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History law essay

Late in 1290, following the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway, (granddaughter of Alexander III, himself killed in an accident in 1286) a new period of ‘perplexity’ began in the Kingdom of Scotland. The Maid, who had been accepted by the Magnates (on paper at least) as the heir to the throne of Scotland, had left the Kingdom she had never seen on the brink of a power struggle between two rival factions for the crown- the Bruce and Balliol families. In a bid to avoid Civil War, Edward I was accepted to judge the competitors and choose a King. Although 14 claims were submitted, only four ever stood any real chance of success- the claims of Balliol (the favourite), Bruce (also strongly backed), Count Florence of Holland and John de Hastings. This essay argues that Balliol’s claim of primogeniture was legally far superior and the foundation of the Bruce claim was nothing more than opportunism.

All four candidates for the throne were legitimately descended through Henry of Northumberland, son of King David I. All but Florence Count of Holland were descended through David, Earl of Huntingdon, the Count being descended through Ada, David’s older sister. Florence whose argument went against the claims of all of the other three, based his claim on Earl David giving up his own claim to the throne in return for the lands of Gairoch in the north-east of Scotland. He alleged that the then King, (William) had named his sister Ada and her heirs as first in line of succession should his own line fail (as it had with the death of the Maid of Norway.). If proved this would defeat the claims of both Bruce and Balliol.

John de Hastings, the grandson of Earl David of Huntingdon’s third daughter, had no real chance of selection as King as he was further from Earl David than either Bruce or Balliol. Hastings claimed that Scotland was not in fact a Kingdom at all but a fief or feudal dependency of the King of England and therefore should be subject to the laws of feudalism This would mean that Scotland would be divided equally between Balliol, Bruce and Hastings. According to Prestwich, Weyland (a former of legal officer of Edward’s) advised that Scotland be divided in this way. They pointed to the facts that “the kings of Scots were neither crowned nor anointed and drew attention to other grave defects of Scottish kingship.” This argument of partibility, which, in my opinion, could be seen as being both technically strong in law and opportunism, is thought to have failed because it was too bitter a pill for the Scottish magnates to swallow (especially when coming from an English baron), as it depended on the premise that the Realm of Scotland never existed.

The impartibility of Scotland was an argument used consistently by John Balliol and initially by Bruce. John Balliol’s claim was the simplest and therefore the most convincing. It argued that Scotland should be given to a single man (impartible) and that Balliol, “as the senior descendant of Earl David by the strict rule of primogeniture, was the true heir to the Crown and office of King” . There is a general consensus among historians that Balliol’s was “the best claim” in terms of the law of feudalism, where the land goes to the direct heir of the line of the oldest daughter of Earl David.

His claim was countered by Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale, (grandfather of the Robert Bruce who eventually seized the throne of Scotland in 1306 and defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314). Like Balliol, Bruce argued initially that Scotland was impartible and that he should be the King. Bruce’s primary claim was based on his being the nearest male relative to David Earl of Huntingdon- his grandson- while Balliol was only his great-grandson. This claim did have legal basis, founded on Imperial or Roman Law. This ruling, passed down by the Holy Roman Empire, still had precedence in Germany, Austria and Northern Italy. In this sense Bruce’s claim could claim to be strong in law. This is certainly the stance taken by Duncan who argued that Imperial Law should have been used to decide an heir, and he argues that the reason Edward refused to do this was in order to reserve England’s right to escheat the Kingdom of Scotland (where the feudal holding returns to the overlord if there is no obvious heir) should the need arise in the future, thus contradicting his decision over which legal custom to use.

Bruce also claimed that he should have the crown as he was named heir to the throne by the then childless Alexander II, as his nearest male relative, Devorguilla having not yet given birth to John Balliol. This, however, is an obviously flawed argument, simply because it was no longer relevant. Bruce had already been superseded by the future Alexander III as heir to the throne of Alexander II and so there was nothing to say that he could not be superseded again. Just because he was the heir at one point did not mean that he would be heir for life. Compared with Balliol’s single, simple claim this Bruce opportunism diminished the legality of their primary claim of Imperial Law.

It is thought that from the very beginning of the Norham process Bruce knew that his claim was legally weaker than Balliol’s and that he was already seeking a ‘back-up’ plan. He began to look more closely at the claim of Count Florence of Holland. The Earl of Gloucester claimed to have witnessed an agreement where, in the event of Balliol defeating Bruce’s primary claim, Bruce would support the claim of Florence. Then if the Count were to successfully defeat Balliol he would be given Bruce’s English lands and Bruce would be given the throne. However, in the end this did not matter as a few days before Edward’s final judgement, Florence mysteriously withdrew his claim. In 1957, Grant and Simpson claimed that Florence had probably been bought off by a Balliol bribe despite there being a lack of solid evidence for this.

As expected, it was declared that feudal law would apply, favouring the argument of Balliol and thus throwing out the Bruce claim of Imperial Law. This was announced on November 6th, and Florence withdrew his claim around the 14th, leaving Bruce with no chance of getting the throne. There followed the final example of Bruce opportunism. In a much scandalised volte face, he abandoned his claim of impartibility and gave his backing to Hastings’ claim in the hope of inheriting at least a third of the Kingdom. This complete U-turn by the Bruces casts doubt on the legality of Bruce’s original claim of impartibility. In the end, Edward declared Scotland impartible, throwing out the primary claim of Hastings and the ‘eleventh hour’ claim of Bruce. While Edward’s decision is commendable in that it preserved Scotland as a Kingdom and avoided a potentially ruinous civil war between the three inheritors, it was made for purely selfish reasons. If Scotland was declared partible, it could have been argued that so was England, should Edward or his heirs die childless.

It is my conclusion that it is historically accurate to argue that while Bruce appears to have had a degree of legality in his initial claim of Imperial Law, this was tarnished by the “ingenuity, self contradiction and….chicanery” he showed later when it was obvious he would fail. In fact, it is probably true that Bruce was showing the legal frailty of his claim before the Norham process even began. At some point in the years 1290/1291 Bruce sent a letter to Edward I, stating that his claim was superior to that of Balliol and claiming he had the support of the seven earls. This appears to have been an ancient Scottish tradition but is irrelevant because Bruce fails to mention the names of five of these seven earls, leading modern historians to dismiss this as an “ingenious” piece of opportunism but probably a fake intended to make it appear that Bruce had the strongest case. It goes without saying that if Bruce really did have the strongest case then there would be no need for a fake. Therefore, I repeat my argument that from the very beginning, it appears that even Robert Bruce himself knew that his claim to be the rightful King of Scotland was legally very weak and nothing more than opportunism.

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