History Lesson: First War of Scottish Independence

Rooster dives into the first War of Scottish Independence on this edition of History Lesson.

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During the late Iron Age and early Medieval periods, the Picts (painted ones) lived in what the Romans called Caledonia or what is now known as Scotland. When the Romans tried pushing up north past Britannia, the Picts forced them to retreat and stay behind Hadrian’s Wall and eventually to abandon the territory entirely. Around the 6th century, there formed a Gaelic kingdom in the west and these Scotti were converted to Celtic Christianity by the Irish. The Picts refused this religion in order to limit Scotti influence and so as not to start war with Northumbria in the south east. However, in the 8th century, after consistent defeat, all three fierce kingdoms (the northern Picts, the western Gaelic Scotti, and the southeastern Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria) were forced to unite under Vikings, and the wild Kingdom of Scotland was born.

The first king of the united Scotland was Kenneth MacAlpin. The usual disputes erupted over succession, but the important thing is that Scotland was ruled by Scottish kings, from one house or another, for approximately 443 years. The last heir in question was Margaret, a child that died at the age of four in a shipwreck sailing from Norway to Scotland.

After Margaret died, two men competed for the throne: John Balliol and Robert the Bruce. They were related and had equally strong ties to the throne; Bruce was closer in the family tree, but Balliol had the more legitimate claim in the line of succession. The Guardians of Scotland, a group of nobles and bishops ruling Scotland during the interim between kings, turned to Edward I of England to make the decision between Bruce and Balliol.

Seeing his opportunity to become more than the King of England, Edward asked for overlordship status, which the Scots declined. The Guardians of Scotland would not surrender their country to the English. But Edward was dangerously clever. He knew that if there were more than two claimants he would have to be granted authority to judge under medieval law. He quickly found other claimants to muddy the waters and, in order to stay ahead in the running, Bruce and Balliol paid homage to Edward. Balliol was the one crowned King of Scotland in 1292, but since both claimants had already recognized Edward as overlord, the damage was done.

This is how the War of Scottish Independence began, among the most crucial times in Scottish history and defining the country even today, much like the American Revolutionary War for Americans.

Soon after Balliol was crowned king, Edward intervened in legal affairs, took Scottish taxes, and bolstered the English army by forcing the Scottish soldiers to fight against the French. The Scottish were not strong enough on their own to defy England, so they signed the Auld Alliance with the French. But Edward’s retribution was quick and brutal. The English violently sacked Berwick, the most economically powerful Scottish city at the time.

King Balliol was forced to surrender and publicly de-crowned. Soon after, all of Scottish nobility was imprisoned. Edward wasn’t satisfied just yet — he wanted to completely destroy Scottish identity and heritage by taking the crown, the stone the Scottish were inaugurated on, and a relic believed to be a piece of the cross of Jesus.

“We fight not for glory, nor for wealth, nor honour but only and alone for freedom which no good man surrenders but with his life.” – Robert the Bruce

 In 1297, Scotland would claim its first victory against England in centuries at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. A small army of Scottish spearmen led by William Wallace defeated a much larger, better trained, and heavily armored force. Wallace was made a Guardian of Scotland, and he took the fight onto English soil. But within the next year, the frightened English rallied behind Edward resulting in Wallace’s defeat at The Battle of Falkirk. After that battle, Wallace resigned from Guardianship in favor of Robert the Bruce.

Wallace tried to gather support in France while the Scottish Church pleaded directly to the Pope. However, the Papacy needed the English and its resources more than it needed the Scottish in its continuing war against Islam. After seven years of defeat with no end in sight, the Scottish nobility finally surrendered to Edward. The only resistance left was Wallace and his followers, but as Edward handed out offices to his Scottish supporters and gained their loyalty, Wallace only became a nuisance to the nobility. He was exiled, captured, and given a show trial where he was then hanged, drawn, and quartered – the standard punishment for high treason.

The story gets a little muddied, as some shady and covert plans were made that culminated in Robert the Bruce being crowned king after stabbing a member of the Comyn family. The stabbing led to a civil war with the Comyns, and Bruce’s excommunication and outlaw. He fled to the Gaelic west to rethink his strategy. Instead of underhanded politics, he decided on a more violent approach, and his guerrilla campaigns against his Scottish enemies were successful. Hearing of the new pretender king’s uprising, Edward marched north in order to personally deal with the problem. During this march, Edward I, “The Hammer of the Scots,” died of dysentery.

Robert the Bruce’s success continued, which excited Scotland, and the people began to rally behind him in hopes of liberation. Most of Scotland supported Bruce by 1313, and he gave those loyal to Balliol one last chance to either join him or lose their estates. This challenge, plus the threat of imminent surrender of an English regiment stationed in Scotland, compelled Edward II to invade with the largest English army that had ever marched into Scotland. The Scottish army had mostly spearman and a small cavalry, but their smaller numbers were compensated with battle experience. Edward II crossed into Scotland in June of 1314, and The Battle of Bannockburn ensued.

The Battle of Bannockburn started with a famous confrontation. An English knight in the vanguard spotted some Scottish men, including Robert the Bruce, withdrawing into the woods. With heroic notions, the knight spurred his warhorse towards Bruce and lowered his lance in a very quintessentially medieval charge. Battle hardened Bruce simply turned towards the on-coming knight, met the charge, dodged the lance, and brought his battle-axe down hard on the knight’s helmet, killing him. With high spirits, the Scottish spearmen fought offensively rather than their typical defensive style. With the fighting taking place in the woods, the English long-bows were fruitless, and the first day’s victory went to the Scottish.

English spirits were low, and Edward still hoped to get the Scottish out in the open so his archers could decimate their enemy. A Scottish noble and supporter of Balliol was in the English army and defected to Bruce’s army that night, bringing them crucial intel. Armed with the knowledge of the low English morale and the archers, Bruce decided to put everything on the line in the morning. The two armies met out in the open at dawn, and the Scots held mass before the start.

As they knelt in prayer, Edward II joked about them kneeling for mercy. Another Scotsman supporter of Balliol in the English army remarked to Edward, “They ask for mercy, but not from you. They ask God for mercy for their sins. I’ll tell you something for a fact, that yon men will win all or die. None will flee for fear of death.” The Scottish would fight to the very end, a characteristic that would show itself again at the Battle of Culloden centuries later.

The spearmen closed in on the English, once again making the English archers useless. Flanked on both sides by Scottish, the English were losing quickly before Bruce brought in his fresh Gaels and Highlanders to finish the job. Edward II and his banner were seen escorted from the inevitable loss and the English fled into the burn (Scottish for stream or river), where many of them drowned. The English loss was heavy, Edward II ran back to England, and Bruce won de facto independence for Scotland.

Scotland’s sovereignty was officially recognized in 1320 with the Declaration of Arbroath, and is one of the most important documents in creating the Scottish national identity. In 1328, Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, acknowledging Bruce as the king of an independent Scotland. After Bruce’s death, Edward III attempted to get Balliol on the throne, in what would be the Second War of Independence, but he lost interest in favor of the Hundred Years’ War against the French. Scotland remained separate and distinct from England until the political union in the 1700s, which would give rise to another struggle for independence.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

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