Did a Douglas actually claim the crown?

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For almost eighty years, then, Scotland was governed by a succession of incompetent kings. These same eighty years naturally saw a great increase in the power and prestige of the nobles. It was they who had beaten back the tide of English invasion, and it was to them, and not to the king, that the nation attributed its success. And among these warrior-barons none had distinguished themselves more than the Lords of Douglas. One of them had been slain at Halidon Hill; another was captured in the disastrous fight at Homildon; when by the pale light of the moon at Otterburn "a dead man won a fight" that man was an Earl of Douglas.

They were the heroes of many a desperate frontier fight of which even the names are now forgotten. It was they, too, who won back some of its fairest provinces for Scotland. Is it to be wondered at, then, that they showed little respect for their feeble rulers - to that monarch, for example, who retired to the Highlands when there was fighting to be done - and that when David II(1) died the head of the house of Douglas actually claimed the crown? And the house of Douglas, though by far the most conspicuous, was only one of many nobles that were increasing rapidly in authority and possessions. Almost as powerful as the Douglasses was the far older family of the Dunbars, the head of which was Earl of March, while to the south of the Grampians the Lindsays, Lord of Glenesk, were rapidly gaining renown for their attempts to bridle the caterans of the north.

As yet there was no open hostility between the great nobles and the king, but that was because the king did not oppose them, and, in fact, positively helped them forward on their ambitious career. A statue had to be passed, for example, forbidding David II to alienate royal demesnes. This was not done out of any regard for the royal prestige, but because the burden of supplying an adequate income to the king would become intolerable if he gave away too many estates. Robert II seemed to be aware that the power of the nobles might be used against the Crown, but the policy which he adopted was a suicidal one. He married one of his daughters to John Dunbar, the brother of the Earl of March, and so secured the support of the Earl when Douglas claimed the crown.

Douglas himself was won over in the same way, and married the King's daughter Isabella. Other daughters were married to the Lord of the Isles, the Lord of Glenesk, and nobles of lower rank. Robert's purpose was evident to ensure the fidelity of his most powerful subjects by binding them with the ties of kinship to the royal house, but like the similar attempt made by Edward III about the same time, it ended in failure, for the great nobles had now more reason then ever to regard themselves as the equals of the king. This special trouble was further complicated by the attitude of the King's younger sons, who ranged themselves on the side of the nobles rather than on the side of the Crown. Alexander, for example, earned the title of `the Wolf of Badenoch,' and was dismissed from his office of Justiciar in the North for negligence. It would have been well had negligence been his worst fault; a short time afterward he burned the town and cathedral of Elgin. The Earl of Atholl, another son, planned the brutal murder of James I.

1.  David II died unexpectedly, and at the height of his power, in Edinburgh Castle on 22 February 1371. He was buried in Holyrood Abbey. At the time of his death, he was planning to marry his mistress, Agnes Dunbar, the niece of Agnes Randolph, who was known as "Black Agnes of Dunbar". He left no children and was succeeded by his nephew, Robert II, the son of David's half-sister Marjorie Bruce. He was the last male of the House of Bruce.  The Stewart/Douglas rivalry was rife at this time, so it is not surprising that a Douglas, possibly Douglas of Dalkeith, who was in the royal household, but more likely Archibald 'The Grim' would be a contender for the throne.



Sources for this article include:
  • History of Scotland by R. L. Mackie

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    Last modified: Monday, 06 July 2020