King Alexander III came to the Scottish throne in 1249, at the age of just 7 years, following the death of his father, Alexander II.
The early years of Alexander III’s reign were dominated by a power struggle between two factions who had their own designs on his kingdom. However, when he reached the age of 21 and was able to rule in his own right, Alexander showed his strength as king by continuing his father’s aspirations of gaining control of the Western Isles, which until then had been under the domination of Norway.
A wealthy nation
Alexander went on to preside over a Scotland which was a wealthy nation in its own right within northern Europe. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure were built and people in general had good standards of living. But all this good work and the Scotland’s stability were undone due to an unfortunate series of events.
He had married Margaret of England, daughter of Henry III, at the age of ten, and eventually they had three children together. All three of these children were to die before Alexander III, the two sons before they could father any children and his daughter, who was married into the Norwegian royal family, died in childbirth, leaving Alexander with only a granddaughter as an heir.
This, in the thirteenth century, was unsuitable. Margaret of England died in 1275 and a decade later, in 1285, Alexander married Yolande de Dreux.
A stormy night
Fate however would not leave the king with much time to produce an heir with his young French bride, for on the night of 19 March 1286, he met his end in tragic circumstances.
The king had entertained several guests at Edinburgh Castle that night, and, at the conclusion of the feast and an evening of drinking, decided that he would return to his wife at their home near Kinghorn.
His aides advised against it. In order to get to Kinghorn the party would have to travel to the coast, cross the Firth of Forth and then continue for another ten or eleven miles in the pitch dark, along a treacherous coastal path. And all in the grip of a storm.
Undeterred, the king ignored the advice and set off. It is not clear how he met with his demise, but he was separated from his group and lost his way. The following day his body, and that of his horse, was found at the foot of the cliffs, his neck broken.
This left Scotland without a king. Alexander’s heirs had all died and his new wife had not conceived. The only possible person left in Alexander’s lineage who could now take the throne was his four-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway.
Enter Edward I
Prior to his death the king 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, Maid of Norway and last successor to the throne from Alexander’s lineage, 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 one of the most powerful states in Europe and would devastate a once wealthy country.
Unable to settle on a new king, the Scottish magnates approached England’s Edward I (pictured) and asked him to arbitrate. Edward settled on John Balliol 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 a new king. It was not to last.