Alexander the Third had not completed his eighth year, when the death of the king, his father, on the 8th July, 1249, opened to him the peaceable accession to the Scottish throne. He was accordingly conducted by an assembly of the nobility to the Abbey of Scone, and there crowned.
A long minority, at all times an unhappy event for a kingdom, was at this time especially unfortunate for Scotland. The vicinity of Henry the Third of England, who, although individually a weak monarch, allowed himself sometimes to be directed by able and powerful counsellors, and the divisions between the principal nobility of Scotland, facilitated the designs of ambition, and weakened the power of resistance; nor can it be doubted, that during the early part of this reign, the first approaches were made towards that great plan for the reduction of Scotland, which was afterwards attempted to be carried into effect by Edward the First, and defeated by the bravery of Wallace and Bruce. But in order to show clearly the state of the kingdom upon the accession of this monarch, and more especially in its relations with England, it will be necessary to go back a few years, to recount a story of private revenge which happened in the conclusion of the reign of Alexander the Second, (1242,) and drew after it important consequences.
A tournament, the frequent amusement of this warlike age, was held near Haddington, on which occasion Walter Bisset, a powerful baron who piqued himself upon his skill in his weapons, was foiled by Patrick earl of Athole. An old feud which existed between these families embittered the defeat; and Athole was found murdered in his house, which, probably for the purpose of concealment, was set on fire by the assassins. The suspicion of this slaughter, which, even in an age familiar with ferocity, seems to have excited unwonted horror, immediately fell upon the Bissets; and, although Walter was the person present at the tournament, the popular clamour pointed to William, the chief of the family.* He was pursued by the nobility, who were incited to vengeance by the Earl of March and David de Hastings; and would have been torn to pieces, had not the interference of the king protected him from the fury of the friends of Athole. Bisset strenuously asserted his innocence. He offered to prove, that he had been fifty miles distant from Haddington when the murder was committed; he instantly procured the sentence of excommunication against the assassins to be published in every chapel in Scotland; he offered combat to any man who dared abide the issue; but he declined a trial by jury on account of the inveterate malice of his enemies. The king accepted the office of judge: the Bissets were condemned, their estates forfeited to the crown, and they themselves compelled to swear upon the Holy Gospel that they would repair to Palestine, and there, for the remaining days of their lives, pray for the soul of the murdered earl.
Walter Bisset, however, instead of Jerusalem, sought the English court, There, by artfully representing to the king that Alexander owed him fealty, and that, as lord superior, he ought to have been first consulted before judgment was given, whilst he described Scotland as the ally of France and the asylum of his expatriated rebels, he contrived to inflame the passion of the English monarch to so high a pitch, that Henry determined on an immediate invasion. Nor was the temper with which Alexander received this information in any way calculated to promote conciliation. To the complaints of the King of England, that he had violated the duty which he owed to him as his Lord Paramount, the Scottish monarch is said to have answered, that he neither did, nor ever would, consent to hold from the King of England the smallest portion of his kingdom of Scotland. His reply was warmly seconded by the spirit of his nobility. They fortified the castles on the marches; and the king soon found himself at the head of an army of nearly a hundred thousand foot and a thousand horse. Henry, on the other hand, led into the field a large body of troops, with which he proceeded to Newcastle. The accoutrements and discipline of these two powerful hosts, which were commanded by kings and included the flower of the nobility of both countries, are highly extolled by Mathew Paris. The Scottish cavalry, according to his account, were a fine body of men and well mounted, although their horses were neither of the Spanish nor Italian breed; and the horsemen were clothed in armour of iron net-work. In the number of its cavalry the English army far surpassed its rival force, including a power of five thousand men-at-arms, sumptuously accoutred. These armies came in sight of each other at a place in Northumberland called Ponteland; and the Scots prepared for battle, by confessing themselves to their priests, and expressing to each other their readiness to die in defence of the independence of their country. As Alexander, however, was much beloved in England, the nobility of that country coldly seconded the rash enterprise of their king, and showed no anxiety to hurry into hostilities. Richard earl of Cornwall, brother to Henry, and the Archbishop of York, thought this a favourable moment for proposing an armistice; and, by their endeavours, such great and solemn preparations ended in a treaty of peace, without a lance being put in rest. Its terms were just, and favourable to both countries.
Henry appears prudently to have waved all demand of homage from Alexander for the kingdom of Scotland; and the Scottish monarch, on the other hand, who possessed land in England for which, although the English historians assert the contrary, he does not appear to have ever refused homage, consented, for himself and his heirs, to maintain fidelity and affection to Henry and his heirs, as his liege lord, and not to enter into any league with the enemies of England, except in the case of unjust oppression. It was also stipulated, that the peace formerly signed at York, in the presence of Otto the pope's legate, should stand good; and that the proposal there made, of a marriage between the daughter of the King of England and the son of the King of Scots, should be carried into effect. Alan Durward, at this time the most accomplished knight and the best military leader in Scotland, Henry de Baliol, and David de Lindesay, with other knights and prelates, then swore on the soul of their lord the king, that the treaty should be kept inviolate by him and his heirs.
Thus ended this expedition of Henry's into Scotland, formidable in its commencement, but happy and bloodless in its result ; and such was the relative situation of the two countries, when Alexander the Third, yet a boy in his eighth year, mounted the Scottish throne.
The mode in which the ceremony of his coronation was performed, is strikingly illustrative of the manners of that age. The Bishops of St Andrews and Dunkeld, with the Abbot of Scone, attended to officiate ; but an unexpected difficulty arose. Alan Durward, the great Justiciary, remarked, that the king ought not to be crowned before he was knighted, and that the day fixed for the ceremony was unlucky. The objection was selfish, and arose from Durward, who was then at the head of the Scottish chivalry, expecting that the honour of knighting Alexander would fall upon himself, But Comyn earl of Menteith, insisted that there were frequent examples of the consecration of kings before the solemnity of their knighthood; he represented that the Bishop of St Andrews might perform both ceremonies; he cited the instance of William Rufus having been knighted by Lanfranc archbishop of Canterbury; and he earnestly urged the danger of delay. Nor was this danger ideal. Henry the Third, in a letter to Rome, had artfully represented Scotland as a fief of England; and had requested the pope to interdict the ceremony of the coronation until Alexander obtained the permission of his feudal superior.