Leading the Charge?: Leadership in war in late medieval Scottish burghs

Town governments in Scotland in the late medieval period were commonly dominated by a merchant elite who prioritised the stability, security and trading privileges of their burgh. A burgh council was usually led by an alderman, later known as a provost, and a number of burgh baillies (in Aberdeen there were four) elected annually. When the burgh was threatened, the aldermen and baillies took the lead in defensive preparations.[1] However, a brief entry from the council registers of the burgh of Aberdeen encourages an examination into the role these men played in offensive expeditions as well. The entry from 28th September 1485 noted that the town’s council elections for that year were to be delayed until ‘the aldirman and baillies that now ar[e] into thare officis… thare hamecuming fra the [h]oist quhilkis ar[e] now to pas[s] to the asseging [sieging] of berwick.’[2] Four days earlier an order had been proclaimed to tax the burgh inhabitants to cover the expenses of those who ‘passis to the asseging of berwick.’[3]

Fig. 1: Knight effigy in St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen – often attributed to be Robert Davidson but more likely to be the effigy of Alexander Chalmers, a close relative, probably the father, of the man elected as alderman in 1484. For more information see M. Cochrane Scott, ‘Dress in Scotland, 1406-1460’ (Unpublished PhD, University of London (Courtauld), 1987): 105.

Missing in Action?

Admittedly, further investigation suggests that the burgh officials’ involvement in conflict in 1485 may have been more limited than this extract initially implies. Very little is known about any action around Berwick, a town on the border between Scotland and England, that year. The town had been re-captured by the English in 1482 and an English Crown commission, dated 15th October 1485, warned that a Scottish attempt to retake Berwick was suspected.[4] However, wider evidence suggests that the threatened siege never materialised and Scottish resources were instead diverted to nearby Dunbar Castle which was re-taken by the Scots by mid-1486.[5]  Indeed, additional evidence from Aberdeen’s burgh records suggests that while the alderman and baillies may have left the burgh to go to the site of the gathering of a host it is unlikely they made it to Berwick. The burgh baillies were certainly present in the burgh court on 26th September and appear again to be present on the 3rd October, with the, only slightly delayed council elections, being held the following week.[6] With the option of travel by either sea or land, and the location of the hosting site in 1485 unclear, the possibility that the councillors did, at the very least, leave the burgh cannot be ruled out. However, the limited window of time available, combined with a lack of evidence for conflict around Berwick in 1485, makes any participation by an Aberdeen contingent in conflict that year highly unlikely.

Fig. 2: A section of an early seventeenth century map of Scotland, by Jodocus Hondius. Aberdeen and Berwick are both marked on the east coast of the map. Hosts for royal armies to fight England commonly mustered south of Edinburgh. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Taking the Lead?

What is clear, however, is that, in 1485, Aberdeen’s aldermen and baillies were expected to lead a representation from the town to war. Indeed, this is a view supported by wider evidence. In 1411, Aberdeen’s alderman, Robert Davidson, was killed at the battle of Harlaw while in 1547, two burgh baillies were granted an exemption from attending an army raised by the Scottish Regent but were expected to send their sons in their place. [7] Meanwhile the Edinburgh records make clear that in the early sixteenth century the burgh provost and baillies were all part of the force sent to the battlefield at Flodden in 1513, appointing interim office holders in their absence to maintain urban government.[8] This role for burgh leaders is perhaps not unexpected – all men within Scotland were, at least in theory, expected to fight in this period if required to by the monarch. However, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that those who led in urban communities in Scotland during times of peace were also expected to lead in times of war.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the SGSAH, and the UKRI, for their financial support for my PhD project from which this research is drawn.

Cite this article as: Kirsty Haslam, "Leading the Charge?: Leadership in war in late medieval Scottish burghs," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 18/10/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1430.

[1] i.e. ACA/1/9, p. 294; ACA/1/12, p. 130.  

[2] E. Frankot, A. Havinga, C. Hawes, W. Hepburn, W. Peters, J. Armstrong, P. Astley, A. Mackillop, A. Simpson & A. Wyner (eds), Aberdeen Registers Online (ARO): 1398-1511 (Aberdeen, 2019) <https://www.abdn.ac.uk/aro> [22/02/2021].

ARO-6-0934-01. The individuals elected in 1484, were all re-elected as general council members in 1485 and either they, or a relative of the same name, held office as either an alderman or baillie again later in the 1480s or 1490s (ARO-6-0935-02; ARO-7-0079-04; ARO-7-0141-02; ARO-7-0465-02).

[3] ARO-6-0933-01.

[4] W. Campbell, Materials for a History of the Reign of Henry VII, Vol I (1865): 579.

[5] N. Macdougall, James III (Edinburgh, 2009): 200, 312; RPS 1484/2/31; A payment for the building of a boat from Berwick by the Scottish Exchequer was made in 1486, which may relate to the conflict. However, the context of the entry ensures this cannot be definitively proved (G. Burnett (ed.) The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland Vol IX (Edinburgh, 1886): 434).

[6] ARO-6-0933-01; ARO-6-0933-03, ARO-6-0934-02; ARO-6-0934-04.

[7] S. Boardman, ‘The Burgh and the Realm’ in E.P. Dennison, D. Ditchburn and M. Lynch (eds), Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History (East Linton, 2002): 213; ACA/1/19: 222, 391.

[8] J. Marwick (ed.), Extract from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh Vol I 1403-1528 (Edinburgh, 1869): 142.


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