It was first and always a military alliance against the common enemy.
Between 1419 and 1424, 15,000 Scots sailed from the River Clyde to fight in France. In 1421 at the Battle of Bauge the Scots dealt a crushing defeat to the English and brought down the Duke of Clarence.
Honours and rewards were heaped upon the “tartan army” by the French.
Our willingness to answer the call to arms resulted in some disastrous defeats, however, most notably the slaughter at Flodden Field in 1513.
The so-called Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between France and England had cemented Scotland’s relationship with the French. It also gave numerous opportunities to adventurous Scots soldiers of fortune to carve out a career for themselves.
Their great period was the last stage of the long war, beginning after the French catastrophe at Agincourt, 1415, when the Dauphin begged Scotland for help ‘in our great want and necessity’. The Scottish Parliament sent a force of 6,000 men, commanded by the Earl of Buchan, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Wigtown and Stewart Darnley.
Les Gendarmes Écossaise
Soon after this, the Scots Bodyguard of the French king – Les Gendarmes Écossaise a regiment of mounted knights – was formed. It was at this time that the French coined a saying: ‘fier comme un Écossais’ – ‘proud as a Scotsman’.
Another dark chapter happened at Vernuil in 1424 when a Scots army of 4,000 men was annihilated. As mercenaries they could have expected no mercy and those who were captured were dispatched on the spot. Despite their defeat, though, the Scots’ sacrifice bought France valuable breathing space that effectively saved the country from the English aggressors.
Joan of Arc’s personal standard was painted by a Scot, and his countrymen fought under her command when she relieved the Siege of Orleans and at the battles of Jargeau and Patay in 1429.
The military alliance more or less came to an end in the mid-16th century when the Reformation brought about a required realignment of Scottish foreign policy. Even so, the Scots regiments remained in the service of the French king.
Interestingly, the form of Protestantism that was established in Scotland followed the model set out by Calvin, a Frenchman, to give that most Scottish of institutions, the Kirk, real French roots.
When Scots noblemen accepted the purse of gold that was offered to support the Union that made Scotland part of the United Kingdom, inevitably conflict of interests followed and with Scotland inheriting English traditions of foreign policy, throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, when Britain and France were locked in a struggle for empire, Scots found themselves battling their auld allies. But, they might also find themselves fighting fellow Scots at the same time, for there were still Scots in the French service and France had offered a refuge to Jacobite exiles.
The Royal Écossais remained a regiment of the French army. Indeed after the failure of the ’45 Rising, two other French regiments were formed from Jacobite exiles.
The Auld Alliance also brought considerable commercial benefits, which was founded on the Scots love of good wine. Due to the special relationship, Scottish merchants had the privilege of selecting the finest for themselves, much to the chagrin of our neighbours south of the border.
Although the arrangement was rocked by the Reformation, and trade between Protestant Scotland and Catholic France became more problematic, there were ways. . .
Despite the changes, records show that wily merchants were still going to Bordeaux in order to bring back their favourite wine as late as 1670. And, even after the Union of Parliaments with England in 1707, claret continued to be smuggled into Scotland, thus avoiding taxes.
The original alliance granted dual citizenship in both countries but was eventually revoked by the French government in 1903.
In 1942, when General Charles de Gaulle, then leader of the Free French, visited Edinburgh, he said: “I do not think that a Frenchman could have come to Scotland at any time without having a sense of a special emotion – awareness of the thousand links, still living and cherished, of the Franco-Scottish Alliance, 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 Frenchmen feel that no people have ever been more generous than yours.”
That’s probably a hefty bit of a history lesson for many fellow Scots, yet the French know their history well and understand what it is that makes the bond so treasured.
In all of the years I was at school, I never once learned anything about the Auld Alliance and I very much suspect that it’s the same today for many young Scots.
Why might that be, you may ask…and if you then take a little longer to consider it, you’ll soon get the answer.
Meanwhile, I urge my fellow Scots to enjoy the camaraderie and conviviality that is available to them whenever they visit France.
I doubt if the French will ever forget.