NOBLE ALEXANDER THE KING OF SCOTLAND, HIS INNUMERABLE LADY FRIENDS – AND HIS MUM
A most excellent sortie in to the unknown today as, inspired by one of our occasional though very splendid coins, we take a look not at a Roman emperor or a King of England, but a King of Scotland (something which should really be done with more regularity). It’s back to the late 13th century we go, armed with a coin struck during the reign of Alexander III (1249-1286).
As with every king of high medieval vintage, Alexander had his share of warmongering, hefting of cleaving falchions and bloodletting but – truth be told – the one common thread that comes to the fore throughout his life is, well, his mum. This illustrious lady was Marie de Courcy who rather than having a famous brother, Roger, was feted as the daughter of a great French baron, Enguerrand of Picardy. That she should become the mother of a Scottish king was determined by circumstances contrived under the fabled ‘Auld Alliance’ between her homeland and the Scottish kingdom, the purpose of which was, of course, to strengthen the hand of both parties in opposition to the common enemy which was England. She was married to King Alexander II in 1239 (after the death of his first wife, who had – rather perversely – been a daughter of England’s King John). Alexander junior was born in 1241 and far from enjoying a trouble-free upbringing, found himself thrust into the limelight as a child-king a few months short of his eight birthday when his father died (rather ignobly) of a fever whilst campaigning against the Gaels in the Western Isles.
Somewhat predictably, with a monarch of such tender years, there was an immediate tumult of machinations involving sundry factions who sought to manipulate the situation – and the King himself – to further their own ends, but the widowed Queen, her new husband John of Brienne, and Clement, Bishop of Dunblane, managed to maintain the integrity and sovereignty of the Royal house throughout Alexander’s childhood (though this in itself is a bit of a misnomer, as he was married at the age of ten!) This hastily conceived wedding greatly enhanced Alexander’s grip on the throne, as his wife was Margaret, the daughter of King Edward III of England (and a whole year older than her husband). Edward had designs on using his relationship with the young monarch to further his own influence north of the border, and he exerted influence behind the scenes, as it were, to ensure that his nominally subservient son-in-law was able to retain his kingship largely unimpeded, therefore being kept in situ, primed for future inveiglement, cajolery and coercion.
However, Edward’s attention was increasingly diverted away from Scotland as he fought for, won and then surrendered his claim for the crown of France in the ongoing 100 Years’ War. Alexander, meanwhile, asserted growing influence across his own realm and assumed independent sovereignty on reaching his twenty first birthday. One of his first acts was to take up the cause which had led to the death of his father – securing the Western Isles as a subservient adjunct to his mainland dominions. This involved both subjugating the upstart ‘natives’ and dealing with Norwegian overlords, who claimed the Hebrides (and the Isle of Man) for their own. A largely bloodless campaign left both matters resolved in Alexander’s favour by 1263, and he was able to turn his attention to other pressing domestic issues – safeguarding his Royal lineage for the future. The King and Queen had three children, but although they all outlived their mother who died at the age of 24, they – in turn – all pre-deceased their father. Following Margaret’s death, Alexander – so it is told – took advantage of his elevated status as Royal widower to, well, disport himself lewdly amidst the womenfolk of his realm; it is said that he ‘would visit, none too creditably, nuns or matrons, virgins or widows, as the fancy seized him – sometimes in disguise’. However, this rather libertine lifestyle did not bear him another heir and, in order to rectify the situation, enter the Queen Mother Marie. She cast her eye over the young ladies at court in her native France and was reputedly the prime mover behind Alexander’s betrothal to Yolande de Dreux. Comtesse de Montfort. The couple were married on October 14th, 1285 but it was not to end well. Just five months later, Alexander had been attending ‘matters of state’ at court in Edinburgh and, having completed his business, resolved to ride back to his Queen who was in residence at Kinghorn Castle. Legend has it that the weather was particularly foul, but the King ignored all advice to make better-prepared and safer progress and set off on the near twenty-five-mile trip back to the Royal bedchamber by way of a ferry journey across the Firth of Forth. He almost made it, but barely a mile from home, it is presumed that he was thrown from his horse and fell, breaking his neck, on to the beach at Pettycur Bay where his body was found. Alexander’s granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway ought to have (eventually) taken his throne, but she died aged seven having never set foot in her hereditary realm, which – as a result of her death – was precipitated into a crisis of succession and ultimately the sanguine War of Independence.