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22.06.08 Boardman, The Campbells 1250-1513

22.06.08 Boardman, The Campbells 1250-1513

Regardless of the success of a royal line and a national myth, understanding the history of any medieval realm demands an examination of its regions and their powerful families. Boardman’s first book was an account of the Stewarts as they moved from being magnates to being royal around the turn of the fifteenth century; this work, first published in 2006 by John Donald, re-issued by Birlinn in 2019, charts the rise of the Campbells from their early prominence in the run-up to the Wars of Independence to their central place in national government during the rule of James IV.

Boardman moves the family history forward by generations, tracking their growing prominence both in the regions around Argyll and in national government. Particularly in the early stages, this is a challenge, although the genealogies at the beginning of the book indicate that the challenge does not disappear, for later narratives do not always square with the limited contemporary evidence. Tables 2 and 2A, for example, offer two different conjectural genealogies of the Loch Awe and Ardscotnish Campbells, neither of which fit the papal dispensations acquired for one particular marriage in 1366, but which have to fit all the other evidence. Boardman is honest about his sources and about where conjecture plays a part; he also brings deep knowledge of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century noble and ecclesiastical practice, so his conjectures rest are based on probabilities and established patterns of behaviour.

The early chapters deal with the emergence of what would become the dominant Campbell line, from a well-known and well-established family in Argyll. Beginning with Sir Neil Campbell, a member of Robert Bruce’s retinue, all the way through to Archibald, 2nd Earl of Argyll, who died with James IV at Flodden, Boardman balances the twin foci of the family, first and foremost the kin’s lands and influence in Argyll, and how best to protect, maintain and increase them, and second, the relationship with the king and increasingly with the processes and expectations of royal government. The success of several heads of kin at balancing these complementary and occasionally competing foci is key to the success of the Campbell kin. Four men in particular stand out: Neil, (d. c 1316), Duncan, 1st Lord Campbell, Colin, 1st Earl of Argyll, and Archibald, 2nd earl of Argyll. All of these men had significant service to their kings, and all but Archibald survived long enough to bring experience and survival to their political and military advice. Boardman is clear on the benefits the Campbells could offer their sovereigns: military power, particularly naval power; knowledge of Gaelic community and culture; and influence and authority in a remote area.

Boardman traces the changes in the exercise of these benefits, from a regional power base, in which the head of the Campbell kin spent most of his time, to a being a permanent presence at the Scottish court, taking on the great offices of state, including master of the household and chancellor. The lord Campbell’s ability to be absent from his lands for long periods in service of the king demonstrates the security of his holdings, as well as illustrating the increasing centralisation of the Scottish crown. However, despite common narratives, Boardman is clear that there is little evidence that the Campbells abandoned Gaelic literature and culture as their roles at court became more sustained; indeed, some of the opportunities arising from their courtly associations strengthened their patronage of Gaelic culture. Boardman also produces convincing evidence that, contrary to popular narratives about the Campbells, there was no master cross-generational plan for Campbell conquest of the Isles; instead, they, like every other magnatial family, including the royal Stewarts, responded to circumstances, opportunities, and setbacks, and benefited from some long-lived heads of kin, who were able to maintain their places in positions of power and authority. These positions were supported by judicious marriage alliances, earlier with families in Argyll to bolster local connections, but by the fifteenth century, there were increasing alliances with Lowland families, to extend the Campbell network across the realm. Some of these were royal marriages: Neil Campbell married Mary Bruce, Robert I’s sister, Duncan married the Duke of Albany’s daughter, but more were with other noble families.

Close association with royal power did not always prove advantageous for the Campbell interests: fighting with Robert Bruce obviously brought its own challenges, while being tied to the Albany Stewarts through marriage alliances and land grants proved tricky to finesse on James I’s return to Scotland. Sometimes duty to the realm contradicted duty to the monarch, and Boardman tries to unpick Argyll’s role in the challenges to James III’s rule, in both 1482 and 1488. It is interesting to note that while there is more documentation and more evidence surviving from the later period covered by this book, sometimes that evidence is not easier to interpret, particularly when it is clouded by the views of early chroniclers, such as Leslie and Buchanan.

While Boardman is under no illusions regarding the violence and ruthlessness required to establish a family powerbase, nevertheless he suggests that perhaps the Campbells’ particular reputation of cunning and dishonesty is not entirely justified, or rather, that they are not really to be distinguished from their peers. They were ultimately more successful with the cards they were dealt, including heirs and families; those cards included long life for effective leaders, and seizing opportunities to participate in national roles. Understanding these aspects of the complex narrative Boardman provides not only lays out how the Campbells came to prominence and remained there, but also suggests the ways in which the kings and chroniclers held the realm together, and the ways in which the regions were held as part of the whole. Boardman also demonstrates that the kin’s foothold in both Gaelic and Scots served both their own purposes in maintaining households in Gaelic-speaking communities and thus their power base, and made them useful as interpreters for the Scots-speaking world in which the kings generally operated. As a result, their reputation over the centuries grew with their stature as noble leaders, both in Scotland and abroad, as Boardman summarises at the very end of his book:

“The final comment on the status of Earl Archibald and the family he headed might be left to the annalists of Gaelic Ireland as they reported on news of the Scottish disaster at Flodden. The deaths of only three men were thought worthy of note: James IV, for the demise of a king was of import to all; the archbishop of St Andrews, for the slaying of a primate in battle was a shock and a sensation and MacCailein Mór, for the Campbell earl was a great lord of the Gael” (335).

This is a book that reshapes our understanding of the Campbells, from a dynasty of Machiavellian cross-generational cunning, into a pragmatic and careful kin group, and forces us to reconsider the role of the regions and regional magnates and their power bases in the creation of late medieval Scotland.