The church and the origins of Scottish independence in the twelfth century

The church and the origins of Scottish independence in the twelfth century

By Dauvit Brown

Records of the Scottish Church History Society, Vol. 31 (2001)

Introduction: Scotland’s status in relation to England is one of the most emotive issues for a Scottish historian to confront. Professional historians in recent times, both Scottish and English, have generally tried to navigate their way through the subject without taking bearings from the blazing beacon of patriotism; nonetheless it is almost impossible to avoid being picked up in its glare by readers suspicious of a scholar’s studied objectivity. History has repeatedly been invoked as the proving ground by those with entrenched views; and, when the evidence can not be reconciled with a particular position, it has all too readily been modified to ensure that the cogency of a predetermined story-line is undisturbed. In the late seventeenth century, or shortly after, someone even went so far as to destroy what he considered to be an especially disagreeable piece of evidence.

The victim of this act of vandalism was a brief passage in the Chronicle of Melrose, the only chronicle from Scotland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that survives in the manuscript in which it was originally written. Under the year 1072 it was noted in the Chronicle that Mael Coluim Cenn Mór, king of Scots, when he met with William the Conqueror at Abernethy, ‘became his man’. This explicit statement in a Scottish source of a Scottish king’s vassalage to a king of England was too much for our reader to bear; in desperation he scraped away completely the dreadful words homo suus devenit, ‘became his man’, leaving an ugly blank space and an incomplete sentence. The original reading, however, has been preserved in the first printed edition of the Chronicle, published in 1684.

It is a commonplace to say that any attempt to reconstruct the past is governed by the automatic assumptions or conscious concepts on which an author depends. It is easy to point to the limitations of a partisan telling of Scoto-English relations; it is far less straightforward to criticise a scholarly construct which has carried the weight of generations of books and papers. As far as the relationship between Mael Coluim Cenn Mór and William the Conqueror and their successors is concerned, historians have interpreted this within a conceptual framework which has been in the scholarly bloodstream before History was first taught in its own right in universities. This framework is feudalism. The essence of what feudalism means and how this has been used in the context of the relationship between kings of Scots and kings of England may be illustrated by referring to a book on medieval Scotland published in 2000. It is explained there that:

Feudalism was essentially a system of personal relationships. At the upper levels of society these normally took the form of a grant of land by a superior lord, often the king, to someone termed a vassal, who did homage and swore fealty to the lord, in effect promising to ‘be his man’ and to be faithful to him, and undertook to perform specified services which were normally (though not always) of a military nature, such as service in war and the performance of garrison duty in castles.

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