Alexander of Dundonald 4th High Steward of Scotland

By Gwen Sinclair and David Taylor

It is now time to explore the story of Alexander Fitz Walter, also known as Alexander of Dundonald, Alexander de Dundonald or Alexander Stewart – the 4th hereditary High Steward of Scotland, who is said to have been born at Dundonald c 1214. He was the first recorded in the family with the name Alexander and so we might assume that he was named after the King of Scots, who was Alexander II (1214-1249) at the time of his birth. He was the first born son of Walter Fitz Alan 3rd High Steward of Scotland (c1167-1246) and Bethóc nic Gille Crist, Countess of Angus (c1174-1270).

By roughly the age of 32, Alexander became 4th High Steward of Scotland serving King Alexander II, on the death of his father in 1246. We investigated the life of Walter an earlier blog https://dundonaldcastle.org.uk/walter-stewart-the-3rd-high-steward-of-scotland/ – where you might recall, his role as protector of Scotland’s south-westerly regions, was beset by trouble – and this was likely to have inspired him to want to build a stronger defensible castle at Dundonald to replace the earlier motte and bailey structure of c1136 – which had been their family home since the arrival of Walter FitzAlan, who became the first High Steward of Scotland in 1160.  

Alexander is generally accredited for the completion of the mid-13th century, impressive stone castle at Dundonald, said to have been akin to the great castles of it day such as Dirleton and Bothwell.  Described as a fortress enceinte, or an enclosure castle, archaeological reports suggest that it was kite-shaped, with 2 huge twin towered gatehouses diametrically opposing each other – with an assumption that there were other towers built between their connecting defensive walls. Its gatehouse to the west is thought to have formed the basis of the present day Dundonald Castle which was rebuilt by Alexander’s great grandson, King Robert II around 1371. The remains of the well to the east of the current barmkin wall was thought to have been built inside one of the towers of the East gatehouse.  It’s also assumed that this gatehouse was 4 m wide and some 12 m long and served as the main entrance to the castle. Lined by two walls of lime-mortared ashlar, this would’ve ensured that gaining entrance to the castle was not easy, and so gives us something of an indication that Dundonald in the mid 1300s had reason to be concerned about security, as we will see… 

Images from displays Dundonald Castle Museum (open daily) including the model of Alexander’s Castle

For Alexander the 1240s was also an important decade, because in 1242, he married Jean MacRory -Countess Bute Marchioness (c1211-c1297) – heiress to the Islands of Bute and Arran. It’s not known who Jean’s mother was, but her father was Séamus MacSomerled MacRory/ James Mac Angus (d.1210), son of Angus, Lord of Bute & Arran who was a younger son of Somairle mac Gilla Brigte, or Somerled (1113-1164) – a Norse-Gaelic lord who, through favourable marital alliances as well as military conquests, created his own Kingdom of Argyll and the Isles in the mid 1100s.  Somerled had been killed in combat with Alexander’s great grandfather, Walter Fitz Alan, in 1164.  His marriage to Jean was likely to have suited Alexander’s ambition to assert control of what he considered the Stewart lands of Arran and Bute where his grandfather, Alan the 2nd High Steward (1178-1204) had built the castle at Rothesay. 

It was also probably the decade of the birth of most of their children –  all thought to have been born at Dundonald Castle, giving us some idea that it was their main family residence:  

  • Alianore Stewart – about whom very little is known. 
  • James (c 1243-1309) who succeeded his father as High Steward in 1281. 
  • John (1245-22 July 1298) –  known as Sir John of Bonkyl, who was killed at the Battle of Falkirk fighting under the command of Sir William Wallace.  
  • Andrew Stewart (c 1245) who married the daughter of James Bethe or Beith.
  • Mary Stewart (1247-1326) who married Edward de Cunynghame of Kilmaurs (c1245-1292). Their son Gilbert was one of Robert Bruce’s nominees in the competition with Balliol for kingship. 

With the 1350s bringing them:

  • Elizabeth Stewart of Crawford (c1250-c1288) who married William Le Hardy Lord Douglas. They became the parents of Sir James Douglas – Lord of Douglas, or “ The Good Sir James Douglas” aka The Black Douglas – who you can find out more about in a previous blog:  https://dundonaldcastle.org.uk/the-douglas-last-journey/
  • Hawise le Stewart (c 1255-1317) who married John de Soulis, Guardian of Scotland (d.1310)
  • Lady Beatrix Alice Stewart – who married Sir Alexander Lindsay (d. 1308), Lord of Barnweil, Byres and Crawford and later married Sir William Erskine of that ilk.

Alexander is said to have accompanied King Louis IX of France at some point on the Seventh Crusade which took place between 1248–1254, and also undertook a pilgrimage of the Way of St James to the shrine of St James the Great, at Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, which has been a leading Catholic pilgrimage route since the 9th century  Some sources date Alexander’s pilgrimage to c1252/3, and yet it’s widely thought that his son, and heir, James is named in honour of the saint, after he undertook this pilgrimage since this was then an uncommon name in Scotland, and certainly not a traditional name in the family. However this means that either the date of James’ birth is later or Alexander went on pilgrimage some 10 years earlier,  or that Alexander had been a fan of St James before he went on pilgrimage. Either way, Alexander passed on an important legacy to Scottish history when his choice of name continued on down through the Stewart lineage until supporters of would-be James VIII (1688-1766 ) formed the Jacobite cause – the name derived from Jacobus which is the Latin for James.

Alexander de Dundonald accompanied King Alexander II on a campaign to pacify Galloway, as well as on a campaign to attempt to subjugate the Norwegian controlled Sudrejar, or Western Isles. Both had a powerful influence on the affairs of Scotland as a whole. During the latter campaign the king caught a fever and died at Gylen Castle on the Island of Kerrera on 6th July 1249, bringing an abrupt end to these westerly assertions.  This meant that less than 3 years into his role as High Steward, Alexander became involved in the murky power struggles which came about after the late King’s young son, also named Alexander (1249-1286), then only 7 years old, was hastily crowned at Scone seven days later on 13th July 1249.  After which the real power in Scotland appears to have ebbed and flowed between the Walter Comyn, Lord of Badenoch (d.1258) and his family, who had generated titles and fortunes in the service of Alexander II’s father King William the Lion (1165-1214) in the north, and Alan Durward (1194-c1275), also known as Alan de Lundin, who had the title of Hostarius, or protector of the king’s property.

Gylen Castle

 

Meanwhile, Alexander is thought to have had a taste of power himself between the years 1258-1260, when he shared the regency with these nobles, and the king’s mother, dowager Queen Marie de Coucy (c1218-1285).  Alexander Stewart was one of the chief councillors to King Alexander III and continued to be appointed to the monarch as one of the regents of the kingdom throughout his reign. This meant, when the king decided it was time to take back Sudrejar in1262, Alexander had no choice but to help…

Illustration of the seal of King Haakon IV

First of all the young king tried to buy the Hebrides from Norway, but this offer was refused and so the Earl of Ross led a brutal attack on the Norwegian-held Isle of Skye. This stirred up a hornet’s nest after the news reached the Norwegian King Haakon IV (1217-1263), who commanded the largest sea-going fleet in Europe at the time. Joined by the King of Mann and other Scandinavian Jarls, he amassed a fleet of around 100 ships the following year to re-assert Norwegian authority. It was said to have been the largest armada ever seen in Scottish waters before Haakon divided his forces – with some of the fleet going off on raids along the coasts to help secure fealty to Haakon.  One such raid caused the Stewart’s Castle at Rothesay on Bute to be taken by Haakon himself!  Forty other ships were said to have been dragged overland to Loch Lomond! This probably meant taking the shortest route from the sea by sailing up Loch Long and moving overland across the 2 miles stretch from Arrochar to Tarbet at Loch Lomond – allowing access to the 38 islands and the townships surrounding Loch Lomond’s 22 miles of water.  Alexander III meanwhile, knowing he wouldn’t match well in a battle at sea, ensured that his armies were ready to act and had them all stationed behind the walls of many of the castles along the West.

The start of October arrived, and so too did storm-force winds which left Haakon with the choice of either abandoning his plans, or risking his fleet. Haakon decided to take the gamble and landed at Largs – only to be met by a vanguard of archers and knights, commanded by Alexander of Dundonald, who had not long returned from London on a mission to attempt to wrest from Henry III of England (1216-1272) the balance of the dowry promised to his sister, Margaret, who had married King Alexander III on 26th December 1251, when he was ten years old and she was eleven.

The Crovan dynasty, from the late 11th century to the mid 13th century, was the ruling family of an insular kingdom known variously in secondary sources as the Kingdom of Mann, the Kingdom of the Isles founded by Godred Crovan.

The Norse army were unable to retreat due to heavy onshore winds, but were also unable to gain a secure spot for themselves to face off the growing numbers of Scots who had arrived from their various bases. After 72 hours of almost continuous combat, the weather lifted just enough to enable the Norwegians to retreat, with most of their dead and wounded left on the beach. King Haakon fled with his remaining fleet northward, but not before his Norse-Gaelic Lord Murchaidh, was given Arran, with Ruaidri, a 13th-century Scottish noble, who had sworn featly to King Haakon after having been outlawed by King Alexander III because of attacks against Scottish lands, was given Bute through some claim as his hereditary right.  

This was seen as a decisive win for Alexander Stewart and became known as the Battle of the Largs.

Largs – with the monument showing the site of the battle

Alexander Stewart was said to have invaded the Isle of Man c 1264 and was afterwards very likely to have been involved in the lengthy negotiations in Dumfries when King Magnús Óláfsson of Mann (1254–1265), with the delivery of 5 of his galleys, came to pay homage to King Alexander III – an act which effectively heralded the end of the kingdom of Mann. In 1266, Alexander was likely to have also been in attendance at the side of Alexander III when King Magnus of Norway agreed to the Treaty of Perth – whereby Norway ceded all of its claims over the Western Isles, retaining only Orkney and Shetland, for a settlement of 4000 marks and an annual retainer of 100 marks. Once more, as good news for Alexander, the Norse hold on Bute was brief.

On 30th November 1263 Alexander obtained a charter of the Barony of Garlies – then in Dumfriesshire – now aptly named Stewartry, from the king – later passing the Barony to his second son Sir John Stewart of Bonkyl. Alexander the Steward gave his seal to many charters over the reign of Alexander III and in the year 1281 he was at Roxburgh negotiating the final matrimonial contract between the king’s daughter Princess Margaret of Scotland (1261-1283) with Eric II King of Norway (c1268-1299) – this shows that he continued to be a highly trusted member of Alexander III’s inner circle. His brother, Walter Bailloch (the Freckled) Stewart was in charge of the flotilla which took the princess over to Norway to her new husband – however sadly, a number of the ships were sunk on the return journey with loss of life – as is thought to have been recorded in the traditional Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens

O lang, lang may the ladies stand,

Wi thair gold kems in their hair,

Waiting for thair ain deir lords,

For they’ll se thame na mair.

Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,

Tis fiftie fathom deip,

And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,

The Scots lords at his feit.

Princess Margaret was to go on to become the mother of who we now refer to as Queen Margaret – the Maid of Norway (1283-1290) – the sole heir to the Scottish throne after the untimely death of Alexander III after a fall from his horse on at Kinghorn in Fife on 9th March 1286, which was to eventually bring the kingdom into turmoil.  We will be looking into what happened next with the story of Alexander’s successor, James – and the huge part he played in the next episode of Dundonald’s fascinating story.

Statue of Alexander III at St Giles in Edinburgh

As for Alexander Stewart, it’s thought that he breathed his last on 16th June 1283, aged 59, at his castle at Dundonald, although historians have been unable to agree on the precise date of his death. We do know that he was interred at Paisley Abbey alongside his father, grandfather and great grandfather. Alexander is another lesser-known hero of Scotland who faithfully served 2 monarchs, protected and ultimately assisted in the almost complete unification of the kingdom of Scotland. 

Plaque denoting the final resting place of Alexander of Dundonald and his wife Jean at Paisley Abbey

Find out more about Alexander’s Castle at Dundonald from this short film on our YouTube channel :

Sources: 

Dundonald Castle Excavations 1986—93.(2004)  Gordon Ewart, Denys Pringle, David Caldwell, Ewan Campbell, Stephen Driscoll, Katherine Forsyth, Dennis Gallagher, Tim Holden, Fraser Hunter, David Sanderson and Jennifer Thoms. Scottish Archaeological Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1/2, pp. i-x, 1-166. Edinburgh University Press

https://archive.org/details/genealogicalhist00stua/page/12/mode/2up superb source of charters he signed.

https://www.geni.com/people/Alexander-Stewart-4th-High-Steward-of-Scotland/6000000000701216197?through=6000000006947563626

Simpson, The Genealogical and Chronological History of the Stuarts, Edinburgh, 1713

https://digital.nls.uk/histories-of-scottish-families/archive/95588473?mode=transcription

Balfour Paul, The Sots Peerage, Ed. 1904, p. 13

Forte,A, Oram, R, Pederson,.F. 2005. Viking Empires, Cambridge University Press

Hakonar saga Hakonarsonar (The Saga of Haakon Haakonarson)

Thomson, O. 2009. The Rises and falls of the Royal Stewarts, pp. 65-67, The History Press

Sadler, J.2016.. Scottish Battles, pp. 38,39,.Birlinn

Cowan, Edward, J.;.2017. The Battle of Largs. Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. Airdrie Print Services. 

https://en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/11590885

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/rothesay-castle/history/

Images:

Alexander the knight at night image by ariadne-a-mazed of Pixabay.https://pixabay.com/photos/knight-guardian-castle-gothic-3091521/ additional graphics by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Alexander Stewart’s lineage chart by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Cover image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Map showing the lands held by Somerled by By Brianann MacAmhlaidh, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18335098

Gylen Castle By Prosthetic Head – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38421245

Largs image CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=568896

Seal of King Haakon by Hakon Thorsen (d. before 1924) – Brinchmann, Chr. "Norske Konge-sigiller og andre Fyrste-sigiller fra Middelalderen" (1924), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20519469

13th Century Dundonald Castle model by Jason Robertson 

Alexander III statue at west door of St Giles, Edinburgh by Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15887444

The story of Alexander at Dundonald Castle Museum images by Lauren Welsh