Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The ‘Auld Alliance’

by Margaret Skea

I don’t know how many folk saw the BBC advert for this year’s 6 Nations Rugby tournament – which was pulled following some complaints and then proceeded to go viral! The punchline was:

‘It’s not who you want to win, but who you want to lose.’

No prizes for guessing the answers the Scots Irish and Welsh fans gave.
Clever – yes. Amusing – yes; and like all the best humour, based on a grain of truth. And from the Scots perspective may have its roots in ancient history.

The United Kingdom has a common flag - the Union Jack, which symbolizes both the union of the crowns of 1603 and the union of parliaments in 1707. A union that has survived relatively unscathed for over 300 years. (No comment on what might happen next…)

But Scotland had a prior alliance, with France, which has come to be known as the ‘Auld Alliance.’ It is one of the longest standing treaties in the world (more on that later). Renewed by successive monarchs it was based on a sense of a common enemy, and that enemy was England.

In 1579 David Chamber, one of the Lords of Council and Session at Edinburgh claimed that the Auld Alliance dated back to Philip I of France and Malcolm III of Scotland. If it did, no documentary evidence remains.

Speculation aside, the earliest extant record of the treaty is dated 23rd October 1295 which John Balliol concluded with Philip the Fair. Though Balliol was technically the Scottish King under the over-lordship of Edward I of England, the treaty bound Scotland and France to provide mutual support in the event of war with England.

An excerpt from the 1326 version of the treaty, between Charles IV of France and Robert I of Scotland, illustrates both the main terms and the tone of the treaty.

"…a meet and necessary thing it is that princes should ally themselves together by bond of friendship and goodwill in order the grievances of those who desire to grieve them more forcibly to refrain; and the tranquility of them and of their subjects more peaceably to secure…with the noble prince Robert, by the grace of God King of Scotland our special friend, against the King of England, whose predecessors have often labored to aggrieve the said kingdoms of France and Scotland in many and sundry ways…"

Even more strikingly there was provision for what should happen in the event of either country making peace with England –

"…if our kingdom shall make peace or truce with the king of England…the King of Scotland, his heirs shall be excepted; so that such peace shall be null whenever war is waged between the aforesaid kings of Scotland and England …France shall be bound to make war upon the kingdom of England with all their force…firmly to observe, faithfully to perform and fully to accomplish."
(Ditto in reverse.)

No wriggle room there then! The treaty was renewed at least 12 times between 1295 and 1543 and many of the original documents survived among the charters of France. One M. du Tillet made an inventory of them that was printed in folio in 1588. One effect of this on-going treaty was a succession of contracts of marriage, beginning in 1235 with Edward Balliol (son of King John) to Joan, niece of the French King; the most famous being the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin Francis in 1558.

While the treaty was mutually beneficial, it does seem that the balance fell in favour of the French, with Scotland regularly providing troops, sometimes in very significant numbers to aid the French in their wars with England, both on French and on English soil.

There were notable wins for the Scots – in 1420 they defeated the English at Beange; but notable losses also – in 1326 following the French defeat at the Battle of Crecy, David II attacked the north of England but was routed at what has become known as the Battle of Neville’s Cross.

The story goes that David, heavily wounded, fled the battlefield and took refuge under the arch of Aldin Grange Bridge on the river Browney. There he was said to have been betrayed by his own reflection in the river and was thus captured by John Coupland. Legend or truth, what is clear is that when Coupland delivered David to the English king, Edward, he was rewarded with a substantial fee and a knighthood. David was imprisoned in the Tower of London for ten years and finally handed back to the Scots for a ransom that would equate to c 15 million in today’s money. Whether the ransom was actually paid is a debatable point.

Saddest of all the efforts of the Scots was the enormous loss of Scottish lives at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, when James IV attacked England in support of France despite the English King, Henry, being James’ brother-in-law. It was said that ‘the flower of Scottish nobility perished on that day’ and the lament ‘Flowers of the Forest’ commemorates the deaths of James and around 10,000 of his men. There were few of the leading families in Scotland untouched by that tragedy.

So what did the Scots get in return for centuries of service to France? Quite a bit actually. Many individuals received military, civil and ecclesiastical honours and offices and every Scot was entitled to letters of naturalization – in effect giving them the right to dual nationality. (Handy if you’re in trouble in your home country!) That right was confirmed by Henry IV as late as 1599, with letters signed by him at the palace of Fontainbleau, and I love the detail - ‘sealed with the great seal in green wax, in a lace of red and green silk.’ This ensured that Scots could be testate in France and could dispose of any assets they possessed there. (Which just may be of relevance in Book 3 of my ‘Munro’ series that opened with Turn of the Tide.)

Another important effect of the alliance was the establishment of the Gardes Ecossaise in 1418 – an elite troop that was comprised entirely of Scots (that was the theory; there is evidence that others were admitted and both Mary Queen of Scots and James VI are recorded as having made protests on that score.) The Gardes formed the royal bodyguard of successive French kings and their duties ranged from keeping the keys of the King’s bedchamber and assisting at the reception of ambassadors and waiting at coronations, baptisms and marriages of royal children, to carrying the body and guarding the effigy of a (dead) King. One captain of the Gardes was Robert Stewart of Aubigny and both he and the Auld Alliance are commemorated at a ceremony in Aubigny-sur-Neve to this day.

My own interest in the Auld Alliance stems from researching the Gardes Ecossaise, because the real-life Patrick Montgomerie, one of my favourite characters in Turn of the Tide, was a captain in this elite troop.

But perhaps the most important advantage that the Auld Alliance gave to Scots were trading privileges for Scots merchants. They were required to pay only ¼ of the normal duty on all the goods that they imported from France to Scotland and were similarly acquitted from new duties imposed on merchandise they brought to France. Interestingly these privileges didn’t stop even after the Act of Union in 1707 which formally linked England and Scotland under a single parliamentary system. English merchants continued to be penalized, while Scots merchants were not.

Historian Dr Siobhan Talbott has spent some years researching the treaty signed in 1295 and suggests that there is no evidence that it was ever formally rescinded. Others have suggested that it was dissolved by the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560, as a by-product of the reformation in Scotland, but she is convinced that there isn’t anything in the treaty to support that view. Three facts also support her view – that Henry IV again ratified the naturalization of all Scots in 1599, that trading privileges continued even after 1707, and that in 1942 Charles de Gaulle made a speech describing the Auld Alliance as an active agreement, claiming it was the ‘oldest in the world’. If this is indeed true it is now 719 years old and as such trounces the other contender for ‘oldest treaty’ – that between England and Portugal signed in 1373. And David Chamber’s 16th c contention that the treaty goes much further back even than 1295? There is a suggestion that the trading privileges stem from a Golden Bull of 789, so maybe…

Postscript: In 1906, under the Entente Cordiale, the part of the agreement that meant that Scots had the same rights in France as the native French was rescinded, but not made retrospective. Which means theoretically anyone born before 1906 could still claim dual nationality, even today. Though as I’m not aware of any Scots older than 108, it probably doesn’t matter too much now!


Margaret Skea is the author of the prize-winning novel Turn of the Tide, available in bookshops (UK) and via Amazon UK, Amazon CA, or Amazon US. It is currently in the final of the People’s Book Prize and can be voted for here:  from now until 11.00am BST on the 28th May.

She also enjoys writing short stories, so as well as working on the sequel to Turn of the Tide she’s considering publishing a short story anthology.

Visit her blog at or find her on FB at


  1. This hits squarely within my field of interest and an outstanding post that I will save.

  2. There may have been some minor hangovers after 1560, but that date, when the Scots threw the French out of Scotland, and became a Protestant country, was the the point at which is ceased to be an "alliance" in any true sense of the word,

  3. Debatable, It was only French troops that were officially expelled, the rights and privileges of French and Scots citizens in the other country remained.

  4. And that continuing right of citizens made France a haven for exiled Scottish Catholics