Scotland's Wars of Independence

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Scotland's Wars of Independence is the name which modern historians have given to a series of conflicts, almost half a century in duration, which took place in the first half of the 13th century and which involved conflicting claims by English and Scottish feudal lords to the crown of Scotland or to the relationship between the crown of Scotland and that of England. Medieval men did not typically name their wars and they certainly would not have called it by that name even if they had been in the habit of doing so.

It is, in fact, easy to be mislead by the modern retrospective of events into thinking that the conflict was something similar to modern conflicts between nation-states. It was no such thing. The concept of nation-state was but weakly developed at a time when the nation was considered the personal holding of the king and, more important than national patriotism, was an individual's personal loyalty to a fedual lord. The modern division of combatants along the lines of patriotism also does not take into account the shifting loyalties and alliances which typically characterized such conflicts. One and the same person could, depending on circumstances (or how good a "deal" he was offered), at one time take the field on behalf of one side, and, later on, could shift over to the other side.

Kingship was the most common political system in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. There were various theories and various forms which this type of government exhibited, but in all cases, hereditary transmission of kingly power through the eldest surviving son played a large role. While assuring, in principal at least, an orderly transition from one ruler to the next, this very feature at the same time constituted one of the major weak points in the kingship system. For when the King died either without a male heir, or with an unclear, incompetent, or infant heir, the result could be a power vacuum which invited civil strife.

Such is the situation which occurred following the accidental death of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1286 after a lengthy period of stable, peaceful, and prosperous rule. This in turn set in motion a series of events in which the English King, Edward I, attempted to assert his own form of overlordship over Scotland thus precipitating what history has come to refer to as Scotland's Wars of Independence.

Succession

On March 18, 1286, King Alexander III of Scotland died as a result of a fall from a horse, leaving no male heir, his two sons having preceded him in leaving this world. He did have a daughter, and though she too had already died, she left a daughter of her own (the late King's granddaughter) in the infant Margaret, the Maid of Norway as she was known. This infant girl was the last of the Canmore line and it was she whom Alexander had designated a few years earlier as his heir should he die without male issue.

However, the King's wishes had no uncontestable legal authority, especially with the two potential male heirs closest in blood to Alexander, namely, John Balliol and Robert Bruce.

True, the King had taken a wife since that rescript and she was (or at least was supposed to be) pregnant at the time of the King's death. Unfortunately, her issue, a male as it happens, died aborning (either that, or it was a false pregnancy, or perhaps deliberate deception on the Queen's part to buy time for the re-organization of civil affairs). In any event, there arose a serious problem over the succession, and this problem was soon to become a crisis.