William "the Lion" of Scotland

WILLIAM I of Scotland, "The Lion"(1143-1214)

William the Lion of Scotland

The Colours and Standard of William the Lion
[Colours of William I of Scotland]

William, King of Scotland, was surnamed "The Lion" due to the rampant (standing on hind legs) red lion on a yellow field, which he had as his standard. It would go on to become Scotland's Royal Heraldic colours and is easily recognizable even today.

He was the second son of Henry, Earl of Huntingdon (died 1152), a son of King David I, he became king of Scotland on the death of his brother, the weak-willed Malcolm IV. In December 1165, William was crowned at Scone. Shortly after his accesssion to the throne, he spent some time at the English court of Henry II; then quarrelling with Henry, he arranged an alliance between the two countries, Scotland and France, which would take root again over 100 years later (in 1294) and last until 1746, known as the "Auld Alliance." The oldest mutual self-defence treaty in Europe. He arranged this treaty with French King Louis VII; and even assisted Henry's sons in their revolt against their father (Henry II of England) in 1173. In return for this aid, the younger Henry granted Northumberland, a possession which William had sought, in vain, from the English king.

William was a ferocious fighter and military commander, but of questionable ability as a tactician, by English chronicle accounts. He led a band of well armed men, a mix of wild Irish Kerns, Norman-Scots, Celts and Galloway men. According to the chroniclers the kerns "slaughtered children, ripped open pregnant women, and cut down priests at their atlars." But, this type of description of William's actions were written by frightened and highly propagandized English chroniclers, whose prose was so compelling that later chroniclers and writers would use this same propaganda when they described the behaviour of William Wallace's men.

The scarlet rampant lion on its yellow field, soon to be Scotland's own standard, was fixed outside Carlisle Castle as William attacked. But the castle kept the gates shut so William's horsemen raided manors on both sides of Hadrian's Wall, burning and killing with the dedicated ferocity of knightly valour.

In 1174, at Alnwick, William the Lion and a small detachment reached Alnwick Castle which he attempted to beseige. It was not a wise decision. William was outnumbered by the English garrison and even worse, a relief force of English soldiers under Ralf de Glanvil was approaching from the south.

Exactly what happened next depends, somewhat, on which version you read. One version claims that in a severe mist (common to both versions), William saw a group of knights on horseback approaching, and thinking them to be his men he rode to them. When he got closer, he saw they were instead a body of English cavalry, he was said not to be afraid, but couched his lance and exclaimed "Now it will appear who knows how to be a knight!" According to this version, a spear from the English brought down his horse, and with his feet securely tied beneath the belly of another, this time as a prisoner, he was taken to English King Henry II in Northhampton.

The other version differs only in the manner of his unhorsing. In it, he was skirmishing valiantly in a deep mist when he was unhorsed. Before he could get up from the ground, his own horse rolled on top of him and pinned him down whence the English took him prisoner.

He was sent in chains to Henry II at Northhampton, but Henry, was said to be too busy to deal with the captive king, so William the Lion of Scotland was taken through England to the Kent coast and from there, across the Channel to Henry II's castle at Falaise in Normandy.

The English king had recently scourged his own body in pennance for the murder of Thomas Becket. Henry, now feeling purified by this, accepted Williams capture as a gift from God and the dead archbishop (Becket).

Henry sent the Scots king to a prison in Falaise and sent an avenging English army to Scotland, where it took the castles of Berwick, Roxburgh, Jedburgh and Edinburgh, wasting or taxing all the country. In bitter exile in Falaise, Normandy, The Lion became a sheep. William was not married and his brother was also a prisoner, the line of Canmore (from Gaelic 'cean mor' - large or big head), faced extinction, or at least expulsion, if both were imprisoned until death.

Henry II now extracted an oath of allegiance from William, that Henry was his feudal superior (a claim that Edward I and other future English kings would use on Scotland). This time the English king spelled out exactly what the act of homage meant: William held Scotland only by permission of Henry II. Scottish soldiers were to be evacuated from the castles and garrisons, and replaced by English troops. And the entire expense(s) of the English garrisons, now all over Scotland, were to be paid by the Scots for the English occupation!

It was a bitter and humilating treaty for Scotland, the Scots had to endure this humiliating subserviance to England and all it meant for 15 years. It was to be known as the Treaty of Falaise, and was a sour pill for Scotland to swallow. In fact, the payments to the English, for the Scots own land and castles, so severly taxed the population, Scotland nearly reverted to a country of peasants. Already a just a moderate nation, in terms of wealth, compared to their English neighbours, this taxation nearly destroyed Scotland. But, luckily for Scotland, after 15 years of this occupation and taxation, a new king was on the throne of England.

The new English king, Richard coer de Lion; Richard Lionheart (more commonly known as Richard the Lionhearted), was much more interested in fame, battle and glory he might receive from battling the infidels in the Holy Land. So much so, he made overtures to William the Lion. Richard was badly in need of quick funds, to mount a Crusade (the third). Richard Lionheart agreed that for 10,000 merks of silver for supplies and transportation to the Holy Land, he would release William the Lion of Scotland from the humiliating Treaty of Falaise, and would also return to William all the Castles the English Crown still held in Scotland. William agreed and even comtemplated purchasing Northumbria from Richard Lionheart, which he was willing to sell for an additional 15,000 merks. But Richard insisted on keeping the castles in Northumbria, and without them, William realised it would be impossible for him to keep a hold on Northumbria and he withdrew the offer to purchase Northumbria - but did repurchase Scotland and all its castles for the high sum agreed upon.

Scotland was nearly bankrupt from 15 years of taxation and William's repurchase of his own land and castles must have been another particularly nasty pill to ingest. It had been a humiliating experience for him, for Scotland and its people. But, he did so and thus saved Scotland (after nearly losing it), barely, from becoming a North English provence. Scotland became independent once again and the surrendered castles were returned for the agreed price and replaced with Scottish garrisons.

Richard Lionheart set off for the Holy Land on the Third Crusade where he gained much fame, and eventual imprisonment in Austria and his absense during those years from England and English affairs left England in a sorry state with John taking over as the new king of England.

At the age of 53, William the Lion fathered an heir by the illegitimate granddaughter of Henry I whom the English had forced upon him. An indication of their affection towards each other is evidenced by the fact that they had been married 13 years before she bore their son, Alexander.

William tried to get his claim to the northern counties of England, including Northumbria (again), recognised by the new English King John. But when this was unsuccessful, old William tried an invasion of the area again. A skirmish and then a strange war resulted in which William, at the last moment, supposedly due to a Divine warning that appeared to him, decided against full invasion.

That is the legend at least. Most likely, he was forestalled by English King John, who crossed the Border himself, demanding a compensation for all damage done by Williams army to the English Border area. There followed an even stranger incident. A set of meetings and conflicts, councils and stakes laid -- passed across gambling tables as if some game were in progress.

Another manor was burnt, an apology made along with a gift from William to John of a hunting falcon. It was a very strange and bizarre Border war where the dependents and vassals were more eager to fight than the principals.

In the end, two of William's daughters were sent south to the English court so that John might find husbands for them (or so it was claimed), and until he did, he made them pets of his court, kept them well dressed and fed lavish foods such as figs. The war or almost-war, ended in weary alliance with the dowry of 15,000 merks.

In 1209 war became imminent again but a peace was made at Norham and three years later another amicable settlement was reached between the two countries.

Old and senile, William the Lion died at Stirling on 4 December 1214, and was buried at Arbroath.

His hopes of expanding his kingdom long since abandoned, though he did invest his son Alexander (who would become Alexander II) with his own estates in England. It is somewhat ironic that Scotlands Royal Standard and colours of a red rampant lion on a field of yellow came from this nobly named, seemingly brave, but ineffective warrior at best.

But the defiant beast -- that Rampant Lion -- was forever left for his people and future kings, namely under Robert the Bruce of Scotland. The inspiration of this beautiful heraldric banner (flag) still inspires to this day. No other symbol identifies Scotland as clearly, as a national, formerly independent power except for the national Flag, the Saltire and the symbolic thistle. But truly, the war banner -- the red fighting rampant lion is still awe-inspiring to behold, and the patriotic memories it invokes -- Stirling, Bannockburn, Falkirk, Otterburn, Flodden, Prestonpans on up to Culloden -- in all Scots from around the world, guarantees its popularity and lasting power for many centuries to come.

İSkye-Net, R. Gunn, 1999/2003

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