The inauguration of John Balliol as King of Scots in 1292 saw discord grow amongst the people of Scotland. Following the death of the heir, there were disagreements as to who should take over and several men were vying for the position. As fears of civil war grew, King Edward I of England was chosen to settle the dispute. In order to gain power, Balliol had sworn an alliance with Edward I, which divided loyalties amongst the Scots and tensions rose over the next few years. In response to a Scottish-French treaty in 1295, refusals to offer Scottish men and funding to English conflict in France, and recent attacks in Cumberland, Edward I launched an invasion of Scotland in 1296. The Scots had been left reeling after the capture of Berwick in March 1296 – a thriving border town and significant port of trade that was brutally captured by England. The losses were great, with thousands of Scottish men, women and children indiscriminately massacred. Edward and his garrison remained for a month after, fortifying the town as an English stronghold. The news that Balliol had renounced his allegiance to the English crown only provoked Edward, responding: “O’ foolish knave! What folly he commits. If he will not come to us we will go to him”.
Edward set his sights on Dunbar Castle (overseen by Patrick IV, Earl of March); a substantial fortress, prominently positioned overlooking the harbour, and just a short way up the coast. Patrick was also a recent challenger for the Scottish crown, and he and his associates had now sworn fealty to the English crown. His wife didn’t see eye to eye with him however, siding with the Scottish and retaining Dunbar Castle for King John and his men. This put Patrick in a delicate situation. Learning of this, Edward brought in John de Warenne (chief lieutenant, clearly an experienced military leader and father in-law to John Balliol) to lead his army and take control of the castle. Knowing their defences were inadequate to take on the advancing English troops, the Scots set up camp at the nearby town of Haddington to the west, to keep guard whilst messages were sent to the King for reinforcements. In response, King John was kind enough to send his army, but opted not to tag along himself.
The true numbers are difficult to know, but it’s estimated that the English had 2,300 men, against 2,000-3,000 Scots – though English accounts prefer the sound of 40,000 Scots – a bit ambitious perhaps. When the two forces met on 27 April, the Scots (led by John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch) had the advantage of high ground, on a ridge to the west of Dunbar. The English cavalry approached from the south, but had to pass through a gully which seemingly scattered their ranks and put them out of the Scot’s line of sight. Misinterpreting this as a retreat and hoping to capitalise, the Scots abandoned their position to descend into the gully in a hurried pursuit, only to be ambushed by a coordinated and well-equipped cavalry. The battle itself wasn’t terribly violent, instead about 100 Scots were taken as prisoners – including several earls and lords – and sent to England. Some took refuge in the castle, but Edward appeared in person the following day and the men were betrayed by the warden and handed over to the English troops during their surrender. Others managed to flee and shelter themselves in the nearby Ettrick forest.
The aftermath of the battle was bitter, and an English victory saw widespread occupation at the hands of Edward. Roxburgh Castle (to the south, near the border) was handed over without a fight and others soon followed suit, seeing many fortresses surrendered to England and any organised resistance quashed. King John was continuing to fail his people – now a run-away, he was laying low at his new hide-out in the town of Forfar to the north. A determined Edward continued his pursuit of King John, who fled further north to Perth. When he arrived, he received a message from Edward asking that they negotiate a peace agreement. John Balliol surrendered and confessed to a rebellion against England, was subjected to a prolonged humiliation and ultimately abandoned the Scot’s treaty with France. The final blow came when Balliol, dressed in his best, was publicly shamed and stripped of his status and royal insignia. The arms of Scotland were ripped from his coat, earning him his place in history as “Toom Tabard” (empty coat). Edward I declared himself the king of Scotland before sending Balliol south as a prisoner in the Tower of London. He was later sent to France where he would live under ‘house-arrest’, and spent the remainder of his life there.
Edward had soon demonstrated his authority and appointed new English sheriffs and justices, and now had easy access to Scotland with an absent Balliol. To thwart any would-be kings getting in his way, Edward had the Stone of Scone removed and taken to Westminster Abbey – a large block of sandstone where new Scottish kings are formally crowned. It wasn’t long before Edward was again seeking Scottish reinforcements in his ongoing war in France, but the Scots resisted. Perhaps unwisely, Edward’s delegates felt they had successfully gained control and the Scottish people posed no real threat of resistance.