General Charles De Gaulle described the relationship that Scotland and France had as “the oldest alliance in the world.” Though geographically separated by the country of England, Scotland and France are neighbouring countries that have spent most of their history being diplomatically tied with one another. In 2017, one report estimated that 12,000 French people live in Scotland. From the trade of French wines to Scotland to the import of mercenaries to France, much of the country’s interpersonal relationship was one found in camaraderie and mutual gain.
The Picts and Charlemagne
The first example worth mentioning is the myth of Charlemagne’s alliance with the Picts. The story goes that Charlemagne (742-814) King of France, Roman Emperor and ruler of Europe, made an alliance with Achaius, king of the Scots. The goal of which was to resist a common enemy that was terrorising both their kingdoms: the Saxons. However intriguing this parable may be, academics have determined that it is more than likely just that: a parable. One that Scottish historians fabricated in the past to make a claim that the Scottish monarchy was one of the oldest in Western Europe.
The Birth of the Auld Alliance, or “Vielle Alliance”
One of the first and most notable examples that historians can verify is the creation of the Auld Alliance in 1295. During this time, both countries were brought together by one common goal – England’s expansion. To simplify this relationship, as the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” John Balliol of Scotland and Philip IV of France’s alliance meant that if either country were attacked by England, the other would join them.
Though founded on shared military interests, this relationship also allowed for diplomatic ties and trade between the countries. It also had ramifications that rippled through the histories of Scotland, France and England alike.
The Scottish Wars of Independence
At this time, the Auld Alliance didn’t have much of an impact. The English conquered Scotland, and so Edward I, or Edward Longshanks, focused his attention on France. However, this didn’t last, and Scotland would rebel against their English colonisers. After his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk, William Wallace travelled to France in 1299, though his final destination was meant to be Rome. Living in exile, he was supported financially by the French king Philip IV, who wrote a letter of recommendation to Rome on his behalf. However, not much else is known after this time. Wallace disappears from historical records until his return to Scotland in 1303.
Wallace isn’t the only notable figure to seek help from the French during the Scottish Independence wars. David the Second, the only son of Robert the Bruce, took refuge in France during his lifetime. After the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, a nine-year-old David would hide in France until 1341.
The Lancastrian Phase of the Hundred Years War
In 1415, during Henry V’s invasion of France, the English were victorious at the Battle of Agincourt. This victory was so decisive for the English, that the collapse of France was a very real possibility. At this time, two French factions were fighting for supremacy – the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. Both had claims to the French throne. The Burgundians were allied with the English, but both they and the Armagnacs asked Scotland for aid.
The Scottish would support the Armagnac faction, but it wasn’t as simple as a desire to fight the English and their allies. Robert Stuart, Duke of Albany, who was effectively running Scotland at the time, had more personal reasons. His son Murdoch and nephew James I of Scotland were hostages of the English. He negotiated the release of his son in 1416 while his nephew remained as England’s hostage, securing his own political power.
Between 1419 and 1424, Scotland would send 15,000 soldiers to help the Armagnac faction. During this time, the Dauphin, the leader of the Armagnacs, picked 100 Scots to be his personal bodyguard. These would become the famous Gardes Écossaises. Two notable battles occurred during this period. The Battle of Bauge in 1421 saw the Franco-Scots army defeat the English. It was here that Henry V’s brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence, was killed. Then there was the Battle of Verneuil in 1424 – a bloody battle that saw 4000 Scottish mercenaries crushed by the English. However, this gave the French much-needed time and ultimately saved France from being conquered.
Back in Scotland, James I would return home after 18 years of being England’s hostage. He would wipe out Murdoch Stuart’s family as revenge for his uncle’s betrayal. However, he would also renew the Auld Alliance with France in 1428. It was around this time that another significant historical figure would show up: Joan of Arc.
The Scots Who Stood with Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc in herself is one of France’s most interesting historical figures. A peasant girl who had visions from God and would lead French armies as a teenager, she was a hero and a notable figure in the Hundred Years’ War. Also, during this time, there were Scotsmen that had previously fought in France who decided to settle and make a life there. Some of them would go on to fight for the French cause alongside Joan.
During the siege of Orleans, Scottish reinforcements were part of the fighting forces. Led by Sir John Stewart of Darnley, these forces would perform an ambush on an English convoy. The ambush failed, and Darnley lost his life. After this defeat, Joan of Arc would arrive at Orleans with a relief force. This consisted of 100 men-at-arms and 400 Scottish archers. A legend that is almost certainly embellished says that Joan entered the city to the sound of bagpipes. What is true was that Joan of Arc was welcomed into the city by a Scotsman – Bishop John Carmichael. The Auld Alliance would be renewed throughout the Hundred Years’ War until French victory was achieved.
The Reformation and Decline of the Auld Alliance
The aftermath of the Hundred Year War and the War of the Roses saw limited skirmishes between the English, Scottish and French. However, the Reformation was a significant period for this relationship. Scotland would see more of its people start to favour closer ties with England instead of France. The marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and Francis II of France saw a temporary revival in the alliance in 1558. However, King James VI turned Scotland into a protestant nation in 1568, ultimately uniting Scotland and England. The Treaty of Edinburgh effectively killed the Auld Alliance. This saw England have a closer relationship with Scotland while also maintaining peace with France.
The Jacobite Rebellions
The years following The Hundred Year War saw neutral relations between Scotland, England and France. There were a few exceptions though, such as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. This would change after the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The Catholic king, James VII and II, was deposed in favour of his protestant nephew, William III, or William of Orange. After this event, James went into exile in France with his family, including his infant son, James Francis Edward Stuart. Some resisted this change – the Jacobites. Essentially, this faction believed that Monarchs were chosen by divine right and would fight to see the Stuarts back on the throne.
These uprisings would be supported by the French, both in resources and men. As well as aiding the enemy of England, King Louis XIV and the majority of his people were Catholic. They saw the cause of James and his family as legitimate. There were also familial blood ties – James and Louis were cousins. The French would play a significant part in Jacobitism throughout the following years. The first instance of this was when James landed with French troops in Ireland in 1689. However, James would be defeated by William at the Battle of the Boyne and he was forced to retreat to France. James lived in exile there until his death in 1701.
In 1708, the French planned to support a Jacobite uprising. However, this ultimately failed, since the French were unable to land their troops, and the uprising was quelled. Louis XIV died in 1715, and a peace treaty between England and France in 1716 saw the Stuarts move to Rome. The last significant Jacobite uprising – and possibly the most famous one – was in 1745. Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or The Young Pretender, wanted to reclaim the throne for his father. This rebellion saw support from the French. However, once again, despite some initial success, they were defeated at the battle of Culloden in 1746. Charles escaped to France and died in 1788, failing to reignite the Jacobite cause. Some exiled Jacobites would go on to help France in the Seven Years’ War.
The Napoleonic Wars
From 1789 until 1792, the French Revolutions tore the country apart and saw the monarchy abolished, giving birth to the first French republic. One of the leading figures in the revolution Napoleon Bonaparte would eventually become the head of this new power. But there was another significant power in Europe at the time – the British Empire. Scotland would make significant contributions to the success of this empire and consequently, help fight its enemies. From 1793 until 1815, the British empire would regularly see conflict with France. Among these fighting forces was the Scots Guard. Originally raised in 1642 as a regiment of Scottish Footguards, the Scots Guard still exists to this day. A significant point in their history was holding a defensive position at Hougoumont Farm during the battle of Waterloo in 1815. This fateful battle would mark the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
First World War
The period after the Napoleonic Wars would see relative peace in continental Europe, aside from events such as the Crimean War in 1853. However, this would not last. Due to a series of politically tumultuous events and alliances, the Great War would break out in 1914. Just like they were in centuries past, the Scots and the French were allied against a common enemy. The British and French armies fought and died together in grisly battles like the Somme and the Marne. By the time the First World War ended in 1918, an estimated 17 million people had died with another 20 million wounded. Of that number, 1.4 million were French, and out of the estimated 880,000 British who died, it is estimated that 100,000 to 135,000 were Scots.
Second World War
The Great War was supposed to be the war to end all wars. However, this was not meant to be. The Second World War would break out in 1939. This time, it was because of a soldier who had served in the First World War. Angered by Germany’s post-war humiliation, he would step into the world of politics, vowing to return Germany to its former glory. That man was Adolf Hitler. Almost twenty years after the First World War had ended, Britain and France would once again join the allied forces in a war against Germany. Significant military figures from France would take shelter in the UK during the Nazi invasion. The allied forces would ultimately win in 1945 but at a huge price. An estimated 15 million soldiers were killed and 25 million were wounded in battle, with an additional 45 million civilian deaths. France would lose 567,600 souls during this conflict, while the UK lost 450,700, 34,000 of which were Scottish combat deaths and approximately 6,000 were civilians.
Scotland and France’s relationship is one that has been predominantly marked by friendship. Though the Auld Alliance was technically put to rest by the Treaty of Edinburgh, there is some evidence to suggest the contrary. A historian from the University of Manchester, Dr Siobhan Talbott, argues that there is strong evidence that the Auld Alliance may have survived in some form to current times. One town in France still celebrates this alliance every year. Two hours’ drive south of Paris, Aubigny-sur-Nère celebrates the Auld Alliance on Bastille Day. A similar festival takes place in the town of Lorient in Brittany, with an annual festival that celebrates the cultural traditions of Celtic nations.
During his exile in the United Kingdom during the Second World War, General Charles De Gaulle visited Edinburgh in 1942. It was here that he made this declaration about the Franco-Scots relationship: “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 the men of France, and what Frenchmen feel is that no people has ever been more generous than yours with its friendship.”