Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 6

Seven kings of Scotland, omitting one or two temporary occupants of the throne, had reigned in succession, after Malcolm Canmore, the son of Duncan, who recovered the kingdom from Macbeth. Their reigns occupied a period of nearly two hundred years. Some of them were very able men; all of them were well-disposed, good sovereigns, and inclined to discharge their duty towards their subjects. They made good laws; and, considering the barbarous and ignorant times they lived in, they appear to have been men as deserving of praise as any race of kings who reigned in Europe during that period. Alexander, the third of that name, and the last of these seven princes, was an excellent sovereign. He married, as I told you in the last chapter, Margaret, daughter of Henry III. of England; but unhappily all the children who were born of that marriage died before their father. After the death of Queen Margaret, Alexander married another wife; but he did not live to have any family by her. As he was riding in the dusk of the evening, along the sea-coast of Fife, betwixt Burnt-island and Kinghorn, he approached too near the brink of the precipice, and his horse starting or stumbling, he was thrown over the rock, and killed on the spot. It is now no less than five hundred and forty-two years since Alexander’s death, yet the people of the country still point out the very spot where it happened, and which is called the King’s Crag. The very melancholy consequences which followed Alexander’s decease, made the manner of it long remembered. A sort of elegy is also preserved, in which his virtues, and the misfortunes that followed his death, are recorded. It is the oldest specimen of the Scottish language which is known to remain in existence; but as you would not understand it, I am obliged to alter it a little:

When Alexander our king was dead,

Who Scotland led in love and le,

Away was wealth of ale and bread,

Of wine and wax, of game and glee.

Then pray to God, since only he

Can succour Scotland in her need,

That placed is in perplexity!

Another legend says, that a wise man who is called Thomas the Rhymer, and about whom many stories are told, had said to a great Scottish noble man, called the Earl of March, that the sixteenth day of March should be the stormiest day that ever was witnessed in Scotland. The day came, and was remarkably clear, mild, and temperate. But while they were all laughing at Thomas the Rhymer on account of his false prophecy, an express brought the news of the King’s death. “There,” said Thomas, “that is the storm which I meant; and there was never tempest which will bring more ill luck to Scotland.” This story may very possibly be false; but the general belief in it serves to show, that the death of Alexander the Third was looked upon as an event of the most threatening and calamitous nature. The full consequences of the evil were not visible at first; for. although all Alexander’s children had, as we have already said, died before him, yet one of them, who had been married to Eric, King of Norway, had left a daughter named Margaret, upon whom, as the grand-daughter and nearest heir of the deceased prince, the crown of Scotland devolved. The young princess, called by our historians the Maid of Norway, was residing at her father’s court.

While the crown of Scotland thus passed to a young girl, the King of England began to consider by what means he could so avail himself of circumstances, as to unite it with his own. This King was Edward, called the First, because he was the first of the Norman line of princes so named. He was a very brave man, and a good soldier — wise, skilful, and prudent but unhappily very ambitious, and desirous of extending his royal authority, without caring much whether he did so by right means or by those which were unjust. And although it is a great sin to covet that which does not belong to you, and a still greater to endeavour to possess yourself of it by any unfair practices, yet his desire of adding the kingdom of Scotland to that of England was so great, that Edward was unable to resist it.

The mode by which the English King at first endeavoured to accomplish his object was a very just one. He proposed a marriage betwixt the Maiden of Norway, the young Queen of Scotland, and his own eldest son, called Edward, after himself. A treaty was entered into for this purpose; and had the marriage been effected, and been followed by children, the union of England and Scotland might have taken place more than three hundred years sooner than it did, and immeasurable quantity of money and bloodshed would probably have been saved. But it was not the will of Heaven that this desirable union should be accomplished till many long years of war and distress had afflicted both these nations. The young Queen of Scotland sickened and died, and the treaty for the marriage was ended with her life. The kingdom of Scotland was troubled, and its inhabitants sunk into despair, at the death of their young princess. There was not any descendant of [She landed in Orkney, on her way to take possession of her crown, and died there, Sep. 1290.] Alexander III remaining, who could be considered as his direct and undeniable heir: and many of the great nobles, who were more or less distantly related to the royal family, prepared each of them to assert a right to the crown, began to assemble forces and form parties, and threatened the country with a civil war, which is the greatest of all misfortunes. The number of persons who set up claims to the crown was no fewer than twelve, all of them forming pretensions on some relationship, more or less distant, to the royal family. These claimants were most of them powerful, from their rank and the number of their followers; and, if they should dispute the question of right by the sword, it was evident that the whole country would be at war from one sea to the other.

To prevent this great dilemma, it is said the Scottish nobility resolved to submit the question respecting the succession of their kingdom to Edward I of England, who was one of the wisest princes of his time, and to request of him to settle, as umpire, which of the persons claiming the throne of Scotland had best right to be preferred to the others. The people of Scotland are said to have sent ambassadors to Edward, to request his interference as judge; but he had already determined to regulate the succession of the kingdom, not as a mere umpire, having no authority but from the desire of the parties, but as himself a person principally concerned; and for this purpose he resolved to revive the old pretext of his having right to the feudal sovereignty of Scotland, which, as we have before seen, had been deliberately renounced by his generous predecessor Richard I. With this secret and unjust purpose, Edward of England summoned the nobility and clergy of Scotland to meet him at the castle of Norham, a large and strong fortress, which stands on the English side of the Tweed, on the line where that river divides England from Scotland. They met there on the lOth May, l291, and were presented to the King of England, who received them in great state, surrounded by the high officers of his court. He was a very handsome man, and so tall, that he was popularly known by the name of Longshanks, that is, long legs. The Justiciary of England then informed the nobility and clergy of Scotland, in King Edward’s name, that before he could proceed to decide who should be the vassal King of Scotland, it was necessary that they should acknowledge the King of England’s right as Lord Paramount, or Sovereign of that kingdom. The nobles and churchmen of Scotland were surprised to hear the King of England propose a claim which had never been admitted, except for a short time, in order to procure the freedom of King William the Lion, and which had been afterwards renounced for ever by Richard I. They refused to give any answer until they should consult together by themselves. “By St Edward!” said the King, “whose crown I wear, I will make good my just rights, or perish in the attempt!” He then dismissed the assembly, allowing the Scots a delay of three weeks, however, to accede to his terms.

The Scottish nobility being thus made aware of King Edward’s selfish and ambitious designs, ought to have assembled their forces together, and declared that they would defend the rights and independence of their country. But they were much divided among themselves, and without any leader; and the competitors who laid claim to the crown, were mean-spirited enough to desire to make favour with King Edward, in expectation that he would raise to the throne him whom he should find most willing to subscribe to his own claims of paramount superiority. Accordingly, the second assembly of the Scottish nobility and clergy took place without any one having dared to state any objection to what the King of England proposed, however unreasonable they knew his pretensions to be. They were assembled in a large open plain, called Upsettlington, opposite to the castle of Norham, but on the northern or Scottish side of the river. The Chancellor of England then demanded of such of the candidates as were present, whether they acknowledged the King of England as Lord Paramount of Scotland, and whether they were willing to receive and hold the crown of Scotland, as awarded by Edward in that character. They all answered that they were willing to do so; and thus, rather than hazard their own claims by offending King Edward, these unworthy candidates consented to resign the independence of their country, which had been so long and so bravely defended. Upon examining the claims of the candidates, the right of succession to the throne of Scotland was found to lie chiefly betwixt Robert Bruce, the Lord of Annandale, and John Baliol, who was the Lord of Galloway. Both were great and powerful barons; both were of Norman descent, and had great estates in England as well as Scotland; lastly, both were descended from the Scottish royal family, and each by a daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, brother of William the Lion. Edward, upon due consideration, declared Baliol to be King of Scotland, as being son of Margaret, the eldest of the two sisters. But he declared that the kingdom was always to be held under him as the lord paramount, or sovereign thereof. John Baliol closed the disgraceful scene by doing homage to the King of England, and acknowledging that he was his liege vassal and subject. This remarkable event took place on 20th November, 1292. Soon after this remarkable, and to Scotland most shameful transaction, King Edward began to show to Baliol that it was not his purpose to be satisfied with a bare acknowledgment of his right of sovereignty, but that he was determined to exercise it with severity on every possible occasion. He did this, no doubt, on purpose to provoke the dependent King to some act of resistance, which should give him a pretext for depriving him of the kingdom altogether as a disobedient subject, and taking it under his own government in his usurped character of lord paramount. The King of England, therefore, encouraged the Scottish subjects to appeal from the courts of Baliol to his own; and as Baliol declined making appearance in the English tribunals, or answering there for the sentences which he had pronounced in his capacity of King of Scotland, Edward insisted upon having possession of three principal fortresses of Scotland — Berwick, Roxburgh, and Jedburgh. Baliol surrendered, or at least agreed to surrender, these castles; but the people murmured against this base compliance, and Baliol himself, perceiving that it was Edward’s intention gradually to destroy his power, was stung at once with shame and fear, and entering into a league with France, raised a great army, for the purpose of invading England, the dominions of the prince whom he had so lately acknowledged his lord paramount, or sovereign. At the same time he sent a letter to Edward, formally renouncing his dependence upon him. Edward replied, in Norman French, “Ha! — dares this idiot commit such folly? Since he will not attend on us, as is his duty, we will go to him.”

The King of England accordingly assembled a powerful army, amongst which came Bruce, who had formerly contended for the crown of Scotland with Baliol, and who now hoped to gain it upon his forfeiture. Edward defeated the Scottish army in a great battle near Dunbar and Baliol, who appears to have been a mean-spirited man, gave up the contest. He came before Edward in the castle of Roxburgh, and there made a most humiliating submission. He appeared in a mean dress, without sword, royal robes, or arms of any kind, and bearing in his hand a white wand. He there confessed, that through bad counsel and folly he had rebelled against his liege lord, and, in atonement, he resigned the kingdom of Scotland, with the inhabitants, and all right which he possessed to their obedience and duty, to their liege lord King Edward. He was then permitted to retire uninjured.

Baliol being thus removed, Bruce expressed his hopes of being allowed to supply his place, as tributary or dependent King of Scotland. But Edward answered him sternly, “Have we nothing, think you, to do, but to conquer kingdoms for you?” By which words the English King plainly expressed, that he intended to keep Scotland to himself; and he proceeded to take such measures as made his purpose still more evident. Edward marched through Scotland at the head of a powerful army, compelling all ranks of people to submit to him. He removed to London the records of the kingdom of Scotland, and was at the pains to transport to the Abbey Church at Westminster a great stone, upon which it had been the national custom to place the King of Scotland when he was crowned for the first time. He did this to show that he was absolute master of Scotland, and that the country was in future to have no other king but himself, and his descendants the Kings of England. The stone is still preserved, and to this day the King’s throne is placed upon it at the time when he is crowned. Last of all, King Edward placed the government of Scotland in the hands of John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, a brave nobleman; of Hugh Cressingham, a clergyman, whom he named chief treasurer; and of William Ormesby, whom he appointed the chief judge of the kingdom. He placed English soldiers in all the castles and strongholds of Scotland, from the one end of the kingdom to the other; and not trusting the Scots themselves, he appointed English governors in most of the provinces of the kingdom.

We may here remark, my dear child, that a little before he thus subdued Scotland, this same Edward I. had made conquest of Wales, that mountainous part of the island of Britain into which the Britons had retreated from the Saxons, and where, until the reign of this artful and ambitious prince, they had been able to maintain their independence. In subduing Wales, Edward had acted as treacherously, and more cruelly, than he had done in Scotland; since he had hanged the last Prince of Wales, when he became his prisoner, for no other crime than because he defended his country against the English, who had no right to it. Perhaps Edward thought to himself, that, by uniting the whole island of Britain under one king and one government, he would do so much good by preventing future wars, as might be an excuse for the force and fraud which he made use of to bring about his purpose. But, my dear child, God, who sees into our hearts, will not bless those measures which are wicked in themselves, because they are used under a pretence of bringing about that which is good. We must not do evil even that good may come of it; and the happy prospect that England and Scotland would be united under one government, was so far from being brought nearer by Edward’s unprincipled usurpation, that the hatred and violence of national antipathy which arose betwixt the sister countries, removed to a distance almost incalculable, the prospect of their becoming one people, for which nature seemed to design them.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29