The Breaking of Britain: Cross-border society and Scottish independence 1216–1314

The Scottish Wars of Independence began in 1296 and ended with a fundamental division in the North: the Breaking of Britain. There had always been political boundaries in the north of Britain, but now there was a social border too. Before 1296, subjects of the king of Scots had been able to hold lands in England; and English subjects had held lands under the king of Scots. But after 1314, cross-border landholding was forbidden: no longer could the subjects of both realms hold land on each side of the divide.

A paradox has been identified in this new divide. One interpretation of the 79 years of peace before the Wars of Independence has seen England and Scotland moving closer together, not shifting further apart: England and Scotland had never held more in common than when political events at the end of the thirteenth century divided them. But this view has had its challengers. R. R. Davies, the most influential historian of medieval Britain’s national identities, saw ‘the national shutters’ between England and Scotland coming down during the century before the Wars. Meanwhile, from a Scottish point of view, the evidence of chronicles has been drawn on to argue that inhabitants of Scottish border counties at the beginning of the thirteenth century saw themselves as English, but by the 1280s identified themselves as Scots.

We are therefore confronted by the question of the homogeneity of Anglo-Scottish cross-border society before the Wars of Independence. The idea that society in northern England and southern Scotland had a fairly uniform way of working has rested in essence on studies of the small numbers of religious houses and aristocratic families who had interests on both sides of the border. We need to ask whether similar results can be produced for those lower down the social scale, for the gentry and middling folk, upon whom the workings of government and society depended. How different were these groups, either side of the border, in their social interactions; and how far had they experiences, baleful or beneficial, of each other’s polities? To what extent were there two societies and two identities in the North, before and during the Wars?

The Breaking of Britain won its funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the summer of 2010, and is a collaboration between the University of GlasgowLancaster University, the University of Edinburgh, and King’s College London (including the Department of Digital Humanities). The project is concerned with the period which extends from the failure of Alexander II’s short-lived revival of a Scoto-Northumbrian realm in 1216–17 to the abolition of cross-border landholding by Robert I in November 1314, following his victory at Bannockburn. The Breaking of Britain builds on the work of another project funded by the AHRC, The Paradox of Medieval Scotland (PoMS), and in particular its database of all persons in Scotland as they are recorded in the corpus of 6016 charters (broadly defined) surviving from the period 1093–1286. In the Breaking of Britain, the PoMS database will be extended to 1314; it will also be linked to a new database, recording interactions between the Crown and people in the three northern counties of England from 1216 to 1307. The project will also study border chronicles as a source both for medieval perceptions of identity and fields of medieval historical interest. Work on chronicles will include a new edition of the Chronicle of Melrose from 1216.

Areas to be explored

Research on cross-border society

The extent to which Anglo-Scottish cross-border society was homogeneous, and the ways in which it was interconnected, in the period leading up to the thirteenth century, has become an important issue in recent research. Study of the Norman impact on the region in the twelfth century, through Professor Keith Stringer’s AHRC project at Lancaster University, The Norman Edge, has reinforced this theme. The next step must be a detailed investigation of the key period: the years before and into the Wars of Independence. Until now such research was restricted by the limits of individual endeavour. The focus was on the greater cross-border landholders: knights and lesser landholders have come into view, but only through the prism of the barons or monasteries with which they had a relationship. A deeper and more comprehensive understanding of Scottish and northern English society will be explored through the databases for Scotland (extending the PoMS database to 1314) and northern England (1216–1307), which will provide a new, richer research tool.

Gentry and ‘middling folk’

In considering whether there was a homogeneous cross-border society, it is vital to investigate the role played by the gentry. Many studies of midland and southern English counties have shown that gentry (broadly defined as lords who held one or a few manors or equivalent properties, and were active in local affairs) were the backbone of local society and government. A group superficially similar in northern English counties can readily be recognised, but its precise nature and whether it had parallels north of the Anglo-Scottish border has never been investigated. What experience did local elites in Scotland and northern England have of each other’s polities, and what connections of family and lordship were there between them? To what extent were their experiences similar to those of the gentry further south? There has been much debate about the chronology, causes and consequences of the decline in the number of knights in England: was it related to a socio-economic crisis of the knightly class? And how were the gentry affected by changes in the structure of lordship? Was there a ‘county community’? How and why did the gentry come to play an increasingly pivotal role in local government and national politics? This debate has yet to engage in detail with the far north of England, and Scotland. Scottish historians, for their part, have only sporadically investigated society immediately below the level of magnates and barons.

The investigation of whether there was a homogeneous cross-border society must also reach further down the social scale. The middling folk and more substantial peasantry who formed the ‘common army of Scotland’ played a crucial role in the Wars of Independence. What was their role in peacetime, and how (if it all) did this differ from that of their counterparts in northern England? What was their relationship with the local elite in the operation of society and government? How do the numerous debates about the political and socio-economic experiences of the peasantry in England relate to their counterparts in the north? The project aims to provide new material and perspectives on the gentry and middling folk in Scotland and northern England in this pivotal period.

Identity: English and/or Scottish?

In areas ruled by kings of Scots since 1018 there were monastic writers who still saw themselves in the late twelfth century as English and as living in part of England. How long did an identification with England persist in a monastery like Melrose, where there were close ties with Scottish kingship? The value of the Chronicle of Melrose as a source for the adoption and widening of ‘Scottish’ identity in the thirteenth century has recently been sketched, but without exploring whether this necessarily represented a shift at Melrose away from an interest in English affairs and towards Scotland. The Chronicle’s prime significance is its remarkable survival as a manuscript updated and adapted by 44 scribes throughout the thirteenth century. This affords a rare opportunity to study a chronicle’s field of vision and how this developed throughout the period before the Wars.

The new facsimile edition, with full technical analysis, means that the editing of the text to reveal its changing field of vision is now possible. This will also make it easier to use the Chronicle of Melrose as a key to unlocking the make-up of the closely related ‘Chronicle of Lanercost’ and other border chronicles from this period.

Understanding the Wars of Independence

Keith Stringer has suggested, from his study of cross-border landholding, that the Wars destroyed generations of easy relations between leading landholders in northern England and southern Scotland. Archie Duncan and Wendy Stevenson, however, have recently argued that the kingdom’s elite were alienated by their experience of oppressive English kingship, which made integration less, not more likely. The tension between these two portrayals demands further investigation. The project will address this by studying the whole of cross-border society and its relationship with royal government. Were the legal systems of the two countries converging, as has been argued? Were English kings far more demanding financially than their Scottish counterparts? And is there a correlation between cross-border family networks and landholding, and support for or resistance to English rule?

In addition, for Scottish perceptions of English kingship immediately before the Wars, the Chronicle of Melrose (incorporating a work on Simon de Montfort in the late 1280s) can now be investigated alongside material in Gesta Annalia (datable to 1285) and ‘Lanercost’.

What the project sets out to achieve


The development of sufficiently powerful research tools to enable the detailed study of society on both sides of the Border. These research tools are multi-faceted databases: (i) the extension of the PoMS database (1093-1286) to 1314 as an essential tool for continuing the investigation of social interactions and structures into the first phases of the War, (ii) the creation of a new database for the three northern counties of England (the sources of the data are so different that two databases are necessary), and (iii) the construction of searching facilities across both databases.


Edition of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey (1216-82) (volume iii of Scottish History Society edition: vol.i, Introduction and Facsimile Edition, by Dauvit Broun and Julian Harrison, was published in 2007).

Volume of essays on the Breaking of Britain: Cross-border society and Scottish independence 1216–1314, including:

  • Scotland and England in the Chronicle of Melrose and its cognates
  • The Chronicle of Lanercost as a cross-border chronicle
  • The knights of Northumberland and Cumberland in the thirteenth century
  • The gentry and middling folk of thirteenth-century Scotland
  • Cross-border society in the thirteenth century
  • The experience of royal government in northern Britain
  • Cross-border landholders and the Wars of Independence
  • Scottish middling folk in the Wars
  • The roots of the breaking of Britain
  • © 2011 The Breaking of Britain
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