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 Alexander III (1241–1286), seal, 1265 Alexander III (1241–1286), seal, 1265
Alexander III (1241–1286), king of Scots, was the only son of and . When Alexander II died on 8 July 1249, the Scottish crown passed to his son. Born at Roxburgh on 4 September 1241, and so aged just a little under eight years, this child was inaugurated as Alexander III on 13 July. In the traditional ceremony at Scone the young king was acclaimed by the community of Scots, enthroned on the ancient and symbolic ‘stone of destiny’, consecrated, invested with a mantle, and had his genealogy proclaimed by a Gaelic bard. Thereafter, the magnates of the kingdom made obeisance to him.

Problems of the minority

In 1249, he who gained control of the king controlled the government (and revenue) of the kingdom. Alan Durward (d. 1275), at the head of a family which had wielded much influence under Alexander II, apparently tried to establish his own supremacy by claiming the right personally to knight Alexander III before his inauguration. Durward's attempt failed, but none the less, perhaps by virtue of some deal with the king's mother, Marie de Coucy, he did, in the first instance, gain control. The administration of the kingdom weathered the establishment of this new regime with a remarkable degree of continuity, and the business of government seems to have continued unimpeded. However, instability soon became apparent, most clearly in friction between Durward and his followers and their main baronial rivals, the Comyns. This resulted in a weakening of the government and the loosening of its grasp on the realm.

Presumably at the instigation of the Comyn faction, an appeal was made to Henry III of England for assistance against the Durward government. This provided Henry with an opportunity to revive the old claim to English sovereignty over Scotland; the approaches made to the papal curia by the Scots in search of the rites of unction and coronation for their king found no favour with the English monarch. The weak Durward regime was forced to curry favour with Henry, and effected a marriage between Alexander and Henry's daughter . On Christmas day 1251 Alexander was knighted by Henry III, and on the following day the marriage took place at York. One English chronicle relates that, following the ceremony, the English king demanded homage of Alexander both for the lands which he held in England and for his Scottish kingdom. The homage for Scotland was refused, and no further discussion took place.

English interference

Henry III none the less involved himself fully in the affairs of Scotland. It seems that Durward may have been the author of a devious plot to gain a right to the succession for himself or his heirs, and Henry used this to justify forcing the resignation of all the main officials of the Scottish household and appointing two of his own barons to represent his interests at the Scottish court. His interest was expressed purely in terms of his concern for the welfare of his daughter and son-in-law, but while such concern may well have been genuine enough, it can hardly be doubted that there were other motives for his involvement. Although Henry's name is nowhere associated with the appointment of the new Scottish royal council (comprised predominantly of Comyn supporters), his influence must nevertheless have been great.

The new government, however, soon became even less pleasing to Henry III than the one it had replaced. Either his representatives were powerless, or they co-operated with the Scottish magnates, who showed little respect for the interfering English king. His demands for military assistance in Gascony in 1253 fell on deaf ears in Scotland; only the ousted Alan Durward, who had made his peace with Henry III, went on campaign with the English magnates. Another source of contention was the money ordered to be levied by the papacy in Scotland to support an English crusade. The latter enterprise was intended to win the throne of Sicily for Henry III's second son, Edmund, and the Scots refused to pay.

By the summer of 1255 the situation had become intolerable to Henry. The Scottish government (including his own nominees) was foiling his attempts to have Scotland administered in England's interest, and in August 1255 he went to the border. On this occasion there was no formal dissociation of Henry III from the replacement of Alexander III's counsellors: ‘at the instance of’ the English king, and with the advice of named Scottish magnates, the Comyn party were removed from office. It was further ‘agreed’ between the kings that unless by reason of major trespass, the new council (named) would remain in office for seven years (that is, until Alexander was twenty-one), or for a shorter period as dictated by Henry and Alexander.

However, by 1257 the ousted Comyn faction had regained a strong enough position to force Alexander and the new government to negotiate with them, talks in which Henry III involved himself fully. These talks aimed at ensuring peace in Scotland, but failed, and in October 1257 the Comyns, led by Walter, earl of Menteith (d. 1258), seized Alexander and tried to gain control once more. Henry III prepared an invasion force to quell the rebellion, but other affairs diverted his attention, and on this occasion his influence was much more limited.

Coming of age

The Comyns, too, experienced problems. Freed from the power of Alan Durward's faction, Alexander III, now aged seventeen, seems to have been more of a force to reckon with, and was no longer prepared to be dictated to by any of the rival parties. In a treaty which the Comyns made with the Welsh, who were rebelling against Henry III, reference is made to the possibility that Alexander might force them into a truce with Henry III, or that he might be persuaded to join their agreement. This confirms that Alexander refused to be ruled by the Comyns. His actions against Durward's supporters show that he was equally independent of them. Henry III's political defeat by his own barons left him unable to control events in Scotland, and the resultant settlement of September 1258 was one which probably reflected the wishes of Alexander III himself. The Scottish king had come to terms with both factions, and a new council was appointed which comprised men of both camps. Probably because it was the only way of retaining any influence, the English king promised to give help and advice to this council. He successfully requested a visit of the Scottish king and queen to England, which took place in November 1260. By that time it is clear that Alexander, now aged nineteen, was in personal control of the Scottish government, and that his minority had, de facto, ended.

Margaret was allowed to remain in England after Alexander's return, to give birth to her first child (a daughter, Margaret, who later married Erik, king of Norway), on the condition that if Alexander should die before her return, she and the child would be handed over without delay to a committee of, in effect, guardians, no matter what conditions prevailed in the two kingdoms.

Affairs in the west

For the most part, the rest of Alexander III's reign saw a fairly steady growth, politically and economically, which rendered Scotland strong, stable, and prosperous by the last quarter of the century. An important element in this growth was the consolidation of the western boundaries of the kingdom. The Western Isles had for long owed nominal allegiance to the Norwegian king, although there was more than an element of imperialism in the attempts by either crown to control this area and the far west of the mainland. The independence of the western seaboard, as well as the interest of the Norwegians, posed a threat to the kings of Scots; the area was frequently troublesome also for the kings of Norway, who exercised little or no effective control. For some time, the Scots had entertained ambitions to take the isles, which had figured significantly in Scottish politics at various times. It was thus a policy of the thirteenth-century kings of Scots to bring the west more completely under their control. Alexander II had died during such an attempt, and Alexander III was fully aware of the advantages to be gained by extending his authority to the logical confines of the kingdom.

This policy, naturally, led to conflict both with the isles themselves and with the kings of Norway. In 1261 a Scottish embassy went to Norway to discuss the isles, and was held by the Norwegians. A Scottish force, led by the earl of Ross on the king's behalf, attacked the isles in the following year, and Haakon IV's reaction was personally to lead a fleet, which arrived on the west coast in the late summer of 1263. The Norwegian campaign, however, was to find only lukewarm support from the islesmen, a fact which seriously undermined its effectiveness. None the less, Rothesay Castle was taken, and Haakon redistributed lands in an attempt to bolster his authority; then, in order to encourage Alexander III to negotiate more favourably, the Norwegians penetrated into Loch Lomond and devastated the Lennox. The negotiations were fruitless, however, and the invasion came to an untimely end in the autumn, when storms drove some of the ships ashore, and a battle was fought between a Scottish force and the Norwegians. Both sides claimed victory in the battle of Largs; probably neither suffered badly, but it was enough, combined with the worsening weather, to convince Haakon IV of the futility of extending the campaign. He sailed northwards, exacting tribute from the islands as he went, and arrived in Orkney in October. Here he fell ill, and died in December.

The failure of the western campaign, the death of Haakon IV, the unwillingness of many of the islesmen to antagonize the Scottish crown, further aggressive Scottish action in Caithness and the west which brought many of the nobles of the area to King Alexander's ‘peace’, and above all the surrender of the king of Man to Alexander III, who threatened the island with invasion in 1264, persuaded the new Norwegian king, Magnus VI, to negotiate. After prolonged negotiation, peace was made in July 1266, in the treaty of Perth, which ceded the Western Isles to the Scottish crown in return for a down payment of 4000 merks, and an annual rent of 100 merks in perpetuity. This treaty, removing the threat of international conflict in connection with the Scottish crown's attempts to control and assimilate the Western Isles, made available the area's financial and military resources, without which it is doubtful if Robert I could successfully have waged his war against the English early in the next century.

Later dealings with England

Following Scottish noble involvement in the English barons' wars, mainly, but not exclusively, on the royalist side, in 1265 Alexander III prepared to give Henry III aid against his rival, Simon de Montfort, but the forces he had gathered were not required. John Fordun also tells of the Scots king and clergy's refusal to bow to papal demands for a tax of the Scottish church in aid of the English crusading effort, although Scots did apparently take part in Louis IX's second crusade of 1270, in which David, earl of Atholl, Adam, earl of Carrick, ‘and a great many other Scottish and English nobles’ died (Chronica gentis Scottorum, 2.299). Also on crusade was Prince Edward, the heir to the English throne, when, in November 1272, Henry III died. Edward I was crowned at Westminster in August 1274, an occasion which Alexander III, his queen, and many Scots nobles attended.

Alexander III went to Westminster as an English baron, in virtue of his English lands. He did not, however, perform homage for those lands, a matter which was a point of discussion for several years. In October 1278 Alexander went south again, to perform the homage, having first obtained the necessary guarantees that his attendance would in no way prejudice the rights and liberties of his realm. On 28 October, at Westminster, the king of Scots performed the homage for his English lands, but denied strongly that any homage was due to Edward for the Scottish kingdom.

Last years: problems and achievements

The later years of Alexander's reign, which appear to have been characterized by peace, good relations with other kingdoms, and strong rule, were blighted by problems in relation to the succession. Early in 1275 Alexander's queen, the English king's sister, had died, leaving Alexander with a daughter, Margaret, and two sons, Alexander and David (born in 1261, 1264, and 1273 respectively). The last five years of Alexander's own life saw the death of all three children: David in 1281, Margaret in 1283, and Alexander (married, but childless) in 1284. In 1281 Margaret had married Erik II of Norway, and at her death she left an infant daughter, the only heir in direct line to Alexander III after 1284. At Scone in February 1284 an impressive array of the baronial leaders of the Scottish community swore to accept and uphold , as the heir to the king, should no further child be born to the king or his late son. On 14 October 1285 the king married , the daughter of Robert, count of Dreux. But the marriage was short-lived, since in the following year, on 19 March, Alexander III died: after a council in Edinburgh, he was returning to his wife, when according to tradition his horse stumbled and threw him. A monument near Kinghorn in Fife marks the spot where he is said to have fallen. He was buried in Dunfermline Abbey.

Traditionally, Alexander III's reign has been viewed as a ‘golden age’ for Scotland. It has come to be perceived, however, that this picture is, at least in part, an exaggeration of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century chroniclers, who wrote with hindsight, comparing the peaceful later thirteenth century with the war-torn years which followed and, further, who wrote with a propagandist message for their own times. None the less, it does seem to have been a relatively prosperous period: climatic conditions were good and the prolonged peace and increasing population were favourable both to agriculture and to foreign trade. The wool trade in particular flourished in this period, and was one factor which encouraged a relatively healthy money supply; it also, through the imposition, some time between 1275 and 1282, of a new export custom on wool and hides, did much to bolster the royal income. There is also architectural evidence of a healthy economy: significant work on some of Scotland's most important ecclesiastical buildings, including the cathedrals of Dunblane, Dunfermline, Glasgow, and St Andrews, dates from this reign. The consistent message of the sources is that Alexander III's personal reign lived up to the expectations of good kingly rule as expressed by the political theory of the period.

Norman H. Reid


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seals, repro. in J. H. Stevenson and M. Wood, Scottish heraldic seals, 3 vols. (1940) · seal, 1265, National Archives of Scotland [see illus.]