The not so recognisable Braveheart

“… no English man, that has any honour in the glorious memory of the greatest and truest hero of all our kings of the English or Saxon race, can go to Carlisle, and not step aside to see the monument to King Edward I. at Burgh upon the Sands, a little way out of the city Carlisle, where that victorious prince dy’d…that prince being the terror of Scotland.” So writes Daniel Defoe in his guidebook of 1726.

You can still see the same sandstone pillar in the middle of the salt-marsh, and it is almost certainly built on the exact spot where the King died, aged 68, in 1307 – having been given dysentery by the Cumbrian water. It stands very close both to Hadrian’s Wall and the modern border. It is easy to think of the man who died there as an English King who had fought two Scottish Kings; and to see the pillar, like Defoe, as the ultimate symbol of the division between England and Scotland.

But Edward’s normal language with his friends was not English; it was Norman French. And that was true too of his rivals, the “Scottish” Kings, John Balliol and Robert the Bruce. Edward was not a ‘Saxon’ and they were not ‘Gaels’. All their paternal ancestors were French nobles, who had come to Britain within the last two hundred years. Jean de Ballieul meant he had come from Ballieul in Picardy. The second King, Robert de Brus, means Robert from a village on the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy.

“Scotland” and “England” were then a medley of ethnicities – the descendants of British-Welsh, Northumbrian Angles, Norwegians, Flemings, Norman French, Danes, and more. The Scottish Declaration of Independence at Arbroath shows that the Scots believed themselves – or claimed to be – immigrants from the edge of the Black Sea and Spain, who had exterminated the previous populations, north of the Solway. But most of the men who signed the declaration were descended from families who had come relatively recently from continental Europe (and in one case Hungary).

If you stand at the monument and look across the Solway, the low rising ground of Annandale is the land of Robert the Bruce. Look to your left, and to the West, in Galloway, is the land of John de Balliol. But behind you too is more of their land – great estates in Yorkshire, land around Penrith. The Balliols had endowed a college in Oxford, Barnard Castle was named after a Balliol called Barnard. They still owned the town of Ballieul in France – and indeed John was to spend the last decades of his life there. Since both Bruces and Balliols held so much land between the realms of the English and Scottish Kings, they seemed to be with both and neither. At a twelfth century battle, both Bruces and Balliols fought against the Scottish King, on the English side.

When these Norman families began to fight each other, the war hardly ceased for the next three hundred years. Edward the First massacred the people of Berwick, and hung Bruce’s female supporters in cages from castle walls. Bruce’s raids South cut down all the trees in orchards, sacked holy shrines, and destroyed the soil so that the population could not plant crops again. Bruce, whose family owned estates deep into Yorkshire, now banned cross-border landholdings. He crossed over the Solway to Holm Cultram abbey, in Abbeytown which his family had long supported, and in which his father was buried. Because it was now a few miles on the wrong side of his border, he ransacked his father’s resting-place, and burnt it to the ground.

But all these men would rather have been fighting in the Middle East. Edward had taken Balliol’s brother and Bruce’s grandfather, and possibly his father too, on crusade in 1270. There, near Damascus, Edward made his reputation by killing, with his bare hands, an assassin who had broken into his tent. Edward remained desperate, thirty years later, to return to crusade, as soon as he had finished fighting Bruce. He had raised a fortune for the expedition.  One chronicler says that his dying wish was that his heart should be carried to Jerusalem. That was Robert the Bruce’s dying wish too. He had wanted to go on crusade. But he could not make the journey because he had leprosy. Instead, he asked his friend James Douglas to cut his heart out of his chest, and carry it to Jerusalem. James died cut down by a Muslim army in Spain, having flung the heart into the midst of their cavalry.

Defoe tells us to see the pillar at Burgh by Sands as a symbol of the ‘English/Saxon race’ fighting the Scots. Edward and Bruce are key figures in Braveheart: and important parts of English and Scottish nationalism. So in the year of the referendum it may be worth remembering that Edward and Bruce would not have been people who we would easily recognise today as English or Scots. They were French-speaking noblemen, descended from Scandinavians, and related to each other. Much of their energy was directed outside Britain. Edward, one chronicler says, had been warned that he would die in Burgh. But he had thought Burgh was a name for Jerusalem. He died, enraged that it turned out to be a hamlet near Carlisle.

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