The Wolf of Badenoch and the Burning of Elgin Cathedral

Written byBeth Reid

In May and June of 1390, forces under the command of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan – better known as the Wolf of Badenoch – stormed through Moray to launch vicious attacks on the burghs of Forres and Elgin. This spectacular display of violence climaxed with the dramatic burning of Elgin Cathedral, the centre of the Moray Church.

Elgin Cathedral has been called the ‘Lantern of the North’, and even the ruins of its medieval grandeur make it easy to understand why. Founded in 1224 by Alexander II, the remains of the impressive building still stand tall and proud over the flat Moray landscape. Its grounds are full of forgotten treasures of tombs, stone carvings and foundations that once supported the magnificent structure. This is a cathedral that has faced destruction over the years, but none so infamous as its fate at the hands of the Wolf of Badenoch.

Alexander Stewart was the fourth son of Robert II and had dominated the north-east of Scotland since his father’s ascension to the throne in 1371. The royal patronage that he enjoyed from his father allowed him to quickly expand his northern power, and by 1372 he was the Lord of Badenoch, a Royal Lieutenant, the Justiciar of the Appin of Dull, and the holder of several major baronies including Urquhart and Strathavon. Alexander’s northern authority grew exponentially when he married the Countess of Ross in 1382. This marriage gave him control of the powerful Earldom of Ross and north-western lands such as Lewis and Skye, as well as the title of Earl of Buchan. Alexander had unchecked northern power.

Alexander’s later moniker, the Wolf of Badenoch, has given him the reputation of a man with a long-term appetite for violence and cruelty. However, there is no evidence that such a nickname was in use during his lifetime, and earlier descriptions of Alexander refer to him as Alasdair Mòr mac an Righ – Great Alexander, the King’s son. This speaks to popularity rather than tyranny. Indeed, Alexander’s Stewart family were from the Gaelic west, and Alexander himself had a long-term relationship with a Gaelic woman of Ross, confirming that he was firmly rooted within northern society rather than above it.

While he may have once been popular, Alexander’s domineering authority and his questionable use of private caterans (northern armed forces from the Gaelic ceathairne) to enforce his lordship earned him resentment from other northern lords. Alexander Bur, Bishop of Moray, had consistently clashed with Alexander throughout the 1370s due to his cateran occupation of Moray Church lands. However, thanks to royal patronage and protection from his father, these northern figures were largely helpless to Alexander’s continuing expansion and domination.

The 1380s saw a change in the tide for Alexander. As support for his weakening father wavered, political attention instead turned to his eldest brother, John Stewart, Earl of Carrick, who was made Lieutenant in 1384. The loss of his father’s influence resulted in less protection for Alexander, a situation that was fully taken advantage of by the northern lords with a grudge against their powerful neighbour. From 1384 parliamentary and council records show consistent complaints about Alexander and the growing lawlessness and violence under his jurisdiction. Moreover, challenges were made to his titles and lands, including his right to the lordship of Buchan and the barony of Urquhart.

elgin Cathedral
Photo by @lensfrommars
elgin Cathedral
Photo by @lensfrommars

Despite a series of sharp written reprimands to Alexander, Carrick’s handling of the north was poor with renewed warfare against England taking his attention. After being injured at the Battle of Otterburn, Carrick’s Lieutenancy was removed and instead passed to his younger brother Robert Stewart, Earl of Fife and future Duke of Albany. Fife’s ambition and political ruthlessness knew no bounds, and he quickly set about toppling Alexander from power.

The same month that he was appointed Lieutenant, Fife stripped Alexander of his title as Royal Justiciar and Royal Lieutenant, giving them to his own son instead. In late 1389, Bishop Bur of Moray oversaw formal complaints made by Alexander’s wife, Euphemia Ross, regarding his unfaithfulness to her with his long-term partner, Mariota Athyn. Alexander failed to fix his marriage to Euphemia, and she was promptly encouraged by Fife and Bur to divorce Alexander. This divorce, which was finalised in 1392, was a massive hit to Alexander, resulting in his loss of the great swathes of land and title that he had gained through marriage to Euphemia.

It is not difficult to imagine the pressure that Alexander must have been under; in one year, he had lost his greatest titles, royal protection, and his advantageous marriage. The final straw was the death of his father, Robert II, in April 1390. Despite being the direct heir to the throne, Carrick was not crowned until August 1390, which certainly suggests that there was significant doubt over who would truly ascend the throne. The loss of his paternal patron and the very real possibility of Fife seizing the throne was the spark to light the fire that would burn in north-eastern Scotland in the early summer of 1390. It would be this desperate reaction from Alexander that would demote him from Alasdair Mòr to the Wolf of Badenoch.

Alexander lashed out against Fife’s primary northern ally, Alexander Bur, Bishop of Moray. Bur had been Alexander’s consistent opponent since the 1370s and had aligned himself with both Fife and the Earl of Moray in order to crack down on his northern power. However, it was perhaps Bishop Bur’s particular encouragement of and involvement in Alexander’s ongoing divorce from Euphemia that made him the prime target of Alexander’s vengeance.

In May and June 1390, Alexander set out at the head of his private caterans to raid into Moray and attack the burghs of Forres and Elgin, targeting Moray Church properties, including Pluscarden Abbey. These attacks saw great physical and financial damage to the Moray Church, but it was Alexander’s vicious burning of Elgin Cathedral that sealed his reputation as the Wolf of Badenoch. The cathedral, ‘the particular ornament of the fatherland’, was largely razed to the ground in a damning act of violent revenge.

Elgin Cathedral
Photo by @whisky_duke
Elgin Cathedral
Photo by @whisky_duke

Alexander was excommunicated for his crimes but received absolution after pleading forgiveness at a council headed by his brothers. With his tail between his legs, Alexander retreated into his original heartland of Badenoch, his future involvement in Scottish politics being through his caterans and his illegitimate sons. 

As for Elgin Cathedral, Bishop Bur fought for compensation for the rebuilding of his beloved cathedral until his death in 1397, petitioning the Scottish Crown, the Papacy, and the Scottish Church. The rebuilding of the cathedral continued throughout the fifteenth century, demonstrating just how significant the damage inflicted in 1390 by the Wolf of Badenoch had been. 

After the Scottish Reformation in 1560, Elgin Cathedral slipped into disrepair and decay. Today, it remains a beautiful yet fragile ruin, a living ghost of the once magnificent Lantern of the North.

Written By Beth Reid

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