1306: Nigel de Brus, brother of the King

Add comment September 18th, 2014 Headsman

On an uncertain date in September of 1306 — sometime after the mid-September English capture of Kildrummy CastleNigel de Brus was drawn and quartered at the border town of Berwick.


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.

(The Great Cause is covered in this episode of the History of England podcast.)

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.


19th century illustration of John Comyn’s murder. Since we’re citing the handy History of England podcast, here’s the relevant episode.

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 imbruing 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.

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1323: Andrew Harclay, too chummy with the Scots

1 comment March 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1323, Andrew Harclay was hanged, drawn and quartered in London for having attempted to conclude peace with Scotland.

A commoner whose abilities lifted him into the nobility, Harclay may have been northern England’s ablest military commander during ceaseless warfare between Robert the Bruce of Scotland (yes, that one) and the English King Edward II, the latter struggling to maintain the conquests of his father, Edward I “Longshanks”.

It was the defeat of a domestic enemy — Edward had no shortage of foes — that elevated Harclay into the peerage; he engineered English victory at the Battle of Boroughbridge over the rebellious Earl of Lancaster.

Campaigns against the Scots were less to the king’s liking; Robert the Bruce consistently thwarted English expeditions, establishing an ever-firmer grasp on Scotland and raiding into the frontiers — Harclay’s lands included. Settlement of the fruitless conflict was the order of the day, and it was Edward’s intransigence that withheld it. As a century-old volume on England’s political history puts it, “To such a pass had England been reduced that those who honestly desired that the farmers of Cumberland should once more till their fields in peace, saw no other means of gaining their end than by communication with the enemies of their country.”

Secretly, Harclay ventured to work out the terms of a peace with Scotland, an act outside his station which he evidently intended to present as a fait accompli. Here is the contemporaneous account from the Chronicle of Lanercost:

Wherefore, when the said Earl of Carlisle perceived that the King of England neither knew how to rule his realm nor was able to defend it against the Scots, who year by year laid it more and more waste, he feared lest at last he [the king] should lose the entire kingdom ; so he chose the less of two evils, and considered how much better it would be for the community of each realm if each king [Edward II and Robert the Bruce] should possess his own kingdom freely and peacefully without any homage, instead of so many homicides and arsons, captivities, plunderings and raidings taking place every year. Therefore on the 3rd January [1323] the said Earl of Carlisle went secretly to Robert the Bruce at Lochmaben …

Now the Earl of Carlisle made the aforesaid convention and treaty with the Scots without the knowledge and consent of the King of England and of the kingdom in parliament; nor was he more than a single individual, none of whose business it was to transact such affairs. … But after all these things had been made known for certain to the King and kingdom of England, the poor folk, middle class and farmers in the northern parts were not a little delighted that the King of Scotland should freely possess his own kingdom on such terms that they themselves might live in peace. But the king and his council were exceedingly put out (and no wonder!) because he whom the king had made an earl so lately had allied himself to the Scots, an excommunicated enemy, to the prejudice of the realm and crown, and would compel the lieges of the King of England to rebel with him against the king; wherefore they [the king and council] publicly proclaimed him as a traitor.

….

[A]lbeit he merited death according to the laws of kingdoms, his aforesaid good intention may yet have saved him in the sight of God.

Debate continues over just how treasonous — grossly so, or only “technically” — was this fatal negotiation; that it was practical cannot be gainsaid. Twelve weeks after Edward sent this key noble to the block for his unauthorized collaboration with the enemy, England herself concluded a similar truce. Although this version did not acknowledge the Bruce’s kingship, the peace it established would, ere the decade was out, lead to England legally recognizing Scotland’s independence.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1305: William Wallace, Braveheart

10 comments August 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1305, Scottish knight Mel Gibson — er, William Wallace — was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield for treason to a British crown he refused to recognize.

Just like so:

Well, close enough. Some wags have alleged one or two historical liberties in Braveheart.

Among the lesser (but more pertinent here): that they weren’t — you knew this already — offering the former Guardian of Scotland the opportunity to reduce his suffering with a public submission, or use the stage for theatrical defiance. Hanging, drawing and quartering was a brand new execution Edward I was experimenting with for emasculating, disemboweling, and (so the idea went) utterly cowing the rebellious hinterlands of the British Isles. Wallace may have been just the second person to suffer it.

But only a pointy-headed blogger could possibly care when the main point is that back before Christendom succumbed to nancy decadences like Vatican II, men wore woad, defenestrated queers, and tapped top-shelf babes.


Among the few things known for certain about William Wallace is that he did not score with Isabella of France. Or with Sophie Marceau.

Facts? This is show business!

Mel’s bloodbath only riffs the already-fantastic 15th century epic of “the Wallace” by Scottish minstrel Blind Harry, which in turn got a lyrical call-out in Robert Burns’ 18th century Scottish patriotic tune Scots Wha Hae.

National martyrs — and, sure, it helps to die at the right time, as Wallace did just before Robert the Bruce secured Scottish independence — feed a train of hungry authors and ready audiences in every time, place and medium.

However genuinely flesh-and-blood the limbs that wrought his feats and were torn apart on this day, Wallace returns to his generations of interlocutors half-shrouded in mythology. Seven centuries on, his contested (and sometimes absurd) use as precedent or metaphor stakes a claim to his Truth at least as compelling as battlefield tactics at Stirling Bridge. What does he “really” have to tell us? No matter how grisly his end, William Wallace doesn’t get to decide: it’s between you, me, Mel, and a few billion other folks.

Only a character really worth remembering is worth that kind of fictionalizing.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason

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