The Origins of the Wars of Independence in Scotland, 1290-1296
By Elizabeth Ann Bonner
Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History, Vol.5 (1997)
Introduction: Very late on the 19th March 1286, in the teeth of a howling gale on a dark and stormy night, Scotland’s history was changed forever with the death of King Alexander III. Earlier that evening the king had held a meeting of the Privy Council at Edinburgh castle and after a good meal and French wines he decided to return to his voluptuous young pregnant French wife, Yolande, who was staying at one of the king’s residences at Kinghorn on the opposite shore of the Firth of Forth. Alexander set out into the stormy night with several of his barons, surviving a perilous crossing from Dalmeny to Inverkeithing. On their journey along the coast road, not far from Kinghorn, the king became separated from his companions and apparently took a wrong turning in the midst of the storm and ended up on the rocks at the foot of the cliffs of Pettycur, where his body with its broken neck was found the next morning. At the time of his death Alexander was forty-four having only recently married Yolande who, following her miscarriage returned to France. Alexander’s first wife, Margaret of England, whom he had married in 1251, had died and both their sons, Alexander and David had also died without issue before 1284, leaving the child of their daughter, Margaret, who had married Eric II of Norway, as heir to the crown of Scotland.
Seizing this opportunity, in the winter of 1286-87, the aged Robert Bruce, lord of Annandale, rose in rebellion to advance his own claim to the throne, as a descendant of David I. Bruce’s rebellion was put down by the six Guardians of Scotland (the earls Alexander Comyn of Buchan and Duncan of Fife, the bishops, William Fraser of St Andrews, and Robert Wishart of Glasgow, James the Steward and John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch) who had been governing Scotland since Alexander’s death. Thus, Margaret and Eric’s daughter, Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway, was declared Queen of Scots.
In 1290, by the Treaty of Birgham, it was agreed that the seven-year-old Maid would marry the son and heir of Edward I of England – Edward, prince of Wales. The Scots were well aware that this would lead to one man ruling two kingdoms, and they wrote into the marriage treaty many safeguards for the continued independence of Scotland. When the Maid died on her way to Scotland from Norway in 1290 however, the people of Scotland soon discovered how little the treaty of Birgham meant to Edward. In a determined pursuit of what he considered to be his rights, Edward rode roughshod over the protests of the Scots, casting aside the agreement that had been reached. In doing so, he began the hostility that was to last, intersperced with warfare, until the mid-sixteenth century during the first years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1560.