Post-classical history



THE FAILURES OF THE REIGN OF EDWARD II HAD PERMANENT EFFECTS on the unity of the British Isles. Bannockburn ended the possibility of uniting the English and Scottish Crowns by force. Across the Irish Sea the dream of a consolidated Anglo-Norman Ireland also proved vain. Centuries could scarcely break down the barrier that the ruthless Scottish wars had raised between North and South Britain. From Edward I’s onslaught on Berwick, in 1296, the armed struggle had raged for twenty-seven years. It was not until 1323 that Robert the Bruce at last obliged Edward II to come to terms. Even then Bruce was not formally recognised as King of Scots. This title, and full independence for his country, he gained by the Treaty of Northampton signed in 1328 after Edward’s murder. A year later the saviour of Scotland was dead.

One of the most famous stories of medieval chivalry tells how Sir James, the “Black” Douglas, for twenty years the faithful sword-arm of the Bruce, took his master’s heart to be buried in the Holy Land, and how, touching at a Spanish port, he responded to a sudden call of chivalry and joined the hard-pressed Christians in battle with the Moors. Charging the heathen host, he threw far into the mêlée the silver casket containing the heart of Bruce. “Forward, brave heart, as thou wert wont. Douglas will follow thee or die!” He was killed in the moment of victory. So Froissart tells the story in prose and Aytoun in stirring verse, and so, in every generation, Scottish children have been thrilled by the story of “the Good Lord James.”

While the Bruce had lived his great prestige, and the loyalty of his lieutenants, served as a substitute for the institutions and traditions that united England. His death left the throne to his son, David II, a child of six, and there ensued one of those disastrous minorities that were the curse of Scotland. The authority of the Scottish kings had often been challenged by the great magnates of the Lowlands and by the Highland chiefs. To this source of weakness were now added others. The kin of the “Red” Comyn, never forgiving his assassination by Bruce, were always ready to lend themselves to civil strife. And the barons who had supported the cause of Balliol, and lost their Scottish lands to the followers of Bruce, constantly dreamt of regaining them with English help. David II reigned for forty-two years, but no less than eighteen of them were spent outside his kingdom. For a long spell during the wars of his Regents with the Balliol factions he was a refugee in France. On his return he showed none of his father’s talents. Loyalty to France led him to invade England. In 1346, the year of Crécy, he was defeated and captured at Neville’s Cross in County Durham. Eleven years of imprisonment followed before he was ransomed for a sum that sorely taxed Scotland. David II was succeeded by his nephew Robert the High Steward, first king of a line destined to melancholy fame.

For many generations the Stuarts, as they came euphoniously to be called, had held the hereditary office from which they took their name. Their claim to the throne was legitimate but they failed to command the undivided loyalty of the Scots. The first two Stuarts, Robert II and Robert III, were both elderly men of no marked strength of character. The affairs of the kingdom rested largely in the hands of the magnates, whether assembled in the King’s Council or dispersed about their estates. For the rest of the fourteenth century, and throughout most of the fifteenth, Scotland was too deeply divided to threaten England, or be of much help to her old ally France. A united England, free from French wars, might have taken advantage of the situation, but by the mid-fifteenth century England was herself tormented by the Wars of the Roses.

Union of the Crowns was the obvious and natural solution. But after the English attempts, spread over several reigns, had failed to impose union by force, the re-invigorated pride of Scotland offered an insurmountable obstacle. Hatred of the English was the mark of a good Scot. Though discontented nobles might accept English help and English pay, the common people were resolute in their refusal to bow to English rule in any form. The memory of Bannockburn kept a series of notable defeats at the hands of the English from breeding despair or thought of surrender.

It is convenient to pursue Scottish history further at this stage. Destiny was adverse to the House of Stuart. Dogged by calamity, they could not create enduring institutions comparable to those by whose aid the great Plantagenets tamed English feudalism. King Robert III sent his son later James I to be schooled in France. Off Flamborough Head in 1406 he was captured by the English, and taken prisoner to London. He was twelve years old. In the following month, King Robert died, and for eighteen years Scotland had no monarch. The English government was at last prepared to let King James I be ransomed and return to his country. Captivity had not daunted James. He had conceived a justfiable admiration for the English monarch’s position and powers, and on his arrival in Scotland he asserted his sovereignty with vigour. During his effective reign of thirteen years he ruthlessly disciplined the Scottish baronage. It was not an experience they enjoyed. James put down his cousins of the House of Albany, whose family had been regents during his absence. He quelled the pretensions to independence of the powerful Lord of the Isles, who controlled much of the Northern mainland as well as the Hebrides. All this was accompanied by executions and widespread confiscations of great estates. At length a party of infuriated lords decided on revenge; in 1437 they found the opportunity to slay James by the sword. So died, and before his task had been accomplished, one of the most forceful of Scottish kings.

The throne once more descended to a child, James II, aged seven. After the inevitable tumults of his minority the boy grew into a popular and vigorous ruler. He had need of his gifts for the “Black” Douglases, descendants of Bruce’s faithful knight, had now become over-mighty subjects and constituted a heavy menace to the Crown. Enriched by estates confiscated from Balliol supporters, they were the masters of South-West Scotland. Large territories in the East were held by their kin, the “Red” Douglases, and they also made agile use of their alliances with the clans and confederacies of the North. Moreover, they had a claim, acceptable in the eyes of some, to the throne itself.

For more than a century the Douglases had been among the foremost champions of Scotland; one of them had been the hero of the Battle of Otterburn, celebrated in the ballad of Chevy Chase. Their continual intrigues, both at home and at the English court, with which they were in touch, incensed the young and high-spirited King. In 1452, when he had not long turned twenty-one, James invited the “Black” Douglas to Stirling. Under a safe-conduct he came; and there the King himself in passion stabbed him with his own hand. The King’s attendants finished his life. But to cut down the chief of the Douglases was not to stamp out the family. James found himself sorely beset by the Douglas’s younger brother and by his kin. Only in 1455 did he finally succeed, by burning their castles and ravaging their lands, in driving the leading Douglases over the Border. In England they survived for many years to vex the House of Stuart with plots and conspiracies, abetted by the English Crown.

James II was now at the height of his power, but fortune seldom favoured the House of Stuart for very long. Taking advantage of the English civil wars, James in 1460 set siege to the castle of Roxburgh, a fortress that had remained in English hands. One of his special interests was cannon and fire-power. While inspecting one of his primitive siege-guns, the piece exploded, and he was killed by a flying fragment. James II was then in his thirtieth year. For the fourth time in little more than a century a minor inherited the Scottish Crown. James III was a boy of nine. As he grew up, he showed some amiable qualities; he enjoyed music and took an interest in architecture. But he failed to inherit the capacity for rule displayed by his two predecessors. His reign, which lasted into Tudor times, was much occupied by civil wars and disorders, and its most notable achievement was the rounding off of Scotland’s territories by the acquisition, in lieu of a dowry, of Orkney and Shetland from the King of Denmark whose daughter James married.


The disunity of the kingdom, fostered by English policy and perpetuated by the tragedies that befell the Scottish sovereigns, was not the only source of Scotland’s weakness. The land was divided, in race, in speech, and in culture. The rift between Highlands and Lowlands was more than a geographical distinction. The Lowlands formed part of the feudal world, and, except in the South-West, in Galloway, English was spoken. The Highlands preserved a social order much older than feudalism. In the Lowlands the King of Scots was a feudal magnate, in the Highlands he was the chief of a loose federation of clans. He had, it is true, the notable advantage of blood kinship both with the new Anglo-Norman nobility and with the ancient Celtic kings. The Bruces were undoubted descendants of the family of the first King of Scots in the ninth century, Kenneth MacAlpin, as well as of Alfred the Great; the Stuarts claimed, with some plausibility, to be the descendants of Macbeth’s contemporary, Banquo. The lustre of a divine antiquity illumined princes whose pedigree ran back into the Celtic twilight of Irish heroic legend. For all Scots, Lowland and Highland alike, the royal house had a sanctity which commanded reverence through periods when obedience and even loyalty were lacking; and much was excused those in whom royal blood ran.

But reverence was not an effective instrument of government. The Scottish Estates did not create the means of fusion of classes that were provided by the English Parliament. In law and fact feudal authority remained far stronger than in England. The King’s justice was excluded from a great part of Scottish life, and many of his judges were ineffective competitors with the feudal system. There was no equivalent of the Justice of the Peace or of the Plantagenet Justices in Eyre.

Over much of the kingdom feudal justice itself fought a doubtful battle with the more ancient clan law. The Highland chiefs might formally owe their lands and power to the Crown and be classified as feudal tenants-in-chief, but their real authority rested on the allegiance of their clansmen. Some clan chiefs, like the great house of Gordon, in the Highlands, were also feudal magnates in the neighbouring Lowlands. In the West, the rising house of Campbell played either rôle as it suited them. They were to exercise great influence in the years to come.

Meanwhile the Scots peasant farmer and the thrifty burgess, throughout these two hundred years of political strife, pursued their ways and built up the country’s real strength, in spite of the numerous disputes among their lords and masters. The Church devoted itself to its healing mission, and many good bishops and divines adorn the annals of medieval Scotland. In the fifteenth century three Scots universities were founded, St. Andrew’s, Glasgow and Aberdeen—one more than England had until the nineteenth century.


Historians of the English-speaking peoples have been baffled by medieval Ireland. Here in the westernmost of the British Isles dwelt one of the oldest Christian communities in Europe. It was distinguished by missionary endeavours and monkish scholarship while England was still a battlefield for heathen Germanic invaders. Until the twelfth century however Ireland had never developed the binding feudal institutions of state that were gradually evolving elsewhere. A loose federation of Gaelic-speaking rural principalities was dominated by a small group of clan patriarchs who called themselves “kings.” Over all lay the shadowy authority of the High King of Tara, which was not a capital city but a sacred hill surmounted by earthworks of great antiquity. Until about the year 1000 the High King was generally a member of the powerful northern family of O’Neill. The High Kings exercised no real central authority, except as the final arbiters of genealogical disputes, and there were no towns of Irish founding from which government power could radiate.

When the long, sorrowful story began of English intervention in Ireland, the country had already endured the shock and torment of Scandinavian invasion. But although impoverished by the ravages of the Norsemen, and its accepted order of things greatly disturbed, Ireland was not remade. It was the Norsemen who built the first towns—Dublin, Waterford, Limerick and Cork. The High Kingship had been in dispute since the great Brian Boru, much lamented in song, had broken the O’Neill succession, only himself to be killed in his victory over the Danes at Clontarf in 1014. A century and a half later, one of his disputing successors, the King of Leinster, took refuge at the court of Henry II in Aquitaine. He secured permission to raise help for his cause from among Henry’s Anglo-Norman knights. It was a fateful decision for Ireland. In 1169 there arrived in the country the first progenitors of the Anglo-Norman ascendancy.

Led by Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and known as “Strongbow,” the invaders were as much Welsh as Norman; and with their French-speaking leaders came the Welsh rank and file. Even to-day some of the commonest Irish names suggest a Welsh ancestry. Others of the leaders were of Flemish origin. But all represented the high, feudal society that ruled over Western Europe, and whose conquests already ranged from Wales to Syria. Irish military methods were no match for the newcomers, and “Strongbow,” marrying the daughter of the King of Leinster, might perhaps have set up a new feudal kingdom in Ireland, as had been done by William the Conqueror in England, by Roger in Sicily, and by the Crusading chiefs in the Levant. But “Strongbow” was doubtful both of his own strength and of the attitude of his vigilant superior, Henry II. So the conquests were proffered to the King, and Henry briefly visited this fresh addition to his dominions in 1171 in order to receive the submission of his new vassals. The reviving power of the Papacy had long been offended by the traditional independence of the Irish Church. By Papal Bull in 1155 the overlordship of Ireland had been granted to the English king. The Pope at the time was Adrian IV, an Englishman and the only Englishman ever to be Pope. Here were foundations both spiritual and practical. But the Lord of England and of the greater part of France had little time for Irish problems. He left the affairs of the island to the Norman adventurers, the “Conquistadores” as they have been called. It was a pattern often to be repeated.

The century that followed Henry II’s visit marked the height of Anglo-Norman expansion. More than half the country was by now directly subjected to the knightly invaders. Among them was Gerald of Windsor, ancestor of the Fitzgerald family, the branches of which, as Earls of Kildare and Lords of much else, were for long to control large tracts of southern and central Ireland. There was also William de Burgh, brother of the great English Justiciar, and ancestor of the Earls of Ulster; and Theobald Walter, King John’s butler, founder of the powerful Butler family of Ormond which took their name from his official calling. But there was no organised colonisation and settlement. English authority was accepted in the Norse towns on the Southern and Eastern coasts, and the King’s writ ran over a varying area of country surrounding Dublin. This hinterland of the capital was significantly known as “The Pale,” which might be defined as a defended enclosure. Immediately outside lay the big feudal lordships, and beyond these were the “wild” unconquered Irish of the west. Two races dwelt in uneasy balance, and the division between them was sharpened when a Parliament of Ireland evolved towards the end of the thirteenth century. From this body the native Irish were excluded; it was a Parliament in Ireland of the English only.


Within a few generations of the coming of the Anglo-Normans, however, the Irish chieftains began to recover from the shock of new methods of warfare. They hired mercenaries to help them, originally in large part recruited from the Norse-Celtic stock of the Scottish western isles. These were the terrible “galloglasses,” named from the Irish words for “foreign henchmen.” Supported by these ferocious axe-bearers, the clan chiefs regained for the Gaelic-speaking peoples wide regions of Ireland, and might have won more, had they not incessantly quarrelled among themselves.

Meanwhile a change of spirit had overtaken many of the Anglo-Norman Irish barons. These great feudatories were constantly tempted by the independent rôle of the Gaelic clan chief that was theirs for the taking. They could in turn be subjects of the English King or petty kings themselves, like their new allies, with whom they were frequently united by marriage. Their stock was seldom reinforced from England, except by English lords who wedded Irish heiresses, and then became absentee landlords. Gradually however a group of Anglo-Irish nobles grew up, largely assimilated to their adopted land, and as impatient as their Gaelic peasants of rule from London.

If English kings had regularly visited Ireland, or regularly appointed royal princes as resident lieutenants the ties between the two countries might have been closely and honourably woven together. As it was, when the English King was strong, English laws generally made headway; otherwise a loose Celtic anarchy prevailed. King John, in his furious fitful energy, twice went to Ireland and twice brought the quarrelsome Norman barons and Irish chiefs under his suzerainty. Although Edward I never landed in Ireland, English authority was in the ascendant. Thereafter, the Gaels revived. The shining example of Scotland was not lost upon them. The brother of the victor of Bannockburn, Edward Bruce, was called in by his relations among the Irish chiefs with an army of Scottish veterans. He was crowned King of Ireland in 1316, but after a temporary triumph and in spite of the aid of his brother was defeated and slain at Dundalk.

Thus Ireland did not break loose from the English crown and gain independence under a Scottish dynasty. But the victory of English arms did not mean a victory for English law, custom or speech. The Gaelic reaction gathered force. In Ulster the O’Neills gradually won the mastery of Tyrone. In Ulster and Connaught the feudal trappings were openly discarded when the line of the de Burgh Earls of Ulster ended in 1333 with a girl. According to feudal law, she succeeded to the whole inheritance, and was the King’s ward to be married at his choice. In fact she was married to Edward Ill’s second son, Lionel of Clarence. But in Celtic law women could not succeed to the chief tainship. The leading male members of the cadet branches of the de Burgh family accordingly “went Irish,” snatched what they could of the inheritance and assumed the clan names of Burke or, after their founder, MacWilliam. They openly defied the Government in Ulster and Connaught; in the Western province both French and Irish were spoken but not English, and English authority vanished from these outer parts.

To preserve the English character of the Pale and of its surrounding Anglo-Norman lordships, a Parliament was summoned in the middle of the fourteenth century. Its purpose was to prevent the English from “going Irish” and to compel men of Irish race in the English-held parts of Ireland to conform to English ways. But its enactments had little effect. In the Pale the old Norman settlers clung to their privileged position and opposed all attempts by the representatives of the Crown to bring the “mere Irish” under the protection of English laws and institutions. Most of Ireland by now lay outside the Pale, either under native chiefs who had practically no dealings with the representatives of the English kings, or controlled by Norman dynasts such as the two branches of the Fitzgeralds, who were earls or clan chiefs, as suited them best. English authority stifled the creation of either a native or a “Norman” centre of authority, and the absentee “Lord of Ireland” in London could not provide a substitute, nor even prevent his own colonists from intermingling with the population. By Tudor times anarchic Ireland lay open to reconquest, and to the tribulations of reimposing English royal authority was to be added from Henry VIII’s Reformation onwards the fateful divisions of religious belief.

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