Scottish fact of the day: The Auld Alliance

IN light of recent events, it seems fitting to highlight a partnership that has spanned centuries and witnessed two countries stand by side by side as friends in an alliance built on mutual respect.
A French flag flies half-mast at the Elysee Palace in Paris, following  two days of terror in the French capital. Picture: APA French flag flies half-mast at the Elysee Palace in Paris, following  two days of terror in the French capital. Picture: AP
A French flag flies half-mast at the Elysee Palace in Paris, following two days of terror in the French capital. Picture: AP

Legend suggests the Auld Alliance (or Vieille Alliance if you are French) originated in 809, when a Scots king named Achaius or Eochaid allegedly agreed to help Charlemagne fight the Saxons.


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However, the alliance was never officially cemented until John Balliol and Philip IV of France signed a treaty in 1295.

The pact bound the Auld Alliance to help each other should either country be attacked by England.

Though created by a sense of urgency and mutual fear of a powerful England, the pact saw both countries benefit from trade and security.

The alliance was renewed each time a monarch was crowned in either country.

Scots armies fought beside the French against the English in the Hundred Year’s War, indeed so strong was the alliance at this time, that the French Monarch’s bodyguard, the Garde Ecossaise, was mainly comprised of Scots troops.

Following their continued partnership in fighting against the English, Shakespeare was prompted to quote:

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“If that you will France win then with Scotland first begin.”

The pact was not without its dangers, as on many occasions it dragged both countries into wars with England that they were perhaps better to avoid. In 1346 David II was captured by the English at the battle of Neville’s Cross and in 1513 James IV was killed as he fought alongside 10,000 of his men at Flodden field. A battle that was part of an invasion of Northern England, an invasion that had been requested by the French.

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The Alliance also provided cultural enrichment, with the Scots benefitting from French vocabulary, architecture (as can be seen in older parts of Holyroodhouse) and cuisine.

This was influenced in part by Scots soldiery who would serve in France, before bringing home the customs learned in their time there.

French influence also extended to Scots law with many aspiring Scots lawyers attending French universities, a practice that continued up until the Napoleonic Wars.

Scottish merchants, also gained from the relationship paying less (or sometimes none at all) customs than their English counterparts at some French ports and many were given the pick of the best bottles of French wine when visiting Bordeaux.

In return the Scots exported a range of goods to France including coal, wool and animal skins.

While French exports to Scotland included salt, luxury cloth, musical instruments, furniture, beds and spectacles.

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In 1525, the French Regent Louise de Savoie, Duchesse d’Angouleme, wrote a letter to the Estates of Scotland expressing “the ancient and inviolable love, alliance, federation and affinity, which has been from the earliest times, and is now, between the House of France and that of Scotland.”

And in 1472, Alain Chartier, Chancellor of Bayeux, hoping to unite the countries through the marriage of the dauphin to the daughter of James I, gave the following speech:

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“We have tested the faith of the Scots in adverse times - a faithful nation, a people most worthy of friendship and renown, tried in manhood, whom we cannot honour enough or praise worthily. Nor is the league between us written in parchment of sheepskin, but rather in the flesh and skin of men, traced not in ink but in blood shed in many places.”

Just over half a millennium later, in a speech given in Edinburgh in 1942, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the free French, referred to what he believed was ‘the oldest alliance in the world’:

“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.”

Now, in a world riven by those who would see such unity destroyed and people driven by hatred, it is perhaps most important to remember the spirit of such long lasting friendships. For in these things, people bring out the best in each other.


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