David Stevens Tutor: Dr. Roger Mason
How effectively did the Scots respond to Edward I’s historical arguments for English superiority over Britain?
The concept of superiority and even overlordship over the rest of the British Isles and its peoples played a central role in the formation of a sense of English identity and the formation of England as a defined social and political unit. The writings of Gerald of Wales and William of Malmesbury described the other peoples inhabiting Britain and Ireland as uncivilised barbarians and these influential ideas, strengthened with the experiences of the population with the other peoples, and the English financial and institutional superiority, provided the basis for expansion and what can be described as the first wave of English imperialism. It was not until the reign of King Edward I of England, however, that there was a monarch with the legal, political and military talent, and perhaps more importantly the determination to realise the natural English right to rule Britain. He enjoyed much success in Wales and qualified success in Ireland, but was aware that Scotland was always a different proposition, particularly because of its special relationship with the papacy. When the succession crisis arose therefore, with the death of King Alexander III and the subsequent death of his only heir young Margaret the Maid of Norway, thus putting an end to Edward I’s plans laid down at the Treaty of Birgham in 1290 to marry his son to the young heiress; a protracted battle of words, letters, myths and histories broke out. In the modern vernacular therefore, a propaganda campaign on a scale and influence never before witnessed in the British Isles was to provide the crucial narrative behind military campaigns as Edward I sought the fulfilment of his Arthurian dream of himself as the legendary king of Britain.
It was primarily Edward’s ambition that led to both the historiographical and military struggle between Scotland and England after a lengthy period of peace throughout the thirteenth century between the two kingdoms that for the medieval period can be seen as quite remarkable. He sought to use both the opportunity of being invited to adjudicate the rival claims for kingship in Scotland after the death of Margaret, known as the ‘Great Cause,’ and the subsequent ‘rebellion’ of the newly appointed King John Balliol to impose his overlordship over his northern neighbours. This is not to imply a deliberate cynical ploy on Edward’s part to use these events as excuses for his plans, however, as it would seem that Edward most certainly believed in his natural right as the English king to have dominion over the Scottish realm, and hence that the actions of Balliol and the Scottish clergy were both treacherous, and to his legal mind, unlawful. When he received a bull in 1299 from pope Boniface VIII therefore, demanding that he “abandon the war in Scotland, a land in which the pope says that the right belongs to himself,” he responded by setting out his legal case for overlordship based on historical precedent. He had to be careful to point out, however, that he was not presenting the case to the pope for adjudication, but was simply aiming to set the mind of his Holiness at rest.
Edward set out his historical arguments for English superiority based on three main points. The first was the ancient right of English kings to suzerainty over the Scottish lands and seems to have been largely based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings Of Britain. The origin of the English is traced back to the arrival of the Trojan Brutus and his division of Albion between his three sons, the eldest of which, Locrine, receiving England and as the eldest, the royal dignity. When his brother Albanact, who had received Scotland, was killed by Humber the king of the Huns, Scotland reverted to Locrine as the eldest brother. There are two other histories included in this first argument put forward by Edward, that of King Dunwal of the Britons and his two sons and that of King Arthur. The younger of King Dunwal’s two sons was given Scotland and was to rule it under his eldest brother who received the crown of Britain, Wales and Cornwall. What is mentioned of King Arthur is his installation of Angusel on the Scottish throne and the fealty and service he paid to Arthur at the feast of Caerlon and that “in succession [of King Arthur] all the kings of Scotland have been subject to all the kings of the Britons.” All three reports, that may now reasonably be called myths, were therefore intended to illustrate that kings of England had always been overlords of Scotland.
The second historical argument put forward by Edward in his letter to Boniface follows on from the first, and in its continuation of the first point becomes the most important, certainly in legal terms, of his claims. He moves from ancient Scottish kings paying homage to English kings to what appears to be a comprehensively long and undeniable list of examples of present or recent Scottish kings paying homage to the English crown. The research for this had been conducted on what was a grand scale for the time and was begun during the time of the Great Cause as Edward was no doubt convinced that whoever should take the throne in Scotland would have to recognise the English king as his superior. The ‘Great Roll,’as was named the painstaking compilation of examples begun in1292 lists over twenty examples of Scottish kings giving homage to English Kings and so it was claimed, apparently quite reasonably, that since ancient Scottish kings had always been subject to English overlordship, and since in recent times Scottish kings had almost all sworn oaths of fealty to English kings for Scotland, that to now refuse to do so, or to deny the English right to rule supreme over Scotland, would be both unprecedented and unjust.
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The idea of injustice against England is the theme of the final part of the letter where it is outlined that the events in Scotland following the 1286 succession problems such as King John Balliol’s renunciation of fealty for Edward and the resistance led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray, were both treacherous and barbaric. The letter describes in detail certain cruelties carried out by the Scots, most distressingly the burning of children in their school, in order to illustrate to the pope that these foes, as well as being “notoriously contumacious traitors,” were also acting in the most unchristian ways. In light of this, and the two previous arguments put forward, Edward had no choice but to intervene, and hence his invasion of Scotland of 1296 was justified. These claims were to provoke robust response from the Scots.
It may seem common sense to base a discussion on how effective the Scots response was to Edward’s claims, on an examination of the results of the “historiographical battle royal,” as they were borne out in later years. How effectively did they win support from the papacy to their cause in light of such a seemingly solid case as that put forward by Edward? How effectively did they convince the various groups in medieval Scottish society that theirs was an ancient kingdom that had been wronged by an oppressor and how effective was this in gaining both their military support and in asserting a much needed unity across what was an ominously divided nation? While these questions are obviously of considerable importance to our understanding of the period, it would be quite misleading to presume them to be fair criteria for assessing the efficacy of the Scots response to Edward’s historical arguments for English superiority. Sophisticated legal appeals to the papacy in elite educated Latin could never serve to cross over into the other political and military aspects of the confrontation between Scotland and England, at least not in a way that could provide an effective defence of a whole nation.
It would seem clear therefore that the most successful way to discern how effective the Scots’ response was to the historical arguments for English superiority, would be through a close analysis of the texts available to us from the period. The historiographical confrontation throughout this time is generally considered to form a continuum from the late1290s right through to the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320. While the Scottish response to Edward was therefore a long and protracted one, it would helpful to think of it as being divided into two periods rather than forming one long interconnected series of texts. The first period consists of writings in support of king John Balliol which were to form the immediate Scottish response to Edward’s arguments, while the there certainly seems to be the emergence of a second distinct period of Scottish writing from1306 onwards that develop the ‘Brucean Ideology’ and seek to justify not just a defence against the English but also the right to the throne of Scotland of king Robert Bruce. It is the contention here that this first period of Scottish resistance was to provide an incredibly successful and effective rebuttal of Edward’s arguments, and by doing so, provided the struggling Scottish cause with an essential legitimacy in the eyes of the academic and clerical elite in Europe, that would have a lasting influence across the social, political and economic spheres of the conflict.
The response from the Scots to Edward’s claims was almost immediate and took the retaliatory form of their own version of both distant and more recent Anglo-Scottish history. The first known response was that produced by the skilled canon lawyers William Frere the Deacon of Lothian, Master William Eaglesham and Master Baldred Bisset. Their letter to the pope of 1301 illustrated their legal expertise and is written mainly in a style to serve their legal argument as plaintiffs. The letter is believed to have been composed largely by Master Bisset, who had a distinguished university education in Roman law and was involved in various ecclesiastical and administrative activities. His arguments, while not exempt from criticism, were to provide an extremely effective response to Edward’s case and though many commentators may embellish his achievements and elevate him to a prodigious status above which he rightfully deserves, it seems fair to claim that he was to emerge victorious from this particular battle in the Anglo-Scottish war of historiography.
Foremost of Edward’s arguments was his appeal to history and the processus sent to the pope by Bisset and his accomplices deals successfully with these claims. They stress that Edwards ‘right’ can only be defended by his use of events “not recent but remote in time,” relying on evidence from “a time for which no memory exists.” The basis of the argument seems to derive from recognition of the fact that situations or circumstances do not remain constant over time. Bisset concedes that Arthur did indeed conquer Scotland but points out that amongst other problems of the lack of knowledge of events so far in the past, such a fact could not be used to justify situations as they are in the present day. He cites the Roman Empire as his example pointing out that they no longer “lord it over the entire world.” It would therefore be unwise to attach too much authority to historical conditions which altered long ago since “lordship over possessions and over kingdoms are distinct in the law of nations, and are frequently transferred under various titles and for various reasons from people to people and from nation to nation.” Perhaps more tellingly he instructs Boniface VIII of Edward’s background, arguing that while the descendants of Brutus once ruled the island of Britain, the Britons were later conquered by the Saxons, who in turn fell before the Danes. When the Saxons finally overcame the Scandinavians they were to be conquered once again by the Normans. Edward’s use of British history therefore becomes irrelevant since Edward “has not succeeded the Britons but the Normans… From this it is clear that as regards those matters which prevailed in antiquity, many changes happened by the very nature of things, which is unable to remain in the same state.”
These arguments would certainly seem to undermine those in Edward’s letter, though it is essential not to lapse into an overly modern reading of this medieval text. Origin myths, as they are commonly described, played an important part in the understanding of nationality as it existed in the middle ages and Bisset is certainly not dismissing them as meaningless fictions. Nonetheless, to a sharp legal mind, it was obviously apparent that disputes over kingship ought to be derived from first principles. This can be seen in his concern to concentrate instead on authentically signed treaties and papal bulls, and in particular the Treaty of Birgham that guaranteed Scotland’s independence. It is perhaps paradoxical, then, that he goes on to offer contrary evidence to Edward’s claims, by offering a “head on confrontation with the cult of Trojano-British mythology,” thus descending to Edward’s level of argument. Goldstein sees this as “a form of gamesmanship rather than as a serious betrayal of principles.” This is one aspect of what would seem to be Goldstein’s overly sympathetic view of the Scots cause during the ‘war of historiography’ and with Master Bisset’s arguments in particular. Perhaps it is the case that Bisset’s theoretical objection to the English version of history, based on the instability of human institutions, is not one that he himself considers entirely convincing, or perhaps simply not one that he felt would win much favour at the papal court. The importance of origin myths to national identity in the middle ages has already been suggested, yet the account the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter Scota, and her marriage to the Athenian Gathelus and the subsequent voyage of their followers, the Scots, to Iberia, Hibernia and then Scotland, is perhaps even detrimental to Bisset’s argument. Not only does it serve to undermine his previous argument based on changes in governments and monarchies over time, but it also introduces a different problem, elucidated by Goldstein. He points out that Edward presented himself as a conqueror in the tradition of Aeneas, Brutus, Arthur and William, and that he had undeniably altered the political and social order of the island. Yet if the Scots themselves had gained a homeland through conquest, “how could Bisset be sure that Edward’s achievement was any less significant to the larger pattern of history?” This is perhaps a valid point, though if it is considered alongside the aforementioned opinions expressed in the processus concerning the instability of institutions over time, it could fairly be concluded that although the Scots were descendents of those who conquered the land by force, their situation had now changed over such an extended period of time that although it may have been unlawful to invade a land in the first place, it had now come to be their own. Regardless of this problem presented by the alternative origin myth provided by the Scots, the ideas expressed by the legal-minded Bisset surely undermined a substantial part of Edward’s claim.
The arguments dealt with at most length in both competing documents, is that of the examples of Scottish kings swearing fealty to Edward for not only their lands in Scotland, but for the very kingdom itself. It must be conceded that this is the most powerful section of Edward’s letter, and that Bisset is deserving of criticism for some parts of his response. He maintained that “the kings of Scotland and its inhabitants have done homage to him [Edward] for lands which they held in the kingdom of England, of the king of England, but never for the kingdom of Scotland, nor for their lands in Scotland.” He adds that on those occasions when fealty was given, it was because of “oppression, force and fear,” and was therefore invalid as not given freely. This was doubtlessly true on some occasions, but Bisset weakens his argument here as it becomes clear that the accounts he provides in retaliation to Edward’s, are not entirely fair, whole or even-handed. This becomes most apparent in his generous description of the motives behind William the Lion’s invasion of England and his misleading comments concerning the English king Henry III’s seeming acceptance of Alexander’s refusal to swear homage for Scotland. Bisset also loses some of the potency of his claims when he exaggerates Scotland’s special place as a province under direct papal authority. He does this to prove that the Scottish throne had never been the right of the English, and also to win the favour of the papacy since Edward had infringed on the rights of the mother church. He writes that “indeed, the king and inhabitants of the kingdom of Scotland, having undertaken the faith of the Roman Church, recognised the suzerainty of its lord, in temporal as in spiritual affairs.” This was a supremely bold statement for the representative of a feudal monarchy to make, and in so doing, he was actually volunteering the subjection of his king, as long as it was not to the English. This is in stark contrast to his claims for a distinguished autonomy of the Scottish nation, based on the common law whereby “one consulship is not subject to another, nor one bishopric to another, nor one kingdom to another, nor one king to another.”
Bisset’s intentions may have been well conceived then, but due to his slighted history and his apparent sacrifice of principles in order to win over the papacy, the potency of his argument is subdued. Nonetheless, it must be noted that Edward’s argument over this matter was neither fairly presented nor concerned with integrity. It would seem that Bisset’s account is the most successful here mainly because of the opportunity afforded him by the imbalanced relation of events in Edward’s appeal. There are two glaring omissions from Edward’s history that required Bisset to simply note their absence and in so doing they would become most notable by their absence. The first example is that it describes William’s homage to the English king John in 1199, but makes no reference to the fact that this fealty was made saving William’s right to Scotland. The most significant omission however, is made in the description of king William the Lion’s homage to the English king in the 1174 Treaty of Falaise, after his invasion of England had been emphatically defeated. While this was conceded to be true by Bisset, though the Scottish king was coerced into it, he could object to the fact that Edward’s account deliberately fails to mention the Treaty of Canterbury of 1189, and what is known as the ‘quit claim.’ Edward’s letter merely states that William “came to king Richard and did him homage.” This ignores the fact that at Canterbury the king of Scots “did homage for the holding of his dignities in England,” but that King Richard…quit claimed him [the Scottish king] and all his heirs for ever … from all allegiance and subjection for the kingdom of Scotland.” The opportunity therefore existed for Bisset to simply set out the terms of Canterbury and its quit claim, appeal again to a notion of natural law and Edward’s might seeking to construct his ‘right,’ and to stress the unique position of Scotland as the ‘special daughter’ of the papacy, and to therefore provide an extremely effective response to Edward’s arguments for superiority over Scotland.
Those documents created after 1306 are certainly due consideration, though they often appear far more like government sponsored endeavours to justify the legitimacy of Bruce’s rule to all those that questioned it. The Declaration of the Clergy of 1309 and the much maligned Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 make little attempt to justify their claims with appeals to common law or derive their conclusions from first principles, and are empowered far more by their rhetoric. It is perhaps because of this that the Declaration of Arbroath can be seen to have exerted such influence as it has, becoming inextricably linked with the idea of Scottish identity. Much has been made of the concept of libertas or freedom in these documents and it has been argued by Cowan and others that there are to be found in these writings, some of the first refinements of an idea of popular sovereignty to be found in medieval writings. It does seem that much of the Declaration of Arbroath has been taken out of its historical context, however, and surely Fiona Watson is correct in saying that such a notion as that of popular sovereignty from an early period in Scotland, “would have been greeted with complete incomprehension by Bruce, not to mention his Stewart descendants.” Watson also goes on to illustrate the Declaration was not particularly effective since only months after it’s composition, Bruce faced rebellion from many of the ‘signatories’ of the Declaration, “perhaps galled by the obvious discrepancy between the version of events portrayed there and their own memories.” The efficacy of most of the writings from Bruce’s time therefore, came from their attempt, and ultimately their considerable success, in justifying the Bruce claim to the throne and in turn to have a unifying effect on what was a trenchantly divided kingdom, and played a significant role in the creation of a new sense of Scottish nationhood.
Perhaps the key outcome of Scotland’s struggle to preserve its independence from England, then, was the accelerated growth of national consciousness among many different groups within Scottish society during the latter thirteenth century and beyond, and the real efficacy of the Scottish writings of the time were to this end. Both the ruling classes, comprising all secular and church government, and the vast majority of the Scottish people, whose resources were essential to the success of the prolonged Wars of Independence, together arrived at a “fuller conception of the Scottish nation, its history, and its traditional forms of government.” The production of historiography played a constitutive role in the development of national consciousness in Scotland. Master Bisset and later those who wrote to justify the reign of the Bruce’s reproduced the larger political conflict in another form and through their appeals to history, as has been shown, were able to render illegitimate Edward’s claims to English superiority of Scotland. While not creating a sense of Scottish identity, as this was necessarily present before their writings, they served to galvanise this idea and so played a crucial role in the continuing independence of Scotland.
Bower, Scotichronicon, Watt, D.E.R. (ed.), Volume 6, Aberdeen University Press, 1991.
Broun, Finlay, Lynch, Image and Identity: The Making and Re-making of Scotland Through the Ages, John Donald Publishers, 1998.
Duncan, Archibald A. M., The Nation of Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath, Historical Association, 1970.
Duncan, Archibald A. M., Scotland: The Making of a Kingdom, Oliver & Boyd, 1975
Ferguson, William, The Identity of the Scottish Nation: an Historic Quest, Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
Goldstein, R. J., ‘The Matter of Scotland:’Historiography and Historical Verse in Medieval Scotland, UMI Dissertation Information Service, 1987.
Matthews, William, ‘The Egyptians in Scotland: The Political History of a Myth,’ Viator, Vol. 1, 1970.
Stones, E.L.G., Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174-1328, Some Selected Documents, Nelson, 1965.
Stones, E.L.G. & Simpson, Grant, Edward I and the throne of Scotland, 1290-1296 : an edition of the record sources for the Great Cause, Oxford University Press, 1978.
Stones, E.L.G., Anglo-Scottish Relations 1174-1328, Some Selected Documents, Nelson, 1965, p. 81.
Stones, Documents, 1965, p. 96.
Stones, Documents, 1965, p. 99.
Stones, Documents, 1965, p. 107.
Cowan, Edward J., ‘Identity, Freedom and the Declaration of Arbroath,’ in Broun, Finlay and Lynch (ed.), Image and Identity: The Making and Re-making of Scotland Through the Ages, John Donald, 1998, p. 39.
Bower, Scotichronicon, Watt, D.E.R. (ed.), Volume 6, Aberdeen University Press, 1991, p. 171.
Ibid., p. 185.
Bower, Scotichronicon, Watt (ed.), 1991, p. 185.
Ibid, p. 185.
Goldstein, R. J., ‘The Matter of Scotland:’Historiography and Historical Verse in Medieval Scotland, UMI Dissertation Information Service, 1987, p. 187.
Ibid., p. 187.
Goldstein, The Matter of Scotland, 1987, p. 190.
Bower, Scotichronicon, Watt (ed.), 1991, p. 187.
Ibid., p. 187.
Bower, Scotichronicon, Watt (ed.), 1991, p. 173.
Ibid., p. 171.
Stones, Documents, 1965, p. 103.
Stones, E.L.G. & Simpson, Grant, Edward I and the throne of Scotland, 1290-1296 : an edition of the record sources for the Great Cause, Oxford University Press, 1978, Volume 2, p. 305.
Duncan, Archibald A. M., Scotland: The Making of a Kingdom, Oliver & Boyd, 1975, p. 238.
Watson, Fiona, ‘The Enigmatic Lion: Scotland, Kingship, and National Identity in the Wars of Independence’, in Broun, Finlay and Lynch (ed.), Image and Identity, 1998, p. 30.
Ibid., p. 30.
Goldstein, The Matter of Scotland, 1987, p. 1.