David I (1124-53)

One of Scotland’s most significant monarchs, David I developed from a protege of Henry I to take advantage of the Anarchy in England to expand Scotland’s borders to an extent never seen before or since. A cultured and religious man, David’s reign also saw extensive reforms that had a lasting impact on Scotland. However, did his reign also represent the death of Gaelic Scotland in favour of the Norman world? And were his victories built on sand? To listen to David’s episode, click here or read on to find out more.


Backgroundy Stuff

David’s father was Malcolm III, who provided strong and stable rule for Scotland in the latter half of the eleventh century. Through his marriage to Margaret of Wessex (a Saxon princess), Scotland acquired a more continental court and church and was drawn into conflict with the new Norman dynasty in England following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. When Malcolm and his eldest son were killed in a raid at Alnwick in 1093 (followed by Margaret a short time later) Scotland was left with a power vacuum.

Although Margaret has been praised by posterity for her reforms at court, it was not universally popular at the time and there was something of a ‘Gaelic reaction’, with Malcolm’s brother, Donalbain, being declared king instead of one of his many sons. As a result, Malcolm’s surviving sons sought exile at the Anglo-Norman court of William Rufus, who set about using the Scottish princes as pawns in a bid to dominate Scotland. First up was Duncan II, who briefly took the throne only to be murdered a few months later at the connivance of his uncle, who returned to the throne. More successful was Edgar, who brought about the final defeat of Donalbain but, like Duncan, was very much indebted to William Rufus for his throne. When Edgar died young without producing an heir, Alexander I became king but found that his ability to chart an independent line was undermined not just by the new king of England, Henry I, but also by his own brother, David.


Henry I’s Protege

David was born some time between 1083-85, meaning he was roughly in his late 30s when he became king in 1124. He was the sixth son of Malcolm III and Margaret and the third to actually become king (Duncan II was his half-brother). He was probably the first Scottish person (at least on record) to be called David, probably named after the great Biblical king but potentially also his mother’s godfather (the brother of King Solomon of Hungary). He was nicknamed “the Saint”, more due to his reputation for piety than any kind of affinity with Roger Moore.

David I was not secretly a spy

David I was not secretly a spy

We know very little of David’s early years but he seems to have been a largely periphery figure at the English court until the accession of Henry I in 1100. Henry took the English throne despite having an older brother, so to shore up his position he married a Saxon princess, Edith (later renamed Matilda) to unite the Norman and Saxon royal houses. This Edith also happened to be David’s sister, meaning that David was now shown much favour, initially witnessing charters as “the brother of the queen” but increasingly enjoying a personal relationship with Henry as something of a protege, joining in his campaigns in Normandy and taking part in government.

Henry I of England, something of a mentor to David I

Henry I of England, something of a mentor to David I

This was good for David, but less good for his brother Alexander, who was probably in Scotland with King Edgar and so not enjoying similar privileges. When Edgar died in 1107, he left David an appanage in southern Scotland but, not surprisingly, Alexander didn’t fancy giving this up when he became king. However, backed by Henry I, in 1113 David demanded his land and was thus created princeps Cumbrensis (Prince of the Cumbrians) overseeing the territory from Loch Lomond down through Glasgow to Solway. What’s more, his sister then helped him secure a very profitable marriage to Maud of Senlis, which brought him the Honour of Huntingdon (Northampton, Huntingdon and Bedford) and thus made him a very rich English noble. He also acquired a claim to the Earldom of Northumberland that had long been sought after by Scottish monarchs.

The hardest part for David was becoming king in 1124. He was largely alien to the Scots and they to him. He based himself in Roxburgh (near the border) and started off his reign by giving land to his Norman supporters and being very sniffy at what he saw as a pagan coronation ceremony at Scone. Perhaps not surprisingly, he faced some resistance within Scotland, mainly from Malcolm MacAlexander (an illegitimate son of his predecessor), who in 1130 allied with Angus of Moray (a grandson of Lulach) while David was in England. Thankfully for David, Angus was defeated and killed in the Battle of Stracathro but Malcolm escaped and proved an ongoing thorn in David’s side until Henry I sent troops and ships north, leading to Malcolm capture in 1134 at which point the throne was finally secure.

The Anarchy

It had been a difficult start for David in Scotland, but by 1135 he was secure and what’s more he seemed to be making more effort to work with his native Gaelic lords as well as his Norman allies. The timing was perfect, as while the Scots were now united the English would be divided as never before. Henry I died in 1135, leaving only one legitimate child who, unconventionally, was a girl (the Empress Matilda). Matilda’s cousin, Stephen, took the throne, and the conflict between the two would see England divided by civil war and royal authority seriously weakened for the next 20 years.

King Stephen's civil war with the Empress Matilda gave David I a golden opportunity

King Stephen’s civil war with the Empress Matilda gave David I a golden opportunity

David was Matilda’s uncle and had been the first noble to swear an oath to Henry I to recognise her as his successor. He was also a Scottish king and no doubt saw a golden opportunity to grab some territory in northern England. So, in 1136 David launched a surprise invasion, capturing the castles of Alnwick, Norham, Newcastle, Wark and Carlisle. Stephen came north to stop David marching on Durham but a peace treaty saw David retain Carlisle and his son, Prince Henry, doing homage for Huntingdon. In 1138, David launched another major invasion in which his cousin, William FitzDuncan, defeated the English at Clitheroe (in Yorkshire) and they joined together to form a large army at Northallerton, only to suffer a heavy defeat in the Battle of the Standard.

Despite losing the battle, David was continuing to be a very lucky man. He and his leading nobles survived the defeat and Stephen was too busy to take advantage. Consequently, another peace treaty saw David keep Carlisle and Cumberland while Henry not only retained Huntingdon but was now invested as Earl of Northumbria – David lost the battle but still got what he want! This new peace was complicated by Matilda capturing Stephen at Lincoln in 1141, but ever the opportunist David came south to take his place as a leading advisor for his niece, only to find himself fleeing north with her when she was routed from Winchester having failed to be crowned.

Glory Days

After 1141, David largely kept out of the Anarchy, though he took care to extend his influence into Lancashire on the way back to Scotland and gained control of the mint at Alston, creating the first Scottish coinage. Focusing on internal affairs, he oversaw what has been termed the Davidian Revolution – extensive changes in government and church organisation in Scotland, with the spread of feudalism, centralised government, economic expansion and monastic patronage.

He also extended his influence into the outer limits of what we would today consider to be Scotland. The south-west territory of Galloway was still a separate province at this time but David was now establishing Scottish overlordship. Similarly in the north, he installed a young Harald Maddadson as the co-Earl of Orkney and Caithness in 1138-39, firmly establishing Scotland as the dominant power over the north of the mainland and the islands.

However, his final years saw the lack begin to run out. A final campaign in England in 1149 was designed to install a new archbishop (Murdac) in York after Stephen opposed his election, with David hoping to capture the city for himself and so definitively redraw the borders of Britain. Instead, Stephen garrisoned the city in time and David had to withdraw. In 1151, King Eystein II of Norway launched a surprise attack in Orkney and removed Harald Maddadson from power, thus restoring Norse dominance. Most significantly, in 1152, David’s highly respected son, Prince Henry, died following a period of ill-health. As David’s only son, he was forced to spend the time remaining to him undertaking something of a PR exercise to ensure that his grandsons would succeed: Malcolm (only 11) as king and William (9) as Earl of Northumbria. Finally, David himself died at Carlisle Castle in 1153 at the grand old age of c. 70.



In many ways, David’s reign represents an almost unprecedented degree of military success for Scotland. He defeated an ongoing rebellion from Malcolm MacAlexander and Angus of Moray near the start of his reign, and the fact that this took 10 years to achieve suggests that there was extensive support for his rivals and that this was no mean feat.

Following this success, he was very successful in securing dominance within Scotland. He made his cousin, William FitzDuncan, the Earl of Moray and established royal castles there at Elgin, Forres and Inverness (a little like Edward I in Wales). Western Scotland had previously been dominated by the Isles and the Irish and Orcadian earls, with Fergus of Galloway and Somerled of Argyll major regional powers who probably supported David’s rivals at the start of the reign. However, David gradually increased his influence and enforced their acquiescence to his rule, to the extent that in 1138 there were actually large numbers of Argyll men fighting for him at the Battle of the Standard. Although his work was undone a little in 1151, David was intervening in Orkney to an extent that had simply been beyond the reach of his predecessors.

However, by far the major achievement for David is the territory he gained in England. In what has sometimes been termed the Scoto-Northumbrian Realm, David conquered a huge swathe of northern England, including Cumbria (with Carlisle becoming his main residence) and the Earldom of Northumbria, stretching down to Newcastle on the east and Skipton on the west. His two treaties with Stephen at Durham saw huge concessions from the English king (even after a heavy Scottish defeat) and unlike his brothers, David avoided doing homage for Scotland (or indeed at all in person, with his son, Henry, doing homage for Huntingdon and Northumbria). The extent of David’s power is shown in 1149 when the future Henry II (now leading the campaign against Stephen in place of his mother, Matilda) was knighted by David in a lavish ceremony at Carlisle and made an oath to recognise Cumbria and Northumbria as Scottish. Although they failed to capture York, it is remarkable that such a campaign could even have been conceived of when considering the limited power of all previous Scottish rulers.


Curiously, for all his huge successes, in many ways David’s military record is not all that impressive. The start of his career was almost entirely made for him by his mentor, Henry I – the land taken from Alexander in 1113, the defeat of Malcolm MacAlexander in 1134. Even the victory over Angus of Moray in 1130 took place when David was in England and an English constable in Scotland was doing the fighting.

The reality of David’s Scoto-Northumbrian Realm has been much debated. He failed a number of times to capture Durham and York – and indeed to establish his own candidates as archbishops in the two cities, and for all that he has been criticised, Stephen’s timely interventions were always able to see David off before things got too serious. Arguably, David’s gains in northern England were built on sand – territory captured at a time of major weakness for England that surely would be won back once the war was over and a powerful king was back on the throne (as proved to be the case with Henry II, despite his oath).

Perhaps most seriously, David only really had one major battle in his reign (at least that he took part in) and it was a major defeat. In 1138, David was leading perhaps the largest ever Scottish army to come into England (c. 16,000) and faced off against an English army of just 10,000. Unfortunately, however, David’s army was rather disparate and ill-disciplined, in particular the Galwegians who insisted on going at the front despite being lightly-armoured and wearing only the shortest of kilts “leaving their buttocks half-naked”. The English forces were given a pep-talk by the Archbishop of York, Thurstan, who collected various relics and banners that he put into one cart which he wheeled around, hence the “Battle of the Standard”. The Galwegians were brave but something of a relic, charging at a well-disciplined and heavily-armoured Norman army, leading to slaughter and an inevitable rout. Prince Henry attempted to restore order with a cavalry charge but the Scots were forced to retreat, having suffered c. 10K casualties in just 3 and a half hours.

Our Verdict

David was perhaps not the world’s greatest general but despite suffering a heavy defeat in the only real battle of the era, even then there were no real consequences. With opportunism and diplomacy, David secured a phenomenal amount of English territory and was not far off effectively splitting Britain in two. Admittedly he was lucky to have his fortunes made by Henry I and then to rule during an English civil war, but he certainly made the most of it.

Score = 16/20



David can come across as a bit of a slippery character. He connived with Henry I to take territory from his own brother, Alexander I, and there does seem to have been some resentment at this. A Gaelic poem from the time lamented, “It’s bad what Máel Coluim’s son has done; dividing us from Alexander; he causes, like each king’s son before; the plunder of stable Alba.” Similarly, during the Anarchy, he was always ready to flip-flop in his allegiances: a quick attack on Stephen (too early to have co-ordinated with Matilda – most likely he would have done so on Henry’s death regardless of the succession); two peace treaties with Stephen ignoring his niece; immediately rushing to Matilda’s intended coronation and then slipping away again when she ran into trouble. By no means is this the most evil and machiavellian character in the middle ages, but you’d have to take his word with a pinch of salt.

More seriously, his 1138 invasion of northern England was infamous (even among his supporters) for its brutality. The northern sources can read a little like a standard exaggerated account of an invading army that could have been written at any time from the Romans to the Second World War, but even so, it’s pretty unpleasant stuff:

“The King of Scots acted execrably. For they cleft open pregnant women, and took out the unborn babe; they tossed children upon spear-points, and beheaded priests upon the altars: they cut off the heads of crucifixes and placed them upon the trunks of the slain; and placed again the heads of the dead upon the crucifixes. Thus wherever the Scots arrived, all was full of horror and full of savagery.”

(Henry of Huntingdon)


“It is even reported that in one place they slew many little children gathered together, and draining their blood collected it in a stream which they had previously dammed up, and thus drank that bloody water – nay, now for the most part blood.”

(Richard of Hexham)

Perhaps more damning is the account of Ailred of Rievaulx, a friend of the family who wrote an astonishingly gushing tribute to David when he died and yet still could not entirely paper over what happened in 1138 (albeit he blamed it on bad eggs in the army!)

“I own it – our David also sinned. Now, though these things were done against his will – nay, though he forbade them – still, as it was in his power not to have brought them, not to have brought them again when he had once put them to the test, or perhaps to have better kept them under, we own with tears that he also sinned.”

(Ailred of Rievaulx)


When it came to the bedroom, however, David seems to have a blemish-free life and was entirely faithful to his wife. Indeed, according to Ailred he “never even looked at another unbecomingly” and after his wife had died he never, even in sleep, “suffered the wrong of fleshly taint.”

Our Verdict

The brutality of 1138 is pretty shocking but it’s hard not to suspect that the accounts are somewhat exaggerated, and his flip-flopping during the Anarchy was ultimately in Scotland’s best interests and should not really be considered overly scandalous. A lack of bedroom indulgence means this is not the go-to monarch for scandaliness.

Score = 6/20



This is where English excelled. David was revered in his lifetime, particularly by English scholars (despite 1138) who contrasted the peace and stability of Scotland (including the English territories he ruled) in comparison to an England blighted by civil war during which it was said that “Christ and his saints slept”. During this time, David oversaw the “Davidian Revolution”, which consisted of major reforms in church and state that had a long-lasting impact on Scotland’s governance, economy and the standing of the church. David well and truly put Scotland on the map as a civilised nation in Europe.

Heavily influenced by his mother and sister, David was a very pious man. Indeed, the first thing he did as Prince of the Cumbrians was to found Selkirk Abbey in 1113 with the new and funky Tironesian order (not one that you would choose if you were simply ticking the religious box on your kingly to-do list). He continued his brother’s fight to establish the independence of the Scottish church at a time when the Archbishop of York was claiming sovereignty and he used his good relationship with Henry I to have the dispute deferred so that he could appoint bishops without an argument about their professing obedience. He founded a large number of monastic houses most notably at Kelso, Melrose, Jedburgh and Holyrood) as well as reviving the bishopric of Glasgow and inaugurating a new cathedral. He has also been credited with creating a new parish system (i.e. an organised network of churches across the country). Beyond the spiritual benefit that David and his people would have believed these good works ensured, it also helped to increase the influence of the crown in more remote areas of the kingdom and had an economic impact with orders such as the Augustinians providing literate men for administration and the Cistercians being famed for developments in agriculture.

In governance, David increased the influence of royal government through feudalism, enfeoffing foreign knights (i.e. giving Norman allies lands to rule for him in Scotland) and he introduced many of the key medieval families such as the Bruces, the Balliols and even the Stuarts. He also built various castles and created a professional cavalry. The royal household was much more efficient with well-educated clerks while he could effectively delegate royal power with new positions such as a chancellor, chamberlain, steward and c constable (i.e. the great offices of state). He introduced sheriffdoms across the country as well as a justiciar, so that law and order was improved and centralised, while his gains in northern England allowed him to mint Scotland’s first even coinage and thus helping to kick-start a flourishing economy. He created Scotland’s first trading burghs (i.e. market towns), most notably Berwick, Perth and Aberdeen, allowing Scotland (with its coins) to become a proper trading nation in Europe.

David I, presented as the famed and wise Biblical king


No man is perfect and at certain points in history David has suffered a lot of criticism. Most notably, he has often been seen as something of an Anglo-Norman cuckoo who effectively destroyed Celtic Scotland. He had spent his formative years in England and was raised as a Norman knight with Henry I as his mentor (after whom he named his son). William of Malmesbury claimed that David had “rubbed off all tarnish of Scottish barbarity through being polished by intercourse and friendship with us”. When David came to Scotland, he was said to have been horrified by a largely secular coronation ceremony in which he was crowned by the nobles rather than a bishop (indeed his church leaders had to persuade him to go through with it) and his first charter was to grant land to one Robert de Bruce, witnessed entirely by his Norman allies with no native lords present. However, many leading church figures were still clearly Scottish and by 1138 he was leading an army of men from all across Scotland rather than Norman mercenaries. Michael Lynch has argued that the longer the reign went on, the more Celtic a king David became, to the extent that it was the native Earl of Fife who was tasked with ensuring the succession of his grandson, Malcolm IV.

Other historians have argued that the extent of the Davidian Revolution has been exaggerated. The parish system was not created out of nothing but rather made more systematic and coherent while most of the new diocese were actually based on ones that had already been in existence. Similarly, the real upsurge in trade for Scotland came in the following century rather than during his reign. The efforts he made in the dispute with York over the sovereignty of the Scottish church were not resolved but simply left for another day, leaving it to his successors to deal with at a later time. In 1151, David requested a pallium from the papacy for St Andrews and Orkney but his requested was denied and Orkney was instead made subject to Trondheim.

Our Verdict

Although some of his reforms were not without precedent and may have been building on what went before or may not have been the finished article, David’s reign is nevertheless of major significance for the Scottish nation. More so than ever before, there is the sense of a cohesive and functioning state that has a place in Europe (both in religion and trade), with the foundations being laid for even greater things in the future. However, you can’t get perfect marks for Subjectivity when you’ve been so notorious for massacres!

Score = 18/20


David was king from 24/04/1124 to 24/05/1153 – a reign of 29 years and one month, which went converted into a score out of 20 gives him 15.


Sadly, David had no surviving children. He had four children by his wife of whom only one, Henry, survived to adulthood, but as he died a year before David he cannot be counted in the scores. However, the dynasty lived on with Henry producing 3 sons who all survived into adulthood.

So, with no children to increase his total, David gets a total score of 55 – but will that be enough for him to get the…

Rex Factor

There are a lot of arguments in David’s favour: he secured Scotland internally to a greater extent than any of his predecessors; he made huge territorial gains in England (which no successor would much); his Davidian Revolution was a major step forward with reforms to church and state. Against him, his early career was largely made for him by Henry I, he failed to secure Durham and York and was largely the beneficiary of a temporary division in England. Ultimately, the Scoto-Northumbrian Realm did not survive David and the gains made were only temporary. However, that should not take away from David’s incredible achievements – yes he had luck but a good king should be opportunistic and David made the most of things and left a real lasting legacy with his reforms.

Our verdict = yes, David gets the Rex Factor!


What do you think – does David I deserve the Rex Factor? Vote in our quick poll below and let us know what you think.

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