Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 35

The whole island of Great Britain was now united under one king, though it remained in effect two separate kingdoms, governed by their own separate constitutions, and their own distinct codes of laws, and liable again to be separated, in case, by the death of King James without issue, the kingdoms might have been claimed by different heirs. For although James had two sons, yet there was a possibility that they might have both died before their father, in which case the sceptres of England and Scotland must have passed once more into different hands. The Hamilton family would, in that case, have succeeded to the kingdom of Scotland, and the next heir of Elizabeth to that of England. Who that heir was, it might have been found difficult to determine.

It was in these circumstances to be apprehended, that James, the sovereign of a poor and barren kingdom, which had for so many ages maintained an almost perpetual war with England, would have met with a prejudiced and unpleasant reception form a nation long accustomed to despise the Scotch for their poverty, and to regard them with enmity on account of their constant hostility to the English blood and name. It might have been supposed also, that a people so proud as the English, and having so many justifiable reasons for their pride, would have regarded with an evil eye the transference of the sceptre from the hand of the Tudors, who had swayed it during five successive reigns, to those of a Stewart, descended from the ancient and determined enemies of the English nation. But it was the wise and gracious pleasure Providence, that while so many reasons existed to render the accession of James, and, in consequence, the union of the two crowns, obnoxious to the English people, others should occur, which not only balanced, but for a time completely overpowered that objections, as well in the minds of men of sense and education, as in the judgment of the populace, who are usually averse to foreign rules, for no other reason than that they are such. Queen Elizabeth, after a long and glorious reign, had, in her latter days, become much more cross and uncertain in her temper than had been the case in her youth, more wilful also, and more inclined to exert her arbitrary power on slight occasions. One peculiar cause of offence given to her people was her obstinate refusal to gratify their anxiety, by making, as the nation earnestly desired, some arrangement for the succession to the throne after her own death. On this subject, indeed, she nursed so much suspicion and jealousy, as gave rise to more than one extraordinary scene. The following is a whimsical instance, among others, of her unwillingness to hear of any thing respecting old age and its consequences.

The Bishop of St David’s, preaching in her Majesty’s presence, took occasion from his text, which was Psalm xc. v. 12, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom,” to allude to the Queen’s advanced period of life, she being then sixty-three, and to the consequent infirmities attending upon old age; as, for example, when the grinders shall be few in number, and they wax dark who look out at windows — when they daughters of singing shall be abased, and more to the like purpose. With the tone of these admonitions the Queen was so ill satisfied, that she flung open the window of the closet in which she sate, and told the preacher to keep his admonitions to himself, since she plainly saw the greatest clerks (meaning scholars) were not the wisest men. Nor did her displeasure end here. The bishop was commanded to confine himself to his house for a time, and the Queen, referring to the circumstance some time afterwards, told her courtiers how much the prelate was mistaken in supposing her to be as much decayed as perhaps he might feel himself to be. As for her, she thanked God, neither her stomach nor her strength — her voice for singing, nor her art of fingering instruments, were any whit decayed. And to prove the goodness of her eyes, she produced a little jewel, with an inscription in very small letters, which she offered to Lord Worcester and Sir James Crofts to read. They had too much tact to be sharp-sighted on the occasion, she, therefore, read it herself with apparent ease, and laughed at the error of the good bishop.

The faults of Elizabeth, though arising chiefly from age and ill-temper, were noticed and resented by her subjects, who began openly to show themselves weary of a female reign, forgetting how glorious it had been, and manifested a general desire to have a king to rule over them. With this almost universal feeling, all eyes, even those of Elizabeth’s most confidential statesman and counsellor, Sir Robert Cecil, afterwards Earl of Salisbury, were turned to the King of Scotland as next heir to the crown. He was a Protestant prince, which assured him the favour of the Church of England, and of the numerous and strong adherents to the Protestant religion. As such, Cecil entered into a secret correspondence with him, in which he pointed out the line of conduct proper on James’s part to secure his interest in England. On the other hand, the English Catholics, on whom Queen Elizabeth’s government had imposed many severe penal laws, were equally friendly to the succession of King James, since from that prince, whose mother had been a strict Catholic, they might hope for favour, to the extent at least of some release from the various hardships which the laws of England imposed on them. The Earl of Northumberland conducted a correspondence with James on the part of the Catholics, in which he held high language, and offered to assert the Scottish King’s right of succession by force of arms.

These intrigues were dept by James as secret as was in his power. If Elizabeth had discovered either the one or the other, neither the services of Cecil, nor the high birth and power of the great Earl of Northumberland, could have saved them from experiencing the extremity of her indignation. Cecil, in particular, was at one time on the point of ruin. A post from Scotland delivered into his hands a private packet from the Scottish King, when the secretary was in attendance on Elizabeth. “Open your despatches,” said Elizabeth, “and let us hear the news from Scotland.” A man of less presence of mind would have been ruined; for if the Queen had seen the least hesitation in her minister’s manner, her suspicions would have been instantly awakened, and detection must have followed. But Cecil recollected the Queen’s sensitive aversion to any disagreeable smell, which was strengthened by the belief of the time, that infectious diseases and subtile poisons could be communicated by means of scent alone. The artful secretary availed himself of this, and while he seemed to be cutting the strings which held the packet, he observed it had a singular and unpleasant odour; on which Elizabeth desired it might be taken from her presence, and opened elsewhere with due precaution. Thus Cecil got an opportunity to withdraw from the packet whatever could have betrayed his correspondence with King James. Cecil’s policy and inclinations were very generally followed in the English Court; indeed, there appeared no heir to the crown, male or female, whose right could be placed in competition with that of James. It may be added to this general inclination in James’s favour, that the defects of his character were of a kind which did not attract much attention while he occupied the throne of Scotland. The delicacy of his situation was then so great, and he was exposed to so many dangers from the dislike of the clergy, the feuds of the nobles, and the tumultuous disposition of the common people, that he dared not indulge in any of those childish freaks of which he was found capable when his motions were more completely at his own disposal. On the contrary, he was compelled to seek out the sagest counsellors, to listen to the wisest advice, and to put a restraint on his own natural disposition for encouraging idle favourites, parasites, and flatterers, as well as to suppress his inward desire to extend the limits of his authority farther than the constitution of the country permitted. At time period James governed by the advice of such ministers as the Chancellor Maitland, and afterwards of Home, Earl of Dunbar, men of thought and action, of whose steady measures and prudent laws the King naturally obtained the credit. Neither was James himself deficient in a certain degree of sagacity. He possessed all that could be derived from learning alloyed by pedantry, and from a natural shrewdness of wit, which enabled him to play the part of a man of sense, when either acting under the influence of constraint and fear, or where no temptation occurred to induce him to be guilty of some folly. It was by these specious accomplishments that he acquired in his youth the character of an able and wise monarch, although when he was afterwards brought on a more conspicuous stage, and his character better understood, he was found entitled to no better epithet than that conferred on him by an able French politician, who called him, “the wisest fool in Christendom.” Such, however, as King James was, England now received him with more universal acclamation than had attended any of her princes on their ascent to the throne. Multitudes, of every description, hastened to accompany him on his journey through England to the capital city. The wealthy placed their gold at his disposal, the powerful opened their halls for the mast magnificent entertainments, the clergy hailed him as the head of the Church, and the poor, who had nothing to offer but their lives, seemed ready to devote them to his service. Some of the Scottish retinue, who were acquainted with James’s character, saw and feared the unfavourable effect which such a change of circumstances was likely to work on him. “A plague of these people!” said one of his oldest domestics; “they will spoil a good king.”

Another Scot made an equally shrewd answer to an Englishman, who desired to know from him the King’s real character. “Did you ever see a jackanapes?” said the Scotchman, meaning a tame monkey; “if you have, you must be aware that if you hold the creature in your hands you can make him bite me, and if I hold him in my hands, I can make him bite you.”

Both these sayings were shown to be true in course of time. King James, brought from poverty to wealth, became thoughtless and prodigal, indolent, and addicted to idle pleasures. From hearing the smooth flatteries of the clergy of England, who recognised him as head of the church, instead of the rude attacks of the Presbyterian ministers of Scotland, who had hardly admitted his claim to be one of its inferior members, he entertained new and more lofty pretension to divine right. Finally, brought from a country where his personal liberty and the freedom of his government were frequently placed under restraint, and his life sometimes in danger, he was overjoyed to find himself in a condition where his own will was not only unfettered, as far as he himself was concerned, but appeared to be the model by which all loyal subjects were desirous to accommodate theirs; and he seemed readily enough disposed to stretch to its utmost limits the power thus presented to him. Thus, from being a just and equitable monarch, he was inspired with a love of arbitrary power; and from attending, as had been his custom, to state business, he now minded little save hunting and festivals.

In this manner James, though possessing a large stock of pedantic wisdom, came to place himself under the management of a succession of unworthy favourites, and although particularly good-natured, and naturally a lover of justice, was often hurried into actions and measures, which, if they could not be termed absolutely tyrannical, were nevertheless illegal and unjust. It is, however, of his Scottish government that we are now to treat, and therefore I am to explain to you, as well as I can, the consequences of the union with England to the people and country of Scotland. If the English nation were at first delighted to receive King James as their sovereign, the Scottish people were no less enchanted by the prospect of their monarch’s ascent to this wealthy and preeminent situation. They considered the promotion of their countryman and prince as an omen of good fortune to their nation; each individual Scotchman expected to secure some part of the good things with which England was supposed to abound, and multitudes harried to court, to put themselves in the way of obtaining their share. James was shocked at the greediness and importunity of his hungry countrymen, and scandalized besides at the poor and miserable appearance which many of them made among the rich Englishmen, which brought discredit on the country to which he himself, as well as they, belonged. He sent instructions to the Scottish Privy Council to prevent such intruders from leaving their country, complaining of their manners and appearance, as calculated to bring disgrace upon all the natives of Scotland. A proclamation was accordingly issued at Edinburgh, setting forth that great numbers of men and women of base sort and condition, and without any certain trade, calling, or dependence, repaired from Scotland to court, which was almost filled with them, to the great annoyance of his Majesty, and to the heavy disgrace of the Scottish nation; for these suitors being, in the judgment of all who saw them, but “idle rascals, and poor miserable bodies,” their importunity and numbers raised an opinion that there were no persons of good rank, comeliness, or credit in the country which sent forth such a flight of locusts. Further, it was complained that these unseemly supplicants usually alleged that the cause of their repairing to court was to desire payment of old debts due by the King, “which, of all kinds of importunity,” says the proclamation, with great simplicity, “is the most unpleasing to his Majesty.” Therefore, general proclamation was directed to be made at all the market crosses in Scotland, that no Scottish person should be permitted to travel to England without leave of the Privy Council; and that vessels transporting individuals, who had not obtained due license, should be liable to confiscation. But although the King did all that was in his power to prevent these uncouth suitors from repairing to his court, yet there were many other natives of Scotland of a higher description, the sons of men of rank and quality, who, by birth and condition, had the right of attending his court, and approaching his presence, whom he could not prohibit from doing so, without positively disowning all former affections, national feeling, and sympathy or gratitude for past services. The benefits which he conferred on these were ill construed by the English, who seem to have accounted every thing as taken from themselves which was bestowed on a Scotchman. The King, though it does not appear that he acted with any unjust purpose, was hardly judged, both by his own countrymen and the English. The Scots, who had been his friends in his inferior situation, and, as it might be called, his adversity, naturally expected a share of his bounty, when he was advanced to such high prosperity; while the English, with a jealousy for which much allowance is also to be made, regarded these northern suitors with an evil eye. In short, the Scottish courtiers though that their claims of ancient services, of allegiance tried under difficult circumstances, of favour due to countrymen, and perhaps even to kindred, with no people carry so far, entitled them to all the advantages which the King might have to bestow; while the English, on the other hand, considered every thing given to the Scots as conferred at their expense, and used many rhymes and satirical expressions to that purpose, such as occur in the old song:

Bonny Scot, all witness can,

England has made thee a gentleman.

Thy blue bonnet, when thou came hither,

Would scarcely keep out the wind or weather;

But now it is turn’d to a hat and a feather —

The bonnet is blown the devil knows whither.

The sword at thy haunch was a huge black blade,

With a great basket-hilt, of iron made;

But now a long rapier doth hand by his side,

And huffingly doth this bonny Scot ride.

Another rhyme, to the same purpose, described a Scottish courtier thus:—

In Scotland he was born and bred,

And, though a beggar, must be fed.

It is said, that when the Scots complained to the King of this last aspersion, James replied, “Hold your peace, for I will soon make the English as poor as yourselves, and so end that controversy.” But as it was not in the power of wit to appease the feud betwixt the nobility and gentry of two proud nations, so lately enemies, all the efforts of the King were unequal to prevent bloody and desperate quarrels between his countrymen and his new subjects, to the great disquiet of the court, and the distress of the good-natured monarch, who, averse to war in all its shapes, and even to the sight of a drawn sword, suffered grievously on such occasions.

There was one of those incidents which assumed a character so formidable, that it threatened the destruction of all the Scots at the court and in the capital, and, in consequence, a breach between the kingdoms so lately and happily brought into alliance. As a public horse-race at Croydon, Philip Herbert, an Englishman of high birth, though, as it fortunately chanced, of no degree of corresponding spirit, received, an a quarrel, a blow in the face by a switch or horse-whip, from one Ramsay, a Scottish gentleman, in attendance on the court. The rashness and violence of Ramsay was construed into a national point of quarrel by the English present, who proposed revenging themselves on the spot by a general attack upon all the Scots on the race-ground. One gentleman, named Pinchbeck, although ill fitted for such a strife, for he had but the use of two fingers on his right hand, rode furiously through the multitude, with his dagger ready drawn, exhorting all the English to imitate him in an immediate attack on the Scots, exclaiming, “Let us breakfast with those that are here, and dine with the rest in London.” But as Herbert did not return the blow, no scuffle or assault actually took place; otherwise, it is probable, a dreadful scene must have ensued. James, with whom Herbert was a particular favourite, rewarded his moderation or timidity by raising him to the rank of Knight, Baron, Viscount, and Earl of Montgomery, all in one day. Ramsay was banished the court for a season; and thus the immediate affront was in some degree alleviated. But the new Earl Montgomery remained, in the opinion of his countrymen, a dishonoured man; and it is said his mother, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, wept and tore her hair when she heard of his having endured with patience the insult offered by Ramsay. This is the lady whom, in a beautiful epitaph, Ben Jonson has described as

Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother;

Death, ere thou has slain another

Wise, and good, and learn’d as she,

Time shall throw a dart at thee.

Yet the patience of Herbert under the insult was the fortunate prevention of a great national misfortune, for which, if his after conduct had not given tokens of an abject spirit, he might have been praised as a patriot, who had preferred the good of his country to the gratification of his own immediate resentment.

Another offence given by the haughty and irascible temper of a Scotchman, was also likely to have produced disastrous consequences. The Inns of Court are the places of resort and study appointed for those young men who are destined to the profession of the law in England, and they are filled with students, men often of high family and accomplishments, and who, living together in the sort of colleges set apart for their residence, have always kept up the ideas of privilege and distinction, to which their destination to a highly honourable profession, as well as their won birth and condition, entitles them. One of these gentlemen, by name Edward Hawley, appeared at court on a public occasion, and probably intruded farther than his rank authorized; so that Maxwell, a Scotchman, much favoured by James, and an usher of his chamber, not only thrust him back, but actually pulled him out of the presence-chamber by a black ribband, which, like other gallants of the time, Hawley wore at his ear. Hawley, who was a man of spirit, instantly challenged Maxwell to fight; and his second, who carried the challenge, informed him, that if he declined such meeting, Hawley would assault him wherever they should meet, and either kill him or be killed on the spot. James, by his royal interference, was able to solder up this quarrel also. He compelled Maxwell to make an apology to Hawley; and for the more full accommodation of the dispute, accepted of a splendid masque and entertainment offered on the occasion by the students of Gray’s Inn Lane, the society to which the injured gentleman belonged.

We may here remark a great change in the manners of the gallants of the time, which had taken place in the progress of civilisation, to which I formerly alluded. The ancient practice of trial by combat, which made a principal part of the feudal law, and which was resorted to in so many cases, had now fallen into disuse. The progress of reason, and the principles of justice, concurred to prove that a combat in the lists might indeed show which of two knights was the best rider and the stoutest swordsman, but that such an encounter could afford no evidence which of the two was innocent or guilty; since it can only be believed in a very ignorant age that Providence is to work a miracle in case of every chance combat, and award success to the party whose virtue best deserves it. The trial by combat, therefore, though it was not actually removed from the statute-book, was in fact only once appealed to after the accession of James, and even then the combat, as a mode of trial unsuited to enlightened times, did not take place.

For the same reason the other sovereigns of Europe discountenanced these challenges and combats, undertaken for pure honour or in revenge of some injury, which it used to be their custom to encourage, and to sanction with their own presence. Such rencounters were now generally accounted by all sensible persons an inexcusable waste of gallant men’s lives for matters of mere punctilio; and were strictly forbidden, under the highest penalties, by the Kings both of England and France, and, generally speaking, throughout the civilized world. But the royal command could not change the hearts of those to whom it was addressed, nor could the penalties annexed to the breach of the law intimidate men, whom a sense of honour, though a false one, had already induced to hold life cheap. Men fought as many, perhaps even more, single combats than formerly; and although such meetings took place without the publicity and formal show of lists, armour, horses, and the attendance of heralds and judges of the field, yet they were not less bloody than those which had been formerly fought with the observance of every point of chivalry.

According to the more modern practice, combatants met in some solitary place, alone, or each accompanied by a single friend called a second, who were supposed to see fair play. The combat was generally fought with the rapier or small swords, a peculiarly deadly weapon, and the combatants, to show they wore no defensive armour under their clothes, threw off their coats and waistcoats, and fought in their shirts. The duty of the seconds, properly interpreted, was only to see fair play; but as these hot-spirited young men felt it difficult to remain cool and inactive when they saw their friends engaged, it was very common for them, though without even the shadow of a quarrel, to fight also; and, in that case, whoever first despatched his antagonist, or rendered him incapable of further resistance, came without hesitation to the assistance of his comrade, and thus the decisive superiority was brought on by odds of numbers, which contradicts all our modern ideas of honour or of gallantry.

Such were the rules of the duel, as these single combats were called. The fashion came from France to England, and was adopted by the Scots and English as the readiest way of settling their national quarrels, which became very numerous.

One of the most noted of these was the bloody and fatal conflict between Sir James Stewart, eldest son of the first Lord Blantyre, a Scottish Knight of the Bath, and Sir George Wharton, an Englishman, eldest son of Lord Wharton, a Knight of the same order. These gentlemen were friends; and, if family report speaks truth, Sir James Stewart was one of the most accomplished young men of his time. A trifling dispute at play led to uncivil expressions on the part of Wharton, to which Stewart answered by a blow. A defiance was exchanged on the spot, and they resolved to fight next day t an appointed place near Waltham. This fatal appointment made, they carried their resentment with a show of friendship, and drank some wine together; after finishing which, Wharton observed to his opponent, “Our next meeting will not part so easily.” The fatal rencounter took place; both gentlemen fought with the most determined courage, and both fell with many wounds, and died on the field of battle.

Sometimes the rage and passion of the gallants of the day did not take the fairest, but the shortest, road to revenge; and the courtiers of James I, men of honourable birth and title, were, in some instances, known to attack an enemy by surprise, without regard to the previous appointment of a place of meeting, or any regulation as to the number of the combatants. Nay, it seems as if, on occasions of special provocation, the English did not disdain to use the swords of hired assassins in aid of their revenge, and all punctilios of equality of arms or numbers were set aside as idle ceremonies.

Sir John Ayres, a man of rank and fortune, entertained jealousy of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, celebrated as a soldier and philosopher, from having discovered that his wife, Lady Ayres, wore around her neck the picture of that high-spirited and accomplished nobleman. Incensed by the suspicions thus excited, Sir John watched Lord Herbert, and, meeting him on his return from court, attended by only two servants, he attacked him furiously, backed by four of his followers with drawn weapons, and accompanied by many others, who, though they did not directly unsheath their swords, yet served to lend countenance to the assault. Lord Herbert was thrown down under his horse; his swords, with which he endeavoured to defend himself, was broken in his hand; and the weight of the horse prevented him from rising. One of his lacqueys ran away on seeing his master attacked by such odds; the other stood by him, and released his foot, which was entangled in the stirrup. At this moment Sir John Ayres was standing over him, and in the act of attempting to plunge his sword in his body; but Lord Herbert, catching him by the legs, brought him also to the ground; and, although the young lord had but a fragment of his sword remaining, he struck his unmanly antagonist on the stomach with such force as deprived him of the power to prosecute his bloody purpose; and some of Lord Herbert’s friends coming up, the assassin thought it prudent to withdraw, vomiting blood in consequence of the blow he had received.

This scuffle lasted for some time in the streets of London, without any person feeling himself called upon to interfere in behalf of the weaker party; and Sir John Ayres seems to have entertained no shame for the enterprise, but only regret that it had not succeeded. Lord Herbert sent him a challenge as soon as his wounds were in the way of being cured; and the gentleman who bore it, placed the letter on the point of his sword, and in that manner delivered it publicly to the person whom he addressed. Sir John Ayres replied, that the injury he had received from Lord Herbert was of such a nature, that he would not consent to any terms of fair play, but would shoot him from a window with a musket, if he could find an opportunity. Lord Herbert protests, in his Memoirs, that there was no cause given on his part for the jealousy which drove Sir John Ayres to such desperate measures of revenge.

A still more noted case of cruel vengeance, and which served to embitter the general hatred against the Scots, was a crime committed by Lord Sanquhar, a nobleman of that country, the representative of the ancient family of Creichton. This young lord, in fencing with a man called Turner, a teacher of the science of defence, had the misfortune to be deprived of an eye by the accidental thrust of a foil. The mishap was, doubtless, both distressing and provoking; but there was no room to blame Turner, by whom no injury had been intended, and who greatly regretted the accident. One or two years after this, Lord Sanquhar being at the court of France, Henry IV, then king, asked him how he had lost his eye. Lord Sanquhar, not wishing to dwell on the subject, answered in general terms, that it was by the thrust of a sword. “Does the man who did the injury still live?” asked the King; and the unhappy question impressed it indelibly upon the heart of the infatuated Lord Sanquhar that his honour required the death of the poor fencing-master. Accordingly, he despatched his page and another of his followers, who pistolled Turner in his own school. The murderers were taken, and acknowledged they had been employed to do the deed by their lord, whose commands, they said, they had been bred up to hold as indisputable warrants for the execution of whatever he might enjoin. All the culprits being brought to trial and condemned, much interest was made for Lord Sanquhar, who was a young man, it is said, of eminent parts. But to have pardoned him would have argued too gross a partiality in James towards his countrymen and original subjects. He was hanged, therefore, along with his two associates; which Lord Bacon termed the most exemplary piece of justice in any king’s reign.

To sum up the account of these acts of violence, they gave occasion to a severe law, called the statute of stabbing. Hitherto, in the mild spirit of English jurisprudence, the crime of a person slaying another without premeditation only amounted to the lesser denomination of murder which the law calls manslaughter, and which had been only punishable by fine and imprisonment. But, to check the use of short swords and poniards, weapons easily concealed, and capable of being suddenly produced, it was provided, that if any one, though without forethought or premeditation, with sword or dagger, attacked and wounded another whose weapon was not drawn, of which would the party should die within six months after receiving it, the crime should not be accounted homicide, but rise into the higher class of murder, and be as such punished with death accordingly.

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