March 2011: Re-establishing Scottish independence

Re-establishing Scottish independence in 1314: the example of Kelso Abbey

Andrew Smith


King Robert I’s military success in 1314 resulted in the expulsion of a large number of his political adversaries from the kingdom of Scotland.[1] Men who were loyal to King Robert, and fought for him, were often given the positions and possessions of those whom he had banished, and surviving sources give insights into the character of many of the laymen that Robert chose to endow.[2] The extant material, however, is not so useful for divining the character of the abbots and priors who were chosen to replace prelates installed by, or loyal to, the kings of England. For instance, we know almost nothing of Robert Marshall, abbot of Jedburgh (1319–32), who shut his gates in the face of thirteen canons, including his predecessor, Abbot William of Jarrow (1296–1319), who had been elected at the petition of Edward I. Similarly, little is known of the character of William, abbot of Dryburgh (ca.1314–24), who comes into view shortly after King Robert’s consolidation of power, and expelled two of his canons ‘for being English’.[3] Nevertheless, previously un-discussed evidence from the cartulary of Kelso Abbey (an early-fourteenth century charter-book) does tell us something about the character of Abbot William of Ancrum (ca.1314–26), the first post-1314 abbot of Kelso. The question of who William of Ancrum was, along with the significance of his appointment in terms of thinking about the reorganization of religious houses after 1314, is the focus of this feature of the month. However, before going on to discuss Abbot William, we must first establish who it was that he replaced.


I. The Abbots of Kelso 1296–1314

Kelso Abbey, as Geoffrey Barrow recognised, is one the few religious communities in Scotland for which we have detailed information about the political loyalties of its leadership before 1314.[4] At the time of Edward I’s invasion in 1296, the abbot of Kelso was named Richard (1285–99), and he appears in the Ragman Rolls as one of the numerous individuals who swore fealty to the king. By 1299, however, Richard had gone back on his oath, a point which is established in a letter written to King Edward in the same year.[5] In this letter, a monk named Thomas of Durham accused Abbot Richard of continual and voluntary absence from his house, and he equated such behaviour with treachery. Thomas also asked that monks of the house be allowed to elect a new abbot who would be faithful to the king and would not leave the house destitute as Abbot Richard had.[6]


Ultimately, Thomas of Durham’s petition encouraged the English king to assert his authority over Kelso Abbey; and a short time later, Edward I had asked the bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart (1271–1316), to give his blessing to the election of Thomas as the new abbot.[7] We cannot be sure whether Robert ever approved of this appointment: a charter produced on behalf of the bishop in 1316, which describes Thomas as an ‘Englishman’, a ‘dilapidator’ and a ‘usurper’, suggests that he likely did not.[8] Yet, regardless of Bishop Robert’s view of him, Thomas does appear to have taken up office in the early years of the fourteenth century, and a royal writ survives empowering the sheriff of Roxburgh to receive the abbot of Kelso into the king’s peace.[9]


We do not know exactly how long Thomas administered the house, but the next abbot for whom we have evidence, Walran (ca.1307–ca.1311), likewise appears to have cooperated with the English. One of his charters is dated by the regnal year of King Edward II, and he is the last known abbot of Kelso before the appointment of William of Ancrum.[10]


II. The Appointment of William of Ancrum

The first datable appearance of William of Ancrum as abbot of Kelso is in a charter of 1317.[11] Unlike his predecessors, there are no dramatic anecdotes to illustrate how he might have expelled English loyalists from his abbey; but as mentioned above, there is a piece of biographical information in the Kelso cartulary that makes William a person of note, particularly for the reorganization of monasteries after 1314. Within the manuscript is a copy of Kelso’s Rental Roll, which lists the sums of money and services owed to the monastery from its lands and churches.[12] The rental dates from the turn of the fourteenth century, and it contains a fragmented description of an arrangement that Abbot Richard – the abbot of Kelso who rebelled against Edward I – had with his tenants in Bowden, Roxburghshire.[13] The significant portion of the entry follows.


Abbas Richardus mutauit illud seruicium in denarium per assedacionem fratris Willelmi de Alincroma tunc camerario sui.

Abbot Richard converted [the tenants’] service into money by the assessment of brother William of Ancrum, his chamberlain at that time.


As demonstrated, William of Ancrum had been the chamberlain (the office-holder responsible for the monks’ clothing, bedding, and bodily needs)[14] during the abbacy of Richard. Hence, after years of abbots who were loyal to the kings of England, one of whom Robert Wishart termed a ‘usurper’, a new leader was appointed, who was not only loyal to King Robert, but was part of Abbot Richard’s administration. Here we can see a clear attempt to honour the pre-1296 constitution and leadership of Kelso Abbey, and one cannot help but wonder whether men such as Robert Marshal, abbot of Jedburgh, and William, abbot of Dryburgh – who showed such passion in the Scottish cause – were likewise part of the old guard at their respective institutions.[15]

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

[2] G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (3rd edn, Edinburgh, 1988), 270–86.

[3] D. E. R. Watt, and N. F. Shead, The Heads of Religious Houses in Scotland from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Centuries (Edinburgh, 2001), 58, 117–18; Michael Brown, The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300-1445 (East Linton, 1998), 186.

[4] G. W. S. Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots (2nd edn, Edinburgh, 2003), 227–8.

[5] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland [CDS], 5 vols (Edinburgh, 1881–1986) ii, nos 817, 823.

[6] CDS, ii, no. 1087

[7] CDS., ii, no. 1105.

[8] Liber S. Marie de Calchou [Kelso Liber], 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1846), i, no. 188.

[9] CDS, ii, no. 1154.

[10] Kelso Liber, i, no. 42.

[11] Watt and Shead, Heads of Religious Houses, 121.

[12] Kelso Liber, ii, 455–73.

[13] Kelso Liber, ii, 462.

[14] For a discussion of the office of chamberlain, see Barbara Harvey, The Obedientiaries of Westminister Abbey and their Financial Records, c.1275–1540 (Woodbridge, 2002), 47–55.

[15] Along these lines, it is worth noting that Dryburgh was also administered by a ‘William’ in 1296, and this individual does not appear again after this date (Watt and Shead, Heads of Religious Houses, 59). In light of what occurred at Kelso, it is certainly possible that this man was brought back to Dryburgh in 1314, and it is he who was responsible for expelling two canons ‘for being English’.

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