October 2012 – The ‘War Clause’ in Charters

The ‘War Clause’ in Medieval Scottish Charters

Andrew Smith (Hamburg; former Research Associate)[1]


The suggestion that a ‘war clause’ existed in medieval Scottish charters may strike some readers as odd. However, no designation is probably more appropriate to describe a particular type of diplomatic feature, like the following, which asserted that the repercussions of war – would, could or would not – affect the terms of a proprietary arrangement:

If the land ‘X’ may have been destroyed by war, ‘Y’ will provide ‘Z’ with some (or no) reprieve from his/her obligations.

This feature of the month will explore the use of ‘war clauses’ in medieval Scotland. Among other things, it will examine the forms and contexts in which they were used, as well as the dates in which they appear.



War and its repercussions is not an uncommon subject in medieval Scottish charters. In the late twelfth century, King William I confirmed to Matthew, son of Robert, his chaplain, land and rights in Whitfield, Northumberland, as fully and well as he held them ‘anytime before the war’ (aliquo tempore ante warram).[2] At the turn of the fourteenth century, William of Lamberton, bishop of St Andrews, allowed Kelso Abbey to fully control the revenues of the church Greenlaw because of the affects that war (gwerram) had had on the abbey.[3] Moreover, King Edward I referred to the war (guerre) when he ordered the chamberlain of Scotland to ensure that Dryburgh Abbey received the alms which it was owed before conflict began.[4] However, diplomatic features which include the word ‘war’ as part of a conditional statement, or ‘if’ clause (like the above example), are considerably less common. In fact, a survey of surviving Scottish charters has thus far only uncovered twenty-nine examples which predate the death of King Robert I in 1329.[5]

Of the twenty-nine examples that have been identified, twenty-six are found in charters which focus on money. [6] As will be discussed below, the clauses themselves are also overwhelmingly concerned with fiscal considerations. However, it is noteworthy that the belief that war could disrupt a financial arrangement was not a product of the wars of independence. In fact, eleven of the records which contain ‘war clauses’ appear to have been produced before its outbreak in 1296. The earliest example which has been identified is in the Kelso Abbey cartulary and dates from the turn of the thirteenth century.[7] Several other war clauses can be found in mid-thirteenth-century charters, as well as two charters which date from the early 1290s.[8] This said, the eighteen remaining examples were produced between 1296 and 1329. Hence, nearly double as many war clauses survive from this thirty-three year period as survive from most of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

In terms of location, no concrete statement can be made about whether or not context played a role in the decision to include these features in a charter. Indeed, documents pertaining to virtually every region in the kingdom have the clause. War clauses can be found in charters which relate to property in the Scottish Borders[9], Dumfriesshire[10] and Stirlingshire[11] in the south, and Perthshire,[12] Inverness[13] and Nairnshire[14] in the north.



The form of the war clause varies from charter to charter. Nevertheless, the clauses do appear to fall into one of three categories: clauses which alter the terms of an agreement in times of war, clauses which state that war does not affect the terms of an agreement, and clauses which potentially cancel the terms of an agreement in times of war. Instances which state that the terms of an arrangement could be altered in times of war are by far the most common, and indeed, nineteen of the twenty-nine examples fall into this group.[15] A few examples simply state that the terms of a financial agreement should be abided by except during wartime, and many of these examples date from the mid-thirteenth century. For example, an agreement between Lindores Abbey and Robert de Champagne in 1260 states that Robert and his heirs should pay three marks to the abbey ‘unless general war may exist in the land’ (nisi generalis guerra fuerit in terra).[16] However, these brief conditional statements are more the exception than the rule. Indeed, it was far more common, especially following the advent of the wars of independence, for scribes to explain the process whereby a financial obligation could be altered.

A prime example can be found in the Kelso Abbey cartulary:

However, if the land of Dumfries is destroyed by war, the abbot and monks [of Kelso Abbey] will provide to the aforementioned Martin [clerk of Dumfries] some relief from his payment [of twenty marks] according to the assessment of good men.[17]

It is noteworthy that the stipulation in which ‘good men’ or ‘worthy men’ would oversee a decision process is a common theme in war clauses. A charter in the Melrose collection which dates from 1309 states that William the Englishman’s payment during times of war would be determined by the assessment of good men (per visum bonorum hominum).[18] A charter in the Dunfermline abbey cartulary states that any disruption to the vicar of Stirling’s pension would be assessed through the arbitration of bishops (ordinariorum arbitrio).[19] Moreover, a 1329 charters states that Fergus son of Duncan would not be compelled to pay a ferme to Arbroath Abbey unless worthy men (viros fidedignos) were able to prove that he acquired produce from the land.[20]

This said, not all beneficiaries were so lucky as to have their claims evaluated by ‘good men’. In fact, several of the extant ‘war clauses’ (six in total) state that the terms of an agreement were to be followed in times of ‘peace or war’.[21] Four of these instances can be found in the Newbattle Register, and an illustrative example dates from 21 September 1314:

Sir William [Bisset of Merton] and his heirs or assignees will pay the said forty [shillings] every year at the feast of Saint James, viz. to the said religious men in all circumstances, whether there be peace or war, in perpetuity.[22]

Moreover, some of the war clauses were stricter still. Several charters state that should an individual default on his payment in times of war, his/her holdings would be seized by the benefactor.[23] A good example can be found in a 1323 charter which records an agreement between Dunfermline Abbey and John Campbell and Mary de Brus. In this charter the monks give to John and Mary their lands of Moulin in Athol for an annual render, and the war clause says the following:

If, however, he stops making the said payment, at its deadlines and in the approved manner, because of war or any other event, in part or in total, at any year or by a deadline; the same John and his heirs, as is permitted, will lose right and possession of the said lands, and the said land will freely revert to the said religious men and the aforesaid monastery, without any impediment, in perpetuity.[24]


Concluding Remarks

As demonstrated in this brief survey of ‘war clauses’, they are not linked to a particular context in the history of the kingdom of Scotland. They can be found as far south as the Scottish borders and as far north as Inverness. Moreover, they also appear in documentation as early as the turn of the thirteenth century. However, as noted, they do appear more frequently in charters produced during the wars of independence, and they also appear to become more detailed as time goes on. With regards to the latter, it may be noteworthy that some of the more detailed pre-1296 clauses are found in collections which have had their veracity questioned. As noted in the feature of the month from June 2011, there is a lot of evidence which causes one to question the veracity of the information in the Kelso Abbey cartulary.[25] Alasdair Ross has also demonstrated that the published edition of the Moray Register is lacking in many editorial respects.[26] Hence, it may be noteworthy that the only pre-1296 examples of war clauses which state that the effects of war should be assessed by ‘good and worthy men’ (i.e., jurors at an inquest) are found in these two collections.[27]  Hopefully, future research will be able to assess to what extent Scottish war clauses are an accurate representation of the original documents upon which they were based.

[1] I would like to thank Prof. Dauvit Broun for his comments on this article.

[2] RRS, ii, no. 172 (1/1000/74).

[3] Kelso Liber, ii, no. 309 (2/10/298).

[4] Dryburgh Liber, no. 282 (1/27/None).

[5] If anyone knows of any further examples of war clauses, this information would be much appreciated.

[6] RRS, v, no. 640 (see also Dunfermline Registrum, no. 366); Kelso Liber, i, nos. 35 (4/21/5), 311; ii, nos. 324 (4/32/13), 332 (4/21/2); Melrose Liber, ii, no. 428 (4/8/34); Newbattle Registrum, nos. 45, 47, 174 (4/20/62); Cambuskenneth Registrum, 199 (see also Dunfermline Registrum, no. 591); Dunfermline Registrum, nos. 150 (3/274/3), 347, 351, 364, 365, Arbroath Liber, i, nos. 329 (2/64/32), 339; ii, nos. 2, 3; Moray Registrum, nos. 31 (4/16/5), 80 (4/15/7), 87 (4/16/10); Rose of Kilravock, pp. 109-11 (4/26/22); Inchaffray Charters, no. 66 (2/40/79), Lindores Charters, nos. 113 (3/137/5), 124 (3/12/37). The other three clauses relate to other property rights (Newbattle Registrum, nos. 151, 161; Holyrood Liber, no. 92)

[7] Kelso Liber, i, no. 324 (4/32/13).

[8] For mid-thirteenth century charters, see Kelso Liber, i, no. 35 (4/21/5); ii, no. 332 (4/32/13); Dunfermline Registrum, no. 150 (3/274/3); Moray Registrum, nos. 31 (4/16/5), 80 (4/15/7), 87 (4/16/10); Lindores Charters, nos. 113 (3/137/5), 124 (3/12/37). For charters which date from the early 1290s, see Newbattle Registrum, no. 174 (4/20/62); Rose of Kilravock, pp. 109-111 (4/26/22).

[9] e.g. Melrose Liber, ii, no. 428 (4/8/34).

[10] e.g. Kelso Liber, ii, no. 324 (4/32/13).

[11] e.g. Cambuskenneth Registrum, no. 199.

[12] e.g. Dunfermline Registrum, no. 150 (3/274/3).

[13] e.g. Arbroath Liber, i, no. 129 (2/64/32).

[14] e.g. Moray Registrum, no. 87 (4/16/10).

[15] Kelso Liber, i, no. 311; ii, nos. 324 (4/32/13), 332 (4/21/2); Melrose Liber, ii, no. 428 (4/8/34); Cambuskenneth Registrum, 199 (see also Dunfermline Registrum, no. 591); Dunfermline Registrum, nos. 347, Arbroath Liber, i, nos. 329 (2/64/32), 339; ii, nos. 2, 3; Moray Registrum, nos. 31 (4/16/5), 80 (4/15/7), 87 (4/16/10); Rose of Kilravock, pp. 109-11 (4/26/22); Inchaffray Charters, no. 66 (2/40/79).

[16] Lindores Charters, no. 113 (3/137/5). See also Lindores Charters, no. 124 (3/12/37); Newbattle Registrum, no. 45; Dunfermline Registrum, no. 364.

[17] Si autem terra de Dumfries per gwerram destructa fuerit predicti abbatis et monachi facient prenominato Martino aliquam relaxacionem de pensione sua secundum estimacionem bonorum virorum (Kelso Liber, ii, no. 324 (4/32/13)).

[18] Melrose Liber, ii, no. 428 (4/8/34).

[19] Dunfermline Registrum, no. 347.

[20] Arbroath Liber, ii, no. 2.

[21] Newbattle Registrum, nos. 47, 151, 161, 174 (4/20/62); Dunfermline Registrum, no. 351; Holyrood Liber, no. 92.

[22] [D]ominus W[illelmus] et heredes sui vel assignati singulis annis ad festum sancti Jacobi soluent dictos quadraginta scilicet dictis Religiosis in omni eventu sive pax sive guerra fuerit in perpetuum (Ibid., no. 47).

[23] Kelso Liber, i, no. 35 (4/21/5); Dunfermline Registrum, nos. 150 (3/274/3), 365-66.

[24] Si autem a dicta solucione suis terminis et modo premissis per guerram uel aliquam aliam occasionem in parte uel in toto aliquo anno uel aliquo termino cessatum fuerit; Idem Johannes heredesque sui ut premissum est a iure et possessione dictarum terrarum cadant et predicte terre ad predictos Religiosos et monasterium prenominatum libere sine aliquo impedimento reuertantur inperpetuum (Dunfermline Registrum, no. 366).

[25] http://www.breakingofbritain.ac.uk/blogs/feature-of-the-month/june-2011-forgery-and-the-wars/

[26] Alasdair Ross, ‘The Bannatyne Club and the Publication of Scottish Ecclesiastical Cartularies’, Scottish Historical Review, 85, 2 (2006), pp. 202-33.

[27] Kelso Liber, ii, nos. 324 (4/32/13), 332 (4/21/2); Moray Registrum, nos. 31(4/16/5), 80 (4/15/7), 87 (4/16/10).

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One Response to October 2012 – The ‘War Clause’ in Charters

  1. Ian Crawford says:

    While it may not represent an act with a “war clause”, the remission of John Barclay of Crawford in favor of Malise of Menteith (Fraser, Menteith no. 18; PoMS 3/83/20) seems a retroactive application of the same concept.

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