Alexander II was something of a man on a mission to remove all the grey areas from medieval Scotland. Determined to assert Scottish independence from England, while at the time subduing the parts of Scotland which still clung to the memories of their own independence, he was a ruthless and highly efficient monarch. But by taking on so many old rivals and enemies, was Alexander II doomed to fail? Listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
Modern Scotland as we know it today had come a long way to fruition under Alexander II’s ancestors, but there were still territories not yet fully under Scottish control. The northern and western isles remained under Norwegian rule, while the northerland mainland territory of Caithness was still largely under Norse rule. The descendants of Duncan II, the MacWilliams, continued to stake a claim to the throne and retained much loyalty in rebellious areas of northern Scotland such as Moray and Ross. In the south-west, the formerly powerful kingdom of Galloway had only been recently subdued and clearly still considered itself as separate to the rest of Scotland.
Despite these internal difficulties, the Scottish monarchs of recent times had been focused as much on northern England as anywhere within Scotland. Alexander’s great-grandfather, David I, had taken advantage of the Anarchy in England to establish dominance over most of northern England, most notably acquiring the Earldom of Northumberland. His successor and grandson, Malcolm IV, was forced to give it up to the powerful new English king Henry II, much to the anguish of his younger brother and the nominal earl, William the Lion. When William became king, regaining Northumberland became something of an obsession – indeed, a disastrous obsession, leading to his capture by Henry II in 1174 and a humiliating peace treaty with Scotland subject to England. After recovering his position under Richard the Lionheart, William was forced to sign another humiliating treaty in 1209 with King John, who having lost his French territories was keen to establish his control over Scotland.
Alexander II was born on 24 August 1198, making him 16 when he became king in December 1214. He was the son of William the Lion and Ermengarde de Beamont and was a long-awaited heir, his father being in his mid-fifties when Alexander was born. He inherited from his father his red hair and aggressive pride and ambition, but Alexander II was far more savvy and pragmatic than his father, with a brutal and calculating steel perhaps more in the vein of Scotland’s future bete noir, Edward I, than anyone else.
Despite being only 16 when he became king, Alexander assumed full command from the offset, having long been groomed for the kingship and already having commanded Scottish troops. However, his position was far from secure. He was the first son in Scottish royal history ever to directly succeed his father as king and the concept of primogeniture was thus by no means guaranteed. He was crowned just a day after his father’s death, his nobles correctly anticipating a rebellion from the MacWilliam family, which came just a month later in January 1215 under Donald Ban MacWilliam only to be defeated by the wonderfully named local lord, Farquhar MacTaggartFarquhar MacTaggart.
Like his father, Alexander’s immediate concern was with English affairs. King John was very unpopular in England and in 1215 was forced to agree to a document placing a limit on his powers that became known as Magna Carta. Alexander had allies at court who ensured that his grievances against John were recognised (in clause 59). When John repudiated Magna Carta and civil war broke out, Alexander invaded northern England and received the homage of many northern lords. John brought a very mobile army north, forcing Alexander back to Scotland, and vowed to “hunt the red fox-cub from his lairs”. However, in his absence the English rebels had invited Prince Louis of France to invade and become king instead, forcing John to return south. Alexander followed him south and then diverted his army to march all the way to Dover on the south-coast where he did homage to Louis.
At this point, it looked like he would realise his father’s ambition of reclaiming Northumberland. However, John’s death in 1216 removed a major cause of discontent in England and the nobles rallied around the child-king Henry III, ultimately expelling Louis. Under pressure from the papacy (indeed, having been excommunicated) Alexander surrendered his gains and submitted to Henry. However, this actually marked a period of extended peace with England. In 1221, Alexander married Henry III’s sister, Joan, and his own sisters married powerful English lords. The Treaty of York in 1237 saw Alexander finally abandon his claims to Northumberland in return for a fixed border. When Joan died and Alexander made an incendiary marriage with Marie de Coucy (her father being an enemy of Henry III), peace was restored in 1244 with the Treaty of Newcastle.
While his father had been hamstrung by unsuccessful warfare with England and rebellion in Scotland, peace with Henry III allowed Alexander II to focus entirely on establish dominance at home. When the Norse Earl of Caithness failed to intervene when Alexander’s agent, Bishop Adam, was killed in a hall burning in 1222, Alexander brought an army north, hunted down and mutilated the perpetrators and then brought the area under his control when the Earl himself was killed in a hall burning a few years later. In 1228-29, another MacWilliam rebellion was put down and in 1230 Alexander oversaw a brutal and public execution of the very last in the MacWilliam line, ending forever this long-standing threat to his dynasty. In Galloway, the local lord, Alan, had been a powerful ally but when he died in 1234 Alexander chose to split the territory up rather than allow Alan’s illegitimate son, Thomas, to succeed. Thomas rebelled but was defeated by Farquhar MacTaggart and the region pacified by another ally of Alexander, Walter Comyn.
For the first time, all of mainland Scotland was now firmly under the control of the Scottish king, but there remained a grey area. The Western Isles were under Norse control and had proved an area of instability in the 1220s-30s, with the interventions of Alan of Galloway leading to the Norse king, Haakon IV, raiding the Scottish coast. Determined to remove this threat and uncertainty, Alexander offered to purchase the islands from Haakon and when Haakon refused to sell, Alexander raised an army and armada, ejected Haakon’s local enforce, Ewen of Argyll, and prepared to take the islands back.
But at the moment of glory, it all came to a sudden halt. Alexander II fell ill with a fever and died in 1249 on the island of Kerrera (just off Oban) aged just 50. Norse legends claimed he was visited in a dream by Saint Olaf, Magnus and Columba and told to turn around and not invade and when he refused he was brought low by divine retribution. In reality, his health had been failing for at least a year, having received special dispensation from the Pope not to eat fish at Lent. Either way, on the verge of a glorious conquest, Alexander II was dead.
As a teenager, Alexander showed his mettle by taking on King John of England during the First Barons War. He began by invading northern England, with his illegitimate brothers-in-law helping him to secure the support of northern lords opposed to John. When John came north, even Yorkshire barons were forced to submit to Alexander when seeking protection from John. Even David I, for all his territorial gains, had never received this level of support in northern England. Alexander then marched his army all the way down to Dover (over 450 miles from Edinburgh), far further than any Scottish king had ever been before and would ever go again. And he was only 17!
While Alexander’s gains in England were short-lived, his success in achieving dominance in Scotland was a permanent and significant change. The MacWilliam dynasty, so long a thorn in the side of Scottish monarchs, was finally defeated following rebellions in 1215 and 1228. Caithness was brought to heel after the murder of Bishop Adam in 1222 and a rebellion in Galloway was put down in 1235, resulting in the powerful lordship being broken up and shared among nobles who were loyal to Alexander. Alexander consolidated these successes with new lordships and earldoms to pacify formerly rebellious areas such as Moray and Ross. Although he died with unfinished business in 1249, Alexander had expelled the rebellious Ewen from Argyll, bringing the whole of mainland Scotland under royal control for the first time in history.
Although going as far as Dover is impressive, the reality is that Alexander II’s involvement in the First Barons War achieved nothing. A fruitless siege of Norham provoked a brutal march north from John and the devastation of southern Scottish towns (including Roxburgh castle, beloved of David I, and Haddington, where Alexander was born). It was only the arrival of Louis that forced John to return south and once John had died and Alexander was on his own, he was forced to surrender all his gains and submit to Henry III (a child). In fairness, Alexander may well have retreated from John to prepare an army for battle and John, with an army for raiding, decided to head home, and against a united England (backed by the papacy) Scotland had little to no chance of success. Still, with the Treaty of York Alexander abandoned his claims to northern England in perpetuity, meaning that the glory days of David I would never be reclaimed.
It’s harsh to criticise a man for dying, but Alexander did rather pop his clogs at the worst possible moment. He was all set with a 200-strong armada to take the Western Isles before he died, which would have been a major milestone in Scottish history.
Taking the Western Isles (and retaining Northumberland) would have been worthy of huge points, but this should not take away from a very successful military record. Alexander II destroyed the MacWilliams and subdued previously rebellious territories to bring all of the Scottish mainland under royal control for the first time ever, which is pretty good going.
Score = 14.5/20
Alexander II’s first wife (Henry III’s sister, Joan) was not a successful one – Joan spent a lot of time in England and never had any children. Indeed, while his father was faithful to his wife, Alexander was not so to Joan, producing an illegitimate daughter (Marjorie), which is pretty scandalous when your wife is the beloved sister of the King of England.
More notable for Alexander, however, is his brutality, which at times is enough to make Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton wince! Following the murder of Bishop Adam in Caithness, the Icelandic Annals reported the brutal response from Alexander (having already killed and mutilated the perpetrators):
“The king of the Scots caused eighty men who had been present at the burning to have their hands and feet cut off; and many of them died.”
This may have meant one had and one foot, but still, that’s a lot of mutilating essentially for the crime of “being there at the time”! After the rebellion in Galloway had failed, many of the Irish soldiers who had fought against Alexander were killed in Glasgow but Alexander had two of their leaders taken to Edinburgh and torn apart by horses.
But that was not the worst of it. After the 1228-29 MacWilliam rebellion had been defeated, Alexander II was determined to draw a line under the dynastic conflict once and for all. The rebel leader, Gillescop MacWilliam, had only one surviving child…
“And after the enemy had been successfully overcome, a somewhat too cruel vengeance was taken. The MacWilliam’s daughter, who had not long left her mother’s womb, was put to death, in the burgh of Forfar, in view of the market-place, after a proclamation by the public crier. Her head was struck against the column of the cross, and her brains dashed out.”
As the historian Neil Oliver has argued, it was not really necessary as the death of all the MacWilliams leaders had essentially killed off their dynastic aspirations but Alexander was determined to go further with a very public display that would be remembered for generations.
It’s nasty! Alexander II was pretty brutal to his enemies to an extent that would have been just as shocking then (despite it being a violent age) as it is now. Throw in a bit of naughty bedroom action and you’ve got some definitely scandalous behaviour.
Score = 14/20
William the Lion had left his son with Scotland very much under the thumb of England and in danger of its status slipping still further. Although Alexander compromised on the northern counties, he considered himself on a level with Henry III and refused to back down when Scottish independence was threatened. He refused ever to pay homage to Henry for Scotland (despite papal pressure), and the Treaty of York marks the first time that England formally acknowledged the border with Scotland (and thus Scotland as a separate nation). The papacy confirmed the independence of the Scottish church from the English church and Alexander successfully lobbied for Margaret of Wessex (queen to Malcolm III) to be canonised, giving Scotland its first royal saint.
Although a brutal man when faced with rebellion, Alexander II has a surprisingly good record when it comes to the church. He was the greatest patron and founded of monasteries since David I, supporting not only traditional foundations but also new religious orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans – indicating, perhaps, that there was some genuine personal interest rather than just monastic box-ticking. That said, he did also boost royal control in some of the formerly rebellious territories by imposing royal candidates in bishops for areas such as Caithness, Ross, Moray and Galloway.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Alexander’s reign is the good rule and stability. In part, this was made possible due to his pragmatism in making peace with England (in contrast to his father, whose obsession with Northumberland had disastrous effects). In fact, this peace lasted from 1217-96. Free to concentrate on Scotland, Alexander expanded royal justice, operated an efficient fiscal regime (as showed by the large amount of money he was able to offer Haakon for purchasing the Western Isles) and the beginnings of parliament, with meetings known as a colloquia seeing his nobles advise him on various matters or (more frequently) the king resolving disputes between nobles. He was largely successful in maintaining unity and restored a balance between the new Anglo-Norman lords and the traditional Gaelic elites (in contrast to his predecessors, where the Gaelic elite was seen as being sidelined). Scotland now really felt like “Scotland”.
We can’t get away from the fact that, although good for scandal and making a very clear message, Alexander was a rather brutal king at times! That said, he could be merciful – he did not disinherit the families of the men who murdered Bishop Adam and in 1235 he showed mercy to the Galwegians who surrendered to him.
A more serious criticism is the divisions in the nobility that were emerging towards the end of his reign. In particular, the murder of Patrick of Atholl in 1242 (as ever for this reign, in a hall burning) was the catalyst for a serious dispute. Supporters of Patrick (who was set to inherit a significant amount of land) included the mighty Walter Comyn, who blamed Walter Bisset (also hoping to inherit) and took up arms against him. Local justiciars failed to prevent Bisset’s lands being sacked and after repeated disputes in Parliament, Bisset was exiled. Alexander replaced the weak justiciars with a new, loyal man, Alan Durward, whom he set up as a balance against the power of the Comyn faction, though this only stirred up further trouble for the minority of his son.
Despite the odd bit of brutality and noble divisions, this was an excellent reign for your average (loyal) Scot – peace with England, no real internal unrest and lots of lovely new churches springing up along with a more widespread dispersal of justice.
Score = 14/20
Alexander II ruled from 4 December 1214 to 6 July 1249 – 34.58 years which, when converted into a score out of 20, gives him 15.5/20.
Alexander II had one legitimate child (his successor, Alexander III), which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him 2/20.
Overall, that gives Alexander II a very impressive total score of 62.50, but is that enough for him to earn the…
If we were being harsh, we would say that failing to retain the northern counties of England and dying before conquering the Western Isles means that Alexander II lacks those defining glories required to win the coveted Rex Factor. However, let us not forget that he marched a Scottish army all the way to Dover when he was just 17, he defeated (to a very brutal end) the MacWilliams family who had been pestering his dynasty for a century and subdued long-term rebellious areas like Moray and Galloway to become the first person ever to rule the whole of mainland Scotland.
Our Verdict = Yes, Alexander II gets the Rex Factor!
Let us know what you think – does Alexander II deserve the Rex Factor? Complete our quick poll below and tell us your thoughts.