The hollowed out ghost of a king haunts the quiet kirkyard of Stracathro, the scene of his brutally symbolic humiliation. If this sounds like one of the Ringwraiths of Lord of the Rings, the mortal kings who were seduced and consigned to an eternal un-dead state because they were seduced by their own attraction to dark power. Pure fiction, or is it? The kirk of Stracathro is a relatively modern building, but the place is of interest to archaeologists and others for its ancient history. Not the 12th century battle which happened near here, nor indeed the 13th century event which we will discuss soon. In 2012 archaeologists from the Roman Gask Project were searching the area for evidence of the world’s most northerly Roman fort, itself a remarkable thing certainly. The Roman fort here marks one end of a frontier which predates the Antonine and Hadrianic borders. While the team were searching for Roman age remains, they found a trace of the medieval church site next to the location of the Roman fort. It was in this church, in the year 1296, that the Scottish king John Balliol was humiliatingly stripped of every badge and emblem of kinghood.
As a great-great-great-great-grandson of King David I, Balliol became king in 1292. But, for a complex number of reasons, and primarily the avaricious connivance of King Edward I of England, Balliol was not able to rule effectively or to be his own man. The degree to which this was due to his personal failings, sheer bad luck, bad judgement or the malign will of King Edward I of England is open to question, but the facts are these: Edward was eager to control and manipulate this Scottish king that he had engineered into power. In 1293, for example, John was forced before an English court, found in contempt and compelled to give up his three main castles. While John was willing to be a vassal king Edward expected him to be a humble servant and put him in an impossible position. When war broke out between France and England Edward's requests became even more outrageous and King John went to make a treaty with France. This treaty of 1295 meant neither country could seek a separate peace with England. Such was the beginning of the enduring ‘Auld Alliance’ between Scotland and France, a remarkable and profound alliance forged by a king reckoned the weakest that Scotland ever had.
John Balliol marched his army and against Carlisle. King Edward marched northwards and soon controlled most of the Scottish lowlands. John had few allies and indeed few options left and he surrendered to Edward in 1296, signing a document which admitted his folly in attacking Edward and handed over control of the land and people of Scotland.
Edward made John suffer by having him dress up as king one last time and then taking the crown from his head, the sword and sceptre from his hands, the ring from his finger and even the fur from his coat. John was publicly humiliated and would later be given the nickname Toom Tabard, meaning empty coat. Balliol was then imprisoned in the Tower of London and was eventually released into the custody of the Pope. From 1301 until his death in 1314 (significantly the year of the Battle of Bannockburn) he lived on his estate in Picardy.
The truth behind a legend, even a legend of failure, is hard to disentangle. Like the despised English King John, known as ‘Lackland’, it’s certain that Balliol was mocked by those who sought to distance themselves from him. To be painted as a weak vassal of the English despot is a simplistic picture in a complicated period where even eventual champions like Robert Bruce, the future king, swore fealty to Edward. And yet John Balliol was the monarch who instituted the long-running Auld Alliance between Scotland and France in 1295.
The Angus connection with his downfall follows King John’s invasion of England., supporting Philip the Fair of France. Following the Scots’ ineffectual invasion of Cumberland, Edward stormed Berwick. It was here that Henry, abbot of Arbroath, brought him a renunciation of Baliol's homage and fealty, which led the English monarch to exclaim, 'Has the foolish fellow done such folly? If he will not come to us, we will go to him.' Dunbar was captured and then Roxburgh and Edinburgh Castle was taken by Edward. Stirling.
King John wrote a letter to Edward of England from his camp at Kincardineon 2nd July, admitting his error in the alliance with France. On 7th July, in the churchyard of Stracathro, there was a pitiable drama when Baliol was forced to renounce his alliance with the French king. He was made to sign a document admitting he had allied himself with his feudal overlord's enemies and surrendered his kingdom to Edward. His surcoat was publicly stripped from his body, humiliatingly removing the arms of Scotland. Three days later, at Brechin, dressed in a plain white gown, King John gave up his kingdom to Antony Beck, bishop of Durham, representative of the English king. On that same day he appeared before King Edward at Montrose, who had come north from Dunbar and gave him the white rod, symbol of resignation by a vassal of his fief into the hands of his superior. There is some confusion whether the symbolic humiliation of the surcoat being ripped happened at Stracathro or Montrose. But no matter. Also present were the future king, Robert Bruce and his father. In response to their ambitions and glee at the fate of their enemy, Edward of England sourly commented: ‘Have we nothing else to do but win kingdoms for you?’ In August the former king was taken south to England and had periods of imprisonment before being deported to Picardy.
The legend of John’s disgrace descended down the royal line itself. When John, Earl of Carrick, succeeded to the throne he was obliged to discard his ill-omened birth name John and became King Robert III. Future Stuarts avoided the name and this aversion may have filtered down into the modern royal family who also avoid the name, following the deaths of sons of queens Alexandra and Mary who bore that cursed name.