Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations

Mythology in the history of Anglo-Scots relations

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 7, September, 2020

THERE CAN BE little doubt that the relationship with England has been the key factor in the birth, development and for some the decline of the Scottish nation. England is Scotland’s larger, richer and more powerful neighbour and all the ‘heroes’ of Scottish history have been defined by either victory over her or defeat at her hands. Only one, of course, Robert the Bruce, truly achieved victory. The rest – including Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie – were either executed or driven into exile.  

Still, the history of Scotland is so steeped in mythology that this is always overlooked. We Scots like to dress up our past in all its finery, like Montrose on his walk to the scaffold (‘dressed more like a bridegroom than a criminal’, according to one eye-witness report) and our contemporary Scottish Nationalists seem steeped in medievalism ready to refight the wars of independence all over again. They cleave to a Braveheart vision of the past, however unhistorical it may be.   

Mythology was always at the heart of Anglo-Scottish relations.  

In 1136 the Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his Historia Regnum Britanniae which influenced English thought for centuries. This was supposedly the history of the British from their first arrival in Britain in the twelfth century BC under King Brutus, the great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas, until their overthrow in the seventh century AD by the Angles and Saxons. Geoffrey’s book was important because it for the first time introduced characters such as King Lear, Cymbeline and Merlin, not to mention King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. More than that, by giving future English dynasties an ancient foundation, it became the basis of a national mythology which was continued in Caxton’s  Chronicles of England (1480), Hidgen’s Polychronicon (1482) and a flood of books right into the Tudor period written by authors such as Edward Hall, Richard Grafton and Raphael Holinshed. After the Reformation, indeed, it became almost apocalyptic. England became an ‘elect nation’ and according to Bishop Aylmer, God was an Englishman. 

Moreover, it became very dangerous, for pupils of Geoffrey added that after the death of King Brutus the British kingdom had been divided. His eldest son inherited Loegria (England), his second Albany (Scotland) and the third Cambria (Wales) and under feudal law, the English king held seniority over the other two. Worse still, by the time of King Arthur, this monarch ruled all of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Scandinavia and Gaul, with Scotland as a tributary state, whose kings for centuries paid homage to England’s ruler. 

Over the course of centuries this mythology became a powerful ideological weapon used to justify aggression against the Scots. Edward I, Henry V, and Henry VI all based their right to conquer Scotland on their descent from Brutus. Henry VIII likewise justified his claim to Scotland on his ‘Trojan-English’ ancestry. No king, he said had ‘more just title, more evident title, more certayn title, to any realm … than we have to Scotland.’ 

One almost inevitable reaction to this English ideology was the creation of a Scottish counter-ideology, which was used in international diplomacy at the  same time as Edward submitted his claim to Scotland to the Pope in 1301. Then the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, also laid before the Pope, claimed that Scotland had had 113 kings of her own and had never been ruled by a foreigner. The full exposition of the Scottish counter-ideology, however, had to wait till the monk, John of Fordoun, published his Chronica Gentis Scotorum between 1384 and 1387, later continued until 1437 under the title Scotichronicon.  

Fordoun disputed that Brutus had ever ruled the entire island, which, he maintained had been called Albion, whereas the Roman name Britannia had only referred to England. The Scottish nation, he explained, was descended from a Greek prince named Gathelus (the Greeks, remember, had conquered the Trojans) and an Egyptian princess called Scota who had married about 1,500 BC. The Scots had subsequently wandered from the Mediterranean through the Pillars of Hercules and reached the west of Scotland, via Spain and Ireland. There they founded their kingdom in 330 BC under King Fergus I. After forty-five further kings and a period of exile lasting forty-three years the Kingdom of Scotland was re-established in 403 AD, from which date, despite English hostility, it had been ruled by independent Scottish monarchs. 

 Like Geoffrey’s Historia, the Scotichronicon dominated Scottish historical consciousness till well into the sixteenth century and had many interpreters, the most prominent being Hector Boece, Principal of the University of St. Andrews whose Scotorum Historiae was published in 1527. He used the tale of the forty-five fictitious kings as a constitutional and moral warning against corruption, which would, he feared, undermine the country’s stability. The power of this Scottish mythology declined from the sixteenth century but was never completely broken. When Charles II was restored he had a Dutch master, Jacob de Witt, paint a series of one hundred and eleven portraits of the Scottish kings, starting with Fergus I in 330 BC right up to himself and his brother James (the future James VII and II) on the walls of Holyrood Palace. Hence the legend was used as a source of royal legitimacy as late as 1660. 

The original purpose of the legend had been to legitimise Scottish independence. This seemed to have been established by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. And legally, of course, it had been.  Yet Scottish independence remained fragile. The country was often invaded, defeated and humiliated by the English. As early as 1332 and 1333 two full scale Scottish armies were cut to pieces and their leaders slain. In 1356 Edward III again invaded Scotland devastating the South East counties in the so-called ‘Burnt Candlemas’. Under Robert II attacks on England (usually at the behest of the French) brought punitive expeditions by John of Gaunt, who first ransomed Edinburgh and later burnt it. In 1400 Henry IV also led an army to Edinburgh while in 1402 the ‘the flower of chivalry of the whole realm of Scotland’ was captured and held to ransom at Homildon Hill. Scotland’s greatest defeat, however, came at Flodden in 1513 where the king (James IV) died along with his illegitimate son, the Archbishop of St. Andrews, two other bishops, three abbots, one dean, fourteen earls, about the same number of lords, three Highland chiefs, and a great number of lairds. Yet as a distinguished historian remarked: there was ‘nothing novel about a heavy defeat at the hands of the English and Flodden was neither the first nor the last in a long series.’ One need not list them all. The final humiliation, of course, was Scotland’s defeat, conquest and occupation by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. Remarkably, there is no folk memory of this at all among contemporary Scots, unlike the visceral memory of Cromwell’s record in Ireland among the Irish. 

The independent kingdom unfortunately suffered other woes besides English invasions. It was cursed for example by a succession of royal minorities. In the period 1406-1488 there was no adult ruler for thirty-eight years. After Flodden in 1513 there were three royal minorities, so that in the space of more than seventy years there were no more than twenty-two years’ rule by a monarch of a mature age. Mary Queen of Scots became queen when only a week old; James VI was crowned at thirteen months; and David II became king at the age of five. Worst of all were the cases of David II and James I, both kings were captured by the English and kept as virtual prisoners by them.  David II, defeated in battle, was kept in England from 1346 till 1357 and was only released when Scotland agreed to pay an exorbitant ransom for him (the ransom was continually renegotiated). James I was captured by English pirates and kept a prisoner from 1406 till 1424 and also had to pay a large sum to secure his freedom.  

Scotland was also subject to noble factionalism, the fifteenth century being particularly lawless. Both James I and James III were murdered while the reign of James II saw a bitter struggle between him and the Black Douglases. Before his own murder James III had to experience the murder of his own favourites by a dissident nobility. The independent Scotland created by Bruce therefore remained at the mercy of the English who invaded and devastated it and held its kings to ransom. Moreover it was a poor and lawless place as the above-mentioned murders affirm. In 1398 the chronicler of Moray wrote that ‘there was no law in Scotland but he who was stronger oppressed him who was weaker.’ Crimes went unpunished and justice ‘lay in exile outwith the bounds of the country.’ Some kings, it is true—James V for example—did try to impose justice but a prominent historian could write of Scotland as late as the 1660s as ‘a country which could not afford and did not know how to administer any system of regular policing.’ Independent Scotland in fact could hardly defend or administer itself.  

One great hope of salvation lay with the French. An alliance with France would surely create security. But the effectiveness of the Auld Alliance is just another Scottish myth. 

Part two to follow next Monday…

[Part two can NOW be found here]

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Politics at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.  

Photo of King James IV, who died at Flodden in 1513, by Unknown artist -, Public Domain,

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