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Berwick-upon-Tweed from the Old Tweed Bridge
Berwick-upon-Tweed from the Old Tweed Bridge

John Balliol (a.k.a. unflatteringly as Toom Tabard meaning "empty jacket") lived from 1250 to April 1313 and was King of Scotland from 17 November 1292 to 10 July 1296. He was the son of John, 5th Baron de Balliol, and Devorgilla, Lady of Galloway. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Norham Castle Today
Norham Castle Today
Remains of Berwick Castle
Remains of Berwick Castle

The death of the eight year old Margaret, Maid of Norway in 1290 threw Scotland into chaos as there was no single obvious choice to succeed her. Robert Bruce of Annandale marched at the head of an army to Perth, with the intention of being crowned King of Scotland at nearby Scone. One of the surviving Guardians who had ruled Scotland on behalf of Margaret, the Bishop of St Andrews, asked Edward I of England to judge the competing claims of those who wished to be King of Scotland: so avoiding civil war. Edward's help was also sought by Robert Bruce.

Edward I agreed to adjudicate between what ended up as 13 competitors for the Scottish crown; all of whom could claim some distant connection with the House of Dunkeld. Being Edward, he did attach one small condition: that the juding would take place at Norham Castle, on the English side of the border, and that, in order to take part, the competitors would each have to agree that, should they become king, they would accept that they did so under the sovereignty of the King of England. In effect, Scotland would become a vassal or client state of England. Edward held all the cards, so eventually all the serious claimants accepted the condition. The adjudication was in the hands, nominally at least, of a court of 104 arbiters, appointed by Edward and including nominees of the main competitors.

Over time, the 13 competitors were boiled down to 3, then 2: John Balliol and Robert Bruce. Balliol was the grandson of the eldest daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, who in turn was the younger brother of William I. Bruce was the son of the second daughter of the same David, Earl of Huntingdon. This meant that though Balliol's claim could be argued to be stronger because it came from an eldest daughter, Bruce's could be argued to be stronger because he was one generation nearer to the Earl of Huntingdon, albeit via a younger daughter of the Earl.

On 6 November 1292 the arbiters recommended in favour of John Balliol. Edward announced his acceptance of their recommendation in the Great Hall of Berwick Castle on 17 November 1292 and Balliol was crowned King of Scotland at Scone, on 30 November 1292 or St Andrew's Day. Edward wasted no time in proving that Balliol was his man, humiliating him and forcing him to do as he was told in governing what was now treated as little more than a province of England.

Matters came to a head in 1294 when Edward demanded Scottish troops to support his war against France. Under pressure from his council, Balliol not only refused, but formalised a mutual defence agreement with Philip IV of France against England. Edward's response, on 30 March 1296, was to sack Berwick-upon-Tweed. Capturing the town took just a few hours: killing many thousands of its inhabitants took several more days. The Scottish army was defeated at the Battle of Dunbar on 27 April 1296.

John Balliol was captured by Edward's troops on 10 July, in the churchyard at Stracathro in Angus. He was then forced to sign a document admitting he had allied himself with his feudal overlord's enemies and surrendering his Kingdom to Edward. His nickname, Toom Tabard is thought by some to refer to the removal of heraldic insignia from his tunic as part of his submission. From now on, Edward I of England intended to rule Scotland directly, without the inconvenience of a Scottish King to complicate matters. As a symbol of England's total domination he removed the Stone of Destiny, on which Scottish Kings had been crowned, from Scone to Westminster Abbey, where it was to remain, apart from a brief and unofficial journey north in early 1951, until 15 November 1996.

John Balliol was imprisoned in the Tower of London. However, in 1299 he was allowed to return to his family estates at Bailleu in France, where he lived until his death in April 1313 at the age of 63. His claim to the throne passed to his son, Edward Balliol.

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