Post-classical history

The Minority of Henry III and its Sequel, 1216–34, Llywelyn the Great, 1194–1240, and Alexander II, 1214–49

No king of England came to the throne in a more desperate situation than Henry III. He was only nine and commanded less than half his kingdom. Louis, eldest son of the king of France, to whom the rebels had offered the throne, held London and the allegiance of nineteen of the twenty-seven greatest barons. Henry’s coronation on 28 October took place perforce not at Westminster but at Gloucester, and there it was disturbed by news of a Welsh attack on Goodrich, less than eighteen miles away. Meanwhile in the north King Alexander had recovered Carlisle and done homage to Louis for the northern counties.

Nevertheless it was not all gloom. For fifteen weeks through the summer and autumn of 1216 Louis had personally directed the siege of Dover castle, and had been repulsed by its great castellan, Hubert de Burgh. The castle was indeed, as Hubert put it, ‘the key to England’. Towering above and controlling Dover port, its possession meant the Angevins could still sweep the Channel and threaten Louis’s communications with France. The next year Dover was to prove vital to victory. John’s party of castellans and magnates also remained solid. The former, often parvenu foreigners, had nowhere else to go; the latter were often kept in place by private disputes with those on the other side. There was no point in Ranulf, earl of Chester, deserting when his rival for the earldom of Lincoln, Gilbert de Gant, was one of Louis’s leading supporters. As for William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, his defection would give the green light to his enemies in Ireland. In any case, he had hedged his bets (and protected his lordship of Longueville in Normandy) by condoning or at least failing to prevent the rebellion of his eldest son. William’s own explanation of his conduct was more inspiring and no less true. He would never desert the young king, he declared, even if it meant carrying the boy on his shoulders from country to country, begging for bread. ‘No man will ever have earned such glory on earth,’ cried William’s faithful steward John of Earley, who provided much of the information behind The Life of William Marshal, the brilliant verse biography which the family commissioned in the 1220s.

The Marshal made his declaration when he had just been chosen ‘ruler of the king and the kingdom’, in effect regent, by Henry’s supporters assembled for the coronation. His power – lord of Chepstow, Pembroke and Leinster – made him a natural choice. So did his over-whelming prestige. True, the Marshal was only a younger son of a middling Berkshire–Wiltshire magnate, the John Marshal who had been castellan of Marlborough in Stephen’s reign. Yet his rise had been not through a series of acrimonious wheels and deals but a great marriage, to Richard fitz Gilbert’s (Strongbow’s) daughter. And that marriage, gift of King Richard, was a tribute not to his exactions as an administrator but to his staunchness as a councillor and his prowess as a knight – indeed, as victory in countless tournaments across France had shown, the ‘greatest knight in the world’. Now nearly seventy, Marshal was still a beau sabreur, but he was also a calculating general and a canny politician: right at the start he delayed his election as regent until Ranulf, earl of Chester, his only possible rival, could arrive and agree to it. No one was better equipped to shoulder the young king’s cause.

Above the Marshal was Guala, the papal legate. John had made England a papal fief and Pope Honorius III (who had succeeded Innocent III in 1216) now gave Guala the fullest powers. Although not involved in day-to-day government, or of course in the fighting, his ultimate supremacy was uncontested, a remarkable testimony to papal authority. Eye-catching in his red robes, astride his white horse, this Italian cardinal, whose foundation of a house of canons at Vercelli was closest to his heart, acted with extraordinary energy and commitment in England, excommunicating Louis and his supporters and in 1217 turning the war into a crusade. Louis might control Westminster Abbey, but deprived of significant ecclesiastical support, there was no one to crown him. This was a crucial factor in his failure.

John had demanded that all those submitting to him forswear the Charter. Now the regent and Guala, with no time to consult the pope, executed a momentous volte-face. In November 1216 they issued in the king’s name, under their own seals (Henry’s had yet to be introduced), a revised version of Magna Carta. This was the first step in its survival. The regent, like the rest of John’s baronial supporters, had as much to gain from the Charter as the barons on the other side. The hope, of course, was that the latter, their cause conceded, would now return to the Angevin camp. That was slow to happen, both for reasons of honour and the private disputes which we have mentioned. The final arbitrament was by war. In the spring of 1217, King Alexander once again invaded the north. Louis split his army: he himself renewed the siege of Dover while sending the rest of his French forces to help his English allies who were inside Lincoln besieging the castle, gallantly defended by Nicola de la Haye. The regent, in the supreme decision of his career, exploited the division. Battles were rare events because they could be devastatingly decisive, as Bouvines had shown. Now he would fight one ‘with all for all’. On 20 May, after a daring personal reconnaissance by Bishop Peter of Winchester had discovered a way through the walls, the Angevins charged into Lincoln (the regent himself so eager that he nearly forgot his helmet) and won a complete victory. The battle had been typically chivalric. Among the nobles, only the count of Perche, the French commander, died, the result of a chance thrust through the eye-piece of his helmet, about which everyone was sorry. Robert fitz Walter, William de Mowbray, Nicholas de Stuteville, Gilbert de Gant and the flower of the baronial party simply surrendered. Perhaps the issue of the Charter, the succession of an innocent boy and resentments against Louis’s Frenchmen had indeed sapped their will. It remained for Hubert de Burgh to deliver the coup de grâce. On 24 August he sailed out of Dover (Louis having abandoned the siege on the news of Lincoln) and, in a great battle off Sandwich, destroyed the fleet bringing French reinforcements. The French captain, the fabled but non-noble Eustace the Monk, was captured and given one option: where on the ship was he to be beheaded? Chivalry was assuredly for the upper classes.

Louis was finished. Under the Treaty of Kingston-Lambeth in September he resigned his claims to the throne and returned to France, having secured good terms for his lay supporters. They were to be absolved from excommunication and recover their lands as held at the start of the war. The Charter was part of the package. In November 1217, as many former rebels renewed their homage to the king, another version of it was issued, again sealed by Guala and the regent, but this time with an entirely new charter alongside it regulating the bounds and administration of the royal forest. The name Magna Carta first appeared to distinguish it from its smaller forest brother.

The war was won, but the regent faced terrible problems. King Alexander soon resigned Carlisle, but Llywelyn was determined to retain his gains in Wales. Overseas, once the truce expired in 1220 King Philip might invade Poitou and Gascony, where in any case the king’s seneschal was so impecunious that (as he complained) he was treated like a little boy. In England royal authority had collapsed, much as it had done during the civil war of Stephen’s reign. The king’s revenue between 1217 and 1219 averaged some £8,000 a year, only a third of John’s in 1199, even without adjusting for inflation, and a mere bagatelle compared with his later takings. In November 1217 the king had only seven household knights, as opposed to John’s hundred. There had been a huge transfer of power from the centre to the localities. During the war the loyalist castellans, some of them great barons like the earl of Chester, others foreign military experts, had necessarily spent the revenue from their sheriffdoms themselves rather than passing it to the exchequer. They had also, with or without John’s consent, taken over royal lands. They saw no reason why things should change with the peace. Indeed they had (or so they said) taken an oath to King John not to surrender their offices until his son came of age, which – if baronial practice was followed – would not be until he was twenty-one in October 1228. Meanwhile there was another danger. Many of these local commissars refused to return possessions they had seized from rebels, a refusal which threatened to re-ignite hostilities. The loyalist castellans, having been the heroes of the war, became the villains of the peace.

At the start of his reign Henry II had quickly reasserted royal authority. For the minority government of his grandson it was a far more tortuous process. The regent looked after his own interests (especially in Wales) but also made a start on the king’s behalf. In July 1218, with an army to which many former rebels were summoned, he turned Robert de Gaugi (John’s Flemish knight) out of Newark castle and returned it to the bishop of Lincoln. Then in November 1218 a great council introduced a seal for the king and commissioned judges to tour the country, hearing all pleas both criminal and civil; this was the most comprehensive eyre since that of 1176. With a bench of justices at Westminster in session since early 1218, the Charter’s demand for the king’s justice to be more available and at a fixed place was thus fulfilled.

The regent resigned in April 1219 and died a month later, confident to the last in his values: ‘The argument of the clerks must be false or no one could be saved,’ he declared, reflecting that he could not now return a lifetime’s winnings. The government was initially taken on by a triumvirate composed of Pandulf, the papal legate (who, equally determined in his methods, had replaced Guala), the justiciar Hubert de Burgh, and the king’s tutor, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester. From these arrangements one person was absent: John’s widow, Henry III’s mother, Isabella of Angoulême. She had played no discernible part in politics under John, but in 1217, now in her late twenties, had pushed her way into the negotiations with Louis for the end of the war. Fiery and ambitious, she almost certainly aspired to a regency role like that soon to be played in France by Blanche of Castile, the mother of Louis IX. Its refusal may explain her decision, placing power above parenthood, to return to 1218 to Angoulême where her rights as countess were uncontested. There in 1220 she married the great Poitevin noble Hugh de Lusignan and produced a second family which later played a divisive role in English politics.

The future lay with Hubert de Burgh, who was to dominate English government and politics down to his fall in 1232. He was the younger son of a Norfolk knightly family which came from Burgh next Aylesham, near Norwich. Hubert’s elder brother William had followed John to Ireland and founded the Irish de Burghs – a connection important throughout Hubert’s career. Hubert himself had made his name as a heroic castellan, at Chinon (in 1205) and then at Dover. In 1215 John had made him justiciar in place of Bishop Peter, but it was only with the regent’s resignation that he received the powers the office implied. Hubert could read and he was highly intelligent. He had clear objectives, yet moved stealthily towards them. His first aim was to oust Bishop Peter from central government: a case of kill or be killed, for Peter deeply resented Hubert’s position as he himself had aspired to follow the regent. By the time of the king’s fourteenth birthday in October 1221 when Peter ceased to be his tutor, this objective had largely been achieved. With Pandulf’s withdrawal in the same year, Hubert ruled alone.

Hubert’s second aim was to do his duty as justiciar and restore the authority of the crown. That meant recovering crown lands and dismissing the entrenched sheriffs and castellans, a programme which Pandulf and the papacy had been urging since 1219. It was a programme which chimed well with Hubert’s own interests since it was Bishop Peter and his allies who held the largest share of local office. These included Ranulf, earl of Chester, and a whole group of foreigners: the Poitevin count of Aumale; the Norman Falkes de Bréauté and Engelard de Cigogné, Philip Mark and Peter de Maulay, all, like Bishop Peter, from the Touraine or its borders. This foreign component was immensely significant for it meant the conflict could be regarded as one between a party of native magnates and ministers, led by Hubert de Burgh on the one hand, and irresponsible and oppressive foreigners on the other. That was not how the foreigners themselves saw it. ‘All you native born men of England are traitors,’ raged Falkes de Bréauté, an outburst relayed by his enemies to Hubert, which shows that these tensions were felt by the actors themselves and were not simply the invention of chroniclers. Although foreshadowed before 1216, the scale of the struggle between the English and the aliens was altogether new. It was to envenom politics throughout the reign of Henry III.

Hubert and his allies moved forward gradually. In 1220, after a brief siege, the count of Aumale vacated the royal castle of Rockingham. Early next year another siege turned Aumale out of Castle Bytham in Lincolnshire and it was restored to its lord, the former rebel William de Coleville. In June 1221, after trumped-up charges of treason, Peter de Maulay was prised from the royal castle of Corfe. A year later, following several false attempts, the government carried through a resumption of crown land.

The conflict reached a climax in 1223, sparked off by papal letters ordering the king to be given control of his seal, and the castles and sheriffdoms to be surrendered. Hubert now consolidated an alliance with William Marshal II, earl of Pembroke (1219–31), the regent’s formidable son, by supporting his campaign against Llywelyn in south Wales. Then he came to terms with Archbishop Langton. Langton had returned to England in 1218. If he believed John a tyrant, he had nothing against kingship per se. On the contrary, it needed to be strong though subject to the law in order to fulfil its function: the protection of clergy and people. Langton was therefore a natural ally of Hubert, especially given the latter’s positive attitude to Magna Carta. In December 1223 archbishop and justiciar combined to enforce the papal mandate. The king, nominally at least, took control of his seal and thus of central government, although the ban introduced in 1218 on grants made in perpetuity stayed. In practice Hubert remained in charge at the centre, although joined there by the Langtonian bishop of Salisbury. At the same time all the sheriffs and castellans were summoned to Northampton where, intimidated by the size of the king’s forces and Langton’s threats, they surrendered their custodies, which soon ended up in the hands of Hubert’s supporters.

These changes hit one man especially: Falkes de Bréauté. Of peasant stock, or so it was said, he had begun his meteoric career as one of John’s serjeants-at-arms and called simply ‘Falkes’. His name was said to derive from the scythe with which he had killed someone in Normandy. Falkes certainly stood out. He was little in stature, but clever, ruthless and valiant. Having been appointed during the war, he commanded until 1223 no less than six Midlands counties, together with their royal castles. He had married the widow of the earl of Devon and had been given custody of the earldom during the minority of the heir, becoming ‘the equal of an earl’. Sharp of tongue, as we have seen, and embroiled in many private quarrels over land, he seemed to many the epitome of the jumped-up, disobedient, over-mighty foreigner, ‘more than king in England’, as the Tewkesbury annalist put it. Falkes had surrendered his custodies at the end of 1223, but the next year his brother William seized a royal judge and imprisoned him in Bedford castle, Falkes’s chief base. From 20 June to 15 August 1224 the royal army lay siege to the castle, taking it bit by bit. Falkes, although he was not inside, tearfully submitted and died in exile. His brother and members of the garrison were hanged.

Royal authority had been affirmed in England, and in Ireland also. Early in 1224 Hugh de Lacy had entered the lordship, aiming to recover the earldom of Ulster which he had lost in 1210. He was allied with his half-brother, William de Lacy, who now intruded into Meath at the expense of the third and loyalist Lacy brother, Walter, restored by John in 1215. In May 1224 the government responded by sending to Ireland as justiciar William Marshal II, earl of Pembroke and lord of Leinster. Rewarded by marriage to the king’s youngest sister, Eleanor, the appointment fitted perfectly with the Marshal’s wider interests. In attacking the Lacys he was attacking their allies, namely Llywelyn and the earl of Chester, who were both his enemies. He was also indirectly attacking Falkes de Bréauté, ‘that inconstant and mendacious man’ as the Marshal put it, with whom Chester was closely linked. With the politics of Ireland, Wales and England so closely intertwined, this was then a very British crisis. In Ireland it ended with the Marshal driving William de Lacy from Meath (after a siege of Trim) and Hugh from Ulster. Although the government eventually restored Hugh in 1226–7, it was only for the term of his life.

It was a different matter in France. In 1220 Philip Augustus had renewed the truce. In 1224 his son and successor Louis VIII (1223–6), the erstwhile invader of England, refused to do so. While Henry III laid siege to Bedford, Louis VIII conquered Poitou. Then Hugh de Lusignan, to whom Louis had granted Bordeaux, overran much of Gascony. This crisis on the continent led to the final establishment of Magna Carta in England.

A supreme effort was needed to save Gascony, and the government made it. In 1225 it dispatched an army under the earl of Salisbury and the king’s younger brother, Richard, now sixteen and beginning his long political career. With Bordeaux and Bayonne remaining loyal, and Louis (content with Poitou) not helping Hugh de Lusignan, they expelled the latter’s forces from Gascony. It remained in English hands until 1453. This success owed much to ample funds. In 1225 a great council agreed to levy a tax, a fifteenth on movables, which raised some £40,000. In return, in February 1225 the king issued new versions of Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, versions witnessed by those who had stood on opposite sides in the civil war, including eight of the twenty-five barons appointed to enforce the original Charter back in 1215. Here, then, was the final reconciliation. Although not very different from those of 1217, the Charters of 1225 were the first to be authenticated with the new king’s seal. They became definitive; subsequent kings did not issue new versions, they simply confirmed those of 1225. Clauses of the 1225 Magna Carta remain on the Statute Book today. From that time on, the Charters were ‘official’. This had not been achieved without controversy. In 1223 the rebarbative William Brewer with a career in Angevin service which stretched back to Henry II declared that the Charters, extorted by force, should not be confirmed. He was silenced by Archbishop Langton and certainly ecclesiastical and baronial opinion made the Charters inevitable. Hubert de Burgh appreciated as much. He had long enjoyed a reputation as a moderate. His appointment to succeed Bishop Peter at Runnymede was itself clearly a conciliatory gesture by King John. In the early 1220s his personal fortune was still to be made. He had every reason to tread carefully and court magnate favour.

The restrictions on kingship finalized in 1225 were both less and more stringent than those of 1215, reflecting the desire of ministers in the intervening period to maintain the rights of the crown on the one hand, and appease the country on the other. Alongside Magna Carta, there was now the Charter of the Forest (unchanged from 1217) which regulated for the first time the forest’s bounds and administration. The 1225 Magna Carta itself had a large chapter (number 35), also introduced in 1217, which regulated the frequency of the shire courts and limited the exactions of the sheriffs at their annual check in the hundred court of the tithing groups (the ‘view of frankpledge’). The clause reflected the size of the political community, for it dealt with grievances of both the gentry, for whom attendance at the county court could be a burden, and the peasantry, who had to pay the exactions at the view of frankpledge (see below, p. 413). Against this, however, John’s promise of free ecclesiastical elections, dropped by Guala in 1216 (when it would only have meant freedom to elect Louis’s supporters), was never restored, to Langton’s disappointment. Also dropped for good in 1216 was the requirement for general consent to be given to taxation, although in practice, as in 1225, such consent remained a necessity. More significant was the continued exclusion of the chapter dropped in 1216, which forbade the exaction of revenue above the old farms of the counties, a gap which Henry vigorously exploited later, causing much discontent (see below, p. 350). There was a final excision, the most significant of all. The security clause of 1215, which empowered twenty-five barons to enforce the Charter, disappeared in 1216, and was never replaced. As a result, the Charter was left without constitutional means of enforcement.

So would the Charters be enforced? For baronial families, looking particularly to the regulations on relief, wardship, widows, marriages, amercements and arbitrary disseisin, the signs under Hubert’s government were encouraging. If their great law cases were still subject to delay and manipulation, at least justice was not sold, the huge sums routinely offered before 1215 being things of the past; a highly significant change that both reduced royal revenue and the king’s ability to control barons through their debts. The clauses of most concern to local society proved more controversial and county knights were particularly active in their exploitation and defence. In 1226 knights in Lincolnshire complained that the sheriff was breaching the new chapter on the holding of local courts. In the following year panels of knights, elected in each county, were instructed to bring to the king their complaints about contraventions of the Charter by the sheriffs. Most important of all was the struggle over the forest. Under chapter 2 of the 1217 Forest Charter, the areas made forest by Henry II were to be deforested. Since it was Henry who was generally blamed for the vast extent of the forest this was a major concession, and one which John had refused to make. How right he was, for in some counties the local knights now commissioned to establish Henry II’s afforestations demanded almost total abolition of the forest. As a result, the regency government tried to stall, arguing that deforestation was only meant to apply to what Henry II had made forest de novo, not to what he had simply recovered after the losses of Stephen’s reign. In Huntingdonshire the distinction made the difference between the whole county being deforested and no deforestation at all. It was not till the Forest Charter of 1225 that the government gave way on the issue, hoping to encourage payment of that year’s tax, and major deforestation took place. When the king finally assumed full powers two years later, some of the concessions were reversed and the bitterness over these events lingered. None the less considerable deforestation did take place between 1225 and 1230. In effect, a compromise was achieved over the boundaries, which survived for the rest of Henry’s reign. Meanwhile the Charters were becoming well known across society. The versions of 1217 and 1225 were sent to every county. Copies were made by monasteries and also by knightly families (like the Hotots, lords of Clopton in Northamptonshire). The Magna Carta of 1225 dispatched to Wiltshire was deposited for safekeeping in Lacock abbey by the county knights. There might be confusion between the different versions, but detailed clauses (like those on deforestation, judgement by peers, and the local courts) and the general principle that the king was subject to the law were widely known. In the minority of Henry III the Charters had taken root.

The minority was constitutionally important in another way because it reinforced the old view that the king should govern with the counsel and consent of his magnates. Great councils made decisions on a range of important issues; they made William Marshal regent in 1216 and Hubert de Burgh his effective successor three years later. Ideas about the powers of such assemblies were vociferously expressed, for example by the northern magnate Robert de Vipont, who affirmed that an order for the dismantling of a castle had no validity since it had been taken ‘without the common counsel and consent of the magnates of England who are held to be of the chief council of the king’. The authority of such councils was to become the central political issue later in Henry’s reign.

The great tax of 1225 had saved Gascony, and the young king hoped that would be just a start. In 1229 a royal letter cried out against ‘the injustice with which the power and violence of our enemies has kept us disinherited and excluded from our rights’. The desire to recover his lost dominions dominated Henry’s thinking into the 1240s. It would not be easy. By 1230 the royal revenues had recovered and stood at £22,300, but that was still three or four times smaller than that of the Capetians. ‘The children of King John have neither as much money nor as much power to defend themselves as had their father,’ Philip Augustus remarked with grim satisfaction. The logistical problems had been compounded by the loss of Poitou. The nearest port in Angevin hands was now as far south as Bordeaux. The acquiring of allies who would help the king ‘recover all your lost land’ (as an envoy put it in 1225) became the central aim of diplomacy, but such allies did not come cheap. ‘The emperor thirsts for nothing save money and its accumulation,’ the same envoy reported. In any case, from 1228 the emperor Frederick II was ruled out of contention by his crusade and quarrel with the papacy. But fortune’s wheel could turn. In November 1226 Louis VIII suddenly died, leaving a twelve-year-old son, Louis IX (1226–70), under the regency of his Castilian mother, Queen Blanche. It was to exploit the opportunities that Henry, not yet twenty-one, assumed full power in January 1227, which meant he could now make grants in perpetuity. One man above all proved temptable. In 1229 Peter de Dreux, duke of Brittany (in right of his wife), did homage to Henry. Brittany, with frontiers contiguous with Normandy and Anjou, was indeed an ideal base for a campaign. In May 1230 Henry arrived there with an army. But he then avoided the battle with Louis IX which might have brought him victory, and instead of surging into Normandy tiptoed southwards to Bordeaux, giving pensions to many Poitevin nobles but failing to take the towns or recover the allegiance of his mother and Hugh de Lusignan, their price being the cession of Bordeaux. By the autumn of 1230 Henry was back in England.

Henry had shown no military drive and it was certainly not going to be supplied by the ministers and magnates (including nine earls) who dutifully went on the expedition. True, a Caen burgess in the 1220s believed that the prospect of recovering their lands in Normandy would galvanize the English nobility. But this expedition had not gone to Normandy. In any case, was the burgess right in his analysis? The fact was that many magnates who had lost lands in the duchy had been compensated (like William de Warenne, who received Stamford and Grantham); the compensation was in the form of lands in England confiscated from Normans who had taken the French allegiance in 1204. Indeed, these ‘lands of the Normans’ were the great bank on which English kings drew for patronage throughout the thirteenth century. If Normandy was recovered, such lands in England were to be surrendered. Of course, the implication was that the grantees would then recover their Norman estates, but the mechanics of that were quite obscure. For many, a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Warenne did not go on the 1230 expedition at all. There were also many ministers (like de Burgh) who held ‘lands of the Normans’ without any land in Normandy to recover. Reunification thus threatened a tenurial maelstrom which many thought best avoided. The prospect was equally unappealing to the Normans. Re-conquest, for example, threatened Andrew de Vitré with losing the lands of the earl of Chester and the Mowbrays granted him by the king of France. And would he recover his estates in Cornwall? The experience of Fulk Paynel, the only important defector in 1230, was not encouraging.

Despite his setbacks in 1230, Henry III had not given up. He retained the allegiance of Duke Peter, and was determined to succour him and strike again once the truce which had closed the hostilities ended in 1234. That desire was to be one factor in the fall of Hubert de Burgh.

After Henry’s assumption of full power in January 1227, Hubert de Burgh stuck like glue to his side, and continued in practice to control much of day-to-day government. ‘The royal will waxed hot and fervent,’ wrote one observer in 1230, only (he continued) to be soon deflected by Hubert’s ‘various stratagems’. The king’s assumption of power in 1227 and with it the ability to issue charters and make grants in perpetuity meant that Hubert could now reap his rewards, all the more vital since his marriages had not led to the acquisition of wealth, however much the second (to the sister of King Alexander II) had enhanced his status. So now Hubert became earl of Kent; and then (arguably irresponsible alienations from the crown) received in hereditary right the royal castles and lordships of Montgomery, Cardigan and Carmarthen. Having already prised ‘the Three Castles’ of Grosmont, Skenfrith and White-castle in Monmouthshire from the Braoses, Hubert had become a great marcher baron. The time had also come to install his nephew, Richard de Burgh, in Connacht. Here the family claims dated back to John’s grants to Richard’s father William in the 1190s, and to Richard himself in 1215. But in practice these had never been implemented, and both John and the minority government accepted Cathal Crovderg O’Connor as king. In 1224 Cathal’s son Aedh succeeded although without recognition of the hereditary right Cathal had been so desperate to obtain. Supreme in England, Hubert could now decisively change the government’s policy, in the process beginning a major expansion in the area under English rule. In May 1227 Richard de Burgh received a royal charter granting him the ‘land’ of Connacht in hereditary right. Next year he became justiciar of Ireland as well. Exploiting divisions between various segments of the O’Connors, he gradually established himself in Connacht.

With his link through marriage to the Scottish court, Hubert’s tentacles seemed everywhere, yet he was becoming ‘isolated in his greatness’, in the words of Sir Maurice Powicke. William Marshal had opposed Richard de Burgh’s installation in Connacht, hence his own removal from the justiciarship. On the Marshal’s death in 1231 Hubert quibbled over the succession of his brother, Richard Marshal, because he had been holding the family’s Norman estates and was in the allegiance of the king of France. Hubert’s relations with the king’s younger brother Richard were also fractured. Richard had become count of Poitou in 1225 and earl of Cornwall in 1227, but it was not until 1231 that he was granted Cornwall, and the honours of Wallingford and Berkhamsted in hereditary right. In 1227 a large number of earls had rallied to Richard’s support in a near violent quarrel with Henry and Hubert, and they had cleverly linked his cause to that of the county knights complaining about breaches of Magna Carta. Meanwhile Langton had died in 1228 and in 1232 the see of Canterbury was again vacant.

The stage was set for Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester. In 1223 he had sworn ‘if it cost him all he had’ to pull the justiciar from power. In August 1231 he returned to England after four years’ absence on crusade and seized his chance. He had left as a discredited former tutor and returned as an international statesman who had hobnobbed with emperor and pope. He now ascribed the failures in Brittany and Wales to the poverty of the crown, and with some justice. If by 1230 the revenue at some £22,000 was back to the level of 1199, thanks to inflation it was actually worth half as much. In March 1232 extraordinary expedients were needed to scrape together £4,000 due the duke of Brittany, by this means saving the Breton alliance. And was not all this, Peter suggested, caused by the way the king had granted away his lands, wardships and escheats, no beneficiary being more favoured than Hubert himself? Half convinced, between June and July 1232 Henry placed much of central and local government under the control of Bishop Peter’s kinsman, the clerk Peter de Rivallis. And then Bishop Peter had one last trump card. He tarred Hubert with responsibility for the riots sweeping parts of the country against Italian clerks appointed by the pope to English livings. At the end of July Henry at last sent his justiciar packing. In the next months the once all-powerful minister was dragged from a chapel in which he had taken sanctuary, imprisoned in the Tower of London and (rather than stand trial) forced to surrender all he had gained from the crown.

Bishop Peter’s government at first seemed well founded, with Richard Marshal, earl of Pembroke, almost continuously at court. A great council in September voted the tax (a fortieth on movables, raising some £16,000) which it refused Hubert in March, the only time a tax was granted without a quid pro quo in the whole of Henry’s reign. With the money, the new regime supported Duke Peter of Brittany and the king’s Poitevin allies. In one week in April 1233 they received some £6,666 from the exchequer. Yet even here Bishop Peter was soon thinking of simply renewing the truce. His vaunted financial reforms proved almost entirely illusory. He made a start by reviving taxation on the Jews, but did nothing to investigate the revenues from which the sheriffs drew their county farms, the essential first step towards getting them to answer for realistically larger sums. At the core of the regime was a faction composed of the sheriffs, castellans and ministers whom Hubert de Burgh had ousted in and before 1223, men such as Peter de Maulay, Engelard de Cigogné and Brian de Lisle. Their essential aim was to punish Hubert, gain power and make good their losses, hence their drive to recover properties, usually ‘lands of the Normans’ which they had received from King John and lost under Hubert. In February 1233 the king took the manor of Upavon in Wiltshire from Gilbert Basset and returned it to Peter de Maulay. No one was closer to Bishop Peter than Maulay; few families were closer to the Marshals than the Bassets. Richard Marshal, with his spurs still to win, dared not desert Gilbert. Nor would Bishop Peter desert Maulay. The result by the autumn of 1233 was civil war.

Magna Carta itself seemed at stake. ‘No freeman shall be acted against save by lawful judgement of his peers or the law of the land,’ ran its most famous chapter. In 1233 both the Marshal and Gilbert Basset constantly demanded judgement by their peers, only (so they said) to be denied it. The clause was also designed to prevent arbitrary disseisin ‘by will of the king’ (per voluntatem regis), which was precisely what Gilbert Basset seemed to have suffered, for the dispossession of Upavon overturned a royal charter of 1229 granting him the manor in hereditary right. (Maulay’s previous tenure had no such fortification.) Basset’s case did not stand alone. Between November 1232 and February 1233 six others suffered disseisin per voluntatem regis as grants made in thirteen royal charters and letters patent were overthrown. One victim was the treasurer of the exchequer, Walter Mauclerc, bishop of Carlisle, who was replaced (under de Rivallis) by Robert Passelewe, a former clerk of Falkes and agent of the 1223 dissidents at Rome. All this seemed not merely tyranny, but worse, tyranny practised by foreigners, by ‘Poitevins’ as the St Albans abbey chronicler, Roger of Wendover, called them (although in fact Bishop Peter came not from Poitou but the adjoining Touraine). Of course, the regime had important English ministers, notably Hubert’s successor as justiciar Stephen of Seagrave, but foreigners were close to its heart: Bishop Peter and Peter de Rivallis themselves, Peter de Maulay, Engelard de Cigogné, and two youngsters now starting their careers, Mathias Bezill (a kinsman of Engelard) and the Norman, John de Plessis. Given that Bishop Peter, Maulay and Engelard had been agents of King John and dissidents in 1223–4, it became easy to view the whole of English history since the 1200s as a struggle between the English and the aliens. In 1233–4 the demand was soon that Henry should dismiss the latter and ‘adhere to the counsels of the native men of the kingdom’, as the Margam annalist put it.

There was something incongruous about the Marshal championing this constitutional movement. Holding the family estates in Normandy and married to a Breton heiress, he was a last Anglo-Norman baron, not a first English patriot. He himself had profited from Henry’s arbitrary disseisins, and only complained when they touched his man, Gilbert Basset. However, this did not make his stance any the less effective. ‘He fought for the cause of justice, and the laws of the English race against the oppression of the Poitevins,’ wrote Roger of Wendover. This impression was the easier to cultivate because of Bishop Peter’s conduct. Arrogant and assertive, irascible and impatient, the armour-plated prelate would teach Henry at last to be a king. He scoffed at the clause in Magna Carta promising judgement by peers and asserted that the king could try anyone through judges he himself had appointed. He justified arbitrary disseisins by referring to ‘the plenitude of royal power’, and scorned the idea that the king should govern through native subjects: on the contrary, he needed ministers (doubtless thinking of those like Falkes) who would punish the latter’s pride and perfidy.

Characteristically, Bishop Peter sought a solution through war. In Ireland, the justiciar Maurice fitz Gerald and the Lacys soon overran the Marshal lordship of Leinster. In Wales it was different. Twice Henry led armies to destroy the Marshal’s bastions in the south, only to abandon a siege of Usk in September 1233 and suffer humiliation in a skirmish at Grosmont in November. The Marshal meanwhile allied with Llywelyn (an extraordinary diplomatic bouleversement) and in October 1233 wrested Glamorgan from Peter de Rivallis, who had succeeded Hubert as custodian during the minority of Richard de Clare. If the great barons did not side with the Marshal, they were reluctant to fight against him. Gilbert Basset and another valorous Marshal knight, Richard Seward, plundered the properties of ministers and rescued Hubert de Burgh from Devizes. Had he too not saved England for the English? By early 1234 Henry had shot his bolt, and the end of the Breton truce was only months away.

It was at this point that a churchman very different from Bishop Peter took centre stage. At papal insistence, Edmund of Abingdon was elected archbishop of Canterbury in February 1234. An ascetic academic but with the common touch, he was determined like his mentor Langton to affirm the values of Magna Carta and bring peace to a troubled realm. That, as he made clear during a series of great councils, could only be achieved by the removal of the two Peters. Henry saw the light. On 15 April he began the process of dismissing Peter de Rivallis from his plethora of offices. Bishop Peter himself also left the court. Meanwhile there was trauma in Ireland. The Marshal had gone there in February and had been wounded in battle. He died on 16 April. There had been no murder plot (he was well on his way to recovery when gangrene set in) but it was easy to suspect otherwise. The ensuing scandal brought the downfall of Stephen of Seagrave, a ‘flexible man’, as Wendover put it, who might otherwise have survived. The final settlement took place in May at a great council held at Gloucester. Henry received the rebels back into his allegiance and accepted Gilbert Marshal, Richard’s younger brother, as successor to the family estates and earldom of Pembroke. Penitently he admitted denying magnates judgement by their peers and committing disseisins ‘by will’. A decision of his court restored Upavon to Gilbert Basset. Bishop Peter’s regime had tested the most fundamental principle of Magna Carta and proved its strength. The king was indeed now subject to the law, and could not arbitrarily deprive his subjects of their rights and property.

The events of 1232–4 were a terrible indictment of Henry’s weakness and poor judgement, but as he wriggled free from the bishop’s regime, chroniclers were full of praise for his humility when submitting to Archbishop Edmund and his sorrow when hearing of Richard Marshal’s death. He was truly a ‘most pious king’. That reputation at least would stand him in good stead in the years to come. It was of little help, however, in dealing with the immediate situation in Brittany, Wales and Ireland.

In Brittany, there was little Henry could do. With the truce expiring on 24 June, he sent out ninety household knights and a body of Welsh foot soldiers, but only a major expedition like that of 1230 could have stalled the French invasion. In November, Duke Peter submitted to King Louis. The whole basis of English policy since 1229 had collapsed. Between 1230 and 1234 Peter had drawn simply as a pension at least £13,333 from England. It had been spent in vain.

In Wales, the aftermath of the war left Henry virtually powerless. He granted Gilbert Marshal both Cardigan and Carmarthen in hereditary right until the family’s Norman estates, now confiscated, were recovered, although in practice under a truce of June 1234 Cardigan remained with Llywelyn. Gilbert also received custody of Glamorgan during the Clare minority. Ruling most of the south from Chepstow to Pembroke, no Marshal had been more dominant. In Ireland, it seemed as though Henry might assert himself. There, after all, the Marshals had unequivocally lost the war. The fall of Hubert de Burgh had also impacted on the position of his nephew, Richard. He had lost the justiciarship and seen his castles in Connacht destroyed by Felim O’Connor, another of Cathal’s sons. In 1234, soon after the death of the Marshal, a royal official in Dublin urged Henry to hasten to Ireland. He should keep Leinster for himself and, if he returned Connacht to Richard de Burgh, retain castles and cities throughout its length. His gains could now far outweigh his father’s. But Henry never came, although the circumstances were comparable with those in 1171 and 1210 which had brought Henry II and John to Ireland. Henry remained content with drawing money and men from the lordship (several Anglo-Irish lords joined the Breton expedition of 1230). He also used it as a source of patronage. His failure to exploit the situation in 1234 was partly the result of his personality and lack of resources, but it also reflected two fundamentals about the relationship between England and Ireland in this period.

The first at the baronial level was the intimate connection between English and Irish politics, something already clear in the events of 1224 and the fortunes of Richard de Burgh. Now in 1234 it was the political situation in England which meant Henry had no alternative but to return Leinster to Gilbert Marshal. This interrelationship of politics was not surprising given that there remained many cross-Channel landholders both at the knightly and baronial levels. Indeed royal patronage could renew their numbers, hence the establishment in Ireland of the knightly family of Pitchford in the 1220s. Ultimately all those with ambitions in Ireland had to resort to the English court, because only the king could make the grants of title on which all the lordships ultimately depended. The events of 1234 also reflected a second fundamental, namely the power of the colonial lords themselves, which was why Henry hesitated to move against them. After the initial grants, they and their forebears had carved out their own lordships with little help from the English crown. The inscription on the grave of Meiler fitz Henry in 1220 described him as ‘the indomitable dominator of all the people of Ireland’. In 1234 the colonial lords, led by Hugh de Lacy (doubtless remembering the events of 1224), had defeated Richard Marshal. One of their number was Richard de Burgh, who with deft footwork had ended up on the winning side. Henry was not prepared now to disown him and the other victors. In England the king turned on the enemies of the Marshals; in Ireland he thanked them and in October 1234 restored Connacht to Richard de Burgh. Next year, de Burgh recommenced its conquest from the O’Connors. This time it was to stick.

The whole period from the plot against John’s life in 1212 to the death of Llywelyn the Great in 1240 was one in which English royal power was at a discount throughout the British Isles. In Ireland the colonial lords were able to fill the gap. It was very different in Wales.

* * *

In a career which lasted from 1194 to 1240 Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, Llywelyn the Great, gained far greater power than any previous ruler of Gwynedd and conceived a new vision of Wales’s political unity, a vision of unity under his authority. Overcoming numerous shocks and setbacks, his staying power was remarkable. He was indeed the greatest ruler of medieval Wales.

Gwynedd was the most impregnable of the major Welsh regions. Powys had a long eastern border with Shropshire and its centre at Welshpool could easily be approached down the Severn valley from Shrewsbury, less than twenty miles away. Deheubarth was eaten up by the great marcher baronies of the south. Gwynedd was quite different. Its wealth derived from the flocks and herds on its hills and the corn grown on the lowlands of Llŷn and Anglesey. The wealth was well protected. At the heart of Gwynedd was the great Snowdon range which shielded Llŷn to the west. If both Llŷn and Anglesey were attacked from the sea, that would require a major operation. Landwards, Snowdonia was itself shielded by two ragged scythes of mountains, the outer sweeping round from the Dyfi to the Dee, the inner sprawling over the whole area between the summits of Ardudwy and the northern valleys of the Conwy and the Clwyd. The castles of Llywelyn and his successors were constructed as much to control Gwynedd as to defend it (see below, p. 499). Essentially, defence rested on the mountains and the rivers.

In terms of character, Llywelyn was superbly qualified to exploit Gwynedd’s advantages. He was a flinty warrior, but also a sinuous politician. Again and again he knew when to fight the English crown and when to submit to it. He had a tremendous sense of his honour, destiny and personal integrity, yet the confidence and charisma to give way without losing face. Llywelyn had begun his career merely as one of several descendants of the great Owain Gwynedd (died 1170) who were struggling for power in the 1190s. In 1194 in the Conwy estuary he won a great victory over his rivals: ‘Many were the foes of my lord,’ sang the poet, ‘but there fell of them in the fight seven times the number of stars.’ By 1202 Llywelyn had gained control of all Gwynedd from the Dyfi to the Dee. He still faced internal dissent. The castle he built at Bere was partly designed to protect Meirionydd from the claims of his second cousins and his own illegitimate son. But from 1202 onwards he remained the sole ruler of Gwynedd. It was the foundation for his power, all the more significant for the disunity elsewhere in native Wales. Deheubarth remained hopelessly divided between the competing descendants of the Lord Rhys. Powys was divided north and south into Powys Fadog and Powys Gwenwynwyn, with two further branches of the ruling dynasty established in Mechain, and in Pennlyn and Edeirnion.

In 1205 Llywelyn took another step of decisive importance in his career. This was his marriage to Joan, King John’s illegitimate daughter. The Welsh law texts of the late twelfth and the thirteenth centuries hardly suggest that the wives of Welsh rulers, though bearing the title of queen, played much part in politics and government. Indeed they say virtually nothing about their activities. They do, however, accord them an establishment of four officers, steward, priest, chambermaid and groom, and say that the king should give them a third of his ‘goods from land and earth’. If kings actually did so, then queens were rich. They could also be important in helping to create political alliances. In that context, Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd, Llywelyn’s uncle, had already demonstrated the advantages of marrying an Angevin princess. Despite Joan’s illegitimacy, which the pope corrected in 1226, she certainly conferred high status on Llywelyn’s dynasty, something reflected in the coat of arms given to Gwynedd in thirteenth-century English sources, a differenced version of the royal arms of England. This status explains both Llywelyn’s determination that he should be followed by his son by Joan, and his ability to marry his daughters by her to English barons. Above all, Joan gave Llywelyn a link with the English court which was central to his career. Joan herself was the reverse of a cipher. She was proud, passionate and highly political, playing an important part in negotiations with her father King John and her half-brother, King Henry. She betrayed Llywelyn twice, once in politics by revealing the 1212 plot to her father (or so it was said), and once, as we shall see, in love. Her role is reflected in the Gwynedd law texts of her time which double the queen’s officials from four to eight. Since the new officials include a chamberlain and a cook they suggest that Joan was maintaining an establishment separate in some degree from that of Llywelyn – indeed that would have been very necessary for some of her activities. The best tribute to Joan’s role is that paid by the implicit criticism of it in the law texts (which were not official productions). Although giving the queen more officials, they also stressed their subordination to the officials of the king, and implied that the queen’s place was in her chamber, not the wider court.

Llywelyn’s early success had depended very much on his co-operation with King John, sealed by his marriage to Joan. Relations had then broken down, however, and in 1211 John had invaded Gwynedd (see above, pp. 283–4). Even Joan’s intercession had not saved Llywelyn from an exigent peace in which he lost the Four Cantrefs between the Conwy and the Dee. The year 1212 was the turning-point in Llywelyn’s career. He brought the native rulers into a confederation, made an alliance with King Philip of France, joined the baronial plot against John’s life, recovered the Four Cantrefs which he never afterwards lost and destroyed John’s general hegemony in Wales. In December 1215, having married his daughter Gwladus to Reginald de Braose (now head of the house), Llywelyn was free, in alliance with the rulers of Deheubarth, to sweep through the south, taking the royal castles of Cardigan and Carmarthen, destroying the Marshal hold on Cilgerran and Emlyn in northern Dyfed, and throwing out the lesser marcher families from St Clears, Kidwelly and the surrounding area. Apart from Gower, held by his ally Reginald de Braose, the only English base – baronial or royal – in the south-west was the Marshal’s Pembroke, where the great water-defended castle with its new ultra-modern circular keep resisted any attack. In 1216, Llywelyn presided over a great court at Aberdyfi where the spoils of the campaign were distributed between the fractious segments of the house of Deheubarth, though Llywelyn kept Cardigan for himself. Left out of this division was Llywelyn’s old foe, Gwenwynwyn, which may have prompted the latter’s desertion later in 1216 to King John, tempted in part by the grant of Montgomery. The response was devastating. Llywelyn summoned almost all the rulers of Wales to his army, drove Gwenwynwyn into English exile, and took southern Powys and Montgomery for himself. He held southern Powys for the rest of his life, greatly increasing his revenues. For the time being, Montgomery gave him a base at the very hinge of Wales. He could challenge the Mortimers and the Braoses (the latter uncertain allies) for possession of Ceri, Maelienydd and Elfael, the regions between the Wye valley and the Severn, which were the key to Gwynedd’s power in the south.

Within Gwynedd, Llywelyn strove to increase his princely authority, especially by extending his jurisdiction over crime (discussed below, p. 497). His cash income was almost certainly increasing with the development of commerce and the commutation of renders in kind into money. He was able to raise formidable military forces, taking 1,600 foot soldiers on John’s northern expedition of 1209. His vision of Gwynedd as a ‘modern’ state, fully integrated into the rest of Europe, was strikingly demonstrated by his religious patronage. He established the Knights Hospitallers at Dolgynwal, the Cistercians at Conwy, the Franciscans at Llan-faes, and the Augustinians on Bardsey Island, one of the holiest places in Wales, previously under the jurisdiction of the ancient claschurch at Aberdaron.

In the triumphal years after 1215 Llywelyn was also staking out claims to status and authority. He was not obliged (so he said) to attend any conference outside the boundaries of Wales. He was ‘of no less a liberty than the king of Scotland, who receives outlaws from England with impunity’. And above all he held a ‘principality’ within which the other native rulers were to do homage to him, and he alone was to do homage to the king of England. By this means the latter was excluded from any direct relationship with the native rulers. Books of Welsh law, edited in Gwynedd during Llywelyn’s time, shared this vision of Wales. And they added that ‘the word’ of the ruler of Gwynedd, or the king of Aberffraw as they called him after his principal seat in Anglesey, ‘prevails over that of all kings [of Wales] and the word of no [other king] prevails over his’. Llywelyn’s vision was almost certainly a response to King John’s practice, for John had much more formally than before demanded homage from the native rulers (see above, p. 283). The vital and distinctive element in the ceremony was that it involved a man swearing loyalty for the land he held from his lord. If the Welsh rulers held their territories formally from Llywelyn, if they ‘received’ them from him as the law books put it, that meant he would confirm – indeed perhaps determine – the descent of those territories and in particular how they were divided between family claimants. Given the prevalence of such divisions, the position of ‘feudal’ overlord gave far more potential power in Wales than it did England. The territories of the Welsh rulers would also, of course, be liable to forfeiture for any breach of the due loyalty and service. If, then, a principality could be constructed along these lines, its ruler would have formidable powers. Yet for Llywelyn this remained an ambition. Such a principality was ultimately created by his grandson. It was never created by Llywelyn himself.

The first obstacle lay with the king of England. In 1218 in the great settlement after the civil war Llywelyn was made to come to Worcester; he was therefore attending a meeting outside Wales. He acknowledged that he would receive no enemy of the king in Wales, and so he was ‘of lesser liberty’ than the king of Scotland. Above all, he promised that ‘all the magnates of all Wales’ should come to the king to do homage to him as their liege lord. In other words there was to be no Welsh principality in which Llywelyn alone did homage to the king and the other magnates of Wales did homage to Llywelyn. At Worcester, Llywelyn had preferred to bargain not for constitutional forms, however important, but territorial power. Under the treaty, he kept all his gains from the war. Southern Powys and Montgomery were granted to him in wardship until the majority – many years away – of Gwenwynwyn’s heir. Although he formally surrendered Cardigan and Carmarthen he at once received them back as the king’s bailiff until the king came of age, which might not be till 1228. Equally striking was the recognition of Llywelyn’s practical authority over the other Welsh rulers. It was Llywelyn who was to prevent outlaws being received in Wales. He was also to ensure that ‘the magnates of all Wales’ did homage to the king, and surrender the lands they had seized in the war. In practice, he enforced no such restorations and permitted only one magnate to do homage.

The Treaty of Worcester made Llywelyn less the prince of Wales than Henry III’s justiciar, much the position the Lord Rhys had held under Henry II. Llywelyn himself frequently posed thereafter as the king’s loyal if sometimes disregarded councillor. His readiness to accept a position from the English crown is largely explained by his marriage to Joan, which always gave him an entrée to the English court, and by his early career, which had shown the dangers of challenging the king (as in 1211) and also the benefits of co-operating with him. Just like the Lord Rhys and other Welsh rulers he saw that a link with the crown would help him dominate the native rulers. It was the latter who presented the second obstacle to his wider ambitions.

In 1211 a good number of the Welsh rulers had fought for John against Llywelyn. In 1212, they had ‘unanimously confederated’ under Llywelyn against John. By 1215–16, when the Chronica Wallia described him as ‘holding the monarchy and principality of nearly all Wales’, Llywelyn had probably made them do him homage. Yet the fact that the homage of Gwenwynwyn had to be secured by hostages and ended in desertion shows that this formal supremacy was as likely to be challenged by the Welsh rulers as it was to be denied by the English crown. Gwynedd’s law books, as we have seen, gave supremacy to the king of Aberffraw, but those drawn up in the south either gave the symbols of royalty to all rulers (see above, p. 228) or accorded equal supremacy to the kings of Aberffraw and Dinefwr, the latter the chief seat of the rulers of Deheubarth. In 1215 it was Maelgwn, according to the Chronica Wallia, who had been the ‘head’ of the princes of south Wales. He can only have resented Llywelyn’s description of the castle of Dinefwr as ‘once famous now ruinous, to which, as the head of south Wales, the dignities of all south Wales once belonged’.

In dealing with the native rulers, Llywelyn was as careful as he was with the English monarchy. Both indeed could be relatively relaxed about his use of titles. Llywelyn’s grandfather had adopted the title ‘prince of Wales’ (see above, p. 215). Yet while Llywelyn certainly called himself prince (increasingly the only Welsh ruler to do so), he proclaimed himself prince only of ‘north Wales’, which might mean no more than Gwynedd. As his power grew, both Welsh and English chroniclers began to call him ‘prince of Wales’. Llywelyn himself spoke of ‘the state of Wales’ as though he was its guardian. His wife styled herself ‘lady of Wales’. However, Llywelyn himself when he changed his title (in or a little before 1230) called himself not ‘prince of Wales’ but ‘prince of Aberffraw and lord of Snowdon’. ‘Lord of Snowdon’ impressed by the reference to its unconquerable mountains. ‘Prince of Aberffraw’, in Gwynedd circles, suggested a supremacy over all of Wales, but this was an assertion, as we have seen, which one could take or leave. It was ‘left’ by the English government who were perfectly happy with the new title. So apparently were the rulers of the south. Llywelyn did not lose sight of his vision of a Welsh principality subject only to himself but, as he remarked in a different context, ‘neither a skilled dicer nor yet a valiant knight may always win his heart’s desire’. He was out for the reality of power and for that he needed to be flexible, hence his stipulation in his agreement with John in 1202 that he could choose whether his lawsuits were heard under Welsh or English law. His flexibility was evident, too, in his co-operation with English barons. The ‘yoke of tyranny’ he rebelled against in 1212 was that of the Angevin dynasty, not the English. Eventually he married all four of his daughters by Joan to English barons, two of them not once, but twice over. Co-operation with one baron above all was vital to Gwynedd’s safety. In 1211 the support of Ranulf, earl of Chester, had made possible John’s invasion. In 1218 Llywelyn reached a settlement with the earl, one affirmed in 1222 by the marriage of Ranulf’s ward and eventual heir in Chester, John le Scot, to Helen, Llywelyn’s daughter. With the route of hostile armies blocked off, Gwynedd remained free from invasion for the rest of Llywelyn’s life. Thus secure, in 1220 Llywelyn demonstrated his authority in the south against Welsh ruler and marcher baron alike. He forced the submission of Rhys Gryg (Maelgwn’s brother), ravaged the lands of the earl of Pembroke (William Marshal II, son of the regent who had died in 1219), and took revenge on a former ally, Reginald de Braose, by installing his nephew and rival, John de Braose, in the old family lordship of Gower. Of course, Reginald had married one of Llywelyn’s daughters – but then so had John.

Then came disaster. The old regent’s great gain from the 1215–17 war had been Caerleon, which he had seized from its Welsh ruler Morgan, great-nephew of King Morgan of the 1140s. Yet the Marshals (once themselves royal bailiffs of Cardigan and Carmarthen) were grievously affected by Llywelyn’s rise to power in the south, as the events of 1220 had shown. In April 1223 William Marshal II, having gathered a large army from his estates in Ireland, took his revenge. He descended on south Wales, and seized Cardigan and Carmarthen, where he was soon recognized once again as the king’s deputy. The smaller marcher lords in the south-west at last recovered the lands they had lost in the 1215–17 war. William Marshal had replaced Llywelyn’s supremacy with his own. There was also defeat further north where the minority government, led by Hubert de Burgh, recovered Montgomery for the crown, replacing the old castle down in the valley with a new one high up on the far tip of the Ceri hills. Faced with these blows Llywelyn submitted almost at once, without meeting his enemies in the field. This was nothing like 1211, for Gwynedd, protected by the alliance with the earl of Chester, remained unscathed. In practice, Llywelyn also retained southern Powys and the allegiance between Wye and Severn of the native rulers of Elfael at Maelienydd, something accepted by the rival claimant, Ralph Mortimer of Wigmore, when (in 1230) he married Llywelyn’s daughter Gwladus, widow of Reginald de Braose.

Llywelyn’s recovery was helped by the crown’s lack of vigour. It was Hubert de Burgh, not the king, who asserted himself in the late 1220s, acquiring Cardigan, Carmarthen and Montgomery in hereditary right. In 1228 a perceived threat to Montgomery led Hubert and Henry to summon an army and commence building a castle in the Ceri hills. Characteristically placing substance over form, Llywelyn dutifully did homage to the king, as did the Welsh magnates who were with him. Henry and Hubert then abandoned their castle and went home, leaving William de Braose, captured in the fighting (he had succeeded his father Reginald in 1228), a prisoner in Llywelyn’s hands. Under the arrangements for his release in 1229, William agreed that his daughter Eva should marry Dafydd, Llywelyn’s son and heir, and have Builth as her marriage portion. Llywelyn had long coveted Builth. Astride the upper valley of the Wye, it put pressure on Elfael and controlled the great pass (followed by the present railway line) down the valleys of the Irfon and the Tywi into south-west Wales. Llywelyn held it for the rest of his life.

Llywelyn soon had a chance to break up the Braose patrimony (Radnor, Hay, Brecon and Abergavenny) altogether. In 1230, having found William de Braose, on a return visit, in his wife’s bedchamber, he executed him with great publicity. This was the end of the senior line of the Braoses (the junior continued in Gower) because William had no son and his lordships passed to his four daughters, including Eva. For the moment, however, the lands were given by the king in wardship to William Marshal, whose bailiffs in Brecon were soon clashing with those of Llywelyn in Builth. The Marshal’s sudden death in 1231 gave Llywelyn his chance. So did tensions in Glamorgan where the native rulers (notably Morgan Gam of Afan) resented the harsh lordship of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, and were now off the leash thanks to the earl’s death. The descent of Glamorgan, usually linked with the earldom of Gloucester, illustrates the importance of heiresses; through them it had passed from Robert fitz Hamon to Robert, earl of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I, thence to King John and (briefly) the earl of Essex, before ending up (from 1217) with the Clare earls of Hertford. In 1223, with the odds stacked against him, Llywelyn had wisely avoided fighting his enemies. Now in 1231 he led a great expedition through the south which burnt Radnor, Hay and Brecon, razed the castles of Neath and Kidwelly, and ended up with the seizure of Cardigan from Hubert de Burgh. Llywelyn had asserted his authority over a new generation of native rulers, and until his death he allowed Maelgwyn Fychan (son of Maelgwn ap Rhys, who had died earlier in the year) to hold Cardigan as his deputy.

Henry and Hubert made a static response to this lightning campaign. In the summer of 1231 they brought an army to Castle Matilda (Painscastle) and rebuilt it with two lines of concentric walls and great dry moats. The aim was to secure Elfael, which Braose and Llywelyn satellites had disputed for so long, and block off Llywelyn’s shortest route from Builth into the Herefordshire plain. But his was to inflict a wound in the flank, not at the heart. No attempt was made to recover Cardigan or attack Builth, let alone Gwynedd.

Two years later, in a remarkable turn-around, Llywelyn was in alliance with the Marshals – in alliance, that is, with William’s brother and successor, Richard Marshal, in his war against King Henry. He helped Richard in his conquest of Glamorgan, and with the rulers of Deheubarth laid long though ultimately fruitless siege to Carmarthen. The war ended, as we have seen, with Richard’s successor, Gilbert Marshal, dominant throughout south Wales, though in fact he did nothing to disturb Llywelyn’s and Maelgwn’s hold of Cardigan. Llywelyn also retained Builth and southern Powys. He had maintained a territorial power throughout Wales and had also kept alive the wider vision of his principality. This was inseparable from the whole question of the succession.

Llywelyn had long determined that his heir should be his son Dafydd, offspring of his marriage to the regal Joan. This was bound to cause friction within Gwynedd because it meant excluding his illegitimate eldest son, Gruffudd, and overturning what Llywelyn himself called (another sign of his Europeanization) ‘the detestable’ Welsh custom which placed legitimate and illegitimate children on the same footing. Another problem was whether Dafydd was to succeed simply to Llywelyn’s territories or to some kind of wider principality embracing the other rulers. After 1218 Llywelyn’s relationships with those rulers had taken various forms. In 1226 he extracted an oath of fealty to Dafydd ‘from the great men of Wales’. They did not apparently do him homage. In 1228, during the brief Kerry campaign, he seems to have been head merely of a confederation of rulers, all of whom did homage (as we have seen) to King Henry. Yet in 1238 the English government believed that Llywelyn was trying to get ‘the magnates of Wales’ to do homage to Dafydd, though in the event what he secured (according to the Welsh chronicles) was simply fealty. Llywelyn’s approach remained consistent. He kept alive the idea of a homage-based principality, but did not try to impose it.

Above all, Dafydd’s succession depended on the English government. Whatever political entity he held, he would hold it from the king. In fact, King Henry was happy to accept Dafydd, after all his nephew, as the future ruler of Gwynedd, but he insisted that the homage of the other rulers belonged to the crown. There was to be no wider principality. Henry, however, continued to recognize that native Wales was in practice subject to Llywelyn. The yearly truces after 1234 were always with Llywelyn and his ‘adherents’. Any attack by the earl of Pembroke on the castle of Morgan, erstwhile lord of Caerleon, was to be regarded as a transgression against Llywelyn himself.

Llywelyn died in 1240, three years after Joan. A visionary and a realist, a warrior and a diplomat, aspiring to rule the principality of Wales yet also masquerading as a loyal councillor of the king, this extraordinary man was called ‘the Great’ soon after his death by both English and Welsh chroniclers.

* * *

King Henry III’s personality and lack of resources were equally important when it came to Anglo-Scottish relations, for they helped to create a long period of peace between the two kingdoms, the essential context for the policies of King Alexander II (1214–49). Alexander began his reign leading armies into England and attempting to make good ancient claims to the northern counties. He ended it on the island of Kerrera in the Firth of Lorn, leading an expedition to wrest the Western Isles and the Isle of Man from King Hakon of Norway. The contrast reflects a fundamental re-orientation of Scottish monarchy, though one long foreshadowed. Alexander’s aim was to expand his kingdom north and west, not south into England. Appropriately it was King Hakon’s Saga which described him ‘a great chief and ambitious for this world’s honours’. But Alexander was far more than simply a military leader. His legal innovations marked the birth of the Scottish common law.

The Treaty of Worcester in 1218 had allowed Llywelyn to keep his material gains from the war, not surprisingly for he had won them himself and was firmly entrenched. Alexander’s situation was different. In the north-east he had gained no strongholds. In the north-west certainly he held Carlisle, where indeed the canons of the cathedral elected one of his clerks as their bishop. The leading barons of Cumberland and Westmorland, often with Scottish connections, had joined the rebellion, as had many knights. But once Louis had surrendered there was no way Alexander had the resources to keep these men on side, let alone continue by himself. In any case many northern rebels had been captured at the battle of Lincoln. Alexander’s formal excommunication by the legate Guala in September 1217 made matters worse. So in December of that year Alexander, now nineteen, came to terms. He surrendered Carlisle and was allowed to keep Tynedale and the earldom of Huntingdon. His humiliation, aggravated by an Interdict briefly placed on his kingdom in 1218, was fundamental to the re-orientation of his kingship. He could never, he knew, have a better chance of southern expansion, yet he had failed utterly. Henceforth his policy was to live in peace with England. To the success of that policy Henry III’s reluctance to raise the issue of England’s overlordship over Scotland in any aggressive way was equally important. The mutual decision to live in peace was affirmed in June 1221 when Alexander married Henry III’s eldest sister, Joan, the first of those marriages between the dynasties which did so much to harmonize relations in the thirteenth century. The chronicler Fordun saw this first union as the start of a peace ‘which was to last time without end’, and certainly Alexander’s army of July 1217 was the last to fight across the border for nearly eighty years. Almost at once (as Joan assured her brother) Alexander refused to help Hugh de Lacy in his bid for Ulster (see above, p. 306).

Peace with England enabled Alexander to attend to dangers in the north of his kingdom. There royal Scotland, the Scotland of royal castles and sheriffdoms, effectively ended at Inverness and Dingwall, beyond which stretched Ross and Caithness (see above, p. 232). In 1215 Ross had been the centre of another MacHeth and MacWilliam rising, this one led by Donald and Kenneth, sons of the dead leaders of 1186–7. Both sons were killed. It was obviously a major aim of royal policy to prevent uprisings of this kind and one way was by establishing loyalist ministers in the north. So in 1212 the justiciar north of the Forth, William Comyn, became earl of Buchan through marriage, the first native earldom to pass to an incomer. Another preoccupation was to sustain the bishopric of Caithness (established around 1147–51) which had freed the region from the jurisdiction of the bishop of Orkney. In 1222, when the bishop was murdered, Alexander took an army into Caithness, briefly expelled the earl, John Haraldson (1206–31), and saw to the election of a new bishop from the loyalist Moray (Murry) family. A further challenge from the MacWilliams followed until in 1230 its leader, Gilleasbuig, was caught and killed. His infant daughter had her brains dashed out in Forfar market-place. The brutality(which contrasted with MacHeth’s long imprisonment by King David) is a measure of the threat and also of the sense that it could be ended. This was indeed a decisive moment for the security of the dynasty, being the last MacWilliam challenge to the throne.

Earl John Haraldson died violently in 1231. In 1236 his successor attested a royal charter, the first earl of Caithness to do so. Meanwhile Alexander weakened the earldom by making a Murry earl of Sutherland in its south, and he secured Ross by appointing as earl, the first since Malcolm MacHeth’s death in 1168, Farquhar MacTaggart, a native of the area who had put down the rising of 1215. Alexander also established the Comyns in the lordship of Badenoch, the mountainous but highly strategic part of Moray. There were still no royal castles or sheriffdoms in Caithness itself. As late as 1264–6 Dingwall was still the northernmost outpost of royal power and its bailiffs had no revenues worth speaking of. Nevertheless, Alexander had greatly enhanced his authority in the north.

Alexander was equally successful in the west, though here too he started from a fairly low base. Man and the Isles, like the Orkneys, were subject to the king of Norway. Alexander’s overlordship was confined to the mainland where his direct authority was limited to the castle and sheriffdom at Ayr, created by William the Lion. For the most part, he relied on the great Anglo-Norman families established in the twelfth century, above all that of Stewart which, advancing from its original base in Renfrew, had secured Bute around 1200 and built a castle at Rothesay.

Between 1226 and 1231 great storms of conflict swept through the sea lanes of the west over control of Man and the Isles. At the eye of the storms was the rivalry between Reginald, king of Man (1188–1226), and his brother Olaf, who ruled in Lewis. Throwing in their lot on one side or the other were the MacSorleys, descendants of the great Somerled, who, divided into three often warring segments, were lords of Argyll, Kintyre, and several of the western islands. It was the MacSorleys who built the remarkable thirteenth-century castles which still ring the western coast. And then beside them, ranging with giant strides, was Alan, son of Roland, lord of Galloway. Roland, in accepting appointment as justiciar of Galloway, had apparently helped to tie the region to the centre. From one point of view Alan seemed to do the same. He had married a daughter of Earl David, King Alexander’s uncle. He bore the title of Constable of Scotland, inherited from his Moreville mother. He had raised armies for King John and been with him at Runnymede. He had married his daughters to Anglo-Scottish barons. However, this was the periphery of his activity. The core (which he had no particular desire to tie to anything) was the struggle to construct a great seaborne empire between Galloway and Ulster, the latter having been granted him by John in 1212 in a bid to keep out the Lacys. Able to raise a thousand foot soldiers and fleets of 200 ships, boasting that he could easily invade Norway, he was, in the words of Hakon’s Saga, ‘the greatest warrior… He plundered about the Hebrides and made great warfare widely throughout the western lands.’

Yet it was not Alan who emerged victorious from ‘the great dispeace’ between 1226 and 1231. He had to accept Hugh de Lacy’s recovery of Ulster and failed to sustain his ally, Reginald, in Man. The real victor was the king of Norway. King Hakon, having seen off his domestic foes, became the first Norwegian king to intervene effectively in Scottish waters since Magnus Barelegs in 1098. It was he who punished the murderers of Earl John of Orkney and Caithness. It was his fleets which sacked Bute, established Olaf as king in Man, plundered Kintyre and Lewis, and generally (as his own Saga put it) ‘won great honour for King Hakon in the west beyond the sea’.

Alexander himself (according to Fordun) led armies into Argyll against the MacSorleys in both 1221 and 1222. He may have established a castle at Tarbert on the narrow tongue between the mainland and Kintyre. But during the great dispeace he had virtually looked on while King Hakon triumphed. There was, moreover, a dangerous connection between disturbances in the north and west, for Gilleasbuig MacWilliam had drawn support from the Western Isles and timed his bid to coincide with the disorders there. Alexander’s chance came with Alan of Galloway’s death in 1234, because Galloway was then divided between the three Anglo-Scottish magnates who were married to Alan’s daughters. There was no chance of them plundering about the Western Isles. Indeed there was now a vacuum which soon Alexander aspired to fill by taking Man and the Isles for himself. With Alan’s demise he was able to develop his own position in Galloway. He turned Alan’s chief seat at Kirkcudbright into a royal castle and probably set up a sheriffdom at Wigtown; an important expansion of royal power and a step towards achieving his wider ambitions.

The royal and baronial take-over of Galloway was eased by long-term changes which had already brought this great Celtic province into the Anglo-Scottish world. Anglo-Scottish nobles, sometimes tenants of the crown elsewhere in Scotland, formed Alan of Galloway’s immediate entourage, as they had that of his father. Alan’s family had founded or helped to found two Cistercian abbeys (Dundrennan and Glenluce) and three Premonstratensian houses (one at Whithorn). Many houses from Scotland and Cumberland acquired property in the province, like Holmcultram’s grange at Kirkgunzeon, north-east of Urr. But Galloway was also conquered, as the thick spread of mottes in the area testified. A thirteenth-century effigy of an abbot in Dundrennan’s ruins shows him with a dagger in his breast but still managing to trample a semi-disembowelled kilted tribesman under foot. The Galwegians had initially supported as Alan’s successor his illegitimate son Thomas who gained the support of Hugh de Lacy and native Irish chiefs. It took two substantial expeditions in 1235 and April 1236 and two battles before Alexander came out on top. Thomas surrendered and spent some sixty years in prison; two Irish chiefs were pulled apart by horses in Edinburgh and the land and churches of Galloway were ravaged with great violence and cruelty (so the contemporary annals of Dunstable and the later Fordun tell us). A further expedition was required in 1247 to restore Roger de Quency (earl of Winchester), married to one of Alan’s daughters, after a revolt against his rule.

To be free to concentrate on Galloway, Alexander reached a final settlement with the king of England – already, of course, his brother-in-law. At York in September 1237 he surrendered all claims to the northern counties, and received in return £200-worth of land based on Tynedale, to be held from the English king with extensive liberties. A whole phase of Scottish royal history was thus at an end. The aim of securing the northern counties, which had provided the driving force of the kings of Scotland for centuries, was abandoned. Henry III spoke joyfully of a ‘firm peace’, and scaled down the costs of his northern castles. He too had shown statesmanship. The overlordship of the king of England, established by Henry II in 1174, had been formally abandoned by Richard in 1189. But John may well have revived the issue in 1209 and 1212, as presumably Henry did in 1221 when the pope refused Alexander a coronation on the grounds that ‘the king is said to be subject to the king of England’. Henry had raised his claims again with the pope in 1235, drawing attention to the homages owed him by the earls and barons of Scotland, a recollection of the treaty of 1174; but when it came to it in 1237, Henry made no reference at all to his claims and the settlement was essentially one between two sovereign states. At this very time Henry was insisting, in his dealings with Llywelyn and Dafydd, that the homages of the Welsh barons were his. But that was practical politics. Overlordship over Scotland was not. Henry was opposed to a coronation which would clearly change the status of the Scottish kings, but he had no wish to pursue his claims if it meant disrupting a happy family peace between the kingdoms.

That family relationship was threatened in 1238 by Joan’s death, although her influence had always been limited by her failure to produce an heir. In the following year Alexander married Marie de Coucy, daughter of a great French baron. But the family ties with England were soon renewed. In 1242, with King Henry anxious to secure the north during his campaign in Poitou, an agreement was reached for the marriage of Alexander’s baby son to Henry’s eldest daughter.

Alexander’s success in defending and expanding his frontiers owed everything to his ability to mobilize armies: in 1221, 1222, 1228–30, 1235, 1236, and later in 1244 and 1249. The cavalry was presumably (for there is no evidence) composed of household forces and the contingents furnished by the barons, while the foot came from the quotas of the ‘common army’, mustered on the basis of so many men from units of land (ploughgates or ouncelands). In 1244 Matthew Paris, well informed about northern affairs, noted that the Scots did not have valuable horses from Spain or Italy, but he praised the size and discipline of their army, which he put at 1,000 horsemen (many probably sergeants) and – with some exaggeration – 100,000 foot. If Paris was impressed, how much more must have been the men of Caithness, Argyll and Galloway!

Such armies reflected Alexander’s authority within his realm, an authority he was eager to enhance. The traditional inauguration ceremony of the Scottish kings at Scone differed from coronations elsewhere in Europe in that it lacked the crucial element of anointing. In 1221, as we have seen, Alexander sought papal sanction for a full coronation, which would put him on a par with the king of England. Papal refusal did not damage Alexander’s hold over the church, which remained a mainstay of his rule, thanks above all to his influence over ecclesiastical elections. Both in Caithness and Galloway (in the bishopric of Whithorn) he placed his own men. His chancellor William de Bondington became bishop of Glasgow (1232) and his chamberlain David de Bernham, bishop of St Andrews (1239). Alexander also defended the church’s independence and, with it, that of the realm. He was sticky about admitting papal legates, and doubtless helped to secure the bull of 1225 which allowed the Scottish church to govern itself through a national provincial council, confirming earlier rulings about its independence from York.

Little is known of Alexander’s revenues although they were almost certainly expanding. Certainly expanding was the scope and authority of royal justice. Throughout the reign the justiciars of Lothian, and of Scotland north of the Forth, were probably travelling through the sheriffdoms twice a year to hear the royal pleas (murder, premeditated assault, robbery, rape, arson). There is no evidence for a justiciar of Galloway, though one may have existed. A provision in 1245 tightened up procedures, marking the beginning of process by ‘dittay’ or indictment, under which local juries (as had long been the case in England) revealed to the justiciars those whom they suspected of wrongdoing, the miscreants then being arrested and brought before the justiciars for trial. The chattels of those convicted of the serious crimes which constituted the royal pleas, the 1245 provision stressed, were to be forfeit to the crown – again as in England, and an indication of the financial motives for getting a tighter grip on justice.

The advances on the civil side were even more important. In 1230 a statute set up the action of novel dissasine, a remedy for anyone deprived of a tenement ‘unjustly and without judgement’. Perhaps in the same year, or possibly somewhat later, a parallel action of ‘mortancestry’ was inaugurated, a remedy for anyone denied succession to their inheritance. The procedures were modelled on the English actions of novel disseisin and mort d’ancestor introduced by Henry II. They were initiated by a ‘brieve’ (a writ), which had to be obtained from the king or one of the justiciars, and ordered the truth to be recognized by a jury of ‘good men of the country’ before either the sheriff or the justiciar, probably the justiciar’s eyre being the usual forum. In sharp contrast to England, there are virtually no surviving records of Scottish courts from this period, so it is impossible to trace the growing use of these procedures. By the 1290s, however, the brieves of novel dissasine and mortancestry, with some others, were described as brieves ‘of course’ (de cursu), which meant – as in England – that they were issued in standard form automatically and at small cost. The new procedures were thus readily available and offered access to a jury, replacing in the last resort the judicial duel. The new procedures might also transfer cases from courts of lords into the more impartial, or so it could be hoped, courts of the king. In protecting seisin and inheritance, they reduced the need for self-help and helped to maintain law and order. In bringing a whole new range of business into royal courts before the justiciar or the sheriffs, they increased the whole scope and authority of kingship.

Ecclesiastics like the prior of Coldingham made use of the new procedures to protect their properties. Women resorted to them to protect their right to inherit in the absence of brothers, in the face of much pressure in favour of collateral males. Another group to benefit may have been rent-paying tenants, quite low down on the social scale, who claimed their holdings were hereditable. This highlights another feature of the procedures, one of cardinal importance: they were open to those of Scottish, English, Norman and any other descent. There was to be no legal apartheid in Scotland, as there was in Ireland and in a different way in Wales, where English law was chiefly for the English. In that respect, in Scotland the new law really was ‘common’. This was an important factor in the growth of national unity.

On the face of it the losers from the procedures were the lords. In the twelfth century the king had already been developing his appellate jurisdiction from their courts. Now the brieve of novel dissasine explicitly envisaged the plaintiff’s lord as the disseisor (though not exclusively so). It was the lord, too, who was most likely to be guilty of obstructing the course of an inheritance and becoming the target in an action of mortancestry. The rule also evolved in the thirteenth century (again based on one in England) that no freeholder need answer for his lands save by action brought by the king’s brieve. Lords, however, still wielded great jurisdictional power. In the first place the procedures operated primarily in royal Scotland, the Scotland of the sheriffdoms, because it was to the sheriffs that the writs were addressed. The justiciar’s eyres likewise operated in the same areas and never went north of Dumbarton in the west or Inverness in the east. The procedures of civil (and criminal) justice therefore had a limited impact in the great provincial lordships and the ‘outer rim’ earldoms. They were probably unknown in Caithness and Argyll. Even within the core of the kingdom private courts continued to flourish alongside the new procedures, partly because they retained disciplinary jurisdiction over defaults of service and because they enjoyed other jurisdiction (often by royal grant), including at the most basic criminal level (as in England) the right to hang thieves taken red-handed. There was also a great deal of overlap between private courts and the courts of the justiciars and sheriffs. Laymen continued to take their property disputes to ecclesiastical courts, while the church complained vociferously about cases concerning ecclesiastical property going to secular courts (another sign of Alexander’s control). The common law of Scotland in this period never paralleled the size and complexity of the law in England. There was no legal profession, and no equivalent to the bench at Westminster or the court of king’s bench, both staffed by professional judges. The justiciars and many of the sheriffs were members of the nobility.

All this helps to explain the relative harmony of Scottish politics in Alexander’s reign. The king was accused by the laity neither of financial oppressions, nor of arbitrary disseisins and denial of justice. ‘A good man, just, pious and generous, beloved by all as well by the English as his own subjects and deservedly,’ wrote Matthew Paris of Alexander II, though the Galwegians would have been less complimentary. When the last political crisis of Alexander’s reign occurred in the 1240s it was essentially a factional struggle at court between new families who had risen in the service of the crown. Tension between nobles of Anglo-Norman and Scottish descent seemed a thing of the past. Indeed both groups had co-operated in putting down the MacWilliams

The most successful of the new families was that of Comyn. Coming to prominence under William the Lion, it remained at the centre of Scottish politics and government until brought down by Robert Bruce. There came to be two principal branches descended from the two marriages of William Comyn, one producing earls of Buchan, the other lords of Badenoch and (by the marriage of Walter Comyn around 1234) earls of Menteith. The fifteenth-century historian Walter Bower wrote freely of ‘the Comyns’, and certainly from the 1240s they often seemed to have acted as a cohesive family group. Yet their rise was remarkably uncontested by established families, perhaps because their marriage alliances had cast a wide net, with one of William Comyn’s daughters marrying the earl of Mar and another the earl of Ross. (For further discussion of the family, see below, p. 423.)

The Comyns did sterling service for the king, although in the later writings of Fordun and Bower they often appear as archetypal over-powerful subjects – a judgement in which there was at least an element of truth. The crisis of 1242 centred on a conflict which had arisen with the Bissets, another family who had risen through royal service. After the latter had been accused of murdering Patrick of Atholl, nephew of Alan of Galloway, the young Alexander, earl of Buchan, and John the Red of Badenoch, ‘a keen fighter and most outstanding participant in all knightly encounters’, pinned Walter Bisset down in his castle at Aboyne and ravaged his surrounding lands. King Alexander kept calm and told everyone not to mistake flies for eagles and mice for lions, but he had to call out the common army of Mar to conduct Walter to Forfar to stand trial. Ultimately the Bissets ‘were outlawed from Scotland by judgement of all the nobles’ in November 1242.

The forms of law had been observed, but only just. Alexander had come under humiliating pressure. What is impressive is the way in which he now reasserted his authority. He dismissed the twin justiciars of Scotland north of Forth for failing to act against the Comyns and replaced them with Alan Durward, an appointment which influenced Scottish politics into the 1260s. Durward, the name deriving from the post of usher or doorkeeper at court, represented another curial family very much on the make. From an original base at Lundie in Angus, the family had benefited from the northern expansion, for example in gaining the lordship of Urquhart on Loch Ness. Rivalries at court, in the north, and over claims to the earldoms of Mar and Angus, ensured that Alan Durward would stand up to the Comyns.

The crisis of 1242 had repercussions on relations with King Henry. Walter Bisset fled to the English court, and put it about that the Scots were negotiating with King Louis, that they were stirring up trouble in Ireland and building border castles. In August 1244 Henry took an army to Newcastle and Alexander marched to meet him, conspicuously declining to lay waste the country as he approached. A peaceful settlement quickly followed, and one that did little to detract from Scotland’s independence. The affair was a storm in a teacup. The treaty of 1237 and the marriage agreement of 1242 were confirmed. Alexander acknowledged King Henry as his ‘liege lord’ and agreed not to enter alliances with his enemies unless oppressed ‘unjustly’, a qualification that rendered the pledge almost worthless. There was in any case no suggestion that Henry’s overlordship operated for anything other than the estates Alexander held in England. Therefore Henry did not entertain Bisset’s appeals for justice, and Alexander, as befitted his kingly status, did not swear in person to the treaty. True, a large number of Scottish magnates took oaths to uphold it, but that Henry saw these essentially as security for the agreement rather than as a prelude to the recovery of their homages was amply demonstrated by the events of the next decade.

Alexander was keen to settle with King Henry because he had more important things to do in the west. In 1244 he sent the first of many embassies to King Hakon offering to purchase the lordship of Man and the Isles. King Hakon was contemptuous. He had, he said, no need of such silver. Instead he continued to make his lordship of the west a reality: in 1248 King Harald of Man (son of Olaf) and a MacSorley, Ewen of Lorn, were both at his court, the former in order to marry his daughter and the latter to seek the title ‘king of the Isles’. When Harald was drowned later in the year, Hakon sent Ewen to take charge of Man. This was too much for Alexander. He raised a great fleet and sailed into the Firth of Lorn. ‘He made it plain to his men,’ declared Hakon’s Saga, ‘that he intended not to turn back until he had acquired all the Norwegian king’s dominion to the west of the Solunder sea.’ Alas for such hopes. Alexander died suddenly in July 1249 during the expedition. It was King Hakon who settled the future of Man, eventually installing there Harald’s brother, Magnus. Nevertheless, Alexander had redirected the Scottish monarchy and laid the foundations for the conquest of the west.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!