Scotland under the rule of Alexander III

The eight-year-old Alexander III had been king for only a few days when two factions began to struggle for control of his small person. One was led by Alan Durward, the Justiciar of Scotland, supported by the Bruces and the Earl of Dunbar; the other was led by Walter de Comyn, Earl of Menteith and head of an ambitious and much ramified baronial family.

There would not be another coronation at Scone until 1292, and that would be a somewhat half-hearted event. Here, in 1249, the full, ancient, semi-pagan ceremonial was observed in the abbey churchyard. The Stone of Destiny, placed beneath a tall Celtic cross, was spread with silk embroidered in gold. The procession approached it from the abbey. The young prince sat, as the Earl of Fife placed the crown on his head and the Bishop of St Andrews performed the Act of Consecration. The moment the boy became king was when he was presented with a wand by the chief bard, or ollave.

The earls of Scotland cast their mantles down before him. Then an aged sennachie approached, fell to his knees, and recited the pedigree of the young king in Gaelic: ‘Alasdair macAlasdair macUilleam macEanruig…’ and all the way back, not merely to Fergus macErc but far beyond him, to ‘Iber the first Scot, son of Gaithel Glas, son of Neoilus, king of Athens, begotten of Scota, daughter of the Pharaoh Chenthres, King of Egypt.’

Coronation of King Alexander on Moot Hill, Scone

Coronation of King Alexander on Moot Hill, Scone

Two years after his coronation there was a splendid marriage at York. Alexander III and the eight-year-old Princess Margaret of England were made husband and wife. After the wedding, Alexander was to do homage to Henry III for his English possessions and titles. When asked to perform homage for his whole country, the boy, who had been well coached, refused diplomatically. He made it clear that this was a difficult matter on which he had not yet consulted with his chief men. The issue was not presses. But Henry III’s subsequent interventions in Scottish affairs went beyond the paternal concerns of a benevolent father-in-law.

The king returned home with his juvenile queen to be kept in Edinburgh Castle while Walter Comyn ruled the land in their name; Alan Durward went to Henry III to complain. The dispute between Comyn and Durward has been seen by some historians as the first appearance of distinct parties in Scotland, one set on maintaining independence, the other set on a closer and subservient relationship with England. It is more likely that the dispute marks the beginning of a long series of attempts by ambitious nobles to use the power of England to lever themselves into control in Scotland. Whilst one side courted Henry, the other perforce had to play the patriotic card.

In the summer of 1255 a plot was put into effect; the Earl of Dunbar seized Edinburgh Castle, and Alexander and his queen were transferred to Roxburgh and thence to Wark where Henry III was waiting. Then they returned to Edinburgh with Durward. The Comyns were out, Durward was in. The king’s principal councillor was his good friend Henry III. Two years later the Dowager Queen Marie took the Comyn side, who once again seized the king, and the Durward faction fled to England. Henry III began to mobilise an army and the Comyns did likewise. At a late stage, concessions were made by both sides during a long conference in Jedburgh in September 1258, and war was averted. The death of Walter Comyn came very shortly after the conference, assisting Alexander, now seventeen, to rule in his own right.

Alexander III King of Scotland

Alexander III King of Scotland

The reign of Alexander III was largely peaceful, as his father’s had been. His barons indulged their taste for fighting by joining Henry III in English wars and by going on Crusade. Farming, hunting, forestry and trading could be carried on without military interruption. In the last year of the reign of William I, lords had been ordered to give their richer peasants (owners of four cows) more land to take into cultivation. This sign of a need for greater food production indicates an increase in population in 12th century. Bad weather might still mean poor harvest and shortages: the milder climate that had ushered in the second millennium was now coming to an end. But the wealth of the country increased. Extra inflictions like the ‘ransom’ for William I as well as the Norwegian payment could be absorbed.

The number of burghs expanded dramatically. By 1283 most of the towns of Scotland, with the exceptions of a few in the West Highlands and Hebrides, had come into existence and were given charters either from the king, as royal burghs, or from the local magnate, as baronial burghs. Lords and abbots readily saw the financial and social advantages in having a market and manufacturing centre in their own domain. The location of industries such as coal mining and salt panning was governed by geography, but any town could make cloth if the enterprise and the will were there.

Alexander III and Queen Margaret had three children at the time she died in 1275. By January 1283 all three were dead and his only direct heir was a baby granddaughter in Norway. Known as the ‘Maid of Norway’, she was the daughter of Eric II of Norway and Alexander’s daughter Margaret. She was proclaimed heir, but Alexander remarried in October 1285. His new bride was French, Yolande de Dreux. It was to be with her at Kinghorn, in Fife, that he rode from Edinburgh after a meeting with his council on 19th March 1286. It had been a stormy day and it was a stormy night. He crossed the Firth of Forth safely on Queen Margaret’s ferry, but lost his escort on the shores of Fife and fell from his horse in the dark. His body was found bellow the cliffs the following morning.

Important figures in Scottish history (detail), frieze created by the artist William Hole in 1898

Important figures in Scottish history (detail), frieze created by the artist William Hole in 1898

Alexander III had done all he could in ensuring the Scottish succession. There may even have been an uxorious anxiety in his haste to return to the queen through the storm. It is possible too that the storm has been exaggerated and that the king was drunk. The collapse of the state, which followed not on his death but on that of the Maid of Norway in 1290, showed how much the fabric of the realm owed to the king: not only the person of the king but the very fact of the continuing kingship.

The Scoto-Norman kings were the best that Scotland was to have. They maintained the integrity of the nation and developed its prestige and resources in a way that was exemplary for the time. They preferred negotiation to war, but negotiated from strength. Their inability to create institutions that could survive the crisis of 1290 was shared with their officials and councillors, and exacerbated by their feudal tenants-in-chief. The message was clear – Scotland would not survive without a strong and resourceful leader.

from “Scotland, History of the Nation” by David Ross

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