Born at Roxburgh, he was the son of Alexander II by his second wife Mary de Coucy. When he was eight years old, his father died, making him king. He was crowned on July 13, 1249 at Scone Abbey, Perthshire.
The years of his minority were marked by an embittered struggle for the control of affairs between two rival parties, the one led by Walter Comyn, earl of Menteith, the other by Alan Durward, the justiciar. The former was in the ascendant during the early years of the reign. At the marriage of Alexander to Margaret of England in 1251, Henry III seized the opportunity to demand from his son-in-law homage for the Scottish kingdom, but the claim was refused. In 1255 an interview between the English and Scottish kings at Kelso led to Menteith and his party losing to Durward's party. But though disgraced, they still retained great influence, and two years later, seizing the person of the king, they compelled their rivals to consent to the erection of a regency representative of both parties.
On attaining his majority in 1262, Alexander declared his intention of resuming the projects on the Western Isles which had been cut short by the death of his father thirteen years before. A formal claim was laid before the Norwegian king Haakon. Not only was this unsuccessful, but next year Haakon responded with a formidable invasion. Sailing round the west coast of Scotland he halted off Arran, where negotiations were opened. These were artfully prolonged by Alexander until the autumn storms should begin. At length Haakon, weary of delay, attacked, only to encounter a terrific storm which greatly damaged his ships. The battle of Largs, fought the next day, was indecisive, but even so, Haakon's position was hopeless. Baffled he turned homewards, but died on the way. The Isles now lay at Alexander's feet, and in 1266 Haakon's successor concluded a treaty by which the Isle of Man and the Western Isles were ceded to Scotland in return for a money payment, Orkney and Shetland alone being retained.
Towards the end of Alexander's reign, the death of all three of his children within a few years made the question of the succession one of pressing importance. In 1284 he induced the Estates to recognize as his heir-presumptive his granddaughter Margaret, the "Maid of Norway". The need for a male heir led him to undergo a second marriage to Yolande (or Joletta) of Dreux in November 1, 1285.
But all such hopes were defeated by the sudden death of the king, who was killed by a fall from his horse in the dark while riding to visit the queen at Kinghorn on the 16th or 19th of March 1286. His death was a disaster for Scotland.
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