The Scottish Wars of Independence, 1286–1328
The death of King Alexander III in 1286, and the subsequent death of his heir, Margaret, the Maid of Norway in 1290, plunged Scotland into a succession crisis. There was a clear risk of civil war breaking out amongst the nobles and so Edward I of England was asked to help. John Balliol was chosen by Edward as king in 1292. Balliol was subject to a series of humiliations and finally refused to send troops to help Edward’s fight in France. This sparked the conflict between Scotland and England which would last until 1328. Men such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce rose to prominence in their campaigns against Edward, in their search for recognition for Scotland’s independence.
Under the rule of Alexander III, Scotland had undergone a period of relative peace and prosperity. Alexander was able to expand the territory of Scotland and more of the population accepted royal authority. In 1263, the Scots won a victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Largs. The Treaty of Perth was signed in 1266 and gave recognition of the Scottish king’s authority over the west of Scotland and Isle of Man.
Alexander developed royal authority through the use of a feudal system of government. David I had overseen a period of Normanisation of the kingdom of Scotland and Alexander continued this process. Under a feudal system, the king owned all of the land and would grant land to important nobles in exchange for the promise of loyalty (fealty). A ceremony of homage was carried out to witness these promises of loyalty. The feudal system meant that nobles had a vested interest in remaining loyal to the king. If they broke their oath, they would lose the land they had been given.
Alexander also helped to develop the Scottish economy. Berwick upon Tweed became the most important trading port in Scotland. Scotland had become an exporter of goods such as wool, timber and fish. Linked to this economic growth, currency became more widely used, bearing the image of the king and further symbolising the growth in royal authority.
The other major organ of power in Scotland was the church. The Scottish church had its independence recognised in a papal bull of 1192 and was given the status of ‘special daughter of Rome’. The bishops were powerful figures in the Scottish community, with wealth and authority. Scotland, however, had no archbishop of its own – a position which helps to explain the church’s support for Scottish independence. Without Scottish independence, it was far more likely that the Scottish church would be subsumed by the English church.
It is therefore clear that Scotland was becoming a more cohesive and mature kingdom during the reign of Alexander III. Furthermore, Alexander had a good relationship with Edward I of England, helped by his marriage to Edward’s sister.
The reign of Alexander III
Alexander’s early career
Alexander III became king at the age of eight, after the death of his father. His early years as king were overshadowed by the powerful regent (a noble who helps run the country until the king is old enough), Alan Durward. Durward was unpopular with many of the Scottish nobles and Alexander was able to get rid of him by enlisting the aid of his future father-in-law, Henry III of England.
In summer 1251, Alexander married Margaret, Henry III of England’s daughter, creating close ties with his southern neighbour. Henry awarded Alexander a lot of lands in England as a wedding gift, and the Scottish king agreed to Henry III being his overlord for his English land. However, the young king was able to prevent Henry III extracting a similar oath about Scotland. Thus, Alexander was able to sidestep the English king’s desire to be overlord of the Scots.
The English king’s assistance was vital in the following years. Still a young man, the King of Scots’ government was under threat from rival Scottish nobles, particularly the powerful Comyn family. Alexander was kidnapped several times, and was forced to rely upon his father-in-law. However, by 1258, Henry III had more than enough problems at home, and Alexander was forced to rely upon himself. He summoned a parliament at Stirling and was able to unite the different factions of nobles behind his rule.
Alexander takes control
By 1260, Alexander was in full control of Scotland. He was able to make a successful visit to England, where he met his father-in-law as an equal, successfully chastising Henry III for his failure to pay him the money he had been promised at his wedding.
Returning home, Alexander decided to turn his attention to the Western Isles. His father, Alexander II, had unsuccessfully tried to extend royal Scottish power to the west and Alexander sent envoys to the King of Norway to try to
negotiate the handing over of these islands, which had traditionally been in the hands of the Vikings.
The Battle of Largs
However, these peaceful attempts to annex the Western Isles failed, and the Scottish king turned to war to accomplish his goals. In 1263, the Viking king, Haakon IV of Norway, sailed for the Western Isles with a fleet of warships. Alexander had prepared for the invasion as best he could by strengthening Scottish castles and gathering in levies of troops.
Alexander’s forces waited for the Norwegians to land but a gale struck their fleet on 30 September, and many of Haakon’s ships were destroyed. Haakon eventually landed his men at Largs on 2 October, but retreated when the main body of the Scots army attacked him on the beach.
In reality, the Battle of Largs was nothing more than a small skirmish, but it ended the threat of the Haakon, who died in Orkney later that year. This small skirmish had ended the Norwegian stranglehold of the Western Isles and left Alexander the king of all Scotland, and in 1264 he also invaded and seized the Isle of Man.
The Treaty of Perth in 1266 saw the ownership of the Western Isles officially transferred to that of the King of Scots, a remarkable achievement for Alexander III.
Scotland 1286–96: The succession problem and the Great Cause