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The Maid of Norway

Dynastic Crisis

The death of Alexander III in March 1286 was a devastating blow for Scotland. The immediate effect was simply a dynastic crisis, because there was no male heir to the throne. The only surviving descendant was his granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway. Although she was acknowledged as heir presumptive in 1284 (`our lady and rightful heir') the succession of a female was always likely to cause problems. Initially though all went well.

Due to the age of the child and in order to continue the business of government, a committee of six Guardians were elected at an assembly or parliament of the 'Community of the Realm at Scone, the month after Alexander's death. The six guardians comprised two bishops (William Fraser of St Andrews and Robert Wishart of Stirling), two earls (Alexander Comyn, Earl of Buchan, and Duncan MacDuff, Earl of Fife) and two barons ( James the Steward and John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch).

The Queens hand in marriage was discussed at length and involved the Kings of Norway and England, both of whom had an interest in the future of the Kingdom of Scotland through either geography or blood relations.

November 1289 saw the agreement by all three sides which was confirmed in the Treaty of Birgham in 1290. The marriage settlement guaranteed that Scotland would remain a separate and independent kingdom. Should Edward (of England) and Margaret die childless, then her kingdom (Scotland) would pass to her nearest heir 'wholly, freely, absolutely, and without any subjection'. However, the wording was changed at the last minute by Edward's negotiators to include "Saving always the right of our lord king, and of other whomsoever, that has pertained to him . . . before the time the present agreement, or which in any just way ought to pertain him in the future."

In September 1290 the Maid of Norway set sail from Bergen heading for Leith (just outside Edinburgh). It was a stormy voyage, and the ship was driven far off course to Orkney (which was still under Norwegian control). Margaret's health, broke under the strain and she was 'seized with illness at sea', according to the Norwegian bishop accompanying her. Carried ashore in Orkney, she died soon thereafter. Her body was taken back to Bergen and then buried beside her mother in Christ's Kirk in Bergen.

Once again there was a crisis in terms of succession. This time though it was not a question of minority but a dispute over who should be King.