Also known as William I and William Rufus
King of Scotland (1165-1214)
House of Canmore
Born 1143 Died 1214

William nicknamed 'the Lion', was the younger brother of Malcolm IV and succeeded him a ruler of Scotland on the latter's death in 1165 and was crowned at Scone on the 24th December 24, 1165 at the age of 22. His nickname "the Lion" was given to him after his death and may have been intended as a reference to his bravery but is most probably as a result of his adoption of the rather ostentatious heraldic symbol of a red lion rampant on a yellow background. To to his contemporaries, he was known as William Rufus, or 'William the Red' due to his being red-haired.

Relations with England

Within a year of his accession, he was in Normandy at the court of Henry II paying his respects where he no doubt pursued the traditional objective of requesting that he be granted the earldom of Northumberland.

As usual this was declined, but an opportunity presented itself in 1173 when the sons of Henry II began a revolt against their father and asked William for his assistance, in return for which they promised to grant to William the coveted earldom of Northumberland. In pursuance of this objective William therefore invaded England in 1174, performing the by now traditional ravaging of Northumberland after which he laid siege to Alnwick Castle.

However when, in the July of that year, an English force led by Ralph de Glanville arrived to lift the siege, William was confused by the mist surrounding the castle and thought the knights were on his side and was promptly captured. He was ignominiously hauled before Henry II (with his feet chained together underneath his horse) at Northampton and then taken to Richmond before being was carried away to the security of Falaise in Normandy.

He spent a total of five months as a prisoner of Henry II during which time the English army raided at will over the south of Scotland and seized a number of important strongholds including the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling. William was forced to obtain his release by signing the Treaty of Falaise of the 8th December 1174, in which he undertook that he and all his nobles would do homage to Henry II "for Scotland and for all his other lands", and agreed to provide hostages1 as well accept the presence of English garrisons in the castles which had been captured. 2

The Papacy and the Church

The Treaty of Falaise included specific clauses making the church in Scotland subject to that in England: "the church of England shall have the right in the church of Scotland". This greatly pleased the English ecclesiasts as they had long argued that the Scottish bishops and abbots fell under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York, a claim which said Scottish bishops and abbots had long resisted.

Despite however, signing away the independence of the Scottish church at Falaise, William sought to make amends by appealing to the Pope and asking him to place the Scottish church under his protection, since Popes were naturally not bound by treaties signed my mere kings.

Unfortunately in 1178 William fell into an argument with Pope Alexander III over who should be appointed to the bishopric of St Andrews as a result of which Scotland was placed under interdict. This lasted until 1182 when Pope Alexander III was replaced by Lucius III and a compromise was agreed. But eventually William got what he wanted; in 1188, Pope Clement III declared that the church in Scotland was subject directly to the see of Rome, a decision that was confirmed in 1192 by the issue of the papal bull Super Anxietatibus.

This formally established the independence of the Scottish Church from its English equivalent. As a result the church in Scotland developed a separate and distinct identity from that of the church in England, establishing one of the institutions around which a separate Scottish national identity was later formed and a development that was to be of profound importance to the later history of Scotland.

Domestic Opposition

His submission to Henry II and the terms of the Treaty of Falaise may have been somewhat humiliating but it at least brought peace with England this was probably just as well as during his reign William faced a number of revolts against his rule.

Much of the opposition arose as a result of William's enthusiasm for continuing the grand project of the House of Canmore, namely the promotion and development of the feudal system in Scotland in emulation of their cousins in England. William established royal burghs in eastern Scotland at Ayr, Dumfries, Dundee, Inverness and Elgin, and greatly extended the use of sheriffs and justices - often importing Anglo-Normans to fill the vacancies.

Opposition to William was strongest in two areas of his domains:-

Firstly there was the district of Galloway in Strathclyde where Gilbert son of Fergus had earlier asserted his autonomy against Malcolm IV, and who again 1174 asserted his independence. William's ability to deal with this rebellion was hamstrung by the conditions imposed on him by the Treaty of Falaise. Having captured Gilbert at one time, he was forced to hand him over to Henry II for judgement, but once Gilbert had pledged his loyalty to Henry he was released to continue his defiance of William.

It was not until Gilbert died in 1185 that William was able to put down the rebellion and establish his authority in Galloway by the usual method of building castles and establishing royal burghs and incarcerating dissidents.

Secondly there was the north of Scotland, specifically Caithness and Sutherland, districts which were nominally part of Scotland, but were effectively under the control of the Viking Earldom of Orkney; the Jarls of Orkney might formally do homage to the King of Scots for his holdings on the Scottish mainland but in practice they did as they pleased.

William was keen to bring the north under his control and in 1197 he despatched a military expedition that penetrated as far as Thurso to inflict a defeat on Harald Maddadarsson, the reigning Jarl and 1201 he successfully resisted an attempt by Harald to regain the territory lost, captured Harald's son Thorfin whom he had blinded and castrated as a punishment.

William had to face other revolts as well in Moray and Inverness and it proved neccessary to construct a number of castles to keep the population in check. By the later years of his reign he had firmly established his authority over the entire Scottish mainland, arguably the first ever king of Scotland to achieve this feat and a significant milestone in the creation of the Scottish state.

Relations with England (slight reprise)

It was a stroke of luck for William that in 1189 Henry II died and was succeeded by Richard I. Richard was more interested to raising money to find his participation in the Third Crusade than in dominating Scotland and by the Quitclaim of Canterbury of the 5th December 1189, surrendered his feudal superiority over Scotland in return for the payment of 10,000 marks, resulting in the annulment of the earlier Treaty of Falaise.

That however was not quite the end of the story as Richard's reign came to an end in 1199 when he was replaced by John, and king John was interested in maintaining the traditional subservience of Scotland. In the year 1200 William was down at Lincoln paying homage to the new king with the ambiguous qualifying phrase "saving his own rights", a form of wording which no doubt permitted both John and William to maintain their own views on what exactly those rights were.

William naturally demanded the 'restoration' of Northumberland, John just as naturally declined, there were a number of skirmishes along the border, and William seems to have planned a further invasion of England only to have had second thoughts and abandoned the idea. There is a tale that William received some kind of 'divine revelation' regarding the terrible consequences of such an invasion, or possibly he just remembered what had happened last time around and thought better of it.

John and William seem to have come to terms in 1209 at Norham in 1209 and concluded a further arrangement three years later. The details of these arrangements are obscure and undocumented but it seems likely that William recognised John as his feudal superior in some form, although in terms nowhere near as onerous as those imposed by the Treaty of Falaise.


William's reign marks something of watershed in the development of the Scottish state;

  • he established the formal independence of the Scottish Church and first introduced the concept of the papacy as a guarantor of Scottish liberties that was to assume a greater significance in later years
  • he was the first king of Scots whose authority extended across the whole of mainland Scotland
  • he established an alliance with Louis VII of France which was the forerunner of the more formal mutual defensive pacts between the two nations that became known as the Auld Alliance

His reign saw an increasing amount of urbanisation and a growth in trade as Scotland became less tribal and more feudal, and perhaps most importantly after the disaster of 1174 he largely managed to avoid conflict with England.

William was married at the late age of 43 in 1186 to Ermengarde of Beaumont cousin of Henry II3, she bore him two daughters, Margaret and Isabella 4 and finally a son named Alexander in 1198. This does not mean that he was celibate during his youth; like most kings he fathered a good number of illegitimate children, whose descendants later and unsuccessfully put forward their claims to the throne when the House of Canmore finally petered out in 1290.

William died at Stirling on the 4th December 1214 at the age of 71, and was buried at Arbroath Abbey which he himself had earlier founded in 1178 and dedicated to the memory of Thomas à Becket.

William went to heaven as a pious king:
A flower of kings and the beauty of royalty,
a shining example to all men.
Chronicle of Melrose


1 Principally his brother David

2 Specifically the castles at Berwick, Edinburgh, Jedburgh, Roxburgh and Stirling

3 More specifically a daughter of Constance one of Henry I's many illegitimate offspring; Henry II returned control of Edinburgh Castle to William as her dowry.

4 Who were both married off to English gentlemen as part of the deal reached with John.


Articles on William the Lion at the following locations;

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