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Reference group
Competitors for the throne of Scotland (act. 1291–1292) were the men who claimed that throne after it became vacant, firstly with the unexpected death, on 19 March 1286, of King Alexander III, and then with the death in Orkney, about 30 September 1290, of his acknowledged heir, his young granddaughter Margaret, daughter of Erik II, king of Norway. From that point the succession to the Scottish throne became open to whoever might claim it by hereditary right. From the outset the two strongest contenders were John Balliol [see John, king of Scots], lord of Barnard Castle, co. Durham, and Bywell, Northumberland, and heir (through his mother) to the lordship of Galloway; and Robert (V) de Brus (Bruce), lord of Annandale. The danger of civil war led to an appeal for help to Edward I, king of England. Edward agreed to act as judge, but took advantage of the situation to claim suzerainty over Scotland. He invited claimants who would recognize his overlordship to argue their case before a tribunal of 105, based on the Roman centumviri used for settling property disputes. Twenty-four members of King Edward's council, together with the king as president, joined eighty Scottish notables. Proceedings were from May 1291 mostly conducted at Norham in Northumberland, and concluded at Berwick, in south-east Scotland.

Failing succession in the direct line of descent from King William I, otherwise known as William the Lion (c.1142–1214), an heir would have to be found among the direct descendants of William I's brother David, earl of Huntingdon (1152–1219), whose only son, John of Scotland, earl of Chester and Huntingdon, had died childless in 1237. John's three sisters had all married and borne children—in order of seniority, Margaret, married to Alan, lord of Galloway; Isabel, wife of Robert (IV) de Brus, lord of Annandale; and Ada, wife of Henry Hastings, an important landowner in the English midlands. The ruling principles of royal (as of baronial) succession were seniority of birth and preference for males over females. Balliol, grandson of Earl David's eldest daughter, was obviously winner on grounds of seniority, but his claim came through women of two generations. Brus, son of Earl David's second daughter, and some thirty years older than Balliol, could claim through only one woman. For most Scots the choice of successor to Alexander III lay between Balliol and Brus.

Despite the obvious strength of these two claims, there were no fewer than fourteen competitors, two of them kings and two others very obscure individuals. Erik II, king of Norway, claimed by ‘ascendancy’ as the Maid of Norway's father, a claim invalid in feudal law and so defeated. Edward I of England claimed as descendant of Malcolm III and Saint Margaret through their elder daughter Maud (Matilda), wife of Henry I. Although Edward I did not press it, the Plantagenet claim would not fail through default.

One completely maverick claim was lodged by Florence (V), count of Holland, who was fourth in descent from Ada, sister of William I and Malcolm IV, married to Count Florence III in 1162. It is hard to believe that such a claim would have seen the light of day had Count Florence not been supported by Edward I. It depended on a most implausible surrender by Earl David of Huntingdon of his own and his heirs' rights to the throne to his sister Countess Ada in return for the lordship of the Aberdeenshire district of the Garioch. It is possible that Brus collaborated with Count Florence in order to defeat Balliol's claim, on the understanding that Florence, suitably bribed, would withdraw and leave Brus the victor. Although it seems to have caused delay, the count's claim was rejected.

The remaining claimants constituted a motley group. The third direct descendant of Earl David, John Hastings, first Lord Hastings, made no claim to the throne but argued, unsuccessfully, that he ought to be awarded one third of the Scottish kingdom simply as a landed estate. Of the remaining eight claimants, only one, Sir John Comyn, lord of Badenoch (d. c.1302; one of the six guardians of Scotland elected in 1286), could show legitimate descent from an acceptable ancestor: Malcolm III's brother Donald III (Domnall Bán), who had died as long ago as c.1099. The rest claimed descent from bastard children of Scottish royalty, mainly offspring of William I. Thus the Northumberland baron William de Ros, first Lord Ros, claimed as a great-grandson of King William's illegitimate daughter Isabel; the latter's half-sister Ada, as the wife of Patrick, fourth earl of Dunbar, was the forebear of Patrick Dunbar, the seventh earl [see under Dunbar, Patrick eighth earl of Dunbar], who likewise presented a claim; and William de Vescy (1245–1297), lord of Alnwick, was the grandson of King William's mistress Margaret, herself the granddaughter of Adam, laird of Whitsome in Berwickshire. In the eleventh century William the Bastard could become duke of Normandy and king of England, but two and a half centuries later the tide had turned against illegitimacy. The claims of Ros, Vescy, and Earl Patrick would get nowhere, and the same went for Nicholas de Soulis, a member of the family of the lords of Liddesdale who was grandson of a bastard daughter of Alexander II, and for Robert de Pinkeny (Picquigni), a Northamptonshire baron who claimed descent from David I's son Earl Henry, but was in fact almost certainly the great-grandson of a bastard daughter of Earl David of Huntingdon. Two claimants are so obscure that it seems impossible to judge the validity of their claims. Roger de Mandeville, of an Anglo-Norman family settled in Ulster, claimed descent from a lady with the Gaelic personal name Athbhric (Aufreka), supposedly a daughter of William I. A burgess of Perth, Patrick Galightly, asserted (surely untruthfully) that his father Henry was actually King William's son. That king's only legitimate son, Alexander, was born in 1198. Patrick might have been an old man when he made his claim (he may well have died shortly after presenting it), but the alleged relationship still seems highly dubious.

Judgment in what came to be known as the Great Cause was given on 17 November 1292. The claims of rival candidates were successively either rejected or withdrawn, until finally the court ruled that John Balliol was rightful king of Scots. He was enthroned at Scone on 30 November following. Unfortunately Edward I's ambitions led to his systematically undermining the new king's authority by his insistence on his own rights as overlord. English pressure generated Scottish resistance, and in March 1296 war broke out, followed on 8 July by King John's enforced abdication. In the war for national independence which the Scots continued to wage, the former candidates for the throne did not act together. Several held English lands, making it less surprising that they fought for the English king; John Hastings, Earl Patrick, and William de Ros all did so. John Comyn, on the other hand, fought resolutely on the Scottish side. Robert (V) de Brus died in 1295, and his son and namesake Robert (VI) de Brus tried in vain to persuade Edward I to make him king of Scots in the following year. The grandson of the competitor, known to history as Robert Bruce, at first supported the patriotic cause, but came to the English king's peace in 1302. However he did not forget his inherited claim to the Scottish throne, which lay behind his quarrel with Sir John Comyn of Badenoch, the son of another defeated competitor. On 10 February 1306 their enmity culminated in the murder of Comyn by Bruce and his followers at Dumfries, swiftly followed by a political coup in which Bruce took the throne of Scotland as King Robert I.

G. W. S. Barrow


E. L. G. Stones and G. G. Simpson, eds., Edward I and the throne of Scotland, 1290–1296, 2 vols (1978) · G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the community of the realm of Scotland, 3rd edn (1988) · A. A. M. Duncan, The kingship of the Scots, 842–1292: succession and independence (2002) · F. M. Powicke, The thirteenth century (1962), vol. 4 of The Oxford history of England, ed. G. M. Clarke, 2nd edn