Stand-off at Tantallon Castle

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Margaret Stewart & the Birth of the Red Douglases, 1389

On 20th January 1389, a deal was reached between Robert Stewart, earl of Fife, and Margaret Stewart, countess of Angus, at Tantallon Castle in East Lothian. Countess Margaret agreed to give Fife access to Tantallon Castle, which was his property after all, and in return Fife recognised her right to live in the castle for the remainder of her life. Around the same time, Fife appears to have agreed to use his recently-acquired powers as guardian of the realm to have Margaret's son formally recognised as the earl of Angus. On the face of it, this may seem like a fairly minor bit of political wrangling. However, this agreement was a significant moment in an on-going crisis that had gripped Scotland since the previous summer, and the result of the negotiations of early 1389 would have far-reaching consequences for the history of fifteenth-century Scotland. [Today's] blog post will examine the context of this deal, what we know about its terms, and what impact it had.

A very good year (for a crisis): 1388 in Context

Tantallon Castle, with Bass Rock in the background and a sixteenth-century dovecot in the foreground. Tantallon was constructed by William, 1st earl of Douglas, probably sometime after 1365. His mistress Margaret Stewart, countess of Angus, lived here from at least 1381, possibly earlier, and for five months from August 1388 until January 1389 she feircely resisted attempts by Robert Stewart, earl of Fife, to extricate her from the castle.

Early 1388 must have been a time of considerable excitement in Scotland. As of February, it was the eighteenth year in the reign of the old and experienced King Robert II, but effective control over the royal government lay with the king's eldest son and heir John Stewart, earl of Carrick. Carrick had been able to secure his appointment as guardian of the realm at a general council held at Holyrood in November 1384. The justification for Carrick's authority was based on a general feeling among the community that the execution of law and justice had lapsed, particularly in the north of the kingdom, in recent years. However, Carrick's ability to maintain his position rested on a close relationship with his brother-in-law James, 2nd earl of Douglas, and the vast political networks Douglas maintained in southern Scotland. Ever since the rise of Earl James's great-uncle and namesake 'the Good' Sir James in the service of King Robert I at the beginning of the fourteenth-century, Douglas power had relied on their ability to practice vigorous and successful military lordship in the marches. Regular border warfare provided the earls of Douglas with a justification for their leadership of the armed communities of southern Scotland, and enriched both them and their followings from booty, ransom and blackmail. Thus while little was accomplished between 1384 and 1388 in addressing concerns over law and order in the north, the period did see a marked intensification of conflict with England.

Unusually for the Scots, renewed war with England had proven to be a roaring success. The Treaty of Berwick in 1357 had ceded large areas of southern Scotland - including most of Berwickshire and Roxburghshire as well as Annandale in the west - but from around 1369 the Scots had begun to gradually chip away at the English administrations in these areas and slowly reoccupy this territory. The Scots were aided in this effort firstly by the increasing ineffectiveness of King Edward III in his old age and the domestic turmoil this produced in England. Following Edward's death in 1377, the Scots again benefited from the resurgence of French resistance to English gains on the Continent coupled with the rather aimless foreign policy of King Richard II's government, which preferred to appease the Scots in the hopes that this would allow them to concentrate on dealing with the renewed French threat. During the 1370s and early 1380s, King Robert was thus able to excuse Scottish aggression on the borders as being the work of 'over-mighty magnates' over whom he had limited control, despite the work of Dr Alastair Macdonald of the University of Aberdeen demonstrating that the Scottish crown endorsed and even coordinated attacks on English targets in southern Scotland during this period. By 1384 this excuse was starting to wear increasingly thin, and when Carrick assumed control of the Scottish royal administration all pretence was finally dropped. The resumption of open war led to punitive English campaigns into southern Scotland in 1384 and 1385, the second of these personally led by King Richard himself, but these had little material effect and certainly did not deter the Scots from launching further devastating raids into northern England in these years. The prospect of peace negotiations between England and France - and the threat of further English invasions - led to a lessening of Scottish attacks in 1386 and 1387, but as 1388 began the Scots were busy making plans for perhaps their most ambitious assault on northern England since the reign of Robert Bruce.

For alswelle ellis may be slane
A mychty man, as may a swayne
The 'Otterburn War'

The hostilities of 1388 kicked off with a highly successful and destructive raid on the coast of Ireland, led by Sir William Douglas of Nithsdale - the illegitimate son of Archibald 'the Grim', Lord of Galloway and yet another of Carrick's brothers-in-law. Douglas of Nithsdale and his men landed near Dundalk, defeated a hastily-assembled militia force sent to confront them, and then proceeded to devastate the town of Carlingford. On their way back to Scotland, Sir William and co. briefly stopped off to terrorise the English administration on the Isle of Man before returning to Loch Ryan in Galloway and joined up with a sizeable force mustering nearby under the auspices of Carrick's younger brother Robert Stewart, earl of Fife, and Archibald 'the Grim'. In the meantime, a second, smaller force was being mustered - possibly at Jedburgh - under the command of James, earl of Douglas, and George Dunbar, earl of March. These two armies were to descend into north-west and north-east England respectively, cause as much damage and disruption as possible, and then return to Scotland (possibly reuniting before crossing the border) in a powerful demonstration of Scottish military confidence. However, there was one noticeable absence from all of this - Carrick himself. At some point in early 1388 Carrick was injured by a kick from a horse, and while the precise nature of his injuries are unclear the extent of them appears to have been severe. The seriousness of Carrick's injuries may not have been immediately apparent, but they resulted in his absence from the campaigning of 1388, and as we will see the earl would be physically incapacitated for the rest of his life. However, there is no indication that this diminished Scottish morale, and as the two armies marched on northern England spirits and expectations seem to have still been high.

In the west, Fife and Archibald 'the Grim' carved a swathe of destruction through the most fertile parts of Cumberland and Westmorland, reaching as far south as Brough before returning northwards laden with booty and prisoners. In the east, things also started well for the Scots. Douglas and March harassed the community of County Durham, many of whom we know were forced to flee with their cattle south of the Tees, and even threatened Newcastle. Here a confrontation took place between the Scots and a force led by Sir Henry 'Hotspur' Percy, son and heir of the earl of Northumberland. Hotspur had acquired his dashing by-name for the vigour and energy with which he regularly led the defence of the English marches from the Scots, but at Newcastle he and his men seem to have had the worst of the encounter. According to the contemporary chronicler Jean Froissart - whose account drew on four participants (two of them Scottish) in the subsequent Battle of Otterburn - during this engagement outside Newcastle Douglas personally captured Hotspur's pennon - the triangular flag that would normally hang from the tip of Hotspur's lance. This was an embarrassing affront to Hotspur's martial honour, and Froissart gives the impression that this humiliation motivated Hotspur to pursue the Scots as they withdrew northwards towards the border. There is little indication that the Scots anticipated - let alone feared - a pursuit. They advanced at a leisurely pace, seizing Ponteland Castle and even briefly besieging Otterburn Tower. Meanwhile, Hotspur hastily-assembled a militia force and raced north to catch the Scots before they could reach safety. Late on 5th August (some English sources claim 19th, but official Scottish sources disprove this dating) Hotspur and his men fell in amongst the Scottish camp near Otterburn, and a frantic and confused battle ensued in which Douglas was killed but from which the Scots emerged victorious. On the one hand, this was a dramatic vindication of Scottish military policy. The defences of north-east England had proven woefully unprepared for them, even the standard English strategy of trying to force the Scots into open battle had failed miserably, and they had unexpectedly managed to secure as prisoners a significant portion of the northern nobility - including Hotspur and his younger brother Ralph. However, the 'death in victory' of the earl of Douglas was about to spark a domestic crisis that would drag on well into the following year.

All the King's Earl's Men: The Aftermath of Otterburn

The late earl of Douglas had been an enormously influential figure within the Scottish political community, but this influence had rested largely on the force of his own personality. He was relatively young - probably around thirty at the time of his death - and while he had produced two illegitimate sons during his lifetime he had no direct heir to succeed him. This was a significant problem for the wider Douglas affinity in itself, but the seriousness of this situation was compounded by the fact that the late earl's vast political network was absolutely critical for the maintenance of the earl of Carrick's grip on the royal government. It was therefore absolutely essential for Carrick to ensure the swift transfer of authority over the earldom of Douglas - and the wide-ranging socio-political relationships associated with it - to a new candidate who could hold the Douglas affinity together and thus shore up Carrick's position. Ostensibly, the strongest candidate to succeed to the earldom was obviously Sir Malcolm Drummond of Strathord, who was married to Isabella Douglas, the late earl's sister and closest living relative by blood. As the Douglas's brother-in-law, Drummond had enjoyed a prominent position within the late earl's affinity, providing him with vital personal ties among the chivalry of southern Scotland that might be used to hold it together in the wake of the earl's death. Furthermore, he had developed a respectable martial reputation in service to the earl - he had regularly participated in border warfare alongside his brother-in-law and had fought at Otterburn with him - and, perhaps most importantly of all, Drummond's sister Annabella was married to Carrick, making him the guardian's brother-in-law as well. Hoping for a smooth and speedy transition, Carrick lent his support to Drummond's claim.

Drummond's was not the only claim to the earldom however. On his return from the chevauchée into north-west England, Archibald 'the Grim' produced an (apparently hitherto obscure) tailzie produced at the behest of William Douglas, the 'Knight of Liddesdale', in 1342. In its original context, this document had been designed to strengthen Douglas of Liddesdale's flimsy claims to the Douglas patrimony, but in essence it entailed the Douglas estates and titles in the male line. In other words, it made Drummond's claim to inherit through his wife weaker than Archibald's claim as Earl James's nearest male - albeit illegitimate - relative. Archibald quickly proved himself willing to pursue his rights not only through legal channels but also by force. In the weeks and months after Otterburn Archibald set about physically occupying as many of the disputed estates as he could, backed by his own powerful regional following and his long-standing ally Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, a descendant of Douglas of Liddesdale who also stood to gain substantially from the entail. In doing so, Archibald was forcefully inviting the late Earl James's following to make a decision over who they felt was a more fitting successor to their deceased lord - Archibald or Drummond. For many, this would be a tricky choice. Whatever their thoughts about the strength of Archibald's legal claim or the personal ties they had established with Drummond in service to Earl James, Archibald had a more formidable martial reputation than Drummond, and importantly bore the surname 'Douglas' that carried such weight among the fighting men of southern Scotland. This was precisely the situation that the ailing Carrick needed to avoid - the fracturing of his southern power base as the late earl's followers were forced to align themselves either with the crown-backed Drummond or the bellicose Archibald.

There was another element complicating the crisis of 1388. As the situation grew increasingly fraught, Carrick's younger, ambitious brother the earl of Fife sensed an opportunity to promote his own interests at the heart of the royal government. He had already been appointed as lord chamberlain - chief financial officer in the royal administration - as early as 1382 and continued in that office throughout his brother's guardianship. As we have seen, he also enjoyed a significant military role under the guardianship, leading the main thrust of the Scottish offensive in 1388 (possibly in place of his elder brother, who may have planned to lead this force before suffering his debilitating injuries). With his brother's political support fragmenting, as well as Carrick apparently being in uncertain health, Fife was able to have himself appointed guardian of the kingdom at a parliament held in Edinburgh in December 1388. Fife's remit as guardian was explicitly 'for putting into effect justice and keeping the law internally, and for the defence of the kingdom with the king's force' - i.e. addressing ongoing concerns over lawlessness in the north and building on the momentum generated by victory at Otterburn. To accomplish the latter, Fife would need to settle the dispute over the earldom of Douglas. The most serious obstacle to Fife's efforts to achieve this was that his landed interests were primarily focused in central and northern Scotland, and he was thus physically removed from where the crisis was playing out in the south of the kingdom. If he was to effectively manage the situation to his advantage, and gain effective control over war policy, he would need a base in the south of the kingdom from which to operate. Luckily for him, as earl of Fife he was also the feudal superior of the barony of North Berwick, which Earl James had held from him. Thus Fife had a right to claim the imposing castle the late earl's father had built for himself at Tantallon. From this coastal fortress Fife would be well-placed to intervene in events in the south and guide them to a satisfaction conclusion. This however was complicated by yet another factor in the crisis of 1388 - the fierce resistance of the tenacious Margaret Stewart, countess of Angus.

'The impediment': Margaret Stewart and the Crisis of 1388

Margaret was the eldest of two daughters of Thomas Stewart, earl of Angus, whose death in 1362 made her heiress to the lion's share of his earldom. Around 1360, when Margaret can have been no more than six or seven years old, she had been married to another Thomas, earl of Mar, a man some twenty years her senior. In 1377 Mar too died, having been frequently absent from Scotland during their marriage, which had produced no children. Margaret now found herself, still in her twenties, as a woman of independent means with rights to most of the earldom of Angus and a third of the earldom of Mar (her widow's terce). In 1381 Margaret cut a deal with William, 1st earl of Douglas, (Earl James's father) whereby she rented her portion of the earldom of Mar for a whopping £200 annually as well as the right of live in his recently-constructed castle at Tantallon. This appealed to Douglas because it allowed him to reunite the estates of the earldom of Mar, the bulk of which he had inherited through his wife, the late Earl Thomas's sister (and thus Margaret's sister-in-law). For Margaret on the other hand residence at Tantallon provided proximity to her kinsmen the Sinclairs of Herdmanston, the offspring from her mother's first marriage with whom she seems to have been very close. There was perhaps a more personal motivation behind this arrangement however, as Margaret and William began an affair, possibly as early as 1379 or even before, and at some point over the next three years Margaret gave birth to an illegitimate son - George.

Margaret continued to reside at Tantallon even after Earl William's death in 1384 and was still living there at the time of the Battle of Otterburn. However, with the second earl's unexpected death Margaret's future suddenly looked uncertain. The payments for her portion of the earldom of Mar would now surely cease, and even her right to live at Tantallon was in jeopardy. Yet Margaret was not willing to simply let events sweep her along. She did at least have the advantage of physical possession of Tantallon Castle, where she gathered a number of the late Earl James's former adherents including Alan Lauder of the Bass, constable of Tantallon, Sir William Borthwick, William Lindsay of the Byres, Richard Hangangside, and her kinsmen the Sinclairs of Herdmanston, who according to Froissart had been with the earl when he died and had carried the earl's banner forwards in order to boost the morale of the embattled Scots. Margaret's plan was apparently to hold out at Tantallon, exploiting Fife's need to recover the castle to force him into negotiating with her. In essence, Margaret was using the same strategy as Archibald, seizing the property she was interested in and then seeking to broker legal recognition after the fact. As early as 18th August Fife complained to a general council being held in Linlithgow that his rights as feudal superior of North Berwick were being denied, and so the council produced a letter addressed to the freeholders of the barony, the constable of Tantallon (Lauder), and - crucially - 'the others living and dwelling in the same castle' instructing them to surrender the castle 'immediately without any excuse or raising any difficulty...under every penalty which can occur by that cause'. This missive clearly failed to have the intended effect, because the council at which Fife was appointed guardian in December heard a request from Fife 'that the impediment which was thrown before him concerning obtaining the said castle might be removed'. Despite the fact that the council once again sided with Fife, yet more royal letters had to be sent on 7th January 1389 insisting that the castle be surrendered.

Despite all of this intimidating correspondence, it is not until 20th January (more than five months after the second earl's death) that we find Fife at Tantallon, not simply to assume his rights to the barony but rather to clarify the terms on which he could gain access to the castle. Crucially, Fife acknowledged Margaret's right to abode at the castle indefinitely and agreed to 'manteyn hir, hir men, hir landys and al hir possessions agayns ony that wald wrang thaim'. Margaret's gamble had paid off spectacularly. It seems that Fife, faced with the prospect of a long and frustrating resistance from Margaret and her supporters, rather than seeking to bluntly enforce her will had decided instead to integrate her into his own political network. Certainly, her leadership of the late earl's adherents in the wake of his death was proof of her substantial influence in East Lothian. This was an area into which Fife would need to extend his own authority if he was going to take control of the war effort. On 29th January Fife was still at Tantallon, where he issued letters in favour of Alan Lauder, demonstrating that not only Margaret but also 'hir men' were already reaping the benefits of Margaret's newfound alliance with Fife. These letters were witnessed by Drummond, who it seems had attached himself to Fife in the hopes of securing his rights to the earldom of Douglas. However, the incorporation of Margaret and her supporters into Fife's wider affinity spelled the beginning of the end for Drummond's hopes. The very fact that so many noteworthy members of the Douglas affinity turned to Margaret for leadership, rather than falling in line with Drummond or switching their allegiance to Archibald, is already a striking illustration of the weakness of Drummond's position. As Margaret grew closer politically to Fife, she brought these men with her, draining potential support from Drummond. However, as will become clear, Margaret would extract more than just the right to live at Tantallon in return for her continued support of Fife's ambitions, negotiations for which were almost certainly conducted at the castle in January.

Dynasty Building: The Birth of the Red Douglases

In early April 1389 a parliament met at Holyrood Abbey, the continuation of an assembly first convened at Scone on 29th March. On 2nd, Drummond was stripped of the lordship of Selkirk Forest (a key Douglas possession dating back to the time of 'the Good' Sir James) and the sheriffship of Roxburgh in absentia. His attorneys complained that Drummond feared for his own safety should he personally appear at parliament, a claim that it is hard not to conclude was a pointed reference to Archibald the Grim's seizure of the contested Douglas estates. Assurances were made for Drummond's safety but it appears that Drummond's difficulties had been going on for some time because 'the guardian [i.e. Fife] himself explained, expressly in his own voice, in the same place, that he had granted this same thing to him previously on various occasions' (my italics). Wisely, Drummond had apparently still not shown up when on 7th parliament inspected Archibald's entail of 1342 and confirmed Archibald in the possession of the estates of his father as well as the title 'earl of Douglas'. Parliament's recognition of Archibald's rights was not simply an acknowledgement of the legality of the 1342 document, it was also given 'so the dissensions of the magnates and the harms to the community may be avoided'. Again, this suggests that the hope was that acquiescing to Archibald's demands might finally pacify him and secure his support for Fife's guardianship. Three days later, it was time for Margaret to receive her reward for helping to smooth over Fife's assumption of authority over the community in southern Scotland.

On 9th April, Margaret resigned the earldom of Angus in parliament 'of her own pure and spontaneous desire'. The following day, a charter was issued granting the earldom and various associated estates to her illegitimate son George. The document was issued in the name of the king, and was witnessed by (among others) Fife and Archibald 'the Grim'. This was Margaret's crowning achievement. She was no longer using the estates she had accrued from her father and her marriage to provide herself with a comfortable living, which had been the position she had carved out for herself since 1381. Now she had secured her son's elevation to the upper ranks of the aristocracy, giving him the prospect of establishing a lasting magnate dynasty in south-east Scotland. Margaret would spend the rest of her life defending these gains. Ever the pragmatist, she was willing to cross factional lines in order to accomplish this. In 1397 she arranged her son's marriage to Mary, daughter of Carrick (now Robert III). This union tied her family's fortune into those of the crown, which at the time was staging something of a comeback against Fife (now the duke of Albany). Margaret's primary focus remained those of her offspring however. When leading figures in the royal administration sought to use military means to take possession of her infant grandson William, 2nd earl of Angus, in 1406, Margaret allied herself with a younger son of Archibald 'the Grim' - James 'the Gross' - to violently (and successfully) resist this. She died some time between 1416 and 1418, well into her sixties and by this time living on the Sinclair manor of Begbie on the banks of the River Tyne south-west of Haddington, her grandson now old enough to manage his own affairs. 1388-9 had been the defining moment of Margaret's career and serves as a striking demonstration of what a remarkably forceful personality she must have had. Fortune had bestowed her with considerable landed wealth, which she initially used to allow her to live the pleasant and semi-independent lifestyle. In 1388 Margaret used her not inconsiderable political skill and quite extraordinary confidence to turn this into a lasting legacy for her son and future offspring. It is both her audacity and her success that make Margaret Stewart, countess of Angus, one of the most fascinating women in medieval Scotland.


Sources for this article include:

  • Dr Callum Watson - Knight of the Two L's Blog

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