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Alexander IIlocked

  • Keith Stringer

Alexander II (1198–1249)


Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Alexander II (1198–1249), king of Scots, was born on 24 August 1198 at Haddington, the only son (there were also three daughters) of William (William the Lion), king of Scots (c. 1142–1214), and his wife, Ermengarde (d. 1233), daughter of Richard, vicomte de Beaumont-sur-Sarthe and lord of Le Lude in Maine.

Prelude to kingship

Alexander was recognized as heir to the throne by the Scottish élite at Musselburgh on 12 October 1201, and figured prominently in the treaties of 1209 and 1212 between his father and King John of England. Although their precise terms are unknown, under the first treaty Alexander offered John homage probably for the lands and rights King William held of the English crown (that is, not Northumberland, as has been argued, but Tynedale and superiority over the Huntingdon honour); and William also handed over his elder daughters, Margaret and Isabel, to be married under John's control, in the expectation that at least one would become John's daughter-in-law. Under the 1212 treaty William granted John Alexander's marriage, perhaps on the promise of a union with John's eldest daughter, Joan (1210–1238), whom Alexander married in 1221, and of Northumberland as her dower.

After his knighting by John at Clerkenwell, Middlesex, on 4 March 1212, Alexander was carefully groomed for kingship by his ageing father, who involved him in government business and appointed him as an army commander in the campaign of summer 1212 against the pretender Guthred MacWilliam in Moray and Ross. During his final illness at Stirling, King William had his courtiers renew their support for Alexander's succession, and he was inaugurated at Scone on 5 December 1214, the day after his father's death. The sixteen-year-old king succeeded at a critical juncture. In the strongly Gaelic-Norse extremities of the realm respect for Scottish royal authority was the exception rather than the norm. Furthermore, King John, who had won major concessions in return for promises he had little intention of honouring, was behaving as overlord of Scotland in all but name. Alexander's reign was, nevertheless, marked by his resolute defence of his regal rights and dignity, by the steady expansion of his control over peripheral regions, and by the final emergence of the Scottish kingdom as one of medieval Europe's stronger medium-sized states.

War with England

Until the mid-1220s Alexander relied heavily on his father's advisers, but there was no formal royal minority, and early in 1215 he reappointed the major officers of state to ensure governmental continuity and avoid any question of a regency. Another MacWilliam uprising in Moray or Ross was swiftly suppressed by the native northern magnate Farquhar MacTaggart, who presented Alexander with his enemies' heads on 15 June 1215. Asserting himself against King John, the young king exploited increasing baronial discontent in England to renew Scottish claims to the English border counties, whose recovery had been William the Lion's guiding aim; and in Magna Carta (chapter 59) John was obliged to offer justice to Alexander concerning not only his elder sisters (who remained unmarried) but his 'liberties and rights'. After John's repudiation of the charter, Alexander invaded Northumberland and besieged Norham on 19 October 1215. The Scots enjoyed unprecedented military advantages. At least twenty-five English castles north of the Humber already opposed John, and Alexander had the full support of the English barons of the region, the so-called 'Northerners', whose leaders, Robert de Ros (d. 1226/7) and Eustace de Vescy, had married illegitimate daughters of William the Lion. Inventories of the Scottish royal archives in 1282 and 1291 reveal that negotiations between Alexander and the 'barons of England' resulted in a treaty, an agreement concerning his sisters' marriages, a judgment acknowledging his right to Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmorland, and baronial mandates instructing the county communities to recognize his lordship. Vescy invested him with Northumberland at the siege of Norham, and many of the shire's élite gave him homage at Felton, near Alnwick, on 22 October 1215.

After Alexander's burning of Newcastle in December, King John marched north, took a heavy toll of rebel castles, including Carlisle and Richmond, and forced disloyal Yorkshire barons to flee to Scotland, where they entered Alexander's allegiance at Melrose on 11 January 1216. The English chronicler Matthew Paris records that, in a bombastic play on Alexander's youth and shock of red hair, John vowed to hunt the 'fox-cub' from his lair and, after seizing Berwick on 15 January, he devastated Lothian as far as Haddington. The fox-cub survived unscathed, and it was John's turn to be hunted in February when Alexander pursued him all the way to Richmond. He besieged Carlisle in July 1216, took the town on 8 August (the castle fell at an unspecified later date), and then marched his army some 350 miles to the Kent coast, an outstanding feat of Scottish arms. About mid-September he paid homage at Dover, for both the Huntingdon honour and the three northern shires, to the claimant to the English crown, Prince Louis of France, in return for the promise of an enduring alliance. Alexander then successfully came home, despite John's best efforts to intercept him—and in the process sacked the encampment of John's army, which had taken up ambush positions alongside the River Trent.

Alexander had agreed with Louis that his war gains would remain part of England; but this concession was rapidly overtaken by his wish to emulate King David I, who had effectively ruled the 'English' borders as part of a single Scoto-Northumbrian realm. Although firm control of Northumberland eluded him, Alexander established the constable of Scotland, Alan of Galloway, as lord of north Westmorland, and gave him general viceregal powers over all Cumbria. By April 1217 Alexander had also asserted his royal authority by imposing his nominee as bishop of Carlisle. But when, seven months after John's death, the French and English rebel army lost at Lincoln (20 May 1217), the ground was cut from beneath Alexander's feet. His raids on Northumberland in May and July 1217 served only to accelerate the Anglo-French peace negotiations culminating in the treaty of Kingston (12 September 1217). Moreover, since England enjoyed the pope's protection as a papal fief, Honorius III's legate Guala Bicchieri placed Alexander and his leading subjects under the full rigour of interdict and excommunication. Bereft of allies, Alexander bowed to the inevitable: at Berwick on 1 December 1217 he surrendered Carlisle in return for absolution for himself and his lay advisers, and at Northampton, on or before 19 December, he submitted in person to the young King Henry III, who, ignoring Alexander's claims to the border counties, took his homage for Tynedale and the Huntingdon honour. Early in 1218 the interdict on Scotland began to be relaxed, though senior Scottish churchmen remained unabsolved until later in that year.

Anglo-Scottish relations, 1218–1249

Despite the Scots' initial advantages, as in the war of 1173–4 they had fallen far short of matching the English crown's resources, and out of the wreckage of Alexander's fortunes came a new realism in the conduct of Anglo-Scottish relations. Their history from December 1217 to March 1296 is one of unbroken peace, and this long period of stability, unparalleled in the middle ages, owed much to Alexander's readiness to settle or play down his political differences with Henry III. Alexander's marriage to Joan of England at York in 1221, almost certainly on 19 June, was followed by the wedding of Margaret of Scotland to the English justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, earl of Kent, in the same year, and by that of Isabel to Roger (III) Bigod, future earl of Norfolk, in 1225. The Scottish princesses had been shabbily treated, and Hubert was later accused of helping himself to Margaret when she had been King Henry's intended queen—in accordance, that is, with the treaty of 1209. But Alexander evidently gave his approval to their marriages, and he imposed an aid of £10,000 on Scotland to raise their dowries. He visited Henry's court in friendship at Worcester in July 1223 and at York in December 1229. In 1235 he gave in marriage to Gilbert Marshal, earl of Pembroke, his youngest sister, another Margaret, for whom marriages had previously been contemplated to Count Thibault (IV) of Champagne (1219), Richard of Cornwall (1227), and King Henry himself (1231).

Most significant for the new modus vivendi between the kingdoms was the treaty of York (25 September 1237). Besides freeing Henry from any obligation concerning the marriage proposals of 1209, Alexander solemnly yielded in perpetuity Scottish royal claims to Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmorland, for long the main stumbling-block to peace. In compensation he was promised lands in northern England worth £200 annually, and by 1242 he had been given a cluster of Cumberland manors centred on Penrith. He was ready enough to anger Henry by looking to France for his second wife, Marie de Coucy (d. 1284), whom he married at Roxburgh on 15 May 1239, and it was primarily exaggerated English fears of an alliance between Alexander and Louis IX that brought the kingdoms to the brink of war in 1244. Alexander mustered his army in response to English mobilization, but then swiftly defused the crisis by agreeing to the treaty of Newcastle (14 August 1244), under which he promised to refrain from any hostile act against Henry unless in defence of Scottish interests (an important proviso), and betrothed his son, the future Alexander III, to Henry's first-born daughter, Margaret.

Consolidation of the kingdom

Although Anglo-Scottish tensions were never wholly eradicated, the importance of Alexander's conciliatory policies for the making of the Scots kingdom cannot be overstated. He had both the appetite and the opportunity to project royal power into northern and western Scotland with unprecedented forcefulness. Early in 1221 he went to Inverness to quell the revolt of a highland chieftain, Donald MacNeil. In 1221–2 he conducted major campaigns against Argyll which seem to have resulted in the transfer of Kintyre, and perhaps Cowal, into safer hands, and in the fortification of Tarbert as a pivotal royal strongpoint. After his chief agent in the far north, Bishop Adam of Caithness, had been murdered in September 1222 in retaliation for zealously bringing his diocese into closer conformity with European norms, he mounted a punitive expedition in the autumn of that year, had the perpetrators mutilated, and temporarily confiscated half the earldom territories of the unreliable John Haraldsson, earl of Caithness. He returned north to confront another MacWilliam rising probably in 1228, when he appointed William Comyn, earl of Buchan, to complete the pacification of Moray on his behalf. The heads of the rebel leaders were delivered to the king, and in 1230 a MacWilliam baby girl had her brains dashed out against the market cross at Forfar.

The north had been decisively disciplined, and Alexander brought it definitively within the ambit of royal authority in the 1230s by establishing the great highland lordships of Badenoch and Lochaber, reviving the earldom of Ross, creating the earldom of Sutherland, and introducing a new line of pro-Scottish earls of Caithness. In the south-west a no less categoric assertion of royal power followed the death in 1234 of Alan of Galloway, who left a bastard, Thomas, and three legitimate daughters. Determined to snuff out the vestiges of Galwegian independence, Alexander ignored Celtic succession customs and insisted on partitioning the province among the daughters and their English husbands. The Galwegians rose in Thomas's support, and the king advanced into Galloway on 15 July 1235 with the indispensable Farquhar MacTaggart, now earl of Ross, who routed the rebel army in a counter-attack as it assaulted the royal camp. Alexander left behind Walter Comyn, earl of Menteith, as his military governor and before the year's end Thomas had surrendered, two of his Irish allies being torn apart by horses at Edinburgh.

With Galloway's 200-strong armada of galleys at his command, Alexander's attention returned to the problems of Scotland's west highland seaboard. In this volatile world, mighty Hebridean sea-lords holding island (Norwegian) and mainland (Scottish) territories continued to play largely for their own hand, and their feuding was easily exploited by the increasingly formidable King Haakon IV of Norway for his own power-building purposes. In the 1220s Alan of Galloway had campaigned with Alexander's encouragement against Skye, Lewis, and Man, but had achieved little apart from provoking Haakon to retaliate, and when in 1230–31 a combined Norwegian, Orcadian, and Hebridean fleet attacked Scottish-held Bute and Kintyre, Scotland faced its gravest crisis since King John's invasion in 1216. The only effective solution, as Alexander keenly appreciated, was to incorporate the whole of the Western Isles within his kingdom, and in 1244 he made the first of several offers to purchase them from Haakon. When these came to nothing, and Haakon commissioned Ewen of Argyll to reinforce his authority over the Isles in 1249, Alexander launched a full-scale summer expedition with fleet and army. He made a bold start by ejecting Ewen from the mainland, and had the king's sudden death not brought matters to a premature halt, it is possible that the winning of the Isles for Scotland would not have been delayed until 1266.

Kingship, governance, and church

In general a highly successful monarch, Alexander bequeathed to his successors a far stronger basis for effective kingship. He firmly understood the primacy of wealth for a ruler's strength, and the efficiency of his fiscal regime is amply demonstrated by his ability to provide his sisters with vast sums in dowry-money and to accumulate sufficient silver bullion to contemplate buying the Isles. An important law maker, he reaffirmed and extended his judicial superiority, and one of his most significant enactments provided a swift remedy for unjust dissasine (dispossession). He almost certainly introduced mortancestry to protect the rights of lawful heirs against intruders; and he gave fresh impetus to the use of a jury at the expense of the ordeal and combat, old forms of proof now largely discredited. The new processes of royal justice were popular, checked the expanding jurisdiction of the church courts, and played a vital part in the intensification of the Scottish king's role in governance.

Alexander's stern insistence on the overriding rights of royal lordship was encapsulated in his famous riposte to Ewen of Argyll that 'no one could serve two masters' (Paris, Chron., 5.89), and he was more firmly the sovereign lord of mainland Scotland than any previous ruler had been. Dominance of the periphery depended crucially on the support of Scotland's Anglicized east-coast core where, by comparison with the recurrent instability of English politics, Alexander's relations with his magnates were remarkably trouble-free. Even the bitter feud between the powerful Comyns and the Bissets in 1242, though a severe test of his skills as a political manager, was kept within bounds, and thereafter a better balance was held between noble factions. He had no qualms about maiming or executing enemies beyond his heartlands; some lost lands to members of the Anglo-continental court nobility, notably the Comyns, Murrays, and Stewarts. In consequence he was often perceived as an ironhanded modernizing king who ruthlessly persecuted native Celtic society; and even Matthew Paris qualified his evident admiration for Alexander's piety and love of justice by interpreting his unexpected death as well-merited divine vengeance for ousting Ewen of Argyll. Nevertheless, the brutal side of his character should not be exaggerated. According to the Melrose chronicler, he was merciful to the Galwegians who submitted in 1235; and he was prepared in 1245 to acknowledge that Galloway had its own special laws. Nor, after Bishop Adam's slaughter, did he disinherit the families of the Caithness men implicated in the crime, for they were allowed to redeem their lands by paying fines. Thus aggressive state-building policies were not the only way Alexander won respect for his authority in the north and west; and above all he created a stronger sense of loyalty, even of Scottishness, by co-opting into the governing class Gaelic-Norse potentates like Farquhar MacTaggart and Alan of Galloway.

If a large part of the context for Alexander's achievements in Scotland was provided by Anglo-Scottish peace, his dealings with Henry III from 1217 reflected not only pragmatism but also an unshakeable determination to safeguard Scottish independence. His attempts in 1221 and 1233 to secure papal permission to be anointed and crowned, though foiled by English lobbying, reveal a deep conviction that his kingship was second to none, and he secured more recognition of Scotland's separate identity as an autonomous realm than his father had ever achieved. When in 1235 the papacy, at Henry III's bidding, commanded him to accept Scotland's feudal subjection to England, its injunctions were scorned. The treaty of York took the form of an honourable compromise between sovereign states, and his submissions in 1217 and 1244 entailed no acknowledgement of English overlordship. Unwelcome English influence was also kept at bay when with his backing the Scottish bishops won from Honorius III a confirmation of the liberties of the Scottish church (1218) and the right to establish their own provincial council (1225).

As a benefactor of the church, Alexander displayed a characteristic admixture of royal policy and piety, and his religious preferences were both conventional and innovative. He endowed or otherwise favoured the bishoprics of Argyll, Caithness, Moray, and Whithorn (Galloway), and brought them all under stricter Scottish control. He was a generous supporter of the Augustinian canons of Scone, the Benedictine monks of Coldingham and Dunfermline, the Cistercian monks of Coupar Angus, Melrose, and Newbattle, the Cistercian nuns of Manuel, and the Tironensian monks of Arbroath. In 1227–9 he founded with his mother, Queen Ermengarde, a Cistercian monastery at Balmerino, Fife, the last of Melrose's four Scottish daughter houses. About 1230 he set up a priory at Pluscarden, Moray, for the Valliscaulians, a new Burgundian monastic order which never reached England or Wales; in 1230–31 he introduced the mendicant orders to Scotland, the earliest Dominicans perhaps being brought from Paris, and by his death nine Dominican and at least three Franciscan friaries had been established, almost all apparently royal foundations.

Alexander had no children with Joan of England, and Alexander III, born on 4 September 1241, was the only child of his marriage to Marie de Coucy. He also had an illegitimate daughter, Margaret, who married Alan Durward, a mainstay of his administration from 1244. Alexander's formative thirty-five-year reign ended when he died of a fever on the island of Kerrera, in Oban Bay, on 8 July 1249; his burial place was Melrose Abbey.


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