John Balliol

John Balliol
King John, his crown and sceptre symbolically broken as depicted in the 1562 Forman Armorial, produced for Mary, Queen of Scots.
King of Scots
Reign 17 November 1292 – 10 July 1296
Coronation 30 November 1292, Scone
Predecessor Margaret (disputed)
Successor Robert I
Spouse Isabella de Warenne
Edward Balliol
House House of Balliol
Father John I de Balliol
Mother Devorguilla of Galloway
Born c. 1249
Died 25 November 1314
Picardy, prob. Hélicourt
Burial prob. Hélicourt
Religion Roman Catholicism

John Balliol (c. 1249 – 25 November 1314), known to the Scots as Toom Tabard ("empty shirt"), was King of Scots from 1292 to 1296.


Early life

Little of John's early life is known. He was born between 1248 and 1250 at an unknown location, possibilities include Galloway, Picardy and Barnard Castle, County Durham.[1] He was the son of John, 5th Baron Balliol, Lord of Barnard Castle, and his wife Dervorguilla of Galloway, daughter of Alan, Lord of Galloway and granddaughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon.[2] From his mother he inherited significant lands in Galloway and claim to Lordship over the Gallovidians, as well as various English and Scottish estates of the Huntingdon inheritance; from his father he inherited large estates in England and France, such as Hitchin, in Hertfordshire.

Accession as King of Scotland

In 1284 Balliol had attended a parliament at Scone, which had recognised Margaret, Maid of Norway as heiress to King Alexander.[3] Following the death of the Princess Margaret, in 1290, John Balliol was a competitor for the Scottish crown in the so called 'Great Cause',[2] as he was a great-great-great-grandson of King David I through his mother (and therefore one generation further than his main rival Robert Bruce, 5th Lord of Annandale, grandfather of the future Robert the Bruce), being senior in genealogical primogeniture but not in proximity of blood. He submitted his claim to the Scottish auditors with King Edward I of England as the arbitrator, at Berwick-upon-Tweed on 6 June 1291.[4] The Scottish auditors' decision in favour of Balliol was pronounced in the Great Hall of Berwick Castle on 17 November 1292,[4] and he was inaugurated accordingly King of Scotland at Scone, 30 November 1292, St. Andrew's Day.[2]

Edward I, who had coerced recognition as Lord Paramount of Scotland, the feudal superior of the realm, steadily undermined John's authority. He demanded homage to be paid towards himself, legal authority over the Scottish King in any disputes brought against him by his own subjects, contribution towards the costs for the defence of England, and military support was expected in his war against France. He treated Scotland as a feudal vassal state and repeatedly humiliated the new king. Tiring of their deeply compromised king, the direction of affairs was allegedly taken out of his hands by the leading men of the kingdom, who appointed a council of twelve—in practice, a new panel of Guardians—at Stirling in July 1295. These men were more likely a group of advisors to King John; they went on to conclude a treaty of mutual assistance with France - known in later years as the Auld Alliance.


In retaliation, Edward I invaded, commencing the Wars of Scottish Independence. The Scots were defeated at Dunbar and the English took Dunbar Castle on 27 April 1296.[4] John abdicated at Stracathro near Montrose on 10 July 1296.[4] Here the arms of Scotland were formally torn from John's surcoat, giving him the abiding name of "Toom Tabard" (empty suit).[5]

John was imprisoned in the Tower of London until allowed to go to France in July 1299. When his baggage was examined at Dover, the Royal Golden Crown and Seal of the Kingdom of Scotland, with many vessels of gold and silver, and a considerable sum of money, were found in his chests. Edward I ordered that the Crown should be offered to St. Thomas the Martyr and that the money should be returned to John for the expenses of his journey. But he kept the Seal himself.[6] John was released into the custody of Pope Boniface VIII on condition that he remain at a papal residence. He was released around the summer of 1301 and lived the rest of his life on his family's ancestral estates at Hélicourt, Picardy.

Over the next few years, there were several Scottish rebellions against Edward (for example, in 1297 under William Wallace and Andrew de Moray). The rebels would use the name of "King John", on the grounds that his abdication had been under duress and therefore invalid. This claim came to look increasingly tenuous, as John's position under nominal house-arrest meant that he could not return to Scotland nor campaign for his release, despite the Scots' diplomatic attempts in Paris and Rome. After 1302, he made no further attempts to extend his personal support to the Scots. Effectively, Scotland was left without a monarch until the accession of Robert the Bruce in 1306.


John died around 25 November 1314 at his family's château at Hélicourt in France.[7] On 4 January 1315, King Edward II of England, writing to King Louis X of France, said that he had heard of the death of 'Sir John de Balliol'[8] and requested the fealty and homage of Edward Balliol to be given by proxy.

A John de Bailleul is interred in the church of St. Waast at Bailleul-sur-Eaune.[8] This may or may not be the Scottish King.

John was survived by his son Edward Balliol, who later revived his family's claim to the Scottish throne, received support from the English, and had some temporary successes.

Marriage and issue

John Balliol and his wife.

John married, around 9 February 1281, Isabella de Warenne, daughter of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey[2]. Her mother Alice de Lusignan was daughter of Hugh X de Lusignan by Isabella of Angoulême, widow of King John of England, making Isabella niece, in the half-blood, of Henry III of England. John was also the brother-in-law to John Comyn, who was murdered by Robert the Bruce in February 1306, in Dumfries.[dubious ]

It has been established that John and Isabella had at least one child:

  • Edward Balliol, Scottish pretender, (d.1364). Married to Marguerite de Taranto, daughter of Philip I, Prince of Taranto (d. 1332) - annulled or divorced with no issue.

However, other children have been linked to the couple as other possible issue:

  • Henry de Balliol. He was killed in the Battle of Annan on 16 December 1332, leaving no issue.[9]
  • Agnes (or Maud or Anne) de Balliol was married to Bryan FitzAlan, Lord FitzAlan, and feudal Baron of Bedale. They were parents to Agnes FitzAlan (b. 1298), who married Sir Gilbert Stapleton, Knt., of Bedale (1291–1324). Gilbert is better known for his participation in the assassination of Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall.
  • Margaret Balliol. Died unmarried.

Fictional portrayals

John Balliol has been the subject of a theatrical play:[10]

  • John Balliol, An Historical Drama. In Five Acts (1825) by William Tennant. John is depicted as "a weak leader", influenced by his mother Dervorguilla of Galloway, while his rival Robert de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale is depicted as a "noble hero". But John is the one whose crowning is honoured by "ten thousand nobles". The play has several supernatural elements, such as a seer, omens and even references to ghosts. Valentina Bold points out that there are many similarities to The Royal Jubilee (1822) by James Hogg.[10]



  • See also: Beam, Amanda (2008). The Balliol Dynasty, 1210-1364. Edinburgh: John Donald. 
  1. ^ G. P. Stell, "John [John de Balliol] (c.1248x50–1314)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Oct 2005 , accessed 25 July 2007.
  2. ^ a b c d Dunbar, Sir Archibald H.,Bt., Scottish Kings - A Revised Chronology of Scottish History 1005 - 1625, Edinburgh, 1899: p. 115
  3. ^ Foedera, p 228
  4. ^ a b c d Dunbar, Sir Archibald H.,Bt., Scottish Kings - A Revised Chronology of Scottish History 1005 - 1625, Edinburgh, 1899: p. 116
  5. ^ This nickname is usually understood to mean "empty coat", but this is disputed.
  6. ^ Foedera, vol.1, part 2, p.909
  7. ^ Fordun, Annals: 95
  8. ^ a b Dunbar, Sir Archibald H.,Bt., Scottish Kings - A Revised Chronology of Scottish History 1005 - 1625, Edinburgh, 1899: p. 117
  9. ^ Dunbar, Sir Archibald H.,Bt., Scottish Kings - A Revised Chronology of Scottish History 1005 - 1625, Edinburgh, 1899: p. 118
  10. ^ a b Bold (2007), p. 239


John Balliol
Born: ? c. 1249 Died: November 1314
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Scots
Succeeded by
Robert I
Titles in pretence
Preceded by
King of the Scots
Reason for succession failure:
First War of Scottish Independence
Succeeded by
Edward Balliol

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