1286 - Alexander III dies

Judgement Day: The Death of Alexander III

Closer to the border than Carlisle, and only a few miles from Scotland, Lanercost Priory in Cumberland kept a chronicle which is a rich source for Scottish affairs of the late 13th century. For some reason the chronicler had no good opinion of Alexander III, whose death he records in 1286. He depicts the king as indulging in gluttony and mild blasphemy, then insisting under the worst possible circumstances on setting off to see his bride Yoleta (thus presumably also being motivated by lust). To later Scots the loss of their king was seen as the dreadful accident which ushered in the wars of independence. His tragic end was seen as the close of an almost mythical golden age for Scotland. The chronicler seems to indicate that it was all deserved because poor Yoleta was too flighty to stay as a nun.

When they had sat down to dinner, he [Alexander] sent a present of fresh lampreys to a certain baron, bidding him by an esquire to make the party merry, for he should know that this was the Judgement Day. He [the baron], after returning thanks, face-tiously replied to his lord: 'If this be the Judgement Day, we shall soon rise with full bellies.'

The protracted feast having come to an end, he [Alexander] would neither be deterred by stress of weather nor yield to the persuasion of his nobles, but straightaway hurried along the road to Queensferry, in order to visit his bride, that is to say Yoleta, daughter of the Comte de Dru, whom shortly before he had brought from over the sea, to his own sorrow and the perpetual injury of the whole province. For she was then staying at Kinghorn. Many people declare that, before her engagement beyond the sea, she had changed her dress in a convent of nuns, but that she had altered her mind with the levity of a woman's heart and through ambition for a kingdom.

When he arrived at the village near the crossing, the ferrymaster warned him of the danger, and advised him to go back; but when [the King] asked him in return whether he was afraid to die with him: 'By no means,' quoth he, 'it would be a great honour to share the fate of your father's son.' Thus he arrived at the burgh of Inverkeithing, in profound darkness, accompanied only by three esquires. The manager of his saltpans, a married man of that town, recognising him by his voice, called out: 'My lord, what are you doing here in such a storm and such darkness? Often have I tried to persuade you that your nocturnal rambles will bring you no good. Stay with us, and we will provide you with decent fare and all that you want till morning light.' 'No need for that,' said the other with a laugh, 'but provide me with a couple of bondmen, to go afoot as guides to the way.'

And it came to pass that when they had proceeded two miles, one and all lost all knowledge of the way, owing to the darkness; only the horses, by natural instinct, picked out the hard road. While they were thus separated from each other, the esquires took the right road; [but] he, at length (that I may make a long story short), fell from his horse, and bade farewell to his kingdom in the sleep of Sisara. To him Solomon's proverb applies: 'Wo unto him who, when he falls, has no man to raise him up.' He lies at Dunfermline alone in the south aisle, buried near the presbytery. Whence [comes it] that, while we may see the populace bewailing his sudden death as deeply as the desolation of the realm, those only who adhered to him most closely in life for his friendship and favours, wet not their cheeks with tears?

The Chronicle of Lanercost, 1272-1346 translated, with notes, by the Rt. Hon. Sir Herbert Maxwell, Baronet, Glasgow, 1913.

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