Book Review: ‘Conquered By No One’

A bitter personal feud between the two people able to lead an independent Scotland.

Balliol v Bruce – had long lasting damaging implications to the nation and its future.

After his great victory with the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 Robert Bruce, King of Scots, was able to ‘persuade’ the last of his Scottish nobles over to his side. But it was not to be the end of the story.

‘Conquered by No One: A People’s History of the Scots who made the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320’ takes us on the fascinating journey after Bannockburn through those who attached their seals to this iconic document.

The book was produced during lockdown and was supposed to be part of huge national celebrations marking 700 years of The Declaration of Arbroath. Because of the limitations of Covid 19 public health restrictions it had to adapt what it did and how it did it. What we have now is actually a really interesting collection by many different authors on each of the signatories and of some of the other main players of the day.

It’s also not a finished journey but invites more investigation. Delving into the lives of figures in 13th and 14th Century Scotland is no easy task.

Bruce was crowned King of Scots on March 25th 1306. One month earlier, on February 10th he had killed John Comyn in a church. For this he was excommunicated by the Pope. John Comyn was nephew to John Balliol who had been crowned King of Scots in 1292, in direct competition with the claim by Robert Bruce (grandfather of the man we know as Robert The Bruce).

Balliol was not to remain King for long because he owed his place to Edward I of England and when he disobeyed him that was the end of his rule. Imprisoned in the Tower of London he was eventually packed off to his lands in France. But his family’s claim was a strong one and was to emerge later with his son, Edward Balliol.

Scotland became completely divided between the Balliol and Bruce rivalries. It harmed the nation’s drive to regain its independence from the mighty influence of Edward, Hammer of the Scots.

After Bannockburn many who had, mainly for reasons of self preservation, sided with the English, now ruled by Edward II, came over to the side of Bruce. It had taken many years and much suffering including the death of his brothers, the capturing and imprisonment of Bruce’s wife and sisters for Robert to get to this point.

It was still very precarious.

To convince the international community that he was the King of Scots and should be recognised as such (he was still excommunicated), 3 letters were sent to Pope John XXII. Europe was not in a great way either with years of local wars and famine. The Pope was keen to send armies in his name off on Crusade.

We have only 1 of those letters to the Pope left – it has become known as The Declaration of Arbroath. It was and is an extraordinary document.

It is the letter from the Barons. The other two were from The King himself and the Clergy. Attached to it are the seals of 44 of Scotland’s leading barons of the day affirming their allegiance to Robert the Bruce as King of Scots.

That’s a very powerful testimony to get in writing and dispatch to the Pope.

The book ‘Conquered By No One’ provides us with information about each of those men who signed it. There are those we know well like James (the Black) Douglas who carried Bruce’s heart into battle. And there are those who flip flopped throughout this dreadful period of division which both Edward I and his son Edward II used to their advantage.

John of Menteith has his seal attached. The man who betrayed William Wallace and handed him over to the English.

Walter Stewart, High Steward of Scotland, who married Bruce’s daughter Marjorie and bore him a son.

Of the 44 who signed , it would only be a matter of months before 5 of them were rounded up and charged with plotting to remove Robert as King. It came to a head at The Black Parliament of 4th of August 1320 and is known as The Soules Conspiracy.

Was it a conspiracy or was it just a convenience to get rid of some powerful supporters of the Balliol’s? The divisions had not healed.

Robert the Bruce died on June 7th 1329. His heir was his infant grandson, David. Time for the Balliol side to make a move and in 1332 they were victorious at the Battle of Dupplin. In September of that year Edward Balliol (son of the ex King John Balliol) was crowned King of Scots. His reign lasted a short time but was marked by fighting in Scotland where he was backed by the forces of Edward III of England. Edward Balliol did not relinquish his claim to the Scottish crown until 1356.

It is a fascinating time in our history when personal feuds between the two leading players in the nation’s future direction almost destroyed the independence of Scotland.

‘Conquered By No One’ is edited by Neil McLennan. He has done so with a light touch which means each chapter , written as they are by different authors, means there is not one ‘voice’ but we experience the ‘multiperspectivity’ of a more ‘nuanced history’.

That’s something that has always appealed to me. To explore history from a variety of viewpoints.

The book is a start ‘to disrupt thinking and open up new possibilities for research and thinking’. You can read it as a whole or use it as a reference point for individuals , some of whom have barely been written about before.

Fiona Grahame

Conquered by No One front cover, photograph by Andy Hall, design Harold Raitt.

Conquered by No One is available from Amazon and many other book shops.

The Orcadians Who Fought At Bannockburn

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