“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 7)

The next chapter in this book is another diversion from the chronological survey – the second of three. The first one dealt with England’s relations with the Welsh (post), and this one will look at English-Scottish relations during the period. The final one is in a couple of chapters time and will deal with Anglo-French relations … clearly the theme of these is War, the England of this period did not play nice with others.


Conflict with Scotland stretched across the reigns of all three Edwards – starting in 1296. It can be split into phases that roughly correlate with the different Edwards – first success for the English under Edward I, then defeat under Edward II followed by success under Edward III. In the late 1330s the Anglo-Scottish conflict gets tangled up with the Anglo-French one. Prestwich says that the conflict didn’t come out of a growing sense of hostility between the two countries, the relationship was cordial despite some tensions. The Scottish establishment formed much the same sort of structure as the English one (unlike the Welsh one), and the political situation there was stable. There was intermarriage between the two monarchies, and the Scottish Kings also held lands in England. This created a situation similar to that between England and France, in this case the Scottish Kings owed the English King homage for their English lands, but it was a less tense situation. Prestwich suggests that’s because the Scottish Kings were longer lived, so the homage paying happened less frequently. Importantly for the conflict discussed in this chapter the Scottish were very clear that homage was only owed for their English lands, and the Scottish King was not subordinate to the English one. There was however a weak precedent created by Henry III of the English Kings having some right to interference in Scottish politics and the Scottish succession. Henry had helped ensure the stability of Scotland during Alexander III’s minority.

Edward I took this weak precedent and when opportunity presented itself he ran with it. When Alexander III died in 1286 his only direct line heir was his 3 year old granddaughter, Margaret of Norway. Edward I took advantage of this situation by marrying his son Edward II to her – there was a treaty “guaranteeing” that Scotland remained separate after this marriage, but Edward I was probably going to ignore this. However that point was soon moot, Margaret of Norway died in Orkney in 1290. While this was the death knell for Edward I’s hope of gaining the Scottish crown for his son peacefully, it did present an opportunity to both meddle in the succession and set himself up as overlord of Scotland. There were no more direct line heirs to Alexander III so there was a choice between 14 heirs with varying (and disputed) degrees of right to the throne. Edward I was invited to adjudicate the choice of new monarch – and he took advantage of this to manipulate the succession in favour of a candidate willing to treat him as overlord. John Balliol fit this criteria well, and was willing after he gained the Scottish crown to appease the English & to do homage to Edward I for Scotland as well as his English lands. Unsurprisingly he’s gone down in history as ineffectual.

When war broke out between England and France in 1294 there was a coup against the pro-English Balliol and the new regime (a council of 12) allied with the French (and refused a feudal summons to fight for Edward I). Edward reacted to this with a campaign against the Scottish which was successful, but this was not to last. In 1297 William Wallace enters the story with the campaigns he lead against the English. Wallace was a knight who had risen to a leadership position, and his initial raids into England were very successful – halted only by the weather, not by Edward I’s troops who were away fighting in Flanders. Edward’s response was four campaigns against the Scottish over the next 5 years. The first of these, in 1298, was such a defeat for Wallace’s Scottish forces that it was the last time they met the English in battle proper until Bannockburn in 1314. Edward’s campaigns were characterised by overwhelming force and troop numbers – after 1298 the Scottish made raids and fought smaller engagements but kept out of the way of the main English force. Towards the end of this period various Scottish nobles (including Robert Bruce) were coming over to the English side – the best way to preserve their estates now it looked like the English had the upper hand. The ordinary people were generally hostile to the English (in contrast to the situation in the earlier Welsh campaigns) and Edward I tried (but mostly didn’t succeed) to win them over. This popular support is part of what underlay the success of Wallace’s initial campaign.

Politics and relations with France were very important for how this phase of the Scottish war played out. The flashpoint for it was the alliance of Scotland and France, and the great successes for Edward I came after he’d come to terms with the French in 1303. Part of the peace negotiations were about France no longer supporting Scotland, and after that was agreed the Scottish had no international support. In 1304 the Scottish regime surrendered. Edward I now treated Scotland as a part of his land, sidestepping the issue of the crown of Scotland entirely. Unsurprisingly this peace didn’t last long – in 1306 Robert Bruce had become disillusioned with his treatment by the English. He murdered John Comyn (who’d surrendered to the English) and was crowned King of Scotland. This rebellion against the English was a gamble, and Prestwich points out that it nearly failed. In fact it was the death of Edward I in 1307 that stopped it from being a disaster for the Scots.

And now we’re in phase 2 of the war – lead by the ineffectual Edward II (see the last chapter of the book (post) for Prestwich’s damning opinion of this king). Events after this show how the character of the king was important in determining the course of the war. The 1307 campaign against the Scots was abandoned, and nothing further done till 1310. By this stage Bruce has managed to stabilise and solidify his hold on the Scottish throne. After a desultory English campaign in Scotland in 1310 Bruce was secure enough to start taking the fight to the English, conducting wide ranging raids on the north of England. The stage was set for the next big English campaign in Scotland – in 1314 Edward II gathered a significant force to reinforce the siege of Stirling Castle. The Scottish in effect chose the battlefield at Bannockburn, and chose it well for their infantry forces to be superior to the English cavalry. There was much bickering about precedence and prestige amongst the English commanders, which didn’t help the situation for the English any. The battle was a resounding defeat for the English, who rather went home with their tails between their legs. The Scottish raiding of the north intensified, pushing as far south as Yorkshire. Edward II lead a few more campaigns but they failed to achieve anything, and were again characterised by poor relations and communication between the various bits of the command structure. In 1323 the then Earl of Carlisle negotiated a peace with the Scottish – somewhat against the King’s wishes and far too favourable to the Scottish for Edward II’s tastes. After the Earl of Carlisle was executed for treason a different truce was negotiated – notably not acknowledging Bruce as King of Scotland.

This peace wasn’t to last. In 1327 phase 3 of the war kicked off – the Scots took advantage of the political confusion in England and set out to annex Northumberland. Isabella & Mortimer assembled an army and marched north. It wasn’t a terribly effective campaign, and the peace negotiated in 1328 favoured the Scottish: amongst other things Scotland would be recognised by the English crown as fully independent. Notably this peace included no provision for the English nobles who had claims on lands in Scotland – these men became known as the Disinherited and they kicked off the war again in 1332 with a private invasion of Scotland. These men included the son of John Balliol, who had himself crowned King of Scotland. Edward Balliol was soon in trouble against the Scottish and so he called in help from Edward III, promising him the south of Scotland as his own, as well as promising to pay homage and acknowledge Edward III as his overlord. The war followed much the same patterns as before. Big English campaigns that didn’t do very much, and lots and lots of Scottish raiding. The Scots were firmly in the ascendency – but there was a turning point in 1346 when David II of Scotland (Robert Bruce’s son) was captured by the English. With their King in custody the Scots had to negotiate with the English. This took 10 years before agreement was reached (and more warring in the meantime) and the peace negotiated here lasts out past the scope of this book (which is covering history up to 1360).

Having talked about the chronology of the war Prestwich now turns to some themes that run throughout the conflict. The first of these is land and patronage. Many English and Scottish nobles held lands on both sides of the border, and during the peaceful 13th Century this promoted stability. Once war actually broke out in 1297 the reverse was true. Some nobles fought with the ruler of the “other” country, as that best served their interests. Some changed sides as it seemed to suit their needs. The English and Scottish Kings would disinherit some of these nobles, and give their lands to more trustworthy men, which only served to increase resentment and a sense of personal grievance to fuel the war.

One of the strands running through the whole of this part of the book is the changing organisation of the army from a fairly standard feudal army to the army that was capable of great victories against the French in the Hundred Years War. This doesn’t actually much interest me – when reading about history I’m more interested in the intersect between the personal and the political, and in how people lived (which will be covered in the next part of this book after the chronological section). So in brief, Prestwich lays out here how the army and how tactics changed over the years of war with the Scots. And I think his thesis is that this was the crucible that forged the army into a more effective fighting force, learning from the difficulties and disasters of this war.

And Prestwich finishes with a look at the human cost of the war. First he looks at the fighting men – those whose deaths would be mentioned in records, and those who needed ransomed. While many ordinary men were killed it was notable that very few nobles died. English captured by the Scottish tended to be ransomed as per the normal rules of war; Scottish (in particular nobles) captured by the English in the early stages of the war were often executed. Prestwich notes that this highlights both the different attitudes of the two sides, and that this lead to increased resentment and grievance as the war progressed. At first the English regarded the Scottish as rebels, so not subject to the rules of war, whereas the Scottish saw themselves as fighting a normal war between two sovereign and independent realms.

The collateral damage inflicted on the north of England during this period was huge. It wasn’t all caused by the Scots either, English knights also took advantage of the breakdown of law & order to extort protection money from towns and villages and to destroy the lands of those who didn’t comply. Some people did prosper from the war – mostly due to the high turnover in the holders of titles as families were removed from power due to political disagreement or death. But for the majority of the north this was a catastrophe of enormous proportions. Records written for the purposes of taxation both secular and ecclesiastical show massive drops in value of property and estates across the whole region. For instance in 1318 Northumberland isn’t even included in the valuations for ecclesiastical taxes – there’s not sufficient income in the area to be worth the time to figure out what is owed. At the same time all valuations in Carlisle are at half what they were before the war. By 1319 the northern counties are exempt from lay taxation, and this extends as far south as Lancashire.

All told the brutality of the English regime in executing prisoners and the destructive raiding by the Scottish on northern England together served to harden the attitudes of both nations into hostility to each other. With many future repercussions.

Tangents to follow up on: I really don’t know as much about Scottish history as I should.