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The Medievalist

History of Scotland 1296 - 1603

The history of Scotland from the late middle ages to the Reformation begins and ends with two astonishingly powerful and committed men of non-noble birth who changed the face of Scotland forever - William Wallace and John Knox.

Between them, with a few exceptions, parade a string of boy-kings, greedy nobles, power-hungry regents, and corrupt churchmen, each and all dedicated to their own self-aggrandizement and with very little concern for the well-being of an independent Scotland.

The miracle of these times is that Scotland survived at all. But she did survive, and in many ways her people prospered and grew in knowledge, wealth and influence. The strength of Scotland, as usual, came from her people, rather than her political leadership.

The Wars of Independence

In the chaos surrounding the Maid of Norway's death, Scotland turned to the ruthless and cunning Edward I of England to arbitrate among the claimants to the Scottish throne. He chose John Balliol, both the strongest claimant and weakest man, thinking to rule Scotland as a vassal state through him. When even Balliol balked at the humiliations Edward I sought to impose on himself and Scotland, Edward I marched north and annexed Scotland virtually without a fight.

The Scots rose under Moray in the north and Wallace in the south, surprising and very much annoying the King of England. Notwithstanding their great victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297, at which Moray was mortally wounded, the Scots were unable to prevail under Wallace and lost a major battle at Falkirk the following year. With Wallace on the run, Edward I annexed Scotland outright, installing Englishmen to administer the country and garrisoning the castles.

There followed several years of confusion, with the Scottish people waging small-scale guerilla warfare against the English, and the Scottish noblemen squabbling amongst themselves. In 1306, Robert the Bruce met with John Comyn, his hated rival, and in a rage killed him. As the killing was done before witnesses in a church, Bruce was guilty of both murder and sacrilege. The only way out was to put himself above the law. He rode hell for leather to Scone and had himself crowned king on March 25, 1306.

So Scotland had a king - but no kingdom. For years, Bruce worked to unite the Scottish people behind him, aided by the death of Edward I in 1307. The time bought by the lull in fighting the English was put to good use, and the Scots army that took the field at Bannockburn in 1314 was large and representative of all Scotland, including the many highland clans that had sheltered and helped Bruce during his dark days on the run.

Despite resounding victory at Bannockburn, the war continued sporadically for another 10 years, until an uninterested Edward III acknowledged the King of Scots and Scotland's freedom in the Treaty of Northampton. Five years later, Bruce died, unknowing that the Pope had finally also recognized Scotland's freedom and the Bruce's right to rule. His five-year-old son, David II, was duly crowned and anointed King of Scotland.

From the House of Bruce to the House of Stewart

David II (ruled 1329-1371) was the first of an almost unbroken line of child kings that were to bedevil Scotland for the next 300 years as regents, guardians, illegitimate (and legitimate) siblings, and other rivals used their minorities to plunder and pillage the royal lands and incomes.

The independent spirit that produced in Scotland the first true nation-state in Europe (Scotland was united under MacAlpin when England was still a hodge-podge of independent kingdoms), served, in its dark side, to preclude cooperation and any willingness to put the needs of the country above the needs of the clan, or, most often, the needs of a particular individual. The Scottish royalty and nobility continued for centuries to view government service as a mere tool to gain their own ends. When James VI (James I) left Scotland to gain the English crown in 1603, it was without a backward glance that he took up the reins of a much more prestigious and lucrative position.

David I did little actual ruling as king. In their pleasure at gaining independence, the Scots pressed their claims in northern England, suffering a series of defeats in the 1330s. David fled to France (1334-41), came back and five years later was captured by the English, remaining imprisoned for another 11 years (the Scots were in no rush to pay the ransom). He died childless and the house of Bruce ended after just two kings.

Robert the Bruce had a daughter who had married Walter Stewart. The Stewarts had been for generations the hereditary stewards (hence the name) of Scotland. It was her son, Robert II, who gained the throne on David's death, beginning the Stewart line. He was followed by his son, John, who took the name Robert III when he ascended the throne. These were the last two adults to inherit a throne in Scotland until Charles I in 1625.

The best that can be said for Scotland in the 1300s is that she survived without outright civil war and without succumbing to the English. The Roberts exercised little power over the nobles and were unable to successfully collect taxes and punish crime.

A Parade of Young Men Named James

Robert III was followed for 200 years by nothing but Jameses - James I through James VI (with Mary, Queen of Scots appearing just before James VI). Ironically, not all of them were first sons, it is just coincidence that they all inherited the throne bearing the same name. And all of them, including Mary, were children when crowned.

James I (1406-1437) fled Scotland during a palace coup plotted by the Duke of Albany. His ship was captured by the English and he spent years enjoying the "hospitality" of Henry IV, while Albany "served" as regent in Scotland. James I was a well-educated and talented man. He married Joan Beaufort for love and wrote poetry for her. He made friends in England, got along very well with Henry IV and V, and was quite prepared to take firm control of Scotland upon his release in 1424.

He went north and killed the traitors responsible for the death of his older brother and his own imprisonment. He arrested and briefly held the Lord of the Isles (the MacDonalds ruled the west and were a thorn in the side of the Scottish monarchy till the beginning of the 16th century). He renewed the "Auld Alliance" with France and married his daughter to the Dauphin. He was murdered in 1437, leaving the six-year-old James II to rule in his stead.

James II (1437-1460) managed to put down the Douglases, who had gotten way too big for their britches during his minority. He himself welded the knife that took out William Douglas in 1452. James II was delighted with "modern technology", employing artillery against the Douglases. He died at the age of 29, while standing beside a cannon that unexpectedly exploded.

James III (1460-1488) ascended the throne at the age of nine. In 1465, he was kidnapped by the Boyd family, who ran Scotland until James reached his majority in 1469. He immediately drove them out. He also put paid to the MacDonalds, taking from them the Earldom of Ross. Diplomatically, he married Margaret of Denmark and finally added the Orkneys and Shetlands to Scotland.

James III was not a wise king - prefering to rule on the advice of "favorites" and ignore the nobles. He spent quite a bit of time fighting his own brothers, and eventually aggravated the nobility to the extent that even the Campbells rose against him under the banner of the young prince. He lost to his own people at the battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. He fled, but his body was found a day or two later, stabbed through the heart.

The weakest of the Stewart kings was succeeded by his son, James IV (1488-1513), the greatest of them. Intelligent and inquisitive, James IV is famed for his ability and willingness to speak Gaelic, his sponsorship of a Scottish navy (a great achievement which outlived him and embarked Scotland into the broader world), his establishment of universities, and his touch with the common people. He was well-loved. Luckily, being fifteen at his father's death, he avoided a regency and took command immediately.

James IV enjoyed peace with Henry VII of England, wily progenitor of the Tudors, marrying Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII), and thereby setting the stage for the eventual Stewart elevation to the English throne. Unfortunately, Henry VIII, one of the most megalomaniacal men to ever live, insulted James IV and the Scots by stating that he "owned Scotland" - a red flag to a bull. James IV showed poor judgment on the field, and the best and brightest of an entire generation of Scots lost their lives at Flodden Field in 1513, including the king.

James V (1513-1542) was just a baby when a grieving nation placed the crown on his head. His long regency was dominated by the Douglases (his mother had married the Earl of Douglas). James V was a lousy king - dominated by a drive for money and advancement that alienated and enraged the nobility. He introduced hanging, drawing and quartering as a punishment, abhorred by the Scots since the time of Wallace. He gave no fewer than five of his (illegitimate) sons lucrative church positions. He married two French noblewomen, the first dying within months; the second, Mary of Guise, producing two boys who died in infancy.

Henry VIII, disturbed by the Scottish-French alliance, attacked Scotland. The Scots, through a leadership dispute, suffered a great loss at Solway Moss in 1542. James V, not present at the battle, fell into a depression and turned his face to the wall, choosing to abandon his country and dying at the age of 31. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a newborn babe. We can find nothing kind to say about James V's behavior. He left a faction-torn, war-weary Scotland on the verge of Reformation and anarchy.

Reformation Scotland and the Union of the Crowns

The Protestant Reformation played out very differently in the several European countries. In England, it was ordered from the top down by Henry VIII's desire to have his own way in marriage and divorce. In Scotland, the power of the Kirk began with the common people, later working its way up through the higher classes.

Politics and religion were one in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Scotland, money was king. Both James IV and James V brought the notorious corruption of the Scottish church to new heights by appointing several illegitimate sons to bishoprics. It is estimated that the church was ten times wealthier than the royal house in 16th century Scotland, and resentments against church taxes and abuses had been growing for many years. This resentment predisposed the Scots toward the dismantling of the Catholic church with its episcopal system, explaining in large measure why the Scots were attracted to Presbyterianism rather than Anglicanism.

James V had clung to the "Auld Alliance" with France in the face of growing national discontent with the benefits of such an alliance. The loss at the Battle of Solway Moss further disenchanted Scotland with France. This, too, helped the Protestant cause.

In light of the political situation, Mary of Guise was denied her daughter's regency and the reigns of government passed to the anti-French party under Arran. Foolishly, he agreed to marry the infant queen to Henry VIII's son, Edward, a move almost immediately repudiated in a storm of Scottish outrage. Unfortunately, the result was war with England, continuing under the regency of Edward VI, compounding Scotland's troubles.

Meanwhile, in 1546, a leader of the Protestant cause, George Wishart, was burnt for heresy while Cardinal Beaton, zealous for the church, watched from his window. The fires of Reformation were ignited throughout Scotland, but particularly in the breast of young John Knox.

Civil disarray prompted Mary of Guise to send her five-year-old daughter to France for safekeeping, where she would remain until 1561, having meanwhile become Queen of France (for only a year, as the young king died), before returning to claim her throne at age 19.

Mary of Guise gained the regency in 1554, installing both French administrators and a French army to maintain control of Scotland. By now, many prominent nobles had taken up the Protestant cause and banded together to form the Lords of the Congregation. Civil war raged in Scotland until Mary of Guise's death in 1560. Under the direction of the Congregation, the Scottish Parliament accepted a Protestant Confession of Faith, renouncing the pope and the mass.

Mary, Queen of Scots, thoroughly French and thoroughly Catholic, returned to a Protestant Scotland violently opposed to French influence. Charming and intelligent, well able to debate effectively with John Knox in their several confrontations, she was doomed nonetheless. Her choice of the Catholic Lord Darnley, himself with a claim to the English throne, enraged both the Scots and Elizabeth I. Her further romantic escapades over the next three years lost her the throne. Her decision to seek refuge in England cost her her freedom and, eventually, her life.

The crown passed to the toddler, James Stuart (the change in spelling marks Darnley's line), raised by Protestants to hate Catholicism and his mother, he ignored her plight and spent his career ensuring that his relationship with Elizabeth I would bring about the desired result. In 1603, he succeeded to the English throne as James I and left Scotland forever.

John Knox preached at James VI's coronation in 1567. He continued as leader of the Scottish church until his death in 1572. Throughout James VI's reign, lowland Scotland embraced Presbyterianism, a form of Calvinism based on rule from the local church (presbyter) on up through synods and a National Assembly. This is in stark contrast to the top-down Anglican church, ruled by archbishops from on high. The wars with England in the 17th century were based on the struggle of Scotland to define it's own national church, rather than accept Anglican structure and form.

As a side note, the Highlands remained predominately Catholic. It is from the clans that the Stuart Pretenders would gain the bulk of their support in their struggles to regain the English throne in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Continue on to History of Scotland 1603-1746
Read about William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, or Mary, Queen of Scots

Additional Resources: Scottish History Books




William Wallace:  Braveheart
William Wallace : Brave Heart


James A. MacKay's biography of William Wallace - as close to true history as available resources allow

Robert the Bruce King of Scots
Robert the Bruce : King of Scots

by Ronald McNair Scott

Readable, entertaining biography of Robert Bruce. A good choice if you buy just one.

Freedom's Sword : Scotland's Wars of Independence
Freedom's Sword: Scotland's Wars of Independence

by Peter Traquair

Readable, well-researched history with lots of maps and photos. Covers William Wallace, Robert Bruce and the aftermath. 5 stars.

Burgess, Merchant and Priest : The Medieval Scottish Town
Burgess, Merchant and Priest: The Medieval Scottish Town

By Derek Hall

Hall is an urban archeologist and puts his narrative skills to work in this fascinating story of the bustling, vigorous Scottish towns, including Edinburgh, Glasglow, Perth, and more. Find out how urban Scots lived in the middle ages.

Medieval Scotland
Medieval Scotland (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks)

By A.D.M. Barrell

Covers early medieval Scotland through the 16th century. Celebrates the Scots' achievement of a cohesive nationhood, against high odds, when the Irish and Welsh failed to unify their countries.

The Stuarts
The Stuarts (A Royal History of England)

Edited by Antonia Fraser

The Stuarts reigned over Scotland and England from 1603 through 1714. There is an error in the book's description - James VI's mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, not Margaret Tudor.

New Penguin History of Scotland
The New Penguin History of Scotland


A must-have for any student of Scottish history. From prehistoric times through the present, each chapter is written by an expert in the field.

Scotland: The Story of a Nation
Scotland: The Story of a Nation

by Magnus Magnusson

An engaging, lively history of Scotland - heavy on the swashbuckling. A great read.

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