Scottish Wars of Independence

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Scottish Wars of Independence, 1296–1357. The name usually given to the prolonged wars between English and Scots after the death of Alexander III of Scotland in 1286. The death of his heir Margaret (‘the Maid of Norway’) in 1290 left a number of ‘competitors’ for the vacant throne, of whom the chief were John Balliol and Robert Bruce, grandfather of the future Robert I; in 1292 Edward I, who claimed to be ‘Lord Superior of Scotland’, awarded the crown to Balliol. Edward however was determined to assert what he saw as his rights to overlordship; and Balliol found it impossible to maintain the independence of his kingdom. In 1295 the Scottish nobles took power out of Balliol's hands, made an alliance with Edward's enemy Philip IV of France, and prepared to defy Edward. A crushing campaign in 1296 forced Balliol to resign the crown. Edward took Scotland into his own hands and compelled the bulk of the Scottish landed classes to do homage to him.

This was however only the start of a struggle which lasted till 1357. There were three stages: first a ‘revolt’ against Edward in the name of King John, which was not finally subdued in 1304; secondly, the recovery following the rising of Robert Bruce in 1306, which ultimately secured the recognition of Scottish independence in 1328; and thirdly, the revival of attempts at English conquest under Edward III, which lasted till the treaty of Berwick in 1357.

The first stage opened with widespread revolts in the early months of 1297, led by William Wallace in the south, and Andrew Murray in the north. They joined forces to win the devastating victory of Stirling Bridge in 1297; but Wallace's defeat at Falkirk in 1298 left the leadership in the hands of the nobles, who continued under a succession of guardians to resist Edward till 1304 when they were forced to submit. Edward then proceeded to what seems a statesmanlike reorganization of Scottish government with the support of most of the Scottish leaders.

His hopes however were shattered by the revolt of the younger Robert Bruce in 1306. The result was to reopen the rivalries between the Bruce and Balliol factions which had been obvious in the late 1280s and early 1290s. Bruce's enemies, notably the widely connected Comyn family, were driven firmly onto the English side, and for many years the Wars of Independence took on the aspect of a civil ‘War of the Scots’. Bruce was rapidly crowned as Robert I, but as rapidly defeated twice, and by the end of 1306 was in hiding. Edward however died on 7 July 1307, which gave the respite Robert needed. In the next few years he gradually eliminated the English garrisons by a masterly policy of guerrilla warfare. By 1314 few remained; and the decisive defeat of Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn left Robert secure. It was the only occasion after 1307 when he took on the English in a set battle.

The war then became a war of raids on the north of England which caused widespread suffering, but had little effect on the stubborn Edward II. A diversion into Ireland under Robert I's brother Edward Bruce (1315–18) alarmed the Anglo-Irish settlers but failed to get the support of the Irish themselves, and collapsed with Edward's death in 1318. Peace only became possible after Edward II's deposition. By the treaty of Edinburgh/Northampton of 1328, Robert I was formally recognized as king of Scots, and his son and heir, the future David II, was married to Joan of the Tower, a sister of Edward III.

The peace did not last. Robert I died in 1329, when David was aged only 5. The temptation was too great for Edward III, who wanted to establish his authority. He encouraged the son of John Balliol, Edward Balliol, to attempt to seize the throne; and the Scottish leaders were forced to confront the invaders in battles, in which the English were twice victorious, at Dupplin Moor (1332) under Edward Balliol, and at Halidon Hill (1333) under Edward III himself. Balliol was established as king; much of the south was ceded into English control; and the rest was to be held as a vassal kingdom. In 1334 David II had to flee to the safety of France.

The threat was more serious than is often allowed—many, perhaps most, of the Scottish nobles contemplated at one time or another coming into Edward's peace; but a long guerrilla war gradually wore down the occupiers, and in 1341 David II was able to return. Unfortunately, he continued the policy of raids into England, in one of which he was captured in 1346 and remained a captive till 1357. This led to a renewed English occupation; and parts of southern Scotland remained in English hands for a long time. However, by 1357, Edward III agreed to David's release under ransom. Though the treaty of Berwick ignored the real issues of Scottish independence, no further attempts at subjection were made till the 1540s, so that the Wars of Independence can be said to have ended with the treaty of 1357.

They had distorted irretrievably the relations of the two countries. In the 13th cent. Scotland and England had been developing in ever closer friendship. By 1357 they were, and long remained, enemies. This was the disastrous consequence of Edward I's political misjudgements after 1292.

Bruce Webster


Barrow, G. W. S. , Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (3rd edn. Edinburgh, 1988);
Duncan, A. A. M. , ‘The War of the Scots 1306–1323’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser. (1992), 125–51;
Nicholson, R. , Scotland: The Later Middle Ages (Edinburgh, 1974);
Webster, B. , ‘Scotland without a King,1329–41’, in Grant, A., and Stringer, K. J. (eds.), Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community (Edinburgh, 1993).