Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Auld Alliance, Part I

In 1942 Frenchmen were exiled in Scotland during the German occupation. Charles de Gaulle gave a speech in Edinburgh and in it he harked back to "the oldest alliance in the world" and said "In every combat where for five centuries the destiny of France was at stake, there were always men of Scotland to fight side by side with men of France, and what Frenchmen feel is that no people has ever been more generous than yours with its friendship." But were we actually bosom buddies for five hundred years?

The mention of the Auld Alliance conjures up thoughts of an old friendship between Scotland and France where we helped each other out over the centuries. Access to claret, and its influence on our law are often mentioned as legacies of the alliance but the bottom line was that it was in place to help both countries resist English domination. So forget about the plonk, in military terms what exactly did it amount to?

The first alliance was signed in 1295 between John, King of Scots and Philip IV King of France. It was in response to the aggressive actions of Edward I of England. For much of the medieval period England controlled large swathes of France. Normandy was English as a result of William the Conqueror taking the English throne in 1066. Aquitaine in south-west France was English by marriage from 1154.

Edward was greedy for land and the terms of the treaty stipulated that if either France or Scotland was attacked by England, the other country would invade English territory. Your enemy's enemy is after all your friend. The signing of an alliance was actually a formal cementing of an existing relationship. Both France and Scotland had long realised that a war on two fronts for England was always going to be to the advantage of both countries.

However this alliance didn't last five hundred years, it actually lasted only three. The French dumped the Scots when we were subjugated by Edward. They had their own problems and abandoning the treaty suited both England and France.

Edward I's son Edward II was not much of a King, and during that period the Scots and French managed on their own. Edward III was a chip of the old Plantagenet block and he was as hungry as his grandfather for land. He attacked Scotland first; but France came to our aid, renewed the alliance and checked Edward's ambitions. French attacks on English possessions in Aquitaine focused Edward's attention on France and his invasion of 1337 started the one hundred and twenty years of warfare between France and England which is called the Hundred Years War for some reason. During this period there were many times when the two countries needed to come to the aid of each other until the English were ejected from France in 1453.

Each new King of France and King of Scots would renew the alliance over the next one hundred years. English kings continued to flex their muscles now and again and the Scots and French would look to each other for help.

In 1560 things were turned upside down. Scotland went through its reformation and it suddenly felt it had more in common with its protestant neighbours than Catholic France. At the same time the new queen in England was less belligerent than her father and realised having Scotland as a friend was in England's interest. The signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh between England, Scotland and France in July 1560 ended French involvement in Scottish affairs and effectively brought an end to the Auld Alliance.

It also coincided with a thawing in the relationship between France and England. Elizabeth I had no intentions of pursing any land claims in France (even though England had just recently lost Calais to France) and for the next hundred years France and England were at peace and sometimes even allies against Spain and Holland.

It was a fight for new empires and control of the world's sea trade which precipitated the second hundred-years-war between Britain and France in the eighteenth century. By this time Scotland and England had the same monarch and same parliament, so when England went to war with France, Scotland played a full and often enthusiastic part on Britannia's side.

The Jacobite risings of 1715, 1719 and 1745 had various levels of official French Support for the Pretenders' attempts to re-establish a Stuart Kingdom; but October 1745 was the last time an alliance was signed between a King of Scots (exiled) and a King of France. The War of Independence in America and the revolution in France finally put a nail in the coffin of any alliance as Scots regiments were raised by the dozen to fight the French. There may have been plenty of Irish volunteers in Napoleon's armies but there were few Scotsmen.

During the middle of the nineteenth century an invasion scare led to civilians forming volunteer companies for the defence of the country. The Auld Alliance was long forgotten as Scottish volunteers flocked to the colours in their thousands to see off any French invasion force.

By 1914 it had all changed again. France and Britain were allies, and when war broke out tens of thousands of Scots rushed to join up. The losses across the world were heavy on the Western Front, and heaviest of all in France. Five hundred years after an Army of Scotland had first served in France, the divisions of Scotland fought against the German invaders. In July 1918 the 15th (Scottish) Division was detached from the British XVII Corps and was rushed south to help the hard pressed French XX Corps. The Scottish troops replaced the 1st US Division in the line and fought hard, but took 3,516 casualties. After the battle the commander of the French 17th Division was so impressed by the Scottish soldiers he erected a cairn at Buzancy. On it was an inscription which would sum up a new alliance which saw thousands of Scots die on French soil during two world wars.

Here the noble thistle of Scotland will flourish for ever among the roses of France

This post has been an overview of the Auld Alliance. Part II in the near future will cover in detail the wars where Scotland and France were allies.

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