We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Feature essay

Scotland in 1406: a kingdom in crisis?

Robert III, king of Scots, died on 4 April 1406. As his health failed he is said to have asked for burial in a dunghill, and to have chosen as a suitable epitaph for his tomb the words: ‘Here lies the worst of kings and the most wretched of men in the whole kingdom.’ These bitter words, recorded by the contemporary chronicler Walter Bower, abbot of Inchcolm, have all too often been taken as a general reflection on the declining state of the Scottish kingdom under the rule of the first two Stewart kings. Indeed the death at the age of seventy of the tall, white-haired, and lame Robert III has been traditionally seen as the culmination of a series of disasters that befell the realm in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
 Robert III (d. 1406) seal Robert III (d. 1406) seal

These calamities continued in the new century with the death in custody in late March 1402 of Robert's eldest son and heir, David Stewart, duke of Rothesay, followed by defeat by England on 14 September that year at the battle of Homildon Hill, with the loss of many troops and over thirty significant Scottish nobles taken: as Bower lamented, ‘the flower as it were of the fighting men of the whole realm of Scotland was captured and ransomed’ (Bower, 8.49). Then, early in 1406, King Robert's last surviving son, the twelve-year-old Prince James, later James I, narrowly escaped harm in a baronial power struggle in the Lothians in which a number of royalists were slain, only to be captured on 22 March by English pirates while en route for France, where it was hoped he would be safe from his father's domestic opponents: James thus began his reign as a captive of Henry IV.

In the light of these disasters it is not surprising that Robert III should be seen as having died broken-hearted, painfully aware of his manifest failure to maintain royal power, having been little better than a bystander during a reign dominated by, in Bower's words:
a great deal of dissension, strife and brawling among the magnates and leading men, because the king, being bodily infirm, had no grip anywhere … in the absence of fear … under a slack shepherd the wolf fouls the wool, and the flock is torn to pieces. (Bower, 8.63)
 James I (1394–1437) coin James I (1394–1437) coin
Doom-laden portents, whether in the form of a fresh outbreak of plague in 1401 or of a comet which in February and March 1402 heralded the death of Rothesay, seemingly confirmed to contemporaries that they were living in a dark age, one in which the Scottish kingship had weakened and fallen far since the heady days of Robert I (r. 1306–29).

Strengths and weaknesses

The Scottish polity had in fact developed considerably during the fourteenth century, and in some respects, at least, had advanced in directions that were strong and positive. Although it is undeniable that the monarchy itself had failed to provide dominant and charismatic leadership since the death of David II and the accession of the Stewart dynasty in 1371, possibly even since 1329, the role in national affairs of parliament, and of the king's subjects within it, and the self-confidence and international reputation of Scottish chivalry, had arguably come on apace. Yet although such developments might seem to have blurred the differences between Robert III and some of his great nobles, neither that king nor his father, Robert II, had been completely ineffectual.

At the outset of his reign in 1390 Robert III had certainly found his authority undermined by the ambitions of his Stewart brothers. Robert arguably had little to complain about, for he himself had begun an escalating pattern of coups in Scottish royal government in 1384, when he excluded his aged father (Robert II had been fifty-five at his accession in 1371) from effective power. On that occasion the son had justified his own assumption of the office of lieutenant by reference to the king's inability to defend the realm's southern borders against English attack, and to enforce the law in the north (the perception of the Scottish highlands as different from, and more dangerous than, the relatively settled and civilized lowlands is one of the significant developments of the later fourteenth century).
 Robert II (1316–1390) seal Robert II (1316–1390) seal
Thus it was almost inevitable that when in 1388 the son in turn fell lame, and also lost his main ally through the death of James Douglas, second earl of Douglas, at the battle of Otterburn, a carefully engineered council should have deployed the same ‘defautes’ in order to transfer the office of lieutenant to his younger brother Robert Stewart, earl of Fife and Menteith, and later duke of Albany, supported as the latter now was by Archibald Douglas, lord of Galloway and third earl of Douglas.

This political group was well resourced and supported. Fife held the office of royal chamberlain, and both he and Douglas commanded extensive armed followings from their regional spheres of influence, in central and southern Scotland respectively. Thus it was that Fife was able to secure confirmation as lieutenant even before Robert III (who adopted this name instead of retaining his baptismal name of John) could be crowned after his father's death on 19 April 1390. The coronation of the new king did not take place until 14 August. The fact that between these two dates the town and cathedral of Elgin were burnt by the fourth son of Robert II, Alexander Stewart of Buchan and Badenoch (infamous to posterity as ‘the Wolf’), only confirmed the impression that the new king could not control his great subjects.

Yet Robert III was not to be denied a renewal of royal authority. During the next decade he invested considerable time, energy, and pageantry in building up the political role of, and support for, his eldest son, David, and to good effect. By the end of the 1390s, as earl of Carrick, David had risen to a prominent role on the royal council, and was working with his uncle Fife in heading royal expeditions to north and north-west Scotland in order to suppress both the lawlessness of Alexander Stewart and the independence of Donald MacDonald, lord of the Isles [see under Macdonald family]. In 1398 the twenty-year-old David took centre stage in a royal tournament organized at Edinburgh, an event that provided the occasion for his being knighted; on Trinity Sunday that year he and Fife were elevated to the dukedoms of Rothesay and Albany respectively, while Walter Trail, bishop of St Andrews and a leading figure in government, sermonized about the ‘state of the realm’. All these events point to a conscious attempt by Robert III to revive royal prestige and to offer a quality of lordship intended to oblige the magnates to make service to the crown central to their concerns. Such lordship would be similar to that extended alike by Robert I to his wartime captains and by David II to his circle of knights, crusaders, and civil servants.

Kings, princes, and magnates

By the turn of the century, however, this policy of royal networking had become precarious at best. After 1399 Robert III's attempt to rejuvenate his kingship fell victim to the long-term costs both of the Bruce dynasty's seizure of the throne and of the unlooked for Stewart dynasty's absorption of extensive tracts of territory after 1371.
 David II (1324–1371) illuminated initial [left, with Edward III] David II (1324–1371) illuminated initial [left, with Edward III]
Robert I's landed rewards to a large number of noble families (including the Stewarts and Douglases) during and after the wars of independence, followed by similar distributions under David II, and then by Robert II's colonization of the majority of Scotland's earldoms and lordships with his own extended family (he had five sons and seven daughters from his two marriages), had combined to leave the crown with only a small landed base from which to support its government and court and to maintain its political dominance through the distribution of patronage. By the late fourteenth century the Stewart monarchy was reduced instead to attempting to secure service and loyalty by distributing honorific peerage titles and heritable pensions and offices. Thus when Sir William Douglas of Nithsdale married Robert II's daughter Egidia in 1387 he and his bride were given £300 per annum from the customs, while the soldier Sir John Swinton was granted annuities by both Robert II and Robert III. Furthermore, necessary and often fraught discussions in annual parliaments and councils of controversial matters, even including the royal succession, also reduced the crown's scope for autonomy and authoritative action.

As heir to this legacy Robert III was never able to project a convincing image of majestas and personal authority comparable to that projected by his English counterparts Richard II, through such means as literary patronage and the Wilton diptych, and Henry IV, with his lavish court, his propaganda, and his striking Canterbury tomb. Robert's territorial weakness forced him to spend much of his reign in west-coast Stewart residences like Rothesay Castle on Bute (where he died), rather than in the principal royal palaces of central and eastern Scotland like Edinburgh and Stirling, which remained largely undeveloped in this period. Nor was he buried ‘in a midden’, as he had so unhappily requested, but in Paisley Abbey, a Stewart family foundation. His queen Annabella (née Drummond) was a Scottish noblewoman, so necessary were internal alliances for Stewart political connections, though in this she resembled the wives of Robert II, the adult partners of David II, and the intended spouses of David Stewart. More importantly Robert was also powerless to prevent either his own heir from marginalizing him by manoeuvring to become royal lieutenant in 1399, or Rothesay's own falling foul of the entrenched magnate interests of Albany and Douglas.

As the king's lieutenant Rothesay displayed a clear capacity for reasserting strong royal rule, intervention in magnate interests, leadership in war, and the raising of royal revenue. Yet before he could establish a following, Albany acted to turn Rothesay's pensioned household retainers against him and to have him arrested about the end of 1401, using as pretexts the young lieutenant's failure to heed counsel and to defend Scotland against Henry IV's invasion of 1400, the fallout from his messily annulled betrothal to a daughter of George Dunbar, ninth earl of March, and his seizure of revenues that Albany, as chamberlain, might have expected to control. Once Albany had struck a deal with the earl of Douglas, Rothesay's fate was sealed, and he died in Falkland Castle between 25 and 27 March 1402, possibly starved to death: his demise, which was hardly less than regicide, was the well-nigh natural development from the near coups of 1363 and 1371, and the actual coups of 1384, 1388, and 1399. Albany, named lieutenant again by another packed council, did not hesitate to act with his Douglas allies to contain a further attempt by Robert III to renew his power, focused this time on his second son, James. All this achieved was the defeat and death of one of the king's principal counsellors, Sir David Fleming, killed by the Douglases in February 1406, and Prince James's capture by the English shortly afterwards, while Albany remained lieutenant until his death in 1420.

Looking on the bright side: Scottish chivalry and an abundance of provisions

The boldness of magnates like Albany and the Douglases in acting thus is very striking, and is paralleled by the emergence in the late fourteenth century of extended Scottish magnate affinities of knights and men-at-arms who were committed not only to Anglo-Scottish border warfare but also to participation in Europe-wide chivalric enterprises, whether in the form of tournaments or of crusades to Prussia and the Mediterranean. This was a development that had begun under David II, and can be illustrated from the careers of men like Sir William Ramsay of Colluthie [see under Ramsay family], who fought in the French army at the battle of Poitiers, and Sir Walter Leslie, who crusaded as far as Alexandria. But after 1371, although neighbouring realms had established monarchical orders of knighthood (notably the Garter in England and the order of the Star in France), Scotland's nobility had to function without sustained royal patronage and personal royal example. Bower reports that the lame Robert III had a ‘gold challenge cup’ for which English jousting champions called out Scottish knights. But it is the achievements and fame of individual Scottish nobles and knights that stand out as representative of a memorable Scottish spirit and identity in this period.

Scottish chroniclers who, like Bower, recorded the great deeds of Scottish nobles at this time naturally had their own political agendas to serve. Even so, the confidence abroad and independent strength in the 1390s of warriors like David Lindsay, first earl of Crawford [see under Lindsay family], of whom ‘the especial fame of his knightly skill is still remembered in England today’ (Bower, 8.13), in defeating English champions in staged combats in London is remarkable. So, too, is the outspoken national pride of lesser Scottish knights like Sir William Dalziel, a Crawford follower, in deflating the perceived chivalric arrogance and superiority of his hosts during visits to Richard II's court in 1390, resolutely backed up as he was in the resulting mêlées by a body of similarly minded fellow countrymen. War against the English was now a life-affirming component of Scottish identity, and one that the Scots exported to France and Burgundy under the leadership of Albany and Douglas after 1406, thereby confirming magnate control of Scottish foreign policy, alike in committing Scotland to war against England and in sustaining her support for the Avignon papacy.

  Jean Froissart (1337?–c.1404) manuscript illumination [kneeling, with book] Jean Froissart (1337?–c.1404) manuscript illumination [kneeling, with book]
This chivalric bravura is reflected in the appearances made by Scottish nobles in European writings on chivalry, for instance in illustrated armorials and the Chroniques of Jean Froissart (who visited Scotland in 1365). By contrast such sources record no personal achievements of Robert II or Robert III; rather the values and sentiments set forth in John Barbour's epic poem from the 1370s, The Bruce, recording the great deeds of the wars of independence, had been comprehensively taken over by their now heavily militarized subjects. Similarly the Scottish monarchy's contributions to the rebuilding and restoration of war-damaged monasteries and churches, as in the works funded by Robert II at Melrose and Paisley abbeys in the 1380s, were totally eclipsed by the building projects of the late fourteenth-century nobility. Albany's splendid castle at Doune in Stirlingshire, with its towered gatehouse and its vaulted halls set one above another, and the no less magnificent residences of the Douglases at Tantallon (East Lothian), Bothwell (Lanarkshire), and Hermitage (Roxburghshire), were massive statements of magnate authority: a large number of lesser Scottish noble families made similar statements, if on a less grandiose scale, in the tower houses they erected in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, for instance Mugdoch (Stirlingshire), built by the Graham family, and Dunnottar (Kincardineshire), erected by the Keith family.

The Scottish nobility appear no less confident and stable in this period in their socio-economic position. Just as there was no sustained danger to their interests from above, so they faced little threat from below. While both England and France had suffered massive social unrest in recent memory (and Bower recorded the terrors of the peasant's revolt), Scottish society as a whole seems to have weathered the difficulties of the late fourteenth century relatively successfully. The profits from trade could be such as to enable a merchant like John Mercer of Perth to become an important landowner, while his financial expertise made him a valued royal servant. The wills and rental of Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith provide striking evidence for the material prosperity enjoyed by a late fourteenth-century Scottish nobleman, with landed revenues which enabled him to invest in books, plate, furs, and armour and to found a collegiate church. No such documents record the fortunes of the peasantry, but it can at least be said that recovery from the heavy casualties inflicted by the black death in 1349–50 began earlier in Scotland than in England; and the plague left the former too with more good-quality land for the survivors, as well as providing the conditions in which unfree peasants could secure higher wages for their services, longer leases for their holdings, and ultimately an end to serfdom. Bower was thus as much at pains to stress the general ‘abundance of provisions’ in the realm about 1400, and Robert III's kindly attention to his household's debts to farmers and butchers, as he was later to emphasize Albany's popularity for not taxing the populace after 1406 and for his upholding of justice.

Matters might indeed have been radically different had contemporary England not had grave internal problems to resolve. But given the prevailing circumstances, could not those who made up the political nation of early fifteenth-century Scotland, and the people they ruled, have been forgiven for believing that they could govern themselves satisfactorily without an active adult Stewart king?

Michael A. Penman


W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98), vols. 7–8 · M. A. Penman, The Bruce dynasty in Scotland: David II, 1329–71 (2004) · S. I. Boardman, The early Stewart kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371–1406 (1996) · A. J. Macdonald, Border bloodshed: Scotland and England at war, 1369–1403 (2000) · M. Brown, The Black Douglases: war and lordship in late medieval Scotland, 1300–1455 (1998) · K. M. Brown and R. Tanner, eds., The history of the Scottish parliament, 1: Parliament and politics in Scotland, 1235–1560 (2004) · R. Fawcett, The architectural history of Scotland: Scottish architecture from the accession of the Stewarts to the reformation, 1371–1560 (1994)


coin, National Museums of Scotland; James I [see illus.] · illuminated initial, BL, Cotton MS Nero D.vi, fol. 61v; David II [see illus.] · manuscript illumination, BL, Harley MS 4380, fol. 233v; Jean Froissart [see illus.] · seal, BL; Birch, Seals, 14815; Robert III [see illus.] · seal, BL; Birch, Seals, 14812; Robert II [see illus.]