As the son of Robert the Bruce, David II had a very high bar to reach. In taking the throne as a child with a young Edward III determined to avenge English humiliation and put Scotland back in its place, the bar was threatening to disappear into the clouds. With a rival for the throne in the form of Edward Balliol and the impending drama of the Hundred Years War, could David II keep his throne and save his country, or would the hard work of the Bruce be undone? To find out, you can listen to his podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
Until the death of Alexander III in 1286, Scotland had been an increasingly stable and powerful country with nearly a century of peaceful relations with England. After 1286, history went in something of a different direction. The death of Margaret the Maid of Norway in 1290 left Scotland unsure who was the rightful ruler, leading to the fateful decision to invite King Edward I of England to arbitrate in what became known as The Great Cause. Edward chose John Balliol over the claims of the Bruce family and then proceeded to humiliate Balliol, demanding that he submit himself and his nation to Edward until eventually Balliol ran out of patience, went to war with Edward and lost rather heavily. Balliol was stripped of his royal regalia, made to abdicate and Scotland ceased to have a king.
However, the Scottish people resisted Edward I and were eventually able to restore their independence. William Wallace inflicted a humiliating defeat on the English and proved a thorn in Edward’s side for a number of years, but it was Robert the Bruce who restored the kingship. He was helped by the death of Edward I and the accession of the rather less capable Edward II, whom Bruce defeated in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Edward survived, however, and refused to acknowledge Bruce as king for the rest of his reign, knowing that as the younger and healthier man, time was on his side.
As it turned out, however, Edward II did not have as long as he thought. In 1327, Edward was overthrown by his wife and queen, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, and replaced with the teenage Edward III (initially little more than a puppet king). Bruce’s health was failing by this time, but in 1328 he defeated an invading army of Mortimer and forced the English to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, in which Bruce was recognised as King of Scots and Scotland was recognised as an independent nation. Bruce had achieved his purpose, but Edward III was determined to have his revenge…
David II was the son of Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth Burgh, born on 5 March 1324, making him a mere 5 years old when he became king. Impressively, despite his young age he was already married by the time of his accession – as well as securing Scottish independence, Bruce also won his son an illustrious marriage to the younger sister of Edward III, Joan of the Tower (only 7 years old at the time to David’s 4). David, then, was 5 years old, an orphan, and had a wife to support and a country to protect from invasion.
Edward III had been disgusted by the 1328 peace treaty and in 1330, he overthrew Mortimer and began his personal reign at the age of 18. Edward would prove to be one of the most successful of England’s warrior kings and thus represented something of a threat to David. However, he was initially bound by the terms of the peace treaty and so could not invade without risking excommunication. Thankfully for him, he did not need to invade, as there was someone else available to do this for him.
Although John Balliol never showed any serious interest in regaining the Scottish throne after abdicating in 1296, the Balliol family had an arguably superior claim to the Bruces, and Balliol did have a son (confusingly, another Edward). Edward Balliol was an experience man at 46 and was backed by a number of Scottish nobles who had lost their lands in the early years of the Bruce reign (giving them the label “The Disinherited”). Edward III brought Balliol to England and provided troops and ships so they could invade Scotland (but not technically cross the boundary, so not breaking the terms of the treaty!)
Thankfully for David II, his father had established his two most trusted and able lieutenants to act as regents: Thomas Randolph (Earl of Moray) and James Douglas (Lord of Douglas). Less thankfully, Douglas was killed in battle fulfilling a pledge to take the Bruce’s heart on Crusade while Randolph died in 1332 as the English were on their way. The new guardian, Donald of Mar, had only 9 days in office before facing Balliol in the Battle of Dupplin Moor and (along with thousands of other Scots) being killed. Balliol was then briefly crowned king before being chased out of the country by one Archibald Douglas (younger brother of James). The next regent was Andrew Murray (son of the Andrew Murray who led the Scots to victory at Stirling Bridge with William Wallace) but was taken prisoner just a few months later in April 1333. Archibald Douglas then stepped into the breach, leading the Scots against Balliol and Edward III himself in the Battle of Halidon Hill, which proved to be yet another disaster in which Douglas (along with almost all the remaining Scottish nobles) was killed. Balliol was made king once again and ceded all of Lothian (i.e. southern Scotland) to Edward III.
Poor David II was still only 9 years old at this point. With his regents dropping like flies, salvation came across the sea, as the French honoured the Auld Alliance with Scotland and took David and Joan into their protection. King Philip VI of France persuaded David to reject peace terms that would have seen Balliol act as king with David acknowledged as his heir and threatened Edward III with invasion. This intervention proved crucial, as Edward III left Scotland and prepared to start the Hundred Years War, while in Scotland Balliol lost the support of his key allies. The newly released Andrew Murray led a guerilla campaign the Bruce would have been proud of and by 1341, Balliol had been expelled and David II was able to return.
According to Walter Bower, “all Scots were delighted beyond belief at [David’s] arrival” but among the nobility, the joy was perhaps a little more confined. David had been king for 12 years but had spent 8 of those years in France while others did the hard work of fighting the English. He now found a court dominated by men who had built up their own power base were accustomed not to have to answer to royal authority. The most prominent was David’s nephew, Robert Stewart, who was actually 8 years his senior and (unless David had children) his heir – the two seem to have developed an immediate animosity and David was determined to bring his nephew down a peg or two. He thus set about creating a court based around chivalry and developed a strong following of young knights who owed their position at court to him. When Edward III enjoyed a spectacular victory against the French at Crecy (1346) and Philip VI begged David to intervene, David was therefore keen to oblige and secure his reputation as a warrior king like his father. Unfortunately, the Scots suffered a terrible defeat at the Battle of Neville’s Cross and David himself was captured.
Strangely, becoming a prisoner of Edward III was in some ways quite a good outcome for David. They were, after all, brothers in law, and Edward III was presiding over the most prestigious chivalric court in Europe, which was very much up David’s street. More importantly, Edward’s desire to establish dominance over Scotland was much better served by using David (the actual king) instead of Balliol (the pretender, now in his 60s and without an heir). Balliol was cast aside and Edward used David to secure the border with Scotland, procure some much-needed ransom money and even raised the prospect of Edward (or one of his sons) being named as David’s heir, should David die childless. Unfortunately, with David out of the picture, Robert Stewart was now in charge and perfectly happy to keep David in England, so he adopted the patriotic cause and opposed Edward’s proposals and made an alliance with the new King of France (Jean II). This backfired somewhat, however, when in 1356 Jean was captured in the Battle of Poitiers and Edward launched a rather brutal invasion of Scotland. The next year, the Scots signed the Treaty of Berwick, in which David was released and a truce agreed in return for the Scots paying a ransom of 100,000 merks at the rate of 10,000 per year.
So, after 11 years in England, David II had returned to Scotland (again) except this time his reputation was shot, the nation was ravaged by warfare, central government had all but collapsed and Robert Stewart was still powerful. What’s more, David was now estranged from his wife and still did not have any children, meaning Stewart remained his heir. David set about trying to resolve these issues, working hard to restore royal government and finances as well as giving patronage to families opposed to the Stewarts. He combined this with a need for an heir, initially bringing a mistress back to Scotland (Katherine Mortimer) only for her to be murdered in 1460, but then more seriously Margaret Drummon, whose family were given lands taken from the Stewarts. When his wife died in 1462, David prepared to marry Margaret, prompting a rebellion in 1463 by Stewart and other nobles who feared Margaret’s influence if she became queen (as well as being annoyed at the fact that David was embezzling his own ransom!) but this soon petered out and David remained king.
Unfortunately, things did not get any easier for David. Edward III was also irritated at the lack of ransom payments and some careful diplomacy was required to eventually agree another truce in 1369 and for payments to recommence. Margaret Drummond did indeed become very powerful as queen, even arresting Stewart and his sons. However, she was also unpopular and still had not produced an heir, so when David found another mistress (Agnes Dunbar) he divorced Margaret in 1369 on the grounds of infertility. However, Margaret would not go quietly and appealed to the Pope who halted the divorce. David was thus facing a potentially lengthy and expensive legal process to enable him to be rid of Margaret but then, rather unexpectedly, he died on 22 February 1371 at Edinburgh Castle, aged just 46. The cause of his death is unknown – he may have suffered lingering issues following his wounds at Neville’s Cross and the fact that he made significant donations to the church and Agnes prior to his death suggests that he may have been unwell but it seems to have come as something of a shock.
Although David himself had no hand in this, David’s reign deserves credit for the defeat of Edward Balliol, who with Edward’s backing had managed to have himself declared king. At the Battle of Annan in 1332, he was surprised by Archibald Douglas while in bed and forced to flee from Scotland half-naked, bringing his ‘reign’ to a swift end. Andrew Murray led a highly effective campaign of guerilla warfare from 1335, capturing castles and wasting the lands to prevent Edward and Balliol supplying their troops. The defeat of Balliol’s all, Strathbogie, at Culblean in 1335 effectively ended the invasion and William Douglas’ capture of Edinburgh Castle in 1341 made Scotland safe for David’s return.
When David did return, he showed willing in terms of battleyness. He promoted a chivalric court and was praised by contemporaries as a brave knight who held great tournaments and secured the patronage of ambitious young men. In 1348, while in English captivity, he took part in a glorious tournament to celebrate the birth of another son of Edward III and rode alongside the English king. He may even have been present at the creation of the prestigious Order of the Garter.
In terms of actual battles, of course, David’s one effort was a pretty big defeat at Neville’s Cross. However, he had enjoyed some successes early in the 1346 campaign, capturing Liddesdale and Hexham. Tradition has David fleeing the battlefield and hiding under a bridge, only for his reflection to give him away. However, it is probably more likely that he held his ground with his household knights. He was seriously wounded in the battle, being shot in the face twice with arrows (the tip of one remained lodged in his face). He was captured by an English squire, John de Coupland, but went down fighting, apparently punching out two of de Coupland’s front teeth with his mailed fist.
David’s minority may have seen the ultimate defeat of Balliol, but it also endured two of Scotland’s most disastrous military defeats. The Battle of Dupplin more saw around 10,000 Scots facing 3,000 English troops but complacent leadership allowed Balliol to take up a strong position and divisions among the leaders saw a disastrous charge into a hail of arrows in which more were killed in the crush of bodies than the fighting itself. At Halidon Hill, Archibald Douglas was tempted into battle despite appalling terrain for the Scots, trudging over boggy ground and then uphill into a rain of arrows. Almost all the major nobles of Scotland were killed (including veterans of Bannockburn) and it was only the ineptitude of Balliol and the distraction of the Hundred Years War that prevented these defeats having a more serious impact on Scotland’s independence.
Although David fought bravely at Neville’s Cross, there’s no denying that it was a disastrous defeat in which his leadership was found severely wanting. David was convinced that he would face no opposition due to the English army being in France, so instead of a lightning raid (as practiced by his father) he embarked on something of a slow procession, even writing to warn local lords of his intentions! The Archbishop of York, William Zouche, raised an army of about 6,000 but David refused to believe this until the armies virtually bumped into each other. In battle, the Scots resisted a foolhardy charge (having learned the lessons of previous defeats) but the English also refused to move first. Eventually, English arrow fire provoked the Scots to attack, marching into difficult terrain and suffering c. 3,000 casualties, including most of David’s household knights and David himself being captured.
David II returned to Scotland in 1341 with good intentions, developing a chivalric court and invading England at the first opportunity. Unfortunately, he was not a skilled military leader and suffered a disastrous defeat and his own imprisonment. After the glories of Robert the Bruce, Scotland was once more reduced to humiliating defeats and English invasions, and it was all rather a let down.
Score = 3.5/20
Perhaps surprisingly, David did have his fair share of mistresses, two of whom while he was still married to the sister of the King of England. David’s relationships with women often had serious political ramifications within Scotland. His first mistress, Katherine Mortimer, went back to Scotland with David after his release from captivity while Queen Joan remained in England but was murdered by someone with links to Robert Stewart. David’s purpose in his relationships seemed to be a) to produce an heir and b) to find alliances with families to rival Robert Stewart. Sure enough, when he prepared to marry his second mistress, Margaret Drummond (who was, herself, married), Robert Stewart and others launched a rebellion motivated in part by the fear of having their lands given away to the Drummonds. His attempt to rid himself of Margaret in favour of Agnes Dunbar saw Margaret appeal to the Pope and, if he hadn’t died soon afterwards, lumber David with a lengthy legal battle. Every time he sought solace with a woman, it seemed, he created a political crisis!
David was also a little corrupt. In 1360, he stopped paying Edward III the ransom they had agreed for his release and instead started embezzling the money that had been raised (in other words, he was embezzling his own ransom!)
Despite his mistresses, David II does not seem to have been a particularly lusty individual and his relationships seem to have been more political/dynastic in motivation than out of a scandalously debauched inclination. And for all his many failings, David’s reign was hardly one for hitting the front page of the tabloids in terms of salacious rumour.
David II was not a raucously scandalous monarch, but a spot of corruption to go alongside a succession of mistresses is probably about average for this factor.
Score = 10/20
If David’s reign has sounded like one disaster after another, it should be acknowledged that he did at least try to make things better. Robert Stewart and the other nobles had no interest in good governance, so when David returned from 11 years captive in England he found a total collapse in royal government. David made a serious effort to address the various complaints that he met on his return, overseeing a significant increase in charters and conducting an annual audit of the exchequer. Burghs were restored to their former rights and liberties and foreign merchants could come and go freely, allowing Scotland to enjoy an improvement in European trade. His good relationship with Edward III allowed Scottish clerics to study at Oxford (90 had done so by 1400) and Scottish merchants could trade in England and enjoy the assurety of the Scottish coinage being agreed as equal to that of the English. Walter Bower was in no doubt that David was deserving of praise for his governance of the kingdom:
“He reformed his kingdom with excellent laws, he punished rebels, he calmed his subjects with undisturbed peace, and he united to their fatherland by means of one legal contract Scots speaking different tongues. And this was not achieved without a great deal of enthusiasm and hard work”
(Walter Bower, Scotichronicon)
David also deserves credit for his persistence in facing up to the difficulties he faced. He inherited the throne as a child in 1329, saw a flurry of regents killed resulting in his being shipped off to France, returning in 1341 as a stranger in his own kingdom facing a hostile nobility that were out for themselves. He spent five years building up his support and reputation, only to have it wiped out in one day by the Battle of Neville’s Cross, resulting in 11 years stuck in England while the Scottish nobles conspired to keep him out of the picture. From 1357, he then had to start all over again with the government in a mess and a series of women failing to provide him with political stability or an heir. Poor old David never seems to have caught a break but no matter what fresh disaster saw him tumble down the hill, his response was always to try to find a solution and work his way back towards the top again!
However, this would not have been a good time to have been living in scotland. The wars of the 1330s had a devastating effect on Scotland, particularly the south which were wasted by both the English invaders and the Scottish resistance fighters like Andrew Murray. When David II returned from French exile in 1341, a French soldier accompanying him was said to have joked that “no wealthy man can be Lord of a country like this”. Like William the Lion, David saddled the country with a literal King’s Ransom which drained the coffers and debased the currency. It was hardly David’s fault, but Scotland also suffered from the Black Death in about 1350, losing about a quarter of the population (not as bad as England, but still!)
A common theme throughout David’s reign was his struggle to attain mastery of his own kingdom, and in truth he never really succeeded. His obsession with breaking the influence of Robert Stewart was the cause of many of his difficulties in the 1360s and although he was always more powerful than his nephew, he never succeeded in defeating him completely. The successes he achieved from 1341-46 were undone by Neville’s Cross while his mistresses probably caused him more problems with internal unrest than if he had remained a widower. It is notable that Margaret Drummond was the first Scottish queen in Scotland since the 11th century – rather than making dynastic alliances with foreign countries, David was reduced to the level of his nobles, trying to shore up support within Scotland to get himself ahead.
Although David tried to improve governance after 1357, his record is not all that impressive. After 1360, he stopped paying the ransom and instead embezzled the money that was collected, provoking a rebellion in 1363 and some awkward diplomacy with the English. Conflict amongst his nobles saw two prominent supporters of David murdered as well as his first mistress, and yet David was not really able to do anything about it. Indeed, his record in law and order is far from impressive, with David being the first Scottish king to receive a parliamentary censure for granting pardons for homicides (in return for money). David has also been criticised (both then and now) for his apparent willingness to hand the kingdom over to the English by trying to persuade the Scottish Parliament to accept a Plantagenet as his heir. In fairness, David was probably gambling on producing his own heir but this was a major gamble that badly misjudged the mood at home all just to undermine Robert Stewart. Compared to the record of his father, David II was verging dangerously close to betraying his country.
David II did try to do the right thing at times, more so than any of his contemporaries, but unfortunately his efforts almost always ended in disaster. His obsession with tackling Robert Stewart suggested that instead of being a martyr for justice, David ended up being dragged down to the level of a wayward noble and his record is not very impressive as a result.
Score = 4/20
David II was King of Scots from 07 June 1329 to 22 February 1371 – a reign of 41.67 years, which gives him a score of 17/20. Impressively, David II had the fourth longest reign in Scottish history, despite dying at the age of just 46.
Despite all his efforts, David II failed to produce any children at all. Indeed, despite attempting to divorce Margaret for infertility, it is notable that she had already had a child by her previous husband – given that David was married to Joan for 34 years and then had a further 3 mistresses without any children, it seems more likely that he was infertile.
Overall, David II gets a score of 34.5 – but does he have that certain something that we call…
Poor David II. It was always going to be difficult to follow the legend that is Robert the Bruce and nothing ever seemed to go right for him. Had Edward III and Balliol not invaded, had James Douglas and Thomas Randolph not died so soon, had he came to manhood after a stable minority in a country not devastated by war, perhaps his reign would have been a success. As it was, he was not up to the challenge of the day. As the 16th Century historian George Buchanan noted, “he seemed throughout to have lacked good fortune rather than diligence”.
Our Verdict = No, David II does not have the Rex Factor.
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