April 2011 – Allegiance before 1304

Allegiance before 1304: the example of Kelso Abbey

Andrew Smith


Edward I’s occupation of the kingdom of Scotland in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries resulted in the forced expulsion or capitulation of his enemies, and the inhabitants of religious houses did not receive special treatment.[1] Some rebellious abbots were expelled from their monasteries.[2] Others were arrested.[3] Moreover, to avoid conflict, many monks and regular canons cooperated with their new overlord, seeking his favour and protection.[4] Although historians have admitted that it is difficult to pin down whether such actions are evidence of pro-English sympathies, or simply the realization that they needed to cooperate in order to survive, there is a consensus that the monasteries in southern Scotland were part of the English establishment during this period.[5] Michael Brown summarized this perspective well when he noted that, ‘like other landowners in the south,’ monasteries such as Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso, ‘entered the protection of the English king in 1296 and the early 1300s, came under Scottish control after 1314, and returned to English allegiance in the 1330s and after Neville’s Cross.’[6] However, one of the actions of the monks of Kelso does not fit neatly within this paradigm. This is their request for a brieve (or writ) which was issued on behalf of King John Balliol between Edward I’s appointment of an ‘English’ abbot at the house in 1299, and John Comyn’s surrender in 1304.[7] The significance of this brieve, and what it can tell us about the tenuous nature of allegiance in early fourteenth-century Scotland, is the focus of this feature of the month; so let us first place its production in context.


I. The Relationship between Kelso Abbey and Edward I, 1299–1307


In a previous feature of the month, we saw how Thomas of Durham, abbot of Kelso, who was described as an ‘Englishman’ by Bishop Robert Wishart, was expressly appointed by Edward I in 1299.[8] As discussed, the length of Thomas’s tenure as abbot is not certainly known; and neither is that of his successor, Walran, who likewise appears to have cooperated with his English overlords. In fact, the only thing that can be said for certain about both abbots is that Thomas also held the title of prior of Lesmahagow (a cell of Kelso), while Walran first appeared in a charter of 1307 and last appeared in a charter of 1311.[9] However, though we know little about these two individuals, we do know something of the relationship between the abbey itself and Edward I.

After Thomas’s appointment in 1299, our first true insight into the relationship between Kelso and King Edward comes in the summer of 1301. An account book of the king’s wardrobe shows that Edward I stationed his troops at Kelso while moving his army along the River Tweed.[10] Two years later, in 1303, Prince Edward (the future King Edward II) attended mass at Kelso on 26 May; and shortly following Comyn’s surrender in 1304, Edward I commanded his chancellor to demand that the bishop of Durham restore a fishery to the abbey.[11] This action reflects the first of several requests that the monks made to the king, and the next petition is found in the English parliamentary records from 1305. In the transcript of this petition, we are told that the abbot of Kelso asked ‘for remedy from [the king] because their charters and muniments are destroyed as a result of the war of Scotland so that they are not able to acquire warrandice from those who are being held to warrant them’. In response, the king wrote that, ‘if their muniments happen to be destroyed, they should help themselves through the common law of that region, because it does not pertain to the king to get involved in such a matter.’[12]

This relationship between Kelso and the kings of England appears to have continued until Robert I gained control of the region in 1314, and numerous examples of this dynamic could be cited, including Edward I’s request in 1305 for the community to accept a monk who had been exiled at Norwich Priory.[13] However, it is noteworthy that there is a conspicuous gap of two years in which nothing is known of any interaction between the community and King Edward I. This is the period between the time that Edward apparently stationed his troops at Kelso in 1301 and the time that Prince Edward attended mass at the abbey in 1303. It is during this two-year period that the brieve was produced which is the focus of this discussion, and it is to it that we now turn.


II. Practicality over Allegiance?


Geoffrey Barrow has described the years 1301 to 1303 as ‘the darkest yet in some ways most fascinating period of the war of independence’. The main reason for this is because it was during this time that


John de Soules, as sole guardian, was not only pressing for the return of John Balliol, and evidently counting at least on the succession of Edward Balliol, but was also behaving in Scotland as though John Balliol had already been restored, issuing acts of government running in the name and style of King John, with his regnal years correctly calculated from November 1292.[14]


King John’s brieve to Kelso Abbey was produced as part of John de Soules’s campaign, and it is one of only two charters known to have been issued to religious houses during this period.[15] The text of the brieve is as follows:


Johannes dei gracia rex scottorum, uicecomiti et balliuis suis de Perth, salutem. Mandamus uobis et precipimus quatinus arcius compellatis prepositos burgi de Perth ad reddendas iuste et sine dilacione aliqua monachis de Kelchou uel eorum certo actornato latori presencium, sex marcas sibi de feudo de duobus annis elapsis debitas, et eisdem prepositis in rotulis nostris allocatas, una cum arreragiis annorum precedencium si que debentur, et hoc nullo modo omittatis. Teste Johanne de Soulys milite custode Regni nostri supradicti apud sanctum Andr’ xxvii die Aprilis Anno Regni nostri Decimo.


John, by the grace of God king of Scots, to his sheriff and bailies of Perth, greeting. We order and instruct you that you should strictly require the provosts of the burgh of Perth duly and without any delay to render to the monks of Kelso or their true representative, the bearer of this letter, the six marks owed to them as the feu for the two years gone by, and allowed by the same provosts in our rolls, together with the arrears of the preceding years, if they are owing; and you should by no means disregard this matter. With John de Soules, knight, guardian of our above-said kingdom, as witness; at St Andrews on 27th day of April, in the tenth year of our reign.[16]


As we have seen, less than three years prior to the production of this brieve, Thomas of Durham was appointed abbot of Kelso by Edward I. One would justifiably assume that this would have placed the monastery firmly within the king of England’s grasp for the next few years, and this is the perspective that some historians have taken. But the existence of this brieve brings such a paradigm into question. After all, it is reasonable to assume that John de Soules would not have issued it had not someone from Kelso petitioned him to do so. The fact that someone from the community did this likely demonstrates that the monks viewed King John as still having authority north of the Firth of Forth, and thus believed he was the natural protector of their rights in the region. However, even more importantly, it demonstrates that the loyalties of those residing in southern Scotland, the hotbed of English overlordship in the early fourteenth century, were not black and white. Practical considerations still trumped concerns over allegiance, even at a monastery where just a couple of years earlier King Edward had installed one of his own men.

[1] Thanks to Prof. Dauvit Broun and Dr. John Davies for comments on an earlier draft of this article.

[2] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland [CDS], 5 vols (Edinburgh, 1881–1986) ii, no. 1105.

[3] Liber S. Thome de Aberbrothoc: Registrum Abbacie de Aberbrothoc, 2

vols, (Edinburgh, 1848-56), i, no. 333; see also CDS, ii, no. 1071.

[4] Liber S. Marie de Dryburgh: Registrum Cartarum Abbacie Premonstratensis de Dryburgh (Edinburgh, 1847), no. 282; Chartulary of the Cistercian Priory of Coldstream: with Relative Documents, (London, 1879), Supp. nos. III(i), III(ii); Richard Fawcett and Richard Oram, Melrose Abbey (Stroud, 2004), 36-37.

[5] G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots (2nd edn, Edinburgh, 2003), 227–8; Fawcett and Oram, Melrose Abbey, 36.

[6] Michael Brown, The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300-1445 (East Linton, 1998), 186.

[7] Liber S. Marie de Calchou [Kelso Liber], 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1846), ii, no. 397;  see also Amanda Beam, The Balliol Dynasty: 1210-1364 (Edinburgh, 288), App. C, no. 87.

[8] Kelso Liber, i, no. 188; CDS, ii, no. 1087, 1105.

[9] Kelso Liber, i, nos. 42, 163, 188; D. E. R. Watt, and N. F. Shead, The Heads of Religious Houses in Scotland from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Centuries (Edinburgh, 2001), 123.

[10] Michael Prestwich, Edward I (London, 1997), 493.

[11] CDS, ii, nos. 1410, 1545.

[12] Records of Parliament  Records of the Parliament Holden at Westminster on the Twenty-Eighth Day of February, in the Thirty-Third Year of the Reign of King Edward the First (A. D. 1305), ed. By F. W. Maitland (London,  1893), no. 307.

[13] CDS, ii, no. 1744

[14] Barrow, Kingdom of Scots, 224; see also Beam, Balliol Dynasty, 187.

[15] The other charter was issued to Coupar Angus Abbey and does not survive (Beam, Balliol Dynasty, App. C, no. 82).

[16] The money that King John commanded the provosts of Perth to pay was ultimately owed to Tiron Abbey, Kelso’s mother-house. King Alexander II appointed Kelso procurator of the sum in the thirteenth century (Kelso Liber, ii, no. 398).

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