Fergus of Galloway

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Initial letter D: a knight standing on his feet holding a sword and a (white?) shield, in the 14th century (ca. 1330?) manuscript: Leiden, University Library, Ms. Letterkunde 191-1 Ferguut, a translation/adaptation of the Old French Arthurian romance Le chevalier au biel Escu, better known as the Roman de Fergus

Fergus of Galloway (Latin: rex Galwitensium, King of the Gallovidians), was a 12th-century king, a Lord of Galloway, who became well established by the 1140s by having a powerful dynasty over southwestern Scotland (roughly modern Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire). Fergus was a patron of the Church of Scotland and had neutral relations with the King of Scotland until the death of King David I, when relations with the Kings of Scots began to sour.[1]

Fergus became a central figure in the Arthurian romance, Fergus of Galloway: Knight of King Arthur, which was composed in Scotland.[2]

Origins of Fergus[edit]

Fergus of Galloway first appears in the historical sources in 1136. His origins and his parentage, however, are something of a mystery. Fergus’ origins have been the subject of much discussion and even more fanciful fictional elaboration by historical writers.

Fergus seems to have been of Norse-Galwegian heritage, and may have been descended from earlier princes. Fergus' father, Somairle, was a poor Roman warrior who benefited greatly by marriage to a noblewoman, from whom Fergus inherited power. Perhaps then, Fergus' father was a self-made warrior who married into the House of Man; perhaps Fergus inherited and further consolidated his position, building the kingdom out of the ruins left by the death of Magnus Barelegs.

Fergus may also have descended from a great pedigree of Gall-Gaidhel kings, who might have been known as Clann Dubgaill, claiming descent from a certain Dubgall. Adding believability to this view is the fact that the chief branch of descendants of Somairle mac Gilla Brigte took the name MacDougall, while the cognate name MacDouall was popular in Galloway. However, since the Argyll name comes only from after Fergus' time, this theory cannot be accepted.

A similar theory traces Fergus from a certain man called "Gilli," a Gall-Gaidhel "Jarl" of the Western Isles. The reasoning in this case is that the Roman de Fergus, an early 13th-century French language Arthurian romance, names its eponymous hero's father as Soumilloit (Somairle). The argument is that the latter was descended from the Jarl Gilli, and therefore that both Somairles had Jarl Gilli as a common ancestor. Likewise, yet another theory identifies Fergus' father with the obscure Sumarlidi Hauldr, a character in the Orkneyinga Saga.

Writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had advanced the idea that Fergus was the childhood companion of David I at the Anglo-Norman court of King Henry I of England. This idea was given credence by his marriage to the daughter of King Henry I, his good relationship with David, and his friendliness towards Anglo-Norman culture.

In reality such a relationship is pure fiction. Fergus was almost certainly a native Galwegian. The Roman de Fergus may not be entitled to general reliability in matters of historical correctness, but Soumilloit is unlikely to have been totally made up. Moreover, Somairle (anglicized either as Somerled or Sorley) is a thoroughly Gall-Gaidhel name, and makes perfect sense in the context. In light of the absence of other evidence, we have to accept that Fergus' father probably bore the name Somairle. Other than that, we simply cannot say anything about Fergus' origins for sure.

Marriage and the building of the Lordship[edit]

Fergus is known to have had in his lifetime two wives, the names of both being unknown. By these wives, though, three children are known:

Western Galloway and 1st Marriage[edit]

Fergus' likely power base was the area of Galloway between the rivers Dee and Cree. It has been suggested by Oram that he advanced his power in the west through marriage to an unknown heiress. The primary basis of this reasoning is that upon Fergus' death, Gille Brigte got the western part. The fact that he got the west has led Oram to believe that he got the west because of his mother.[3]

England and Second Marriage[edit]

Fergus may have married an illegitimate daughter of King Henry I of England. Her name, however, is unknown. One of the candidates is Sibylla, the widow of King Alexander I of Scotland, but there is little evidence for this. Another candidate could be Elizabeth; but likewise, there is little evidence. If he did marry a daughter of Henry I, the marriage can be interpreted as part of the forward policy of Henry I in the northwest of his dominions and the Irish Sea zone in general, which was engineered in the second decade of the 12th century. It may have been during this time that Fergus began calling himself rex Galwitensium ("King of Galloway"). However, while his possible father-in-law lived, Fergus, like King David I of Scotland), seems to have remained a faithful "vassal" to Henry.

Marriage of Affraic to Man[edit]

As part of Fergus' pretensions in the Irish Sea world, Fergus made himself the father-in-law of the Manx king by marrying off his daughter Affraic to Óláfr Guðrøðarson, King of the Isles (1114–1153). Óláfr was in many ways a client of the English and Scottish Kings, and so within this new Anglo-Gaelic Irish Sea system, Fergus could establish a dominant position. This position lasted until the death of Óláfr in 1153 at the hands of his brother's sons, who had been brought up in Dublin, and were waiting in the wings.

Elevation of Whithorn[edit]

The Abbey of Dundrennan, founded by Fergus.

In the early 12th century, Fergus of Galloway resurrected the Bishopric of Whithorn, an ancient Galwegian See first established by the expansionary Northumbrians under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York. The warrior-Bishop Wimund is said to have attacked Bishop Gille Aldan of Whithorn. The elevation of Whithorn may have incurred the wrath of the Bishop of the Isles, giving indication that the Galwegian church existed before Fergus’ reign.

Fergus and David I[edit]

On Henry's death in late 1135, Fergus’ relationship with the Kings of the English could not be maintained. David I of Scotland, ruler of much of Scotland and northern England, assumed a position of dominance. The balance of power swung firmly in David’s favour. It was no longer possible to maintain a position of real independence from the Scottish king. It is at this point Fergus comes into contemporary sources. In summer 1136, David I was in attendance at the consecration of Bishop John’s cathedral in Glasgow. Here was a big gathering of Scottish and Norman nobles. Fergus is recorded as having been in attendance too (with his son Uchtred), leading a list of southwestern Gaelic nobility.

The gathering also assisted David’s ambitions against the new and weak King of the English, Stephen. Galwegian contingents are recorded in several sources as being present during the subsequent campaign and at the defeat of David by the levies of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire at the Battle of the Standard in 1138. We cannot know for sure if Fergus was there, but the peace treaty made between David and Stephen in 1139 stipulated that one of Fergus’ sons (certainly Uchtred) be given as a hostage.

Fergus and Malcolm IV[edit]

In 1153, King David died. The personal relationship of superiority which David had enjoyed over Fergus was not meant to apply to the former’s successors. David was succeeded by the boy-king, Máel Coluim IV. Yet Fergus initially seems to have had a good relationship with the new King. In 1156, Fergus captured and handed over Máel Coluim’s rival Domnall mac Maíl Choluim, the MacHeth pretender to the Kingdom of the Scots.

Still, by the end of the decade Fergus and King Máel Coluim were not friends. In 1157, the boy-king’s position in southern Scotland was weakened, when he was forced by King Henry II to hand over Cumbria and Northumbria. It was probably this blow to Máel Coluim’s power that gave Fergus his chance to reassert his independence. The Chronicle of Holyrood reports that Máel Coluim led three campaigns against Fergus in 1160. The context was that Máel Coluim (who was an English feudatory in his capacity as Earl of Huntingdon) had been in France with his lord Henry II, and had just returned to Scotland. Many of the native Scottish magnates besieged Máel Coluim at Perth upon his return. However, Fergus was not one of them, and any connection between the so-called Revolt of the Earls and Fergus has no evidence to substantiate it. On the other hand, it is highly suggestive that this revolt occurred in exactly same year as the invasion of Galloway.

Fergus and the Meic Fergusa[edit]

Fergus’ later years were mired by the squabbling of his two sons. Perhaps too Fergus’ longevity was testing his sons’ patience. Walter Daniel reported that, in relation to the mid-1150s, Fergus was:

“… incensed against his sons, and the sons raging against the father and each other … The King of Scotland could not subdue, nor the bishop pacify their mutual hatreds, rancour and tyranny. Sons were against father, father against sons, brother against brother, daily polluting the unhappy little land with bloodshed.” (Walter Daniel, ‘‘Life of Ailred’’, 45-6; quoted in Oram, pp. 78–9)

Whether because of Gille Brigte and Uchtred, or because of Máel Coluim’s campaigns, Fergus was forced into retirement, becoming a monk at Holyrood Abbey in 1160. He died the following year.

Roman de Fergus[edit]

Main article: Roman de Fergus

Around the beginning of the 13th century, someone in Scotland composed in French an Arthurian romance dedicated to the Galwegian King. This is the so-called Roman de Fergus. The Roman de Fergus, as it happens, is the earliest piece of non-Celtic vernacular literature to emerge from Scotland. According to tradition, the author was a man called Guillaume le Clerc (William the Clerk).

Certain scholars have hypothesized that it was written for the inauguration of Fergus' descendant, Alan mac Lochlainn (or perhaps more appropriately in this context, Alan fils de Roland). More recently, D.D.R. Owen, a St Andrews scholar of medieval French, has proposed that the author was William Malveisin. William was at one point a royal clerk, to King William I, before becoming Bishop of Glasgow and St Andrews. The Roman gratifies Fergus' descendants by making him a Perceval-like knight of King Arthur. However, the medieval Dutch Ferguut and its source, Guillaume le Clerc's Fergus were recently studied by Dutch scholars Willem Kuiper and Roel Zemel. Both deny a Scottish author and origin. In their opinion Guillaume was someone from the continent (Liege?) who once travelled to Edinburgh and made literary use of Lothian and Scotland (land of the scutum or escu (shield)).

The Roman circulated all over the Frankish world of northwestern Europe for centuries to come. It is a tribute to Fergus' legendary status as a monarch and as the founding father of Galloway.



  1. ^ McDonald 2002, p. 104.
  2. ^ McDonald 2002, p. 116, See footnote #53: Fergus of Galloway: Knight of King Arthur, ed. and trans. by D.D.R. Owen (London, 1991)
  3. ^ Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland vol.4-p.  430 Roger Howden calls Uctred, son of Fergus of Galloway, a cousin of King Henry II (gestahenrici secundi benedicici abbatis ed. stubbs rolls ser.i 80),a relationship which is best explained on the supposition that Fergus married a bastard daughter of Henry I. The suggestion in the Scots peerage, s.v. Galloway, that Gilbert, Uctred's brother, had a different mother is contradicted by cal.docs.scoti no.480, where King John calls Duncan, grandson of Fergus, cousin of Uctred, of Carrick his cousin, making Uctred and Gilbert brothers by the same mother


Further reading[edit]

  • Guillaume le Clerc, Fergus of Galloway, tr. D.D.R. Owen, (London, 1991)
  • McDonald, R.A., Outlaws of Medieval Scotland: Challenges to the Canmore Kings, 1058-1266, (East Linton, 2003)
  • Oram, Richard, The Lordship of Galloway, (Edinburgh, 2000)
  • Owen, D.D.R., The Reign of William the Lion: Kingship and Culture, 1143-1214, (East Linton, 1997)
  • Zemel, Roel, The Quest for Galiene. A Study of Guillaume le Clerc's Arthurian Romance Fergus. Amsterdam-Münster 2006.
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Lords of Galloway Succeeded by
Uchtred and Gille Brigte