THIS week sees the 900th anniversary of the death of a King of Scots, Alexander I, and the immediate ascension to the throne of his brother, the much more famous King David I.

Born at Dunfermline in either 1077 or 1078, Alexander was the fifth son of Malcolm III (Canmore) and his wife Queen (later Saint) Margaret.

His mother is said to have insisted on the name Alexander after the Pope of the time, Alexander II. That would make sense as Margaret was in the process of Romanising the Christian church in Scotland, having persuaded King Malcolm that the mostly Columban rites in Scotland were out of step with the rest of the church.

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His religion was to play a great part in the life of Alexander who was nevertheless known as “The Fierce”, though only after his death. 

As a child, Alexander probably never thought he would be king, but his elder brother Edward was killed alongside his father at the Battle of Alnwick in Northumberland in 1093. His mother died of a broken heart a few days after hearing of their deaths. 

There was a brief and bloody struggle for the throne between the various children of Malcolm from his first marriage, before Alexander’s brother Edgar became king in 1097, the first of three Margaretsons, as Nigel Tranter named them, to be Kings of Scots.  

Edgar, named after his uncle, the Anglo-Saxon Prince Edgar Atheling, had to defeat his half-brothers Donald and Edmund to gain the throne, and in doing so, he paid homage to England’s king William II, known as Rufus.

His reign in Scotland was largely uneventful, his major diplomatic act being to secure a treaty with Magnus Barefoot, the King of Norway, which gave the Norwegians control of the Hebrides.

He also supported his mother’s Romanisation of the church and founded Coldingham Priory in 1098. Unmarried and childless, he died in Edinburgh in 1107, probably aged just 33. 

Edgar had named Alexander as his heir in his will, but he also left a situation which acknowledged the realpolitik of the time in that he bequeathed Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde to Alexander and much of the south of Scotland to his other younger brother David, who has come down to us in history as the Prince of the Cumbrians.

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David was heavily influenced by his time at the court of King Henry I of England, who had married David’s sister Edith, also called Matilda.

Alexander was less influenced by the Norman English court and was also wary of the hierarchy in England wanting to control the church in Scotland. As king, he later engaged in long disputes with various bishops to ensure the Scottish church remained independent.

Alexander was named as heir presumptive by King Edgar in 1104 and in that year, his importance to the Scottish crown was shown when he was sent to witness the re-interment of the remains of St Cuthbert at Durham, Cuthbert being the most famous saint  of that era.

Alexander abided by his brother Edgar’s wishes and David controlled what was in effect the former kingdom of Strathclyde as well as parts of the Lothians while Alexander got on with the job of running Alba.

What might have been a crisis in 1113 fizzled out when David sought more land to consolidate his holdings and got the support of his brother-in-law King Henry of England. 

Alexander did not – as some historians have stated – back down in the face of English aggression, but instead negotiated a peaceful solution which gave David most of what he wanted yet allowed Alexander to assert that he was the overlord of all Scotland at that time, apart from those lands held by Norway that included Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides and Kintyre.

As part of the ongoing peace process with England, Alexander is known to have married Henry’s illegitimate daughter Sybilla of Normandy.

The couple were close but the marriage remained childless, and such was Alexander’s devotion to Sybilla that he did not marry again after her death in 1122. 

His queen had also been noted for her piety, and Alexander followed her example, founding several religious institutions including a priory at St Andrews and the abbey on Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth – some sources say he founded the latter in thanks for his delivery from a huge storm at sea.

He may even have tried to start a cult of veneration for Sybilla in the hope that she would be canonised.  Obviously a pious man – though that did not stop him siring an illegitimate son – but why was he later called “‘The Fierce”? The chronicler John of Fordun wrote more than two centuries later that Alexander “the king was a lettered and godly man, very humble and amiable towards the clerics and regulars, but terrible beyond measure to the rest of his subjects”.

He was also “zealous in establishing churches, collecting relics and providing vestments and books for the clergy”.  Most of his reputation for fierceness derives from the Oryginale Cronykil Of Scotland by Andrew of Wyntoun, written at least 250 years after Alexander’s reign. 

It is disputed exactly who attacked Alexander’s court when it was sitting at Invergowrie a few years into his reign but the King was not prepared to accept such an insult.

He gathered an army and pursued his attackers north all the way to Beauly in Ross where his enemies were slaughtered. Not surprisingly, he faced no more rebellions in his time on the throne.

Alexander is also known to have joined Henry I’s campaign in Wales in 1114, and reputedly showed his own prowess as a soldier, so that could also be a reason for his nickname.

Alexander died 900 years ago this Tuesday on April 23, 1124, aged about 45, at Stirling.

His body was taken for burial to Dunfermline Abbey which he himself had enhanced to mark the burial place of his mother.  David I immediately became king and next week I’ll tell one or two of the many stories about the man I consider to have been Scotland’s greatest king.