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  The Strategy and Tactics of the Scottish Armies 1296-1314  

"Explain the reasons for divisions amongst the Scots between 1296 and 1305"

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay looks at the politics of Scotland between the rising in 1296 and the surrender in 1305.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

With the end of Balliol's four year reign, the invasion of Scotland by Edward in 1296 and the humiliating defeat of the Scots nobility at Dunbar it is not surprising that a few Scots should change sides and support Edward.

The Scots nobles, contrary to common opinion, did in fact support Wallace and Moray in their fight for the freedom of Scotland. This is seen by the fact that those nobles who had tried to suppress the rising of Wallace and Moray, were after Stirling Bridge, willing to fight and 'neither came nor sent' to Edward's York Parliament.

However with the defeat of Wallace at Falkirk and his resignation of the guardianship the nobles seemed to have lost their new found courage. The fight did continue with Robert Bruce Earl of Carrick and John Comyn at the sharp end and still with the support of the majority of the nobility. This partnership could not last because of the ambition of Bruce to win the crown of Scotland which he considered to be rightfully his.

The important thing to realise is that the risings of 1297-8 had all been in the name of King John with the intention of putting him back on the throne of Scotland. Bruce from 1298-1302 seems to have been fighting not for Balliol as the other guardians were but for his claim to the throne.

This could be a reaction to the contemptuous reply which Edward gave to Bruce of Annandale (The Earl of Carrick's father) who asked, after the defeat at Dunbar, if he could have the throne for which his father had competed in vain.

"Have we nothing else to do," said Edward "but win kingdoms for you?" The implication here being that Bruce would have to beat Edward before he could claim the throne. His actions could have been out of sheer patriotism rather than a move at the throne.

The divisions which existed among the Scots were confined to two factions those of the Bruces. And that of the Balliols -which included the Comyns.- These divisions were exacerbated by the fact that many of the Scots nobles held land in both England and Scotland. They did not want to see their lands confiscated, coupled with the fact that they relied on a regular income and settled residences. It was also hard for the nobles to wage a war that was mainly guerrilla based when they had been used to cavalry and castles. A fact to be borne in mind here is that up until Dunbar the Scots had not fought a major war since 1235 while the English army had been fighting wars against the Welsh and the French for years and were well trained and well led.

It has been stated that there was a general pro English feeling in Scotland, as by the late thirteenth century Scotland had become 'Anglicized'. This would explain the divisions among the Scots if it were not for the fact that the English speaking counties in Scotland did wish to remain part of Scotland. Although they were not moved to the same antipathy of the English domination as the rest of Scotland and consequently their resistance was less prolonged.

The Scots were not as divided, as has been commonly stated in the past, until the period between 1302-5 (although it must be said that few primary sources from this period have survived especially the period 1301-3) when Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick changed sides. (it should be noted that in a letter from a spy in the Scottish camp to his English master there was a report about a scuffle betwen Bruce and Comyn -this I feel shows the tensions bubbling just beneath the surface of the Scots.) At this point the situation changed from being a national struggle to being one between the Balliol supporters, plus those of the 'Community of the Realm', who did not care who held the throne, against the English and the Bruces and supporters who were now fighting purely for their right to the throne of Scotland. Again here it should be pointed out that the Bruces wouldn't fight for Ballliol while in later years the Comyns fought against Bruce but not for Edward.

It should be pointed out that Bruce who had been a guardian for about two years did not 'turn traitor' as some historians have claimed, but did in fact wait until a period of prolonged truce before cutting himself away from a cause that he was finding more and more impossible to support simply because if it was successful it would mean an end to his claim to the throne forever. Indeed it is to his credit that he stuck with the cause for so long.

From the period from his surrender to Edward up until his bid for the throne in 1306 Bruce was in the words of Dr. Barron "ostensibly loyal" to Edward indeed even helping him during his invasions of Scotland in 1303-4. This assistance is however due to a hatred of the Comyns, who were now in complete control of Scotland in the name of King John. The phrase "ostensibly loyal" being used because Bruce, on the 11th June 1304, entered into a secret agreement with Bishop Lamberton to help one another in times of danger. This agreement is significant as it proves that Bruce still had his eyes on the Scottish throne and that Lamberton was still working for the Independence of the Scottish church.

When the cause of Balliol had tumbled into ruin in the spring of 1304 it is not really surprising that Lamberton, who was not thrilled with the party fighting for Balliol, looked for a saviour for his cause to free his church and his country.

He turned to the Earl of Carrick now claimant in his own right to the Scottish throne. (His father had by this time died.) The fall of the Comyns gave Bruce the chance he needed to gain the throne, as the rival line who owed the crown to Edward had now been crushed totally.

In summing up, the main reason for dissension in the Scottish ranks owing to the rivalry among the three main groups in Scotland namely the Balliols, the Comyns and the Bruces. Neither the Bruces nor the Comyns wished to see the other on the throne of Scotland while the Balliols, who had the support of the Comyns, wanted to see themselves re-established on the throne.

The hatred of the Balliols was intensified in the eyes of the elder Bruce whose last act was a defiance of Balliol when he appointed the Bishop of Glasgow which was strictly speaking the concern of the Crown. Indeed when the summons of "free service" was made by King John in preparation to meet the host of Edward the Bruces refused to answer it. This fact meant that the lands of the Bruces were confiscated -as were all the lands of those who became "enemies of the community"-.

This fact coupled with the fact that some English landholding Scots did not wish to see their lands confiscated, led to the split among the higher echelons of Scottish feudal society. For it was only here that the split occurred; most of the Common people not caring who had the throne and since they held no land, English estates did not matter to them.

Ewan Innes, August 26 1989