At the start of the twelfth century, the Scottish monarchs were caught in the net of England’s Norman kings and seemingly incapable of siring heirs. As yet another son of Malcolm III came to the throne, would Alexander I be able to steady the ship and set Scotland on a new course?
Listen to Alexander’s episode here or read on to find out more.
In the second half of the 11th century, Malcolm III had provided Scotland with over 30 years of strong rule and by his wife, Saint Margaret, sired numerous sons and presided over a more sophisticated, European court. His reign saw the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the replacement of the Anglo-Saxons with the Normans in England, and Malcolm continually irked Williams I and II by raiding in Northumbria. Unfortunately for Malcolm, he was killed in an ambush at Alwnick in 1093 and his queen, Margaret, died shortly afterwards, creating a power vacuum that the Scots found difficult to fill.
Despite having one son by a previous wife (Duncan) and six by Margaret (Edward, Edmund, Aethelraed, Edgar, Alexander and David), it was Malcolm’s brother, Donalbain, who took the throne. Duncan was at the English court in 1093, Aethelraed seems to have been a monk while Edward, the acknowledged heir, died of wounds soon after Alnwick. What’s more, elements at court disliked the Anglicised Margaret and her sons and initiated something of a Gaelic reaction, installing Donalbain as king. Consequently, Alexander and his brothers sought refuge with William Rufus in England. Initially, with Rufus’s support, Duncan II took the throne, but he was killed by a returning Donalbain, now in league with Edmund. Rufus now sent Edgar north and finally Donalbain was killed and some stability restored.
However, the Scots were still under the thumb of the English. Edgar acknowledged Rufus as his superior and after Rufus died, the new king, Henry I, married Edgar and Alexander’s sister, Edith (renamed Matilda), bringing the countries even closer together. Furthermore, Edgar died young in 1107, failing to produce any children, meaning yet another son of Malcolm III would come to the throne.
Alexander I was born in about 1078, making him about 29 when he became king. He was the fifth son of Malcolm III and Saint Margaret of Wessex (thus the nephew of Donalbain and the half-brother of Duncan II) and so the third of Malcolm’s sons to become king. He was probably named in honour of Pope Alexander II and may have been among the first in Scotland to have this name. His epithet was “the fierce” according to John of Fordun, apparently “terrible beyond measure” to the rebellious elements of his subjects.
Alexander was only about 15 in 1093 when his father died and he was forced to take refuge in England and it is debateable to what extent his years in England had a significant impact on his character. It is difficult to keep track of where he was for much of 1093-1107 – he may have gone north with Edgar when he became king in 1097 and he seems to have been set up as some kind of Earl (or comes) by his kingly brother, possibly of Gowrie (west of Dundee). However, his first major appearance in the historical record was in 1104 when he witnessed the reopening of the tomb of St Cuthbert at Durham in 1104. According to Florence of Worcester, the monks were required to prove to cynics that Cuthbert really was a saint (and thus that his corpse had not corrupted with time):
“The body of St Cuthbert was exhibited, because of the incredulity of certain abbots…and was found…along with the head of St Oswald, king and martyr, and the relics of St Bede, by sure indication, incorrupt. Earl Alexander, afterwards king of the Scots being present. Because he had been permitted to take part in so holy an affair, he gave very many marks of gold and of silver, and caused a shrine to be prepared; in which the holy body, clothed in new vestments, was honourably placed.”
(Florence of Worcester)
Impressively, Alexander was the only lay person (i.e. not a religious figure) present, reflecting an ongoing interest with the Scottish royal family in Durham. It also implies that he was recognised as a significant person, a status which greatly increased a few years later in 1107 when Edgar died (childless) and Alexander became King Alexander I. This was the first time since 1034 (7 reigns) that the succession was peaceful and uncontested. However, Alexander was not without his difficulties.
Unfortunately, the chief difficulty was his younger brother, David. Before Edgar died, he made a will (apparently agreed by Alexander) granting David territory in southern Scotland (in particular Cumbria). As king, Alexander did not fancy giving all of this up and so kept it all to himself. David, the youngest of the brothers, had spent most of his life in England and became a protege of Henry I, being granted lands and titles and a privileged position at court. In 1113, David demanded his land and seems to have had the support of Henry I, as Alexander (faced with the threat of invasion) caved in, with David receiving not just Cumbria (and the fancy title “The Prince of the Cumbrians”) but also upper Tweedale and Teviotdale (effectively all of southern Scotland).
Henry I was not finished in asserting his authority of Alexander. The Peterborough Chronicle claimed that Alexander came to the throne “as King Henry granted him”, implying that Alexander had to pay him homage at some stage. By installing David in southern Scotland, Henry was providing a loyal buffer between himself and Alexander, preventing the Scottish raids endured under Malcolm. However, he went further still, requiring Alexander to assist him in quelling a rebellion of Gruffyd ap Cynan in Wales (Gwynedd) in 1114, with Alexander commanding one of the armies. At a similar time, Henry gave him in marriage one of his (many) illegitimate daughters, Sibylla, making him not only a feudal lord but also his father-in-law! Henry had a whopping 24 illegitimate children and they played a prominent role at court, so an illegitimate bride was not quite as insulting for Alexander as might be presumed. Despite later criticism by William of Malmesbury, they seem to have got on well and Alexander mourned her deeply when she did suddenly in 1122.
As if he did not have enough to be getting on with, Alexander faced a rebellion in the oft-rebellious territory of Moray in 1116. It was probably led by one Angus of Moray (a grandson of Lulach, killed in 1058 by Alexander’s father, Malcolm III) in alliance with Mael Petar, the Mormaer of Mearns who murdered Duncan II in 1094. The presence of Angus indicates that this may have been a direct challenge to Alexander’s throne rather than just a regional dispute and its timing after the dispute with David and Alexander’s absence in Wales is probably not a coincidence. However, Alexander fought hard, defeating the rebels and pursuing them into the northern territory of Ross.
Thus far, events were rather forcing Alexander’s hand but in religion he tried to stamp his authority on Scotland and reassert his independence. Alexander’s ambition was to have the Scottish kings crowned by a Scottish bishop without reference to England’s kings or indeed England’s bishops. The Archbishopric of York had long claimed to hold sovereignty over the Scottish church while the Scottish monarchs since Duncan II had been required to pay homage to the English king. So, Alexander established a priory at Scone (where the Scottish kings were crowned) and appointed Turgot (his mother’s former chaplain) to be Bishop of St Andrews.
Unfortunately, disputes in the English church got in his way – a dispute between Canterbury and York over whose Archbishop was primary meant that Anselm (in Canterbury) refused to allow any bishops to be consecrated until York had submitted to Canterbury. The way was cleared when Anselm died in 1109, only for Turgot to request that he be allowed to submit to Canterbury to which Alexander refused, resulting in Turgot resigning in 1115. In 1120, Alexander found a new man in the form of Eadmer – a Canterbury monk (and Anselm’s biographer), but this backfired when Pope Calixtus II backed the claim of the Archbishop of York, Thurstan, that the Scots owed their allegiance to York and not Canterbury. Finally, a dispute between Alexander and Eadmer over who should invest him as bishop resulted in him resigning in 1121. In 1124, Alexander appointed Robert (the prior of Scone) to be bishop, but the see would remain vacant for the rest of Alexander’s reign.
Because, yet again, the Scots were struggling to find long-lived monarchs. Alexander I died suddenly at Stirling on 24 April 1124 at the age of about 36 (as one chronicler noted, “while not yet old”) and was buried close to his father at Dunfermline Abbey.
Despite events often leading him rather than the other way round, Alexander does have some impressive items on his military CV. In Wales in 1114 he led one of Henry I’s armies (along with the Earl of Chester), and although having the King of Scots being forced to come down to fight for the King of England in Wales sounds a bit humiliating, it does also imply a certain degree of honour and trust that he was given a command. Indeed, Alexander is credited with bringing the conflict to a close by persuading Gruffyd to make peace with Henry, albeit this means there was no actual fighting involved!
More impressively, Alexander put down a rebellion in Moray in about 1115-16. One chronicler described Alexander was working “laboriosissime” (i.e. with great difficulty), implying that he had to show a lot of energy and battle to defeat Angus. It began with the murder of his cousin (a grandson of Malcolm III from his first marriage) and then an attack at Invergowrie in the heart of Moray. According to Walter Bower, he was attacked in his own residence when one Alexander Scrimgeour helped him escape via a latrine, allowing him to raise an army and pursue the rebels:
“When they arrived at the Water of Spey, his enemies were massed together in a great army on the opposite bank; and as the water was rising excessively high, the king was advised not to ford the Water until it subsided. He was blazing with anger at the sight of his enemies threatening conspiracy, and not being able to contain himself, he handed over his banner to his chamberlain to carry; and these two were the first to attempt the ford. The army followed, and the enemy was turned to flight.”
(Walter Bower, Scotichronicon)
Alexander also showed signs of developing an independent military strength in Scotland. He began a programme of castle-building near his southern borders, most notably Stirling Castle. He also allotted lands out of the royal demesne to men who would settle permanently (i.e. feudalism – military service in return for land), whilst his religious plans indicate he was trying to establish for the future a Scottish kingship that did not need to pay any further heed to the English monarchy.
Unfortunately for Alexander I, for the most part he seems to have found himself being pushed around by Henry I and not really able to do anything about it. Henry’s threat of military action in 1113 forced Alexander to give a large swathe of territory to his pipsqueak younger brother David (and far more than Edgar had originally granted him), leaving Alexander much weaker in terms of territory than his predecessors. Despite his efforts for independence, he did still have to pay homage to Henry, he had to come and fight for him in Wales and take his illegitimate daughter as a bride, all the while having to endure his younger brother being granted better lands and a better marriage.
When you consider that no actual fighting took place in Wales (for Alexander, at least) and that the Moray rebellion has the feel more of a skirmish than a major battle, there isn’t an awful lot of notable positives for Alexander to fall back on…
Alexander did what he could and gives an impression of competency and determination but he was ultimately always at the mercy of events and a force much stronger than him. As such, his military record is not really all that impressive.
Score = 4/20
Alas, there is no evidence of any great scandal in Alexander’s reign. He seems to have been a pious man (heavily influenced by his mother) and there is no evidence of a particularly ruthless, corrupt or decadent streak.
Score = 0/20
While Alexander’s piety was no good for scandal, it bodes better for his status as a good and just ruler. On his accession, Anselm wrote to him praising his “character worthy of your royal dignity”, no doubt mindful of Alexander’s presence at the opening of St Cuthbert’s tomb in 1104. According to John of Fordun, he was “most zealous in building churches, in searching for relics of saints, in providing and arranging priestly vestments and sacred books”, following the influential of his mother. What’s more, he established Scone Priory, gave land and privileges to Dunfermline as well as other religious institutions. According to Walter Bower, during the rebellion of 1116 he actually paused his pursuit of the rebels in order to show his gratitude to God by making a religious endowment before continuing with his men!
Perhaps more impressive, he had a very clear strategy with what he wanted to do with the Scottish church – arguably something not really seen under his predecessors. Having lost southern Scotland to his brother and found himself subject to Henry I, Alexander ploughed a more specifically Scottish course with a great deal of symbolic value. If the priory at Scone was designed to elevate the Scottish kingship in the coronation then his focus on Iona leant a similar grandiosity to the death of Scottish kings. Despite having been his enemy, Alexander had the bones of his uncle Donalbain translated to the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland where the Irish monk Columba had effectively established Gaelic Christianity some 600 years earlier. Iona is by tradition where all medieval Scottish kings had been buried but some historians believe that this tradition was partly invented by Alexander to provide the Scots with a royal tradition far beyond the reach of England. Although unsuccessful, Alexander’s efforts to appoint a Bishop of St Andrews independently of York and the English king was part of this strategy by which the Scottish crown and church would combine to elevate the kingdom to a new level and free itself from the influence of England.
The problem with Alexander’s grand vision is that he did not really manage to make it work. Scone Priory was the only religious house up and running by 1124 that he had established and despite a decade of struggle and three different candidates he had not been able to fill the vacant see of St Andrews. He certainly laid a foundation that his successors would continue, so his vision certainly lived on to the benefit of Scotland, but like so much in his reign Alexander was unable to make it happen himself.
Alexander tried hard and had good ideas but ultimately he was not able to overcome the difficulties imposed upon him by England, his brother and himself by dying too soon! In the end, he had little to show for his efforts.
Score = 5/20
Alexander was king from 8 January 1107 to 24 April 1127 – a reign of 17.25 years, which converts into a score of 10.5.
Like his three predecessors, despite his marriage to Sibylla, Alexander failed to produce any legitimate heirs. However, he is described as being sine liberis, which has a strong connotation of meaning “legitimate” with regards to children. He is credited with having an illegitimate son, Malcolm MacAlexander, indicating that perhaps he had a prior relationship that had to be disregarded in order to marry Sibylla at Henry’s behest. His son would campaign for the throne, indicating he may have had a decent standing at court during Alexander’s reign.
Overall, Alexander I received a total of 19.5 – not a high score, but does he have that certain something to elevate him to greatness…
Poor Alexander I – it’s easy to sympathise with him as in many ways he is the tricky reality of being king. He was not all powerful and he was not in command of his own destiny – he was also not incompetent, evil or cowardly. Unfortunately, the powers operating during his reign (namely Henry I but also the Archbishops of Canterbury and York) were too powerful for him to make much headway in his great projects. He was not a bad king, by any means, maybe in a different generation he would have been a good king, but luck was not on his side. For his brother David there would be the immense opportunity of a civil war in England – for Alexander, the most powerful English king in over a century. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
Our verdict = No, Alexander I does not get the Rex Factor.
What do you think – were we too harsh? Does Alexander deserve the Rex Factor after all? Vote in our poll below and leave any comments you have below.