Royal Piety in Thirteenth-Century Scotland: the Religion and Religiosity of Alexander II (1214-49) and Alexander III (1249-86)

Royal Piety in Thirteenth-Century Scotland: the Religion and Religiosity of Alexander II (1214-49) and Alexander III (1249-86)

By Michael A. Penman

Thirteenth Century England XII (2007)

Introduction: It is perhaps inevitable that both the public and personal piety of Scotland’s thirteenth-century kings should appear, at first, unremarkable in contrast to that of the long-reigning Henry III of England and Louis IX of France. Henry’s consuming spiritual and material investment at Westminster Abbey in the cult of his ancestor, Edward the Confessor, and, from 1247, the associated veneration at that house of a Holy Blood relic, were but the most outward signs of a deep personal faith wedded tightly to Plantagenet political ends.

The studies of David Carpenter, Paul Binski, Nicholas Vincent, Sarah Dixon-Smith and others have revealed in Henry a commitment to a wide, varied and costly round of religious building as well as daily and annual observances through masses, alms-giving and ritual commemoration. Many of these practices were continued by Henry’s son: as Michael Prestwich has illustrated, Edward I’s rule can also be shown to reflect a strong personal as well as heavily politicised faith. Nonetheless, the contemporary and historical reputations of both these English monarchs have always struggled to compete with that of the ‘most Christian’ French king. Louis was a charismatic religious exemplar, canonised in 1297, but during his lifetime already praised throughout Europe for his charity, devotion to his royal predecessors at St Denis, veneration of both local and universal saints and their newly translated relics and, of course, his firm will to actually crusade.

Little wonder, then, that the successive Kings Alexander of Scotland from 1214 seem, at best – to use a well-worn measure in investigations of piety – largely ‘conventional’ in their religious politics and patronage as well as in their religiosity as individuals; or, at worst, they are really ‘unknowable’ as spiritual beings. Contemporary and later Scottish chronicles note, for example, Alexander II’s protection of churches in times of war, his humility before priests and his ‘…wonderful zeal for the increase of religion, seen especially in his concern with building churches for the Friars Preachers.’ But these were traits reflected in many a medieval royal epitaph and Alexander is more usually reduced by modern historians to a hard-edged political and military king focussed on laying claim first to the northern counties of England and then, from 1237, the Norse-ruled western isles off Scotland. The latter was an objective which Matthew Paris chronicled as causing Alexander to knowingly offend the cult of St Columba thus leading to the king’s early death of illness on the Argyllshire island of Kerrera in 1249.

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