Show Summary Details

Page of
<p>Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see <a href="https://global.oup.com/privacy" target="_blank">Privacy Policy</a> and <a href="/page/legal-notice" target="_blank">Legal Notice</a>).</span></p><p> Subscriber: University of Groningen; date: 17 July 2019</p>

Robert IIIunlocked

(d. 1406)
  • S. I. Boardman

Robert III (d. 1406)

seal

Robert III (d. 1406), king of Scots, was the eldest son of Robert II (1316–1390), son of Walter Stewart [see under Stewart family (per. c. 1110-c. 1350)], and his first wife, Elizabeth Mure (d. before 1355). His baptismal name was John, and he was probably born in the mid- to late 1330s, since his younger brother Robert was reputed to be over eighty when he died in September 1420, and so may have been born about 1340. John is first recorded in the 1350s, as the leader of an incursion into Annandale which forced the inhabitants of that lordship back into Scottish allegiance.

Heir apparent

In the early months of 1363 John, styled lord of Kyle, took a leading role alongside his father, Robert, then hereditary steward of Scotland and earl of Strathearn, in a rebellion against David II. The rebellion was provoked by a variety of factors, notably David's alleged misuse of money raised to pay for his ransom from English captivity in 1357, the possibility that a number of powerful noblemen (including John's father) would soon be sent to England as surety for the payment of the ransom, the threat posed by the king's policies to the territorial interests of several influential aristocrats, and the monarch's impending marriage to his established mistress, Margaret Drummond. Both before and after the 1363 revolt the childless King David undermined the position of his nephew, the Steward, as heir presumptive by actively supporting alternative arrangements for the succession.

The disputes between David II and the Stewarts over the succession and the promotion of the kinsmen of Queen Margaret appear to have been resolved by the marriage of John, the Steward's heir, to Annabella, née Drummond (d. 1401), the queen's niece. Papal approval for the union was sought in March 1366 and the marriage was completed before 31 May 1367, on which date the Steward granted the earldom of Atholl to John and Annabella. On 22 June 1368 King David made his own territorial investment in the marriage when he granted John and Annabella and their heirs the earldom of Carrick. Significantly, Carrick was part of the Bruce dynasty's patrimony and had been held by David as heir to the throne before 1329. The king's grant thus seemed to acknowledge John as the likely heir to the throne if David died childless. That John and Annabella named their eldest son and daughter David and Margaret suggests that the couple consciously regarded themselves as the successors of King David and his Drummond queen.

In 1369, however, David had his union to Queen Margaret annulled and he was in the midst of preparations to marry his new mistress, Agnes Dunbar, when he died unexpectedly on 22 February 1371. John's father succeeded to the throne as Robert II. The new king was crowned at Scone on 27 March 1371, by which date Robert had transferred the ancestral Stewart lordships around the Firth of Clyde (known collectively as the Stewartry) to his son and heir, John. On the day of his coronation Robert II named John, now styled ninth earl of Carrick and steward of Scotland, as heir to the throne and required the assembled prelates and magnates to acknowledge and promise to defend Carrick's rights. Earlier in the century Robert I had established the principle that the Scottish succession could and should be modified by entail to protect the interests of the kingdom, and especially to guard against the dangers of a claim to the throne reverting to an heiress. David II had also proposed a number of entailing schemes, though these had been rejected by the Scottish estates. The clarification of the succession in 1371 followed in this tradition and reflected Robert II's overall policy of minimizing the opportunities for political and dynastic dispute. More immediately, Robert II had perhaps faced some opposition to his succession after David II's death, and the step of securing the approval of the three estates for Carrick's position as heir to the throne may have been prompted by the new king's advanced age and a desire to avoid any future controversy after his death. The declaration also ended any doubts about the status of the children of Robert II's first marriage, who had received a retrospective legitimation in 1346–7.

In 1373 the succession was clarified further, possibly in response to the fact that John's marriage had by that stage produced daughters but no sons. On 4 April a parliament at Scone approved the creation of male entail to govern the descent of the kingship, naming the king's five sons by his two wives in order of seniority. Although this arrangement confirmed Carrick as the first in line to the throne, in 1373 he had no male heir. The legislation effectively annulled the rights of his daughters in the succession, and the hold of his and Annabella's heirs on the kingship was thus assured only with the birth of the couple's first son, David Stewart, the future duke of Rothesay, in 1378.

The years after 1371 saw Carrick assume a growing importance in the governance of the realm, particularly in Scotland south of the Forth. Early in 1372 Robert II put Carrick in control of Edinburgh Castle and the office of sheriff of Edinburgh. The earl also established himself as the leading figure in Anglo-Scottish warfare and diplomacy, supervising march days and acting as the representative of the Scottish crown in truce negotiations. In June 1381 he styled himself the king's 'lieutenant for the marches'. Carrick's influence in the region was underpinned by his links to his brother-in-law (twice over) James Douglas, the son of William, first earl of Douglas, who succeeded his father as earl of Douglas in 1384. In addition, Carrick married his daughters to other leading members of the Douglas family—Archibald Douglas, lord of Galloway, and Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith—and generally developed links with noblemen who played a prominent role in the low-key but persistent border warfare characteristic of the period after Edward III's death in 1377.

Guardian

By the early 1380s Carrick, who was now forty years old, seems to have become increasingly frustrated by his father's longevity and grip on power. Growing rivalry between him and his father over the control of royal patronage and policy may well have lain behind the assassination of the king's chamberlain and favourite, Sir John Lyon, by Carrick's associate Sir James Lindsay on 4 November 1382. During 1384 the disagreements between Carrick and his father became more pronounced, and the earl was able to exploit general discontent with Robert II over two particular issues to justify direct political action against him. First, the apparent inability or unwillingness of the king to curb the excesses of Carrick's younger brother Alexander Stewart, earl of Buchan and lord of Badenoch and Ross, who was his lieutenant in the north of the kingdom. Second, the king's failure to act as a war leader in Anglo-Scottish conflict. In November 1384, during a general council held in Holyrood, Robert II was forced to surrender control of justice to Carrick, who became guardian of the kingdom.

Carrick's guardianship was marked by an intensification of the war with England. In July 1385 the Scottish host invaded northern England in conjunction with a French expeditionary force under the command of the French admiral Jean de Vienne. The expedition achieved little and coincided with a destructive counter-attack on southern Scotland by an English army personally led by Richard II. In the next two years a succession of temporary truces prevented further large-scale conflict, but in the summer of 1388 the Scots launched a series of powerful raids into northern England. On 5 August a force under the command of the second earl of Douglas was intercepted at Otterburn by an English host under the command of Sir Henry Percy. The Scots won the ensuing battle, but Douglas was killed in the course of the conflict.

The death of Douglas, Carrick's most powerful political ally, greatly weakened Carrick's position in Scotland. His problems were intensified by the fact that Douglas died childless, provoking a major struggle between rival claimants to all or part of his vast inheritance. Carrick supported the rights of his brother-in-law, Sir Malcolm Drummond, who was married to Douglas's sister Isabella. This stance alienated men who had formerly been key members of his affinity, notably Archibald Douglas, lord of Galloway, and Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith, who were pursuing their own claims to Douglas estates. Within weeks of Otterburn the disaffected Douglas lords transferred their political support from Carrick to his brother and chief rival in the royal dynasty, Robert Stewart, earl of Fife and Menteith. Politically damaged by the infighting within the Douglas affinity, Carrick was also by this stage physically incapacitated as the result of a kick from a horse. He was certainly rendered lame by the incident, and his injuries may well have been more severe.

On 1 December 1388 Carrick was forced to surrender the office of guardian in favour of Fife during a general council in Edinburgh, which complained that there had been defects in the governance of the realm for some time because of Carrick's 'infirmity'. As guardian from 1388, Fife proved astute, effective, and popular. He allowed the claims of Archibald Douglas to the earldom of Douglas at the expense of Sir Malcolm Drummond, and took decisive action against Buchan in the north of the kingdom, stripping him of royal offices and undermining his hold on lordships there.

King of Scots

On 19 April 1390 Robert II died at Dundonald Castle in Ayrshire. Although Carrick was the king's eldest son and designated heir, he had already been declared incapable of running the kingdom as a royal lieutenant in 1388. Fife, on the other hand, had shown himself to be a successful guardian. Moreover, those who had prospered under Fife's leadership and patronage after 1388 (particularly Archibald, third earl of Douglas) were not inclined to allow Carrick to recover unrestricted royal command following Robert II's death. The likely debate over the respective powers and responsibilities of Carrick and Fife after Robert II's death may have contributed to the strange delay between Robert II's demise in April 1390 and the coronation of Carrick as Robert III on 14 August 1390 at Scone. Although Carrick succeeded to the royal title in 1390, Fife continued to act as guardian of the kingdom. This may account for the violent attacks made on the burghs of Elgin and Forres in May and June 1390 by Fife's arch-rival in the north, the earl of Buchan.

Carrick's change of name from John to Robert was explained by later writers as a way of avoiding comparison with the unhappy reigns of John Balliol in Scotland, Jean I and II of France, and King John of England. It also circumvented the awkward question of whether John Balliol (whose claim to the throne had been consistently denigrated by BruceStewart apologists during the fourteenth century) should be accorded the status of the first king of Scots to bear that name.

Problems of authority

Robert III's reign has traditionally been seen as representing the nadir of Scottish kingship in the late medieval period. He has been viewed as a weak and ineffective monarch who permitted the dissipation of royal prestige and resources and who failed to check the political ambitions of such ‘over-mighty’ magnates as Fife and the earls of Douglas, thereby allowing political unrest, violence, and instability. The chronicler Walter Bower, writing in the 1440s, could claim that in Robert's time there was 'a great deal of dissension, strife and brawling among the magnates and the leading men, because the king, being bodily infirm, had no grip anywhere' (Bower, 8.63). In addition, Robert's reign saw a humiliating defeat of a major Scottish army at the hands of English forces at the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402, a conflict which ended with the death or capture of scores of prominent Scottish noblemen. Robert's personal infirmity and inability to act as a dynamic and forceful king should not be doubted. For ten of the sixteen years of his reign royal authority was exercised by guardians or lieutenants appointed by parliaments or general councils because he was deemed incapable of governing the kingdom. Given the power and influence of these royal guardians, it is often difficult to distinguish his own distinctive policies and attitudes in many areas of government activity.

More recent analysis, however, has modified the assessment of Robert III's reign by emphasizing the difficulties he faced after 1390. The new monarch's age, his physical afflictions, his political humiliation in 1388, and the subsequent influence upon government of his brother Fife set tight limits on his ability to recover and enhance his personal authority. Moreover, Robert's accession to the throne coincided with a profound economic downturn and a currency crisis which led to a sharp devaluation of Scottish coinage. These factors restricted his capacity to regain authority through the use of financial patronage, while conversely they may have increased aristocratic competition over access to the remaining royal customs revenues. In diplomacy, Robert III maintained the established alliance with the French king while avoiding any large-scale conflict with the English crown. In 1393–9, the only period in the reign when there was no official guardian or lieutenant operating in the kingdom, the Scots under Robert III seem to have edged towards a more stable and amicable political relationship with Richard II of England. If this was Robert's own initiative, then the policy came to an unanticipated end with the deposition of King Richard and the usurpation of the English throne by Henry IV in 1399. Robert III's own exclusion from power in 1399 means that he can hardly be held personally responsible for the more aggressive foreign policy which resulted in the disaster of 1402.

On a more general level, recent work has also questioned whether the prolonged and repeated guardianships and lieutenancies of Robert's reign should be regarded simply as an indication of the decline and ineffectiveness of Scottish royal government and of the growing ability of great lords to overshadow and ignore the king. In contrast, it is suggested, guardianships could be viewed as a way by which a generally responsible political community sought to preserve the unity, administration, and institutions of the realm when the king was incapable of discharging his duties, and did so without recourse to deposition or political violence.

Recovery and relapse

In the years after 1390 King Robert recovered some measure of political influence within the kingdom by promoting his son and heir, David, earl of Carrick, as an active participant in royal government. In February 1393 the Fife guardianship was brought to an end. But although Robert technically took back full personal authority after the termination of Fife's guardianship, in reality he continued to govern in association with his brother and with Carrick. Nevertheless the period 1393–7 provides instances of his assuming a more active and assertive role. In the winter of 1395–6, for example, he moved decisively to annul Carrick's marriage to Elizabeth Dunbar, daughter of George, earl of March, a match which had been concluded without royal consent. Similarly, on 28 September 1396 he personally presided over the famous mortal combat on the north inch of Perth between the clans Kay and Qwhele, each represented by thirty warriors, an event intended to reduce violent disorder in the central highlands. It was also during this period that the king's enmity towards Archibald, third earl of Douglas, and his supporters resurfaced. On 24 May 1397 Robert concluded a marriage treaty by which George Douglas, the illegitimate son of the first earl of Douglas and Margaret, countess of Mar and Angus, was to marry one of his own daughters. In addition, Robert pledged his support for George's attempt to recover elements of the Douglas inheritance which had been held since 1389 by Archibald's ally Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith. By 1398 the king's interference had sparked a major feud between George Douglas and the Douglases of Dalkeith.

Despite these flurries of personal activity and initiative, King Robert's rule after 1393 became the subject of increasing complaint, concentrated on his inability to deal with disorder in the north and west of the kingdom. Discontent reached a climax in April 1398, when a general council at Perth produced both direct and implicit criticism of his role in government. The council was dominated by the organization of a summer campaign against Donald, lord of the Isles, and his brothers in the western and central highlands. Significantly, leadership of the royal forces was assigned to the king's brother and son, who on 28 April also received new ducal titles: Carrick became duke of Rothesay, and Fife duke of Albany. The increased status of Robert's closest kinsmen and their role as leaders of the royal forces to be deployed that summer pointed towards his further marginalization. A council of January 1399 saw charges of misgovernance levelled against him and his officers. Control was given to Rothesay, appointed as a royal lieutenant for three years to govern with the advice of a named council of twenty-one men headed by Albany. Robert was to be excluded from any meaningful role in the governance of the kingdom.

In the years after 1399 Robert III played little or no active part in the political life of Scotland and spent more and more of his time in his family's ancestral estates in the Stewartry. He was unable to intervene in a dispute between Rothesay and Albany during 1401. The dispute ended with Albany's seizure and imprisonment of the king's young heir, whose captivity ended with his suspicious death in Falkland Castle between 25 and 27 March 1402. After the death of Rothesay, Robert effectively withdrew into internal exile in the Stewartry, and the running of the kingdom was left in the hands of Albany, who was reappointed as lieutenant for two years in May 1402, a commission renewed for a further two years in 1404.

Last years, death, and issue

During 1404 King Robert's influence revived somewhat when his only surviving son, James (the future James I), now earl of Carrick and heir to the throne, emerged as a figurehead for men who were loyal to Robert and increasingly active in royal administration. The king began to appear regularly in Edinburgh and Linlithgow and lent his support to the territorial ambitions of members of Prince James's household, most notably Sir David Fleming of Cumbernauld. On 14 February 1406, however, Fleming was killed in a battle with Sir James Douglas of Balvenie at Long Hermiston Moor. The death of one of Prince James's principal councillors and awareness of his own declining health seem to have contributed to Robert's decision to send James secretly to France. The attempt to transfer him to the custody of the French king indicates that the ailing King Robert and his advisers were unwilling to let the young heir to the throne fall into the hands of Albany, his likely guardian after the king's death.

The plan to remove James from Scotland misfired badly, for on 22 March he was captured at sea by English pirates and consequently delivered into the custody of Henry IV of England. On 4 April 1406, shortly after hearing of his son's capture, Robert III died in Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute. While Robert was already ill, the chronicler Bower asserts that he died of a broken heart upon receiving the news: 'he was moved inwardly in his heart on hearing the messenger; his spirit failed directly, the strength of his body dwindled, his face grew pale, and in his grief he ate no more food until he breathed out his spirit to his creator' (Bower, 8.63). He was buried in the abbey of Paisley, although the same source records that Robert had once told Queen Annabella that, far from being commemorated by a splendid monument, he 'should prefer to be buried in a midden, so that my soul may be saved in the day of the Lord', and how he had chosen for his epitaph, 'Here lies the worst of kings and most wretched of men in the whole kingdom' (Bower, 8.65).

Robert III and his wife, Annabella Drummond (crowned queen on 15 August 1390, the day after her husband's coronation), had at least three sons and four daughters. The eldest son, David, duke of Rothesay, died between 25 and 27 March 1402, leaving no children from his marriage to Mary Douglas, daughter of Archibald, third earl of Douglas, whom he married early in 1400. The second son, Robert, died at a young age some time after 8 February 1393. Their third son, James, was born in 1394. Captured by the English in 1406, he did not return to Scotland until 1424. He was assassinated on 20 February 1437, leaving a son and heir who succeeded to the throne as James II. The daughters of Robert and Annabella were Margaret Douglas, Mary, Elizabeth, and Egidia. Margaret married, before 1390, Archibald, fourth earl of Douglas and duke of Touraine, who was killed at the battle of Verneuil in August 1424. Margaret, countess of Douglas, was still alive in June 1434. Mary was four times married and produced children with all her husbands. Her first husband was George Douglas, earl of Angus, whom she married under the terms of a marriage contract of 1397 between Robert III and George's mother, Margaret. George was captured by the English at the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402 and died in captivity early in 1403. Thereafter Mary was married, before 27 January 1406, to Sir James Kennedy of Dunure [see under Kennedy family (per. c. 1350-1513)]. One of the sons of this match was James Kennedy, the future bishop of St Andrews. After Sir James Kennedy's death Mary was married to Sir William Graham [see under Graham family] and, widowed again in 1424, she contracted her final match with Sir William Edmonston of Culloden in 1425. Elizabeth married Sir James Douglas of Dalkeith under the terms of a contract of 22 April 1378, although the marriage may not have been completed for some time, perhaps about 24 March 1382 and certainly before 10 November 1387. Egidia was alive on 20 July 1421, but may have died shortly after without marrying. In addition, Robert III had at least two illegitimate sons, James Stewart of Kilbride and John Stewart of Auchingowan.

Sources

  • W. Bower, Scotichronicon, ed. D. E. R. Watt and others, new edn, 9 vols. (1987–98), vols. 7–8
  • G. W. S. Barrow and others, eds., Regesta regum Scottorum, 6, ed. B. Webster (1982)
  • J. M. Thomson and others, eds., Registrum magni sigilli regum Scotorum / The register of the great seal of Scotland, 2nd edn, 1, ed. T. Thomson (1912)
  • APS, 1124–1423
  • RotS, vols. 1–2
  • G. Burnett and others, eds., The exchequer rolls of Scotland, 1–4 (1878–80)
  • CDS, vol. 4
  • Register House charters, NA Scot., RH6
  • Register House transcripts, NA Scot., RH2
  • C. Innes, ed., Registrum episcopatus Moraviensis, Bannatyne Club, 58 (1837)
  • T. Thomson, A. Macdonald, and C. Innes, eds., Registrum honoris de Morton, 2 vols., Bannatyne Club, 94 (1853), 2
  • S. I. Boardman, The early Stewart kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371–1406 (1996)
  • A. Grant, Independence and nationhood: Scotland, 1306–1469 (1984)

Archives

  • NA Scot., Register House charters, RH2, RH6

Likenesses

J. Bain, ed., , 4 vols., PRO (1881–8); suppl. vol. 5, ed. G. G. Simpson & J. D. Galbraith [1986]
D. Macpherson, J. Caley, & W. Illingworth, eds., , 2 vols., RC, 14 (1814–19)
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
, 12 vols. in 13 (1814–75)
Scottish Text Society