The Battle of Roslin was a series of skirmishes fought in the spring of 1303 amidst a time of high tensions between the English and Scottish thrones. Although led by Sir John Comyn and Sir Simon Fraser, the actions at Roslin are known to be one of the last major military endeavours in which William Wallace, the legendary hero of Scottish independence, participated.
Background; the War
By 1290, Scotland was going through great political turmoil concerning the succession of the late King Alexander III (1249-86) and his young successor Margaret of Norway. The country had already been running under a regent for over four years and over a dozen claimants to the throne had emerged. Frustrated, the Scottish nobles eventually decided to take the case to Edward I, the decades-old king of England. Edward was, however, as ambitious as ever and saw a great opportunity. After thoughtful consideration, he announced John Balliol as the next King of Scotland, a figure he could easily manipulate to fit his own designs. When Balliol was relieved of his duty by the Scots in 1295 and the new government tried to seek French protection against Edward, the English King was infuriated and used the incident as a pretext to invade Scotland the next year. The invasion was a great success, but the short-lived English rule was overthrown by the forces of Andrew Moray and William Wallace in 1297 at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Edward, however, never gave up on Scotland and kept attacking the country on a regular basis with varying strength. This war, which eventually extended to over three decades, is known to modern historians as the First War of Scottish Independence.
It was common for Edward to send or even personally lead large armies into Scotland every summer, as winter warfare was not normally considered feasible in Great Britain. The winter of 1302-3 was to be somewhat different. Sir John, the 2nd Baron of Segrave (modern Seagrave in central England), was a distinguished military leader appointed command of the Berwick Castle at the Scottish frontier in August 1302. This was the period of a temporary ceasefire with the Scots, which was to end on the 30th of November. While eagerly waiting for the truce to end, Sir John Segrave received the command of all English operations in Scotland for the time being, giving him an opportunity to carry out his plans. It is likely that Sir Segrave was already sending patrols and small forays into the Scottish territory at the peak of winter, but he undertook a large raid en force only in late-February, which although still pretty early for military operations, was nevertheless, still more tolerable than a campaign in December or January. Segrave’s impatience to show his mettle has intrigued popular historians over centuries, giving rise to a range of fictitious stories about his motives, as we shall see soon.
The Battle of Roslin
Presumably only a few days after his departure from Berwick Castle, Sir John Segrave had reached the vicinity of Edinburgh, where he camped for some time at Roslin (11 kilometres to the south). Unknown to him, however, a considerable Scottish force under John Comyn (a former Guardian of Scotland), assisted by Simon Fraser (a warlike but untrustworthy knight), had started following him and were just waiting for such an opportunity to arise. These Scots launched a surprise attack on Segrave’s camp at night. The incursion was a great success, English casualties were high and even Sir Segrave himself was captured for the time being.
Nevertheless, the English force was only shocked, not defeated. They retaliated strongly and presumably within the next few days (or even within a day), two other skirmishes took place, during one of which Sir Segrave was liberated from Scottish imprisonment, but at a high cost. Segrave decided he had had enough and returned to England without achieving any notable feat. The role the notorious William Wallace played in this action is not precisely known, although his presence has been credibly attested in the sources. It is not impossible that Wallace only fought as a regular knight, since he had returned from his long diplomatic trip to Europe only a short while ago and had been intentionally avoiding any important post after the disaster at Falkirk some five years ago. The battle took place on the first Sunday of the Lent, 1303.
It is interesting to note that Sir John Comyn (known as “The Red”) is the same Scottish leader who later joined Edward I, betrayed future-King Robert Bruce and was killed by him in anger, an event which triggered Bruce’s arduous struggle for the restoration of Scottish independence.
The Battle of Roslin was a small series of skirmishes, notable only because of the capture of Sir Segrave and the participation of William Wallace. Surprisingly, however, starting with the late-fourteenth century chronicler John of Fordun, the action was already being dramatised to an unexpected extent. This tendency reached its peak with the Scotichronicon of the next century, where Roslin was converted into an unprecedented clash of huge English and Scottish armies, which results in a miraculous victory for Scotland. Its background was turned into a twisted story from a novel; it was alleged that actually, Sir John Segrave had fallen in love with a French royal lady, Margaret Ramsey de Dalhousie, who eventually ended up marrying a Scottish lord, Henry Saint Clair of Rosslyn. Infuriated, Segrave allegedly requested to be granted permission to campaign against St. Clair, a request to which Edward answered by entrusting him with a force of over thirty thousand, the largest army ever assembled in Great Britain in centuries! Even more incredibly, more than 90% of this army is supposed to have been killed by the Scots. Even ignoring these bizarre figures and all the romanticised stories surrounding Roslin, it is clear from the primary sources that the action was little more than a small episode in the countless such annual raids during much of the period of the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Image: Roslin landscape