Two acclaimed medieval historians talk to our Writer at Large about their new book which explores how conflict between England and Scotland shaped the nations forever

CONFLICT, Richard Partington says, is a crucible. It’s the fire in which nations are formed. For Scotland and England the flame under that crucible was lit at the end of the 13th century when the two nations ripped each other to pieces in the Scottish Wars of Independence.

That bloody conflict shaped Scotland and England in ways we’re still feeling today.

Partington and his colleague, Dr Caroline Burt, have just brought out an epic new history called Arise, England. It explains how England was shaped by its Plantagenet Kings between 1199 and 1399. However, central to that story is another country: Scotland.


Richard Partington


Richard Partington

England wouldn’t have become England without Scotland, and Scotland wouldn’t have become Scotland without England.

“It’s an extraordinary political journey for the two countries,” the pair explain. “An absolutely formative period for relations between Scotland and England.”

The Herald on Sunday caught up with the acclaimed historians at Cambridge University where they teach for a wide-ranging conversation exploring how the Plantagenet period shaped England and Scotland.

War, they say, is “fundamental to emerging national identity”. In England, during the conflict with Scotland, “the requirement for national taxation to fund war led to the creation of Parliament, and the political debate about foreign policy and government more widely that ensued brought the king and the political community together around what became a genuinely shared, national enterprise”.

It’s strange to think of Scotland as a matter of “foreign policy” for England, but in the medieval period that was the case.

“Within Scotland” the wars meant that “Robert Bruce consciously built Scottish national identity as part of his internal political programme”.



Dr Caroline Burt


Dr Caroline Burt

The “independent Scottish political identity” which emerged “asserted its separateness from England”. This came “despite the vast overlap in landholding and political connection that existed among the Scottish and English nobility”.

English and Scottish nobles were closely related through marriage and “Norman” culture.

The Wars of Independence took place at a time when “national identities were starting to emerge across Europe … All national identities rely to a degree upon cartoonish notions of ‘the other’, and within the context of international conflict, political propaganda usually seeks to demonise the enemy”.


The primary cause of the First War of Independence was the succession crisis for the Scottish throne. In 1286, Alexander III died. His three-year-old granddaughter Margaret was his heir. The “Guardians of Scotland” – who effectively ruled the country as there was no monarch on the throne – agreed that Margaret would marry the son of Edward I of England. However, Margaret died, creating a fight for succession.

The two main competitors were Robert de Brus (grandfather of Robert the Bruce) and John Balliol. With civil war brewing in Scotland, the Guardians asked Edward I to arbitrate.

Due to the tight bonds between Scotland and England until this period, Edward I “was the natural person for the Scots to turn to when they couldn’t resolve matters”.

Scotland’s nobles thought they “needed an honest broker, except Edward turned out not to be that”. Edward agreed to arbitrate but only if he was recognised as “overlord” of Scotland. Balliol was eventually named king and swore allegiance to Edward.

Tensions spilled over. Scotland entered into a military treaty – the Auld Alliance – with France. Edward moved his troops north. War broke out in 1296. The Bruce family were originally loyal to Edward, though Robert later renounced his oath and backed John Balliol.

These events led to Robert the Bruce being portrayed as a “self-serving and ambitious political turncoat”, though Partington and Burt think that’s an “unfair” description. To some extent, Bruce was a “victim of circumstance”, responding to events in the best way he could for his family’s survival.

The events which followed were a whirlwind of bloodshed and plotting, with its high point the Battle of Bannockburn, which led to the restoration of Scotland as an independent nation under the rule of Robert the Bruce. The conflict would finally come to a close with the end of the Second War of Independence in 1357.

Before the wars solidified national identity for both countries, “Scottish and English identity were quite fluid”, particularly in the borders. “Matters harden when you get warfare. Once that happens you get a much more solid sense of identity.”

One key difference regarding the consequences of the conflict is that Scotland comes to define itself much more strongly in opposition to England, than England does to Scotland. England looks more to France, than Scotland, for the opponent to define itself against.



An illustration of the Wars of Independence



ENGLISH propagandists repeatedly talk of French invasion plans and how France intends to “extinguish the English language. They don’t use that sort of propaganda against the Scots”. However, they do “demonise … Scottish border raiders”. When the Black Death broke out in 1348, however, Scottish propagandists claimed “it was God’s judgment on the English”. That soon stopped when plague crossed the border.

When England conquered Wales, it came with a sense of “snobbery and a superiority complex”. The English saw Welsh culture as “backward and antediluvian”. However, “that doesn’t exist where the Scots are concerned. The English are dealing with people who come from the same political place as themselves. They’re dealing with equals … Scotland and England have been on parallel tracks”.

In a way, the Anglo-Scottish conflict was a battle between cousins. Prior to the Wars of Independence, England and Scotland were so friendly that when Henry I was overseas, David I of Scotland became the “justiciary in England – that’s how close the English and Scots political communities were. The primary difference between English and Scottish nobles is that the English have more money. It’s not that they’re completely different sorts of people”.

At the time, the conflict was seen as a terrible “aberration” due to those close blood ties between nobles. The war was by no means inevitable.

However, despite the family connections, Edward’s demands for overlordship gave Balliol little choice but to go to war. Edward also felt he had no choice but war, due to the hierarchical nature of society. If his “overlordship” was flouted, he’d lose face – not something acceptable for medieval kings. Both rulers were “trapped by a combination of ideology and circumstance”.

Partington says the same could be said of the SNP today. “They’ve no option but to repeatedly ask for a referendum because they’re the Scottish National Party even if it doesn’t make much political sense.

“This was pretty much the situation in the late 1280s, when the circumstances for Balliol were completely impossible. He’s trapped between Edward insisting on overlordship and Scottish nobles – some of whom didn’t want him as king, some of whom were candidates themselves, including the Bruces – saying ‘stand up to the English’.”



Weapons used in The Wars of Independence



ONCE Robert the Bruce had won, his “radical kingship placed Scottish independence of English overlordship at the heart of his political offering”. Independence became a political ideology. Bruce worked “deliberately” to dismantle “the Anglo-Scottish political community” and create “his vision of a Scottish polity that was national rather than transnational”.

In other words, he made Scotland very Scottish indeed. This vision saw Bruce disinherit “anyone who refused to recognise his kingship, or who wished to retain their lands in England. By this means he made Scottish independence and national identity a black-and-white issue allowing little room for political compromise or the rebuilding of transnational relationships”.

These actions helped foment the Second War of Independence, which saw disinherited nobles “driven out” of Scotland fighting alongside England.

Bruce’s policies “ended the situation that had existed in the 13th century, in which most Scottish earls held significant English estates, and a large minority of English earls held signifiant Scottish estates”. Those close ties between the two countries started to wither.

The historians believe there is “valid comparison” to be made between what has been called the “muscular unionism” of the current UK Conservative government towards Scottish independence and the position Edward I took.

Compromise prevents conflict. Today, “one way forward in respect of the union is a greater measure of devolution from Westminster and genuine political collaboration between the Westminster government and the Scottish Government. Even during the Covid crisis that was scarcely observable at the level of political leadership.

“If we step back 30-odd years, we see in the Thatcher government’s imposition of the poll tax on Scotland a year ahead of England the sort of tin-eared politics that was practiced by an under-pressure Edward I in Scotland in the 1290s.”

What was “critical” about this period was “the question of Scottish independence which Edward I forced the Scots to prioritise, and which Robert Bruce’s kingship made central to Scottish political identity”.

“It was very difficult thereafter to return to the sort of collaborative, transnational political relationships that had previously characterised much of English and Scottish medieval history.

“As the Wars of the Three Kingdoms [also known as the English Civil War] in the 17th century showed, even the union of the crowns, which occurred under James VI and I, didn’t end questions about Scottish self-determination.”

Indeed, the questions remains unresolved to this day.



Scotland and England have endured many bloody battles



AS the world knows, thanks to Hollywood, these wars created Scotland’s great national hero: William Wallace. But it “wasn’t until the late 14th and 15th centuries that he began to be celebrated as such, because he was a minor gentry figure of Welsh extraction – hence his name Wallace, or as it was spelled in the later Middle Ages “Waleys”. Historical chronicles tended to focus upon the social and political elite”.

So Wallace was “more celebrated” long after his death in Scotland than at the time of his exploits. He was, after all, “handed over to the English by the Scots” for his “debasement”.

“Although the Mel Gibson film Braveheart is highly historically inaccurate, its spirit closely reflects the sense being consciously promoted of Wallace in Scotland by the 15th century. In that sense, it reflects an important historical reality of national myth-making”.

The Wars of Independence even changed how the two nations fought battles. The tactics England learned against Scotland “make it the most important military power in Europe for most of the next 200 years”.

England professionalised its army, copied Robert the Bruce’s infantry warfare, and increased the use of longbow archers. Many “core tactics were very substantially from Robert the Bruce”.

The tensions created between Scotland and England in the medieval period do have some contemporary echoes. “The situation in Scotland today” can be seen as similar to the “situation that existed in Scotland in the early 14th century. There are certain things that are politically acceptable within Scotland that may not necessarily be the things that are most obviously in Scotland’s best interests”.

In other words: “Questions of national identity can dictate that particular paths must be taken, or that others are unacceptable even if they might be of utility. Take education.

“ There are many countries using world-leading expertise in education, examinations and assessment in England to create national curricula or provide qualifications domestically.

“Scottish education has unfortunately faced real challenges in recent years. But it would be political suicide for the Scottish Government to respond to this by seeking to bring aspects of the Scottish system in line with that in England. Similarly, compromise with the English in 14th-century Scotland was politically difficult even if, at particular points, it was probably in the best interests of stability in Scotland.”

The pair say that contemporary Scotland and England think very differently about this warring period.

“In Scotland, the Wars of Independence are fundamental to Scottish identity and, although the popular sense of them lacks detail and nuance – as a country’s popular sense of its history inevitably does – they are there in the public consciousness.

“In England, there’s almost no public sense of the 13th and 14th centuries, other than arguably Magna Carta, which is frequently cited as the foundation stone of English liberty without people necessarily understanding why.”

What if there had been a peaceful resolution rather than war? “There would still be different cultural identities and different legal systems. But if England and Scotland had continued to co-exist broadly amicably, as they largely had before 1294, perhaps there wouldn’t be quite such a sense today that the British government’s periodic high-handedness towards Scotland is part of some enduring, maybe fundamental, plan.”


William Wallace

William Wallace



ALTHOUGH there are echoes today of the Auld Alliance in the way supporters of Scottish independence look to Europe, while England has rejected Europe through the Brexit vote, the medieval Franco-Scottish pact was rather transactional.

“It lasts only as long as it works for both. When there’s a deal to be done with England, the French move on – they’ve no compunction about that. What’s most important is: what works for France.”

However, there were deep ties between all three countries. English nobles including the King had extensive lands in France. In fact, the French king Philip IV was demanding supplication from Edward.

“What Edward is doing to Balliol is being done to him by Philip. Edward and Philip are acting within an ideological mindset about sovereignty, monarchy and overlordship which is pushing them in a particular direction.”

The Balliols “had more lands in France than anywhere else. The Bruces had more land in England than south-west Scotland. Forty per cent of English earls had significant Scottish territories, and most Scottish earls had significant English territories. All these people are transnational”.

That partly explains why so many Scots sided with England at times during the long-running conflict. The Wars of Independence were “simultaneously a Scottish civil war and an invasion by the English”.

After Robert the Bruce murdered John Comyn over the issue of who had the right to the crown, many Scottish nobles saw him as a “murderous usurper”. Bruce championed “Scottish independence as a way of legitimising his claim to the throne”.

If Bruce hadn’t turned himself into a “pariah” through the murder, “Scottish independence may not have taken the route it did”.

Bruce’s “shocking murder of Comyn left him with no option but to take a radical line in respect of Scottish independence. Having committed the murder, his only realistic path forward was to claim the Scottish throne and attach that claim to reanimation of the cause of Scottish independence”.

Bruce’s embrace of Scottish independence “brought with it an important cadre of political support, including Bishop Wishart of Glasgow

– whom we might regard as a principled keeper of the flame of independence – at a time when the large part of the Scottish political establishment regarded [Bruce] as anathema”.

Bruce then “quickly began to defeat his Scottish opponents in battle, in what was now a Scottish civil war as well as a war against the English, with whom the Balliol-Comyn cause was now allied”.

Despite his ultimate success, Bruce would “remain a controversial figure within Scotland and it was many years before internal political opposition to him waned” and he assumed the stature of the country’s other great national hero.


BRUCE, who it is believed spoke Gaelic, attempted to build a “pan-Celtic alliance against England” involving Wales and Ireland, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. England had already successfully “subjugated” the Welsh, “making it very difficult for Wales to summon any effective national resistance”, and colonised large parts of Ireland leaving “the core” of the island “Normanised”.

Despite these “Celtic connections”, England and Scotland share the same “foundation myth”: that both countries were originally settled by survivors from the Trojan War, after its sack by the Ancient Greeks.

England simply didn’t see Scotland in the same way it saw Celtic Ireland and Wales. Lowland Scotland was “effectively another Anglo-Norman community, or Scotto-Norman community. It’s only in the Highlands that you have a really different culture”.

From the long view of history, it’s “hard not to conclude” that the English invasion of Wales, Ireland and then Scotland was simply a continuation of the Norman Conquest – an attempt to throw Plantagenet rule over all of the British isles.

After the Wars of Independence, Scotland and England inevitably became more divided as the national identities forged in the crucible of conflict took hold.

Although there were points during this period when Scotland “was making political advances and England was just marking time”, a number of events in England set the country on a different and arguably more successful course to Scotland.

The Peasants’ Revolt, for example, widened the English middle class, which “gave England the ability to punch above its weight”.

What about ordinary Scots and English people in this period? In the Borders “they would have been neighbours. They would have had common ground and have known each other, but also periodically been overrun by one another and suffered catastrophic economic and personal losses.

“It was bloody in northern England and in southern Scotland, but in between those bouts of horror people were thinking cross-border”.

The allegiances of ordinary people also shifted. “By the 1320s, there were undoubtedly people in northern England who would rather be ruled by Robert the Bruce.”

Despite all the bloodshed, there’s little evidence of intense ethnic hatred between ordinary Scots and English people due to how fluid identity had been before the conflict.

In fact, after the wars, David II, son of Robert the Bruce, and Edward III, grandson of Edward I, put rivalry aside. “They focused on not fighting each other. They chose compromise - the thing we’ve forgotten.”

Both historians believe that one of the key lessons of the conflict “is that we’re all the same”. There really wasn’t that much difference between the lives of ordinary Scots and English when war broke out.

That holds true today, Burt believes. “We don’t play that up enough. We don’t emphasise the positivity of our cross-cultural connections.”