Battle of Berwick
Ushering in a bloody era, the Battle of Berwick in 1296 was the first battle in the First War of Scottish Independence, and a devastating defeat for the Scots. The consequences of Scotland’s alliance with France were being realised. But although the Paris treaty in 1295 ignited hostility between Scotland and England, the threat of war was seeded long ago, amidst a dynastic crisis in the Scottish monarchy.
The Scots and the English had enjoyed relative peace, but cruel fortune would put the Scots at the mercy of an English king. When King Alexander III of Scotland died, falling off his horse, King Edward I ’s influence grew. Alexander was succeeded by his seven-year-old granddaughter Margaret ‘Maid of Norway’, and Scotland’s affairs were run by the Guardians of Scotland – an assembly of noblemen – until Margaret was old enough to rule. She never had the chance, dying in 1290. Scotland was a kingdom without an heir.
Edward was an opportunist. The Scots were descending into civil war. The country was aligning itself be-tween the two claimants to the throne: John Balliol, a descendent of Alexander III, with strong support from the Comyns in Dumfries , and the north of the country; and Robert Bruce , who had support from the south, and the from the Stewarts.
The Guardians of Scotland asked Edward to determine who should sit on the Scottish throne. They were aware of the threat to Scotland’s sovereignty, and despite reminding Edward that Scotland ruled her own affairs, they underestimated his cunning. Edward found more candidates for the Scottish throne; there would have to be a legal judgement, and if he was presiding over the hearing, he would need authority to do so.
The claimants were ambitious. First Bruce, then Balliol, paid homage to the king – as judge, he was controlling their destiny. Whoever was victorious had already surrendered Scotland’s sovereignty in lieu of their coronation. John Balliol was crowned at Berwick, a puppet king. Edward was taking an active role in Scotland’s governance: taxation, feudal disputes, and even an invasion of Flanders was mooted. The Guardians of Scotland placed John Balloil in wardship, a diplomatic campaign ensued, and the alliance with France was forged. In England, they’d acquired a powerful enemy.
Edward, amassing a fearsome army, headed north. War was Scotland’s comeuppance for siding with the French.
Economically, Berwick was the most important town in Scotland. It was soon the bloodiest. Edward’s men made light of the town’s walls, earth and wood came down, the town was massacred. It was a merciless sacking; men, woman and children were slaughtered. This was the sort of act that earned Edward the nick-name of ‘Hammer of the Scots’. Resistance came from William ‘The Hardy’ Douglas, leader of Berwick Castle ’s garrison, but his men didn’t stand a chance. Douglas was imprisoned, and with the English marching to Dunbar , Scotland was beginning to look a lot less free.
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