William the Lion (1165-1214)

William the Lion had one of the longest reigns in Scottish history and it was largely dominated by his determination to win back the Earldom of Northumberland. The problem was, he was going to have to win it back from Henry II, one of England’s most powerful and successful kings. As if that was not enough, there were unresolved issues with dynastic rivals and rebellious territories within Scotland. To find out how William got on, listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.


Backgroundy Stuff

The reign of David I saw Scotland reach an unprecedented level of power in Britain, with David taking advantage of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda (1135-54) to effectively annex the northern English counties of Northumberland and Cumbria, his dominating stretching as far as Lancashire and Yorkshire. At his death in 1153, he was virtually master of half of England.

David I, William's hugely successful grandfather

David I, William’s hugely successful grandfather

Unfortunately, the good fortune that David had enjoyed would not last. In 1152, his only son (Prince Henry) died, leaving two infant sons. Consequently, the throne was passed to David’s 12 year-old grandson, Malcolm IV, who would have to face an England reunited under the mighty Henry II, who with his powerful marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine had an Angevin Empire covering pretty much the left of France. Malcolm was thus forced to return the northern counties and spent his reign dealing with rebellions from dynastic rivals the MacAlexanders (descendants of Alexander I) and the MacWilliams (of Duncan II) and powerful lords in Galloway and the west.

Malcolm IV, William's sickly brother and predecessor

Malcolm IV, William’s sickly brother and predecessor


William was born in about 1143, meaning he was around 22 when he became king in 1165. The brother of Malcolm IV, he was the son of Prince Henry of Scotland and Ada de Warenne (of powerful Anglo-Norman stock). Unlike his sickly brother, William was a vigorous, powerfully-built red-headed man with a love for all things military. Sadly, his nickname “The Lion” does not refer to his military prowess and (contrary to legend) does not refer to him creating the Scottish regalia of the red lion rampant against a yellow background. Instead, John of Fordun dubbed him the “Lion of Justice”.

The seal of William the Lion, emphasising his status as a knight

The seal of William the Lion, emphasising his status as a knight

However, William certainly had an aggressive personality – ambitious, headstrong and driven by an obsessive crusade to recover the earldom of Northumberland, which Malcolm had been forced to concede to Henry II in 1157. It would prove to be the driving force of his long reign and not surprisingly a cause of tension with Henry II. After persistently failing to persuade Henry to just give it back, William angered him further by making overtures to his great rival, Louis VII of France. Impressively, William was responsible for a legendary display of Plantagenet rage on Henry’s part:

“On a certain day when King Henry was at Caen, and was eagerly conducting the affair that he had with the king of Scotland, he broke out in insulting language against Richard de Hamez, who seemed to be speaking to some extent in the king of Scotland’s favour. And the king, roused to his usual fury, flung his cap from his head, put off his belt, threw far from him the mantle and clothes that he had on; removed with his own hands the silken coverlet that was over the couch; and, sitting as it were in a manure-heap, began to chew the stalks of straw.”

(John of Salisbury to Thomas Becket)

Unfortunately for William, Henry would get the last laugh (or, to put it more accurately, the last ROFL). In 1173-74, a grand rebellion against Henry II broke out across Europe led by his continental rivals and his own wife and sons. After one last request for Northumberland was denied by Henry, William decided to join the rebellion and invaded northern England but ended up getting captured outside Alnwick in 1174. Humiliatingly, he was tethered to a horse and put into custody and only released after agreeing to the Treaty of Falaise in 1175, which required him (and his nobles and clergy) to acknowledge Henry II as their sovereign lord and endure English troops garrisoning the major castles of southern Scotland.

William the Lion heading for disaster at Alnwick

William the Lion heading for disaster at Alnwick

Not surprisingly, William’s position in Scotland was severely undermined. The lordship of Galloway was the first to rebel, with the loyal Uhtred being murdered by his brother, Gillebrigte, who offered his allegiance directly to Henry II. It was only English revulsion at the way Uhtred was mutilated that led to the offer being rejected but Galloway was still outside of Scottish control. In the north of Scotland, Donald MacWilliam (descended from Duncan II) joined forces with the MacHeth family (disinherited from the earldom of Ross), and despite William and his brother, David, campaigning it seems that Ross and Moray were now beyond royal control.

However, William was able to recover some of his position. Henry II came under pressure from a new French king, Philip Augustus, and looked to cultivate William’s support. He provided him with a wife (Ermengarde de Beaumont – admittedly a rather lowly marriage in comparison to what he had hoped for), paying for an elaborate ceremony and returning Edinburgh castle as part of her dowry. When Gillebrigte died in 1185, William was able to install his protege, Roland, as the new Lord of Galloway, and in 1187 he returned the favour by finally defeating and killing Donald MacWilliam, ending the northern rebellion. When Henry II died in 1189, William effectively bought back Scotland from Richard the Lionheart (who was keen to raise money quickly to go on the Crusade).

But the good times would not last. William was still desperate to get Northumberland back, and having married his daughters to local lords and supporting Richard when he was captured on his return from the Crusade, Richard rejected William’s offer to buy the earldom back (his counter offer of the land without the castles was not enough for William). When Richard was succeeded in 1199 by his younger brother, John, relations were already awkward due to William opposing John’s rebellion against Richard and made worse when William threatened to support the claims of John’s nephew, Arthur of Brittany, unless John restored Northumberland to William. From 1200-07, tensions between the two kings rumbled on with failed negotiations until it finally came to a head when John started building a castle on the border in 1208 and William had his men pull it down, leading to armies being raised and a stand-off at Norham in 1209. It was now or never for William’s ambitions…

…and it would prove to be never. William was now an old man and frequently suffering from ill health, making him mindful of the succession of his young son. William backed down and signed a new treaty, forfeiting his claim to Northumberland and handing over his daughters as hostages. He spent his final years having to secure support for his son’s succession, dealing with another MacWilliam rebellion and tensions in Caithness. A trip to secure peace with a new Co-Earl of Caithness took too much out of the ageing king and William died at Stirling in 1214 at the age of 71 and was buried at Arbroath Abbey, which he himself had founded.

William's tomb at Arbroath Abbey

William’s tomb at Arbroath Abbey



William’s military record is a rather up-and-down affair, but there were some definite up’s! He had a reputation as a proper knight, playing a creditable role in tournaments in 1166 and attracting young knights to his court (albeit probably ones who were unable to get ahead at the courts of England and France!)

Despite all the challenges he faced within Scotland, William usually came out on top in the end. In Galloway, Gillebrigte directly challenged William’s overlordship but ultimately William was able to help his protege, Roland, secure the lordship, which paid dividends when Roland spearheaded the defeat of Donald MacWilliam in 1187. William followed up this victory in Moray with a major network of royal castles and sheriffdoms and the appointment of his brother, David, as Lord of Garioch to ensure there was more royal control in the area. Although the Treaty of Norham was not a high point for William, it did pay dividends in 1212 when John sent mercenary troops to help deal with the rebellion of Gofraid MacWilliam.

William’s mettle was also tested in Caithness by the Norse earl, Harald Maddadson. Initially a protege of David I, when he came of age he chose to be antagonistically independent, marrying a MacHeth princess and providing support to Donald MacWilliam. When Harald’s son, Thorfinn, invaded Caithness in 1197, William marched north and took him hostage and gave half of Harald’s earldom to a more loyal candidate. Harald refused to accept this and killed his rival in 1198 and went on to mutilate the bishop of Caithness. William was said to have “flown into a rage” and raised a huge army, leading to Harald backing down and agreeing to the splitting of his earldom and to provide William with 1/4 of the revenues of Caithness.


Unfortunately for William the down’s really were very down! The big problem for William was his obsession with recovering the earldom of Northumbria which he had lost as a teenager. In reality, it had only been acquired by David I at a time of unprecedented English division whereas William was facing a highly competent, powerful and ambitious force of nature in Henry II. The obsession was something of a folly, and a costly one at that.

Before Alnwick, William’s invasion of England had not been going very well. Many of his counsellors advised getting involved in the rebellion against Henry II at all, and William perhaps should have realised they were right when he found the castles of northern England had been fortified by Henry and the Scots simply did not have the means to besiege them. After initially retreating in face of an army brought north by Henry’s justiciar, Ranulf de Glanville, William returned in 1174 and was still struggling to make much progress when he came to Alnwick. Ranulf again came north to deal with William but his army was far smaller than William’s. Unfortunately, not realising Ranulf was approaching, William split his forces into three groups and they became separated in thick fog, leaving William isolated with only about 60 knights to protect him. When Ranulf arrived with 400 knights, William rushed out of his tent and led a direct charge at the English, shouting “Now we shall see which of us are good knights!” Unfortunately, the answer was the English! William’s horse was killed under him and he was captured and taken to Northampton with his feet tied under the belly of a horse (a humiliating spectacle!)

To secure his release, William had to sign the Treaty of Falaise in which he became the “liege man” of Henry II, accepted the Scottish church was subject to the English church, gave around 20 noble hostages (including his brother) and had to pay Henry II for the pleasure of having English troops garrison the Scottish castles of Roxburgh, Berwick, Jedburgh, Stirling and Edinburgh. He could not deal with rebellions or even marry without Henry’s permission! In fairness, William did recover his pre-Falaise position in the reign of Richard the Lionheart, but after a decade of failed brinkmanship against John William lost his nerve at Norham in 1209 and had to pay 15K marks to secure the peace, as well as relinquishing his claim to the north and giving his two daughters as hostage.

Our Verdict

William had some successes within Scotland but it was hard work and made much harder by his disastrous failed attempts to reclaim Northumberland. Ultimately, the humiliations at Falaise and Norham are the defining moments in his reign.

Score = 7/20



Though William could not rival his English counterparts for scandal to shock through the ages, William was not entirely above some bad behaviour. In 1207, a Glasgow canon alleged that a royal chaplain had obtained the Bishopric of Glasgow by bribing William and Ermengarde. Irish annals nicknamed William “Garbh” (i.e. “the harsh”), perhaps mindful of his track record in being hotheaded and given to executed his rebel opponents. Most notable, however, was his treatment of Thorfinn, son of Harald Maddadon – when Harald rebelled despite Thorfinn being William’s hostage, William had Thorfinn’s eyes “put out” and his genitals “cut off”.

We rarely have evidence of what went on in the medieval Scottish royal bedrooms, but William definitely seems to have been a more active player in this regard! While Gerald of Wales praised William’s moral standing, he had to admit that “in his youthful years he some while acted as a youth and did not curb to the full the impulses of the flesh, and did not, by prevention and superiority of reason, subdue the assaults of sensuality.” William had one illegitimate child by an unnamed daughter of Adam de Hythus and five by Isabel d’Avenel.


William was very late to marry and consequently his illegitimate children were sired during his long stint as a bachelor and he is thought to have been entirely faithful to Ermengarde. Still, he waited until he was in his 40s to marry so he certainly made the most of his singledom!

Our Verdict

Although there is nothing spectacularly scandalous here for William, he ticks a lot of boxes – corruption, mutilation and bedroom antics! A good and varied effort.

Score = 12/20



Willam’s long reign was an important one for the growing nation state in Scotland. John of Fordun’s moniker of “the lion of justice” is perhaps a little strong, but royal justice was now spreading further over Scotland and with more central control than ever before. William himself presided over cases and Scottish law codes tended to match the law codes coming out of England, where Henry II was introducing major reforms. William also oversaw improvements to Scotland’s economy, founding various new burghs (i.e. market towns), levying customs duties at seaports and overseeing a transition to a money economy (rather than just bartering goods) thanks to a significant improvement in Scottish mints, which were now equal in value to English coins and so viable abroad. The bureaucracy required to oversee all of this was sufficiently advanced to raise the huge sum required to pay the Quitclaim of 1189 to Richard the Lionheart.

By and large, William’s reign was mostly peaceful within Scotland. Besides occasional troubles from Galloway and the very north, Scotland was prosperous and free from invasion and internal disorder. Despite the Treaty of Falaise, Pope Alexander III was sympathetic to the pleas of Scottish bishops that Henry II did not have the right to declare his sovereignty over their church and in 1192, Pope Celestine III stated that the Scottish church was the “special daughter” of Rome and obedient to him, rather than the Archbishop of York as had been argued for centuries. Perhaps William’s greatest success was in securing the succession for his son, Alexander – this does not sound remarkable, but in fact this was the first father-to-son succession in Scottish history, with primogeniture having long been aspired to by the royal family but never fully realised until now.


Some have criticised William (much like his predecessors) of being too much of an Anglo-Norman. He was enamoured with the Norman chivalric world of tournaments and knighthood and spoke only in French (not in English or Gaelic) and often referred to himself as William de Warenne (i.e. identifying himself by his Norman mother’s family). Still, this was a time of renewed interest in the Scottish and Dal Riatan past of the Scottish monarchy, suggesting that even if he was not part of a native Scottish cultural tradition, he still saw himself very firmly as part of an ancient institution.

William’s obsession with Northumberland had not just military implications but also an impact on the economic wellbeing of the nation. After Falaise, he had to buy Henry II for the pleasure of having his castles garrisoned by English soldiers and then pay Richard the Lionheart 10,000 merks to get his independence back. After the Treaty of Norham with John in 1209, William had to fork about another 15,000 merks just to keep the peace! Had he focused entirely on Scottish affairs during his long reign instead of obsessing over Northumberland, he could also have dealt much more effectively with the rebellions in the north and thus the country would have been even more stable.

Our Verdict

Despite his difficulties dealing with England and the odd rebellion on the outskirts of his territory, William’s reign was pretty good for the country as a whole. The economy was growing, royal justice was spreading and the country was pretty stable and peaceful for the most part.

Score = 12/20


William was king from 9/12/1165 to 4/12/1214 – a mighty 49 years, which is the second longest reign in Scottish history. When set against all the other Scottish reigns, that gives him a score of 18.5/20.


William had four surviving children, with the one and only son, Alexander, succeeding him as king. When set against the other Scottish monarchs, that score of 4 equates to 8/20.

Overall, William gets a pretty decent score of 57, but is a high score enough for him to get the…

Rex Factor

With a near-fifty year reign, the nickname of “The Lion” and a legacy that includes a significant extension of Scottish dominance in Galloway and the north and the first successful primogeniture in Scottish royal history, it’s all looking good for William…but…

His disastrous obsession with Northumbria saw him focus all his efforts on the north of England, hampering his ability to deal with his own country while at the same time resulting in one disastrous military defeat, two humiliating peace treaties as well as a pretty expensive recovery treaty in the middle. In his defence, William made a charge for glory but he ended up underneath a horse and having his country garrisoned by English soldiers at a great cost to the Scottish treasury. It’s harsh to say, but Scotland might have been better off if William had been killed at Alwnick so they wouldn’t have had to have negotiated for his release!

Our Verdict = No, William the Lion does not have the Rex Factor.


Let us know what you think – does William the Lion deserve the Rex Factor? Complete our quick poll below and tell us your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “William the Lion (1165-1214)

  1. For some reason I`m very interested in this man and would like to know more. Recently acquired a halfpenny from his reign. He was also Earl of Huntingdon which ticks another box with me. Did he ever take this up?

    • Depends what you mean by “take up”! He was the Earl of Huntingdon, think it went to his younger brother when he became king. I don’t imagine he would have spent much time in Huntingdon but would have benefited financially, I imagine.

  2. Pingback: David II (1329-71) | Rex Factor

  3. Pingback: Thomas Becket (Special Episode) | Rex Factor

  4. Pingback: Alexander II (1214-49) | Rex Factor

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