Alexander III of Scotland

From New World Encyclopedia
Alexander III
King of Scots
Alexander III and Ollamh Rígh.JPG
Coronation of King Alexander on Moot Hill, Scone. He is being greeted by the ollamh rígh, the royal poet, who is addressing him with the proclamation "Benach De Re Albanne" (= Beannachd Dé Rígh Alban, "God Bless the King of Scotland"); the poet goes on to recite Alexander's genealogy.
Reign July 6, 1249 – March 19, 1286
Coronation July 13, 1249, Scone, Scotland
Born September 4 1241(1241-09-04)
Died 19 March 1286 (aged 44)
Buried Dunfermline Abbey
Predecessor Alexander II of Scotland
Successor Margaret (disputed)
Consort Margaret of England
Yolande de Dreux
Issue Margaret of Scotland (Queen of Norway), Alexander, David
Royal House House of Dunkeld
Father Alexander II of Scotland
Mother Marie de Coucy

Alexander III (Medieval Gaelic: Alaxandair mac Alaxandair; Modern Gaelic: Alasdair mac Alasdair) (September 4, 1241 – March 19, 1286), King of Scots, was born at Roxburgh, the only son of Alexander II by his second wife Marie de Coucy. Alexander's father died on July 6, 1249 and he became king at the age of eight, inaugurated at Scone on July 13, 1249. Laying claim to the Western Isles against Norway, he defeated the Norwegians in 1263, extending Scottish rule over the islands and also the Isle of Man. However, dying without a male heir in 1286, it was six years before his successor, John, became king.

The 37 year reign of Alexander III was one of the most stable, prosperous and peaceful in Scottish history. On the one hand, he successfully maintained Scotland's freedom resisting his more powerful neighbors' territorial ambitions. On the other hand, his traders sold produce across Europe, so he did not isolate his small nation from the world beyond. This legacy informs a tendency for Scotland to see herself as a secure and stable base from which people can participate in a global community. When more people see themselves as members of an inter-dependent world, with common responsibilities for the welfare of all, humanity will shift from selfishly thinking about the interests of a few, to considering the needs of all.


The years of his minority saw a bitter struggle for the control of affairs between two rival parties, the one led by Walter Comyn, Earl of Menteith, the other by Alan Durward, Justiciar of Scotia. The former dominated the early years of Alexander's reign. At the marriage of Alexander to Margaret of England in 1251, her father Henry III seized the opportunity to demand from his son-in-law homage for the Scottish kingdom, but Alexander did not comply. In 1255, an interview between the English and Scottish kings at Kelso led to Menteith and his party losing to Durward's party. But though disgraced, they still retained great influence, and two years later, seizing the person of the king, they compelled their rivals to consent to the erection of a regency representative of both parties. Alexander marriage to Margaret has been described as "the most spectacular wedding in Britain during this age."[1]

On attaining his majority at the age of 21 in 1262, Alexander declared his intention of resuming his father's efforts to extend Scottish sovereignty over the Western Isles, which the death of his father thirteen years before had cut short. He laid a formal claim before the Norwegian king Haakon. Haakon rejected the claim, and in the following year responded with a formidable invasion. Sailing around the west coast of Scotland he halted off the Isle of Arran, and negotiations commenced. Alexander artfully prolonged the talks until the autumn storms should begin. At length Haakon, weary of delay, attacked, only to encounter a terrific storm which greatly damaged his ships. The Battle of Largs (October 1263) proved indecisive, but even so, Haakon's position was hopeless. Baffled, he turned homewards, but died in Orkney on December 15, 1263. The Isles now lay at Alexander's feet, and in 1266 Haakon's successor concluded the Treaty of Perth by which he ceded the Isle of Man and the Western Isles to Scotland in return for a monetary payment. Norway retained only Orkney and Shetland in the area. In 1284, Alexander invested the title of Lord of the Isles in the head of the Macdonald family, Angus Macdonald, and over the next two centuries the Macdonald lords operated as if they were kings in their own right, frequently opposing the Scottish monarch.


Alexander married Princess Margaret of England, a daughter of King Henry III of England and Eleanor of Provence, on December 26, 1251. She died in 1274, after they had three children:

  1. Margaret (February 28, 1260–April 9, 1283), who married King Eirik II of Norway
  2. Alexander of Scotland (January 21, 1263–January 28, 1283); buried in Dunfermline Abbey
  3. David (March 20, 1272–June 1281); buried in Dunfermline Abbey

According to the Lanercost Chronicle, Alexander did not spend his decade as a widower alone: "He used never to forbear on account of season nor storm, nor for perils of flood or rocky cliffs, but would visit none too creditably nuns or matrons, virgins or widows as the fancy seized him, sometimes in disguise."[2]

The economy

After gaining sovereignty of the Western isles and of Man, Alexander concentrated on improving the efficiency of his administration. He oversee an unparalleled period of prosperity. His rule has been described as a period of little internal conflict. Scotland achieved a prosperity disproportionate to her size, due to excellent trade relations; "Her ambassadors and merchants contacted and carried on commerce with many nations" under Alexander's guidance.[3] Scottish soldiers also fought in the Crusades and Alexander gave tax concessions to those who took the crusading oath.[4] The main commodity was wool, sold to Flanders and to Italy with Bruges as an important Scottish outpost. Berwick (then Scottish) was the busiest port in Britain. Alexander also required Scottish farmers to cultivate more land.[5]

Towards the end of Alexander's reign, the death of all three of his children within a few years made the question of the succession one of pressing importance. In 1284 he induced the Estates (Scottish Parliament) to recognize as his heir-presumptive his granddaughter Margaret, the "Maid of Norway". The need for a male heir led him to contract a second marriage to Yolande de Dreux on November 1, 1285.

Relations with England

Alexander maintained good relations with England. The issue of homage was tricky, because he held border counties South of the Scottish-English boundary in fief from England, for which homage was expected. He only did so after obtaining an assurance from the English king that he was paying homage only for his English lands, not for Scotland. Scotland, he said, only paid homage to God.[6]


The sudden death of the king dashed all hopes of an heir. Alexander died in a fall from his horse in the dark while riding to visit the queen at Kinghorn in Fife on 19 March 1286, having spent the evening at Edinburgh Castle overseeing a meeting with royal advisers. He was advised by them not to make the journey over to Fife because of weather conditions, but traveled anyway. Alexander became separated from his guides and it is assumed that in the dark his horse lost its footing. The 44-year old king was found dead on the shore the following morning. Some texts have said that he fell off a cliff. Although there is no cliff at the site where his body was found there is a very steep rocky embankment—which would have been fatal in the dark. After Alexander's death, his strong realm was plunged into a period of darkness that would eventually lead to war with England. Had Alexander, who was a strong monarch, lived, things might have worked out differently. He was buried in Dunfermline Abbey.

As Alexander left no surviving children, the heir to the throne was his unborn child by Queen Yolande. When Yolande's pregnancy ended in a still-birth in November of 1286, Alexander's granddaughter Margaret became the heir. Margaret died, still uncrowned, on her way to Scotland in 1290. The inauguration of John Balliol as king on November 30, 1292, ended the six years of interregnum when the Guardians of Scotland governed the land. Balliol was a great-great-great-grandson of David I of Scotland. His rival and eventual successor, Bruce was to become one of Scotland's most famous kings.


Known as "Alexander the glorious"[7] Alexander III is regarded as "one of the country's greatest rulers" whose "reign marked a period of peace and prosperity in Scotland."[8] When Robert the Bruce became king, the task he set himself was to "restore Scotland to the state it had achieved under Alexander's personal rule." Alexander rule had seen little internal conflict, justice had been effectively administered and, all in all, his legacy represented "a model for a medieval king." It is not surprising that "Alexander's reign seems to have been revered."[9]

For much of its history, Scotland struggled with Scandinavia and England to assert her freedom and right of self-determination. Under Alexander, Scotland was free but not inward looking—her face was set towards the world. Her commercial agents traveled throughout Europe. This desire for self-governance but commitment to participation in a global economy, continues to characterize Scottish identity, "Scots increasingly think of themselves as Scottish rather than British because they can also think of themselves as European."[10]

See also

  • History of Scotland


  1. Ann Monsarrat, And the Bride Wore: The Story of the White Wedding (New York, NY: Dodd, Mead, 1974, ISBN 9780396070078), 9.
  2. Scott (1989), 3.
  3. F.R. Fraprie, The Castles and Keeps of Scotland: Being a Description of Sundry Fortresses, Towers, Peels, and Other Houses of Strength Built by the Princes and Barons of Old Time in the Highlands, Islands, Inlands, and Borders of the Ancient and Godfearing Kingdom of Scotland (Boston, MA: L.C. Page & company, 1907), 12.
  4. Brown (2004), 138.
  5. Francis Hindes Groomepage, (ed.), Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical (Edinburgh, UK: T.C. Jack, 1885), 116.
  6. Brown (2004), 66.
  7. Oliver, 1965.
  8. BBC, Alexander III, Historical Figures. Retrieved October 21, 2008.
  9. Barrow, Grant, and Stringer (1998), 207.
  10. Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, ISBN 9780684870533), 14.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brown, Michael. 2004. The Wars of Scotland, 1214-1371. New Edinburgh history of Scotland, v. 4. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748612376.
  • Barrow, G.W.S., Alexander Grant, and K.J. Stringer. 1998. Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community: Essays Presented to G.W.S Barrow. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748611102.
  • Campbell, Marion. 1999. Alexander III: King of Scots. Isle of Colonsay, Argyll, UK: House of Lochar. ISBN 9781899863556.
  • Oliver, Jane. 1965. Alexander the Glorious. New York, NY: Putnam.
  • Reid, Norman H. 1990. Scotland in the Reign of Alexander III, 1249-1286. Edinburgh, UK: John Donald Publishers Ltd. ISBN 9780859762182.
  • Scott, Ronald McNair. 1989. Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. New York, NY: P. Bedrick Books. ISBN 9780872263208.
  • Somerset Fry, Plantagenet. 1999. Kings & Queens of England & Scotland. New York, NY: DK Pub. ISBN 9780789442451.


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