At the end of the thirteenth century, the monarchy of Scotland was thrown into turmoil by the death of its last Canmore ruler, Alexander III. After his death, a struggle began for control of the throne involving different members of the Scottish nobility and the English royalty. This time period from the late 1200s until about 1370 is characterized as the Wars of Independence, and it has been traditionally seen as Scotland’s definitive assertion of self-rule out of the control of the powerful English monarchy south of the border. It was during these years that folklore heroes like William Wallace lived and battled, and Scotland forged a monarchy that eventually passed to the Stewart family who created an important medieval dynasty in the British Isles.
This period was not, however, simply a struggle between the Scottish and British, and it is far too easy to characterize these wars as just Scotsmen versus Englishmen. In fact, the conflicts for control of the Scottish monarchy were far more complicated. Shifting alliances between Scots and English were more common than folklore tales may admit to, and sometimes the English kings were not the only enemies of the fledgling Scottish nation. The Wars of Independence in Scotland were internal, factional struggles between rival families for control, where the English kings mingled as contenders for the throne along with many members of the Scottish nobility and were not simply antagonists in the fragmented Scottish political system.
After the untimely death of Alexander III, the leading Scottish nobles were forced to choose a successor to the throne from a group of candidates all descending from Scottish noble families. The last descendent of the Canmores, the young queen Margaret, died before she could marry or produce heirs, which left no other option than to choose between rival magnates. Because three of the contenders had almost equally valid claims, the Scots asked King Edward I of England to mediate and decide who would ascend the throne, which gave the English king a firm grip over Scottish royal politics. Edward had, before the death of Alexander III, been interested in arranging a marriage alliance with his son and Queen Margaret, suggesting his interest in the Scottish realm even before the succession crisis, but her early death ended that possibility. Rather, Edward I was invited to settle the dispute between John Balliol, Robert Bruce, and John Hastings, all of who had valid claims to the throne. Edward did more than simply choose the new king; after selecting John Balliol to ascend because of his close relationship to the Englishman Earl David of Huntington, Edward established Balliol as a vassal who he deliberately antagonized to justify his goal of seizing the Scottish kingdom, which he accomplished after defeating and deposing Balliol in 1296. It is undeniable that Edward tried to make Scotland a part of his kingdom, and by a stroke of luck he was given the opportunity to determine the succession of Scottish rulers. But maintaining actual control over the territory of Scotland and its mountainous terrain proved very difficult for the English monarch, and Edward needed the support of local Scottish leaders to assert his hegemony. In this way, Edward I became another faction struggling for control of Scotland, and his shifting alliances demonstrated the instability of his rule and the importance of allies in medieval Scotland.
While it is easy to depict the Wars of Independence as battles against English control, many Scotsmen allied with the English crown at times when it suited both parties. Relations between the two countries had always been complicated, and in the struggle for succession, Scottish nobles and the English kings alike needed each other’s help to achieve their goals of controlling territory. Jonathan Hearn claimed that the Wars of Independence were, “…a period of protracted warfare and negotiation when the kings of England and rival Scottish noble houses all competed for overlordship.” He also points out, “This process was complicated by the fact that competing noble families often held lands on both sides of the border, creating ambivalent and shifting allegiances.” Control of lands was of central importance to Scots and English, and nobility on both sides used help from counterparts across the border to secure control for themselves. Despite the removal of John Balliol from the throne, his family and their allies, the Comyn family, remained powerful and were backed by many supporters in Scotland, leaving the rival claimant to Balliol’s power, Robert Bruce, in need of political and military allies. The Bruces and the Balliols had long been enemies due to the regional power of both families, and Robert Bruce was eager to capitalize on Balliol’s downfall from royal power.
For Edward I, even after he defeated William Wallace’s forces at the Battle of Falkirk, exercising real control over Scotland remained difficult because of a continuous lack of supplies and troops, and ongoing resistance from the Scottish people. It was under these circumstances that Edward and Robert Bruce, (the grandson of the first Robert Bruce), forged a vague agreement to help each other against their common enemy, John Balliol, whose restoration to the throne was still a possibility. Barrell claims, “He [Edward I] feared the further erosion of his authority in Scotland, while Bruce feared the loss of his Scottish lands. Robert may have committed himself to the English cause out of dislike for the Comyns, who were still dominant in the Scottish government,…it is much more likely that he felt such a course of action would be the only guarantee of his continued possession of the earldom of Carrick and his succession to the lordship of Annandale after his father’s death.” In this instance, the head of the family that would eventually lead Scotland was allying with the English king not because of his faith in Edward’s right to rule, but because he needed to secure his own power, regardless of whom he found to support him. Here, the “enemy” is not easily identifiable. A Scotsman allied with the English king against another Scotsman does not fit neatly into the picture of Scotland fighting for independence against England, and it revealed that factions and their power bases were more important than the emerging, but not yet truly forged, national identities in the struggle for the Scottish throne.
Robert Bruce proved the instability of his agreement with Edward I by seizing the throne of Scotland, and his subsequent rule again showed the power of factional struggles in the contest for hegemony. In 1306, in what may or may not have been a meeting about an agreement between the Bruces and the Comyns, Robert Bruce murdered John Comyn in a church in Dumfries. Since this act would have obviously alienated the powerful Comyn family from Bruce’s cause, it is difficult to imagine Bruce as having deliberately set out to kill his rival, but nevertheless, he opted to seize the throne to prevent a full-fledged war between the rival families and their supporters. Barrell explains this act by stating, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the murder of Comyn precipitated Bruces’ seizure of the throne, as he realized that his best chance of salvation lay in his becoming king, thereby drawing on the natural loyalty which was attached to the cause of a legitimate monarch and tapping into the considerable antipathy towards the English which undoubtedly existed in Scotland.”
The drastic step taken by Bruce showed how detrimental it would have been to his cause to have the powerful Comyn family united against him. Rather than face the struggle with the Comyns, Bruce found it equally risky, perhaps even less so, to seize the throne and thereby instigate a fight against the English king who was already disliked by the Scottish people. Luckily for Bruce, Edward I died while on his way to do battle with the new Scottish king, and his son, Edward II, was a much less dangerous and formidable foe. As Wallace Notestein claims, “He learned patience, how to retreat that he might fight another day, how to control his forces until the time struck, how to change his plans suddenly. His learning was rewarded.” Robert Bruce, now known as Robert I, defeated Edward II’s forces at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and was able to retain the crown. Factional struggles, however, did not cease after this critical battle, and Robert’s successors faced many of the same struggles that he had fought against.
Reaching political hegemony, even after the Battle of Bannockburn, was no easy task for Robert I’s descendents, and until the time of the Stewart dynasty, their family faced insurrections from many different factions. The English, along with the Balliols and Comyns, did not accept Robert’s rule gladly, and the weakness of their dynasty led to problems for the later Bruces. As David II struggled to assert his authority after the death of Robert I, his rival Edward Balliol was crowned king with the support and blessing of the English king, Edward III. Once again, we are confronted with a situation where a Scotsman, this time Edward Balliol, established an alliance with the English monarch, now Edward III, in an attempt to seize power from a rival Scottish family. Here again, international rivalries mattered less than rivalries within Scotland, and the king of England, while vying for control of Scotland himself, became just another player in the struggle for hegemony. Military defeats, waning support for the Balliols, and the troubles caused by the Hundred Years War all combined to favor David II, who retained his crown because support for Balliol disappeared. He continued to face, however, much opposition to his rule until his death and the beginning of the Stewart dynasty. Barrell characterized these later conflicts in the Bruce dynasty in this way:
“The war between Edward Balliol and the adherents of young David II must be regarded as a continuation of a long-running, essentially internal, struggle between two families who cannot in either case be regarded as unambiguously Scottish; rather, they belonged to an aristocracy whose interests were not constrained by the peaceful border between England and Scotland in the thirteenth century.”
The Scottish nobility, as much as if not more than the English king, was a critical factor in deciding who would retain power over Scotland.
In conclusion, the Wars of Independence in medieval Scotland were times of turmoil with many battles and shifting alliances between contenders for the throne. Since the Guardians of the Realm had asked Edward I for help in deciding who would ascend the throne after the end of the Canmore family, the English kings desired to control Scotland, or at least, they acted as contenders in a larger contest for control. The noble families of Scotland who were in a position to take the crown were not simply anti-English, in fact, many members of those families made agreements and allegiances with the English kings as a means to gain greater power than their Scottish rivals. In this way, the English kings were players along with the Scottish nobility for control of the throne, not just antagonists of Scottish freedom. While these wars remain a source of Scottish legend and national identity, they were far more complicated than just conflicts of Scotsmen fighting against the English, yet they were an integral step towards a unified Scottish nation and a developed idea of Scottish national identity.
A.D.M. Barrell, Medieval Scotland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Jonathan Hearn, Claiming Scotland: National Identity and Liberal Culture, Edinburgh: Polygon Press, 2000.
Wallace Notestein, The Scot in History: A Study of the Interplay of Character and History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947.
 Barrell, Medieval Scotland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 97.
 Jonathan Hearn, Claiming Scotland: National Identity and Liberal Culture, Edinburgh: Polygon Press, 2000, 102.
 Barrell, 111.
 Ibid., 115.
 Wallace Notestein, The Scot in History: A Study of the Interplay of Character and History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947, 16.
 Barrell, 133.