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King of Scotland (1249-1285)
House of Canmore
Born 1241 Died 1285

Alexander was the son of the preceding king Alexander II by his second wife Mary de Coucy and was born in 1241. When he succeeded to the throne on his father's death in 1249 he was therefore only eight years old

Alexander's minority

The years of Alexander's minority between the years 1249 and 1262 where characterised by the struggle for influence between the Comyn family lead by Walter Comyn, earl of Menteith and Alan Durward, the justiciar of Scotland.

The origins of the struggle went back to the previous reign when Alexander II, to counterbalance the growth of the power of the Comyn family had advanced the career of Alan Durward the lord of Urqhuart. In the year 1244 Alan Durward was appointed justiciar and also married Marjory, Alexander II's illegitimate daughter giving him a great deal of influence within Scotland.

This placed Durward in pole position to assume authority over the young king in 1249 but it then seems he over-reached himself by applying to the Pope to have his wife declared legitimate.1 This sufficiently alarmed the rest of the nobility that Henry III of England was requested to intervene and in December 1251 the Durward faction was forced our of power.

However in 1255 Alan Durward was able to persuade Henry III to exert his influence once again to restore him to power. The Comyns retaliated in 1257 by kidnapping Alexander ; civil war was however avoided when in the September of the following year Henry III arranged a compromise by which a joint regency existed for the remainder of Alexander's minority.2

The Western Isles

The Western Isles together with Kintyre on the Scottish mainland and the Isle of Man had long been part of Norway. Or at least formally part of Norway in the sense that the local lords recognised the authority of Norway rather than Scotland.

Alexander II had made attempts in the latter years of his reign to 'recover' these territories, now his son, once he's attained his majority in the years between 1260 and 1262, followed the same path. He began by attempting to negotiate with the Norwegian king Haakon IV and offered to buy the territories but Haakon declined the offer. Then Alexander tried the direct approach, launching a raid on Skye and attempting to persuade the local rulers to switch their allegiance.

Haakon's response was to gather together a formidable invasion fleet and sail to Britain reaching the west coast of Scotland in the later summer of 1263. Negotiations were re-opened between the two kings but Alexander appears to have followed a policy of prevarication in the hope that something would turn up. Something did turn up in the shape of the autumn gales that caused serious damage to Haakon's fleet.

A minor skirmish on the Ayrshire coast on the 2nd October 1263 when a few hundred Norwegians were prevented for effecting a landing (later elevated to the status of the battle of Largs) persuaded Haakon to go home for the winter. However by the time Haakon reached Orkney he had fallen ill and it was there that he died on the 16th December 1263.

In 1264 the king of the Isle of Man transferred his allegiance from Norway to Scotland and recognised Alexander III as his superior and two years later in 1266 Haakon's successor Magnus IV signed the Treaty of Perth by which Norway formally agreed to transfer sovereignty of the disputed territories to Scotland in return for the payment of 4,000 marks and an annual payment thereafter.3

The Succession

Now Alexander had married Henry III's daughter Margaret in 1251 and she was to bear him two sons named Alexander and David as well as a daughter also named Margaret before she died in 1275.

Unfortunately David died in 1281 aged 7 and daughter Margaret who was married to the thirteen year old king Eric II of Norway in 1281 also died in 1283 giving birth to her daughter who was also named Margaret. When therefore Alexander's elder and surviving son Alexander junior died in 1284 this created something of a dynastic crisis.

Alexander's response was twofold

  • firstly he persuaded the Scottish Parliament to recognise his surviving grand-daughter Margaret as his heir
  • secondly he decided to take a second wife, marrying one Yolande of Dreux in late 1285 with the hope no doubt of producing further sons, and since he was only 44 there seemed ample time to produce the required male heir.

Ironically it was his eagerness to get on with business that was to prove his undoing. On the 16th March 1286 he left a council meeting and, ignoring all advice, rode off in the middle of a storm to visit his queen at Kinghorn in Fife. His horse stumbled in the dark and threw Alexander down a cliff, breaking his neck and killing him outright.

Conclusion

Alexander maintained basically good relations with his neighbour and father-in-law Henry III throughout his reign but successfully resisted all requests to formally homage for his Scottish kingdom. This did however mean, that with the exception of the brief contretemps with Haakon IV his reign was largely peaceful.

With the acquisition of the Western Isles and associated territories from Norway, Scotland took another step closer to attaining its modern form and shape. However the feuding that characterised the period of his minority foreshadowed the internal infighting that was to become such a feature of the kingdom after his death and the use of the English king as an arbiter to settle internal disputes within Scotland set a dangerous precedent which Edward I was later to exploit.

But when it comes down to it the most important decision that Alexander ever made was his decision to get on his horse on that 'dark and stormy night' of the 16th March 1286 and get himself killed. The crown of Scotland passed to a three year old girl and Scotland was eventually plunged into the First Scottish War of Independence.


NOTES

1 Had Marjory been legitimised it would have made any of Alan Durward's children potential heirs to the throne. As it was he only had a daughter but his grandson Nicholas de Sulis became one of the many 'competitors' for the throne of Scotland following the death of Margaret in 1290. Despite being the closest blood relative to Margaret, his claim was rejected in favour of that of John Balliol.

2 Walter Comyn died as a result of a fall from his horse later in 1258 which may also have served to lessen the tension somewhat.

3 Both Orkney and Shetland however remained part of Norway for the time being.


SOURCES

Articles on Alexander III at
http://75.1911encyclopedia.org/A/AL/ALEXANDER_III_OF_SCOTLAND.htm
http://www.templum.freeserve.co.uk/history/scottishkings/alexanderIII.htm