From Alexander to Bruce:

The Success of the Scottish Wars of Independence

(Copyright Heather M. Dale, 1995)


After the dynastic disaster that ended the Scottish royal line of Canmore, a divided Scotland fell prey to the ambitions of King Edward I of England, who claimed direct feudal overlordship of the land. This led to twenty years of strife between the two realms, culminating in the crowning of Robert Bruce as the king of an independent Scotland. This event was by no means the end of the struggle, rather it ushered in a new era of political and martial conflicts between the monarchs of the neighbouring kingdoms. But Bruce's crowning in 1306 marked the turning point in Scotland's struggle to remain an independent and distinct kingdom in Britain.

This paper will examine the relations between England and Scotland from the time of Alexander III's death in 1286 to Robert I's crowning in 1306. It will present a historical overview of the events leading up to the Wars of Independence, both in the Scottish and English spheres, as well as a brief account of the rebellions themselves.

In order to provide some insight into these events, this paper will also address the question of why the rebellions were ultimately successful in safeguarding Scotland's independent status. Contributing factors included the development of a strong Scottish national identity, the character and composition of the Community of the Realm, the support from France and the Scottish Church, King Edward's oppressive style and divided attention, and the military ingenuity of the leaders of the rebellions.



Since the Norman invasion, relations between the Scottish and English Crowns had been peaceful and often amicable. Scotland was a relatively poor country when compared to the more attractive prizes of Continental Europe, and for a long time England was best served by cultivating a strong and secure northern border while turning its military attention toward France. King Alexander III of Scotland (r.1249-1286) was on good terms with King Henry III, and there is evidence of a genuine affection between himself and his brother-in-law Edward I. During his peaceful reign, Alexander had done homage to his cousin in 1278 for his English holdings, but Edward had not pushed to have Scotland itself recognized as being under the direct suzerainty of the English Crown. So long as their personal relations remained strong, legal wrangling over the status of Scotland was not attractive to either party, and a marriage between the next generations of the two dynasties was a distinct possibility.

But a series of unfortunate deaths in the royal line of Scotland spelled the beginning of the end for this peaceful era. Alexander's three children predeceased him, leaving his infant granddaughter Margaret of Norway as his only living descendant by 1284. Realizing the risk to the royal line of Canmore, he had the Scottish magnates swear to support Margaret as the Heir presumptive in that same year:

"...we each and all of us will accept the illustrious girl Margaret... as our lady and right heir of our said lord king of Scotland, of the whole realm of Scotland... we shall maintain, sustain and defend [her] with all our strength and power." (brackets in source)

Two years later, on a stormy night in March, Alexander fell to his death while travelling to see his new bride, Yolande de Dreux. The magnates quickly moved to declare the absent Margaret as Scotland's first reigning Queen, and they established regents on her behalf while she remained with her father King Eric II of Norway. The regents consisted of Earls Buchan and Fife, Bishops Wishart of Glasgow and Fraser of St. Andrews, and Barons James Stewart and John Comyn, and this composition was meant to represent the whole body of the free subjects of the Crown (communitas regni Scotie).

However, not all of the Scottish magnates were content with an infant Queen. Two nobles, Robert Bruce the Competitor (fifth of the name) and John Balliol, both pressed their collateral claims to the throne. Balliol was the grandson of David, Earl of Huntingdon's eldest daughter Margaret (niece of William I), and therefore of the elder line, while Robert Bruce was the son of Earl David's second daughter Isabel, and thus a generation closer to King William I than was Balliola. This situation had the potential to spark a civil war, had Edward I not cast his support behind the regents. News of the developments had been sent to King Edward I as a courtesy, and it was in the English King's best interests to protect the rule of the Maid of Norway, since he secretly hoped to arrange her marriage to his young son, Edward (who would become Edward II). Scotland by this time had become quite wealthy from its flourishing wool exports, and the marriage of the two heirs was the most expedient way of consolidating the two kingdoms.

King Edward did not contest the authority of the regents from 1286-90, but he did enter into a treaty with them in 1289 (the Treaty of Salisbury) that:

"...the good people of Scotland, before they receive the Lady, shall give sufficient and good surety to the aforenamed king of England that they will in no wise marry the foresaid Lady [Queen Margaret] save with his [Edward's] ordinance, will and counsel, and with the assent of the king of Norway, her father." (brackets mine)

In the meantime, Edward had already applied for a papal dispensation for the marriage between his son and the Maid of Norway (who were too closely related by canon law), which was granted ten days after the Treaty was concluded. The four surviving regents (the Earls had both died in the interim) agreed to the marriage in theory, but they were concerned about the continued independence of Scotland. Therefore, the Treaty of Birgham was concluded in July 1290 which was meant to safeguard the rights and liberties of the Scottish kingdom should the heirs be wed:

"We promise nevertheless in the name and on behalf of our said lord king and his heirs that the kingdom of Scotland shall remain separate and divided from the kingdom of England by its right boundaries and marches, as has hitherto in the past been observed, and that it shall be free in itself and without subjection; saving the right of our said lord... which has pertained to him... before the time of the present agreement, or which in any way ought to pertain in the future..." (italics mine)

I emphasize the last clause because it is similar to one that was slipped into the earlier Forest Charter Law, forced on Edward by his barons, and it essentially gave the king a legal justification for reneging on the Treaty.

Unfortunately, the sickly Maid of Norway died on the trip to Britain in 1290, and that meant that no legitimate descendants of the three previous Scottish kings remained. There were thirteen subsequent claimants to the crown among the magnates, and foremost among them were Robert Bruce the Competitor and John Balliol. The Scottish magnates appealed to Edward I to arbitrate, since he had shown so much consideration for their land in the Treaty of Birgham. Since Edward could no longer secure Scotland through his son, he would take advantage of the opportunity to claim his feudal overlordship over that kingdom, which had long been vague and unsupported. Upon arriving in Scotland with his army, Edward insisted that the magnates accept him as their Sovereign Lord before he would arbitrate. Surprised, the magnates stalled for time, but they eventually capitulated and all men of substance (both ecclesiastical and lay) were required to swear fealty to Edward by July 27th, 1291. Their submission included the following:

"We, of our own will, without any manner of force or constraint, will concede and grant to receive justice before him as sovereign lord of the land..."

While Edward may not have physically harmed any of them, it is clear that the presence of the superior English military forces was incentive enough.

King Edward set up an elaborate judicial court to hear the Scottish claims, and eventually conferred the crown on Balliol since his was the elder lineb. Robert Bruce the Competitor immediately left the court without giving homage to Balliol, and he officially delegated his claim to the throne to his eighteen-year-old grandson, Robert Bruce (seventh of the name), who would eventually become King Robert I.



Within three days of his being declared King of Scotland on November 17, 1292, John Balliol did homage to his feudal superior, King Edward I of Englandc. A native of Picardy with vast estates in England and France, Balliol was very much a puppet king. He was subjected to the derision of the proud Scottish magnates, as well as being publicly humiliated by Edward, who made it clear that he would be exercising his feudal rights as Scotland's overlord.

Edward's feudal demands grew more and more onerous, such as the right of appeal to England in matters of Scottish justice and the levying of Scottish troops for Edward's war with King Philip IV of France over Gascony, as well as the public humiliation of the king of Scotland by charging him of contumacyd before the English Parliament. Reflecting the dissatisfaction of the Scottish magnates with their king, a Council of Twelve representing the Community of the Realm (four earls, four bishops, and four barons) was created in 1294 to advise King John, and under their influence Balliol concluded a defensive alliance treaty against England with the French king, who pledged:

"...that if it happen that the foresaid king of England to invade... the kingdom of Scotland...we, provided we be forewarned thereof on the part of the same king of Scots within a suitable time, shall give him help by occupying the said king of England in other parts, so that he shall thus be distracted from beginning the foresaid invasion..."

After putting down the Welsh rebellion of 1294 and engaging in a fruitless war with France over Gascony, Edward turned his armies towards the unruly Scotland in 1296. The leaders of this Scottish insurrection were poor strategists, and Edward marched north relatively unopposed and sacked Berwick, a main centre of Scottish commerce. The Scottish army was defeated on the field outside of Dunbar, and Edward consolidated his hold by removing the Royal Regalia and Stone of Destiny to Westminster, as well as insisting that all landholders deliver a signed statement of fealty to Berwick (the Ragman's Roll) by August 28, 1296. King John abdicated and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Edward I was finally the king over a united kingdom of England, Wales and Scotland.

Notably absent from this rebellion were the Bruces, who had never sworn to support Balliol; rather, they had sworn fealty to Edward, and in return the English king had promised to place Robert Bruce on the throne. When the king did not follow through with his pledge, he alienated one of his greatest allies, and this mistake would later cost him the kingdom of Scotland altogether.



After subduing Scotland once more, Edward left its administration and protection to english bureaucrats, lords and priests, and returned south to resume his war against France. By the Fall of 1296, all of the Scottish leaders among the magnates had been imprisoned, lured by their English holdings into supporting Edward, or were outlawed for not swearing fealty. The former two (as well as increased taxes for the war with France) outraged the Scottish populace, and the latter led to a growing number of dispossessed and desperate men who had nothing to lose from a rebellion against King Edward.

The problems began almost immediately. First, the clergy refused to pay Edward's taxes due to a command from Pope Boniface VIII, and this so infuriated King Edward that he placed the entire clerical estate of Scotland outside of the law. Eventually, most of the clergy capitulated, but then the English Parliament pressured Edward into reluctantly renouncing some of his royal prerogatives before they would finance his Gascon conflict. Edward finally took his army across to Flanders to engage the French King.

With Edward thus occupied at home and abroad, rebellion flared again in Scotland in May 1297, under the leadership of William Wallace and Andrew Moraye. Unlike the earlier uprising by the magnates, this was a popular revolt, and the leaders were dispossessed men of the lower gentry who had never sworn fealty to Edward. They were supported by Bishop Wishart of Glasgow and were joined by the fiery Sir William Douglas and the former regent James Stewart, which legitimized the rebellion and brought Scottish men flocking to the banner of Wallace and Moray. Young Robert Bruce, too, defied Edward's orders and fought with the contingents of Douglas and Stewart, who had to surrender at Irvine in July 1297 to a larger English force. By the autumn of 1297, Wallace's forces had successfully cleared the south of Scotland of its English commanders and administrators, as had Moray's forces in the north, by a combined strategy of disrupting supplies, siege, and ambush. As the harried English treasurer wrote to his King:

By far the greater part if your counties in the Scottish Kingdom are still not provided with keepers because they have been killed, besieged or imprisoned or have abandoned their bailiwicks and dare not go back. And in some shires the Scots have appointed and established bailiffs and officials.

After the stunning victory over the English at Stirling Bridge in September, Moray died of his wounds, leaving Wallace to be knighted by the magnates in March 1298. They also declared him Guardian of Scotland in the absence of John Balliol (who was still considered the rightful ruler by some, despite his abdication).

After returning from Flanders that same month, Edward became embroiled in baronial and ecclesiastical troubles at home and was not able to personally lead his army north until July 1298. Wallace had retired beyond the Firth of Forth by this point, and Edward marched into Scotland unopposed (much like his invasion of 1296). Wallace met him at Falkirk on July 22, and after being resoundingly defeated he disappeared from the public view until 1305, when he was captured and executed by the English for treasonf. This left the rebellion in the hands of the nobles, who resisted Edward's repeated invasions by using guerilla warfare and by destroying the food base in areas which fell under English control. But Edward was hampered by the demands of his own barons, and by a papal bull from Boniface VIII in 1301 that commanded him to stop fighting and withdraw from Scotland (which he described as being "in fief of the Holy See"); while the Scots were increasingly hampered by infighting between the factions of Bruce and Comyn. Bruce finally joined forces with Edward in February 1302, to oppose France's plan to return John Balliol to the throne at the head of a French army, though he submitted on the following terms:

"...that Robert and his men and his tenants of Carrick will be guaranteed life and limb, lands and tenements, and will be free from imprisonment. ... And the King grants to Robert that, so far as it lies in his power, he will not be disinherited of any land which may fall to him by right of his father, in England or in Scotland. ... And if, after the Kingdom is at peace in the King's hands any persons should wish to do injury to Robert the King will maintain and defend him in his right as a lord ought to do for his man."

Edward's well-planned invasion of Scotland began in 1303 and swept over the weakened resistance, but he did not change the laws and administration wholesale, and neither did he disinherit the leaders of the rebellion (though they had to pay to retain their estates)g.

In 1304, Bruce inherited his family's vast estates and had the favour of the King, but in 1305 John 'the Red' Comyn offered Edward proof that Bruce was still collaborating with the smouldering Scottish resistance. Bruce fled north and killed Comyn on the altar steps of Greyfriars Kirk, then he went on to meet Bishop Wishart of Glasgow, who publicly shrived him of his sins and declared his rebellion a sacred cause. Men flocked to his banner as they had to Wallace's, and Bruce began to take strategic castles away from English control. Before King Edward could react, Robert Bruce was crowned King of Scotland at Scone on March 27, 1306h, using the ancient ceremony and the royal regalia (hidden for years by Bishop Wishart).

King Robert I continued the struggle against the English as a running resistance for the next year, until Edward I's death on July 7, 1307. The new king, Edward II, was ineffectual and not militarily inclined, and Bruce continued to consolidate the free Kingdom of Scotland until his death on June 7, 1329.



The eventual success of the Scottish rebellions against English rule can be attributed to many factors which are evident throughout the Wars of Independence. These include the national identity of Scotland, the strength of the Community of the Realm, the hidden designs of the Scottish Church, the diplomatic support from France, King Edward's divided attention and tyrannical methods, and the military creativity of the Scottish leaders.

During the long and peaceful reigns of Alexander II and Alexander III, the diverse peoples of Scotland forged a common national identity. Rather than being Celtic, Gaelic, Anglo-Norman or Norse, the 12th and 13th centuries saw the emergence of a truly Scottish people who took pride in their difference from the rest of Britain. It is in this period that men began to follow "the Lion" of Scotland, rather than simply their king, and this perceptual shift was evident for the commoners as well as the nobility. The independence of the Scottish people from the rest of Britain made it an indignity for them to recognize another kingdom as superior. It was the sense of nationalistic outrage that drew the commoners to Wallace, Moray and Bruce's banners, fuelled by the rhetoric of the leaders and by Edward's increased taxes and brutality, and it was at least partially responsible for Robert Bruce's defection to the Scottish side in 1297.

The Scottish Community of the Realm was quite distinct from the English one. While King David I had modelled the upper aristocracy after Henry I's Anglo-Norman court, a much higher percentage of lesser lairds, gentry and substantial freeholders were tenants-in-chief than in England. King Edward's mandatory Berwick Oaths of Fealty raised the political awareness of the lesser landholders, and impressed the reality of English rule. These classes, who had never been widely interested in Scottish politics, formed the backbone of the resistance, with a strong military part being played by the commoners, both burghal and rural. The higher nobility of Scotland often had conflicting interests due to their lands and status in England, and the Wars of Independence might not have been fought if it hadn't been for the lower classes who had very little to lose. But the contributions of the nobility should not be underestimated, for they were the ones who enabled Scotland to function as a conventional Kingdom that could be respected by the other kings of Europe.

The Scottish Church was a strong force in uniting the Scottish people against Edward, who threatened both secular and ecclesiastical autonomy (the latter by appointing English priests to Scottish benefices). The Church was perfectly placed to act as a communication network for the subversives, and it also worked behind the scenes to garner papal support for the independence of the kingdom. Several ecclesiastical magnates played a prominent role in securing the kingship of Scotland, including the shrewd Bishop Wishart of Glasgow (the confidant and supporter of the Bruces), and Bishops Fraser and Lamberton of St. Andrews.

France's formal support of Scottish independence in the 1295 defence treaty between King John Balliol and King Philip IV helped to legitimize the rebellions of the Scottish people and make King Edward I internationally recognized as an oppressor. Whether or not this had any effect on the leanings of the other European countries, it emboldened the Scottish magnates in their resistance against Edward. France also provided indirect aid by keeping Edward's forces and attention divided between his internal and international campaigns. This was mutually beneficial for both Scotland and France, since Edward was unable to apply his full resources to either one and eventually failed in both military endeavours.

King Edward's inclinations towards violence and national humiliation did nothing to help his acceptance by the conquered Scottish, rather it aroused their outrage and indignation and sowed the seeds of revolt. Examples include the massacre of the residents of Berwick in 1296, the public humiliation of King John Balliol, the removal of Scottish regalia and relics, and the vicious retribution taken against the captured William Wallace. All of these became rallying points for the Scottish nobility, clergy, gentry and commoners.

Another important factor in the success of the Wars of Independence was the tactical brilliance of the rebel leaders. Wallace, Moray and Bruce took full advantage of Scotland's rugged terrain in their guerilla strategy, and they were even fairly successful when meeting the English forces on their own terms. The plan of ambush and harassment proved to be extremely effective in disrupting the English control over Scotland, and enabled the rebellions to cover a wide area without requiring elaborate supply lines or trained soldiers. The volunteer troops were driven by a sense of national identity and outrage at Edward's actions. Wallace introduced new field tactics in the battle of Stirling Bridge, whereby his pikemen were prevented from fleeing from the English cavalry by a light fence or schiltron, and this revolutionized British warfare.



The time between the reigns of King Alexander III and King Robert I was pivotal in the relations between England and Scotland. In twenty years, the two kingdoms went from being amicable neighbors to being mortal enemies, and this was ultimately due to the ambitions of a single monarch and his dream of ruling a united Britain. King Edward I of England was determined to extend his lands, and he took full advantage of the chaotic struggle for the Scottish throne to exert his control over the northern realm. Despite the scheming and feuds among the Scottish magnates, the Community of the Realm (with the notable contributions of the commoners) was able to mount an effective resistance which eventually ensured Scotland's freedom from English rule. These Wars of Independence brought the Scottish national identity to the forefront of that land's collective consciousness, and they brought out the heroism of noble and peasant alike. Their success undoubtedly shaped the history and the national character of both England and Scotland.



1. Alexander Grant, "The Triumph of Scotland," in Lesley M. Smith, ed., The Making of Britain: The Middle Ages (London: MacMillan, 1985); 71-72.

2. Robin Frame, The Political Development of the British Isles 1100-1400 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); 162.

3. Frame, 162.

4. Frame, 162.

5. Gordon Donaldson, Scottish Historical Documents (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1970); 38.

6. Ronald McNair Scott, Robert the Bruce: King of Scots (London: Hutchinson, 1982); 17.

7. McNair Scott, 18.

8. Grant, 75.

9. William Croft Dickinson, et al., eds., A Source Book of Scottish History: Volume 1 (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1958); 122.

10. Donaldson, 40.

11. T. F. Tout, Edward the First (London: MacMillan, 1896); 211.

12. McNair Scott, 26.

13. Dickinson, et al., 132.

14. McNair Scott, 30.

15. Dickinson, et al., 135.

16. McNair Scott, 37.

17. McNair Scott, 37-38.

18. McNair Scott, 38.

19. Tout, 194.

20. Tout, 203.

21. G. W. S. Barrow, "Wars of Independence," in Gordon Menzies, ed., The Scottish Nation (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972); 22.

22. McNair Scott, 44.

23. Tout, 205.

24. Tout, 209.

25. McNair Scott, 57.

26. McNair Scott, 61.

27. Tout, 164.

28. Grant, 75-76.

29. Tout, 200.

30. McNair Scott, 41.

31. Grant, 74.

32. Barrow, 19.

33. Frame, 167.

34. Barrow, 21.

35. McNair Scott, 40.

36. Barrow, 17.





Allen, R. E., ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Barrow, G. W. S., "Wars of Independence," in Gordon Menzies, ed., The Scottish Nation (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972).

Dickinson, William C., et al., eds., A Source Book of Scottish History: Volume 1 (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1958).

Donaldson, Gordon, Scottish Historical Documents (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1970).

Frame, Robin, The Political Development of the British Isles 1100-1400 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Grant, Alexander, "The Triumph of Scotland," in Lesley M. Smith, ed., The Making of Britain: The Middle Ages (London: MacMillan, 1985).

McNair Scott, Ronald, Robert the Bruce: King of Scots (London: Hutchinson, 1982).

Tout, T. F., Edward the First (London: MacMillan, 1896).

Copyright 1995, Heather Dale. All rights reserved.