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Stewart, Alexander [called the Wolf of Badenoch], first earl of Buchanlocked

(c. 1345–1405)
  • Alexander Grant

Stewart, Alexander [called the Wolf of Badenoch], first earl of Buchan (c. 1345–1405), magnate, was the fourth son of Robert Stewart, subsequently King Robert II (1316–1390), and the youngest of his first marriage, to Elizabeth Mure. As his nickname indicates, Alexander's power base was the lordship of Badenoch, in the western Grampians just north of Drumochter Pass. It had been in his father's hands for part of the 1360s, and by the end of the decade Alexander was exercising unofficial lordship (or perhaps just protection rackets) there; his activities may explain why he was imprisoned by David II during early 1369, apparently as part of a royal effort to impose order on the highlands.

Badenoch and Ross

Once his father became king, Alexander's position was formalized on 30 March 1371 by the grant of Badenoch together with the castle and forest of Lochindorb in Strathspey, to be held in regality (like an English palatinate). Robert's policy was no doubt to have a loyal magnate in charge of the north-central highlands, the region which for the past two centuries had been the key to royal control of northern Scotland; Alexander was to be the successor of the Comyns of Badenoch and of Thomas Randolph, Robert I's earl of Moray. But although Badenoch and Lochindorb had formed part of the Randolph earldom of Moray, Alexander was not given the earldom itself, as he perhaps hoped: part of it, the barony of Urquhart, west of Loch Ness, went to his half-brother David, while one of Robert II's political deals meant that the rest, mostly along the shore of the Moray Firth, had to go to a Randolph descendant, John Dunbar, along with the title earl of Moray. Compensation came for Alexander, however, in his appointment on 8 October 1372 as royal lieutenant north of the Moray Firth and in Inverness-shire outside the rump of Moray. During the 1370s he also leased Urquhart from his half-brother David Stewart, acquired other land in the Grampians and north Perthshire, and was made sheriff of Inverness. His estates commanded most of the routes through the central highlands; and his officers put him in charge of the entire north.

In June 1382 Alexander Stewart gained the earldom of Ross, which straddled Scotland north of the Moray Firth. This had belonged to Euphemia Ross [see under Ross family], the daughter of the last earl, and her husband, Sir Walter Leslie, one of David II's favourites. Robert II denied the couple the status of countess and earl, and when Walter died in April 1382, Alexander's marriage to Euphemia was rapidly arranged, with his father's backing. By the marriage settlement, Euphemia gave him the lands of Ross for life, while the rest of her property, including Lewis, Skye, and Dingwall (then separate from the earldom) became a jointure for the two of them and the heirs of their bodies; as a result Euphemia's son from her marriage to Walter Leslie could not inherit Ross until Alexander's death, and also faced disinheritance from the rest of his mother's land. Alexander did not, however, become earl of Ross; instead, since Euphemia's inheritance included Kingedward in Aberdeenshire, part of the old earldom of Buchan, King Robert created him earl of Buchan.

Resentment and resistance

Following his marriage—which made him one of the greatest landowners in the history of the Scottish highlands—Alexander Stewart appears to have been at the height of his power. His only obvious problem was a long-running dispute with Alexander Bur, bishop of Moray, which had come to a head in a dramatic confrontation at Kingussie in Badenoch in 1380, but seemed to have been settled by the end of 1383; technically, it was over Bur's efforts to keep his episcopal lands in Badenoch and Strathspey independent from Stewart's all-embracing regality powers, but the real reason was probably Alexander's exercise of Gaelic military lordship through gangs of ‘caterans’—Gaelic warriors who were used in Ireland and parts of highland Scotland to assert local lordship by brute force; known in Ireland as ‘coyne’, such demonstrations of power could constitute a very effective way of exercising local rule, but inevitably provoked bitter hostility. There are indications that these activities also antagonized the earl of Moray, the bishop of Aberdeen, and the kinsmen of Walter Leslie, including Sir David Lindsay of Glen Esk, some of whose land, bordering Badenoch, had had to be leased to Alexander. So long as Robert II ruled in person, however, opposition to Alaisdair Mòr Mac an Righ ('big Alexander, son of the king'), as he was known in Gaelic, was muted. But in November 1384 the crown's executive authority was taken over by the king's eldest son, John, earl of Carrick (the future Robert III). Although the main issue was a demand for more active warfare against England, Robert II was strongly criticized over law and order, probably in relation to Alexander—who was himself attacked in the April 1385 council-general by his half-brother David (over non-payment of the lease of Urquhart), Sir James Lindsay of Crawford (who claimed the earldom of Buchan), and the earl of Moray (over killings by highlanders from Alexander's lands). Carrick was ordered to take a force north to restore order; but his faction's chief priority was the English war, and so nothing was done. Alexander kept his land and offices, and by late 1386, his father (perhaps challenging Carrick) had appointed him justiciar, or chief justice, for the whole of Scotland north of Forth.

In November 1388, however, there was a further coup, which brought the king's second, and ablest, son, Robert Stewart, earl of Fife (later duke of Albany), to power. Again border affairs are the main explanation, but again there was an outcry against Alexander Stewart, whom the council-general described as 'useless to the community' (APS, 1124–1423, 556); he was dismissed from the post of justiciar, and also presumably lost his northern lieutenancy and the sheriffship of Inverness. And this time—once the English war ended in 1389—the Wolf of Badenoch headed the government's priorities. Fife took several steps against his brother's position. Through various property transactions, he and his son Murdoch became the main landowners in northern Perthshire, which had been in Alexander's area of operations. He had Murdoch appointed northern justiciar, and supported him by taking a large retinue, including David Lindsay, north to Inverness. There, he brokered an agreement between Bishop Bur and the earl of Moray (with whom Bur had also been quarrelling); and he encouraged Euphemia Ross to sue her husband before Bishop Bur and the bishop of Moray. Alexander's marriage had been an utter failure: he had almost certainly been strongly opposed within Ross by Euphemia's male relatives, representatives of the original Ross kindred; and he had continued an apparently permanent relationship with a certain Mairead, daughter of Eachann (or Eachainn), with whom he had several children including Alexander Stewart, later earl of Mar. Now, on 2 November 1389, the bishops ordered him to return to Euphemia. The implied threat of the annulment of his marriage—and its territorial settlement—presumably made Alexander capitulate, for he promised to do as ordered, restore Euphemia's property, and no longer use his men against her.

The burning of Elgin and its aftermath

His surrender must have left Alexander Stewart looking effectively curbed, as well as humiliated. Fife returned south; the earl of Moray and David Lindsay travelled to England; and Bishop Bur retained Thomas Dunbar, Moray's son and the new sheriff of Inverness, to protect the episcopal possessions and men. That may have meant that Bur stopped paying protection money to Alexander; certainly it challenged him. But in April 1390 Robert II died, and with a CarrickFife power struggle in prospect, Alexander saw an opportunity to reassert himself against both Bur and Fife. He did so spectacularly, first by attacking Forres, and then, with a band of 'wyld wykkyd Heland-men' (Wyntoun, 3.55), by burning Elgin, including the cathedral of Moray, on 17 June 1390. The atrocity was a complete miscalculation. In the long run it brought him everlasting notoriety; more immediately, it made his power collapse. Church and state were united against him; excommunicated, he was made to submit before the king, Fife, and the royal council, to beg for absolution, and to 'make satisfaction to the church of Moray' (Innes, 2.382–3). Thereafter he was never so prominent in the north; and although he kept Badenoch and the title of earl of Buchan, he lost Urquhart and in particular the earldom of Ross. In 1392 Euphemia (backed by Fife) successfully petitioned the Avignon curia against him, and his marriage, which was stated to have caused 'wars, plundering, arson, murders and many other damages and scandals', was annulled (Burns, 174); Ross reverted to Euphemia herself, and on her death went to her son Alexander Leslie.

Alexander Stewart seems to have looked more to the southern highlands in the last fifteen years of his life. He was acting as baillie of Atholl in 1402, he was active in Perth in 1404, and when he died about 20 June 1405, he was buried in Dunkeld Cathedral, where he is still commemorated by a battered stone effigy representing him in full armour. But although the Wolf of Badenoch may have been more peaceful in his later years, the same cannot be said of the central highlands in the same period. Alexander's sons were among the leaders of a large-scale raid into Angus in 1392, culminating in a pitched battle against forces led by Sir David Lindsay, in which the sheriff of Angus was killed. Clan warfare intensified in the Inverness–Badenoch region, until it was settled in the famous thirty-a-side fight at Perth in 1396; significantly this was arranged not by the Wolf but by Lindsay and the earl of Moray. Most seriously of all, Alaisdair MacDonald of Lochaber, son of the lord of the Isles, repeatedly led his caterans up the Great Glen and into Moray, where the bishop and earl were pressurized by him just as much as they had been by Alexander Stewart. These troubles may indicate that Robert II had been right to see his son as the best means of keeping the highlands under control, and that Fife should have supported Alexander, not undermined him. If so, the lesson was learned, because after 1405 the Wolf's eldest son, by then earl of Mar, stepped into his father's footsteps, and became the crown's main, and extremely effective, agent in the north. On the other hand Mar, unlike his father, worked with the local landowning élites to maintain law and order.

The Wolf's legacy

His son's success highlights what may be the most important points about the Wolf of Badenoch: first, that the complaints against him before 1390 were not about what he did but about what he did not do, namely arrest and punish criminals; and second, that he did not bother to maintain relations with his wife and her kindred which were good enough to enable him to keep possession of the earldom of Ross. These failures suggest he was not so much an overmighty as an undermighty presence in northern Scotland. But whatever the case, the principal effect of Alexander's career was to accentuate the growing belief in lowland Scotland that the highlands were lawless and dangerous—a belief which from the later fourteenth century onwards would constitute one of the major themes of Scotland's history.

Sources

  • A. Grant, ‘The Wolf of Badenoch’, Moray, province and people, ed. W. D. H. Sellar (1993), 143–61
  • S. I. Boardman, The early Stewart kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371–1406 (1996)
  • S. Boardman, ‘Lordship in the north-east: the Badenoch Stewarts; 1: Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan, lord of Badenoch’, Northern Scotland, 16 (1996), 1–30
  • C. Innes, ed., Registrum episcopatus Moraviensis, Bannatyne Club, 58 (1837)
  • APS, 1124–1423
  • J. M. Thomson and others, eds., Registrum magni sigilli regum Scotorum / The register of the great seal of Scotland, 2nd edn, 1, ed. T. Thomson (1912)
  • C. Burns, ed., Calendar of papal letters to Scotland of Clement VII of Avignon, Scottish History Society, 4th ser., 12 (1976)
  • Andrew of Wyntoun, The orygynale cronykil of Scotland [rev. edn], ed. D. Laing, 3 vols. (1872–9)

Likenesses

  • tomb effigy, repro. in Boardman, Early Stewart kings, pl. 8
, 12 vols. in 13 (1814–75)