“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp
The Man’s the gowd for all of that.”

—Robert Burns, “A Man’s a Man for all of That”

“Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.” (Ps 104:29-30 AV)

Most say the cages were made of wickerwork. One report said they were made of iron and stone, made to look like crowns, but this may have been an embellishment of the history to England’s advantage. One thing is certain, they were cages suspended on the castle walls of Berwick and Roxburgh in Scotland.

They were the residences of two noblewomen of Scotland. Mary, the 24-year-old sister of Robert the Bruce, spent four years in the one at Berwick, courtesy of the English king, Edward Longshanks. Isabella, the Countess of Buchan existed in the other. Her crime was insisting on her hereditary right to crown the king of Scotland. Edward, of course, recognized no right except his own and wanted to provide amusement and edification for the people of Scotland.1Barrow, G.W.S. Robert Bruce. Edinburgh University Press. Edenburgh. 2005. pp. 209ff. Barrow records the ferocity of Longshanks’ reprisal against the family and followers of Bruce.

Edward considered himself king of England, Scotland, and Wales. He was secure in the rightness of his opinion and could not understand why the Scots were so rebellious. Why should they quarrel with history?

Why were not they able to see that it was the will of God, that the destiny of Britain was to be one nation under the rule of the King of England, who held his throne by divine right? It was simply selfishness on their part and probably the result of heresy and unbelief. Wales had been brought under control, peace had been made with France. The “Scottish Question” had to be settled if England was to be secure. The Scots must be made to realize that the authority of the crown and the authority of the church came from one God, and the decrees of both were to be obeyed if one wanted to avoid the penalties for both treason and blasphemy.

In one respect the King of England was right. It is an old and established doctrine of the Church that God by His providence rules all things. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts is, “All things come not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.”

But there are many spirits that drive the souls of men, and it is very difficult at times to know which are from God and which arise from other sources. It is a dangerous thing, moreover, to drive your car by only looking in the rear-view mirror. A secular form of Edward’s mistake was the determinism of the Marxist-socialist heresies of the Twentieth Century which ruined many nations who bought into the idea of economic determinism. The Biblical doctrine is not that the past determines the present, but that the promise of God and the hidden purposes of God determine the present. What shapes the future is the purpose of God which He has hidden in His Own decree. We must, therefore, be humble and cautious, for we do not know what a day will bring forth. (Proverbs 27:1) It is God who rules in the heavens and among the nations of the earth, and even the worst of devils only have a certain time and place given to them. (Daniel 4 and Revelation 9)

A section of Hadrian’s Wall

Probably, very few in the days of Edward Longshanks understood this, just as not many receive it today. Each man seeks his own ways and his own lusts. Edward was ruthless in his enterprises to subdue Scotland to his will. Because of his heavy blows, he came to be known as the “Hammer of Scots,” a title well-deserved.

But the intent of God is seldom the same as the intentions of men. A hammer is not only a tool that tears down and destroys, but it is also a wonderful instrument for shaping and forming. The cruelty and horror of the Longshanks era of Scottish history is that exactly. Not only did it break and destroy, it also shaped and formed the Scottish nation according to a future purpose of the Lord Almighty.

Longshanks lived in perilous times. Across the waters in Europe his colleague and sometimes foe, Philip of France, was locked in mortal combat with a most benighted pope, Boniface VIII, who insisted that the Two Swords of God (church and state) were both to be unsheathed at the command of the Pope for the good of the Church. (Of course, the Pope WAS the church, so there should never be any confusion about it.) Boniface died in 1303 after being humiliated by the French and the Papacy was moved to Avignon for some seventy years, beginning the decline of the Papacy and preparing the way for Luther. Longshanks would die in 1307, also a bitter and disillusioned man, but not before he had drawn and quartered his worst foe in 1305. Philip would linger on until 1314 with the blood of the Templars on his hands and their gold in his treasury. To understand his times is to better understand Longshanks.

In the Parable of the Sower, our Lord Jesus describes the way that the seed is received by the soil. The seed languishes and does not produce fruit in bad soil. The birds eat the seed, the thorns and thistles choke it out, the sun blasts it, but it produces fruit of various quantities only in the good soil. The Lord does not tell us in this parable how the soil got to be good soil, but this also is the work of God and He prepares nations as well as individuals for the reception of the Gospel and the works of faith. As Calvin says, “For, because the corruption of the world is worse than that it can be wholly brought to obey Christ, he bloweth away, with diverse fans of tribulations, the chaff and weeds, that he may at length gather unto himself that which shall remain.”2Calvin, John. Commentary at Acts. 15:17.

Courtyard of the Iona Abbey, considered the point of origin for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland.

Job said, “Naked came I into the world,” but Job did not come into a naked world and neither did Edward Longshanks. Scotland was not Wales and her history and people were different. The Romans had tried unsuccessfully to subdue Scotland and finally resorted to building a wall from sea to sea.

Although the Romans left Britain after 410, Christianity continued to expand north of Hadrian’s wall. St. Patrick completed the conversion of Ireland, and in the sixth century St. Columba founded the famous monastery on the island of Iona of the east coast of Scotland. From there St. Aiden went to the holy Island of Lindisfarn and build a monastery on the East Coast of Scotland. The influence of the Irish in Scotland was profound, especially in the Border, just north of Hadrian’s wall. In the hills and valleys the Scots and Irish became intermingled and moved easily between Scotland and Ireland. They were a rugged people who were often in conflict with the kings of England as well as the noblemen of Scotland, who found it necessary to play a balancing game between the kings of Europe, especially those of France, Norway, and England. Many Scottish noblemen possessed estates in England as well as in Scotland and their loyalty was divided. The far north of Scotland served various foreign princes from time to time and disobeyed each of them with true democratic impartiality.

Edward I from Cassell’s History of England, circa 1902

It was especially the rugged descendants of these Scots-Irish people that were such a pain to Edward Longshanks. “The trouble with Scotland is that there are too many Scotsmen,” he is reported to have said in a moment of extreme frustration. Many of the proper Scots noblemen were in his pay and under his control, especially the bishops of the Church, for Edward was a most faithful servant of Rome. The real trouble was with those lovers of liberty who were proud that they had never been conquered by the Roman legions or by the Roman missionaries and bishops.

Things were always complicated in Scotland, but the death of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1286 gave Edward Longshanks an opportunity to push into the “Scottish Question.” He was certainly willing to fish in troubled waters, and by 1291 it appeared that Scotland was sliding into civil war. When bishop William Fraser of St. Andrews asked Longshanks to act as a mediator to try to decide the legitimacy of each claim to the throne of Scotland, Longshanks eagerly agreed, on condition that he be named “Lord Paramount” of Scotland and that all swear loyalty to him. This was done, except for a few worthies who were not naïve about either the lords or the bishops. Edward took possession of the castles in Scotland and replaced their masters with Englishmen loyal to him. He moved the early records of Scotland to England. He also placed in Westminster Abbey the Stone of Destiny, upon which all kings of Scotland were crowned. He intended nothing but the entire subjugation of Scotland to the English crown. All for the good of Scotland, of course.

In the movie “Braveheart,” Longshanks’ solution to the “Scottish Question” was a simple one, worthy of the monsters of the modern world. The so-called “Droit de seigneur” is much disputed nowadays and is probably a fiction. Edward was not a good guy, but it is doubtful that even the compromised nobles and churchmen in Scotland could have aided and abetted such a thing. Under this supposed decree, the English lord would have the right to the virginity of the Scottish girls under his jurisdiction. The Scottish race would disappear, mingled with good English stock. The northern border would be secure and God would be pleased. Hollywood will be Hollywood and movies are not to be confused with history, but this writer suspects that the causes of “Braveheart’s” opposition were more religious in nature, having to do with authority and jurisdiction over a free nation, being usurped by an English despot. Conditions were very similar to the events leading up to the American War for Independence. The roots of almost every kind of conflict are religious in nature, for it is always God “with whom we have to do.” (Hebrews 4:13). Whatever the causes, William Warren (Braveheart) captured the imagination of a whole generation of the Scots, and the events of his life helped prepare the soil of Scotland for the seed that would come with John Knox.

“Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled” (at the Battle of Bannockburn, 1314). An engraving by J Rogers based on a painting by J.M. Wright, c. 1850s. Courtesy of Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum

The noblemen of Scotland, who often had difficulty deciding between what was good for Scotland and what was good for themselves, betrayed Warren, even though he won several important victories. He was taken bound to England, tried for treason against Edward, drawn and quartered and his body parts sent to all parts of Britain. The fact that Warren had never sworn loyalty to the usurper Longshanks was ignored by the courts and the bishops. Those who worship power never care about the nice parts of the law and only affirm the law when the law can be twisted to fit their ambitions, ignoring the weightier matters of mercy, justice, and faith (Matthew 23:23) Because of many centuries of oppression by unjust and ungodly laws, the phrase “the rule of law” did not often ring grandly in the ears of common Scotsmen, especially those Border Scots.

The martyrdom of Warren came two years after the death of Pope Boniface VIII and two years before the death of Edward Longshanks. In reality, we suppose, that Longshanks, Boniface, Warren, and Bruce were footsoldiers in the long battle between liberty and injustice that was joined at the resurrection of Christ.

The execution of Warren was cruel, obscene, brutal—a mistake of huge proportions. Satan is bloodthirsty and brutal, as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and so makes the same mistake again and again, yielding the moral high ground to those who suffer. The flames of resistance to English rule spread throughout the land. Whether by conscience or ambition, the task of defending Scottish liberty from English usurpation and bishops was taken up by Robert the Bruce, whose father had a claim to the throne of Scotland. Robert killed his major rival to the throne and was declared an outlaw by Edward and excommunicated by the Pope. This blot on the record of this hero of Scotland only emphasizes the equivocal nature of the history of the Scottish nation. The defenders of Bruce pointed out that his rival had tried to kill him at least once. These were nasty times. But the spirit of Boniface was headed for collision with the spirit of liberty now taking a clearer form in Scotland. The conflict would make many victims in the next centuries before liberty became firmly established in the free soil of America. Before then, it would be reinforced by events and writings in France, Holland, Scotland and England itself.

Robert had himself crowned king of Scotland in 1306 at the royal city of Scone. Robert’s sister Mary, and Isabella, Countess of Buchan, attended and approved the coronation which was certain to attract the attention of Longshanks. The English army marched north. Edward had raised the Dragon Flag, meaning that no quarter or mercy would be given. He smashed Bruce’s army at Methven Park. Robert’s troops were out manned, ill prepared, and completely routed. Although only a few months away from his final hour, the Hammer of the Scots was merciless. But as Barrow put it,

“Yet the disaster was the saving of Bruce and his kingdom. If he had won, as he might well have done, he would almost certainly have met the English king in the field in a major pitched battle, eight years before he was ready for it.”3Barrow, G.W.S. Robert Bruce. Edinburgh University Press. Edenburgh. 2005. p. 199.

Robert had sent his wife and family north for safety and retreated into hiding. During this time, while hiding in a cave he is said to have observed a spider, relentlessly spinning and re-spinning its web. Impressed by the spider’s perseverance, he resolved to continue his struggle for the liberty of Scotland.

Longshanks marched to Berwick, which held out valiantly until betrayed by a blacksmith who built a fire in the castle. Edward hanged his prisoners including three brothers of Bruce. The Earl of Athol was taken to London and executed. His body was burned and his head impaled and displayed on London Bridge.

The family of Bruce were betrayed, captured, and brought to Longshanks. Bruce’s wife, his two sisters, and daughter Marjory were sent to London. Marjory was ten years old. Some say that Edward had a cage made for her on the wall of the Tower of London; others say he thought about it, but changed his mind and sent her to a convent for eight years. After Bannockburn, she and others were exchanged for prisoners, but Longshanks was long dead by then. She was married the next year to Walter Stewart and died at 20 in childbirth, her baby taken from her dying body. This baby was destined to be Robert II, King of Scotland and the father of the long line of Stewart (Stuart) kings in Scotland and England.

The Countess and Mary spent four years in their cages, and afterwards went to a convent. Of Isabel of Buchan, the document once attributed to Matthew of Westminster records:

Dunfermline“That most impious of conspiratrix, the Countess of Buchan, being likewise apprehended, the King commanded that, since she had not used the sword, her life should be spared; but, in regard of her illegal conspiracy, she should be confined in a building, constructed of stone and iron, having the shape of a crown, and suspended in the same at Berwick, in the open air; that she might thereby become a spectacle to all passengers, both during her life and after her death, and a perpetual example of opprobrium.”4“Matthew of Westminster” probably does not exist, but the document does. The document is The Flowers of History, some of which was written by Matthew Paris, and some written by others. A copyist probably made the mistake of attributing the whole to Matthew Paris and put him at Westminster where some of the document was written. The portion quoted above does give the English perspective on the caged countess.

Statue of Robert the Bruce at Stirling Castle

Robert the Bruce persevered and at last won a great victory over the English at Bannockburn in 1314. His best fortune was to live beyond the death of Edward, who died at the head of his army looking across Solway Firth at Scotland. His son Edward was a weakling and no match for Bruce. Bruce is reported to have said that it was easier to wrest a kingdom from Edward II than it was to get one foot of land from Longshanks. Bruce had learned from his old enemy and carried some of the same ruthlessness against the Scots still loyal to England. By 1320 he was master of Scotland and king in more than just name. Scottish independence and unity were achieved.

The sons of autocracy are slow-learners, they cannot understand the spirit of liberty. It was a very modern spirit that stirred in the glens and cairns and mountains of Scotland, not even understood perhaps by those who felt it or by those who died. The excesses of the English in interfering with the Scottish church finally alienated the Pope himself and led to the famous Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Robert the Bruce’s victory was complete.

In 1320, six years after Bannockburn, the Declaration of Arbroath was taken to the Pope in Avignon by Sir Adam Gordon. The document, a formal Declaration of Independence, was drawn up in Arbroath Abbey and signed by the barons and nobles of Scotland. The following is an excerpt:

“Admonish this King Edward (II), since England’s possessions may well suffice seven kings or more, that he should leave us in peace in our own little Scotland, as we desire no more than is our own, and have no dwelling place beyond our own borders. For, so long as a hundred of us remain alive, we never will in any degree be subject to the lordship of the English. Since it is not for glory, riches or honour we fight, but for liberty alone, which no good man loses but with his life.”5http://www.scotsconnection.com/clan_crests/Bruce.htm. Consulted March 7, 2007.

The struggle of the Scots against Britain was a long one, but the throne was secure for the descendants of Robert the Bruce. When Elizabeth I of England died, her successor was James Stuart of Scotland and eventually various Acts of Union brought England, Scotland, and Wales into one nation. Queen Elizabeth had been monarch of Ireland as well. Who knows what would have come to pass in Ireland but for the shortsightedness of Cromwell in paying his Ironsides in Irish lands?

Dunfermline Abbey, the burial place of Robert the Bruce

The ideal of liberty that so vexed the Romans and Longshanks was nurtured in the rugged land of the border and their friendly neighbors and relatives in Ireland. The Reformation of John Knox found fertile soil for liberty in Christ among the hearts of the descendants of Warren and Bruce and Scotland grew in godliness and understanding. The result would be the Covenanters and the Westminster Confessions and catechism. They would fight among themselves, of course, for liberty is always untidy as is every human endeavor. What a man fights for and what he surrenders alike reveal his values.

These same lovers of liberty flocked to the banner of William and Mary when the French and the Pope tried to impose His Catholic Majesty James II on the British Isles. James II landed on Ireland, hoping that the Catholic inhabitants would join him and restore his throne in England. He thought wrong. Much of the army of William III who defeated James II at the Siege of Londonderry and the Battle of the Boyne were the descendants of those who fought at Bannockburn and Berwick.6Webb, James. Born Fighting. Broadway Books. New York. 2004. pp. 108ff.

But we might suppose that lovers of liberty and lovers of the tidy will always be at odds. We also might suppose that they need each other. The great Scots-Irish immigration shortly began to the new and free lands of North America. Here the sons and daughters of the long struggle for liberty and conscience would find others of like mind from the Palatinate, from Denmark, from Scandinavia. Exiles from France and England would become their brothers and sisters. They had suffered much from rich noblemen and fat bishops. They differed about many things of importance, but they agreed on one thing: liberty was worth fighting and dying for, for it is one of the most precious gifts of God to His servants. The blood of their ancestors had stained the ground of their homelands, shed by cruel taskmasters and arrogant churchmen. Their children were willing to spill their blood in the New World.

The eighteen-year-old Marjorie Bruce being met at the border by her future husband, Walter, 6th High Steward, on her release from captivity in England. Illustration courtesy of www.stewartsociety.org

The Law of Moses forbade the dehumanizing of men. “And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number. Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.” (Deut. 25:2-3 AV) It may very well be that a wicked man deserves a flogging, but the judge had to observe the beating and the flogging was to be limited, lest the guilty “seem vile unto thee.” Not even the guilty were to be beaten to a bloody pulp, but even in punishment were treated like men. The dehumanizing of William Warren and the family of Robert the Bruce could not accomplish what Longshanks hoped it would.

The image of cruelty and brutishness lingered in the minds of the Scots. Many looked upon those cages hanging from the walls of the castles and learned another lesson than the one Longshanks intended: “That is wrong. No one should be treated like that.” It was a lesson that would be written into law in the famous Bill of Rights in the American Constitution. Amendment Eight: “…Cruel and unusual punishments (shall not be) inflicted.” During his time at Princeton, James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights had been tutored by James Witherspoon.

Most of the readers of this publication will not need it, but for those who do, we will give you a translation of one stanza of the famous poem of Scotland’s most rowdy poet:


Ye see that fellow, called a lord,
Who struts, an’ stares, and all of that;
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a drip for all of that:
For all of that, and all of that,
His ribbon, star, and all of that:
The man of independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at all of that.

—Robert Burns. “A Man’s a Man for all of That”


1 Barrow, G.W.S. Robert Bruce. Edinburgh University Press. Edenburgh. 2005. pp. 209ff. Barrow records the ferocity of Longshanks’ reprisal against the family and followers of Bruce.
2 Calvin, John. Commentary at Acts. 15:17.
3 Barrow, G.W.S. Robert Bruce. Edinburgh University Press. Edenburgh. 2005. p. 199.
4 “Matthew of Westminster” probably does not exist, but the document does. The document is The Flowers of History, some of which was written by Matthew Paris, and some written by others. A copyist probably made the mistake of attributing the whole to Matthew Paris and put him at Westminster where some of the document was written. The portion quoted above does give the English perspective on the caged countess.
5 http://www.scotsconnection.com/clan_crests/Bruce.htm. Consulted March 7, 2007.
6 Webb, James. Born Fighting. Broadway Books. New York. 2004. pp. 108ff.