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The Scottish Wars of Independence

Part II

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

1995

Synopsis:  This essay summarizes the history of the Scottish Wars of Independence from 1329 on.

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

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David's reign saw several new features develop in Scottish society. The growing devolution of parliamentary authority to committees and commissions. The overhaul of the tax system resulted in a great increase in the revenue available to the king (customs duties quadrupled), and the entry of the royal burghs into politics. Legal reform also took place during David's reign. The greatest feature however was that despite the travails, Scotland had maintained and assured her independence.

David's successor Robert II was 55 when he took the throne. He been married twice (the first was possibly invalid) and had thirteen legitimate children, plus a great deal of illegitimate ones beside. All of whom had to be found positions or land. When he died in 1390, he was succeeded by his son John, who owing to the bad omens associated with the name took the title Robert III. Robert III was 53 on his succession and was to all intents and purposes not fit to be king. He had been kicked in the head by a horse in his youth which left him mentally disabled. When he died in 1406, he left one son and four daughters. James I succeeded aged 11 years old, and was actually captured at sea (during a truce) on his succession. He would not return to Scotland until 1424. During his absence, Robert Duke of Albany reigned as regent. He was interested only in the power of his new position and took full advantage of it. During his regime, the barons grew more powerful and there was corruption galore. When his son was captured by the English, Robert ransomed him, however, he paid little attention to ransoming the king. When Robert died, his son Murdoch took over, but he lacked his father's ability and a push was made to bring James home. On his return, James was a very angry young man. During his short active reign, he restored most of the crown's powers, revenged himself on anyone who he felt had not done enough to get him released and generally worked hard to put the realm back on an even keel. There were difficulties with the great nobles and he was murdered because of them in 1437. (Interestingly enough, had he not been losing his tennis balls between cracks in the floorboards, James would have escaped. As he fled his murderers, he hid in the drain under the floor of the tennis court, however, he had ordered it blocked up and so could not escape.)

James II became king of Scots at the age of six. The shock at the murder of James I saw a settling of the dust. The murderers were rooted out and mutilated, and the realm was generally run smoothly during his minority. When he took over, he showed a great acumen for the job and was skillful at restoring the health of the nation. It was a great disaster when he was killed at Roxburgh in 1460 when a cannon he was standing next to exploded.

James III was crowned at the age of 9 and was murdered before he reached 37 during a civil war which ended at the battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. During these reigns, the great noble houses rose and fell depending on whose side they chose in the murky world of Scottish politics. The sons of Robert II generally caused havoc. One, Alexander, the wolf of Badenoch, burnt Elgin cathedral and his son assumed the Earldom of Mar after he abducted the widowed countess. Most of the problems with the nobles were due to the long royal minorities. However, the administrative machinery continued to function despite its misuse and abuse. There was little direct fighting with England during this period. Scots fighting in France were executed for being in arms against their king when Henry V took James I with him to France. When he was released, James was treated as an ally. The suzerainty claim was occasionally dusted off and used, generally in support of a noble malcontent. The few battles which were fought were fought by the noble houses alone. Otterburn (1388) was a fight between an English army and the Douglasses. After the assassination of James I, the Douglasses bore the brunt of the fighting, however, when they were forfeited by James II, they fled to England.

Scotland relations with France were strengthened during this period. The Auld Alliance was repeatedly renewed with almost unaltered terms. However, while Scotland gave much in support of the alliance she generally received little in return. A great many Scots fought in France for the French king against the English during the Hundred Years War. So highly thought of were the Scottish soldiers (they were always the last off the field - if they left at all. At Verneuill a Scottish army under the 4th earl of Douglas was all but exterminated) that Charles VII formed his 'corps d'elite' the 'Garde Ecossaise' from their ranks. In 1445, he established a regular army of fifteen companies. At the head of them was the 'Gens d'Ordonnance' the Scottish Company. In these two companies generations of Scots fought with distinction.

While Scotland gave military aid to France, she received culture in return. It was to France that she looked when her own Universities were being thought of. St, Andrews (1412) had its curriculum based upon that of Paris, while its constitution was based on the universities of the Loire. Glasgow (1451) followed St. Andrews, and Aberdeen (1495) showed a great deal of Renaissance influence.

When James IV took the throne in 1488, the role of the king was changing. The old ideas were being replaced. Government was becoming more complicated and there was a greater reliance on 'small men' to oil the wheels of government. As the crown took more of an interest in everything, the only force able to hold off conflict was the force of the king's will. James IV had will in no small measure. By the force of his personality, he pushed Scotland forward. James was interested in everything, ships, guns, tournaments, clothes, music and even surgery.  He extracted a tooth, set a broken leg and carried out a bleeding. Alchemy was also an interest. His abiding loves however were good government, his subjects and warfare.

One of James' many reforms was in the legal system. James reorganised and restructured the legal system to run more efficiently and effectively. He made a conspicuous effort to control the highlands (the first king of Scots in a century who could speak Gaelic) he forfeited the Lord of the Isles in 1493 and made each chief responsible for his own people - an action that had little success. Having failed to control the Highlands through the use of justiciars, he made Huntly heritable sheriff of the north and Argyll of the south-west. The rise of the Gordons and the Campbells gained a gathering momentum from now on, as these two powerful families became government policemen.

James was a true renaissance monarch in many ways, above all his interest in warfare and in developing the military might of his kingdom set the tone for his reign. He banned golf and football so that the men might practice their archery. He ordered regular 'wapynschawingis' to ensure that every man possessed weapons according to his status. By 1508, he was casting good cannon in Edinburgh castle. He also loved his navy. In 1493 he ordered every burgh to provide a boat of 20 tons and a crew and was also building his own ships in new dockyards. The great 'Michael' was completed in 1511 and was the wonder of the age. By the end of his reign he had ten big and sixteen smaller ships. He lent 2,000 men to Denmark in 1502 and informed France that he could supply 4,000 fully equipped men in 1508. He also subdued the Highlands with a small force. Serious war however he did not engage in.

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