Of Butterflies and Kings
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Guest Post by Laura Vosika
Writers and philosophers have long been intrigued with the Butterfly Effect: the way the smallest. most meaningless action, or trick of timing, can result in large-scale consequences.
Such is the case with Scotland’s greatest moment, the Battle of Bannockburn in June of 1314, in which a small Scottish host met England’s might, several times their own size. The miracle of Bannockburn is that the Scots not only survived, but won decisively, sending Edward II fleeing the field.
Why did Bannockburn happen?
There are many answers, depending how far we look. We could back up a few months, to the agreement between Robert Bruce’s brother, Edward Bruce and Philip de Mowbray, commander of Stirling castle. Mowbray promised that if he was not relieved by midsummer day, he would turn the castle over. Edward, through chivalry or bravado, allowed the request for relief to be sent to England. With this direct challenge, Edward II of England gathered his forces and marched north.
We could back up further, to Bruce’s hasty crowning at Scone in March, 1306, in the wake of stabbing John Comyn before the altar at Greyfriars Kirk. Their dispute was over Scotland’s empty throne, which was itself a result of King John Balliol’s forced abdication in 1296.
But those were major political and military events. Let’s leap back another ten years, to March 19 of 1286, and the smallest, most personal of actions and motives. Alexander III had reigned over Scotland’s golden age for almost 36 years. His wife, Margaret, had borne two sons and a daughter. All had died. Margaret herself died in 1274. In a fate especially cruel in a world where his country’s stability depended on having an heir, Alexander was left with no wife and no children. So, in October of 1285, he married Yolande, Comtesse de Montfort. Politics and governments, however, do not pause for newlyweds. On March 19, 1286, Alexander had a meeting with his Council in Edinburgh. Not so long into his marriage—and apparently liking being married again—the king was eager to return to his bride at Kinghorn Castle.
Forgive the cliche, but it was a dark and stormy night. Several nobles warned Alexander not to go. One story says that Thomas Ercildoune, known for his prophecies, joined his pleas to theirs, with the prediction: “Alas for the morrow, day of misery and calamity! Before the hour of noon there will assuredly be felt such a mighty storm in Scotland that its like has not been known for long ages past. The blast of it will cause nations to tremble, will make those who hear it dumb, and will humble the high, and lay the strong level with the ground.” At Queensferry, the ferryman, too, argued with the king, warning that the Firth of Forth was no place to be crossing that night.
Alexander pressed forward and arrived safely at Inverkeithig on the north side of the water. There, it was so dark that the saltmaster recognized his King only by his voice. As three had before him, the saltmaster begged Alexander not to go on. As he had three times before, Alexander remained determined to reach his bride, and set off. Shortly after, his horse stumbled in the dark and fell down a small cliff. Alexander died in the fall.
This tragedy was followed four years later by the death of his young granddaughter and only heir, sent from Norway to take the throne. Scotland now had no king and no clear successor. Into this gap stepped Edward I, king of England, proclaiming himself Lord Paramount of Scotland. It is a sad irony that Alexander was known as Alexander the Peaceable, for his long reign without war (apart from driving the Norse from his Western Isles), yet his death opened the doors to decades of long and bloody war with England.
What if…. What if Alexander had heeded the warnings of his subjects, from commoners to noblemen, and even the great prophet of his day? Like the butterfly that flaps its wings in Stirling and causes tornadoes far away, Alexander’s desire to reach his bride had far-reaching and unintended consequences.
Laura Vosika grew up in the military, visiting castles in England, pig fests in Germany, and the historic sites of America’s east coast.
Laura is the mother of 7 boys and 2 girls, and lives in Minnesota.
Her latest book is Blue Bells of Scotland: The Trilogy and may be purchased.
You can visit her website at www.bluebellstrilogy.com.
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