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 David II (1324–1371), illuminated initial [left, with Edward III] David II (1324–1371), illuminated initial [left, with Edward III]
David II (1324–1371), king of Scots, was the elder son of and his second wife, , daughter of Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster.

Childhood and youth

David was born in Dunfermline Abbey on 5 March 1324, apparently the elder of twins. His younger brother, John, died, probably in infancy, and was buried at Restennet Priory. David had two older sisters surviving, both, like himself, children of Robert's second marriage: Matilda, who married Thomas Isaac, of whom little is known, probably in 1342, and died in 1353; and Margaret, who married [see under ], in or before 1345. She had died by 1360. His half-sister by Robert's first marriage, Marjorie, was married to Walter, the steward of Scotland, and died, probably in 1317 or 1318, leaving a son, Robert, who succeeded his father as steward in 1327. He was therefore David's nephew, though some eight years older, and ultimately succeeded him as Robert II in 1371.

From the moment of his birth David was recognized as the heir of his father, Robert I, and this was formally declared by a tailzie, or entail, in 1326, perhaps as a result of the death at an unknown date of his twin brother and the need to reassert the position of Robert the Steward as heir to David, a position which would have been held by John while he lived. David succeeded his father at the age of five on 7 June 1329. He was the first Scottish monarch to be anointed, by virtue of a bull of John XXII granted on 13 June 1329. This followed the treaty of Edinburgh of 1328, by which the independent status of the rulers of Scotland was acknowledged. As part of that treaty David had on 17 July married , the second daughter of Edward II, king of England. He was four years old, she had just turned seven. The young king and queen were crowned at Scone on 24 November 1331.

David was too young to have any influence on events during the difficult years which followed his father's death in 1329. There is no evidence of his reaction to the invasions by Edward Balliol in 1332, the disastrous defeat at Dupplin, the temporary ejection of Balliol in the winter of 1332–3, and the even more disastrous invasion of Edward III in 1333, after which Balliol, as king of Scots, held Scotland as a fief from Edward III. David and his queen were at first kept safe in Dumbarton, one of the few castles that remained out of English hands, and in May 1334 were sent to France, where they were well received by the French king, Philippe VI, who maintained his support for Scottish independence and gave David and Joan a refuge at Château Gaillard in Normandy. They continued to receive a pension from Philippe throughout their stay.

Little is known of David's activities in France at this time. In 1335–6, when he was eleven, he was almost certainly involved in the abortive negotiations between Philippe VI and Edward III, which attempted to resolve the respective claims of David and Edward Balliol to the Scottish throne; and in 1339, during the siege of Perth by the Steward, there is evidence that Sir William Douglas visited Château Gaillard and obtained the services of some French knights and sailors who helped in the siege. This may have been financed by David or Philippe. David is said by the chronicler Froissart to have been present with the French king on campaign in Picardy in 1339, and at the siege of Tournai in 1340. Meanwhile, his claim to Scotland was maintained during this period by a series of king's lieutenants, including his nephew, Robert the Steward, and these seem, naturally enough in view of his age, to have handled affairs with little reference to David. It may, however, have been through his influence with Philippe that the French king brokered the release in 1340 of the captive John Randolph, earl of Moray, in exchange for the earl of Salisbury, recently captured in France. By 1341 the Steward, by then king's lieutenant, was satisfied that the situation in Scotland was secure enough for David to return. He and Joan landed at Inverbervie, north of Montrose, on 2 June 1341.

First reign, 1341–1346

David's return was greeted with rejoicing: ‘All Scots were delighted beyond belief at his arrival, and held feasts with joy and dancing’ (Bower, 7.151). Yet the problems which faced him were grave, and he was only in his eighteenth year. In his absence his country had been repeatedly invaded and destabilized. Most of the nobles at one time or another had come to terms with Balliol, even if only briefly. Part of the kingdom had been ceded into direct English rule; and there had been recurrent guerrilla warfare which had caused widespread destruction. The processes of administration had been disrupted: at times in the southern counties there had been an English administration which found itself unable to collect more than nominal revenues, but which excluded any Scottish authority, while elsewhere there had been two rival administrations, neither of which could achieve much. Regular exchequer audits been resumed in the north-eastern parts only relatively recently, and in other areas apparently not until just before David's return. It was a situation to daunt someone much older than the young king. His lack of experience may have showed: the Liber pluscardensis, written in the mid-fifteenth century, comments that he ‘did little with mature deliberation and wise counsel but acted without advice headstrongly and following his own ideas’ (Liber pluscardensis, 291).

Nevertheless the mechanics of government were rapidly put back in place. A new chamberlain, William Bullock, who, curiously, had held the same office under Edward Balliol, soon restored financial order, collecting revenues and dealing with claims efficiently. A number of charters were immediately issued, confirming rights which had been held from David's predecessors; parliaments and councils were convened.

David's relations with the nobility who had been managing affairs independently for so long proved more difficult, especially his dealings with Sir William Douglas, a cadet of the immensely powerful Douglas family and at this point its only prominent and active member. He had been one of the outstanding leaders of Scottish resistance against Edward III and Edward Balliol, and had gained a strong landed position in the borders, particularly the lands of Liddesdale, from which he was henceforth known as William Douglas of Liddesdale. He expected power and reward, and was prepared to take them if not given. In the central borders David was anxious to rely on another equally notable fighter for Scottish independence, Sir Alexander Ramsay, who had just in 1342 recovered the important castle of Roxburgh. David made him sheriff of Teviotdale, a position which had allegedly already been given to Douglas. Douglas's reaction was to capture Ramsay, imprison him in Hermitage Castle in Liddesdale, and starve him to death. In the face of noble pressure David could do nothing but accept the situation, allowing Douglas to hold the sheriffdom he had seized. It was not an auspicious beginning.

It was also natural that David should have wanted to assert himself against Edward III, whom he was bound to regard as his enemy. He was encouraged by the young knights by whom we are told he was surrounded, and invaded England three times, apparently with declining success after his first raid in 1341, when he devastated the town of Penrith, and provoked a retaliation from Edward III, who celebrated Christmas that year at Melrose. However, Edward's attention was by now concentrated in France, and David's later raids, if not notable triumphs, brought no disasters.

David remained conscious of his debt to Philippe VI of France; and, when the latter was facing Edward's great invasion in 1346 and asked for a counter-invasion by the Scots, David agreed. He entered the English west march early in October, and began well by capturing Liddel Strength in Cumberland and executing its captain, Sir Walter Selby. But the expedition was marred by divisions among the Scots. When their army had mustered at Perth, the earl of Ross took his chance to contrive the assassination of his northern enemy, Ranald MacRuairi, leader of a contingent from the Isles, and then departed. After the capture of Liddel, William Douglas argued that enough had been done, and that in view of Ranald's murder it would be wise to return to Scotland and reconsider their plans. This probably sound advice was opposed by many of David's commanders, who believed that the north of England was ripe for plunder while Edward's attention was given to France. The result was substantial ravaging, particularly of monastic lands; but ultimately an army assembled by the archbishop of York confronted David's force near Bearpark outside Durham, and on 17 October, in what has became known as the battle of Nevilles Cross, the Scots were routed. Many of their leaders were killed, and David himself was captured, having been wounded in the head by two English arrows. One of these was extracted with great difficulty after the battle, the other remained embedded until it allegedly sprang out automatically while the king was at prayer during a pilgrimage to the church of St Monance in Fife, probably some time after 1365. Other Scottish captives included Sir William Douglas, Duncan, earl of Fife, and Malcolm Fleming, earl of Wigtown. The Steward and Patrick, earl of Dunbar, fled before the disaster had gone too far, the Steward to become for the second time lieutenant during the king's absence.

Captivity, 1346–1357

David's captivity lasted for eleven years. Much of it was spent in the Tower, though he was at Windsor for the St George's day festivities of 1348; he also went north for negotiations with the Scots in 1351–2, and perhaps again in 1353. During these negotiations he was allowed to return to Scotland for a few months in 1352. From March 1355 he was in more relaxed quarters at Odiham Castle in Hampshire, where he remained until his eventual release. He seems to have been on reasonably good terms with Edward III. During this period there is no evidence of any contact with his wife, Joan, who apparently remained in Scotland despite a safe conduct to visit her husband in 1348, and David is thought to have begun his relationship with one Katherine Mortimer (d. 1360), whose origin is unknown. She is described as ‘Welsh’ in Bower's Scotichronicon (7.321), though this does not exclude the possibility that she belonged to the prominent Mortimer family, many of whose lands were on the Welsh march. She accompanied David when he eventually returned to Scotland, and was openly treated as his mistress.

Most of what we know of David's actions at this time concerns his attempts to secure his release. For long, the chief problem was Edward's determination to establish a permanent English supremacy over Scotland. In 1350 David presented a petition to the pope, asking him to use his influence with Philippe VI of France to ensure that David's release was included in any peace between Philippe and Edward. To reinforce the appeal, the petition recites the terms demanded by Edward for David's release, which probably date from negotiations in 1348. The essence was that the king of Scots should hold Scotland as a fief from the king of England, with all normal feudal liabilities; and that, if David died without an heir, he should be succeeded by the king of England or his son. By the early 1350s the argument seems to have moved on, though we depend on difficult texts which have often been misdated and misinterpreted. It appears that David himself achieved a breakthrough by suggesting the possible succession not of the king of England, but of one of Edward's sons, other than the heir to England. The object was to make certain that Scotland remained a separate kingdom, not directly subject to the king of England. This proposal was apparently acceptable to Edward, and by 1351–2 it was formally put to the Scots. David, who hoped to persuade them to accept, was allowed to return for some months to Scotland to see if he could.

There appear to have been two sticking points. If David had no other heir, the heir under the entail of 1326 was Robert the Steward, now lieutenant in David's absence. The arrangement with Edward would have disinherited him, so his opposition could be assumed. There also seems to have been a more general opposition to an English succession, even if the separate kingdom was preserved. We have no evidence of the balance of opinion in Scotland beyond the fact that the proposals being supported by David were rejected. There exist from this period the texts of some letters from Jean II of France offering support to the Scots in the event of an attempt by David to invade his own country with English backing. There is no evidence at all that he contemplated this; but perhaps it was considered a possibility by the Steward, who may have envisaged recourse to desperate measures if it looked like coming to pass.

David returned to captivity, accepting the rejection of the scheme. By 1354 Edward was facing difficulties in France, and was prepared to contemplate a simpler solution: to release David in return for a ransom, by a treaty which left quite unresolved the question of English claims to superiority. This was rejected by the Scots at the time, probably because they were inclined once more to join the French in the war against England, to which end they were offered French support. During this period the Steward seems to have favoured a French alliance in preference to a settlement with England. But the Black Prince's triumph at Poitiers in 1356 and the capture of Jean II changed the position again. Edward was now triumphant and bent on exploiting his advantage as the captor of two kings. As far as the Scots were concerned, he was prepared to offer more or less the terms proposed in 1354, which were now accepted. In September 1357 David was brought from Odiham to London; he paid a brief visit to Canterbury and by 29 September was at Berwick, where on 3 October he formally confirmed the text of the treaty of Berwick, by which he was to be released in return for a ransom of 100,000 merks, payable over ten years.

Second reign, 1357–1371

On his return David faced serious problems, some of them personal. His open attachment to his mistress, Katherine Mortimer, no doubt alienated his wife; in 1358 she retired to England under a safe conduct, and remained there until her death in 1362. His mistress was treacherously murdered in 1360, possibly at the instigation of the earl of Angus, who was later imprisoned and died in captivity. In 1363 David married , widow of Sir John Logie, whom he divorced probably early in 1369; and he was clearly contemplating a further marriage, to Agnes Dunbar, apparently the sister of the earl of March, when he died in 1371. It is likely that David still sought an heir; but neither of his marriages produced one. Nor, as far as is known, did he have any illegitimate issue.

The treaty of Berwick also left David with a large ransom to pay, on which he soon defaulted, after only 20,000 merks had been paid. This inevitably complicated relations with England and imperilled the position of the nobles who were being held in England as hostages for the payments. The result was a series of negotiations which tried to win better terms. In 1363, when Edward III was ready to consider a permanent settlement, it was suggested that all other English claims and the ransom would be abandoned provided the Scots agreed that if David died without a legitimate heir, the king of England should succeed him. If this happened, Scotland was to remain a separate kingdom, and there were detailed provisions to ensure that this would be so. This proposal was firmly rejected by a Scottish parliament in 1364. Subsequent negotiations concentrated on possible reschedulings of the ransom. In 1365 Edward felt in a strong position, and the only terms on offer were severe. But he was much more generous in 1369, when renewed war with France threatened, and hence Scottish friendship was more important to him. He conceded a fourteen-year truce to the Scots, and fixed the residue of David's ransom at only 56,000 merks. This much more favourable settlement was in force when David died.

David's captivity and the English reoccupation of parts of the south of Scotland after 1346, even if temporary, had seriously disrupted Scottish government. Until the mid-1350s there was a state of war over much of the border region; and more generally the Steward, as lieutenant during the king's absence, seems to have done little to keep the routine processes of government in operation. Audits of accounts were not held, and after David's release there had to be a laborious effort to catch up, which revealed that the sheriffs had been able to do little and that judicial administration was in confusion.

When David returned in 1357, he held a general council which brought into the open many complaints about public order during his absence. It urged the king to hold a justice ayre in person to strike terror into wrongdoers: no one was to levy private wars against their neighbours, and churches were to enjoy their liberties as they had in times of good peace. There is enough evidence on record that David took the enforcement of justice seriously, and that good order and effective administration were restored. Royal charters and other documents were sought and issued in profusion, and the exchequer accounts were regularly audited; a reassessment of taxation, and above all a substantial increase in customs revenues, made it possible for David to make regular payments towards his ransom, while still enjoying a marked increase in his income. A rather curious result of the collapse of authority in his absence was that, erratically in the relatively few texts issued, acts were dated by a regnal year one year less than was mathematically correct, a practice which became regular after his return. The cause of this error is still under debate. None the less, David's second reign was to prove a period of strong and determined government in which his authority was enforced throughout the realm.

The most serious consequence of the king's absence, and indeed of developments during and since the wars of independence, was the growing power of a small group of the greater nobles whose ancestors had fought against English domination under Robert I, notably Robert the Steward, Patrick, earl of March, and William, lord of Douglas. These three inherited and added to great estates during David's minority and early rule, and had held power during his captivity. Effective government depended on being able to work with these men, and David clearly grasped this, for he supported and rewarded them for what they had done: the Steward received the earldom of Strathearn, and Douglas became the first earl of Douglas. March was now elderly and perhaps less influential; and was in any case already an earl.

But David clearly wanted to establish his own adherents. In his first reign he was said to be surrounded by a group of young chivalric knights to whom he gave much favour. This pattern continued after 1357, when he combined his recognition of the great nobles with steady reward of a group of younger men who became his personal following. Among these, Robert Erskine had worked consistently for the king's release during his captivity, and rapidly became a key figure in his administration. The king extended considerable patronage to the family of his second wife, both her Drummond and Logie relatives, and, it seems, favoured the Drummonds in a serious dispute with the Steward [see ]. He also enforced the marriage of another of this group, Walter Lesley, to the heiress of the elderly fifth earl of Ross, and compelled the entail of Ross's lands on Lesley and his wife. This provoked an elaborate but futile complaint by Ross to Robert II after David's death and shortly before Ross's own; the latter occurred in 1372, whereupon Lesley duly inherited the earldom.

These policies may have been one of the causes of an obscure revolt by Douglas, the Steward, and March in 1363; the rebels may have been alarmed by the king's apparently severe treatment of the earl of Mar, whose castle of Kildrummy David seized early in 1363, and by his failure to pay his ransom to Edward III, which might have led to their being sent into captivity in England, as hostages for its payment. It is also possible that the king's plans for a second marriage aroused hostility. Whatever the exact causes, the revolt rapidly collapsed: only Douglas seemed anxious to proceed, and David very wisely was content simply to exact submissions. He continued his policy of recognizing the claims of the greater nobles, while building up his own following on which he could rely.

In the late 1360s David was concerned to enforce law and order, especially in the highland areas where much depended on powerful local lords, given to the reset (harbouring) of malefactors. David required men such as the Steward, whose earldom of Strathearn made him an important highland lord, and the lord of the Isles, publicly to give sureties for the behaviour of their followers. Later writers give David credit for some success in this matter, and these policies may have provoked another temporary clash with the Steward, who was briefly imprisoned in 1369 and for a short time ceased to be described in witness lists as earl of Strathearn.

Yet there remained the problem of the succession. David may still have hoped for an heir; but it seems that he was taking account of the possibility of a Stewart succession. It looked unlikely that the Steward himself would succeed, since he was eight years older than the king; in 1366 or 1367, while Margaret was still in favour, and no doubt with her support, David forced the marriage of the Steward's son and heir, John, to Margaret's niece Annabella Drummond; and in 1368 he gave him the title of earl of Carrick, which David himself had held as heir to the throne. This suggests that he was trying to preserve the influence of his inner ring of supporters in the event of a Stewart succession by establishing a connection between Margaret's family and the likely heir. But on 22 February 1371 David died suddenly at Edinburgh Castle; he was buried in Holyrood Abbey. Consequently it was the Steward who succeeded, to rule as Robert II until his death in 1390. Annabella's influence was not sufficient to preserve the power of the Drummonds and others of David's supporters with the new monarch.

Reputation and achievements

David's reputation has suffered many vicissitudes. The nearest to a contemporary judgement, that of the chronicler Andrew Wyntoun, writing probably early in the fifteenth century, is also one of the most favourable: ‘his land in realté he led, and rewlyt in equité … He was manly, war and wys. Thus in al forme of justris he left his land at his ending’ (Andrew of Wyntoun, 2.506–7). Walter Bower, in the middle of the fifteenth century, follows the same line:
King David reformed his kingdom with excellent laws, he punished rebels, he calmed his subjects with undisturbed peace, and he united to their fatherland by means of one legal contract Scots speaking different tongues, both the wild caterans and the domesticated men with skills. (Bower, 7.359)
The last comment refers to his pacification of the highlanders. Writers of the sixteenth century remain favourable, if perhaps more qualified. John Mair, whose history was published in 1521, observes: ‘I can only compare David to middling rulers. He had little experience of war, was unfortunate in worldly matters, but showed patience rather than fear. In the end he gave his realm peace and subdued the wild Scots’ (Mair, 256–7). Hector Boece, in his Scotorum historiae (published 1527), commented simply that he was ‘no less great in spirit than his father [Robert I] but less fortunate’ (Boece, citing Scotorum regum catalogus, no. 98). George Buchanan, whose Rerum Scoticarum historia was published in 1582, is of a similar opinion: ‘a man to be remembered for every sort of virtue, and primarily for justice and clemency; having endured both good and evil, he seemed throughout to have lacked good fortune rather than diligence’ (Buchanan, 301).

It was in the century after the Act of Union of 1707 that David's reputation suffered; and primarily because of his negotiations with Edward III, in which he was thought to have been willing to surrender the independence of Scotland in order to secure his liberty and subsequently peace with England and release from the ransom he owed. David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes, in the second volume of his Annals of Scotland, first published in 1779, wrote:
the defects in his character were many, and all of them were prejudicial to the public: he was weak and capricious, violent in his resentments and habitually under the dominion of women … We ought not to forget that he degenerated from the magnanimity of his father and that, through the allurement of present ease or through motives of base jealousy, he was willing to surrender the honour, security and independence of that people whom God and the laws had entrusted to his protection. (Dalrymple, 2.321–2)
Hailes's view has been repeated by generations of historians down to the present century, who have all condemned David as the degenerate son of a noble father.

A final judgement on David II is still very difficult, and there remain many uncertainties about his motives and plans. The only narrative written by a contemporary, that of John Fordun, is extremely sketchy about the years of David's second reign. Although substantial documentation survives from his government, it tells us little that is known for sure about David himself and his personality; and the crucial texts about his relations with England are few, mostly undated or misdated in many accounts, and hard to interpret. He was certainly anxious to achieve a permanent peace with England, which would undoubtedly have been for the benefit of his country; it remains unclear how far he was prepared to go to secure that peace, or what his own attitude was to the proposals of 1363, for the succession of Edward III in the event of his own death without an heir.

In spite of these interpretative difficulties, since the 1960s there has been something of a reversion to the views of the earliest writers concerning David II. He has come to be generally seen as a strong and capable ruler, not to be trifled with, determined to assert himself and generally successful in doing so. His marriages are more likely to have been the result of his search for a direct heir than, as Hailes suggested, because he was dominated by women, while he left the finances of his kingdom in a better state than they had been in for generations.

Bruce Webster


Johannis de Fordun Chronica gentis Scotorum, ed. W. F. Skene (1871) · Andrew of Wyntoun, The orygynale cronykil of Scotland [rev. edn], 2, ed. D. Laing (1872) · W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98), vol. 7 · G. W. S. Barrow and others, eds., Regesta regum Scottorum, 6, ed. B. Webster (1982) [incl. texts of all David's surviving acta] · R. Nicholson, Scotland: the later middle ages (1974), vol. 2 of The Edinburgh history of Scotland, ed. G. Donaldson (1965–75); repr. (1989) · A. A. M. Duncan, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense: David II and Edward III, 1346–52’, SHR, 67 (1988), 113–41 · J. Campbell, ‘England, Scotland and the Hundred Years' War in the fourteenth century’, Europe in the Middle Ages, ed. J. R. Hale, J. R. L. Highfield, and B. Smalley (1965), 184–216 · R. Nicholson, ‘David II, the historians and the chroniclers’, SHR, 45 (1966), 59–78 · B. Webster, ‘David II and the government of fourteenth-century Scotland’, TRHS, 5th ser., 16 (1966), 115–30 · S. I. Boardman, The early Stewart kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371–1406 (1996), 1–38 · A. A. M. Duncan, ed., ‘A question about the succession, 1364’, Miscellany … XII, Scottish History Society, 5th ser., 7 (1994), 1–97 · B. Webster, ‘Scotland without a king, 1329–1341’, Medieval Scotland: crown, lordship and community: essays presented to G. W. S. Barrow, ed. A. Grant and K. J. Stringer (1993), 223–38 · F. J. H. Skene, Liber pluscardensis, 2 vols. (1877–80) · J. Mair, Historia majoris Britanniae (1740) · H. Boece, Scotorum historiae a prima gentis origine (Paris, 1527) · G. Buchanan, Opera omnia, 1: Rerum Scoticarum historia, ed. T. Ruddimanno (1725) · D. Dalrymple of Hailes, Annals of Scotland, 3rd edn, 3 vols. (1819) · Scalacronica: the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III as recorded by Sir Thomas Gray, trans. H. Maxwell (1907) · A. A. M. Duncan, ‘The regnal year of David II’, SHR, 68 (1989), 105–19 · A. A. M. Duncan, ‘The laws of Malcolm MacKenneth’, Medieval Scotland: crown, lordship and community: essays presented to G. W. S. Barrow, ed. A. Grant and K. J. Stringer (1993), 239–73


illuminated initial (confirmation of a grant of Robert I to the Carmelite friars of Aberdeen), U. Aberdeen, Marischal College, charter chest 1/4 · illuminated initial, BL, Cotton MS Nero D.vi, fol. 61v [see illus.]