John Balliol is a name largely unknown to Americans, but he had the fortune–good or bad–to be briefly king of Scotland.
John Balliol’s kingship came via several avenues. The first was the luck of the draw: he just so happened to be born a great-great-great grandson of David I of Scotland. I’m guessing most of us don’t even know the names of our great-great-great grandfathers, but in his case, such a name was vitally important to an entire nation; in fact, to two, as we’ll see.
The second factor in John Balliol’s kingship was a series of unfortunate deaths. He would have lived part of his life under the rule of Alexander III of Scotland. Alexander had three children, all of whom preceded him in death: David, the younger son, in 1281, Margaret, Queen of Norway, in childbirth 1283; and the elder brother, Prince Alexander, in 1284. This left Alexander’s young granddaughter, Margaret, known as The Maid of Norway, as his sole heir. With Alexander’s wife and three children all dead, and a country in need of an heir, Alexander re-married. His race home to his new bride, despite adverse weather, ironically, led to his death when his horse fell over a cliff in the dark, and exactly the situation a new wife was supposed to prevent.
Alexander’s young granddaughter, three or four years of age when Alexander died, was sent from Norway, in 1290, to take the throne of Scotland. Not only did she become ill on the voyage, but a storm blew her ship off course. She died on September 26, 1290 on Orkney Island, at the age of 7.
This left a country that had, just a few short years before, had a monarch and four clear heirs, with no obvious successor to the throne.
Into this void stepped thirteen men, all claiming the right of succession. Maybe six of these had strong claims, with Robert Bruce, “the Competitor,” grandfather of the better known Robert the Bruce, Robert I of Scotland, and John Balliol having the strongest. John Balliol and his three older brothers–all of whom had predeceased him, leaving him as the possible heir–were descended from an elder daughter of the line of King David, while Bruce was descended from a second daughter, but a generation closer to David I.
Still, civil war threatened to break out. The Scots invited Edward I, Edward Longshanks, King of England, to settle the matter. Edward chose John Balliol, viewing him as the weaker and more easily controlled man. So on the 17th of November, 1292, Balliol became king of Scotland.
His reign was short-lived.
Fortunately for Scotland, perhaps unfortunately for John himself, neither he nor Scotland was quite as weak as Longshanks expected. At first, homage to Edward I, as the self-declared Lord Paramount of Scotland, was forced from the Scottish nobility. (Does anyone besides me sense a medieval Death Star hovering at the border? Actually, it was called a trebuchet in those times.) Edward did his best to undermine John’s authority and humiliate him, demanding and receiving legal authority, money, and troops.
In 1294, Edward demanded Scottish troops for his war against France, setting a deadline of September 1. Scotland’s response was to immediately enter their own negotiations both with France and Norway. In October of 1294, John Balliol openly defied Edward. By the summer of 1295, Edward became aware of Scotland’s negotiations with France, and, being a medieval king, did what medieval kings (usually) did best: he gathered his troops to wage war.
1296 saw the outbreak of hostilities, as Edward Longshanks, in a brief respite from his war against France, drove his army north to conquer the Scots.
John Balliol was known in his own lifetime by, and has come down through history with, the moniker Toom Tabard, meaning empty coat. It stems from the incident at his capture and forced abdication on July 10, 1296, in which Edward Longshanks, ever on the lookout for a good chance to humiliate a man, ripped the heraldic insignia from Balliol’s tabard, or tunic.
Balliol’s brief kingship ended with capture of himself and his son by Longshanks, and his forced abdication on July 10, 1296. He was imprisoned in England’s Tower of London, released in 1299 briefly into the custody of the Pope, and in 1301, allowed to go to his estates in France, where he lived out the rest of his life in exile.