Alexander III was only a child when he became king but his reign would come to be seen as a golden age in Scottish history. Alexander needed to restore unity following the divisions of his minority, re-establish Scottish independence from the encroaching ambitions of England and finished his father’s work in recovering the Western Isles from Norway – a pretty big to-do list, but would Alexander III be up to the task? To find out, listen to his episode here or read on to find out more.
Alexander III’s father, Alexander II, had enjoyed a very successful reign and firmly established medieval Scotland as a strong and independent nation. By making peace with Henry III of England and abandoning the Scottish claim to the Earldom of Northumbria, Alexander was free to strengthen his rule at home, not least by wiping out his dynastic rivals, the rebellious MacWilliams, and establishing all of mainland Scotland as “Scotland” for the first time (formerly there were independent kingdoms/lordships such as Galloway).
Alexander II then set his sights on the Western Isles (e.g. places like Skye, Mull, the Hebrides), which was currently under the rule of the King of Norway, currently Haakon IV. After capturing Argyll on the mainland, he was perfectly poised with a large army and armada but he fell ill and died on the small island of Kerrera, just off the mainland coast at Oban. He was only 50 years old but suddenly Scotland was thrown from the strong rule of Alexander II to uncertain minority of his only son, Alexander III.
Alexander III was born on 4 September 1241, meaning he was not quite 8 when his father died in July 1249. He was the only son of Alexander II and his second wife, Marie de Coucy, and as the only son of an only son, the Scottish succession was looking rather precarious should anything happen to the young king.
However, the success of his father meant that the nobles and bishops were united in acclaiming him king, and Alexander III’s coronation at Scone is the first for which we have a detailed account:
“With due reverence they installed him there on the royal seat which had been bedecked with silk cloths embroidered with gold. So when the king was solemnly seated on this royal seat of stone, with his crown on his head and his sceptre in his hand, and clothed in royal purple.”
Unlike the English kings (and despite Alexander II’s diplomatic efforts to change this imbalance) the Scots were not anointed with holy oil at their coronation. However, they did have an ancient ceremony that looked back way beyond the roots of the English coronation, with a Gaelic bard (seanchaidh) reciting in Scots Alexander III’s genealogy going all the way back to the kings of Dal Riata into the mists of legend until the very first Scot (apparently a chap called Hiber!) The following year, the Scots also had a royal saint when Alexander’s ancestor Margaret of Wessex (consort of Malcolm III) was canonised.
Alexander’s reign enjoyed a steady start but in reality, the minority was destabilised by a rivalry between two of the most senior men in his father’s reign – Alan Durward (Justiciar and in charge of the royal household) and Walter Comyn (a very powerful baron). Durward claimed the right to knight Alexander before the coronation ceremony but Comyn convinced the other nobles that this was unnecessary and later accused Durward of plotting to kill Alexander when he married his illegitimate half-sister and tried to have her legitimised.
This division played very much into the hands of the English and their King Henry III. Henry was keen to assert his influence and see through a deal he made with Alexander II that their children would marry, so in 1251 Alexander III (now 10) came to York where he was knighted by Henry before marrying Henry’s daughter, Margaret (11). Comyn took this opportunity to attack Durward and told Henry of the supposed plot, resulting in Henry removing Durward and installing two of his own barons to represent him at the Scottish royal court. Unfortunately, they proved highly ineffective and Margaret wrote to him about how lonely she was and how she was kept apart from Alexander. When the Scots refused appeals for her to visit England and neglected to send Henry aid in his campaign in Gascony, Henry intervened once more and in 1255 removed the ineffectual barons and established a new council to rule for 7 years (until Alexander was 21). Durward was also now back in the frame, having served with Henry in Gascony and shown his loyalty.
The instability continued, however, as Comyn launched another coup in 1257-58, seizing Alexander and Margaret and making an alliance with Henry’s enemy, Llywelyn ap Gruffyd of Wales. Henry was too busy dealing with Wales and his own barons to intervene. Fortunately, though, Alexander was now 17 and clearly followed his father in having a strong presence at an early age. He helped to broker a compromise in Stirling, resulting in Durward returning to a more balanced government. Comyn died suddenly shortly afterwards and by 1260 Alexander had firmly established himself as king in a majority.
With Alexander’s majority came what was subsequently looked back on as a golden age. His first goal was to finish off his father’s work and recover the Western Isles from Norway. When Haakon IV refused an offer of purchase, Alexander took the initiative by launching his own raids, provoking Haakon into coming to Scotland in 1263. After negotiations failed, Haakon and the Norse were undone by bad weather and Haakon fell ill and died at Kirkwall (Orkney). The Treaty of Perth in 1266 saw Magnus VI of Norway agree to cede the Western Isles to Scotland. There now followed a period of extended peace and prosperity, with Alexander happily married and the succession concerns now resolved with two sons and a daughter, the latter of whom married King Eric II of Norway in 1281, helping to cement peace between the two countries.
In contrast, England had been beset by division in the Second Baronial War when Henry III almost saw the monarchy abolished by Simon de Montfort. Henry’s position was saved only by his much more capable and determined son, Prince Edward, who succeeded him in 1272 as Edward I. England and Scotland enjoyed an unusually close relationship in this period thanks to the influence of Margaret (Henry’s daughter and Edward’s sister). Alexander himself was still relatively young and the future looked nothing but bright.
Unfortunately, this was no fairy tale and Scotland was to endure a decade of tragedy. In 1275, Queen Margaret died at Cupar Castle. They seem to have had a close relationship and Alexander initially did not consider remarrying, until events forced his hand. In 1281, his youngest son, David, died followed by his daughter (another Margaret) in 1283 after she gave birth to a daughter (yet another Margaret!) He still had his eldest son, Prince Alexander, who himself was now an adult and married, but in January 1284 he was dead as well. In ten years, Alexander had lost his whole family and his only surviving heir was his granddaughter, a baby girl in Norway, whom Alexander persuaded a reluctant assembly of nobles and bishops to recognise as his heir at Scone.
There was still room for optimism, however, as Alexander himself was still relatively young (43) and in good health and there was no reason why he could not have more children. So, he married the 18 year-old Yolande de Dreux (a descendent of Louis VI of France) and set about trying to produce an heir. Unfortunately, his eagerness would have tragic consequences. One night in 1286, he had been attending a council meeting in Edinburgh all day and was keen to ride to his wife at Kinghorn (Fife) to be with her on her birthday but there was a terrible storm and his advisors urged him to stay the night. Ignoring their advice, Alexander rode to Dalmeny and teased the ferryman who said the crossing was too dangerous and then arrived at Inverkeithing where he refused an offer of lodgings. Instead, he rode on with two liegemen but they lost contact and the men arrived at Kinghorn to discover the king was not there. The next morning, his body was found on the beach just a mile away with his neck broken. At just 45 years old, Alexander III was dead.
As there were no witnesses, nobody knows for sure what happened. It has often been assumed that his horse fell from a cliff edge in the dark and stormy night, but more contemporary accounts suggest that Alexander rode along the beach and his horse threw him off (perhaps having caught its foot in the sand) and he just had an unfortunate landing. There was still hope, however, as his young queen, Yolande, was pregnant and the hoped-for son could still be realised. Sadly, the child was either stillborn or she miscarried – Alexander III died with only a Norwegian girl for an heir.
The big military success of Alexander III’s reign was the capture of the Western Isles. Pretty much as soon as he reached his majority, Alexander was on the front foot. He sent an envoy to Haakon IV in Norway offering to purchase the islands, and when this was rejected (and the envoy arrested for trying to leave without permission), Alexander had his barons lead attaks on Skye, Knapdale and Arran. Aware that this would provoke a response, he strengthened royal castles on both the east and west coasts, prepared local military levies and established his headquarters at Ayr.
According to the Icelandic Annals, when Haakon did respond it was with a large armada of c. 120 ships – “so great a host that an equally great army is not known to have gone from Norway”. He sailed around the Hebrides receiving the submissions of local lords before a show of force around the Clyde before entering into negotiations with Alexander. However, the armada was rather late in the year and had taken its time acquiring local submissions, so Alexander rather cannily prevaricated in the negotiations aware that Haakon would be forced to depart to escape the bad storms. As it was, he did not escape them and many of his ships were forced onto the Ayrshire coast of the mainland.
This resulted in the Battle of Largs, the significance of which has been much debated. Initially, a small local Scottish force harassed the shipwrecked Norse sailors until Haakon led a relief force onto the mainland. The Norse stationed about 200 troops atop a mound inland from the beach under the magnificently named Ogmund Crowdance, with another 700-800 with Haakon on the beach repairing the ships. A better equipped Scottish army then arrived and advanced on the mound, so Ogmund (fearing being cut off) withdrew, but this turned into something of a chaotic scramble and some on the beach feared they were being routed and prepared to retreat. Haakon re-organised his men, used the beached vessels as fortifications and there then ensued some heavy fighting. According to the sagas, the heavily outnumbered Haakon pushed the Scots back and retook the mound. Scottish folk-memory had this as a great victory for the Scots which resulted in reclaiming the Western Isles. In reality, the immediate outcome was inconclusive – Haakon was not defeated but it did give his armada some more bruises as it departed.
When Haakon fell ill and died later in the year, however, Alexander did take decisive action. The new king, Magnus VI, wanted to delay negotiations for a year but Alexander was unwilling to wait. Instead, he sent his barons to attack Haakon’s supporters in the area, with Scottish troops going into the Hebrides and Caithness. Alexander himself was preparing an invasion of the Isle of Man until the king surrendered in person at Dumfries before then dying soon after and giving Alexander full control of Man (a subsequent rebellion in 1275 was easily put down thanks to Alexander’s immediate and uncompromising response). In the Treaty of Perth in 1266, it was clear that Alexander had control on the ground so Magnus ceded his claim to the Western Isles in return for payment from the Scots. This was a major territorial acquisition that made Alexander a real power in the Irish seas.
Things certainly seemed to fall into place for Alexander, making his job rather easier than it had been for his predecessors. He was lucky to be facing a very weak king in England in the form of Henry III (in contrast to William the Lion up against Henry II and Richard the Lionheart) and the formidable Edward I would be distracted by his Crusade and Welsh campaigns for most of the rest of the reign. Arguably, the conquest of the Western Isles was as much about the groundwork done by his father, Alexander II, and the mistakes and then death of Haakon IV, whose armada showed Scotland was vulnerable to attack.
Also, apart from the Western Isles it was a time of peace and, unlike his predecessors, there is no evidence of Alexander III being personally involved in any of the fighting (though he was directing the campaign).
The Western Isles represents a major acquisition of territory, leaving only Orkney and Shetland left before Scotland would be the country that it is today. Alexander was not a warrior king, but he directed an effective and successful campaign to recover the islands. However, a lack of other military engagements (besides the Man Rebellion) or a significant battle stop this being a very high score.
Score = 11.5/20
Apparently, Alexander III enjoyed the finer things in life, having died owing a significant amount of money to a Bordeaux wine merchant. According to the Chronicler of Lanercost, this extended to the bedroom, which between his two marriages proved to be a place of notable activity for the king:
“He was accustomed to desist neither for night, nor for storm; neither for dangers on water, nor for obstacles of rock; but by night as well as by day, whenever he thought fit – sometimes with disguise of clothing; often accompanied by one associate – to visit, without regard for honour, matrons and nuns, maidens and widows.”
Chronicler of Lanercost (1286)
There is no evidence of Alexander being unfaithful to either of his wives, nor of any notable corruption or murder/brutality (saving a rather dubious story about his wife accidentally drowning one of her servants by pushing him into the River Tay).
Some saucy bedroom antics fuelled by a presumably large order of wine from Bordeaux gives the impression of a king who may have been wont to enjoy the good times with a bit of naughtiness. Unfortunately, a lack of greater evidence and the absence of a real “for the ages” scandal headline means this is again a good but not spectacular score.
Score = 11/20
Alexander III’s reign has often been looked on as a golden age, and it’s easy to see why. After the uncertainties of his minority, the rest of the reign represented a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. In large part, this was thanks to perhaps the closest relationship ever seen between the royal families of England and Scotland, with Alexander’s marriage to the daughter of Henry III (and sister of Edward I) helping to create genuinely close personal ties. When Simon de Montfort rebelled against Henry III, Alexander even sent Scottish troops (albeit too late to help) to the then Prince Edward. Previous Scottish kings would probably have seen an opportunity to invade northern England, but by maintaining peace with England, Alexander was able to concentrate on Scotland without fear of invasion or controversy. Also impressively, he did all this without having to compromise on Scottish independence. Henry III tried and failed to secure Alexander’s homage for Scotland in 1251 (when Alexander was only 10) and Edward I brought him to Westminster Abbey in 1278 for a grand show of submission only for him to caveat that he could only do homage for his English lands as “nobody but God has the right to the homage of my realm of Scotland” – a brave tactic against Edward, but it worked!
With peace and independence assured, Alexander ruled over a peaceful and prosperous Scotland. Unlike England, where the monarchy was nearly toppled due to its rebellious nobility, Alexander was able to restore order after his minority and seems to have been genuinely respected. With this internal stability, peace with England (and also, from 1266, Norway) Scotland saw a rapid growth of burghs (market towns), much easier and more lucrative trade across Europe, alongside a fruitful climate and very low taxation (the crown being very rich thanks to vacant bishoprics and new customs duties). The population rose, major work was undertaken on cathedrals such as Dunblane, Glasgow and St Andrews and, beyond the succession, there were no clouds on the Scottish horizon.
The extent of Alexander III’s golden age has probably been exaggerated and its celebration owes a lot to hindsight and propaganda. The knowledge of the wars and divisions that would come in the next thirty years led to many wearing rose-tinted glasses when looking back at the reign. In particular, the Bruce and Stewart dynasties wanted to present this as a golden age to contrast with the disaster caused by John Balliol being given the throne in 1292, positioning themselves as the true inheritors of this age.
Even if we do accept that this was a great period for Scotland, can all the credit really be given to Alexander III? A lot of the hard work had been done by David I, William the Lion and Alexander II – there was not an awful lot that Alexander III himself really did to create the golden age (arguably, a little like Edgar the Peaceable for Anglo-Saxon England). The conditions Alexander III faced were much easier than his predecessors: Haakon IV was at the end of a long reign in Norway, Henry III was a weak monarch in England and there was an economic boom experienced across Europe from which Scotland was just one beneficiary. Admittedly, the divisions in Scotland both before and after Alexander’s reign implies the person of the king was still important, but Alexander was dealt good cards.
While Alexander III may have been lucky in the circumstances of his reign (though not with what happened to his family members) and had his successes boosted by hindsight and propaganda, this was still an excellent reign for Scotland: peace, prosperity and a strong and independent realm on the European stage. If you were a subject, this would surely be as good as it had ever been and would be for some time.
Score = 16/20
Alexander III was king from 6 July 1249 to 19 March 1286 – a reign of 36.67 years, which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him an impressive 16/20.
Tragically, Alexander III died without any children, and just a young Norwegian granddaughter to succeed him.
Although let down by Dynasty, Alexander III still scored an impressive 54.50 overall, but he does he have that certain something, that lasting legacy, that great achievement, that star quality that we call…
Maybe other kings of Scots will have had to work harder for their achievements and not been the beneficiary of such effective propaganda, but Alexander III can look back on his reign and point to the acquisition of the Western Isles and a golden age of peace and prosperity as major achievements in his reign. Yes, his untimely death and the deaths of his children led to national catastrophe that put Scotland’s very existence as an independent kingdom at risk, but he can hardly be blamed for falling off his horse and the failings of his successors.
Our Verdict = Yes, Alexander III has the Rex Factor!
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