The Maid of Norway
The untimely death of Alexander III of Scotland in 1286 brought to an end a period of relative stability during which Scotland’s existing status as an independent nation had remained secure after two reigns involving little conflict.
The king’s accidental tumble off a cliff or bank in the middle of the night was followed by the more suspicious death of the seven-year-old Queen Margaret, Maid of Norway, in 1290. She was on her way to Scotland from Norway and her drowning, or illness, robbed the nation of the one widely acknowledged heir to the Scottish throne.
It is thought Queen Margaret died on or near the Orkney Islands in a ship provided by Edward I of England. The Norwegian Bishop accompanying her said she was, 'seized with illness at sea.' Sea sickness may seem an unlikely cause of death, but Queen Margaret was a child and something as simple as a chest infection could have made her ill enough to die at sea.
However, both Edward I of England and the powerful Comyn family, (led by John Balliol and the Red Comyn, Earl of Badenoch), may have seen her as a threat to their own ambitions.
If there was any foul play the Comyns seem the more likely candidates, as they were already actively seeking to seize the throne and the Bruce family had been forced to step in to secure key locations in Queen Margaret’s name. At least that’s how the Bruce family saw it—at the time the Red Comyn complained bitterly that the Bruce family were the traitors.
Edward I had less incentive to harm Margaret, as he had been able to engineer a betrothal between his son Edward and the young queen. Edward I certainly wanted to rule Scotland as a fiefdom of England, but war with Scotland offered no advantage over diplomacy. The English king had other concerns to deal with, including France and a consistently unruly English nobility. So while a marriage arrangement set for when both children came of age wasn’t entirely signed, sealed and delivered, Edward I could expect to easily gain greater control over Scotland through a marriage alliance if Margaret stayed alive.
Edward I also went to the trouble of providing a ship equipped for a queen and ordering treats such as walnuts and raisons to be included for, ‘the delectation of the queen.’
The English king ordered many atrocities and summary executions during his brutal reign. However, and so far as we know, he stopped just short of physically maiming or killing Robert I’s female relatives. In other words, if you were high born and female Edward I might well lock you away or torment you, but he was fairly unlikely to kill you—if only to retain a bargaining chip.
Whatever the exact cause of Queen Margaret’s death, Scotland was left with no less than 13 rival claims to the Scottish throne. As a result, the leading nobles—appointed as Guardians of Scotland in the absence of a ruler—feared a civil war between the powerful Comyn and Bruce factions over the succession.
This led the Guardians to invite Edward I to decide which claim to the Scottish throne took precedence. The Bruce family had a relatively close claim through primogeniture; but Balliol had relatively close blood relations. Edward I selected Balliol and then set about undermining the new king with a view to repeatedly forcing Balliol to acknowledge the King of England as his feudal superior. At the same time Balliol was under intense pressure inside Scotland from those who had not been chosen as king.
Berwick and Dunbar
Before long most of Scotland’s leading nobles were disregarding Balliol and heavily involved in negotiating a treaty of mutual support with the French. The resulting arrangement between the French and the Scots enraged the already unstable Edward I, who sent his army against the town of Berwick. The battlements along the city walls were as little as 12 feet from the ground and there was no chance of holding out against Edward’s forces. It soon became clear that the Scots inside the town would need to surrender.
Sadly and unfortunately, as the negotiations were being finalised a dart struck the Earl of Cornwall's brother Richard in the temple as he lifted his visor. This is thought to have sent Edward I into a fury, resulting in a command for no quarter to be given.
As many as 13,000 civilians were slaughtered under Edward I’s order—whether for revenge or as a warning to Balliol and the rest of the Scottish nobles to come to heel. The Scottish garrison defending Berwick Castle eventually surrendered and unlike the civilians in the town they were allowed to live.
The commander of the garrison, Sir William Douglas, father of the Good Sir James Douglas, was imprisoned. William Douglas would eventually return to Scotland for a time on the condition that he took no further action against Edward I, but it was not long before he broke the promises the English king had forced on him.
Baliol buckled in the face of the appalling massacre at Berwick followed by the dreadful defeat at the Battle of Dunbar. As a result, Edward I appeared to be well on the way to gaining feudal superiority over Scotland’s nobility. The Scottish king was imprisoned and then exiled to Rome on the condition he played no further part in events in Scotland. Baliol did as he was told and the Comyn and Bruce factions decided to play safe and to avoid immediate confrontation.
However, just as Edward’s predatory ambitions seemed near to realisation a popular uprising led by Andrew Murray and William Wallace started to gain momentum. Murray, from De Moray, held lands in the north of Scotland, while Wallace operated separately in the lowlands.
This is the first part of my Guardians of Scotland course, which covers the events of the First Scottish War of Independence and includes a variety of sources and activities.
Next: De Moray, William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge.