Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alexander III

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ALEXANDER III (1241–1285), king of Scotland, son of Alexander II and Mary de Couci, succeeded to the throne when a boy of eight on his father's death (8 July 1249). The troubles of a minority commenced at his accession, but the attempt of Alan Durward, the justiciar, to prevent his consecration on the pretext that he had not yet been knighted, was frustrated by Walter Comyn, earl of Menteith, and on 18 July he was solemnly placed on the coronation stone at Scone, in the presence of seven lords and seven bishops and a great multitude of the people, the Bishop of St. Andrews performing the ceremony. At its close a highland sennachy hailed him in Gaelic as king of Alban, and recited his descent through a chain of real and imaginary ancestors to the eponymous hero of the race, Iber, the first Scot, son of Gaithel Glas, the son of Neorlus, king of Athens, and Scota, daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, an acknowledgment that the descendant of the Saxon Margaret, in whose veins so much Norman blood had mingled, was also the descendant in the paternal line of the ancient Celtic royal family whose origin, lost in antiquity, was supplied by the fictitious genealogy. The translation in the following year of the corpse of Margaret at Dunfermline from her grave into a shrine set with gold and precious stones, with almost equal solemnity to the consecration of the young king, was probably intended to mark with equal emphasis his descent from the Saxon princess whose memory was dear to the church and people of the Lowlands. In 1251 Henry III requested from Innocent IV a declaration that the Scottish king was, as his vassal, not entitled to be anointed or crowned without his consent, and the inclusion of Scotland in the grant made to him of a tenth of the ecclesiastical revenues for a crusade, but the pope declined both requests. Baffled in this, he reverted to the marriage of Alexander, already betrothed to his daughter Margaret, and it was celebrated at York on 26 Dec, when Henry knighted Alexander and demanded homage for his kingdom. Matthew Paris records that Alexander answered ‘he had come peacefully and for the honour of the king of England, that by means of the marriage tie he might ally himself to him, and not to answer such a difficult question, for he had not held full deliberation on the matter with his nobles or taken proper counsel as so difficult a question required,’ a reply which must have been given, not without advice, by the boy king. It was not the less a decided refusal that it was couched in polite terms. The detection of a plot by Alan Durward to obtain from the pope the legitimation of his wife Marjory, a natural daughter of Alexander II, which would have made his children heirs to the throne, led Alexander, by the advice of Henry III, to remove him and the chancellor Robert, Abbot of Dunfermline, from their offices; in their place the Earl of Menteith and his brother-in-law the Earl of Mar, and Gamelin, bishop of St. Andrews, became the chief ministers of the young king, who retired with his bride and her household. English counsellors, it was, however, promised at the time, would be shortly sent to advise him. Geoffrey of Langley, keeper of the royal forests, who came in fulfilment of this promise, was expelled by the Scottish barons, and from 1251 to 1255 the chief power in Scotland was in the hands of the Earl of Menteith and the Comyns. A secret mission in 1254 of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, who was to play so great a part in the barons' war, the complaints of Henry's daughter as to her treatment at the Scottish court, and the restoration of Alan Durward to the favour of the English king through his services in the Gascon war, paved the way to a change in the government of Scotland in 1255 at the hands of the English king.

Henry, after a preliminary meeting with Alexander at Werk castle, crossed the border, and they again met at Kelso, where the regency of the Comyns was put an end to. Bishop Gamelin of St. Andrews, Alexander Comyn, earl of Buchan, and William, earl of Mar, were deprived of the offices of chancellor, justiciar, and chamberlain, which were bestowed on the Bishop of Dunkeld, Alan Durward, and David de Lyndsay. John Baliol and Robert de Ros, two other members of the late regency, forfeited their property as traitors. Fifteen new regents were at the same time appointed—the Bishops of Dunkeld and Aberdeen, the Earls of Dunbar, Fife, Strathern, and Carrick, Alexander the Steward, Robert de Bruce, Alan Durward, Walter de Moray, and five other barons. They were to hold office for seven years, when Alexander would attain his majority. The Chronicle of Melrose ascribes this revolution to English influence, and mentions with evident sympathy that the Bishops of Glasgow and St. Andrews and the Earl of Menteith refused to set their seal to an accursed deed in which there were many things contrary to the honour of the king and kingdom. The concurrence of Wyntoun, although Fordun takes a different view, renders it probable that this is a true account, and that the Comyns represented the national Scottish party adverse to foreign intervention. Next year (1256) Alexander and his queen visited London, and the Scottish king received a renewal of the grant of the Honour of Huntingdon. He returned accompanied by John Mansel, a favourite of Henry. But about the same time the Bishop of St. Andrews went to Rome to settle a dispute as to the possession of his see, and was so successful in conciliating the papal favour, that not only was his see restored, but a sentence of excommunication against his enemies, the party of Durward and the English regents, was pronounced in 1257 and published by the Bishop of Dunblane and the Abbots of Melrose and Jedburgh. Emboldened by the success of their chief supporter amongst the bishops and the return to Scotland of the queen mother Mary de Couci and her husband, John de Brienne, the party of the Comyns seized the young king when asleep in Kinross, carried him off to Stirling Castle, and forced Durward to take refuge in England. In 1258 yet another change in this period of sudden alterations in the government of Scotland took place. In a conference held at Jedburgh the Earls of Hereford and Albemarle and John de Baliol, on the part of the English king, arranged with the Comyns and Alexander that there should be a joint regency consisting of the queen mother and John de Brienne and four members of each of the two parties which had since the king's accession divided Scotland. The Earl of Menteith and Alan Durward, their leaders, were both members of this heterogeneous council of state, but the chief power remained with the former, whose partisans filled the great offices. The death of Menteith in the following year may perhaps have facilitated what the approaching manhood of Alexander completed, the close of those continual contests for the supreme power of which an outline only has here been given. In 1260 Alexander and his queen again visited London in response to an invitation sent but declined in the previous year, and the queen, being left behind on Alexander's return home, gave birth at Windsor (February 1261) to a daughter, Margaret, afterwards married to Eric, king of Norway. Prior to his departure Alexander received the assurance of Henry that if he and the queen died the expected infant should be entrusted to the custody of the Scottish nobles. At last, emancipated from the control of his own nobles and no longer afraid of English intervention, for the year 1261 was the commencement of the barons' war caused by Henry's refusal to observe the provisions of the parliament of Oxford, Alexander resumed the project, cut short by his father's death, of uniting the Hebrides to his kingdom. Following his father's example, he first tried negotiations, but Haco detained the Scottish envoys, instead of listening favourably to their mission, and in the late summer of 1263 equipped a great fleet to overawe his island vassals and ravage the Scottish coast. A storm on 1 Oct. destroyed a considerable part of this earlier armada, and the defeat on the following day at Largs of those who landed there, though exaggerated by the Scottish historians, contributed to the discomfiture of Haco, who retired to the Orkneys, where he died at Kirkwall on 15 Dec. The adhesion of Ewen of Argyle to his fealty to the Scottish king aided in this repulse, and early in 1264 Magnus Olafson, king of Man, did homage to Alexander at Dumfries. The Earls of Buchan and Mar and Alan Durward were sent by Alexander in the same year to reduce the island chiefs who had sided with Haco. Two years later the negotiations which Magnus, Haco's son, had commenced immediately on his accession were concluded by the treaty of Perth, by which Man and the Sudreys were surrendered to Alexander for a payment of four thousand marks and an annual rent of a hundred, but the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the see of Drontheim was reserved. Man was a precarious possession, but the whole mainland and islands of Scotland, with the exception of the Orkneys and Shetland, were now for the first time united under one sceptre. In the contest between Henry and his barons Alexander aided his father-in-law, and the troops he sent shared in the defeat of Lewis (14 May 1264), where their leaders, John Comyn and Robert Bruce, were taken prisoners. In the course of the next three years Alexander proved that he had inherited in another direction his father's policy by asserting the independence of the Scottish church. He refused entrance to the kingdom of the legate Ottoboen, and would not allow Henry to collect a grant for the crusades which the pope had guaranteed to him out of the Scottish benefices; and in 1269 a provincial council was held at Perth, which declared, under the authority of the bull of Honorius, the right to hold such assemblies annually, over which the bishops were to preside in rotation with the title of Conservator. In 1272 Henry III died, and on the return of Edward I from the Holy Land Alexander attended his coronation, where his retinue and the splendour of his gifts surpassed that of all others. Early in the following year he lost his wife, who left three children, Alexander, David, and Margaret. In 1275 Boiamund de Vesci, canon of Asti,made a new valuation of the ecclesiastical benefices in Scotland, for the purpose of levying the tenth decreed by the council of Lyons in aid of a crusade. This valuation, unsuccessfully resisted and at first ill paid, was vulgarly called Bagamund's roll, and continued to regulate ecclesiastical taxes until the Reformation. The copies preserved are not quite complete, but they afford an authentic record of the wealth of the Scottish church, fostered with almost too much care by Malcolm and Margaret, and their descendants. At the time of Edward's coronation no claim for homage seems to have been made; but in 1278 Alexander was recalled under a safe conduct, and at Westminster on 28 Oct. tendered his homage for all the lands which he held in England for which homage was due, saving always his own kingdom. The Bishop of Norwich havings interposed, ‘And saving also the right of my lord King Edward to homage for your kingdom,’ Alexander declared ‘to that none has a right save God alone, for of Him only do I hold my crown.’ The events were now hastening which were to enable Edward to dispute this claim, and even the driest chroniclers appear to have felt the tragic character of the closing years of Alexander. In 1280 his youngest son, David, died. In 1283 there followed the death of his daughter Margaret, married two years before to Eric, king of Norway, leaving an only child, Margaret, the Maiden of Norway; and his eldest son, Alexander, who had married Margaret, daughter of the Earl of Flanders, died in the same year. The estates at Scone, on 5 Feb. 1284, bound themselves to acknowledge the Maiden of Norway as heir, failing any children Alexander might have. On 1 Nov. 1284–5, in the hope of securing a male heir, he married Joleta, daughter of the Count de Dreux, at Jedburgh, when, according to the tale of one of the later chroniclers, amidst the figures of a masque in honour of the marriage, suddenly one appeared which could not be distinguished whether it was man or ghost. It was deemed a presage of death, and on 16 March 1285 Alexander was killed by falling over a cliff while riding in the dark between Burntisland and Kinghorn.

The chroniclers differ according to their mood or bias in estimating the character of Alexander, but no difference seems to have existed amongst his subjects, who preserved his memory in some of the earliest verses of the Scottish dialect which have come down to us:—

    Quhen Alysander oure king was dede
        That Scotland led in luwe and le,
    Away was sons off ale and brede,
        Off wyne and wax, off gamyn and gle;

Oure gold was changed into lede.
Cryst born into virginyte,
Succour Scotland and remede
That stad in its perplexte.

How far the sentiment here expressed may have been heightened, as in the parallel case of Edward the Confessor, by the calamities which followed—the disputed succession and the English wars—it is not possible to say. The monks, the only historians of these times, rarely aid us by details, leaving the facts to speak for themselves, or making reflections in which the prejudices of superstition, their country, or their order warp their judgment. It must, however, have required a strong character, after so long a subjection to rival factions and the influence of the English king, to restore the royal authority and maintain the independence of the kingdom. While Henry's contest with his barons and the storm which dispersed Haco's fleet seconded Alexander's efforts, his continued prosperity during the decade after the accession of Edward I, and his care in the administration of justice for which all writers give him credit, are proofs of wise government; and, on the whole, we may accept as free from much exaggeration the panegyric of Wyntoun, one of the most trustworthy of our authorities, who wrote within a century from his death:—

Scotland mournyd hym than full sare,
For undyr hym all his leges ware
In honoure, qwiete, and in pes;
Forthi cald pessybill king he wes,
He honoured God and holy kirk,
And medfull dedys he oysed to werk.

A splendid architecture, of which the monuments still remain in the Scottish cathedrals of the Early English style, and the purity of the coinage, are real witnesses of the well-being of Scotland during the reigns of Alexander and his father.

[Chronicles of Melrose, Lanercost, and Dunfermline, Bannatyne Club; Matthew Paris; Chronicle of Man (Munch's Notes), Manx Soc.; Wyntoun, Cronykil; Fordun, Scotichronicon; Exchequer Rolls Record Edition, i.; Concilia Scotiæ (Joseph Robertson's Notes, Bannatyne Club); Hailes's Annals; Tytler's History of Scotland; Robertson's Scotland under her Early Kings; W. F. Skene's Celtic Scotland.]

Æ. M.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.5
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
264 ii 1 Alexander III: for 1285 read 1286
265 i 10-11 omit who . . . . household
266 i 36 for Lewis read Lewes
ii 23 f.e. for 1284-5 read 1284
15 f.e. for 16 Mar. 1285 read 16 Mar. 1285-6