Diffinicione successionis ad regnum Scottorum: royal succession in Scotland in the later middle ages
By Michael A. Penman
Making and breaking the rules: succession in medieval Europe, c. 1000-c.1600. Proceedings of the colloquium held on 6-7-8 April 2006. Institute of Historical Research, edited by F. Lachaud and M. Penman (University of London, 2008)
Introduction: The history of succession to the Crown of medieval Scotland is dominated by the crisis of inheritance of 1286 to 1292, events which in turn provoked the bitter Wars of Independence against England (or the ‘Wars of Scottish Succession’ as scholars now usually style them) from 1296 to 1357. When this dynastic calamity struck, the Scottish experience was one which arguably mirrored that outlined in this volume for other European kingdoms, including England, France and Hungary: that is, that although by the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries, it had generally become accepted that royal inheritance patterns should be determined by male primogeniture without division of patrimony, no further normative custom or law had been determined or recorded which would deal definitively with any of the more complex direct or collateral male (or, if necessary, female) inheritance variables which might arise within that general principle.
Indeed, no Crown succession crisis of sufficient difficulty had arisen in Scotland before 1286 to demand such a resolution. It followed that this very uncertainty about royal succession precedents in Scotland contributed to the crisis when, within the space of nine years from 1281, the two sons of King Alexander III both died, followed by the king himself in a drunken riding accident and then, in October 1290, his only designated heir, his infant grand-daughter, Margaret ‘the Maid of Norway’, whom Alexander’s own daughter of that name had perished bearing in 1283.
This absence of precedent, and the resulting legal adjudication (later known as the ‘Great Cause’), overseen and exploited by Edward I of England from spring 1291 to 30 November 1292 to determine the Scottish succession, have been the focus of a recent study by A.A.M. Duncan. The heart of the disputed succession now lay between, on the one hand, John Balliol of Galloway and Barnard Castle (born c.1249), the eldest surviving son of the daughter of the eldest daughter of Earl David of Huntingdon (d. 1219), a brother of King William I of Scotland (1165-1214), Alexander III’s grand-father; and, on the other hand, Robert Bruce of Annandale (born c.1220), the son of the second daughter of the same Earl David. The fundamental difference within the primogeniture process by 1291 thus lay between Balliol’s claim by seniority, as the grandson of a king’s eldest niece (or as Earl David’s great-grandson), and Bruce’s claim through nearness of blood or degree, as the son of the same king’s younger niece (or Earl David’s grandson)
Admittedly, much of the sixteen months which took up these Scottish succession hearings can be explained by politically motivated adjournments by Edward I, as well as some of the rival claimants. Nevertheless, the majority of Scots and other participants felt the claim of the man eventually chosen, Balliol, by seniority, to be the strongest. However, as Duncan reveals, such was the widespread uncertainty and ignorance of the historical past of Scotland’s royal succession that Bruce of Annandale in particular may have had a stronger claim than recognised at the time or since and, further, Bruce may also have missed a historical precedent or two which might have helped his cause.