Robert as their rightful king by inheritance and by delivering his people from oppression. A king, like Balliol, who submitted to England was said to have forfeited his rights, and Bruce was presented as chosen defender of the realm whose chief duty was the maintenance of freedom from English lordship.

Despite the claims of Bruce propaganda, the survival of the dynasty remained uncertain for many years after 1306. Robert I never freed himself from doubts about his usurpation. His disinherited enemies, led by Edward Balliol, waited in exile, and many who had submitted to his rule were disenchanted with the unremitting warfare he offered. The conspiracy of 1320, mere months after the Declaration of Arbroath, aimed to replace the king with Balliol and secure a peace with England. Its suppression did not end Robert’s anxieties and the king’s lack of an adult heir added to his difficulties. Three years after he died Scotland received its second Balliol king. Edward Balliol’s return renewed internal dynastic conflict. However, Edward depended increasingly on English backing, and by the late 1340s it was clear that a Balliol restoration was impossible. Balliol’s failure was testament to Robert’s achievement. If he never won the total support of his subjects which his propaganda claimed, Bruce promoted those subjects whose support he had secured. Civil war had cut a swathe through the great families of thirteenth-century Scotland and Robert used their lands and his own to build a new Bruce nobility. His brother Edward and nephew Thomas Randolph received vast principalities in the south-west and north respectively. Robert’s lieutenant James Douglas was given lordships along the exposed English Border, while a host of the king’s lesser allies were promoted from lands forfeited by his enemies. The marriage of Robert’s daughter to Walter Stewart linked the Bruces’ west-coast allies to the new royal line. All these lords had a stake in the survival of Bruce rule. The defeats of 1332, 1333, and 1346 shook but never broke their allegiance to Robert’s son. Success for Edward Balliol and his supporters would mean loss of lands and status for this Bruce establishment.

This land settlement also concentrated power in the hands of a close-knit group of families. Robert was ruling a kingdom at war and wanted trusted deputies who could defend his interests in vulnerable parts of his realm. The absence of active royal leadership for most of the three decades after Robert’s death demonstrated the importance of this approach. Bruce’s grandson Robert Stewart, his brother-in-law Andrew Murray, and the Randolphs led the Bruce party in the warfare of these years. However, Bruce’s patronage followed by his son’s absences from Scotland altered the balance between the crown and its greatest subjects. For example, while the successors of James Douglas inherited his adherence to the Bruce party, they developed their role as leaders of this party in the Borders. Between 1332 and 1357 as they waged war against the English in the region, Douglas magnates annexed lands and extended their lordship throughout the south. They were winning the war, they were ensuring Border communities remained in Scottish allegiance, and, as the murder of the sheriff of Roxburgh by William Douglas of Liddesdale in 1342 demonstrated, external interference, even from the king, was unwelcome. In the Borders war had altered local society and placed limits on royal authority.


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