Aristocratic Politics and the Crisis of Scottish Kingship, 1286–96
The Scottish Historical Review, Volume XC, 1: No. 229: April 2011, 1–26
In the ten years from 1286 Scotland experienced a crisis of royal succession and sovereignty which by 1296 seemed to have left it a conquered land in the hands of the English king. The activities of Scotland’s leading magnates and prelates in this period have been analysed in terms of the divisive effects of a disputed royal succession and of the defence of collective liberties as a self-conscious community of the realm. However, as with political crises in other medieval realms, the leaders of this community also acted as individual lords with concerns of land, lordship and office. Such concerns were normal features of political life but between 1286 and 1296 had to be resolved in exceptional circumstances of interregnum and the loss of sovereignty. Events which derived from the interplay of aristocratic politics included the murder of Duncan, earl of Fife, the legal dispute over the lands of Macduff and rivalries between leading Hebridean lords. Issues like these fed into and shaped the issues confronting the Scottish guardians and King John and were significant elements in the crisis which engulfed the realm.
From 1286 to 1296 the realm of Scotland faced a challenge to its continued existence as a separate and sovereign kingdom. The death of King Alexander III in March 1286 ended the male line of the Scottish royal house and exposed the realm to the efforts of Edward I to extend his authority over Scotland. The search for a new king led the Scots to negotiate a dynastic union between Alexander’s granddaughter and heiress, Margaret of Norway, and Edward’s son. This plan ended with the death of Margaret in 1290 and the removal of the acknowledged ‘lady of Scotland’ also brought the threat of civil war between rival claimants to the Scottish throne, John Balliol and Robert Bruce. Efforts to resolve the dispute over the succession by law rather than war were exploited by Edward I to assert his claim to be the overlord of Scottish king and kingdom. Responding to requests to arbitrate between claimants, Edward I instead demanded recognition of his right to judge this ‘Great Cause’ as sovereign and ruled Scotland directly during the eighteen-month-long case.