In honor of Good Friday (in 2015), we pay tribute today to the Diocletian-era Christian martyrs Agape, Chionia and Irene.
The three virgin sisters whose names mean Love, Purity, and Peace in Greek were not, per tradition, actually martyred all together. However, they do share an April 3 feast date.
They are said to have made their illicit faith conspicuous to the governor of Macedonia by refusing to eat meat that had been burned as a pagan sacrificial offering. Agape and Chionia suffered immediate martyrdom, while Irene escaped to the mountains only to be captured and burned later with her Christian books.
The remarkable medieval canoness and playwright Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim — by some reckonings the West’s first known dramatist since antiquity — made the .
An English translation of her 10th century play Dulcitius is available online here:
IRENA. You wretched Sisinnius! Do you not blush for your shameful defeat? Are you not ashamed that you could not overcome the resolution of a little child without resorting to force of arms?
SISINNIUS. I accept the shame gladly, since now I am sure of your death.
IRENA. To me my death means joy, but to you calamity. For your cruelty you will be damned in Tartarus. But I shall receive the martyr’s palm, and adorned with the crown of virginity, I shall enter the azure palace of the Eternal King, to Whom be glory and honour for ever and ever!
Bad Gandersheim‘s Roswitha Prize is awarded (nearly) annually in Hrosvita’s honor. It’s the oldest German literary laurel that’s conferred exclusively upon women.
The names of the Roman Empire’s various client kings are, when not utterly lost to history, deeply obscure to a present-day general audience. The best exception bar Cleopatra is surely the Judean ruler King Herod of Biblical villainy.
Christ‘s antagonists were actually two* different men of the same name: the tyrannical Herod the Great, the one whom the Gospel of Matthew accuses of massacring Bethlehem infants in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus; and, his son Herod Antipas, the successor credited with beheading John the Baptist and with taking a pass on Jesus’s own case when Pontius Pilate tried to drop it on him.
But for fickle fortune, Herod Antipas’s annual Advent vilifications might belong instead to Antipater, who was put to death around this time in 4 BCE by command of his dying father Herod the Great.
Named for his grandfather who founded the Herodian dynasty, Antipater was Herod the Great’s first-born son and for most of the decade preceding his death had been in Herod’s succession plans.
Like many princes, Herod was cursed with scheming, rivalrous offspring, and the father was forever revising his last will as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. In 7 BCE he had even executed two of Antipater’s half-brothers, Alexander and Aristobulos. Nearly 70 years old, Herod the Great now designated Antipater as his sole successor. The young man’s prospects for lasting Biblical infamy seemed excellent.
But for Antipater, himself already entering his fifth decade, patience did not appear a virtue.
Josephus describes Antipater complaining to his mother that “he had already gray hairs upon his head, and that his father grew younger again every day, and that perhaps death would overtake him before he should begin to be a king in earnest; and that in case Herod should die, which yet nobody knew when it would be, the enjoyment of the succession could certainly be but for a little time; for that those heads of Hydra, the sons of Alexander and Aristobulos, were growing up.”
Upon learning of Antipater’s consequent plot to speed his inheritance, Herod reportedly went on a paranoid security bender “and had many innocent persons led to the torture, out of his fear lest he should leave any guilty person untortured.” Herod lured Antipater back to Jerusalem and had him handed over to the Roman governor of Syria, Varus,** for trial.
The evidence against the heir — including a captured potion that was given to a condemned prisoner and proved thereby to be a lethal poison — was quite extensive, and Antipater was imprisoned and disinherited in 5 BCE.
Just one year later, the inexorable march of time delivered Herod to his deathbed. Had Antipater but waited …
But the would-be king was still alive and in custody, so perhaps he still stood a chance. Impatient as ever, Antipater jumped the gun when he caught premature word that Herod, who was actually still clinging to life, had finally kicked off.
As soon as Antipater heard that, he took courage, and with joy in his looks besought his keepers, for a sum of money, to loose him and let him go; but the principal keeper of the prison did not only obstruct him in that his intention, but ran and told the king what his design was, hereupon the king cried out louder than his distemper would well bear, and immediately sent some of his guards and slew Antipater; he also gave order to have him buried at Hyrcanium, and altered his testament again, and therein made Archelaus,† his eldest son, and the brother of Antipas, his successor, and made Antipas tetrarch.
So Herod, having survived the slaughter of his son five days, died, having reigned thirty-four years.
** Varus, who seems to have been hated by the Jews for his cruelty, was destined for a specifically Roman notoriety of his own: he led the huge Roman force destroyed by Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. “Varus, give me back my legions!” Augustus famously cried cried upon hearing that three whole legions had been annihilated.
† Archelaus‘s succession did not last long; the emperor Augustus deposed him in 6 AD, leaving Herod Antipas to govern Judea.
On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.
Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.
Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.
Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.
The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, bringing that longtime rival of Persia to the brink of outright destruction. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”
The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.
The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.
The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.
Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:
The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
The (defuunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.
* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.
Around this time in 904, Pope Sergius III allegedly had one or both of his deposed predecessors put to death in prison.
Sergius held the throne of St. Peter for seven years, which was a longer incumbency than achieved by his seven immediate predecessors combined:* they march speedily through the Vatican’s annals like so many third-century Caesars, acclaimed by one faction within Rome’s political vipers’ nest to no better effect than to offer flesh for their rival factions’ fangs; most are eminently forgettable save when they are utterly insane.
So pell-mell turned the scepter from one pretender to the next that the Church has even waffled in its official histories on just who was legitimate. Officially, Leo V is considered Sergius’s immediate predecessor; in reality, Leo was deposed and imprisoned two months after his July 903 election by a fellow named Christopher who was counted as a pope on canonical papal rolls until the 20th century. Today, he’s considered an antipope who was illegitimately elected.
“Legitimacy” in this period meant little but who had the muscle make their election stick. And though Sergius was the beneficiary, the man doing the flexing in this instance was Theophylact, Count of Tusculum along with his wife Theodora. For the next century the papacy would be a bauble of the Theophylacti family, who liberally plundered its perquisites. It is this Count who is thought to have forced the murder of Pope Leo — and possibly (Anti)pope Christopher, although Hermannus Contractus says Christopher was merely exiled to a monastery.
The resulting stability (relatively speaking) was the ascent with Sergius of the so-called “pornocracy”, or “Harlot State”.** The harlots in question are the Theopylacti women in a vicious bit of historiographical branding sourced ultimately (since there are very few to choose from) to the highly partisan histories of Liutprand of Cremona.
The count’s wife, Theodora, elevated to the unprecedented rank of “senatrix”, was the first voracious woman so designated and the possibly spurious charge that it was she who steered the Count’s hand is of course meant to redound to the detriment of both. Theodora’s daughter, Marozia, is alleged to have become Pope Sergius’s concubine at age 15.
As Marozia grew into womanhood, she would succeed as the de facto ruler of Rome, and become for propagandists the principal Pornocrat: “inflamed by all the fires of Venus,” gaped Liutprand; “a shameless whore … [who] exercised power on the Roman citizenry like a man.” She married the Duke of Spoleto and later the Margrave of Tuscany and was reputed to have manipulated numerous other paramours with her charms.
“A more inquisitive age would have detected the scarlet whore of the Revelations,” mused Edward Gibbon, who speculated that Marozia’s domination of the papacy might have sparked the later legend of a female “Pope Joan”. Our age might better see a ruthless conqueror entitled to indulge a Triumph or two. She made and unmade pontiffs in her own lifetime, and no fewer than six men tracing lineage directly to Marozia were Bishop of Rome in the next century and a half:
Marozia’s son (by either Pope Sergius or by the Duke of Spoleto) John XI, whose election Marozia forced in 931 when John was all of 21 years old;
Her grandsons John XII and Benedict VII;
Her great-grandsons (we’re into the 11th century for these) Benedict VIII and John XIX; her great-great-grandson Benedict IX
* In fact, you have to go back to Nicholas the Great (858-867) to find a longer-serving pope than Sergius.
** Saeculum obscurum, or Dark Ages, is historiography’s less colorful term.
Around this time in the year 1205, the fleeting Byzantine emperor Alexios V Doukas was put to a dramatic death in Constantinople’s Forum of Theodosius by being hurled from the top of the ancient Column of Theodosius.
Nicknamed “Mourtzouphlos” for his prominent brow, Alexios obtained his Pyrrhic purple by being the only elite with wit and courage in Constantinople during the horror of the its sack by a Venetian Crusader army.
Vanity, vanity, all is vanity! Hands in mailed gauntlets and silk gloves grasping after glory and treasure were our Emperor Eyebrow’s rise and his fall.
The prime desideratum was the prime desideratum, Jerusalem. In a monument to bad management, a Crusader army of 12,000 was mustered to Venice in 1202 for a flotilla suitable to thrice its number. Venice had taken on an enormous contract to assemble this fleet and since the soldiers who showed up could in no way pay what the Serene Republic had been proised, Venice simply repossessed the army to make good its debt by means of pillage.
First, it sacked Venice’s Dalmatian rival Zadar. Then, having picked up the exiled nephew of the reigning Byzantine emperor — the uncle had overthrown the father to get the job — the Crusader-mercenaries made for Constantinople, become now shameless Praetorians by dint of young Alexios’s assurance of all the liberalities the East’s treasuries could bear.
Constantinople in 1202 was the jewel of Christendom. Its mighty walls had preserved the city inviolate since antiquity — a city of half a million souls reposing in the splendors of the Roman world, augmented by eight more centuries’ imperial surplus.
A morsel so ripe needs but one unguarded moment for some ruffian to pluck it. The Crusaders’ attack so happened to catch Constantinople, at long last, at such a moment. The city was lightly defended and unable to summon more aid — while under the direction of an emperor, Alexios III, who had been cruel and profligate in the enjoyment of his power but vacillated fatally when he was required to defend it.
In a matter of days in July of 1203, Alexios’s rule collapsed, and the emperor himself fled, when the Crusaders besieged Constantiople. These Crusaders of course installed their scheming moppet as Emperor Alexios IV, actually co-emperor with his father who despite having been brutally blinded by his brother was liberated and acclaimed by the populace.
The ensuing months make painful reading — and surely much worse than that to experience at first hand. The new emperors feuded with each other despite their kinship. They also had to squeeze every revenue they could for the Crusader army, which stubbornly refused to depart as its leader, the nonagenarian Doge of Venice, schemed to establish lasting Venetian authority in Byzantium. Irritated residents, enduring the continued presence of a Crusader army that thought it was supposed to be going to Jerusalem all along, rioted and fought with one another.
The bottom line was that young Alexios was no more impressive in power than had been his predecessor and he had the added disability of having been installed by a foreign invader. He also discovered to his chagrin that the staggering sum of 200,000 he had so lightly promised the Venetians in exchange for his throne was double what he could actually find in the capital. When the situation unmanned him in January of 1204, he cowered in the imperial palace and sent his chamberlain to petition the Crusaders to back him in the latest exigency.
That chamberlain was our man, Alexios Mourtzouphlos.
Acting with an alacrity that might have spared Constantinople a horror had an earlier prince exercised it, Alexios instead arrested the co-emperors and spirited them off to a dungeon where they were quietly murdered.
The usurper then turned the city’s energies towards reinforcing its battered defenses and attempted to mount an attack against the Crusaders. This proved, however, much too late to spare the Second Rome its most awful tribulation.
In a matter of days in April 1204, the rude band of Latins who set out to win Jerusalem for Christ overran glorious Constantinople and put it to the sack. Tourists today who gawk at the bronze horses decorating Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica are in fact enjoying the plunder of Byzantium. In time Constantinople would be retrieved from the Latins, but neither the city itself nor the Byzantine Empire ever fully recovered from the blow. This is also the event that made the schism between Eastern and Western confessions of Christianity permanently irretrievable.*
It was not given Alexios Mourtzouphlos to see what horrors ensued for Constantinople, never mind to get a start on finagling an imperial comeback of his own. Fleeing the sack of the city, he wound up in Thrace in the company of yet another deposed ex-emperor. But after first allowing Mourtzouphlos to marry his daughter, that old schemer had Alexios V blinded and in November 1204 abandoned him to an advancing Latin army — and its eventual death-by-precipitation — while his former in-laws fled to Corinth.
* One of Alexios IV’s promises to his Crusader buddies was to submit the Byzantine patriarchate to Papal authority — another pledge that could never have been realistically delivered.
Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.
Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.
Andrew gets pretty short shrift in the New Testament compared to his brother, even though the Gospel of John actually credits our man with being the first of the two boys to cotton to the Nazarene’s preaching.
Despite playing such a minor role in the sacred texts, he has a cultural footprint far in excess of fellow apostolic extras like Saint Bartholomew.
After the master’s crucifixion, Andrew is supposed to have preached in Turkey and Greece. Romanian and Kievan Rus’ traditions posit that he wandered even further north to make the first Christian inroads among their pagan forebears; as a consequence, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine are all among the countries that count Andrew as a patron saint, along with the place of his martyrdom, Greece.
The most recognizable such patronage, of course, is Scotland.
The story has it that a legendary Roman monk in the fourth century brought three fingers, an arm bone, a kneecap, and a tooth formerly comprising the saint from Patras, where Andrew died, to a monastery on the coast of Fife. The subsequent settlement has been known as St Andrews for over 800 years, so if you like that might make Andrew the patron saint of golf, too.**
Scotland’s flag, the ☓-shaped heraldic saltire pictured above, evokes Saint Andrew’s distinctive execution device, the aptly-named (and kink-friendly) St. Andrew’s Cross.
Like his brother’s physiologically improbable upside-down execution, this is supposed to have represented the disciple’s own unworthiness to die the same death as the Savior, and Roman executioners’ surprising accommodation of such scruples.
St. Andrew’s Day is an official holiday in Scotland. In many other countries of central and Eastern Europe, the vigil preceding St. Andrew’s Day has long been associated with folk magic for divining the identity of an unmarried maid’s future husband.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Henryk Siemiradzki’s 1867 painting Siemiradzki Noc-Andrzeja.
Andre, Andrei, or Andreas are equivalents; it’s thanks to a November 30 christening that San Andreas Lake got its name, and in turn conferred same on the associated continental fault that keeps Californians employed making disaster movies about their own selves going the way of Atlantis.
* There is also an apocryphal Acts of Andrew, whose original text has been lost but is known in summation indirectly through other authors. It is thought to date to the third century.
Today is St. Clement’s Day, the feast day of the first century Pope Clement I — who, tradition has it, was martyred by the Romans under Trajan at the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus by being pitched into the Black Sea weighted down with an anchor.*
The documentary trail for leadership of the Christian community in these embryonic years is a little thin but officially, the Vatican rates Clement the fourth Pope following St. Peter, Linus, and Cletus; Tertullian says he was ordained by Peter’s very on hand.
He’s the earliest of these successors of the Apostle who can still speak to posterity. The First Epistle of Clement,** which might very well be from the pope’s own hand, is among the oldest extant Christian texts outside of the books actually gathered in the New Testament. Clement wrote it to recall the Corinthian congregation to obedience after “no small sedition” challenged its presbyters; by way of a voluminous review of authority both scriptural and natural,† the Bishop of Rome unsurprisingly concludes that folk ought submit to the constituted ecclesiastical authorities.
Forasmuch then as these things are manifest beforehand, and we have searched into the depths of the Divine knowledge, we ought to do all things in order, as many as the Master hath commanded us to perform at their appointed seasons. Now the offerings and ministrations He commanded to be performed with care, and not to be done rashly or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons.
And where and by whom He would have them performed, He Himself fixed by His supreme will: that all things being done with piety according to His good pleasure might be acceptable to His will.
They therefore that make their offerings at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed: for while they follow the institutions of the Master they cannot go wrong.
For unto the high priest his proper services have been assigned, and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and upon the levites their proper ministrations are laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances.
Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his service, but acting with all seemliness.
Not in every place, brethren, are the continual daily sacrifices offered, or the freewill offerings, or the sin offerings and the trespass offerings, but in Jerusalem alone. And even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the sanctuary in the court of the altar; and this too through the high priest and the afore said ministers, after that the victim to be offered hath been inspected for blemishes.
They therefore who do any thing contrary to the seemly ordinance of His will receive death as the penalty.
Presumably in consequence of the device used to sink the pope into the Euxine, St. Clement is honored as the patron of smiths and metalorkers; little-observed now, St. Clement’s Day once saw clanging processions of cloaked, and tanked, blacksmiths answering to Old Clem and belting out tunes at every tavern they passed. Pyromaniacs and Warner Brothers cartoon characters might also wish to honor St. Clement with a good old-fashioned anvil firing.
* Chersonesus, which is the city where the prince Vladimir the Great was baptized en route to Christianizing all of Russia, has gorgeous ruins that can be seen adjacent to present-day Sevastopol. St. Cyril, missionary to the Slavs and fountainhead of the Cyrillic alphabet(s), is supposed to have dug up Clement’s relics during his sojourn and hauled them, anchor and all, back to Rome.
† And unnatural! Viz. “There is a bird, which is named the phoenix. This, being the only one of its kind, liveth for five hundred years; and when it hath now reached the time of its dissolution that it should die, it maketh for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into the which in the fullness of time it entereth, and so it dieth.” The phoenix is supposed to be evidence and/or metaphor for the Resurrection and the afterlife.
The story of Christiana Bell’s execution in Gloucester County in modern-day New Jersey on or shortly before November 21, 1721, begins in 1703. That was the first time she was accused of infanticide: they had found a dead baby and Christiana, a domestic servant who was probably only in her teens at the time, came under suspicion because she had been pregnant out of wedlock and was suddenly not pregnant but with no infant to show for it.
Her trial in 1703 was presided over by Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, governor of the New York and New Jersey colonies. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, Lord Cornbury took pity on her — perhaps because of her youth, or maybe there were doubts about her guilt — and first commuted the death sentence, then issued a full pardon. Christiana returned home, having spent fourteen months behind bars but not stretched her neck.
She didn’t learn the lesson Lord Cornbury might have wanted her to learn from her fortuitous escape.
In 1720, she was rearrested for the exact same crime: she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock again, delivered a live baby and did away with it.
Christiana very nearly got lucky again: her death sentence was suspended and she got a chance to plead her case before New Jersey Supreme Court on May 2, 1721. Today, appeals in capital cases are automatic; in Christiana’s time, this was an unusual and perhaps unprecedented legal maneuver.
Unfortunately, it backfired on her: the prosecution was ready with witnesses who testified about Christiana Bell’s notorious past and her prior conviction and death sentence. This time there would be no reprieve.
The exact date of her execution is not known for certain, but on November 21, 1721, the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders approved funds to reimburse the sheriff for expenses he’d incurred in hanging her.
Sometime in October 1584 in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, one Anders Bengtsson was sentenced to death for his crimes “against the law and justice and the subjects of His Royal Majesty.”
Anders, according to trial records, had a reputation as a violent criminal and “an unchristian man and a tyrant.” The crime that lead to his death sentence? He had “murderously beaten his son to death.”
A witness in the case testified to having seen him carry out this savage assault and stated that he had called on Anders a score of times to stop beating his child. After the father’s mishandling, the boy was said to be “so weak and battered that both his head and his body sagged limply.”
As the book explains, the Swedish justice system at the time did not rely heavily on the death penalty, even in cases of killing. However, because of its cruelty, Bengttson’s was considered no ordinary crime, and it was not dealt with in the ordinary way:
The town court stated in its grounds that the normal penalty prescribed by the law of Sweden under the Accidental Manslaughter Code for parents who chastised their children too harshly was a fine. However, in this case, it was not a question of an accident. Anders’s action is described as “tyrannical and inhuman.” He had not chastised his son for his betterment; rather, he had acted “like an executioner, in an unchristian way that was contrary to natural love.” The town court found that the deed could not be atoned for with a fine, and so it sentenced Anders Bengtsson to execution by the wheel.
He was put to death on some unknown date shortly thereafter.
The present-day ruins of Kildrummy Castle. (cc) image from Stu Smith.
As his name indicates, Nigel, Niall, or Neil — as your taste may run — was kin to Robert the Bruce, his brother in fact, and a key supporter of Robert in the latter’s fight for the Scottish crown.
Someone must have put the Bruces under that old Chinese curse about living in interesting times. Though the extremely interesting First War of Scottish Independence would indeed put Robert the Bruce on the Scottish throne, it was achieved in a period of devastation. Not only Nigel, but every single one of Robert’s brothers, died violently: three in all were executed, and a fourth slain in battle.
None of the five had reached his teens when times started getting really interesting with the shock 1286 death of Scotland’s King Alexander III, who got lost in the dark riding to Fife in bad weather and had a fatal fall down an embankment.
All three of Alexander’s children had predeceased him, so the hope of succession settled on a three-year-old* granddaughter, the Norwegian princess remembered as Margaret, Maid of Norway. Margaret now became for several years a chesspiece of diplomacy between the Scottish, Norwegian, and English courts, and was slated for marriage to the crown prince, the future King Edward II.** But we can slide right past the delicacies in all that because Margaret, too, dropped dead — in her case, at sea while en route to Scotland in 1290.† Little Margaret had never once set foot in the country she putatively ruled.
With no clear successor to Margaret, a free-for-all scramble for power ensued with no fewer than 14 noblemen claiming the throne for themselves. This “Great Cause” soon coalesced into John of Balliol (the claimant by primogeniture) vs. Robert the Bruce (the claimant by proximity of blood) — and the Guardians solicited the arbitration of the English King Edward I.
Having been balked of his goal of bringing Scotland into his dynastic thrall by means of the marital arrangements, Edward did not mean to miss the diplomatic opportunity and twisted the candidates’ arms to accept the suzerainty that Edward claimed over them. The disunited Scots had little choice but to do so.
Edward ruled for Balliol, but his impositions and concomitant Scottish resistance soon brought the situation to open warfare. Incensed at a Scots-French alliance to oppose them, the English invaded in 1296‡ — forcing Balliol’s deposition (he’s known as “Toom Tabard”, or “empty coat”, for the regal insignia torn from his raiments) and provoking the celebrated resistance of William Wallace.
We know what happened to that guy, but Edward’s bloody pacification of the north came undone in 1306.
In February of that year, Robert the Bruce summoned the successor Balliol claimant, his rival John Comyn, to Greyfriars Church in Dumfries and sacrilegiously stuck a knife in him.
In this affray the relative measures of perfidy by Bruce and by Comyn, both of whom were scheming nobles angling for the throne, are down to your choice of parties and sources. The consequences, however, can hardly be mistaken.
Bruce had himself defiantly crowned King of Scotland just weeks after soaking his hands with Comyn’s blood, but a furious Edward I was smashing up the outclassed Scottish by springtime. The Bruce himself had to flee to hiding, and eventually to Ireland, while many of his supporters wound up hemmed in in Kildrummy Castle, commanded by our man Nigel. The English soon overwhelmed it (legend has it, as legend usually does, that the fortress was treacherously betrayed). Nigel was hauled off to Berwick for more or less immediate punishment; his fellow-commander at Kildrummy, the Earl of Athol, suffered the same in London on November 7.
One could forgive Nigel if, in the midst of having his entrails ripped out of his trunk by the executioner of Berwick, he indulged a moment’s despair for the family’s Great Cause. Robert himself was reduced to feeling out whether any English terms could be had.
But from this nadir of his fortunes, Robert the Bruce gloriously (nigh miraculously) returned to lead a successful guerrilla campaign against the English beginning in 1307, crucially aided by the death that same year of Edward I. He would sting the English repeatedly over the ensuing years before his gathering strength finally forced the English to recognize Scottish sovereignty in 1328.
* Margaret was actually just two years old at the time Alexander died. Alexander’s second wife was thought to be pregnant at the time — that turned out to be a nonstarter — so official succession didn’t settle on Margaret until she was three.
** Though this proposed union, never realized, raised the prospect of uniting English and Scottish realms, the Guardians of Scotland who called the shots while waiting for their sovereign to grow up insisted that the relevant document’s language assure that even if ruled by the same monarch Scotland would “remain separate, apart and free in itself without subjection to the English Kingdom.”
† A “False Margaret” posing as the lost Scottish queen would later turn up in Norway, and be executed for her charade.
‡ Among other things, this invasion seized the previously Scottish city of Berwick — Nigel’s eventual execution-place — for the English. Berwick changed hands repeatedly between the Scottish and the English for several hundred years before settling permanently into English possession in 1482.