The Great Cause (1290-92)

The death of Margaret the Maid of Norway in 1290 saw the failure of the direct line of the Scottish royal family and left the throne empty. Somehow, the Scots had to decide who should be the rightful king without finding themselves falling into civil war – but who would get to wear the crown? Read on to find out more or listen to our review of Margaret the Maid of Norway here, which includes a discussion of the Great Cause.


Backgroundy Stuff

Everything had been going rather well for Scotland in the thirteenth century. The strong rule of Alexander II was followed by something of a golden age under Alexander III with peace, prosperity and good relations with England. Unfortunately, tragedy would strike when Alexander III lost not only his wife but also his three children in the space of just under 10 years. Alexander remarried and set about trying to produce a new heir, but one night he fell from his horse and broke his neck when riding through a storm to be with his new wife in 1286.

The coronation of Alexander III, with a Gaelic bard proclaiming his lineage

The coronation of Alexander III, with a Gaelic bard proclaiming his lineage

This was disastrous for Scotland, but Alexander III did leave one surviving heir in the form of his granddaughter, Margaret the Maid of Norway. Margaret was the daughter of King Eric II of Norway and Alexander III’s daughter, Margaret of Scotland. Her mother died either during or soon after childbirth and the Maid of Norway was barely three years old when she inherited the throne in absentia.

A monarch who was simultaneously, female, Norwegian and several hundred miles away was not quite the reassuring stability that Scotland required. So, to ensure that the kingdom would remain safe, a pseudo-regency council was formed called the Guardians of the Community of the Realm (AKA the Guardians of Scotland). They eventually persuaded Eric to send Margaret to Scotland in the summer of 1290 but little Margaret fell sick and died (apparently of sea-sickness) before ever making it to Scotland.

Margaret the Maid of Norway, whose death sparked a succession crisis

Margaret the Maid of Norway, whose death sparked a succession crisis

The Problem

Margaret was the last surviving heir of Alexander III. What’s more, Alexander III had been the only son of Alexander II, who in turn was the only son of William the Lion (he had two sisters, neither of whom had any surviving descendants). As such, it was really rather unclear who was next in line to be king. Unlike today where the order of succession is worked out very precisely in a list of hundreds and hundreds of people, in medieval Scotland things were a little more ad hoc and it was only relatively recently that the concept of passing the throne to the eldest son (rather than a brother or indeed any male of royal descent) had been established.

The royal line was now extinct

The direct royal line was now extinct

The monarch was crucial to the structure of medieval governance and without a monarch on the throne, there was a danger of instability and civil war. In particular, two of the most prominent rival claimants, Robert Bruce and John Balliol, seemed to be preparing for just such an eventuality while the Guardians no longer had a clear unifying figure to rally behind. In despair, one of the Guardians, Bishop Fraser, wrote a rather desperate letter about how the country was “disturbed” through a “fear of a general war and a great slaughter of men”, asking for direct help to save the country and determine who should be king. The man to whom he was writing and imploring was King Edward I of England.

Hammer of the Scots

For anyone familiar with the film Braveheart, it might be surprising that the Scots should turn to the ultimate bogeyman in Scottish history (indeed a man sometimes known as “The Hammer of the Scots”). However, at the time it is difficult to see at the time who would have been a better choice to intervene.

Edward I as portrayed by  Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart

Edward I as portrayed by Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart

Edward I had got on well with Alexander III (his brother-in-law) and prior to the latter’s death, relations between the two countries had probably never been closer. The Scots had turned to him for assistance when Eric of Norway had been reluctant to send Margaret to Scotland and he had succeeded in persuading him, as well as arranging a marriage alliance between Margaret and his own son, Edward of Caernarfon (had she not died, the Union of the Crowns would have taken place in 1290 rather than 1603!) He was something of a legal expert and therefore unusually well qualified to arbitrate on what was, essentially, a legal decision. What’s more, he had shown himself a very capable diplomat in European disputes in recent years and was powerful enough to ensure that Bruce, Balliol or any other claimant would not be able to take the throne by force (either before or after judgement).

But of course, Edward was not merely a neutral friend. A hard, ruthless and extremely cunning man, Edward undoubtedly saw an opportunity to extend his influence in Scotland. Having already conquered the Welsh and having failed to previously secure an acknowledgement of English feudal overlordship over Scotland, this represented too good an opportunity to miss.

Lord Paramount of Scotland

In 1291, Edward called a Scottish Parliament at Norham (northern England), despite the fact that the Treaty of Birgham that he had signed in 1289 guaranteed no parliaments would be held outside of Scotland. Nevertheless, he provided the nobles and bishops with the relevant assurances and they came to Norham, only to be welcomed by an assertion by Edward that he was “Lord Paramount of Scotland” and that before he hear any claims to the Scottish throne, he should be acknowledged as such. Having learnt from his failure to gain such a submission from Alexander III, he had done his research and found all the evidence he could in English chronicles of precedent for the King of England having feudal overlordship of Scotland (something of a thirteenth-century dodgy dossier) and challenged the Scots to prove him wrong.

Robert Wishart (the Bishop of Glasgow and one of the Guardians) rather bravely spoke up against Edward, stating that only a king could make such a submission and therefore it was impossible to do in absence of a king. He also asserted that Scotland was independent of England, to which Edward I effectively shrugged and replied that they could prove their independence by force of arms if they so desired. When Wishart suggested that this was not in keeping with the morals of a Christian Crusader king, Edward was enraged and effectively threatened to lead a Crusade against the Scots!

You don't want to see Edward I when he's angry...

You don’t want to see Edward I when he’s angry…

The talks broke down with neither side managing to get what they wanted – Edward did not get his submission and the Scots did not get a decision on their new monarch. However, Edward changed tack and rather than demanding that the nation of Scotland pay him homage, he required that any candidate claiming the Scottish throne must first pay him homage as an individual, in which they would have to acknowledge that Edward had “the sovereign lordship of the said kingdom of Scotland”. Robert Bruce seems to have been determined to be as amenable to Edward as possible (presumably hoping to win the crown through his favour) and was the first to submit, leaving the other claimants no choice but to follow suit or else Edward would have barred them from claiming the crown. Eventually, even the Guardians backed down and gave Edward possession of the royal castles for safe-keeping until a new king was appointed.

The Claimants

There were 13 claimants to the Scottish crown, with the most senior line of descent coming from the brother of William the Lion, David of Huntingdon and his sisters Ada and Margaret. From David of Huntingdon were the claimants John Balliol (grandson of David’s eldest daughter, Margaret); Robert Bruce (son of the second daughter, Isobel); John Hastings (grandson of David’s third daughter, Ada); Florence V, Count of Holland (descended from David’s eldest sister, Ada), and Humphrey de Bohun (descended from David’s second sister, Margaret).

The main claimants

The main claimants

The other legitimate claimant was John Comyn (known as the “Black Comyn”) who was one of the Guardians. His descent went back even further due to his status as the great-great-great-great grandson of Donald III (AKA Donalbain of Macbeth fame), the younger brother of Malcolm III.

John Comyn's royal descent

John Comyn’s royal descent

The remaining candidates were all illegitimate descendants of royal figures: Patrick Galithly, William de Ross, Patrick Earl of Dunbar, William de Vescy and Roger de Mandeville (all via William the Lion); Nicholas de Soules (from Alexander II), and Roger de Pinkeny (from the father of William the Lion, Prince Henry).

The illegitimate claimants of the Scottish throne

The illegitimate claimants of the Scottish throne

The Great Cause

After all the candidates had submitted their claims in June 1291, Edward appointed 104 auditors to try the case (the number suggested by courts deciding inheritance disputes in Ancient Rome), with 24 chosen by him and 40 each by Bruce and Balliol (making it pretty clear who the leading contenders were), with Edward himself as president.

In reality, there were only a few likely winners of the Great Cause. The illegitimate contenders were never in the running and probably just wanted to have their moment putting forward an illustrious family claim. John Comyn was an ally of Balliol and did not want to prejudice his (superior) claim, while Humphrey de Bohun did not press his claim due to the rather big conflict of interest of his already being the Constable of England!

Of those remaining, the next most likely to be eliminated was Florence the Count of Holland. However, in the second spell of hearings in August 1291, he claimed that David of Huntingdon had relinquished his claim to the throne in return for the Lordship of Garioch, meaning that the claims of Balliol, Bruce and Hastings were not valid. He claimed that there was documentary evidence to prove his claim but that he did not know where this was, so Edward granted a 10 month recess to allow him to look!

When the court resumed in June 1292, no evidence was forthcoming and Florence was persuaded to withdraw his claim, leaving it to a choice between John Balliol, Robert Bruce and John Hastings. By primogeniture, John Balliol had the best claim because he was descended from the eldest daughter of David of Huntingdon. However, Robert Bruce claimed that primogeniture did not apply when going through the female line and instead argued that he had the best claim by nearness of blood (he was a generation closer to David). John Hastings took a completely different tack, not even trying to argue that he should be king but instead stating that under primogeniture, when there is no direct male heir the territory should be divided between the female claimants (or the men representing the female claimants), meaning that Scotland should be divided into three.

The court, then, had to consider firstly whether the succession should be decided by primogeniture (Balliol) or nearness of blood (Bruce) and, if primogeniture, whether Scotland should be divided (Hastings) or be considered indivisible. After 10 days of debate, Edward put the issue to various lawyers, including the University of Paris, and called another recess. Finally, Edward and his auditors determined that the succession would be by primogeniture and that Scotland could not be divided, meaning that on 17 November 1292, John Balliol was named the rightful king of Scotland.


In the coming centuries, Scottish propaganda would assert that an injustice had been done and that Bruce was the rightful king. John of Fordun wrote that Edward saw that Bruce had the case but the Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek, pointed out that Bruce was a strong man and likely to cause him trouble. When Bruce refused to accept Edward as his feudal overlord in return for the crown, Bruce refused and so Edward asked Balliol instead, who accepted. Consequently, Edward secured himself a weak and compliant king that he could manipulate instead of the honourable and independent Bruce. Plus, it was the case that, rather awkwardly, the Paris lawyers did actually advise that the succession be judged by ‘natural law’ (i.e. nearness of blood) as the local custom.

In reality, however, historians are agreed that the correct legal decision was made. Edward knew the rights and wrongs from a legal perspective and probably had little interest in whether it was Balliol or Bruce. Indeed, Bruce had made far more effort to curry favour with Edward throughout the process and trying all sorts of underhand tactics to defeat Balliol (including belatedly appealing for the division of the kingdom). Primogeniture had been established precedent for 200 years in Scotland and if Edward did act with bias then it was with a desire to ensure that should a similar dynastic crisis befall England that direct primogeniture would be established as precedent. Balliol may not have been the better man, but he had the better claim which was supported by the vast majority of the Scottish nobility (including 29 of Bruce’s 40 auditors!)

However, that is not to say that Edward had not manipulated the situation to his advantage. By requiring all the candidates to swear homage to him at Norham in 1291, he ensured that whoever became king would have acknowledged him as feudal overlord for Scotland. By stringing out the process, he was able to spend a lot of time in charge of Scotland, establishing loyalties and assessing the quality of Scottish castles and defences. When Balliol became king in 1292, he was already under the thumb of Edward and would soon find that this strategic manoeuvring was only just beginning.

4 thoughts on “The Great Cause (1290-92)

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

  2. Pingback: Robert the Bruce (1306-29) | Rex Factor

  3. Pingback: William Wallace (the real one) | Rex Factor

  4. Pingback: John Balliol (1292-96) | Rex Factor

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