Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

12
CROWN VERSUS NOBILITY: THE STRUGGLE FOR THE
PRIORY OF COLDINGHAM, 1472–88

Norman Macdougall

In a recent masterly analysis of the politics of fifteenth-century Scotland, Dr Jenny Wormald destroyed the traditional view of the period as one of almost continual conflict between overmighty and irresponsible magnates and a harassed monarchy struggling for survival.1 She emphasised instead the political norm — co-operation between crown and nobility, a co-operation which worked because each side had something to offer the other. On the one hand, crown patronage was extensive, and included grants of royal land on very favourable terms, offices at court or in the localities, and remission from customs dues or feudal casualties. On the other, the loyalty of the magnates, greater and lesser, was essential to the efficient running of a decentralised state, in which the king could not afford a contract army or salaried justices and therefore relied heavily on delegating authority to members of the nobility in their own localities, above all in the highland west, the north-east and the Borders.2

However, Dr Wormald also noted exceptions to her general rule of crownmagnate co-operation, exceptions which she explained in terms of irresponsible acts by individual kings rather than by the magnate class. Quite the most remarkable of these was the protracted struggle between James III and the Border family of Hume over the revenues of the priory of Coldingham, an intermittent conflict which was resolved only by the rebellion of 1488 which cost the king his life. This was a unique event in late medieval Scottish politics; a Stewart king was not only successfully defied for sixteen years by a single Border family, but his belated efforts to coerce that family produced a major revolt in which members of the rebel faction were actively seeking his deposition, while those who could generally be relied upon to assist the crown remained aloof from the struggle and allowed their sovereign to perish. For once, the intensely conservative Scottish political community, which normally countenanced or even supported royal Stewart assaults on rebellious or recalcitrant magnates, failed to obey the rules, a remarkable fact which calls for some explanation.

The Benedictine priory of Coldingham, lying some ten miles north of Berwick upon Tweed, was a dependent cell of the cathedral priory of Durham which had flourished until the wars of independence made the existence of an English house on Scottish soil, populated by monks with divided political and ecclesiastical loyalties, much less acceptable to the Scots; and from a peak of some thirty monks at the end of the thirteenth century, the priory's population had declined sharply until the final expulsion of English monks in 1462.3 The instruments of that expulsion,

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