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.
Isabel of Portugal was born into an illustrious Portuguese family. Her parents were renowned rulers and they were to raise several celebrated children. Her older brothers were King Edward of Portugal, Peter, Duke of Coimbra and the famous Henry the Navigator, patron of Portuguese navigation. Isabel was to make a brilliant match to the Duke of Burgundy but not until she was into her thirties, very late for a Renaissance princess.
Isabel was born on February 21, 1397 in Evora. Her father was King John I of Portugal of the house of Aviz. Her mother was Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and granddaughter of King Edward III of England. Isabel’s father had become king with the help of John of Gaunt and cemented his alliance and friendship with Gaunt and England by marrying Philippa. Isabel was to value friendship with England all her life.
Isabel was the only surviving daughter in her family with five full-bodied brothers. She was allowed to play with the older boys, Edward, Peter and Henry and helped look after her younger brothers, John and Fernando. All the children in the family were supported in developing their minds and bodies. They were taught several languages such as Latin, French, English and Italian. They were urged to do scientific experiments and tutored in mathematics. Isabel was to excel in accounting. She was allowed to accompany her brothers when they were instructed in affairs of state with their father. She joined them in riding and hunting. She observed the many visitors to her father’s court.
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.
Grandson of William the Conqueror, Stephen of Bois was King of England as King Stephen from 1135 until his death on 25 October 1154. Born in Blois in central France, Stephen was raised at the English court of his uncle Henry I, soon becoming his favourite. But his right to the throne was disputed by the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I.
Henry I had ruled England since his accession to the throne in August 1100, having succeeded his older brother, William II. Henry’s heir was to be his eldest son, William Adelin, but on 25 November 1120, the 17-year-old William drowned with the sinking of the White Ship. In the aftermath of William’s death, Henry’s attention naturally turned to the issue of the succession. Although he had other children, their illegitimacy ruled them out as potential candidates. He had nephews too to consider, one of them being Stephen of Blois. Stephen had been living in his household for several years and had already demonstrated impressive military and political skills on a previous trip to Normandy.
So far unconsidered was Henry’s first-born child, Matilda, pictured, now Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Matilda had the strongest claim among his family, she was, of course, a woman.
Henry took some time to discuss Matilda’s suitability with his leading barons and advisers. In general they were uneasy about Matilda succeeding her father. After all, there was no precedent of female governance in England. In an era where the role of monarch encompassed politician and soldier, the unsuitability of women for such a position was a sentiment echoed by many. King David I of Scotland, the brother of Henry’s late wife, and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, however, both spoke out in favour of Matilda and it was to these men that Henry listened. Thus, in January 1127, Henry named Matilda as his heir and invited the leading clergymen and barons of the realm to swear an oath of fealty to her, supporting her succession to the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy.
Stephen of Bois also backed Matilda’s accession but his support proved to be fickle.
The last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Harold Godwinson, or Harold II, born around 1022, met his death against the forces of William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066.
Harold Godwinson was the second son of Earl Godwin, the most powerful man in England. By his early 20s, Harold held an extensive earldom in eastern England and took as his concubine, Edith Swan-neck. In 1051 the family were exiled after an altercation with the king, Edward the Confessor, and all their lands and wealth were confiscated. With the help of their allies at home, the Godwines returned in 1052, forcing the king to take them back and reinstating their lands and titles. With the death of his father in 1053, Harold became the new Earl of Wessex and had ascended to become the most powerful nobleman in the country.
The Oath of Fealty
After a series of successful campaigns against the Welsh ruler, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, in 1052-1053, Harold earned a reputation as an excellent military commander and his victories were celebrated throughout England. It is alleged that in 1054 he was sent by King Edward on a diplomatic errand to William, Duke of Normandy. The voyage began badly; Harold was shipwrecked and captured by the Guy, Count of Ponthieu. After being rescued by Duke William, Harold accompanied him in battle against Conan, the Duke of Brittany, and was knighted shortly after. According to Norman sources, Harold then swore an oath of fealty to William over holy relics, promising that he would support his claim to the English throne when King Edward died. He then returned to England, only to become embroiled in a rebellion against his brother, Tostig. This resulted in Tostig’s exile and, soon after, King Edward became seriously ill.
The Battle of Barnet, which took place on 14 April, 1471, was one of the most important engagements of the Wars of the Roses. These were a series of civil wars fought in England during the later fifteenth century, with the rival houses of York and Lancaster vying for the throne. The battle also determined the ultimate outcome of the personal conflict between King Edward IV and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – former allies who had by then become implacable foes.
Ten years earlier the Earl of Warwick, at that time a Yorkist, had helped Edward (pictured) – then still in his teens – to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and seize the throne. Warwick became the greatest man after the king. By the end of the 1460s, however, despite numerous attempts at reconciliation, the relationship between Edward and Warwick had broken down. Edward and Warwick clashed over the direction of foreign policy. Edward’s controversial marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was another key factor, as Elizabeth’s relatives gained increasing influence at court. Warwick was the driving force behind two rebellions; his supporters included Edward’s own brother, George Duke of Clarence. But ultimately Warwick’s plans failed; both he and Clarence were forced into exile in France.
Incredibly, through the agency of King Louis XI, Warwick now formed an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s formidable queen. (Margaret had earlier fled to France with her young son, Prince Edward.) In September 1470 Warwick invaded England with French support, accompanied by Clarence, and quickly raised a large army. Crucially, Edward was betrayed by Warwick’s brother, John Marquis Montagu – who had hitherto remained loyal to Edward – and he was forced into exile in his turn. Queen Elizabeth, who was then heavily pregnant, sought sanctuary at Westminster. Henry VI, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, was restored to the throne. But Henry, never strong, was by now a broken man: Warwick was to rule.
Harald Hardrada Sigurdsson, King of Norway, was one of the claimants to the English throne following the death of Edward the Confessor in January 1066. Kaye Jones summarises Harald Hardrada’s life and his death at the hands of England’s Harold II at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066.
Born in 1015, Harald ‘Hardrada’ Sigurdsson was the son of the Norwegian king, Sigurd the Sow. At the age of 15 Harald fought his first battle alongside his half brother, Olaf, at Sticklestad. Olaf was killed while the injured Harald fled to Kiev where he was given refuge by King Yaroslav. Harald stayed there for three or four years and then travelled to Constantinople to work for the Emperor of Byzantine.
Harald possessed natural fighting ability and quickly rose to become the commander of the emperor’s special guard. Having amassed a great personal wealth, Harald left Constantinople in 1043. After a brief time in Kiev, where he married King Yaroslav’s daughter, he returned to Norway.
‘Hardrada’, Hard Ruler
William the Conqueror, the future William I of England, was born between 1027 and 1028 at Falaise in Normandy. As the product of a brief relationship between his father, Robert, the 2nd Duke of Normandy and his mother, Herleva, the daughter of a local tanner, William came to be known as the Bastard by his contemporaries. After the death of his father in 1035, the boy William inherited the Duchy of Normandy with his great uncle acting as regent. Due to his illegitimacy, there were several Norman magnates who refused to accept the young William as the rightful heir and in 1040 they hatched a plan to murder him. The plot failed but William’s guardians were killed.
By 1045 William was old enough to take control of the Duchy and successfully crushed the first threat to his power in 1047 at Val-es-Dunes. It was after a visit to his distant cousin, King Edward the Confessor, in 1051 that William alleged he had been promised the throne of England. This was later confirmed with Harold’s Godwinson’s visit in 1064. After King Edward’s death and the coronation of Harold as Harold II in January 1066, William prepared to invade the country. The Norman army arrived at Pevensey on September 28th and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th. After his coronation on Christmas Day 1066, William spent the early years of his reign stamping out English resistance and strengthening the borders, including the building of defensive “marcher” counties along the border of Wales in 1081.
‘We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us; we are ready to meet them beard to beard.’
This, in 1297, was the manner in which William Wallace was reported to have lured the English into the first significant defeat they had suffered in 30 years – at the battle of Stirling Bridge.
William Wallace was the younger son of a minor landowner from the west of Scotland, and is perhaps the best known character from the early battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Wallace was born some time around 1274 and was only a teenager at the time of the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland.
Fighting the English
William Wallace grew into a huge young man; estimates place him at six feet seven inches tall. This would truly have made him a giant of the era and afforded him an enormous advantage in a medieval battle, where strength was of great importance. He wasted little time in using this muscle as he would fight the English at any given opportunity, killing them with impunity and without mercy.
Alice Perrers, mistress of that most powerful of Plantagenet Kings, Edward III, at the same time as she was a damsel (lady-in- waiting) to Queen Philippa, first crossed my path, writes Anne O’Brien, when I discovered a copy of Lady of the Sun, the Life and Times of Alice Perrers by F. George Kay in a second hand book shop. I was not impressed with Alice. There was little that we knew about her that could be supported by evidence. Furthermore she had an astonishingly bad press from contemporary writers, painting her reputation black with absolutely no redeeming features.
‘There was … in England a shameless woman and wanton harlot called Ales Peres, of base kindred … being neither beautiful or fair, she knew how to cover these defects with her flattering tongue …’
This was the view of Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St Albans who knew Alice well.
Alice faired no better at the hands of reputable modern historians who have been hardly less damning. ‘Edward III was sick and enfeebled, given over to the wiles of his rapacious mistress.’ The adjective rapacious figures widely.
And yet something attracted me to this remarkable woman from the fourteenth century. Here is Alice, in all her notoriety.
Alice the low born usurper of royal power
Alice had neither breeding nor wealth nor significant family connections. According to rumour, she came from the lowest of the low, being the illegitimate daughter of a town labourer – a tiler – and a tavern whore. She was born with nothing and deserved no promotion, but she did not know her place. With ruthless determination she stepped out of it, rising above herself to become one of the Queen’s damsels and mistress to the King.