Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

7
THE BALLIOL FAMILY AND THE GREAT CAUSE OF
1291–2

Geoffrey Stell

The history of the Balliol family in France and Britain extends over eight generations, from the late eleventh century to 1364.1 This widely ramified family obviously justifies detailed analysis and, as a first step towards a full-length study, this essay will relate some aspects of the family's background history to the momentous events of 1291–2, which brought the then head of the family to the forefront of Scottish political life, and ultimately to the kingship itself. For, as is well known, in November 1292 John Balliol or, to give him a fuller style, John de Balliol II, lord of Barnard Castle in County Durham and, since the death of his mother Dervorguilla in January 1290, lord of Galloway, finally emerged as the successful competitor in the adjudication by King Edward I of England concerning the vacant throne of Scotland.2

The Great Cause and its prelude are normally viewed in the context of AngloScottish relations and as a stage in the developing sense of nationhood within the Scottish kingdom. With the benefit of hindsight, these events are also seen to mark a temporary setback in the rise of the Bruce family; the view from a Balliol standpoint has attracted comparatively little interest and sympathy, despite the fact that in their promotion to royal status in these islands the Balliols were unique among the feudal baronage of thirteenth-century Britain. In order to appreciate more fully the special circumstances in which John Balliol found himself in late 1292 there is, therefore, good reason for examining afresh from a Balliol point of view the question of rivalry between the Bruces and the Balliols, the effects on the family of the marriage of John de Balliol I and Dervorguilla of Galloway in 1233, through which the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne had initially stemmed, and, finally, the early life and career of John Balliol himself, later King John and then, unhappily, 'Toom Tabard'.

One feature that the Great Cause has always brought sharply into focus is the confrontation between the two strongest claimants, Bruce and Balliol, a central issue that is usually summed up as 'Bruce versus Balliol'.3 Certainly, the petitions of these two parties do crystallise the opposed legal viewpoints of seniority as against nearness of degree in the transmission of the royal inheritance through the female issue of Margaret, eldest daughter of David, earl of Huntingdon (1152–1219). The arguments that were adduced in 1291–2 may have been presaged by the 'bitter pleading' between Bruce and Balliol that had evidently broken out at a time when John Balliol's mother was still alive, probably in the colloquium or parliament of

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