The throne of Scotland

The concept of superiority and even overlordship over the rest of the British Isles and its peoples played a central role in the formation of a sense of English identity and the formation of England as a defined social and political unit. The writings of Gerald of Wales and William of Malmesbury described the other peoples inhabiting Britain and Ireland as uncivilised barbarians and these influential ideas, strengthened with the experiences of the population with the other peoples, and the English financial and institutional superiority, provided the basis for expansion and what can be described as the first wave of English imperialism.

It was not until the reign of King Edward I of England, however, that there was a monarch with the legal, political and military talent, and perhaps more importantly the determination to realise the natural English right to rule Britain. He enjoyed much success in Wales and qualified success in Ireland, but was aware that Scotland was always a different proposition, particularly because of its special relationship with the papacy.


When the succession crisis arose therefore, with the death of King Alexander III and the subsequent death of his only heir young Margaret the Maid of Norway, thus putting an end to Edward I’s plans laid down at the Treaty of Birgham in 1290 to marry his son to the young heiress; a protracted battle of words, letters, myths and histories broke out. In the modern vernacular therefore, a propaganda campaign on a scale and influence never before witnessed in the British Isles was to provide the crucial narrative behind military campaigns as Edward I sought the fulfilment of his Arthurian dream of himself as the legendary king of Britain.

It was primarily Edward’s ambition that led to both the historiographical and military struggle between Scotland and England after a lengthy period of peace throughout the thirteenth century between the two kingdoms that for the medieval period can be seen as quite remarkable. He sought to use both the opportunity of being invited to adjudicate the rival claims for kingship in Scotland after the death of Margaret, known as the ‘Great Cause,’ and the subsequent ‘rebellion’ of the newly appointed King John Balliol to impose his overlordship over his northern neighbours.

This is not to imply a deliberate cynical ploy on Edward’s part to use these events as excuses for his plans, however, as it would seem that Edward most certainly believed in his natural right as the English king to have dominion over the Scottish realm, and hence that the actions of Balliol and the Scottish clergy were both treacherous, and to his legal mind, unlawful.

When he received a bull in 1299 from pope Boniface VIII therefore, demanding that he “abandon the war in Scotland, a land in which the pope says that the right belongs to himself,”1 he responded by setting out his legal case for overlordship based on historical precedent. He had to be careful to point out, however, that he was not presenting the case to the pope for adjudication, but was simply aiming to set the mind of his Holiness at rest. 2 Edward set out his historical arguments for English superiority based on three main points.

The first was the ancient right of English kings to suzerainty over the Scottish lands and seems to have been largely based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings Of Britain. The origin of the English is traced back to the arrival of the Trojan Brutus and his division of Albion between his three sons, the eldest of which, Locrine, receiving England and as the eldest, the royal dignity. When his brother Albanact, who had received Scotland, was killed by Humber the king of the Huns, Scotland reverted to Locrine as the eldest brother.

There are two other histories included in this first argument put forward by Edward, that of King Dunwal of the Britons and his two sons and that of King Arthur. The younger of King Dunwal’s two sons was given Scotland and was to rule it under his eldest brother who received the crown of Britain, Wales and Cornwall. What is mentioned of King Arthur is his installation of Angusel on the Scottish throne and the fealty and service he paid to Arthur at the feast of Caerlon and that “in succession [of King Arthur] all the kings of Scotland have been subject to all the kings of the Britons.

“3 All three reports, that may now reasonably be called myths, were therefore intended to illustrate that kings of England had always been overlords of Scotland. The second historical argument put forward by Edward in his letter to Boniface follows on from the first, and in its continuation of the first point becomes the most important, certainly in legal terms, of his claims.

He moves from ancient Scottish kings paying homage to English kings to what appears to be a comprehensively long and undeniable list of examples of present or recent Scottish kings paying homage to the English crown. The research for this had been conducted on what was a grand scale for the time and was begun during the time of the Great Cause as Edward was no doubt convinced that whoever should take the throne in Scotland would have to recognise the English king as his superior.

The ‘Great Roll,’as was named the painstaking compilation of examples begun in1292 lists over twenty examples of Scottish kings giving homage to English Kings and so it was claimed, apparently quite reasonably, that since ancient Scottish kings had always been subject to English overlordship, and since in recent times Scottish kings had almost all sworn oaths of fealty to English kings for Scotland, that to now refuse to do so, or to deny the English right to rule supreme over Scotland, would be both unprecedented and unjust.

The idea of injustice against England is the theme of the final part of the letter where it is outlined that the events in Scotland following the 1286 succession problems such as King John Balliol’s renunciation of fealty for Edward and the resistance led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray, were both treacherous and barbaric. The letter describes in detail certain cruelties carried out by the Scots, most distressingly the burning of children in their school, in order to illustrate to the pope that these foes, as well as being “notoriously contumacious traitors,”4 were also acting in the most unchristian ways.

In light of this, and the two previous arguments put forward, Edward had no choice but to intervene, and hence his invasion of Scotland of 1296 was justified. These claims were to provoke robust response from the Scots. It may seem common sense to base a discussion on how effective the Scots response was to Edward’s claims, on an examination of the results of the “historiographical battle royal,”5 as they were borne out in later years.

How effectively did they win support from the papacy to their cause in light of such a seemingly solid case as that put forward by Edward? How effectively did they convince the various groups in medieval Scottish society that theirs was an ancient kingdom that had been wronged by an oppressor and how effective was this in gaining both their military support and in asserting a much needed unity across what was an ominously divided nation?

While these questions are obviously of considerable importance to our understanding of the period, it would be quite misleading to presume them to be fair criteria for assessing the efficacy of the Scots response to Edward’s historical arguments for English superiority. Sophisticated legal appeals to the papacy in elite educated Latin could never serve to cross over into the other political and military aspects of the confrontation between Scotland and England, at least not in a way that could provide an effective defence of a whole nation.

It would seem clear therefore that the most successful way to discern how effective the Scots’ response was to the historical arguments for English superiority, would be through a close analysis of the texts available to us from the period. The historiographical confrontation throughout this time is generally considered to form a continuum from the late1290s right through to the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320. While the Scottish response to Edward was therefore a long and protracted one, it would helpful to think of it as being divided into two periods rather than forming one long interconnected series of texts.

The first period consists of writings in support of king John Balliol which were to form the immediate Scottish response to Edward’s arguments, while the there certainly seems to be the emergence of a second distinct period of Scottish writing from1306 onwards that develop the ‘Brucean Ideology’ and seek to justify not just a defence against the English but also the right to the throne of Scotland of king Robert Bruce.

It is the contention here that this first period of Scottish resistance was to provide an incredibly successful and effective rebuttal of Edward’s arguments, and by doing so, provided the struggling Scottish cause with an essential legitimacy in the eyes of the academic and clerical elite in Europe, that would have a lasting influence across the social, political and economic spheres of the conflict. The response from the Scots to Edward’s claims was almost immediate and took the retaliatory form of their own version of both distant and more recent Anglo-Scottish history.

The first known response was that produced by the skilled canon lawyers William Frere the Deacon of Lothian, Master William Eaglesham and Master Baldred Bisset. Their letter to the pope of 1301 illustrated their legal expertise and is written mainly in a style to serve their legal argument as plaintiffs. The letter is believed to have been composed largely by Master Bisset, who had a distinguished university education in Roman law and was involved in various ecclesiastical and administrative activities.

His arguments, while not exempt from criticism, were to provide an extremely effective response to Edward’s case and though many commentators may embellish his achievements and elevate him to a prodigious status above which he rightfully deserves, it seems fair to claim that he was to emerge victorious from this particular battle in the Anglo-Scottish war of historiography. Foremost of Edward’s arguments was his appeal to history and the processus sent to the pope by Bisset and his accomplices deals successfully with these claims.

They stress that Edwards ‘right’ can only be defended by his use of events “not recent but remote in time,” relying on evidence from “a time for which no memory exists. “6 The basis of the argument seems to derive from recognition of the fact that situations or circumstances do not remain constant over time. Bisset concedes that Arthur did indeed conquer Scotland but points out that amongst other problems of the lack of knowledge of events so far in the past, such a fact could not be used to justify situations as they are in the present day.

He cites the Roman Empire as his example pointing out that they no longer “lord it over the entire world. “7 It would therefore be unwise to attach too much authority to historical conditions which altered long ago since “lordship over possessions and over kingdoms are distinct in the law of nations, and are frequently transferred under various titles and for various reasons from people to people and from nation to nation.

 

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