John Balliol (1292-96)

After the dynastic crises of the past decade, John Balliol took on the leadership of a country in 1292 that was seriously divided and heavily indebted to Edward I, who was determined to make as much capital out of this debt as possible. Would Balliol be able to carve out his own path and make Scotland great again, or would the might of Edward I be too much for him to handle? To find out more, read on or listen to his episode here.


Backgroundy Stuff

Scotland had been enjoying something of a golden age during the reign of Alexander III, but the premature death of his wife and three children from 1275-84, followed by his own death in 1286, threw Scotland into uncertainty. His only surviving heir was a granddaughter, Margaret the Maid of Norway, who was only about three years old and (hence in the name) in Norway. In 1290, she was finally put on a ship from Bergen and sent off to Scotland but, tragically, she fell ill and died at Orkney without ever setting foot on Scottish soil. The royal line had run out, so who would now rule?

The process of determining who would be the next king is known as the Great Cause, which proved to be a lengthy affair which did not conclude until late 1292. The two leading candidates were John Balliol (on the basis of primogeniture) and Robert Bruce (on the basis of nearness of blood – i.e. he was a generation closer to the previous monarch) and Balliol was declared the winner. However, it is unlikely that Balliol felt too celebratory as he found himself very much under the thumb of King Edward I of England.

The main claimants to the throne in 1292

The main claimants to the throne in 1292

Edward I was a very powerful and highly respected king. He had fought in the last Crusade, conquered Wales (building a series of magnificent castles in the process) as well as introducing significant legal and parliamentary reforms in England and playing the diplomat in Europe. Previously he had been a friend to Scotland but he took advantage of the uncertainty to advance his own dominance over Scotland, requiring all the candidates for the throne in 1290 to acknowledge him as feudal overlord of Scotland. Now that Balliol was king, Edward would expect this submission to be repeated and acknowledged.

Edward I of England (1272-1307)

Edward I of England (1272-1307)


John Balliol was born some time between 1248-50, making him somewhere in his mid-40s when he became king. He was the son of John de Balliol and Dervoguilla of Galloway. The Balliol family was Norman in origin, from Bailleul in Picardy, and came over to England at the behest of William Rufus (1087-1100) and given territories in Northumberland (one of his ancestors, Bernard, founded Barnard Castle). Impressively, following a dispute with the bishop of Durham, John’s father was required to atone by funding scholars at Oxford, leading to the creation of Balliol College. In reality, however, this was mostly paid for by John’s mother, Dervoguilla, the daughter of the last Lord of Galloway (Alan) and a descended of King David I of Scotland, thus giving John his claim to the throne.

Balliol College, Oxford, founded by John Balliol's father

Balliol College, Oxford, founded by John Balliol’s father

Unlike most of Scotland’s recent kings, John Balliol was not brought up to be king. In fact, as the fourth son, he was not even brought up to be a baron. He may have been originally destined for the church but the death of his older brothers and father saw him inherit the Balliol estates in Northumberland, Huntingdon and Picardy, while the death of his mother in 1290 gave him the wealthy lordship of Galloway in Scotland. Until 1286, he had probably focused most of his time outside of Scotland but the death of Alexander III (and then Margaret in 1290) propelled him as the leading contender for the throne, which was finally acknowledged officially in 1292 when Edward I made his final judgement.

Balliol was announced the rightful king on 17 November 1292 and it was possibly, to use political parlance, that this would have been a good ‘election’ to lose. It is notoriously difficult to make the transition from baron to king (consider Stephen or Henry IV in England) – he had not been trained for kingship and he did not possess that royal aura that demanded respect from his former peers. In particular, the Bruce family and their allies bore him significant ill-will. Most importantly, however, he was under the thumb of the English king to a great extent than any of his predecessors. When Balliol was inaugurated at king, the ceremony was overseen by Anthony Bek (the Bishop of Durham) and John de St John (an English knight) and less than a month later Balliol was required to spend Christmas with Edward at Newcastle, where he made an unambiguous pledge of homage:

“Lord Edward, lord superior of the realm of Scotland, I, John Balliol, king of Scots, become your liegeman for the whole realm of Scotland.”

Almost as soon as Balliol became king, Edward proved a rather irritating backseat driver. In 1293, Balliol formally released Edward from all of the promises he made between 1286-92 about not interfering in Scottish independence (including the Treaty of Birgham), and Edward took full advantage. He used his status as feudal overlord to allow appeals from the Scottish courts to be made to him in England. In particular, an appeal made by MacDuff of Fife saw Balliol forced to come to the English parliament to answer the case in person (having initially attempted to respond by proxy). Matters came to a head in 1294 when Edward demanded that Balliol and his nobles gather their knights and join him in a war on the king of France over a dispute in Gascony. This was the first time since Malcolm IV (1159) had been required to fight for the English king and it was a step too far for the Scots.

John Balliol submitting to Edward I in 1292

John Balliol submitting to Edward I in 1292

Having suffered one humiliation too far, the Scots decided to resist. Disenchanted with Balliol’s failure to stand up to Edward, a Council of Twelve was formed (effectively a new set of Guardians – 4 bishops, 4 earls and 4 lords) at a secret meeting in Stirling to “advise” the king. In 1295, the Scots signed the Treaty of Paris with France (often seen as the start of the “Auld Alliance”) whereby if England attacked France then Scotland would attack England (and vice versa). They then upped the ante by refusing Edward’s demand for Balliol to return to answer the MacDuff case and sent the Abbot of Arbroath to formally recall Balliol’s previous homage and fealty. Edward’s reply was somewhat ominous:

“I tell you, foolish felon, you commit a great folly, because if the man who has sent you does not wish to come to us, we shall come to him.”

Consequently, in 1296, there was war between England and Scotland. The Scots made the first move, with John Comyn leading an unsuccessful attack on Carlisle in March. Edward responded by taking a huge army into Scotland, sacking the prosperous town of Berwick before an English army under John de Warenne defeated the Scottish cavalry in the Battle of Dunbar in April. This defeat (and the capture of many prominent nobles) led to a capitulation from the Scots, with castle after castle surrendering and Scotland being conquered in a mere 21 weeks. Balliol confessed his “rebellion”, renounced the Treaty of Paris and then abdicated in the space of a week in July.

Balliol had hoped that by submitting he would be given an earldom (similar to Llywelyn ap Gruffyd in Wales in 1282) but Edward was not in such a generous mood. Through the Bishop of Durham (Bek), Edward had Balliol literally stripped of his royal insignia, leaving him wearing an empty tabard, giving him the nickname Toom Tabard (empty cloak). He was taken down to England and imprisoned until 1299 when he was sent to France under the protection of the Pope. Efforts were made by the Scots to have him restored but Balliol himself showed little interest in returning and a military defeat for France saw the Scots isolated in Europe and Balliol forgotten. He lived out the rest of his days on the family estates in PIcardy, dying on 25 November 1314 at the age of c. 65.



Perhaps the most impressive military legacy (of a sort) from John Balliol’s reign is the Auld Alliance with France. The Treaty of Paris (1295) was an alliance of mutual support in the event of either being attacked by England. The treaty indicates that the Scots appreciated that they could not fight Edward alone (in contrast with the rather more simplistic raids of earlier monarchs) and also that they had a certain amount of diplomatic clout, the treaty boosted by a proposed marriage alliance between John’s son, Edward, and Philip IV’s niece, Joan. That said, the alliance did not really do the Scots any good in 1296 – the French were going to war with England anyway and were in no position to help.

The other positive for John Balliol is that at least he tried! After suffering several years of humiliation, he stood up to Edward I and fought back. Malcolm IV had served Henry II in the previous century and never put up a similar fight, though on the other hand Malcolm IV never annoyed Henry II enough to make him want to conquer Scotland!


Where to start! It’s hard to see what Balliol really expected to achieve from taking on Edward I. Edward had an army of c. 4,000 cavalry and 25,000 troops (far more than the Scots) and like their king, the English army had plenty of military experience to draw upon (the Crusades, Gascony, the conquest of Wales). In contrast, the Scots had a small number of specialist troops (e.g. crossbowmen or knights) and had experienced no real warfare since 1263. They were also divided, with the Bruce family and its allies actually fighting for Edward instead of Balliol. Scottish naivety is perhaps most clearly shown in their opening assault on Carlisle by John Comyn (against Robert Bruce!) – the Scots did not have the required siege equipment or manpower so had to withdraw without making any real impact whatsoever.

Carlisle castle was left uncaptured by the Scots in 1296

Carlisle castle was left uncaptured by the Scots in 1296

On 30 March 1296, Edward came to the wealthy (but poorly defended) town of Berwick and sacked the town. It started badly for the English when a communication issue saw Edward’s ships sail into the harbour too soon and end up retreating with several ships being set on fire. This only made Edward even angrier and after capturing the town with great ease, he unleashed slaughter on the civilians, with estimates of c. 8,000 killed from an initial population of 13,000.

Edward I massacred the civilian population of Berwick in 1296

Edward I massacred the civilian population of Berwick in 1296

Nearly a month later came the Battle of Dunbar (27/04/1296), where John de Warenne (embarrassingly Balliol’s father-in-law!) was preparing to besiege the Scottish garrison but gave them time to send a messenger to Balliol to agree their terms of surrender. Craftily, the messenger instead asked Balliol to send troops to relieve the garrison, which he did (though he did not accompany it). When the Scottish cavalry arrived, the English realised they had been duped and the cavalry prepared itself for battle. Unfortunately, mistaking these manoeuvres for a retreat, the Scottish cavalry unleashed an undisciplined charge only to find the English now in formation and were very quickly defeated, with many leading nobles (including John Comyn) taken prisoner.

Dunbar Castle, where the Scots were defeated in the only battle of 1296

Dunbar Castle, where the Scots were defeated in the only battle of 1296

The defeat at Dunbar (following the brutality of Stirling) removed any fight left in the Scots and led to a humiliating capitulation, with castle after castle surrendering with barely any resistance (Stirling was completely empty but for the janitor who had been tasked with handing over the keys!) After just 21 weeks, Edward had conquered Scotland and Balliol was made to submit and be stripped of his royal regalia as if he were a mere rebellious noble. Not content with this, Edward looted Scotland’s treasures, removing her royal records, the crown jewels, the Black Rood of St Margaret (supposedly part of the True Cross) and even the Stone of Scone, the ancient stone on which all previous monarchs had been inaugurated as king.

John Balliol would be stripped of his royal regalia and nicknamed Toom Tabard

John Balliol would be stripped of his royal regalia and nicknamed Toom Tabard

Our Verdict

John Balliol may have tried but he did not succeed by any stretch of the imagination! The defeat of 1296 represents a nadir in Scottish history and Balliol showed no qualities of leadership or military strategy at any point in the campaign.

Score = 0/20


Sadly there is nothing much to go on here. There is a bit of minor corruption during the Great Cause when Balliol promised the Bishop of Durham lands in Scotland worth 500 marks a year, no doubt hoping to curry favour. However, he clearly failed to gain any leverage over Bek because of this and it is hardly earth-shattering for the period in question.

Score = 0/20



Perhaps surprisingly, there is some evidence to suggest that Balliol might have proved a perfectly competent administrator had he been left to his own devices as king. An authoritative treatise on governing the kingdom was prepared for Balliol in 1292 (though admittedly this might suggest that he needed it!) Although the Bruce family never offered him their support, they also never really offered any serious opposition and Balliol appeared to be secure on his throne within Scotland. Parliament became established as a key body for ensuring the consent of their realm under Balliol, with 8 parliaments held in his short reign. The 1293 parliament at Scone is the first for which there is a surviving formal record and its enhanced status survives Balliol’s reign into the Bruce and Stuart dynasties. He also seems to have been doing the right things around justice, creating three new sheriffdoms in Skye, Argyll and Kintyre (i.e. areas which had previously not been outside of Scottish royal control).


When examined in greater detail, however, Balliol’s reign is not all that impressive. The Bruce’s may not have rebelled, but that does not mean that Balliol’s reign was popular. The new sheriffs were given exclusively to his allies and it appears that he lacked support from the wider nobility, with many seeking redress with Edward I (including a powerful figure such a James Steward). The much-vaunted 1293 parliament seems to have mainly been concerned with issues pertinent to Balliol such as his rights of inheritance to lands in Berwickshire and issuing a letter of protection to merchants from Picardy.

The crucial question is “would you want to have been a subject?” and the answer is surely no. It was not a proud time for Scotland, with Balliol being humiliated by various acts of submission from 1292-94 at the hands of Edward I and then in 1295 at the hands of his own people with the Council of Twelve effectively ruling for him (almost akin to Henry III and Simon de Montfort in England in the 1250s-60s). Scotland was quickly defeated in the war of 1296, Berwick massacred and the nation’s relics and treasures shipped off to England. After the peace and success under Alexander III, the norm in Scotland would now be warfare and hardship (particularly on the borders).

Our Verdict

Balliol might have had some ability to govern effectively if he’d been left alone to do his own thing, but under pressure from Edward I and his own nobles he failed to live up to the requirements of the job and it was not a great time to be a Scot, his reign ending with the country effectively ceasing to exist as an independent kingdom.

Score = 0/20


Balliol was king, so he has to score here! He was king from 17 November 1292 to 10 July 1296 – a reign of 3.67 years, which when converted into a score out of 20 gives him 3/20.


John Balliol does a bit better here, having produced three children. Only Edward Balliol is certain, but he is thought to have had another son (Henry) and a daughter (either Agnes or Maud – odd that they should be confused being rather different names!) So, 3 children is converted into a score of 6/20.

John Balliol with his wife, whose father defeated the Scottish army at Dunbar

John Balliol with his wife, whose father defeated the Scottish army at Dunbar

That gives John Balliol a total score of 9.37 – low (very low!) but can he somehow be considered worthy of the Rex Factor despite everything?

Rex Factor

Judging on results, John Balliol is arguably about as bad a king as Scotland ever had. There may have been worse on a moral level, indeed many who were less competent, but Balliol did not have the good fortune to be king in a quiet period where his other failings would not be so apparent. If he were to get the Rex Factor, you might argue that it was so bad that it gives him a certain negative star quality, but really his reign is less about a monumental disaster and more a man out of his depth and very quickly put in his place.

Our Verdict = No, John Balliol does not have the Rex Factor.


Let us know what you think – does John Balliol deserve the Rex Factor? Complete the quick poll below to give your judgement and if you haven’t done so already, do the same for the other monarchs here.


4 thoughts on “John Balliol (1292-96)

  1. Pingback: Robert III (1390-1406) | Rex Factor

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