Post-classical history



THE ordinances of 1305 set the seal on this second conquest of Scotland. There was no longer either a king or, this time, a kingdom – merely a land. Admittedly, there was much on which Edward would not compromise – notably the desire to maintain senior authority within the Scottish government in the hands of English officials and his own ultimate right to alter anything deemed derogatory to his own sovereignty. However, the second settlement of Scotland, which took a year and a half to perfect, was a quite different affair from that of 1296, which was over within five months.

There is only one real explanation for this change of attitude: the years of war had taught Edward I that, by contrast with the conquest of Wales, English resources were not sufficient to enforce a successful annexation of Scotland if its people chose to resist. The English king therefore wisely sought to treat both Scotland’s distinctive governmental system and its political leaders with a degree of respect which had been markedly lacking in 1296.

The ability of the Scots to elicit even such a tacit acknowledgement of the strength of their resistance, despite its ultimate failure, is extremely important to our understanding of the war itself. Good and bad luck played their part, as ever: the Scots were perhaps fortunate, for example, that the conquest of Wales had already stretched English resources even if it also provided Edward with a valuable learning experience; however, they were very unlucky that the battle of Courtrai happened at the very moment when the return of their king was considered a distinct possibility. But such unforeseen events have a habit of occurring and it is really only their nature that is unexpected.

Equally, England’s response to the conflict was fundamental to its pursuit. Edward was actually very fortunate to have a war against an inferior nation (from the English point of view) into which he could divert the considerable and understandable resentment at the constant demands he made of his subjects away from himself (even if that war itself created fresh demands). However, though the English certainly didn’t like the thought of being bested by the Scots, their basic lack of interest in the conquest of the northern kingdom, once it became clear that the war would provide very little opportunity for glory, riches and honour, soon turned into downright antipathy. Even English patriotism had its limits when there was little or no scope for individuals to pick up anything other than the promise of lands and increased debt. Edward certainly seems to have been extremely concerned about the state of his war machine, judging by the increasingly frenzied letters to royal officials in 1303 particularly. The earl of Ulster, for one, would never again believe the promises made to persuade him to serve in Edward’s army after the 1303 campaign proved as unforthcoming in pay as that of 1296.

Though it is important to understand how Scotland came to be taken over by Edward I in 1296, this study begins with the fact of conquest. The administration set up in that year was not particularly well thought out, primarily because the king was far more concerned about getting back to his war with France. This, unfortunately, did nothing to give the new administration a good, or even acceptable, start: on the one hand, the enthusiastic and competent officers, such as Cressingham and Ormesby, proved far too adept at extracting an unprecedented level of revenue, to the complete bewilderment of the generally untaxed Scottish population; on the other hand, the lack of interest shown by both Surrey and Percy in the judicial aspect of their offices particularly ensured that the Scots felt unable to seek redress for their grievances through the usual legal channels.

From the Scottish point of view, therefore, the regime was bound to be regarded as oppressive from day one, even if there is no evidence that the kingdom was treated any differently from the rest of Edward’s dominions, including England (after the initial pointed snubs to Scottish sovereignty). The depth of feeling is illustrated by the fact that no-one waited for a co-ordinated or official response; local communities throughout the kingdom voted with their feet and sought to expel the offending representatives of Edwardian government, presumably without worrying too much about the consequences. The full extent of such activities is almost certainly lost through the lack of evidence. However, William Wallace’s rising in Lanarkshire is surely a good example of local men taking events into their own hands, even if, in this instance, its leader became remarkably and unusually famous.

Indeed, Scotland’s very lack of centralisation probably gave the kingdom an advantage in this war of survival, not least because of the ability of the localities to function with some semblance of normality even when the central (Scottish) government was either impotent or seriously handicapped. As with Wales a century later, this meant that it was less easy for the English to bring about a piecemeal reconquest, because revolt could continue to break out anywhere at any time. However, Scotland had an advantage over Wales in that there was less danger ‘of rash actions by individual groups’1 because, outwith certain restricted geographical areas, there was still enough of a governmental superstructure to maintain co-ordination.

The inability of Edward’s officials to act effectively against these impromptu revolts in 1297 perhaps panicked the king into the early release of Scots, like MacDougall of Argyll and the Comyns of Badenoch and Buchan, who had experience of dealing with the individual localities involved. Doubtless Edward realised that he was taking a huge risk – these were, after all, key members of the former government; presumably he believed that both the crushing military defeat at Dunbar and the oaths which they had subsequently sworn to him would be sufficient to check any rebellious instincts. However, the actions of the Comyns in particular, which were reckoned by contemporaries to have been duplicitous, underline the importance of Andrew Murray and William Wallace in showing the Scottish élites the ‘how’, rather than the ‘why’, of effective rebellion. Confidence is everything when going to war, especially if the opposition is so much more powerful.

During the period between 1296 and September 1297, the English government, both north and south of the border, continued to treat Scotland as finished business, albeit with a few loose ends to tidy up. The battle of Stirling Bridge changed all that – from then on it was real war. The campaign leading up to the battle of Falkirk in the following year was intended to restore Edward’s authority in Scotland with an overwhelming show of force. However, despite being one of the most impressive armies in western Europe, this campaign exposed the weaknesses of the English war machine. The battle itself, though certainly an English victory, was perhaps more of a close-run thing than they would have cared to admit. Equally, the defeat did not lead to the collapse of the Scottish government but instead finally convinced the guardians that they should refrain from engaging the enemy directly in battle.

Edward was nothing if not a quick learner. He was perfectly aware of the difficulties exposed in 1298 and made great efforts to remedy them, overhauling the fleet and issuing even more specific guidelines for the most efficient purchase and conveyance of food supplies, for example. However, his understanding of what needed to be done did not quite square with either his subjects’ enthusiasm for the war or their ability to pay for it. The spiralling nature of the debt incurred by the crown from the various component parts of the war machine was not immediately obvious, but by 1301 Edward was forced to choose to whom he would postpone payment; this in turn unleashed the law of diminishing returns as the losers had even less reason to trust royal promises in the future.

The problem with the lack of suitable personnel has been mentioned many times already; the south-east suffered particularly from the constant changing of royal officers and the lack of consistent overall command. The significance of Sir John de St. John as warden of the south-west should not be underestimated, not least because his appointment in 1300 brought more consistent and effective pressure to bear on the Scots from then on; Sir John Segrave perhaps also brought a degree of coherence to the English military presence in the south-east, but only from 1301.

Problems of personnel were compounded by the fact that, even though the seat of English government had been removed from London to York, (York being equidistant from London and Edinburgh) it was still a considerable distance from the administrative and military operations which it was attempting to co-ordinate. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the officers on the ground were often unable to attend meetings at York because they were constantly needed at their posts. This placed a greater reliance on messengers, which rendered the whole operation correspondingly more vulnerable.

However, while the situation was certainly made more difficult by the lack of enthusiasm for office in Scotland among the English élites, we should not forget the experiences of the footsoldiers who also served in both the armies and the garrisons. It would be overstating the case to suggest that there was a general lack of concern on the part of royal officials whether these footsoldiers stayed or went. Nevertheless, their place at the bottom of the pecking order certainly ensured that they must, at the very least, have felt extremely vulnerable. The general role of infantry was about to undergo a significant transformation, but as yet the archer, particularly, was not given the respect which he would be accorded later in the fourteenth century.2

However, this attitude certainly had implications for the success of Edward’s military operations: time and again the lack of wages and supplies meant that the footsoldiers, who bore first and hardest the brunt of any shortfall, took the pragmatic decision to return home in large numbers. The army could not continue to function effectively without them and it disintegated. Despite occasional attempts at bribery,3 the footsoldiers were not fooled and their stake in the whole enterprise can really only be regarded as minimal. Pride will only go so far if it is undermined by personal privation.

All of these significant difficulties, coupled with the fact that the Scots were certainly not militarily capable of actually defeating the English, meant that the conflict quickly degenerated into a war of attrition. If one wanted to place a bet, then England clearly had the ability to sit it out the longest; but perhaps only just. The will to fight among the wider population, and the consequences of continuing to do so, played a vital role in deciding the contest. Enthusiasm in England, which was never very high, had reached an all-time low by 1303; though we will never know how close it came to vanishing altogether, we should not forget that the English had already nearly launched a civil war in this reign. The unpopularity of Edward II within a year of taking the throne, though partly his own fault, is perhaps also an indication of what might have faced his father if the war had gone on much longer.

The contradictory sentiments of patriotism and war-weariness come across clearly in the political songs remaining from the period. In the bluntly titled Song against the King’s Taxes, it was lamented that:

Now goes in England from year to year

The fifteenth penny, to do thus a common harm.

And it makes them go down, who used to sit upon a bench;

And it obliges the common people to sell both cows vessels and clothes

It does not please thus to pay the fifteenth to the last penny.4

While this song indicates the difficulties caused further down the social ladder, there is little reason to presume that the élites were much more enamoured with the war, since it had so little to offer them in terms of their traditional rewards: even Edward himself admitted that the siege of Stirling would provide an unusual opportunity for new knights to ‘gain their shoes or their boots’.5 If the enemy refused to engage, then campaigning was little more than a lengthy horse-ride, redeemed only by the odd skirmish; even the sieges tended to be a triumph for the engineers. Heroic, chivalric, glorious – this war was none of these things. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that Edward’s own military reputation, which was certainly boosted by comparison with his unenthusiastic son, remained intact after his death:

Of England he was lord

and a king who knew much of war;

In no book can we read

Of a king who sustained better his land.

All the things which he would do,

wisely he brought them to an end.

Now his body lies in the earth;

and the world is going to ruin.6

The fact that a nation could criticise its king for the burdens which his ambition placed upon it one day, and then eulogise him for having done so the next is an entirely human reaction to the end of an era. Edward’s final, devastating failure to bring Scotland to heel was glossed over by the belief, which he would certainly have shared with his subjects, that he would ultimately have succeeded if death had not intervened; Edward II, on the other hand, showed neither the inclination nor the ability to allow the English any pride in their dealings with Scotland during his reign.

However, while Edward I still lived, there were two sides to this coin. While the Scottish élites remained fairly solidly behind the war effort, there were many others who, for all number of reasons, could not sustain their active support, particularly if they were in close proximity to an English garrison. Scotland’s geography played a fundamental role in giving King John’s government a heartland from which it could operate in relative safety; however, retreating into the ‘normality’ of north-eastern Scotland was not an option for the lesser folk of the south. Again, a comparison with rebellion in Wales is instructive: according to Professor Davies, ‘It was exhaustion and military frustration which eventually defeated Glyn D[ŵ]r’.7 This was just as true for the Scots a century earlier, even if it was not the whole story.

By 1300 King Edward attempted to compensate for his inability to keep his army together over the winter by granting the Scots truces. However, these were most certainly a means to an end and even the truce of Asnières, which allowed for the French to play a direct role in Scotland, was surely regarded as a disagreeable option to stave off a worse alternative. While the truces are still evidence of English weakness, they did not necessarily have a negative effect on Edward’s war effort since new garrisons were thus given some time to establish themselves, even if there was also a danger of deterioration due to logistical problems.

Equally, the references to administration of a more ‘normal’ kind within the English zone from 1300 onwards is one of the best indicators of increasing success. The taking of castles is one thing, but they served little purpose (especially because of the financial implications) if their recapture was not translated into increasing acceptance, and therefore authority, within their own hinterland. The deliberate targeting of the ‘middling sort’ was part and parcel of this development and was one whose success the Scottish government could only prevent by direct intimidation. This was certainly employed, but as English administrative achievement became both more widespread and more stable, it proved impossible to dam the tide of acceptance of Edward’s regime: subjection is a two-way relationship.

This is not meant to imply that Scottish resistance was either uncommitted or ineffective; it does no discredit to the losing side to indicate the huge odds it was up against, nor that factors such as the risk of severe economic disruption were sufficient, at both an individual and a group level, to prompt acquiescence in a situation that most would have preferred to prevent. From 1301 in particular, increasing English garrison activity outwith the campaigning season made it very difficult for the Scots to compensate for the gains made during the campaigning season by English armies. The lack of siege engines was also working against them since they no longer had sufficient time to coax an English garrison into submission.

However, any discussion of positive and negative factors working for each side in any conflict, though necessary, is unlikely to illuminate what this war must have looked like to contemporaries. In the first place, each point of view would depend on a variety of factors other than being Scottish or English. While hindsight can allow us to glimpse certain trends which explain success or failure, such insights were generally not available to those involved at the time. Unfortunately, the writing of history demands both a coherent structure and the drawing of conclusions; this makes it virtually impossible to indicate that at any given point there were a number of outcomes which in turn had very different consequences. This problem has already been highlighted most eloquently:

Hindsight is the besetting sin of the historian. Nowhere is it, perhaps, more pernicious in its impact than when discussing a war or a revolt. Chaos is turned into order at the stroke of the historian’s pen; isolated and unrelated episodes are arranged into neat causal patterns; lines of development and crucial turning-points are perceived with a clarity and confidence denied to contemporaries.8

While history will continue, for the moment anyway, to be written in terms of a progression from A to B, historians must, at the very least, be able to admit the problems posed by the presumption that they should not merely take the past apart and leave it like that.9

It is certainly not impossible to understand why the Scots surrendered to Edward I, with the important caveat that their eventual capitulation was by no means inevitable and, for most of the period, remained highly unlikely. Even in 1303, especially after the surprise ‘victory’ at Roslin, the permanent English forces in Scotland could appear demoralised and ineffectual. And this is the crux of the matter, the double-edged sword under which both sides operated.

For the English, their very success in extending control over more and more of Scotland also rendered them vulnerable as resources were correspondingly stretched. The total number of permanent troops stationed in Scotland did not increase dramatically as more garrisons were installed. While this may certainly be an indication of increasing confidence, it did mean that Selkirk castle, for example, could be captured by the Scots as late as 1303. For the Scots, English vulnerability was exploited to great effect even up until September 1303, when they considered submitting but changed their minds when they saw the state of the Irish footsoldiers. However, as English garrisons, and with them, English justice, became an increasingly permanent fixture throughout more of the country, it became harder to convince the war-weary population at large to give up the chance to live their lives (more) normally.

However, looking at the situation from this perspective alone, an English victory was still the most likely outcome, simply because Edward would never have given up except in extraordinary circumstances and he still, despite the difficulties, had access to far greater resources than the Scottish government. Unfortunately history tends not to work as predictably as that. There were many factors, some foreseeable and others quite unexpected, which could push the advantage to one side or the other. Courtrai was one such unlikely event which had serious repercussions for the Scots. If it had not happened, Comyn and his advisers could certainly have decided to sit the contest out, since Edward was an old man and his son was by no means his equal. There is no point in engaging in ‘what ifs’, but it is certainly worthwhile looking at the alternatives when assessing why people did what they did.

Hindsight is indeed a besetting sin, but it is impossible to avoid it. This is particularly true with regard to this second conquest of Scotland since we know that Robert Bruce was going to kill John Comyn, seize the throne and start the whole ball rolling again less than six months after the publication of the ordinance. But, of course, contemporaries did not, even if a number of them had an idea that Bruce would aim for the throne eventually.10 It is important, therefore, to regard this settlement as genuine; certainly the English, and probably most Scots, expected it to last. At the very least Scotland needed a period of recuperation, as indeed did England.

However, even before the settlement of Scotland had been agreed, there were indications that all was not well. In July 1305, John, earl of Atholl, still warden north of the Forth, petitioned the king for a more effective source of his fee of 1200 marks since he had only received £540 so far and most of that had been spent on repairing castles and retaining soldiers. A further £800 was allowed to him for his expenses since 29 March 1304, presumably the date on which he took up office.

Sir Alexander Abernethy experienced similar problems, resulting in his own request to the king in August 1305 for payment for himself, his retinue of sixty men-at-arms and various officials under his jurisdiction. William, earl of Ross, as Edward’s warden beyond the Spey, had also ‘not yet had any allowance for himself or his servants’.11 Edward would have to do rather better than this if he was to be regarded as a credible source of patronage by the Scottish nobility, one of his many roles as king. There was still clearly difficulty in getting some parts of Scotland to pay dues, perhaps because there was now a climate of tax avoidance; the re-establishment of a national administration which could pay for itself was taking rather longer than any of Edward’s officials might have wished. Equally, as a number of references throughout 1304 and 1305 make clear,12 the submission of Scotland’s government certainly did not mean that all Scots were prepared to give up the fight.

Over time, the new regime would surely have dealt with these problems, so long as it continued in the vein in which it had begun and did not give the Scots cause for unredressed resentment in the near future through heavy-handedness. But time was no longer on England’s – or, more importantly, Edward’s – side, though the future was still as unpredictable as the outcome of the war had once been. However, having proved that they could indeed exercise power successfully in defiance of the English king, the Scots now only required a legitimate leader to act as a catalyst for revolt. Unfortunately, legitimacy lay in the hands of only one man: John Balliol. The main obstacle to the success of Robert Bruce would not be the English but the Comyn family and their allies, who, after all, dominated that very part of Scotland which had so effectively resisted Edward I. Given the extent to which Carrick had been cold-shouldered by the Scottish political community after 1300, his eventual success as king was one of the more unlikely directions which history could have taken.

The first phase of the attempted conquest of Scotland by England cannot be regarded as a blueprint for either success or failure in military affairs: the role of the unexpected, combined with the more predictable, makes every war unique. Nevetherless, one small, northern European kingdom’s struggle against an overmighty neighbour and, equally, a dynamic and ambitious kingdom’s attempt to extend its boundaries, as most contemporary states (including Scotland) sought to do, is as worthy of study as any other martial exploit. To that extent, the history of warfare is both individual and universal.

It also cannot be separated from the environment which created it. The histories of Scotland and England are, of course, conditioned to a greater and lesser extent by the events precipitated by Alexander III’s dramatic early death, just as the relationship between these two nations bears their scars even today. Cicero certainly had a point when he said that ‘Freedom suppressed and again regained bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered’ – the conflict with England will no doubt long remain ingrained within the Scottish psyche.

However, the significance of this war does not lie in who did what to whom and how terrible it was; the regularity with which neighbour has fought with neighbour throughout history makes that form of analysis mundane. Rather, it informs our understanding of warfare in general, together with the state-building processes of which it is a symptom, just as much as the higher profile conflicts between the ‘great nations’ of England and France. An embarrassment of evidence, which has given the history of these ‘great nations’ undue prominence, is not an indication of superiority per se, but neither is its scarcity – something medieval Scottish history will always have to contend with – an excuse for filling the gaps with wishful thinking. War is, and presumably always will be, expensive, tedious, horrifying, but, above all, complex.


1 See Davies, Owain Glyn D[i_ŵ]r, p. 233.

2 See, for example, Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, pp. 132–7, 151–65.

3 See above, p. 90.

4 Wright, Political Songs, p. 183.

5 Haskell, The Scottish Campaign of Edward I, 1303–4, p. 38.

6 Wright, Political Songs, p. 242.

7 Davies, Owain Glyn D[i_ŵ]r, p. 237.

8 Ibid., p. 263.

9 The authors of 1066 and all that were perhaps perfectly aware that many a true word is spoken in jest.

10 Carrick had made a secret pact of mutual support with William Lamberton, bishop of St. Andrews (and probably a number of other Scottish notables, perhaps including Comyn himself) as they helped Edward to reduce Stirling castle in 1304: see Barrow,Bruce, p. 139.

11 CDS, ii, nos. 1696, 1631, 1395.

12 See above, p. 198.

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