Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 16

As David the Second died childless, the male line of his father, the great Robert Bruce, was at an end. But the attachment of the Scottish nation naturally turned to the family of that heroic prince, and they resolved to confer the crown on a grandson of his by the mother’s side. Marjory, the daughter of Robert Bruce, had married Walter, the Lord High Steward of Scotland, and the sixth of his family who had enjoyed that high dignity, in consequence of possessing which the family had acquired the surname of Stewart. This Walter Stewart, with his wife Marjory, were ancestors of the long line of Stewarts who afterwards ruled Scotland, and came at length to be Kings of England also. The last King of the Stewart family lost his kingdoms at the great national Revolution in 1688, and his son and grandsons died in exile. The female line have possession of the crown at this moment, in the person of our Sovereign, King George the Fourth. When, therefore, you hear of the line of Stewart, you will know that the descendants of Walter Stewart and Marjory Bruce are the family meant by that term. It is said, that the Stewarts were descended from Fleance, the son of Banquo, whose posterity the witches declared were to be Kings of Scotland, and who was murdered by Macbeth. But this seems a very doubtful tradition.

Walter, the Steward of Scotland, who married Bruce’s daughter, was a gallant man, and fought bravely at Bannockburn, where he had a high command. But he died young, and much regretted. Robert Stewart, his son by Marjory Bruce, grand son, of course, of King Robert, was the person now called to the throne. He was a good and kind-tempered prince. When young he had been a brave soldier; but he was now fifty-five years old, and subject to a violent inflammation in his eyes, which rendered them as red as blood. From these causes he lived a good deal retired, and was not active enough to be at the head of a fierce and unmanageable nation like the Scots. Robert Stewart’s ascent to the throne was not unopposed, for it was claimed by a formidable competitor. This was William Earl of Douglas. That family, in which so many great men had arisen, was now come to a great pitch of power and prosperity, and possessed almost a sovereign authority in the southern parts of Scotland. The Earl of Douglas was on the present occasion induced to depart from his claim, upon his son being married to Euphemia, the daughter of Robert II. Stewart therefore was crowned without farther opposition. But the extreme power of the Douglases, which raised them almost to a level with the crown, was afterwards the occasion of great national commotion and distress.

There were not many things of moment in the history of Robert II. But the wars with England were less frequent, and the Scots had learned a better way of conducting them. The following instances may be selected.

In 1385, the French, finding themselves hard pressed by the English in their own country, resolved to send an army into Scotland, to assist that nation in making war upon the English, and thus find work for the latter people at home. They sent, therefore, one thousand men-at-arms, — knights, and squires, that is, in full armour; and as each of these had four or five soldiers under him, the whole force was very considerable. They sent also twelve hundred suits of complete armour to the Scots, with a large sum of money, to assist them to make war. This great force was commanded by John de Vienne, High–Admiral of France, a brave and distinguished general. In the mean time, the King of England, Richard II, summoned together, on his side, a larger army perhaps than any King of England had ever before commanded, and moved towards the Scottish Border. The Scots also assembled large forces, and the French admiral expected there would be a great pitched battle. He said to the Scottish nobles, “You have always said, that if you had some hundreds of French men-at-arms to help you, you would give battle to the English. Now, here we are to give you aid — Let us give battle.” The Scottish nobles answered, that they would not run so great a hazard, as risk the fate of the country in one battle; and one of them, probably Douglas, conveyed John de Vienne to a narrow pass, where, unseen themselves, they might see the army of England march through. The Scot made the admiral remark at the great multitude of archers, the number and high discipline of the English men-at-arms, and then asked the Frenchman as a soldier, whether he could advise the Scots to oppose these clouds of archers with a few ill-trained Highland bowmen, or encounter with their small trotting nags the onset of the brilliant chivalry of England.

The Admiral de Vienne could not but own that the risk was too unequal. “But yet, if you do not fight,” he said, “what do you mean to do? If you do not oppose this great force, the English will destroy your country.”

“Let them do their worst,” said Douglas, smiling; “they will find but little to destroy. Our people are all retired into woods, hills, and morasses, and have driven off their cattle, which is their only property, along with them. The English will find nothing either to take away or to eat. The houses of the gentlemen are small towers, with thick walls, which even fire will not destroy; as for the common people, they dwell in mere huts, and if the English choose to burn them, a few trees from the wood is all that is necessary to build them up again.”

“But what will you do with your army if you do not fight?” said the Frenchman; “and how will your people endure the distress, and famine, and plunder, which must be the consequences of the invasion?”

“You shall see that our army will not lie idle,” said Douglas; “and as for our Scottish people, they will endure pillage, and they will endure famine, and every other extremity of war; but they will not endure an English master.” The event showed the truth of what Douglas had said. The great army of England entered Scotland on the eastern side of the frontier, and marched on, much embarrassed and distressed for want of provisions, laying waste the villages and what property they found, but finding very little to destroy, and nothing to subsist upon. On the contrary, no sooner did the Scottish nobles learn that the English were fairly engaged in Scotland, than, with a numerous army, consisting chiefly of light cavalry, like that led by Douglas and Randolph in 1327, they burst into the western counties of England, where they gained more spoil, and did more damage, in the course of a day or two’s march, than the English could have done in Scotland, had they burned the whole country from the Border to Aberdeen.

The English were quickly called back to the defence of their own country, and though there had been no battle, yet from bad roads, want of forage, scantiness of provisions, and similar causes, they had sustained a heavy loss of men and horses; while the Scottish army, on the contrary, had kept good cheer in a country so much richer than their own, and were grown wealthy by plunder. This wise scheme of defence had been recommended to his posterity by the Bruce, as the only effectual mode of defending the Scottish frontier. As to the French auxiliaries, they quarrelled very much with the reception they met with. They complained that the nation which they came to assist treated them with no kindness or good-will, and that they withheld from them forage, provisions, and other supplies. The Scots replied, on the other hand, that their allies were an expense to them, without being of any use; that their wants were many, and could not be supplied in so poor a country as Scotland; and, finally, that they insulted the inhabitants, and pillaged the country wherever they durst. Nor would the Scots permit the French to leave Scotland till they gave security that they would pay the expenses of their own maintenance. The French knights, who had hoped to acquire both wealth and fame, returned in very bad humour from a kingdom where the people were so wild and uncivilized, and the country so mountainous and poor; where the patches of cultivated land bore no proportion to the extended wastes, and the wild animals were much more numerous than those which were trained for the use of man. It was from prudence, not from want of courage, that the Scots avoided great battles with the English. They readily engaged in smaller actions, when they fought with the utmost valour on both sides, till, as an old historian expresses it, sword and lance could endure no longer, and then they would part from each other, saying, “Good day; and thanks for the sport you have shown.” A very remarkable instance of such a desperate battle occurred in the year 1388.

The Scottish nobles had determined upon an invasion of England on a large scale, and had assembled a great army for that purpose; but learning that the people of Northumberland were raising an army on the eastern frontier, they resolved to limit their incursion to that which might be achieved by the Earl of Douglas, with a chosen band of four or five thousand men. With this force he penetrated into the mountainous frontier of England, where an assault was least expected, and issuing forth near Newcastle, fell upon the flat and rich country around, slaying, plundering, burning, and loading his army with spoil.

Percy, Earl of Northumberland, an English noble of great power, and with whom the Douglas had frequently had encounters, sent his two sons, Sir Henry and Sir Ralph Percy, to stop the progress of this invasion. Both were gallant knights; but the first, who, from his impetuosity, was called Hotspur, was one of the most distinguished warriors in England, as Douglas was in Scotland. The brothers threw themselves hastily into Newcastle, to defend that important town; and as Douglas, in an insulting manner, drew up his followers before the walls, they came out to skirmish with the Scots. Douglas and Henry Percy encountered personally; and it so chanced, that Douglas in the struggle got possession of a small ornament of silk, embroidered with pearls, on which was represented a lion, the cognizance, as it is called, of the Percies. Douglas shook this trophy aloft, and declared that he would carry it into Scotland, and plant it on his castle of Dalkeith.

“That,” said Percy, “shalt thou never do. I will regain my lance ere thou canst get back into Scotland.”

“Then,” said Douglas, “come to seek it, and thou shalt find it before my tent.” The Scottish army, having completed the purpose of their expedition, began their retreat up the vale of the little river Reed, which afforded a tolerable road running north-westward towards their own frontier. They encamped at Otterburn, about twenty miles from the Scottish border, on the 19th August, 1388.

In the middle of the night, the alarm arose in the Scottish camp, that the English host were coming upon them, and the moonlight showed the approach of Sir Henry Percy, with a body of men superior in number to that of Douglas. He had already crossed the Reed water, and was advancing towards the left flank of the Scottish army. Douglas, not choosing to receive the assault in that position, drew his men out of the camp, and with a degree of military skill which could scarce have been expected when his forces were of such an undisciplined character, he altogether changed the position of the army, and presented his troops with their front to the advancing English. Hotspur, in the mean time, marched his squadrons through the deserted camp, where there were none left but a few servants and stragglers of the army. The interruptions which the English troops met with, threw them a little into disorder, when the moon arising showed them the Scottish army, which they had supposed to be retreating, drawn up in complete order, and prepared to fight. The battle commenced with the greatest fury; for Percy and Douglas were the two most distinguished soldiers of their time, and each army trusted in the courage and talents of their commanders, whose names were shouted on either side. The Scots, who were outnumbered, were at length about to give way, when Douglas, their leader, caused his banner to advance, attended by his best men. He himself, shouting his war-cry of “Douglas!” rushed forward, clearing his way with the blows of his battle-axe, and breaking into the very thickest of the enemy. He fell, at length, under three mortal wounds. Had his death been observed by the enemy, the event would probably have decided the battle against the Scots; but the English only knew that some brave man-at-arms had fallen. Mean time the other Scottish nobles pressed forward, and found their general dying among several of his faithful esquires and pages, who lay slain around. A stout priest, called William of North Berwick, the chaplain of Douglas, was protecting the body of his wounded patron with a long lance. “How fares it, cousin?” said Sinclair, the first Scottish knight who came up to the expiring leader. “Indifferently,” answered Douglas; “but blessed be God, my ancestors have died in fields of battle, not on down-beds. I sink fast; but let them still cry my war-cry, and conceal my death from my followers. There was a tradition in our family that a dead Douglas should win a field, and I trust it will be this day accomplished.” The nobles did as he had enjoined; they concealed the Earl’s body, and again rushed on to the battle, shouting “Douglas! Douglas!” louder than before. The English were weakened by the loss of the brave brothers, Henry and Ralph Percy, both of whom were made prisoners, fighting most gallantly, and almost no man of note amongst the English escaped death or captivity. Hence a Scottish poet has said of the name of Douglas,

“Hosts have been known at the dread sound to yield,

And, Douglas dead, his name hath won the field.”

Sir Henry Percy became the prisoner of Sir Hugh Montgomery, who obliged him for ransom to build a castle for him at Penoon in Ayrshire. The battle of Otterburn was disastrous to the leaders on both sides — Percy being made captive, and Douglas slain on the field. It has been the subject of many songs and poems, and the great historian Froissart says, that, one other action only excepted, it was the best fought battle of that warlike time. Robert II died at his castle of Dundonald in Kyle, after a short illness, in the seventy-fifth year of his age, on the 19th April, 1390. His reign of nineteen years did not approach in glory to that of his maternal grandfather, Robert Bruce; but it was far more fortunate than that of David II. The claims of Baliol to the crown were not revived; and though the English made more than one incursion into Scotland, they were never able to retain long possession of the country.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29