When William the Conqueror died in 1087, his dominion was divided between two sons. The Norman homeland of Normandy was left to Robert II, while the recently-conquered England was inherited by William II “Rufus” (the Red). A third brother, Henry, was left with only money. This division ensured a succession war because each brother coveted the lands of the other. As early as 1088, a pro-Robert faction in England took up arms in an attempt to eject King William II from his throne. These conspirators, however, bet on the wrong son of the conqueror. William II quickly quashed the pro-Robert faction in England and, with Henry’s help, counter-invaded Normandy by 1089, beginning a campaign of pressure on Robert that would last for seven years.
Watching the brotherly civil war with interest was King Malcolm III Canmore, ruler of Scotland since 1058. He had nominally submitted to William the Conqueror back in 1072, but he continued to periodically raid Norman England. To King Malcolm, the struggle for supremacy between William II and Robert II seemed like the perfect opportunity for Scotland to reassert its autonomy. Hoping to deal the Normans a blow while they were divided, Malcolm III rallied his troops and attacked England around 1091. His timing, however, was terrible.
Unbeknownst to King Malcolm, the feuding brothers William II and Robert II had made a truce in Normandy at just about the same time as Scottish troops were invading England. To Malcolm’s dismay, the brothers united to confront the Scots. This peculiar campaign was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”:
“While King William was out of England, King Malcolm of Scotland came hither into England, and harried a great deal of it, until the good men who had charge of this land sent a force against him and turned him back. When king William in Normandy heard of this, he made ready for his departure, and came to England, and his brother the count Robert with him, and forthwith ordered a force to be called out…” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, entry for 1091).
Malcolm III, unable to fight the united front of William II and Robert II, was once again forced to give lip service to Norman dominance in Britain. After giving a hollow oath, Malcolm withdrew from England. Yet, as before, he was biding his time until he sensed a new vulnerability.
King Malcolm did not have to wait long until he felt that a new opportunity had come—in 1093, King William II fell gravely ill and was rumored to be dead. Given hope by these rumors, Malcolm once again raised his forces to reassert his autonomy. Unfortunately, by the time Malcolm was ready to attack, William II had recovered from his illness and his kingdom was more than ready to respond to a Scottish invasion. Regardless, King Malcolm did not back down, and after some fruitless negotiations, he launched his attack. In the battle that ensued, Malcolm III and his son, Edward, were both killed. Ironically, Malcolm might have died only one year shy of the opportunity that he had been waiting for, as the brothers William II and Robert II resumed open civil war in 1094.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (John, king of Scotland, brought before King Edward I from BL Royal 20 C VII, f. 28 (13th-14th century manuscript of the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.