Alexander III of Scotland was born on September 4, 1241, to King Alexander II and Queen Marie de Coucy. As his father’s only son, the prince became heir upon his birth. Unfortunately for Alexander, he didn’t get to enjoy his childhood for long. At the young age of seven, the prince became king after his father’s death on July 6, 1249. Due to his youth, a regency formed to rule on his behalf. In turn, a power struggle over the regency emerged between two rival families: the Comyns and Durwards.
As Walter Comyn fought against Alan Durward, a more significant threat to the Scottish throne emerged. Seeing an opportunity to bring Scotland under his control, King Henry III of England arranged a marriage between his daughter, Margaret, and Alexander III. On December 26, 1251, the 10-year-old king married the English princess. As part of the marriage alliance, Henry demanded that the Scottish king pay homage to him. Instead of submitting, Alexander III refused to bow to father-in-law’s pressure.
By 1257, Walter Comyn had emerged victorious over Alan Durward. However, their fighting caused both men to be disgraced. Even though their reputations were damaged, both men still retained their powerful influences. Together, Comyn and Durward began plotting to become joint regents. After capturing Alexander III, the two men forced their fellow nobles to approve their regency. However, their control of the king would be short-lived.
King of Scotland
In 1262, the 21-year-old Alexander III freed himself from the regency’s control and began his solo rule. Since Henry III was occupied with issues in England, the king made no effort to assert his power over Alexander. As a result, the Scottish king had the freedom to focus on regaining the Western Isles from Norway. Initially, Alexander II had focused on reclaiming the Isles but died from a fever before he could. Alexander sought to complete his father’s work. The king believed that Scotland would be more secure if he could bring the Isles under his control.
Following his father’s example, Alexander III first tried to gain the Isles from Norway diplomatically. However, the Norwegian king, Haakon IV, refused to give up control over any part of his kingdom. After the negotiations failed, Alexander turned to his next option: warfare. In 1262, the Scottish king began to place pressure on the Western Isles. Feeling threatened, the Islemen turned to Haakon for help. In response, Haakon and his Norwegian fleet sailed to Scotland to end Alexander’s ambition.
Aware of Haakon’s invasion plan, Alexander III prepared for his arrival by strengthening royal coastal castles. When the Norwegians eventually arrived, the king opened negotiations with Haakon IV. The Scottish king tactfully pro-longed the talks until autumn, when storm season began. Fed up with Alexander’s stalling, Haakon re-launched his invasion. However, his fleet encountered a terrible storm that damaged a majority of the Norwegian ships. The few undamaged ships left landed at Largs, sparking the Battle of Largs in October 1263.
Haakon IV’s Defeat
The Battle of Largs would be an inconclusive victory for Alexander III. Although weakened, the Norwegian fleet managed to avoid an all-out fight with the Scottish. With his supplies rapidly decreasing, Haakon IV ordered a retreat but died in Orkney on December 15, 1263. Although Norway still had the resources to launch another invasion, Haakon’s successor chose not to. In 1266, Magnus VI agreed to the Treaty of Perth, which gave Scotland control of the Isle of Man and the Western Isles in exchange for payment. Through this treaty, Alexander finally succeeded in completing his father’s work.
Alexander III’s marriage to Margaret of England produced three children: Margaret, Alexander, and David. However, by 1284, all three children had died without leaving a male heir. The closest that the king had was his infant granddaughter, Margaret of Norway. Without any other options, Alexander made Margaret his heir. Since Queen Margaret had died in February 1275, the king married again in 1285 to Yolande de Dreux. It was hoped that through this marriage, a succession crisis could be avoided.
In 1286, Alexander III and his party set off to meet Yolande in Fife. Despite bad weather, the king stubbornly rode throughout the night. At some point, Alexander became separated from his companions. The following day, the king’s party found his body on a beach in Klinghorn. It was believed that Alexander had fallen from his horse and broken his neck. Although Yolande was pregnant, the queen gave birth to a still-born child, making the dreaded succession crisis a reality.
Alexander III’s reign oversaw an increase in Scotland’s territory and power. With Haakon IV’s defeat, Scotland acquired the Western Isles and increased its security. The amount of land gained also shifted the balance of power in Scotland’s favor instead of England. Through his leadership, Alexander ended the nobility’s infighting and united it to the monarchy. However, the king’s early death would cause Scotland’s golden age to end and begin an unstable era known as the Wars of Scottish Independence.
Oram, R. (2006). The Kings & Queens of Scotland. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus.
Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Alexander III. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved September 20, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-III-king-of-Scotland.