John Balliol – a summary

Born around 1249, King John Balliol ruled Scotland from 1292 until his abdication in 1296.  He was perhaps best known by his unfortunate nickname, Toom Tabard, or Empty Shirt (or Coat), having been unceremoniously stripped of his office by England’s Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’.

The death of Scottish king, Alexander III, from a riding accident on 19 March 1286, left Scotland without a king. All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him. There was one grandchild, his three-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, and prior to his death, Alexander had made efforts to have Margaret recognised as his legitimate heir to the Scottish throne.  This would have secured his dynastic line, but fate had one more card to play against the unfortunate Alexander.

During the crossing from Norway to Scotland in 1290, the young Margaret took ill and died. Thus came down the curtain on a golden age for Scotland.  The chain of events would eventually lead to a thirty-year war against England, one of the most powerful states in Europe, and would devastate a once wealthy country. (Pictured, Edward I welcoming Alexander III as a guest of the English parliament.)

Political Void and the Ragman Rolls

The disastrous deaths of Alexander and his heirs in such a short space of time left Scotland with a power vacuum and several candidates willing to fill it. No less than fourteen contenders put themselves forward as potential heirs to the Scottish throne, among them Robert de Brus (grandfather of Robert the Bruce), John Balliol and England’s Edward I (pictured).

Edward himself knew that his own claim was weak but his chance to take control of the Scottish throne, by a more circuitous means, came when the Scottish magnates requested that he arbitrate in their dispute as to who had legitimacy to rule.

Edward insisted on the loyalty of the Scottish nobles, landowners and other influential people by making them swear an oath of loyalty to him. This oath was repeated in 1296, and was signed by most of those who were asked.  The treaties became known as the Ragman Rolls, possibly because of the ribbons each signatory attached to his parchment.

The Humiliation of King John 

Edward, meanwhile, finally settled on John Balliol (pictured) as his choice of king, and Balliol was duly crowned at a ceremony at Scone on 30 November 1292. Finally, after six years, Scotland had its king and any English interference should have halted to allow the Scots to get on with the governance of their own country.

But Edward had other ideas and made a series of humiliating demands on Balliol, demanding that John pay him homage and to cede legal authority to the English throne. This undermining of the Scottish king was to continue, with taxes being levied against the Scots to pay for Edward’s increasing campaigns, and leaving Balliol with no real option but to agree to each and every demand made.

Things came to a head, however, when Edward declared war on the French king, and demanded that King John muster his army and send it south to London to assist him in his campaign in France.

Tired of his treatment by Edward, Balliol finally took the decision to resist the demands of the English monarch and shortly thereafter concluded a treaty with the French instead.  A further treaty was signed with Erik II of Norway and mutual aid was promised if any of the countries were attacked by England.

Matters then descended into open war, with Scots forces conducting raids across the border.  An attack against the English castle at Carlisle failed though and the Scots had to make do with the usual excesses of rape and pillage against the poorly defended towns and villages of the north of England.

King John had finally tried to shake off the overbearing southern ruler.  He now faced the real possibility of invasion.  The only question remaining was whether or not his country would be strong enough to resist.


On 30 March 1286, Edward led his army north to attack the rebel Scots.  The Scottish Wars of Independence had begun. Edward’s first action was to take Berwick, the largest city in Scotland at that time, and its most prosperous port.

The attack, allegedly led by the monarch himself, was a devastating assault on a poorly-defended town.  Edward’s seasoned troops easily overran the feeble earthworks and engaged in an orgy of murder and butchery, which saw men, women and children slaughtered in a three-day rout.

It is probably unfair to call the action a battle, since the garrison surrendered almost immediately and was given quarter.  Little other organised resistance was offered by the inhabitants, except for a small contingent of Flemish men who were trapped within a building and burned to death for their defiance. It is said that Edward only called a halt to the carnage when he saw one of his soldiers cutting off the head of woman who was in the process of giving birth.

The exact death toll from the attack on the town varies wildly, as they tended to do in such times, but it is generally accepted that between 17-23,000 perished.  This would account for a huge percentage of the population and the news of the deaths of so many was the catalyst for the Scots to rally behind their king, albeit briefly.

The Battle of Dunbar

A month later, on 27 April 1296, the Scots assembled in support of King John and took to the field near Dunbar.  The English forces were commanded by John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, one of Edward’s most distinguished and trusted professional soldiers.

The Scots were positioned well, with a height advantage and, if some historical sources are to be believed, an advantage in numbers of three to one.  What they lacked, however, was discipline.  Taking no heed of the ground they held, the Scots infantry charged downhill towards the English lines.

The English knights, hardened by years of campaigning in France and Wales, easily managed to sidestep the headlong lunge of the Scots and brought their mounts to bear in a shattering assault, dispersing the Scots infantry.  The attack by the English knights was so comprehensive that they overwhelmed their enemy and destroyed them completely.

Scottish casualties were high and in this one action alone, the Scots resistance all but crumbled and many of their nobles were captured and imprisoned.  With the near disintegration of resistance, Edward easily subdued the rest of the country in a matter of months, capturing the country’s most strategic castles and strongholds in a fairly effortless operation.

And thus began the occupation of Scotland.

(The ‘Stone of Destiny’, or An Lia Fail, on which Scottish kings for centuries had been crowned, was also taken south by Edward and fitted into a chair known as Edward’s Chair. This was intended as a symbolic gesture by Edward and the stone would remain at Westminster Abbey for 600 years.  It would only return to Scotland in 1996, except for a brief period in the 1950s when it was stolen back by a group of Scottish students.)

‘Empty coat’

On 10 July 1296, three months after the Battle of Dunbar, King John formally surrendered his kingdom to Edward and was humiliatingly stripped of his royal insignia in a ceremony at Montrose, giving rise to his nickname of Toom Tabard or ‘empty coat’. His reign had lasted less than four years.

The defeat of the Scots was complete.  Edward I was now the ruler of Scotland.

John Balliol was imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London before being held under a form of house arrest.  The Scottish rebellions under William Wallace in 1297, meant that Balliol was again imprisoned and he was eventually allowed to leave England to go and live in France, where he died on 25 November 1314.

Russell Burgess

See also articles on the Battle of FalkirkEdward I and Robert the Bruce.