The conflict that lasted between 1296 and 1328 between the three Edwards, I II and III on the English side and variously John Balliol, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce on the Scottish side that resulted in Scotland establishing it status as an independent kingdom.

The Background

Alexander and Margaret

On the 9th March 1286 the Scottish king Alexander III died after falling off his horse and down a cliff near Kinghorn in Fife. It was unfortunate that all of Alexander's children had predeceased him, but there was one surviving grandchild; his daughter Margaret had married Eric II, the king of Norway and their daughter, the three year old Margaret the Maid of Norway, previously recognised as heir to the throne, was now proclaimed as Queen of Scotland.

This gave Edward I, king of England, fresh from his conquest of Wales, an opportunity to settle matters in Scotland as well and fulfill his ambition of creating a united Britain. On the 18th July 1290 the Scots agreed in the Treaty of Birgham (also known as the Treaty of Birgham-Northampton) to a marriage between Margaret and Edward I's son Edward of Carnarfon, Prince of Wales and later Edward II. The nine year old Margaret therefore set sail from mainland Norway to the Orkneys, en route to England, but fell ill on the journey and died on the 26th September 1290, before she ever reached her destination.

Her body was returned to Bergen in Norway, where she was buried beside her mother, the last of the House of Canmore.

The Competitors

With the throne of Scotland remaining vacant and a number of claimants putting themselves forward the Scots were now fearful that the country would be plunged into civil war as the Bruce and Balliol families, the most powerful in the land, began to manouever for advantage. Edward I was therefore invited to adjudicate between the competing would be monarchs. This he agreed to do on condition that the Scots recognise him as overlord of Scotland. In April 1291 the Scottish Parliament reluctantly acceded to Edward's demands and the grand competition began.

There were fifteen potential kings to choose from, including the aforementioned Eric II of Norway, but the two gentlemen with the strongest claim where John Balliol the 6th Baron of Balliol and Lord of Galloway and Robert of Bruce 6th Lord of Annandale.

Both Balliol and Bruce were the descendants of Norman knights who had been granted land by David I and whose families had subsequently married into the House of Canmore. Balliol's grandmother was Margaret, the eldest daughter of David, earl of Huntingdon, brother to kings Malcolm IV and William the Lion, whilst Bruce's mother was Isabel, a younger daughter of the same David. Bruce could claim he was the closest relation, Balliol that Margaret had seniority.

On the 17th November 1292 Edward I announced the results of his deliberations; John Balliol would be the next king of Scotland.

The First Phase - John Balliol

King John

Having first sworn fealty to Edward I, on Saint Andrew's Day 1292 John Balliol was crowned king at Scone and on the 26 December 1292 he formally paid homage to at Edward I for the kingdom of Scotland at Newcastle upon Tyne.

From the off Edward I had a very straightforward view of the situation; he was overlord of Scotland, he had picked John Balliol to be king, John Balliol was there to do what he was told.

Scotland was however, full of thwarted 'competitors' and those that were unhappy with the sight of those they saw as 'Englishmen' being appointed to positions of seniority in Scotland and being placed in command of the kingdom's castles. The final straw came when Edward I ordered that the Scots provide troops for his French campaigns; in the July of 1295 the Scottish Parliament appointed a Council of Twelve to rule in Balliol's name, signed a treaty with Philip IV of France and prepared for war with England.

Caught between a rock and a hard place Balliol had to jump one way or the other and finally chose to raise the banner of revolt.

The campaign of 1296

In the spring of 1296 Edward I came to invade Scotland and put down the revolt. On the 30th March 1296, Edward began by attacking Berwick and a wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants followed as the English army stormed the town. Within a month he had comprehensively crushed Balliol's army in 27th April 1296 at the battle of Dunbar and the revolt was effectively over.

On the 10th July, Balliol formally surrendered at Stracathro in Angus and signed a document confessing his errors in consorting with the king's enemies, and was taken into captivity in England. Edward I sealed his victory by convening a parliament at Berwick where all the great and the good of Scotland were summoned to swear their allegiance to Edward, over 2,000 came to put their names to what became known as the Ragman Roll including Robert of Bruce senior and his son Robert the Bruce.

Edward's victory was swift and straightforward, greatly assisted by the fact that large sections of the Scottish nobility, such as the Bruce family supported him and fought with him at Dunbar against Balliol.

With Balliol now deposed, Scotland was under military occupation and had effectively been annexed by England.1

The Second phase - William Wallace

Amongst the names missing from the Ragman Roll were those of the Wallace family. One of their number, young William Wallace killed the English sheriff of Lanark in a street brawl, went on the run and began a programme of guerrilla warfare against the occupying army.

By 1297 Wallace had raised sufficient support, particularly from one Andrew Moray to challenge the English on the field of battle and on the 11th September 1297 routed the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge. But Wallace who fought to restore John Balliol as the rightful king of Scotland was ignored by much of the nobility2 and when in the following year Edward led a large army into Scotland and Wallace was decisively defeated at the 22nd July 1298 at the battle of Falkirk.

William Wallace seems to have disappeared after his defeat at Falkirk but he had demonstrated how effective guerilla tactics could be against an occupying army. Sporadic and determined resistance to Edward's army of occupation therefore continued; Edward I repeatedly sent armies into Scotland with inconclusive results, but he gradually wore down the opposition.

Despite suffering a defeat at the battle of Roslin on the 24th February 1303, Edward continued to press forward with his subjugation of Scotland and by the 20th July 1304 he had captured Stirling Castle, the last of the Scottish castles in native hands and it seemed as if the Scots would have to face the harsh reality of English rule.

Meanwhile on the 5th August 1305 William Wallace reappeared and was betrayed to and captured by the English near Glasgow, then taken to England where he was tried and convicted of treason at Westminster Hall and on the 23rd August 1305 he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

In September 1305 Edward issued his 'Ordinances for the establishment of the Land of Scotland', where he proposed to establish a government of twenty appointed Englishmen and ten elected representatives of the Scottish estates to govern Scotland in his name. With Wallace dead and every stronghold in English hands it seemed as if the Scot|Scots had no choice but to accept Edward's proposed arrangements with good grace.

The Third phase - Robert the Bruce

The Declaration of Arbroath

Robert the Bruce had earlier supported Edward I against Balliol and he had opposed Wallace, but now with Wallace out of the way Bruce made his own bid for the throne.3 On the 10th February 1306 he removed the competition by murdering John Comyn, known as the Red Comyn and on the 27th March 1306 was crowned king of Scots at Scone (sans the Stone of Destiny which of course Edward I had earlier removed to England.)

But things went badly for the would be king, he was defeated by the English at the battle of Methven near Perth in the June of 1306, and again by the Lord of Argyll (an ally of the Comyn family) at the battle of Dalry in August. His wife, daughter and sisters were captured and mprisoned; three of his brothers were captured and executed. Robert was forced to go into hiding, a king in name only.

But the following year he returned and tried again and on the 10th May 1307 Bruce defeated the English at the battle of Loudoun Hill. Then perhaps the best news of all, on the 7th July 1307 Edward I died and was succeeded by his far less capable son Edward II. Bruce was able to gradually build up his support and take control of the south-west of Scotland sufficient to persuade the Scottish Parliament to officially recognise him as king in 1309. Between 1310 and 1314 he extended his control over the rest of the country driving out the pro-English section of the Scottish nobility and the English garrisons in Scotland.

Finally Edward II decided to act against the upstart Scot and launched an invasion of Scotland in the spring of 1314, taking with him one of the largest armies ever to take the field in the north, on the 24th June 1314 he suffered a devastating defeat at the battle of Bannockburn.

In the years following this victory Bruce worked patiently to drive the English out of Scotland and on the 28th March 1318 he finally captured Berwick on Tweed. Edward III came in June to lay siege to Berwick on Tweed but on the 20th September a Scottish victory on English soil at the battle of Myton in Yorkshire forced the abandonment of the siege.

With all Scotland now in his hands Bruce could look to the future and on the 6th April 1320 he issued the Declaration of Arbroath an impassioned plea to the papacy for its assistance in achieving recognition of the independence of Scotland.

The campaign of 1322

In the July of the year 1322 Edward II gathered a large army at Newcastle in preparation for another invasion of Scotland and one more attempt at crushing the rebellious Scots. However in anticipation of the arrival of the English army, Robert the Bruce ordered the complete evacuation of Lothian and the removal or destruction of everything remaining.

By the time the English army moved into Lothian in August of that year they faced a countryside empty of any source of sustenance; Edward was entirely dependent on his navy for maintaining supply lines. Unfortunately for him the English fleet was attacked by the Flemish, and then hit by a storm, with his army growing hungry Edward was forced into another humiliating retreat back to England.

To make matters worse, in September Robert sent his forces into England, defeating an English army at the battle of Scawton Moor and even made an attempt to capture Edward II himself. (Edward managed to get away just in time and the Scots had to content themselves with looting Rievaulx Abbey instead.)

After such a debacle Edward really didn't have much choice and with Henry de Sully acting on his behalf, a thirteen year truce was negotiated at Bishopsthorpe on the 30th May 1323 and was ratified by the Scots at Berwick on the 7th June.

On the 5th March 1324 David was born a son and heir for Robert guaranteeing the succession. The war had ended, and Scotland might have achieved its independence, but it had not yet won recognition of that fact from its adversary England.

The Final Phase

Events in England

Edward II is generally regarded as one of England's less successful and capable monarchs who was deeply unpopular amongst the contemporary nobility due to his practice of favouring certain individuals, firstly Piers Gaveston and later Hugh Despenser.4

He had already faced one minor insurrection in 1321 (which he quashed) but in 1326 he faced a far more serious challenge when his wife Isabella, effectively left him and took up with Roger Mortimer earl of March, probably the most powerful member of the nobility at the time, who through his numerous lordships in Wales could also drawn on considerable military resources of his own.

The rebellious couple raised an army, declared the infant Edward Keeper of the Realm and London accepted them with open arms. Edward II was soon on the run and reduced to sending an envoy to Robert the Bruce asking for his help.

The conclusion of the war

By the 16th January 1327 Edward II had been captured and eight days later his son Edward III was proclaimed king in his place and crowned on the 1st February.

Robert the Bruce organised an invasion of England in the spring of 1327, the Scottish army soon occupied Northumberland, laid siege to Norham and moved into Cumberland, Westmorland and north Yorkshire. Whether this was a genuine attempt to achieve the restoration of Edward II or simply a way on putting pressure on Mortimer and Isabella we do not know; it turned out to be somewhat academic as Edward II died in captivity at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire on the 21st September 1327.

It was widely believed at the time (and still is for that matter) that Edward II was murdered at the instigation of the two lovers which rather damaged their reputation and with the English Parliament refusing to approve funds for a new campaign they had no option but to seek a permanent negotiated settlement with Bruce.

Therefore in the autumn of 1327 peace negotiations between Robert the Bruce and the English government began in earnest.5 It took a few months for the English to understand that they had to give Bruce what he wanted. In the spring of 1328 the Treaty of Northampton was concluded, recognising Scotland's independence and bringing the war to an end.

The following year, to symbolise the peaceful conclusion of the war, Robert's son, David, and Joan the sister of Edward III, were married.

Final Note - from the Department of Historical Irony

So Scotland won its independence thanks to two men, William Wallace who provided the inspiration and Robert the Bruce who provided the application. William Wallace, 'William the Welshman', Strathclyde Welsh that is, and Robert the Frenchman from Brix in Normandy.


1 John Balliol remained a prisoner until 1299 when he was allowed to retire to his family estates at Bailleul in Normandy where he remained until his death in 1313.

2 And Wallace's took to raiding England in search of loot rather than preapring for the inevitable English reaction.

3 The precise motives of Robert the Bruce during this time are of course much debated; specifically to what he extent he was driven purely be self-interest.

4 Leading to accusations of homsexuality amongst other things.

5 Worth noting that despite Edward III being king, the government of England was in the hands of Mortimer and Isabella until 1330.


Sourced from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entries on Alexander III, Margaret Maid of Norway, John Balliol, Robert the Bruce, amongst others at together with the Scottish History sites and

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