The Death of Randolph

Dr Callum Watson, Battle Coordinator

20 Jul 2018

A Man of ‘Worthi Vasselage’: The Death of Thomas Randolph, 1st earl of Moray


On this day (20th July) in 1332 Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray and nephew of King Robert I of Scotland, died at Musselburgh. During his lifetime he had been one of the most significant figures in Scottish politics, one of Bruce’s chief lieutenants, and had played perhaps the most significant role in securing the outcome of the First War of Scottish Independence, arguably save only Bruce himself. Today’s blog post seeks to recount his remarkable story.


Randolph Blog 1
The coat of arms of Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray. The decorative border of the arms is identical to that found in the royal arms of Scotland and was seemingly adopted to display the close association between Randolph and his uncle King Robert. Image: Battlepedia


Apparently a descendant of Bruce's mother - Marjory, countess of Carrick - but not of Bruce's father, Randolph was described by the king as 'our dearest nephew' but had no claim to the throne. He first appears at the Battle of Methven, where he was captured by the English. After a period of imprisonment at Inverkip, Randolph switched his allegiance (under duress according to the late fourteenth-century Scottish poet John Barbour) and is next found among the Englishmen pursuing James Douglas near Paisley in September 1307. In the following year, Randolph was captured again, this time by Douglas while in Ettrick Forest. According to Barbour, when Douglas brought Randolph before the king Randolph berated his uncle for relying on guerrilla tactics rather than facing his enemies in open battle. However, this may be exaggerated or even invented by Barbour, whose account is coloured somewhat by the political realities of his time. Barbour was writing to lionise the achievements of Douglas (whose decedents may have patronised Barbour's work) and one way in which Barbour did this was by presenting Randolph as a poor comparison to him (by the time Barbour was writing in the 1370s, Randolph's grandson - George Dunbar, earl of March - had become a local rival of the Douglases). This should make us at least a little cautious in uncritically accepting all of Barbour's claims about Randolph. Whatever the tensions between Bruce and Randolph after his return to the fold in 1308, by 1309 Randolph had been given the title of lord of Nithsdale (the lands were still in English hands) and in 1310 he was appointed the king's lieutenant north of the Forth. It was possibly to facilitate this office that Randolph was granted the earldom of Moray in 1312, which in terms of land and revenue was more prestigious than that bestowed on the king's brother Edward. Randolph is not recorded at the sieges of either Dundee or Perth in 1313, but on 14th March he undertook probably the most famous military exploit of his career – the capture of Edinburgh Castle. Typically, Barbour subverts Randolph’s accomplishment by claiming that it was inspired by Douglas’s capture of Roxburgh the previous month. In fairness, Barbour may have a point here, since Douglas seems to have acted on his own initiative in taking Roxburgh, perhaps even before Edinburgh was placed under siege. Randolph and his men reportedly climbed the north face of Castle Rock in Edinburgh in order to throw their rope ladders over the castle walls and gain access to the inner ward, no mean feat in the dark and wearing armour. Barbour’s depiction of this is especially vivid and dramatic, but other sources suggest that the attack was undertaken during the day while a larger force undertook a diversionary attack on the opposite side of the castle, which may be more likely than Barbour’s version. 


Randolph Blog 2
Edinburgh Castle, seen from the north. It was this side of Castle Rock that Randolph is said to have scaled in order to capture the castle in March 1314. According to Barbour, the man who showed Randolph this way into the castle was one William Francis, who as a youth had apparently used this secret route to visit his sweetheart in town while his father was serving as constable of Edinburgh Castle! Image: Wikimedia


Randolph was one of three main Scottish commanders at Bannockburn, alongside the king and Edward Bruce. According to Barbour, King Robert assigned Randolph to guard the ford at St Ninians in case the English tried to skirt around the Scottish position and reach the castle without a fight. Barbour claims that when Bruce saw Clifford and Beaumont’s advance party heading for the ford he admonished Randolph for failing to halt them sooner, famously claiming a rose had fallen from his chaplet (i.e. that his chivalric reputation had been tarnished by his inaction). Again, we should be cautious about taking Barbour at his word on this point, since this incident once again is used by the poet to offer a favourable comparison of Douglas with Randolph. Whatever the case, Randolph formed up his schiltron somewhere near the ford and repulsed this advance party, taking several prominent prisoners – including Sir Thomas Gray whose son, also Thomas, would later produce a written account of the battle - and killing others. On the second day of the battle, Randolph once again took charge of one of the three main divisions of the Scottish army, leading a renewed attack against the English after the English cavalry had run afoul of Edward Bruce’s vanguard. Randolph and Edward Bruce’s divisions formed an impenetrable barrier that trapped the English in a narrow, confined space where they could not bring their superior numbers to bear against the Scots, eventually forcing them to break and flee.


Randolph Blog 3
The Declaration of Arbroath, a letter ostensibly from the barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII in 1320. That Randolph was the second of the barons to be named in the text, and the fact that he is identified as ‘earl of Moray lord of Man and Annandale’, is evidence of the prestigious position and generous patronage he enjoyed during his uncle’s reign. Image: National Records of Scotland


In the aftermath of Bannockburn, Randolph accompanied Edward Bruce to Ireland in 1315 and 1316, and accompanied the king himself there in 1317. During this period, there is evidence of some kind of dispute between Randolph and Edward Bruce over the lordship of Man, which King Robert had granted to Randolph. The precise nature of the dispute is somewhat unclear, but its origins probably lay in the general pattern of patronage being bestowed on Randolph by King Robert compared to that bestowed on the king’s brother. The dispute formally ended after a few months in September 1316, when both Bruce brothers sealed a document confirming Randolph as Lord of Man at Cupar in Fife, but given that this outcome strongly favoured Randolph it is possible that Edward Bruce remained unhappy about the arrangement. When the English besieged Berwick in 1319, Randolph led a counter-raid into northern England to force the English to lift the siege, leading to an unsavoury incident known as the Chapter of Myton, which earned its name for the large number of clerics killed resisting the Scots there. In 1322 at the Battle of Byland Randolph led the uphill assault that caused the English to break and flee. At the same time as Randolph was earning this military reputation, he was also becoming an increasingly prominent figure in Scottish diplomacy. For instance, he was instrumental in negotiating truces with the English in 1319 and 1323, and after the conclusion of the second of these he was dispatched to the papal court at Avignon in an attempt to convince the Pope to recognise Bruce as King of Scots. In 1325 he visited the King of France and from there returned again to the papal court before returning to French court in April 1326 to negotiate the Treaty of Corbeil (this, as much as any treaty can be identified, was the effective beginning of the so-called ‘Auld Alliance’). Six months after Randolph’s return to Scotland, the Scots broke the truce in the hopes of exploiting the political turmoil caused by the usurpation of Edward II. Randolph led an army into north-east England and, with Douglas’s help, led an English army, nominally led by the fifteen year old Edward III, a merry dance through Weardale before withdrawing to Scotland without giving battle. This humiliation convinced the English to negotiate a peaceful settlement, and it was Randolph who brought the four year old David Bruce to Berwick for his marriage to the seven year old Joan of the Tower that was part of the peace deal (probably because King Robert’s failing health prevented him from attending the wedding in person). In 1315 and 1318, King Robert had named Randolph as his first choice as guardian of the realm in the event that the king died while his son was still a minor, and so when this happened in 1329 Randolph effectively became regent for the young David II. Randolph died at Musselburgh in 1332 while overseeing preparations for the defence of the kingdom in the event that the ‘Disinherited’ – men who had lost lands in Scotland because of Bruce’s victory - invaded (which they promptly did within a month of his death). Barbour claims that Randolph was poisoned, but modern historians have suggested liver cancer as a more likely cause of death. Royal records show that Randolph had been close to King Robert during his final illness, and Randolph was buried near his late uncle at Dunfermline Abbey following his own death. A.A.M. Duncan has described Randolph in the later years of Bruce’s reign as ‘second in the kingdom after an ailing king’ and credits him as much as the king with the final settlement of the First War of Independence.

Share this: