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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter V


DUMFRIES IN THE REIGN OF ALEXANDER III – EXPEDITION AGAINST THE ISLE OF MAN – DEATH OF THE KING – DISPUTED SUCCESSION TO THE THRONE – BALIOL’S CLAIMS ENFORCED BY EDWARD I. OF ENGLAND – EDWARD CONSTITUTES HIMSELF LORD OF PARAMOUNT OF THE KINGDOM – HE SEIZES ITS CHIEF STRONGHOLDS, INCLUDING THE CASTLE OF DUMFRIES – THE TOWN PLACED UNDER ENGLISH RULERS.

IT is in the palmy days of Alexander III. that we find Dumfries first associated with great historical events. In the reign of good and sagacious king, Scotland reached a position of prosperity to which it had never before attained. He encouraged commerce and literature; and, whilst cultivating with success the arts of peace, he acquired fame and more substantial results, by his prowess in the field. Fighting at the head of his army, in 1263, he gained a decisive victory over the Norwegian invaders under King Haco, at Largs, in Ayrshire; and, with the view of pushing his success, he in the following year visited Dumfries, and there planned an expedition against the Isle of Man, which originally belonged to Scotland, but had for about a hundred and eighty years been subject to the Crown of Norway. The King brought with him a powerful force, which would be swelled, we may suppose, by the vassals of the neighbouring chiefs, anxious to show fealty to their feudal superior. When the army of Mona, as it may be called, was all duly equipped, it embarked in a squadron of vessels brought to the estuary of the Nith for that purpose; and, under the leadership of Alexander Stewart, progenitor of the royal family of that name, and of John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, proceeded down the Solway to its destination. [Both Hector Boethius and Buchanan furnish accounts of this expedition. According to the former historian, the fleet consisted of thirteen ships, manned with five hundred mariners.]

It does not appear that the hostile fleet encountered any opposition. We read of no naval engagement introductory to the battles which took place on the soil of Man for the possession of the island. These, however, were numerous and obstinate – Guara, King of Man, under Haco, offering a desperate resistance. At length he was forced to yield; and the expedition returned laden with the spoils of victory, after having subdued the island and appointed a viceroy over it, who engaged, by way of tribute, to maintain thirteen ships, with five hundred mariners, for the use of the Scottish monarch.

Other twenty prosperous years pass away, to be succeeded by more than twenty of desolation and trial. Dumfries was identified with the conquest of Man, and shared in the general well-being of the country; and when, by the accidental death of Alexander III., its Augustan era was brought to a sudden close, the town and its neighbourhood experienced more than their share of the sufferings which ensued. The proximity of Dumfries to the dominions of the ambitious monarch who aimed at making Scotland a dependency of the English Crown, exposed the town to peculiar perils, rendering the interregnum a time of rapine and terror for the unfortunate inhabitants.

Alexander III. died childless, and his heiress and granddaughter, the Maiden of Norway, was an infant in a foreign land. In her absence, some of the barons who had pretensions to the Crown put forward their claims; whilst Edward I. of England endeavoured to negotiate a marriage between the young Princess and his son, the Prince of Wales: hoping thereby to get possession of Scotland – a prize he had long coveted. But the tender child, whose precarious life stood between the country and the perplexities of a disputed succession, and who, perhaps, might have been the occasion of still greater evils had she lived, sickened and died on her way to Scotland, in 1290; so that the English monarch, thus defeated in his designs, resolved if possible to realize them by fraud and force. It is not necessary that we should narrate with minuteness how he schemed and acted – into what troubles he plunged the country, and how it was eventually delivered out of them, and his ambition thoroughly baffled; but, in order to understand the history of Dumfries, we must pay some attention to the proceedings at this period with which it is inseparably bound up.

In the first scene of the evolving drama, the competitors for the Crown, including John Baliol, Devorgilla’s son, and Robert Bruce, fourth Lord of Annandale, are discovered laying their respective claims before the crafty English monarch as umpire. Each of them tries to make the best of his own case; and Baliol, not satisfied with such a course, adopts the expedient of traducing his chief rival, Bruce. In a paper laid before King Edward [Sir Francis Palgrave’s Documents and Records Illustrative of the History of Scotland, vol. i., Introduction, p. 80.], he affirmed, that when the Bishops and other great men of Scotland had sworn to defend the kingdom of their lady the daughter of Norway, and keep the peace of her land, Sir Robert Bruce and the Earl of Carrick, his son, after also doing fealty to her as their lady liege, attacked the Castle of Dumfries with fire and arms, and banners displayed, expelling the forces of the Queen who held the same; that thereupon Sir Robert advanced to the Castle of Buittle and caused a proclamation to be made by one Patrick McGuffock, within the bailery of the same fortress, warning certain loyal individuals away from the district: the result being that good subject quitted the land and were banished therefrom. How far these allegations against Bruce were correct, cannot now be ascertained; but the probability is that they embodied a highly exaggerated version of some real occurrence.

In the second scene, we find the royal umpire reducing the competitors to these two: to Bruce, as son of the second daughter of William the Lion’s brother, and Baliol, as grandson of the same nobleman’s eldest daughter; in the third, we see him selecting Baliol as the more pliant of the two; in the fourth, we hear the obsequious favourite acknowledge that he is but a vassal sovereign to his patron Edward, the Lard Paramount of Scotland; and, in the fifth, the castles of the nobles, that had been given temporarily to that puissant monarch as a pledge that his decision would be accepted, are seen passing into the hands of the puppet-king, with Englishmen for their governors. [Rymer’s Fœdera, vol. ii., p. 591.] The sad finale being a virtual surrender of the nation’s power, and a sacrifice of its independence: which humiliation is symbolized by the breaking of the Great Seal of Scotland into fragments.

So ended Edward’s original device. He had effected a conquest at little cost of treasure, and with no loss of blood: diplomacy had done more for him than his predecessors had been able to accomplish with the sword. But the triumph so cheaply won was temporary in its duration. The imperious spirit of the victor led him to make such exactions on his vassal, that the latter writhed under the treatment, and at length revolted – having first received the Pope’s absolution from his oath of homage. Baliol was encouraged to throw off the English yoke by many of his nobles, who felt it to be unbearable. A considerable army was raised by them; and Edward, not knowing whether to be more enraged than gratified by the news, heard that his Viceroy for ruling the subjugated kingdom, had set up as a sovereign on his own account. The English monarch was irritated at what he conceived to be Baliol’s treachery, and the unexpected failure of his own artfully-devised schemes; but his aspirations were agreeably whetted by the tempting opportunity, which the revolt of his vassal gave him, to place Scotland under martial law, and to snatch its sceptre from the weak hand to which he had consigned it - results not difficult to effect, he thought, as he had an immense army at his disposal, and could not dread much opposition from a country whose strength had been undermined and spirit broken.

The events which ensued justified his anticipations: Berwick besieged and taken, and thousands of its occupants put pitilessly to the sword [Some Scottish historians affirm that 15,000 persons fell in the massacre, but the number seems incredible.]; Dunbar, the key of the kingdom in that direction, captured after the loss of 10,000 defenders – the Castles of Roxburgh, Jedburgh, Dumbaron, Edinburgh, and Stirling, one after another, garrisoned by the conquering English; and their proud monarch, celebrating on the same day the Feast of John the Baptist and the acquisition of a kingdom, in the city of Perth, which opened its gates at his approach. Edward’s triumph was intensified, and his pride mightly flattered, by the appearance at this festive scene of a grey-haired suppliant: poor John Baliol come to acknowledge himself a guilty rebel, and to crave forgiveness from his injured lord and master; which favour was graciously granted – only that he had to purchase it at the expense of his kingly crown, and a sojourn with his son in the Tower of London. [Langtoft’s Chronicle, vol. ii., p. 280.]

Bruce, son of the other competitor, who had acquired the earldom of Carrick by marriage, thinking that now the star of his house had a good chance of rising, brought his hereditary claims before the king, who at once annihilated them by the sneering exclamation, “Have we no other work on hand but to conquer kingdoms for you?” Edward reserved the crown of Scotland for himself; and, with the view of keeping it more securely upon his head, sent Bruce to pacify the malcontents of his Annandale patrimony, and his son to perform a similar service in Carrick. [Rymer’s Fœdera, vol. ii., p. 714.]

How fared Dumfries during these stirring occurrences? Its Castle, like the other strongholds of the kingdom, was placed at the disposal of Edward, when he became umpire, and handed over by him to his creature Baliol, with the sceptre which was soon to lose. Baliol forthwith gave the Castle, with other fortresses of the district, into the keeping of Richard Seward [Rotuli Scotiæ.], the great-grandson of a Northumbrian chief who, fleeing from the power of William the Conqueror, settled in Dumfriesshire. This transfer of the Castle of Dumfries must have been extremely mortifying to Bruce, if it be true, as has been supposed, that he claimed a right to it under the Crown. When nearly all the other nobles swore fealty to Baliol, he retired, in a moody half-defiant spirit, to his paternal Castle of Lochmaben, where he died in the year of 1295.  His son and grandson, however, acknowledged what seemed to be irresistible power of the English monarch, by doing homage to him, as their rightful King, at Berwick; and his Majesty, appreciating their offer of service, gave to “his beloved and faithful Robert de Brus, Earl of Carrick,” letters patent, empowering him to render all persons on the marches of Annandale, whether English or Scottish, submissive to the English Government – the commission investing his son with a similar authority. It does not appear, however, that the Bruces were ever implicitly relied upon by Edward: had they possessed his full confidence, Dumfries, which adjoined their Annandale estates, would most likely have been placed under their rule. Its government was assigned to men of whose devotedness he could have no doubt – Henry de Percy, John de Hodleston, and, ultimately, to Alanus la Sousche, who also had jurisdiction over a great portion of the surrounding territory. [Redpath’s Border History, p. 201; and Rotuli Scotiæ, p. 30.] Nithsdale and its chief town had, since the light of history was cast upon them, experienced many changes; but never till this period had they been placed under the foot of an oppressive conqueror. The Selgovæ, as we have seen, were not tyrannized over by the Romans; and the succeeding races who took root in the district fraternized with and did not trample upon the resident population. It was a new as well as a painful thing, therefore, for the people to know and feel that they were in a state of thraldom. Their native rulers were displaced; foreign lords occupied their lands and castles; and the “crown of the causeway” was usurped by an insolent soldiery, who paid no respect to gentle or simple, but were the rude enforcers of the English usurpation, and, as such, bent on breaking down the spirit f the people, and impoverishing them both in mind and body.

Though a great amount of license was given to the soldiers, they were required to respect ecclesiastical property of all kinds – Edward being anxious to keep on good terms with the Pope. He also sent letters to men of influence, enjoining them to protect abbeys, priories, monasteries, and other religious houses. Communications of this nature were addressed to the “Earls of Strevelyn, Dunfres, Edinburgh, and Berwick,” [Rymer’s Fœdera.], in favour of the Abbot “de Sancta Cruce;” and to the Governor of Dumfries, on behalf of the Prioress of Lincluden, “Dungallus, [Dungal was probably one of the family of Dunegal of Stranid.], Abbot de Sacro Nemore (Holywood), Andreas, vicar of Dalgarnock, Walter Lilleslief, parson of Kylebride, and Robertus filius Rodulphi, parson of the Church of St. Cuthbert de Ewytesdale.” [Rymer’s Fœdera.]

Throughout Dumfriesshire and Scotland generally, the yoke of vassalage was impatiently borne; and if the conqueror, when at Perth praying and carousing by turns, really cheated himself into the belief that, though foiled at first, he had now with the strong hand fairly quenched the fire of Scottish independence he was soon undeceived. He had succeeded in putting down all show of opposition; and, in order to retain his hold upon the country, he strengthened its garrisons, and took means for over-awing its most turbulent portion, the Border district, by appointing wardens to govern it, with special powers applicable to its frontier position. Having to all appearance realized his utmost wishes in Scotland, he proceeded to France, to try if haply he might meet with the same good fortune there. He aimed at making that country also acknowledge the superiority of his arms; and while engaged in the fallacious effort – pursuing a shadow – the substance he had already acquired eluded his grasp.


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