Scotland's History Articles The Wars of Independence

The Wars of Independence

The Stone of Destiny

Photo: The Stone of Scone

Scotland and England are two nations divided by their experience of history. That divide was never wider than during the Wars of Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries when a chance event brought an era of relative friendship to an end in violent conflict.

The Succession Crisis

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Alexander III dies: A History of Scotland.

The crisis began in 1286 when Alexander III fell from his horse on the sands of Kinghorn and broke his neck. After Alexander's death, Scotland was governed by the premier nobles and bishops of Scotland, known collectively as the Guardians of Scotland. In 1286 Alexander's heir to the throne was Margaret, the Maid of Norway, but her death in 1290 brought Scotland to the brink of civil war as two claimants emerged for the vacant throne, John Balliol and Robert Bruce (grandfather of the more famous Robert Bruce who fought at Bannockburn).

Both men had powerful claims. With Alexander's heir dead and the extinction of the royal line of William I the line of William's younger brother David, Earl of Huntingdon, became crucial to the succession crisis.

Balliol was a grandson of the eldest daughter of Huntingdon while Bruce was the son of Huntingdon's second daughter.

Bruce's claim rested on proximity of blood as he was one step closer than his rival to the Earl of Huntingdon. Balliol's claim was founded on primogeniture – he was the relative of the eldest of Huntingdon's daughters and therefore had a superior claim.

To avoid civil war someone would have to mediate and make a decision, and soon the Guardians turned to Edward I of England as a respected king and neighbour to adjudicate the contest.

Edward soon realised he could exploit the situation to his advantage. He invited the Scots to Norham Castle, just on the English side of the border. However, the Scots declined, fearing this would give Edward symbolic authority over them. He then asked the Scots to acknowledge his overlordship. The Scots declined, stating they could find no historical evidence for Edward's claims.

The task then fell to Bishop Wishart of Glasgow to tell Edward, to his face, that since there was no King of Scots, the Guardians of Scotland could not surrender any Scottish sovereignty to England, since only the rightful Scottish King could do so.

Thus far Edward's plans had been foiled, but, being an expert in legal matters, he cunningly exploited medieval law to achieve his end. Edward was to adjudicate between the two claimants, but if there were three or more, he would have to judge, and a judge had to have authority.

Edward procured a veritable avalanche of claimants, with Bruce and Balliol under the immediate pressure of others seeking Edward's favour. Of the two original claimants, Bruce was the first to pay Edward homage; Balliol, seeing his kingship slipping away, followed suit later.

John Balliol: King of Scots

Edward had what he wanted: whoever the king was to be, he had already recognised English overlordship. In 1292 John Balliol was judged to be the winner and was proclaimed King of Scots at Berwick.

No sooner was Balliol crowned than Edward began active interference in Scottish affairs, intervening in legal cases, keeping taxes and demanding Scottish troops to fight in France. Rapidly the Scots realised they would have to fight Edward – not a task undertaken lightly as Edward had one of the most formidable military machines in Europe at the time.

In 1295–6 the Scots declared their intentions to Edward I, signing the Auld Alliance with England's enemy, France. It was a declaration of war. The treaty made no immediate military difference, but recruiting the French as allies made Scotland's future an issue for Christendom at large. Edward's response was swift. The Scottish border-town of Berwick, second only to London in economic importance in medieval Britain, was sacked. Edward's army quickly stormed its wooden walls with horrific consequences for all inside.

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Edward I invades Scotland: A History of Scotland.

'When the town had been taken in this way and its citizens had submitted, Edward spared no one, whatever the age or sex, and for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain, for in his tyrannous rage he ordered 7,500 souls of both sexes to be massacred...So that mills could be turned round by the flow of their blood.'

Account of the Massacre of Berwick, from Bower's Scotichronicon

Marching north, Edward crushed the Scots army at Dunbar before penetrating into the scottish heartland, north of the Forth. King John Balliol was forced to surrender and was humiliated at Stracathro Churchyard. There he was stripped of the crown, his insignia ripped from his coat (giving him the nickname 'toom tabard', meaning empty coat), before he and much of the Scots nobility were imprisoned in England. However, for Edward 'Longshanks', conquest and ritual humiliation were not enough.

He set about stripping Scotland of its lodestones of identity, just as he had done to the Welsh in 1282. The Stone of Destiny, on which the Scottish Kings were inaugurated, the crown, and one of the Scots' holiest relics, the Black Rood of St Margaret (believed to be a piece of the True Cross), were all taken south. His aim was nothing less than the destruction of the Scots nation and its total incorporation into his kingdom. As he left Scotland, Edward was reported to remark – 'A man does good work when he rids himself of shit.'

William Wallace

Edward's conquest was not yet secure. Within a year, in 1297, he had lost control of Scotland. Risings led by two knights, William Wallace in the south and Andrew Murray in the north, loosened his grip. The grip was finally broken at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

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William Wallace rebels: A History of Scotland

Wallace and Murray's victory was a stunning achievement, not just because the Scots had not defeated the English in battle for centuries, but because for the first time in the history of medieval battles a superior force of heavily armed knights had been defeated by a small army of spearmen. Unfortunately Murray was fatally wounded, but Wallace was proclaimed Guardian of Scotland and took the war to English soil, raiding deep into northern England.

Humbled, the English nobility united behind Edward. In 1298 he invaded Scotland again and this time defeated Wallace at The Battle of Falkirk. In defeat, Wallace resigned the Guardianship of Scotland, but the struggle continued. Many Scots had resolved to fight until the end.

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The Battle of Falkirk: A History of Scotland

Every year for six years Edward led his army north to attack Scottish strongholds in a bitter war that laid waste to the south of Scotland.

From Edward's point of view the war was bearing little fruit. Even more worrying was the fact that the Scots appeared to be winning on the diplomatic front. William Wallace was dispatched to the court of Philip IV in France to drum up support. The Scottish Church, directed by Bishop Lamberton, appealed directly to the papacy (the equivalent of the UN in medieval Christendom) and seemed to be getting a sympathetic hearing. By 1302 it seemed that the Scots were on the verge of victory, with the exiled Balliol ready to return to claim the crown.

However, events would soon turn against the Scots. In the politics of the Scottish Guardianship, the Comyns, supporters of Balliol, had sidelined the Bruces, who, faced with Balliol's return, again submitted to Edward I.

Eventually Edward prevailed in the diplomatic game with the French and the Pope, who needed the English for his latest Crusade against Islam more than he needed the Scots. By 1304 it looked like Balliol was not to return after all, and, exhausted after seven years of war and diplomatic defeat, the Scots' nobility capitulated and cut a deal. Edward had triumphed.

Edward was relatively magnanimous in victory. He handed out public offices in Scotland to those who submitted to his rule, hoping to secure loyalty in return. Only William Wallace and his followers did not submit. An embarrassment to the Scottish nobles and a hindrance to their ambitions, he was outlawed, betrayed and executed after a show trial at Westminster.

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Wallace is executed: A History of Scotland

Robert the Bruce

On the surface it seemed the cause of Scottish independence was lost: Balliol wasn't going to return and the English were in firm control, but under the surface, covert plans were being hatched. The details are tantalisingly sketchy, but after Wallace's execution, Robert Bruce, the young Earl of Carrick, may have made an agreement with Bishop Wishart to spark another rising and claim the kingship.

In 1306 Robert Bruce met with the head of the Comyn family, John 'The Red' Comyn, at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. We don't know what they discussed but an argument flared and Bruce stabbed Comyn before the high altar of the church. Within six weeks Bruce was crowned king at Scone.

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Bruce becomes King of Scots: A History of Scotland

It was a disastrous start for him: outlawed, excommunicated and having provoked a civil war with the Comyns, Bruce was defeated and fled to the Gaelic west. There he changed tactics and started playing to win. He launched a successful guerrilla campaign against his enemies in Scotland.

In 1307, luck was on his side when a furious Edward I, died on his way north to crush Bruce's rising. The 'Hammer of the Scots' died a failure in his own eyes, having failed to bring Scotland to heel. Edward was so obsessed with the Scottish wars he ordered that he should not be buried properly until the Scots were conquered. So he remains to this day, entombed in a plain lead casket in Westminster Abbey.

Success bred success for Bruce however, and he seemed to many Scots to be the only hope of a liberated Scotland. By 1313 Bruce had taken back most of Scotland by force. In this new position of power, he now issued an ultimatum to the remaining Balliol supporters, to join him or forfeit their estates.

The Battle of Bannockburn

In England the new king Edward II had to react. He led a massive invasion force into Scotland, which met Bruce's army at the Battle of Bannockburn – the Bruce's finest hour and a humiliating defeat for Edward's army, who arrived with a vastly superior force.

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The Battle of Bannockburn: A History of Scotland

Bruce was now King of Scotland in most Scots' eyes, but still lacked English and papal recognition of Scotland's independence and his own kingship. In complete military control, the Scots raided into northern England, invaded Ireland and outmanoeuvred further English invasions. On the diplomatic front they appealed to the papacy with the now famous statement of Scottish independence, the Declaration of Arbroath – all to no avail. The recognition they sought wasn't forthcoming.

In 1328 England fell into crisis after the deposition and murder of Edward II – a man not fit to be king in many of his countrymen's eyes. Bruce seized the moment and launched an invasion of Northern England, threatening to annex it to Scotland. It was a successful ploy. Edward III of England was forced to recognise Bruce's kingship and Scotland's independence. The war was won. Bruce retired to his house in Cardross near Loch Lomond and died a year later.

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