Story of Robert Bruce - Jeanie Lang

John Balliol

As soon as news came from the Orkneys that the Maid of Norway was dead, there were many men who claimed for themselves the Scottish crown.

In all there were thirteen "competitors," as they were called, as if it were a game, or races.

The two whose claims seemed the strongest were John Balliol and Robert Bruce, grandfather of Robert the Bruce, both descendants of William the Lion, grandfather of the late king. Balliol was the great-grandson of David, Earl of Huntingdon, younger brother of William the Lion; Bruce was the grandson of the same man. But Balliol was descended from Earl David's eldest daughter, and Bruce from a younger one.

Edward of England then took a bold step. He invited the Scottish nobles and clergy, and all who laid claim to the crown, to meet him at Norham, a castle past which the silver Tweed runs between wooded banks, dividing England from Scotland.

At Norham, said Edward, he would decide for the Scottish nation who was the right man to reign over them.

The meeting took place on May 10th, 1291, and Edward made his power the more felt by the kingless people of Scotland because of his noble escort of knights and barons in glittering armour.

"I come as your lord," at once he told the Scottish nobles. "Unless you grant that I am Lord Paramount, I will not help you."

The Scots wisely answered—

"We have no king. How can we say if our king, when we have one, will bow to you as his overlord?"

Then said Edward, in a rage—

"By Saint Edward, whose crown I wear, I will maintain my just right, or die in the cause!"

Thus it was that Scotland's fight for freedom began. Edward unjustly claimed the overlordship as his right, and all true-hearted Scotsmen denied him their homage.

Yet, at this time, the nobles who longed to wear the crown of Scotland thought second of their country, and first of themselves.

When Edward made it a condition that the man whom he, as umpire, made king must own him as master, there was not one of those who claimed the crown who did not give in to his demands.

In November 1292, in the great hall of Berwick Castle—which is now a railway station through which the trains rush which bring you from England to Scotland—Edward held a great assembly of English and Scottish nobles.

"Can you divide the kingdom of Scotland and its revenues?" Edward asked the assembly.

"No," was the answer.

"Then," said he, "as it cannot be shared between Bruce and Balliol, I appoint John Balliol, as having the stronger claim, to be your king."

John Balliol swore that he would be a faithful vassal to the King of England, his "Lord Superior." At Scone, near Perth, he was crowned on the "Stone of Destiny," upon which had never sat a more unkingly king.

The Scots called their new king the "Toom Tabard," or empty coat, so little of a man did they think him.

"We do not want this man to reign over us," they angrily said.

"But," says an old chronicler, "he, as a simple creature, opened not his mouth, fearing the frenzied wildness of that people, lest they should starve him, or shut him up in prison. So dwelt he with them a year, as a lamb among wolves."

In England, and by King Edward, Balliol was as little respected as he was in Scotland;

Edward treated him not as a monarch, but as a servant whom he scorned. He heaped insults upon him, and tried by every means in his power to make Balliol repent that he had ever claimed the crown.

It was all part of Edward's scheme to win Scotland for himself.

"When I have goaded this worm into turning," he planned, "and into rebelling against me, I shall then punish him and his followers by taking his country and his crown for myself."

And presently it fell out as Edward had schemed.

The worm was provoked into turning. Balliol leagued with France against England, and defied Edward by invading the counties of Northumberland and Cumberland.

But Balliol had no loyal subjects to back him up. His people despised him. His nobles were jealous of him; many of them he had offended.

When Edward heard that Balliol had laid waste with his rabble army two English counties, his wrath was great.

"Has the fool done this folly?" he cried. "If he will not come to us, we will come to him."

With a fleet of ships, and with an army of 30,000 foot soldiers and 50,000 horsemen, he went to Berwick-on-Tweed, and besieged it by land and by sea.

Berwick was then the greatest seaport town in Scotland, the home of rich Flemish merchants who exported wool, skins, hides, and salt fish, and imported cargoes of wine, spiceries, and corn.

Its gallant garrison defied King Edward. From behind the wooden stockade, which was its only rampart, they shouted and sang mocking verses that made Edward still more furiously angry.

With the loss of only one knight, the stockade was stormed. Nearly 8000 of the citizens were slain, and a handful of brave Flemish merchants who held out in the Town Hall when all others were forced to surrender, were burned alive in it. Edward let his soldiers sack, and plunder, and pillage, and butcher wholesale men, women, and children.

"As leaves in the autumn the Scots fell," says a chronicler, and for days the Tweed ran red across the bar into the grey North Sea, carrying the dead with it.

It was only when a procession of priests bore into Edward's presence the holiest things of their Church, and begged for mercy, that the angry king made the slayers sheathe their swords.

Berwick's greatness was gone for ever. From that time it sank into a little seaport town.

The king who had dreamed of a Great Britain over which he ruled in peace and prosperity, had done the worst possible thing to make his dream a reality.

In his rage he had grown cruel, and it was a cruelty which the Scottish people never forgot or forgave.

A few weeks later the Scots brutally avenged themselves. At Corbridge, in Northumberland, they set fire to the schools and burned to death 200 "little clerks," as the schoolboys then were called.

Before he left Berwick, Edward had a deep fosse, or ditch, dug round the town, and a high wall built. Now that Berwick belonged to him, he meant that proper care should be taken of it, and so good were his fortifications that you may see parts of the "Edwardian Wall" standing at Berwick to this day. They say that he was so keen that the work should be quickly done, that he himself wheeled a barrow for the builders.

Victories at Dunbar and other places followed that at Berwick, and Edward marched in triumph through Scotland, claiming and getting the submission of the Scottish nobles. "Ragman's Roll" is the name of the document they signed, promising to be Edward's vassals, and very poor beggar-men they sound.

This done Edward returned to England, taking with him everything that it was possible to take in the way of royal plunder.

Amongst other things were the Stone of Destiny, and the Holy Rood. It was from this Holy Rood, said to be a piece of the Cross upon which Christ was crucified, that Holyrood Palace takes its name.

The Stone of Destiny belonged to the Scots from the very earliest days when they, it was said, sailed to Ireland across the sea from Spain. Many tales were told of it. One was that it was the stone upon which Jacob's head rested when he dreamed of angels going up and down to heaven.

On that stone the kings of Scotland had always been crowned, and now that England and Scotland are at war no more, those who reign over Great Britain still are crowned on the Stone of Destiny that stands in Westminster Abbey.

Chief amongst those who had helped to make Edward master of Scotland was Robert Bruce, called Le Vie!, son of that Bruce, now dead, who had claimed the crown when it was given to Balliol, and father of Robert the Bruce.

After the battle of Dunbar he came to King Edward and reminded him that it was now his turn to be king. Not only was he the nearest heir to the throne, but in days when Alexander III. had no children, he had promised Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale, his friend and cousin, that he should succeed him.

"Have we nothing else to do but to win kingdoms for thee?" was Edward's scornful answer.

So did Edward try to humble one of the most powerful nobles in Scotland.

King "Toom Tabard" he humbled in yet another way.

Stripped of his kingly ornaments, and with a white wand, such as penitents carried, in his hand, Balliol humbly gave up to Edward all his rights to the kingdom of Scotland. For three years he was imprisoned in London, and was then allowed to go to his estates in France, where he died thirteen years later.

Scotland was once again without a king, and was in even worse case than when its sovereign was a little girl, far across the sea.

Its castles were in the hands of English governors, who took from the Scots any property they took a fancy to. English soldiers were allowed to rob, beat, and even kill the Scots, their wives, their daughters, and their little children, without punishment.

In the years that followed Edward's triumph, had it not been for William Wallace, one of the truest patriots and greatest heroes that ever lived, the freedom of Scotland might have been lost for ever.

From 1297 until 1305 Wallace waged war against England, at first winning battles against heavy odds.

In 1305, through the treachery of a Scottish nobleman, he was betrayed to the English and brought to London.

By the king's command he was drawn on a hurdle from Westminster to the Tower, and from the Tower to Smithfield, and there he was hanged, disembowelled, and beheaded.

His limbs were sent to Newcastle, Berwickon-Tweed, Stirling, and Perth, to be exhibited there as parts of a traitor to the English king. His head was stuck on London Bridge, for the sea-birds that come up the Thames with the tide to peck at, and for sun and wind, snow and rain, to beat upon.

For fifteen years Edward I. had struggled with Scotland. When he rode across London Bridge and looked at the head of his enemy, Wallace, bleaching there, he must proudly have thought that the fight was over at last, and that he had won. He was overlord of Scotland—king in all but name.

Little he knew that in his own court, perhaps even in the train of knights who rode with him, there was one who, in six short months, was to defy the victorious king, and win for Scotland a freedom that she was never more to lose.