The death of Alexander III and the Great Cause, Bruce vs Balliol

On a stormy night in 1286, King Alexander III rode off from his court, intending to meet up with his new young wife, Queen Yolande. He never made it, falling off a cliff to his death at Kinghorn in Fife. He was only 45 years old. Five years previously, his younger son David died, aged 8.  Only two years previously, the heir to the throne, Alexander, had died aged 20. Prince Alexander had been married twice, but both marriages had been childless. The only other child of the King was their sister Margaret, who died in childbirth in 1283, leaving a three year old girl, also Margaret, as heir to the throne of Scotland. When she eventually arrived in Scotland in 1290, she sickened and died, leaving Scotland without an heir in the male line.

Alexander had obviously intended to father more children, and was young enough for this to happen. Unfortunately, Queen Yolande had not fallen pregnant in their brief marriage, meaning that the Scots had to find a new heir to the throne.

The inheritance of the throne was supposed to pass through the male line. Unfortunately there were no heirs available. King Alexander III had no siblings who lived to adulthood. His father King Alexander II only had three sisters. His grandfather King William was the second of three sons, the eldest being King Malcolm IV, who died unmarried. Their younger brother was Earl David of Huntingdon and Garioch. His great-grandfather was Earl Henry of Huntingdon and Northumbria, the only son of King David, whose brothers had no legitimate children. David’s father, Malcolm III, had other sons by his first marriage, who had been disinherited, and their descendants destroyed. If the Scots were to look at David’s sisters, the eldest had married King Henry I of England, making the King of England the heir to that line.

Earl David did actually have a son who survived to adulthood, John the Scot, Earl of Chester, but he died without children. So, whatever happened, there was no heir through any male line – “heir-male” as it used to be called. So, who was to become King? The sisters of Alexander II had all married English Earls – Margaret to de Burgh of Kent, Isabella to Bigod of Norfolk, and Marjory to the Earl Marshall. Margaret bore a daughter who died in infancy, the other two marriages were childless. So the next lines were the daughters of Earl David of Huntingdon and Garioch, Margaret, Isabella and Ada.

Margaret was the eldest, and had married Alan, Lord of Galloway. Their marriage produced daughters, Devorguilla, who married John Balliol of Barnard Castle in Cumbria, and Christiana, who married William de Forz. Christiana’s marriage was childless, but Devorguilla and John had a son, John Balliol. Earl David’s second daughter was Isabel, who married Robert Bruce, 4th Lord of Annandale. They too had a son, Robert Bruce, and by 1290 he had both a son and grandson, both living. The third daughter, Ada, married John de Hastings, first Baron Hastings, and they had a son, John. Baron Hastings had little support in Scotland, in addition to being from the most junior line.

Robert Bruce claimed that he should be named King, claiming that he had been named heir to the throne by Alexander II if he had no male heirs, and also that he was the closest living male descendant of Earl David. John Balliol claimed that as he was descended from the eldest line, he should be King. Balliol and Bruce were political rivals nationally and in the south-west of Scotland, and Balliol was supported by the powerful Comyn family, also opposed to the Bruces. These two great factions could have split the country in civil war, so the appointed Guardians of the Realm turned south, to Edward I, to arbitrate. He did so, and quite correctly declared Balliol King.

John Balliol was therefore an elected King, and elected by another monarch. It gave him less status, and he was opposed by the Bruce faction. He was also an English Baron, and could be summoned to an English court and be judged there as a Baron, as did many other Scottish lords, including Robert Bruce. Theoretically this only applied to his lands in England.

Unfortunately in order to secure a “fair” hearing (when the case had gone against them) Scottish nobles turned to Edward when suing King John, and Edward overturned the decision in their favour. This undermined John still further, and eventually he rebelled against Edward. He was not strong enough to do so successfully, and was dethroned by the English King, who promptly took over Scotland. When Robert Bruce asked to be granted the Kingdom in his stead, Edward famously declined, saying “Have we nothing better to do than win kingdoms for you?”

King John Balliol lived until just after the Battle of Bannockburn. When Robert Bruce was crowned, it was purely by right of arms, and had the same problem as King John had done, namely that he was not the unanimous choice, and was opposed by the Balliol/Comyn faction. Their rivalry was made worse by Bruce’s action in Dumfries just before he declared his claim to the throne – he stabbed a Comyn to death in front of the altar of the church.

It is curious to consider that if we accept that John Balliol was dethroned illegally, he was still the legal King, and Robert Bruce was a usurper (not to mention a sacreligious murderer) when he seized the Crown. If Edward I was within his rights to dethrone Balliol, then Robert Bruce was a rebel, and the English King was perfectly entitled to install whomsoever he wished on the Scottish throne.Either way, Robert Bruce was King by force of arms. And despite popular perception, and the best efforts of Mel Gibson, William Wallace fought for the restoration of John Balliol to the throne, and would never have suggested Bruce could be King.

The matter was not left to rest with the death of King John, however. He had a son called Edward. Shortly after the death of Robert Bruce, leaving his young son David II as a child-king, Edward Balliol was declared King, and invaded with the backing of Edward III of England. He was crowned in 1332 but had little support in Scotland, and although he was in and out of control of Scotland through the 1330s, he eventually retired to England, and in 1356 resigned his claim to the Scottish throne to Edward III. He died an English pensioner in 1367, with David II on the throne, undisputed King, but in a power struggle with the Stewarts.

So in the end, the Bruces won the Great Cause, and through them the Stewarts came to rule Scotland and Great Britain. It is interesting to think what may have happened differently had Alexander III not ridden off in the middle of a stormy March night to see his new wife, 728 years ago.