Post-classical history

INTRODUCTION

IN PRAISE OF FACT AND FICTION

THE death of rulers is traditionally accompanied by much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Cynics might say that in many – most – cases, this should be interpreted as a display of political acumen in the face of changing political circumstances, or a rededication of adherence to the regime, rather than genuine emotion. The tears shed at the funeral of Alexander III would no doubt have been similarly expedient had it not been for the dreadful shock of his untimely death and the knowledge that there was no male heir to succeed him. As time passed, and it became clear that 19 March 1286 had ushered in a period of great misfortune in Scotland’s history, there can be no doubt about the depth of feeling which the last of the ‘Celtic’ kings of Scots inspired in succeeding generations. The traumas of the wars with England bit deep into the national psyche, as illustrated by the following lines written over a century later:

When Alexander our king was dead

That Scotland led in love and security

Departed was abundance of ale and bread

Of wine and wax, of games and glee.1

Indeed, succeeding events have provided history not only with a supposed thirteenth-century Scottish Golden Age, but also the justification for the anti-English feeling which so often characterises public expressions of modern Scottish nationalism.2 The wars also ultimately advanced the cause of the later medieval Scottish kings – at least in their own propaganda – by rendering them essential to the survival of the nation itself; ironically, Whigs later turned to the same period for evidence of a popular sovereignty restraining the monarchy.3

War is the natural environment of propaganda, whether to confound the enemy or to bolster morale. Periods of conflict between nations provide particularly fertile ground for polarised, black-and-white versions of events as governments seek to justify opposing military positions. As time passes, and such conflicts enter both history and folklore (and there is a very fine line between the two), new political agendas are given a wider context and legitimacy by harking back to an already simplified past. This is as true for the twentieth century as it is for the middle ages. In this way the past, or at least the currently acceptable version of it, is transformed to meet the needs of the moment, and crystallises to become a cast-iron truth. However, the results often have little to do with the beliefs and aspirations of the protagonists in the original conflict.

Having said that, there is no need to deny the importance of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to the development of a Scottish national consciousness; nor does an acknowledgement of the role of propaganda and mythology in the creation of versions of the past undermine any general discussion of the prosecution of, or resistance to, a war of conquest. The history of the struggle between Edward I and the Scots is comparatively well-known at both an academic and a popular level. After all, the period produced two of Scotland’s greatest heroes – William Wallace and Robert Bruce – and also earned King Edward the soubriquet of ‘Hammer of the Scots’.4

However, the history of the middle ages, and of medieval Scotland in particular, still remains stubbornly imprisoned in the popular mind as dark, dreary and violent, and, more importantly, as comparatively undocumented and therefore unknowable. This presumed lack of information has indeed been the justification for the free-for-all with Scottish history in both film-making and literature in recent years. There is a curious irony in historical figures about whom it is generally believed that we can know very little (and in Wallace’s case, this is certainly true) creating a whole industry to satiate the public’s desire to know them better. Of course, the less information there is about prominent figures, the easier it is to fit them into an idealised mould, to make men (and women) for all seasons.

Certainly, the fact that the history of this struggle must be constructed largely from English sources – primarily official government records and contemporary English chroniclers – has, understandably, given undue emphasis to Edward’s government of Scotland. This is all the more unfortunate given that most of Scotland was not, for most of the period between 1297 and 1303, in any sense under English control. Nevertheless, historians have already done much to illuminate this first phase of the Anglo-Scottish wars. Such studies fall into two main categories: to shed as much light as possible on the activities of the Scots, or to analyse the English war machine, but particularly the army, as part of studies of English government and military activity generally.5 In both cases, the milestones on the way have tended to be the military ‘highlights’ – battles and sieges. This is natural; after all, there were campaigns every year during the period from 1296 to 1304, with the exceptions of 1299 and 1302, and battles will probably always fire the imagination to greater effect than descriptions of administration.

However, these explosions of military activity form, at best, only half the story. Since the success of any conquest does not rely ultimately on victory in battle, but on the ability of the occupying regime to transform such victories into an effective and accepted administrative system, it is of paramount importance that Edward’s government of Scotland should be returned to centre stage. By shifting our attention on to the day-to-day activities of Edwardian officials, the process of conquest and attempted colonisation of one medieval kingdom by another can be brought more firmly into focus; correspondingly – though still frustratingly inadequately – the means whereby the kingdom of Scotland was able to marshal its resources and create a coherent and cohesive national movement to deal with an enemy much more powerful than itself also become clearer.

Of course, attempts to tell ‘the whole story’ never actually succeed: even the comparative full English sources provide only a very narrow focus. We are thus very well informed about the response of Edward’s government and its various departments to the war, both at home and abroad; we also have the reactions of various monastic commentators to such activities at varying distances from them. However, we have few direct reactions from the English nation at large to the Scottish war, although we know that its cost was disliked.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the study of this period of Anglo-Scottish warfare is the lack of surviving evidence from Scotland itself. This is particularly irritating when it comes to assessing the extent and effectiveness of the Scottish administration set up by Wallace, and continued by a series of guardians after the latter’s fall from power. It is thus not really possible to gauge exactly what the English administration in Scotland was up against in terms, particularly, of the military and fiscal organisation of the enemy. Equally, we have no way of knowing what overall policies and specific military stratagems the various Scottish leaders attempted to implement over these years. Actions and results will thus largely have to speak for themselves.

But the problems posed by questions of evidence should not prevent an attempt at understanding what was happening by the criteria which contemporaries would themselves have applied both to their own actions and those of their political leaders. The kingdom of Scotland was certainly not isolated from the wider medieval world; indeed, the extent of its involvement – trade and diplomacy are only the most obvious elements – is one of the more striking features of this period. This was a complex society, which was neither monolithic at any one time, nor static.

The historian’s job is to understand how versions of the past have come about in order to separate fact from fiction, while acknowledging the role of both. Fact is, of course, multi-faceted – there is no one version of events even as they are occurring. Fiction, ironically, has a closer relationship to ‘truth’ than history ever can: its creators do not have to cover all the options or point out the difficulties with the sources as the historian does.

Then there is the twilight zone between fact and fiction, particularly works such as Barbour’s Bruce and Blind Harry’s Wallace, and even Braveheart, which, while based on a modicum of fact, are primarily a reflection of the events and agendas of their own times. It is only recently, indeed, that historians have realised the extent to which our understanding of the Anglo-Scottish wars is a product of the comprehensive propaganda campaign conducted by King Robert Bruce against not only his predecessor, John Balliol, but also his arch-enemies, the Comyns, leaders of the Scottish political community before 1306. Analysis of the war has also been coloured by the commonly-held and disparaging view of Scotland’s medieval political system (still believed by many Scots), in contrast to that of England particularly. This has obscured the fact that that system was both sophisticated and appropriate to a kingdom that was not England; it has also made it more difficult to understand how resistance to Edward could be so successful.

This whole spectrum of fact and fiction informs each generation’s perceptions of the past and each of us must choose what makes most sense. We cannot alter what actually happened, nor know ‘the truth’ of it, but we can certainly be aware of what has brought us to our particular understanding. This book is one individual’s interpretation of the available evidence, though its contents should stand up to the standards of proof demanded by the historical profession and will be judged accordingly. It is undoubtedly coloured by the author’s own views about the role of centralisation versus decentralisation, particularly within the Scottish context, and probably also by late twentieth century suspicions of government.

But then again, if we did not believe that events of even seven hundred years ago had some resonance for our own times, we would surely not take an interest in the past. While the inhabitants of the middle ages certainly did things differently, we can still identify with the basic human motivations common to all eras – the desire to protect one’s family, to live as normal a life as possible and, if we are honest, to strut on a wider stage than that allotted to us from time to time. It is also apparently human nature to subsequently portray decisions taken in accordance with these basic desires as noble and glorious, when they are more often ‘merely’ mundane. That is perhaps the basic, symbiotic relationship between fact and fiction and, as Napoleon Bonaparte reputedly remarked: ‘What is history but a fable agreed upon?’.

NOTES

1 Wyntoun, ii, p. 279.

2 There is surely no need to look any further than the adoption of ‘Flower of Scotland’ as the unofficial Scottish national anthem in recent times.

3 See F. Watson, ‘The Enigmatic Lion: Scotland, kingship and national identity’, in D. Broun, R. J. Finlay &M. Lynch (eds.), Image and Identity: The Making and Remaking of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1988), pp. 20, 32; C. Kidd, Subverting Scotland’s Past(Cambridge, 1993), pp. 16–7.

4 From the sixteenth century painted inscription on Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey: RCAHM, London, I, Westminster Abbey, p. 29.

5 The best examples in each category are Barrow’s Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, and the most recent biography of Edward I by Prestwich.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!