If Peasants Wrote History
Unlocking the Mysteries of the Every Day Mind of the Middle Ages
We like to wonder what it would be like to have dinner with Alexander the Great, William the Conqueror, Michelangelo, or Sir Isaac Newton. We might think this to be an impossible task, but it really isn’t. T he truth is that you can have them over any time you open an autobiography. Their primary source writings become their imaginary voices, whispering secrets of history in our ears and giving us a different set of insights. than you might have been taught?
How do Historians refine their craft and utilize primary source information to bring out accuracy and enliven the story? When do we have to separate fact-from-fiction? Most of my writing and historical work comes from memory, but it didn’t begin that way and it is something that has been refined over time. Initially, the art of historical research was as invigorating as actually telling the story itself. Combing through primary documents in the Radcliffe Camera (The library at Oxford University) and reading the words actually written by the characters of history is a piece of great detective work.
You may enjoy checking out the separated boxes throughout this saga as they offer insight into how our knowledge of History serpentines through time. I am very interested in the ‘why’ of history and the ‘how’ of history. I have taken a slice of European history, roughly a hundred year period between the late 1200s and the late 1300s and given a 360-degree view, as much from the first-hand accounts as I can. The tools of the historian include the records kept at hospitals, archives, the writings of the king’s magistrates, ecclesiastical records, personal letters and financial agreements. They come from contemporary historians, the journalists of the day, letters from person-to-person, and they show how the events were perceived in different parts of the European world.
To set this up, we need to go back to 793 and see the destruction that the Vikings caused in Europe. No one had seen anything as advanced as the warrior-like peoples from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Eventually they would spread with a tremendous veracity. The Vikings, who fused iron and steel into their weapons, saw nothing in Europe that could stand against them.
In addition, another era of global warming was generally believed to have occurred in northern latitudes between the 6th and 7th centuries causing a population boom amongst the Norse people. They used the endless supply of timber to build great vessels and structures.
Initially, the Vikings weren’t going to expand too much to the south because the Saxons were known to be vicious fighters. They had lost several battles with the Saxons already and the two sides had reached a stalemate in central Germany. But shortly before the turn of the eighth century, the Vikings witnessed how Charlemagne crushed the Saxons.
Einhard was Charlemagne’s biographer and one of the great writers of the Middle Ages. He tells of a murder committed by the Saxons to one of Charlemagne’s closest friends. It seems that even more than the desire to convert them to Christianity, was the anger in which Charlemagne felt to avenge his friend’s murder. But it was those left-behind after the conquest who systematically, and often with great brutality, converted the Saxons to Christianity. The slaughter of the Saxons at Verdun was particularly brutal. They forced Christianity on the Saxons and this was something new and daunting to the Vikings. They weren’t going to let go of their own beliefs easily.
Einhard told the story of 30 years of Saxon wars and stressed Charlemagne’s determination to remove the cultic symbols of Saxon paganism. Pope Boniface himself had famously felled Thor’s Oak in 723. Irminsuls, or standing tree trunks, were important in pagan religion.
Pious legends aside, what really happened at Thor's Oak was a great case of early political intrigue and cunning. Boniface was sponsored and protected by Charles Martel, (father of Charlemagne) who was bringing the region under his control. Charles was facing the Umayyad invasions from Spain, and needed stability on the opposite side of his nation. The non-Frankish Germanic tribes were divided, and Charles sought the allegiance -- by persuasion or force -- of the local chieftains. They would become his "margraves", semi-autonomous allies who provided security for his northeast borders.
Secondly, the net-effect of Charlemagne’s military defeats was to weaken the smaller tribes of mainland Europe as well as England and Ireland. The Vikings had a population explosion, a motive to preserve Viking culture and identity, and finally, they had a weakened geographical landscape around them. This was to be a very cruel time for all.
Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, ⁊ þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas ⁊ ligrescas, ⁊ fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, ⁊ litel æfter þam, þæs ilcan geares on .vi. Idus Ianuarii, earmlice hæþenra manna hergunc adilegode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarnaee þurh hreaflac ⁊ mansliht.
In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne.
Alcuin, a scholar in Charlemagne’s time wrote of the Vikings, ‘’Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets’’
How Old is Norway? Ten thousand years ago, a rapid warming saw stone-age peoples make their way into far northern Norway. In the Alta Fjord, there is a singular Stone-Age legacy. These vivid prehistoric petroglyphs were discovered in 1972 and now over 6,000 drawings have been discovered. It certainly was the stone-age hunters and gathers followed the ice-sheets north.
With hard hammers and chisels, they drew carvings that covered a wide-range of subjects from reindeer and elk. There is also a fence in the drawings, showing how intelligent these stone age peoples. There are drawings that are mysterious and powerful to deny are own nothingness.
In one instance, a farmer spoke before the Ting and argued that following the new faith of the king would make them all slaves. The Christian viewpoint was not tolerant of polytheistic religions.
At this time, the Vikings still worshipped Oden, the Viking God of War and Victory. He demanded human sacrifice and blood. They had a strong affinity for Thor, whose hammer was used to slay enemies. And Oden was married to Frea, the goddess of Love, Laughter and Mortal Pleasure. And from these three individuals, we get our days, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
The English language took much of their language from the Vikings. The Norse coastline was extravagant with beauty and full of fish. Near the fishing village of Lufator islands, archaeologists unearthed the largest Viking settlement ever found in 1981. It was an extraordinary archaeology find. The people cultivated barley and ranched a number of animals. The house is a 340-foot longhouse and large living quarters and a banquet hall along with a barn that could hold 50 cows. The banquet hall was a sacred place and only used with ceremonies.
The oldest Medieval Stone Church in Norway is built near Harstodt. The Viking religion co-existed alongside the Christian faith and they were a slow adopter of the new faith. It was quite often that the two faiths would be mixed together for a time-being. The Christian bishops said that the rule of Christ was made possible through the Christian kings of Europe. But the Vikings refused to see it that way. Conversion was a slow process. They thought of Christ as a god amongst many, and so they also felt that the rule of the day was through the ‘’Ting’’ which was a collection of equals.
But despite their energy and thirst for violence, the Vikings were mostly farmers. Life for the Vikings was extremely tough. In 872, the Vikings met at their Ting and chose for themselves their first King, Harold Fairhair. Although he is largely a mystery to most historians, his saga is told several times in written tradition – usually beginning around the 12th century. Thus, there was nearly 400 years between his birth and the time they took to write about him.
In 977, The King Olaf Trigassen founded the city then called Nido-Rus and became the first capital of Norway. Most Viking chieftains resisted the power of the King, especially when it came to conflict between Christianity and The Pagan tribes. It didn’t help matters much when King Olaf II set in motion a critical battle for the Christian armies against the Pagans.
Olaf-II married his illegitimate daughter and half-sister of the Duke of Normandy William Longsword. This is partially how the Normans derive their own heritage, language and religion.
In the year 1030, at the battle of Sticklestad – just north of Trondheim, King Olaf-II fell in battle. And - despite the quickness of his rule, he was quickly canonized. He is buried in the Gothic Cathedral there, which is the northern-most Gothic cathedral of Europe. Olaf’s death galvanized the faith of the peoples and he had achieved the unification of Norway – something no other king before him had succeeded in doing.
On the way home he wintered with Duke Richard II of Normandy. This region had been conquered by Norsemen in the year 881. Duke Richard was himself an ardent Christian, and the Normans had also previously converted to Christianity. Before leaving, Olaf was baptized in Rouen.
Olaf returned to Norway in 1015 and declared himself king, obtaining the support of the five petty kings of the Uplands. In 1016 at the Battle of Nesjar he defeated Earl Sweyn, one of the earls of Lade and hitherto the virtual ruler of Norway. He founded the town of Borg, later to be known as Sarpsborg, by the waterfall Sarpsfossen in Østfold county.
Within a few years he had won more power than had been enjoyed by any of his predecessors on the throne. He had annihilated the petty kings of the South, subdued the aristocracy, asserted his suzerainty in the Orkney Islands, and conducted a successful raid on Denmark. He made peace with King Olof Skötkonung of Sweden through Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker, and was for some time engaged to Olof's daughter, Princess Ingegerd, though without Olof's approval.
Another global warming was generally believed to have occurred in northern latitudes between the 6th and 7th centuries causing a population boom amongst the Norse people. They used the endless supply of timber to build great vessels and structures.
History occurs Chronologically but it’s good to set the table at the onset. Aside from that, a good presence of history should read like a dynamic mystery. The true craftsman will paint a picture of the persons inside the story---And you should feel as if these people are alive and telling their story to you in the present day!
This century includes some amazing events. The war for Scottish independence and the rise of the real William Wallace are detailed in a way that lets you see inside the minds of the main protagonists. The second event concentrates on the black death of Europe and its eventual and rapid spread amongst the English countryside. We will examine a true Medieval City, London, and we will go back to the records of the city where arrangements to pay street-cleaning crews were put into place.
All five senses will be employed – (although you may wish it wasn’t!) From life in the Medieval City, we will look at an event that completely shook the Medieval World, the Peasants Revolt. Few of us are aware of it today and it barely gets a nod in even the more in-depth high-school textbooks. But it was an event that shaped England and forever shook the cultural foundation and social strata well into the English Renaissance. Yet, few know this beyond the name itself, and there is a reason for that. The English wanted to sweep this rebellion under the rug as quickly and quietly as possible.
Few centuries in human history have had so many things happen that have changed the landscape of a region as the thirteenth and fourteenth century in England and France. It is these Middle Ages where we collectively had one foot entrenched into the classical world and the other stepping into the modern one. It is one of the three or four ‘’transition’’ centuries for all of humankind. And its effects were felt far beyond Europe. In fact, the silk-route and all of the merchants along the way, were affected. Trade, Commerce, Language, Medicine, Technology, Astronomy, Modern Mathematics, the Classics, were among many aspects of Medieval life that were spread throughout the world.
Few centuries in human history have had so many things happen that have changed the landscape of a region as the thirteenth and fourteenth century in England and France. It is these Middle Ages where we collectively had one foot entrenched into the classical world and the other stepping into the modern one. It
For this task, I consulted several very helpful sources of Primary writings. The first one was the ‘’Records to the Parliament of Scotland’’ which has carefully scanned tens of thousands of documents pertaining to things that go all the way back to the days of the Kelts and all the way up to the year Scotland and England unified in 1707. This website can be found at ‘’ http://www.rps.ac.uk/ ‘’ Another website is the English National Archives. If you were to only use these two sources, you could write millions of papers about everything. But these two sources are a great place to start. You can find this information at ‘’ http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-subject/parliament.htm’’
History is a wonderfully elastic thing that changes with time. It is forever bending, forever yielding, but it never can break – unless there is a shortage of primary documentation. When that happens, it is usually a sobering thought to us all. Things are not always what we have been taught after all. We don’t like thinking that all this time we bought someone else’s lies or interpretation where there is clearly an axe to grind. Now, you have the unique chance to write your own history, using primary source information, actual letters, drawings and carvings. These are the people of the past yearning to speak to us. It is all right there, but it takes a lesson in learning how to read with one’s ears.
The Middle-Ages have always been a source of fascination with me. On the one hand, it is a place of chivalry and romance, on the other hand its cities were a putrid mess of pestilence, pollution and disease. It is a world where the act of playing minstrel music is contrasted with the harsh realities of anti-Semitism, uncontrollable anger and rage. It is a place where the architecture reached a point of grandeur unequalled at any point of time and cathedrals as massive as the eye could imagine were built amongst the seething ruins of packed villages.
Superstition replaced common sense - while at the same time, great advances were made in the fields of science and medicine and the arts. Illiteracy was the fate of over 60% of the masses and yet the monasteries were the great purveyors of civilization. There is an endless array of contrasts that we can make about the Middle-Ages. However it is unlike any other era in our human experience. It was so robustly built and laden with a sense of permanence that we can still fly across he ocean and see the past come to life. The Middle-Ages has been with us throughout the all of time.
The irrational replaced the rational. How else could one explain the manner in which the Church dealt with warfare? A hierarchy preaching peace was also waging what was tantamount to a world war against the Muslim invaders of the Holy Land. The Church was always wrestling with its own identity and even the clergy were permitted to fight against the ‘heathens.’ But there was one caveat – they mustn’t draw blood. Hence the reason why the Bishop Odo is pictured in the Bayeaux tapestry with a club instead of a sword.
The Magna Carta was an enormous influence on worlds to come. And, here, at the very bottom of the list – in clause 59 – they even made a provision for Alexander to give back his lands as well.
Alexander mowed through Gaelic rebels and won the respect of his men in doing so. He headed through the highlands of England. In January of 1216, the English land barons of the north signed a pact with the king. Now, the king they would follow was Alexander, swearing Fealty to the king of the Scots.
When we speak of Feudal definitions such as Fealty, it is hard for us to place in our modern minds exactly what that means. So, in order to understand it, we must imagine ourselves living in the moment. This act of taking an Oath of Fealty was one of the most important in the Middle Ages and was an essential part of feudal life.
Prior to an Oath of Fealty, you would have paid homage to the king. This could be done in a number of different ways. The symbolic act of kneeling and kissing the ring of the king was and placing his hands between that of the overlord. At that point, you would swear an Oath of Fealty. The word itself is from the Latin and it means ‘faithfulness.’
The king would be the highest member of the hierarchy. His knights would swear an Oath of Fealty to protect him. These were called vassals. The knights would then hire mercenaries to also protect themselves as well as the king. All of this would be done in exchange for a tract of land. Sometimes a wealthy land baron would be called to do both roles, but in any event, the power system of feudal society was much like a pyramid with vassals being loyal to other vassals who were then loyal to still more vassals.
This was a momentous time in Scotland’s history. Alexander now had vassals and he tightened his grip in the north. The Barons then invited Prince Louis of France to come to England in 1216. Alexander was going to ask Louis of France to recognize the Kingdom of Scotland, thus removing the subservient nature of the relationship between Britain and Scotland. Meeting little resistance, Alexander accomplished something no other monarch of Scotland has ever achieved – he took his troops all the way to the straits of Dover. Alexander’s plan was working with precision.
He joined the French, and together, they laid siege to Dover castle. Half of Britain was now under Alexander’s control. But, then fate dealt a fatal blow. King John passed away. Now the barons switched their allegiance again, to the newly crowned King Henry III of England, Ireland, and the Duke of Aquitaine. He had all of this under his control, and he was just nine years old.
No one knew it then, but the child-king would rule for fifty-four years. Under the guidance of senior ministers, Henry III eliminated some of the more ‘radical’ elements of the Magna-Carta and reissued it with the blessing of the Church. The charter itself became part of English political life and was typically renewed by each monarch in turn. Henry was faced with daunting challenges for an adult mind to handle. But over time, Henry proved himself surprisingly astute and capable.
This was the situation Henry III was facing as king. He was generally well
regarded and seen as a loyal and pious king. But there were many old traditions that simply refused to relent. Like just about every king before him, he exacted a huge tax upon the Jews and generally made life very difficult for them. He wasn’t the first monarch to attempt to segregate them from the rest of Christian England but he may have been the most successful.
Alexander married Queen Margaret of France, thus tying King Henry III directly to the Scottish throne. In fact, on the very day of their wedding, Henry demanded that Alexander pay homage to him but Alexander did not comply. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Pope chastised Alexander and ex-communicated the King. The powers of the church in Edinburgh were now halted and the rebuke stung Alexander. The Pope ordered Alexander to pay homage to the king – the NINE year old king. Imagine Alexander kneeling to one knee and kissing the royal ring on the small finger of the new king. It must have been thoroughly humiliating.
Alexander’s own ambition of ruling the north of England was shattered. He was despondent and depressed. The northern Barons had betrayed Alexander and it was something that would come back to haunt them. Their allegiance to Henry III was a very sore spot for Alexander. But what of the Scottish nobles? They seemed to be split along several lines, and in November of 1217, Alexander gave his homage and returned the lands he conquered to Henry III.
Queen Margaret was the wife of King Alexander III of Scotland. The inter-relationships between the families of the Middle-Ages continued throughout the 20th century. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was the Grandson of Queen Victoria.
At this time, there were two powerful groups; the factions of Norman Vikings and supported by the ancient Canmore families, who for generations fought for bloodlines and kingdoms. In Scottish-Gaelic they were the House of Dunkeld, or the Caledonians. (The Shakespeare play Macbeth is based on them) The appearance of the towns that they founded was remarkable for their European look and architecture. The early Canmore family had understood English power and they took a knee to it almost from the beginning.
Alexander had to deal with claims of Norway on the Herbides Islands. The Gaelic warlords would fight alongside Alexander in Cateness, where one of his bishops was beaten and roasted alive. Alexander responded in a fierce and bloody manner. In the west, he set out to attack the lands of the Norwegian king.
His ruthlessness was never more evidenced than in the death of this baby girl. She had drawn the line of heredity through the Queen of Norway, and represented a potential threat to Alexander’s authority. It’s hard for us to understand in todays day and age exactly why an infant needed to be put to death in this manner. But keep in mind that the matter of arranged marriages was very much in use, and even though she was an infant, she could technically be married off to anyone. And in an era where lineage is passed through the male, it essentially prevented an arranged marriage from challenging his authority. And thus, this baby girl was murdered, coldly and pre-meditated.
Her elimination killed off the last threat to the crown and it was remembered for generations to come. The King let it be known to everyone that he would drive ambitiously for everyone to be subject to one King. Alexander had finally created what he wanted – an unchallenged kingdom. had finally created what he wanted – an unchallenged kingdom. The Scots, more than ever, enjoyed something it hadn’t had before, and that was peace.
The King of England, Henry III, actually recognized the country and it became one and united, county-by-county, as one people. Even the many languages quickly began to merge into one. Moreover, according to the Biographical information in the chronicle of ‘’The Acts of Alexander” provisions were made to the monks of Arbroath ‘’an annual gift of L9, S6-Schillings annually. In fact, according to the chronicles – the King made gifts to almost all of the monasteries in the isles as a act of ‘’ pious purposes.’’ Now, Scotland was of one faith, one people, one written set of laws, and soon, Scotland was to be its own country.
His son, Alexander III took the throne. Soon the English and the Scots were allies. Even intermarriage between the two was soon to occur. Alexander III – in one of the largest ceremonies to date – married Queen Margaret of England on Christmas 1251. Eyeing the proceedings was a young Prince Edward of England. We know him thanks to the movie Braveheart as Edward-I or ‘Longshanks.’ He was a tall and imposing man with piercing blue eyes who was as cold and calculating as any king England ever had.
The idea of equality did not appeal to Edward. He never thought the Scots were worthy of equality and certainly did not consider them to be tame or educated. On top of all this, Edward had a taste for violence. In thought process, he was a military chess player who created his own legacy and sought to craft his image by going on Crusade. With much ceremony and pomp, he left for the Promised Land.
He returned a hero.
Meanwhile, things had not gone well for Alexander III. In a series of senseless tragedies virtually everyone dear to him died. First, his wife had died, followed by his sisters, and his three children. All of this was over a nine year period of what must have been absolute sorrow and grief. He would become depressed and withdrawn. Psychologically he was all but ruined, but moreover, the Canmore line had come pretty much to an end, leading into a very foreboding feeling in all of Scotland. Had none of these things happened – the history of Scotland might have been very much different.
King Edward I was deeply saddened over the loss of his relatives. Upon returning, he sent a warm letter of condolences to Alexander III. Alexander’s reply was reflective of what he thought was a deep understanding and appreciation of their friendship. In the end, it would prove a fatal assumption.
“….You have offered much solace for our grief by saying that although death has borne away your kindred in parts, we are united together, God willing by the tie of indissoluble affection…’’ Alexander III reply to King Edward Longshanks
In 1286, Alexander III was eager to consummate his marriage and against the advice of his elders, took to horseback in the middle of a rainstorm. This resulted in yet another stroke of bad-luck for Alexander. He was thrown from his horse during a storm and broke his neck. He was genuinely well thought of and left a surprising legacy behind him. The situation left as heir to the throne of Scotland the three-year-old Margaret, the Maid of Norway. She was the only child of Margaret and King Eric II of Norway. By the Treaty of Salisbury, it was declared that the little toddler would marry King Edward’s then one-year old son, Edward of Carnarvon. The compromise meant that the Scots would be free of English Lordship. In keeping with the tradition of understanding the Primary Source documentation, it reads as follows: "The land of the Scots are to be separate and divided from England according to its rightful boundaries, free in itself and without subjection.”
Nearly all of the provisions in the treaty were disregarded. There were fourteen claimants to the thrown but only two stood out as frontrunners. John Balliol, one of Scotland’s largest land-owners and Robert the Bruce, who had a distant but hereditarily verifiable relationship to the throne. The two of them opted to ask Edward to intervene, which he readily agreed to if they would take an Oath of Fealty to him. The problem was circumvented when both agreed that the realm would be handed over to Edward until a rightful heir had been found. King Edward most certainly wanted a weak ruler that he could take advantage of. Robert the Bruce had quite a following and was a strong personality. John Balliol was a political player who was a bit more in awe of Edward than Robert the Bruce was. The decision wasn’t a difficult one. After hearing both sides, the decision was made in favor of John Balliol on 17 November 1292.
He came from fighting stock. His grandfather, Robert Brus the Competitor, was a huge influence on him. He was heir to the lands in both Scotland and parts of England. He had gone on crusade with Edward I and both developed a great respect for one another. The entire Bruce family so generally well thought of and was popular amongst even most competing clans. In fact, legends were written about Brus the Competitor (as he was known even then) that any extended member of his family was shown great privilege and honor. Without a doubt, the grandfather was a huge influence on the grandson.
History Sidenotes: An example of how the Books that write history are made.
But the way to the throne of Scotland wasn’t so clear. John Balliol, the Lord of Galway, has his own share of supporters and a bloodline to match. His sister married into the Comynes family, combining much of the north of Scotland and the east of Scotland under Balliol’s hand. The two boys grew up together but they were more rivals than they were friends. Balliol has support from the powerful Comynes family.
The decision to bring King Edward I of England in to help decide the matter was complex. Edward had always been a close friend to the King of Scotland, and as mentioned earlier, developed a fondness for Robert the Bruce. Edward probably saw something in Robert that he didn’t see in his own son, Edward III, who was widely known to be a homosexual and would not leave an heir.
Edward saw himself as the ‘’Feudal Superior’’ to the throne of Scotland. Suddenly, Edward sees himself as a bit of an imperialist. In case the Scots have a reason to abandon their ideas, he has amassed a large number of troops on the border. The Bruce family banked on the relationship with Edward I.
Inside History: Edward I was known as the ‘’The Hammer of the Scots” and in his time he gave England more stability than it had previously. But one group of his subjects that were exclusively his were the Jews. He began to make laws that made it harder and harder for them to do business with the citizenry. Since Jews were not ‘’licensed’’ to buy land, they acquired it through a system called ‘’Usury.’’ Essentially, they were money-lenders who grew wealthy by driving interest rates through the roof, thus earning the wrath of the European gentiles. Edward sought to tax them very heavily in order to fund his wars in France.
At first, Edward publicly spoke out against the practice of usury but he made so much money on the practice that little was done. Then he began leveraging laws on the Jews that made them want to get out. Jews had acquired large tracts of land from English who couldn't pat their debts, yet they had no proper ‘license’ to own such land. As the Jews began to run out of money to finance Edward’s wars, they had just one thing left to give, and that was their land. Edward was bound by his own laws regarding the taking over of land that belonged to someone else, and thus he couldn’t confiscate it. Instead, he rewrote the King’s law and issued what would become known as the ‘’Jewish Expulsion Act of 1290’’’ With that, he rounded up close to 300 Jews and sent them to their deaths. There were a total of 3,000 Jews living in England at the time and they continued to be harassed. Any Jew over the age of twelve was made to wear a yellow patch on their linen coats.
The antagonism towards Jews in England must be tempered by two facts: (1) Prior to Edward’s reign, Jews were welcomed into the England and it proved a friendly place for them. During the middle part of twelfth century, they were even allowed to attend university. (2) Edward was a man of his era. Being Anti-Semitic was a large part of the Middle-Ages. In fact, it could be argued that Edward was exceedingly nice to the Jews when he first became King but that’s a dubious claim given his propensity to kill both Arabs and Jews while on the ninth crusade.
So why does John Balliol even think he has a chance to be King of Scotland? He was a great-great-great-grandson of King David I through his mother (and thus just one generation further than his main rival Robert Bruce. Still, Balliol was considered a bit of a loose cannon and the Comyns family was fiercely against the rule of England in any manner whatsoever. Still, Balliol was a surprise choice. The weakness of Balliol was a more likely choice if Edward truly wanted vassalage.
The Bruce’s relationship with England were in a precarious position. The Scots had no interest in supporting Balliol and there were factions in England that saw the Bruce as a powerful force. The Scottish land owners did not believe that Balliol would fight for their lands in the same way Robert the Bruce did and they had good reason. Balliol turned his attention on protecting the Comynes family lands – much to the dismay of Edward.
Needing an ally, he reached out to Robert the Bruce’s father and asks for assistance. But the fabric of where Scotland was to fit into a European stage was forever changed by Balliol’s commitment to send troops to help Edward. Many of them simply refused to go, and Balliol wasn’t keen on forcing them anyway. Edward despised the arrogance of Balliol by now and he became determined to replace him at once.
To back up this theory, consider this: Edward declared war on France and demanded that Scotland send a large contingency of infantry to aid the English in their war. Secondly, the more Scotsmen that are fighting in France the less there are to fight the English. Thirdly, Scotland and France had always had a good relationship and the idea that they should betray a longtime ally was repulsive to many of the Scots. Since they are bound by an Oath of Fealty, they had no choice. Shortly after the war begins, Edward then signs a peace treaty, leaving the Scots utterly exposed to an angry French military.
King Edward wasn’t above the using the tool of propaganda through his relationship with Pope Gregory X. He convinced the Pope that the war was the result of the Scots. As a result, the Pope then summarily excommunicated Robert the Bruce and all of his lieutenants and bishops.
Meanwhile, the Bruce’s were seen as working alongside Edward and retaining their relationship with political factions within the kingdom. The Scots under John Balliol and John Comynes attacked the castle at Carlisle where Bruce was holding it. The civil war dissolved when the attack began. Edward looks on the entire episode as a rebellion. And, the Balliol’s were repelled.
Edward responded by invading Scotland in 1296 and in a savage attack, took the town of Berwick. This hamlet sits right across the border on the Scotland side. It was an important trading area. But the English were determined to send a message to the rest of Scotland and they succeeded only in raising the fury of the country. 10,000 men, women and children were brutally slaughtered in a battle horrific even by Medieval standards. One bishop recalls that the English spared no one, ‘’not even a woman in the very act of labor.’’
The reasons why Balliol was chosen over Bruce vary depending on who is asked. In English lore, it is said that King Edward saw Balliol as a weak-minded leader whose ‘’advantage can quickly be neutralized.’ In contrast, Robert the Bruce was an established military hero with a large following and known for his courage and bravery. Edward had played the most excellent of chess moves.
Edward took on the role of judge with the Scots, hearing cases involving the nobility. Some of the land owners learned that the British would gladly take bribes for rulings in their favors and to the Scots this was very threatening. One case in-particular involved Macduff, a wealthy Earl, in which Edward brought Balliol to face him in the large hall.
When Edward was leaving Scotland, it was said that he was immensely satisfied with his total victory at Berwick. He had succeeded in attacking a large number of the nobility, but the contrast of English ways of life and Scots way of life play out. To he Scots, numerous uprisings broke out. To them, it was much more than nobility, it was the very heart of Scotland. Rich or poor, proud or humble, the Scots were much more apt to fight as one than the British were. And out of this comes William Wallace We see a piece of artwork of Balliol’s surrender. He is on his knees before the king and he has his Scottish coat of arms stripped from him and he becomes a pathetic figure in Scotland, He has to plead for his life. In fact, his nickname, ‘’Tomb-de-Bard’ means ‘Empty Court.’ It means he was the King of nothing. The ancient history and legacy of Scotland was trampled on.
‘’…And they, in the name of the same king, expressed as procurators, and acting for him, promised us expressly that the same king of Scots], in the present war which we are waging against the said king of England [and] his supporters, both the king of Germany and any other of his supporters, should publicly and openly assist us and our successors in England if a war of this kind occurs against them, with all his resources and those of his realm, both by land and sea, and they will provide counsel and help speedily.’’
One aspect of this treaty has been overlooked for years. Scotland wasn’t merely signing a defense treaty. Phillip was actively pursuing a war with England and forced Scotland to attack from the north. No one in Scotland believed that it could take on the finest military on the land, and yet now France has made a promise that if Scotland attacks first, they will attack on the southern part of England. It was a calculated risk taken by the Scots but one that until recently, historians were not even aware of. This treaty tells what the expectations of Scotland are:
‘’… the aforesaid king of Scotland will endeavor to enter the land of England with all his forces, to as wide and as deep an extent as possible, making war and a pitched battle besieging and laying waste and assailing the king of England’’
Edward responded by invading Scotland in 1296 and in a savage attack, took the town of Berwick. This hamlet sits right across the border on the Scotland side. It was an important trading area. But the English were determined to send a message to the rest of Scotland and they succeeded only in raising the fury of the country. 10,000 men, women and children were brutally slaughtered in a battle horrific even by Medieval standards. One bishop recalls that the English spared no one, ‘’not even a woman in the very act of labor.’’
England was desperately in debt due to the war in France. He seemed to want to take the Scots soldiers who would be bound to fight for him, and use them like pawns in the war with France. Secondly, Scotland had a thriving economy, and far from the brut savagery that the Scots were portrayed in the movie Braveheart, the countryside was dotted with marketplaces that had goods from as far away as Asia. The economy of Scotland was worth the plunder, and Edward made his intentions very clear.
After Berwick, the terror felt in the rest of the countryside gripped the land. One-by-One, city and hamlet, town and village, fell to the English, and often without a fight. Edward set his sights on the city of Lanark in central Scotland. There were history.
His name gives us one clue as to where his family was originally from. ‘’Wallace’’ comes from the Gaelic for the word ‘stranger.’ Ultimately the word would become would ‘’Waleys’’ and ultimately, ‘’Wales.’’ Gaelic absorbed Welsh or Welsh absorbed Gaelic, either way the name of Wallace is a very old name. He was not the first-born son of his own family and hence he owned no land he could call his own. Thanks to William the Conqueror, the surnames of many individuals are recorded in his ‘’Domesday Book.’’ In the 1200s, these are called the ‘’Ragman Rolls.’’ Essentially, this record is where we get one of our greatest examples of what Feudal society was all about. The documents are a list of who has accepted vassalage and to whom has received it. It was in these documents that the Oath of Fealties are recorded for prosperity. His own father’s name appears as one of those taking an Oath of Fealty.
‘’…All of the procurators and counsels renewed their annunciations and made agreement, praised them and also approved them, and have renewed the Fealty and homage for all their lands existing within the said kingdom of Scotland by the [consent of the] community of all the prelates and nobles of the said kingdom of Scotland and of all the nobles, subjects and communities of the towns of the whole kingdom of Scotland, [and] by the consent and unanimous will of the said lord king of England; and, touching and kissing God’s holy Bible, have confirmed their Fealty in the way written above by a bond of bodily Oath. And they made their letters patent, sealed by hanging their seals concerning the making of their fealties and homages, as is again clear below….’’
We wouldn’t even know of William Wallace if it wasn’t for an accident in history. On the night of March 19th, 1286, Alexander had been carousing at a function in Edinburgh castle. Against his advisors direction, Alexander III set off to head back to his home in Kinghall, and to his new bride. In driving rain and wind, he pushed forward even when his men lost him. Along the coastal path on the way to Kinghall, his horse stumbled and Alexander had suffered a fatal injury to his neck. Seldom had libido proven so costly.
With no heir to the throne, powerful rival factions took to a civil war. A king had to be chosen, and so they asked King of England I. They couldn’t have asked a worse man. For them, it was an attempt to guarantee that the Earl’s would be able to keep their lands. Each of the Scottish landowners was made to kneel before Edward in subjugation. Edward Longshanks did have a legitimate claim to the throne but the idea that England would rule over Scotland was not an easy cultural thing to accept. After-all, everything about English way of living was so different from that of the Scots. And – it can be difficult to understand looking at England today that back then, the Scots spoke little-to-no-English. Furthermore, few didn’t care for orderly refinement and culture had little appreciation for the emerging slothfullness that they perceived of the English.
Archaeology backed up tradition in 1998. Found under a parking lot, a wooden palisade that was the fortification to the Wallace estate. Timber and stone would surround the outside of the home and it tells us that he was an upper middle-class environment. They would have spoken French. His upbringing seems to indicate he was raised by monks and may have been heading toward a life on the clergy. It was possible, since he had no lands to inherit.
Also discovered was a seal that indicates that he and his father were archers. It wasn’t for warfare but for hunting. Archers after-all weren’t in use in warfare yet, but they were keen to have around when a major deer-hunt was going on. Since we see no sign of archers in the nobility and above, we can safely position Wallace in the middle-class of men, and definitely above Yeoman and Tanners.
In 1296, after repeated humiliations, the Scots rebelled when the despised John Balliol – a puppet of Edward’s, suddenly decided to he had enough. They picked up an army and raided northern England, which was the pretense Edward needed to invade. The town of Berwick-on-Tweed was a major trading hamlet sits right across the border on the Scotland side. It was messaged to Edward that there had been a number of English merchants killed and their stores ransacked. Edward was determined to destroy the town in a show of brutal force.
But the English were determined to send a message to the rest of Scotland and they succeeded only in raising the fury of the country. The slaughter in Berwick lasted three days and only stopped when Edward saw one of his men hacking to death a woman. 10,000 men, women and children were brutally slaughtered in a battle horrific even by Medieval standards. One bishop recalls that the English spared no one, ‘’not even a woman in the very act of labor.’’
At Lanark, Wallace fell in love with a woman of ‘’renowned beauty’’ at St. Kinnegans Church and married Marion Braidfoot. The love affair was clandestine, in part because the sheriff, William Heselrig, had his eye on her too. Blind Harry tells this story with great detail. You could almost believe that he was very close to this situation based on the almost first-hand feelings that he felt while writing this.
Even if he couldn’t have her, perhaps he could marry his fourteen year-old son to her. When Wallace married Marion, it set Hesilrig into a rage. And when Wallace got into a minor skirmish, Heselrig has Marion taken away and savagely murdered. Hearing of he murder, Wallace sneaks into the estate in the middle of the night. His men slipped into town and they all met up to begin a mission of revenge. According to the story, Wallace struck Heselrig with his sword so hard that it went through his skull all the way to the collarbone. (In the movie, it showed Wallace using a spiked-mace)
In physical appearance, Edward was around 6’2’’ and earned the nickname of ‘Long-Shins’ or as it was spoken then as ‘’Longshanks.’’ He wore a beard and moustache as was customary during this era, and his hair was blond when he was younger and as he got older it darkened and then became white with the onset of old-age.
Inside History: Much of what we know of Wallace is of course written from the Scottish point of view. Americans love courageous heroes but the name William Wallace scarcely gets mentioned in American textbooks until the middle 1960s. The New York City school district printed their HS History books with the first mention of Wallace in any kind of detail. I have – in my own collection-perhaps 30 HS history textbooks from the early 1900s to the late 1980s from a variety of states and none of them mention Wallace beyond a name, and even then it was quite short on information. So why do we see the name of the heroic figure in Wallace in the middle 1960s? The times in which we live represent a time to pinpoint figures in the past which heighten the connection between now and then. We saw the rise of a hero for Social Justice in Martin Luther King. Heroes for Social Justice have always been popular figures for Hollywood and however loose the tie may be, as long as there is a crusader against ‘’The Establishment’’ there will always be a place for these individuals. Perhaps it is because authors at the time desired to make history relative to the world around us. Consider that our own social revolution was going on then and America was reeling over the death of our own ‘Camelot’ in John Kennedy. We needed a hero.
But did you ever wonder what the English felt about the Scots rebellion and William Wallace? Here is a contemporary account by ‘’Blind Harry.’’ He is separated in time by over a hundred years and yet his account is vivid and lurid in its detail. He wasn’t what you would call a ‘historian’ in any sense of the word but he was among the very few who knew that the act of recording the things he saw as important, for future generations to read. In so much as he was blind form birth, it is certain that he loved to spin a vivid yarn and loved to hear one too. He interviewed those still closest to the original moment, usually the family members and distant relatives and he accounts for discrepancies by letting the reader decide. Still much of what he has to say seems fanciful and on historically shaky ground, so measure the words you read carefully.
In his epic, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, Harry tells the graphic story of the murder of Marion Bradefute and the escape of William Wallace. One of his primary sources was Father John Blair, Wallace’s personal chaplain and a family historian. These family records were carefully detailed and kept usually in family Bibles, so the account was not exactly close to the time it happened, leaving much open to interpretation.
You can easily tell where the Englishman left his mark in the account, which is why Blind Harry is an erstwhile source. He tries not to view this event from just one angle. It begins from the English point of view, and then gets carefully integrated with Harry’s, and what you have left is a very ‘’journalistic’’ account of one of the nastiest moments in Medieval History.
“William Wallace often came to Lanarck for ‘’sport.’’ He would roam about the city murdering Englishman on sight, most usually in hidden alley ways and such. In the town of Lanark was Sheriff Heselrig, who was known for his cruelty and deceitfulness. He increased the number of guards on the lookout for Wallace but even in plain sight, Wallace slipped past them, saluting them in mock show of respect. Marion Bradefute became the surviving heiress to Lamington and Heselrig had her brother murdered because she had previously rejected his advances. When that failed, the bully-shire master tried to have Marion marry his 14 year old son. As this was going on, several other soldiers had gathered round to watch. All of the soldiers around were now taunting him and the band of about 40 Scotsman who were with him. One grabbed at his blade and said, "What should a Scot do with so fair a knife-as the priest said who last bedded your wife (this sinfully implying that he was not the true father of Marion's baby but that a priest of Saint Nicholas had fathered her child).
The crowd continued to get larger until it reached about 200. Heselrig and Thorn were also among the crowd. Robert Thorn was an Englishman who was a friend of Heselrig who was partly involved in the murdering of Marion. William's anger was rising as the taunts continued but the one about his wife really angered him. He tried to remain calm and cool but lost his temper. The fight was quick and viscous. He quickly drew his sword and lobbed off the head of one English man. The blood gushing forth from the decapitated soldier's neck blinded William temporarily, but in the small street the English could not win just by outnumbering the Scots. The men with Wallace fought very skillfully. They fought a rearguard action and withdrew through the gates taking refuge in Marion's house.
The Scots slaughtered fifty Englishmen in their escape, but the rest of them, led by Heselrig and Thorn, regrouped and went up to the door of Marion's home demanding the "ruffians" surrender immediately. Marion stalled them at the door arguing with the sheriff to give her husband time to escape. Soon after the English realized that the Scots had fled and they broke down the door and put Marion to death right there on the spot.
Wallace was angered beyond belief upon hearing the news of what had happened to his wife. That same night Wallace and his men, who were joined by a few others, prepared to go into the town and take the sheriff's life. Heselrig never thought that they would try an attack that same night so security was at a minimum. Wallace and his men went into the town in small groups of two or three for this way the guards would not pay much attention to them. Once inside, the band regrouped. They split into two main groups; one group would head for Thorn's house and the other, with Wallace as leader, headed for Sheriff Heselrig's house.
Upon reaching the Sheriff's house, he smashed in his door with a single foot and rushed up his stairs. He found Heselrig in his bedroom where he murdered the sheriff. With one single downward stroke of his blade Wallace lobbed off the sheriff's head, clear to the collarbone proclaiming ‘’I am Wallace!”’ Robert Thorn's house was set on fire and he burned to death. Wallace and his men fought with the British, who were now aware of their presence, and slew many Englishmen. The dead was said to be at about 240. Wallace did, however spare the priests and women but he expelled them from the city with no provisions.
She was known as the ‘Maid of Norway.’ They arranged a marriage between the three year old and Edward’s son. Now, Scotland would belong to Edward. Because women could not rise to Queen and could own nothing, everything would fall to England through the son of Edward Longshanks. This is something the movie could have added to help viewers understand what Edward’s obsession actually was, but nonetheless, they left it out.
Word Origins: The Ragman Rolls has a unique word origin. It was spelled out in the Norman French as ‘de Ragemannis.’
‘’Rag’’-Comes from the Latin ‘’REX’’ which referred to as ‘’Law.’’ The letter ‘a’ replaced the letter ‘e’ because Gaelic had a bit of a different usage for the letter ‘e’’ and it was often replaced with the letter ‘‘a Mannis’’ is partly derived from Latin and Medieval French. It refers to ‘’Hands.’’ A Manuscript is defined as a writing performed by hand. Thus, the word means ‘’The King’s Writings.’’ It was given this name to remind the Scots that they are subservient to the King of England.
Then, unexpectedly, in 1290, the infant Margaret died while on the way to England. Rumor had it that she died from the flu. Scotland was without the Canmore’s and the line was ended. The situation kept getting better and better for Edward. Now there were two claimants to the throne.
One was John Balliol and the other was Robert the Bruce the Elder. Both had military and a civil war was looming. So the Scots decided to convene the leading families, known as ‘Guardians’ to decide the outcome of this dispute – without bloodshed. It couldn’t have fallen into the hands of a more fortunate judge – King Edward I. Relations were still amicable and Edward and he was well regarded – but they had much to learn about Edward’s deep disdain for the Scots. Scheming from the outset, Edward called for a parliament in Norham. This was significant because Norham is across the river and technically in Britain. The location was a dubious one and questions were being raised among the barons. They did not want to meet at that location. After-all, why would the future of Scotland have to be decided in England? They were right to be worried. The Scots decided to stall on the other side of the river. Edward had intended something much more evil. The Scots were betrayed and shocked. The English, after sixty years of peace threatened to attack Scotland. In the movie’s opening scene, this is the ambush that is portrayed, and for the most part it is done so accurately. The movie however fails to explain why the Scots nobles were meeting in a Parliament with Britain and it does little to explain the role of John Balliol. The guardians and nobles were ordered to pay homage to King Edward and become subservient once again.
The Golden Age of Scotland was to come to an unbelievable end. They would not give up their hard-won autonomy. The message was personally delivered by Bishop Wischer of Glasgow. The bishop addressed it head-on. ‘’…The future of Scotland will not be in tribute or homages to anyone, save God.’ King Edward brought forth a line of eleven others who could claim the throne. It was a brilliant move. Edward made the point that all anyone had to do was agree to have Scotland be ruled by the English. In the movie, we see the price that the Scots had to pay for this subservience. Under English law, the night of a marriage to a Scotsman, the new bride could be forced to sleep with the British knights or nobles beforehand. It was a shock to their culture and the Scots found it a disgusting practice – one of many that was an offense to the clans of Scotland. The claimants had no choice but to take an Oath of Fealty to Edward. He made no effort to cheer on a winner, after all, every one of them took an Oath of Fealty which as mentioned before, was treated very seriously. Not a drop of blood had been shed and Edward got what he wanted.
Of all the people claiming the throne, (thirteen in total) John Balliol emerged as the leader of the pack. In Balliol the King saw a weak ruler. Edward steadily undermined his authority throughout his rule. The Scots began to see Balliol for what he was – a truly weak and powerless ruler. They gave him the name of ‘’Toom Tabard,’’ meaning ‘Empty Coat’’- which was what they felt of Balliol when he wore the robes of a king and had no lands to rule. Edward I then asked Balliol to lead troops to France on behalf of the Longshanks. The year was 1294 and Longshanks was on his way to war with the French. The guardians of Scotland quickly sized the situation and decided Balliol was simply no equal to Edward. There was no way the King of Scots was going to do military service to the King of England. At Stirling, they argued about what to do with Balliol. The Bishop’s extreme views prevailed and they reduced Balliol to a figurehead. Now, the guardians had usurped Balliol’s authority. The twelve guardians of Scotland now went on a mission- to set up a treaty with the French and to unite the remaining kingdoms to take the war to the English.
Military support from the French would be greatly helpful. The agreement can be found in the British Museum. It is one of the shortest treaties in world history. It is called the Auld Alliance. Simply put, each side agreed that if the English attacked the other one, they would declare war. Both French and Scotsman would squeeze Edward from north and south alike, and frankly, given the size of the Scots army, they had no other choice. When word of the alliance got back to Edward, he was furious but hardly surprised. After all, he forced Scotland to be vassals to his rule and repeatedly humiliated them. Some say that he expressed ‘mock anger.
’’Inside History: After the ninth crusade, Edward survived an assassination attempt by the Shi’ites when they issued a Fatwa against the English King for his valiant military efforts. ________________________________________________________________________________
On March 30th, 1296, Edward’s army crossed into Scotland. He took 30,000 warriors into Berwick, a bustling and full blown city with close to 17,000 people. The Scots had no chance whatsoever.
Edward, in his brooding anger, had turned on Scotland and ordered the murders of 7,500 men and 7,500 women to send a message to the next village. It was an appalling and vile and unnecessary brand of murder. He left just 2000 people alive. The battle happened so quickly, the French simply had no time to invade England. The alliance had fallen through. At Dunbar, the Scots fell. Much of the nobility was captured and imprisoned. One by one, the cities fell. The Scone of Destiny was stolen and taken by England to Westminster Abbey. As a result, simmering tensions i