Escapes, by John Buchan


Sir Robert Gary’s Ride to Edinburgh

THE history of these islands is strewn with tales of swift and fateful rides, but as a rule the distances were short. In old days it was nobody’s business to get in a hurry from Land’s End to John o 5 Groats, and long journeys, even the marches of the Edwards into Scotland, were leisurely affairs. But though roads were infamous, horses were as good then as now, and if a man were called upon for an extended journey against time he could make a record on horseback that was scarcely surpassed till the days of steam. Queen Mary, after the Battle of Langside, rode the 92 miles through the western moorlands to the shores of the Solway without, as she said, drawing rein, though I presume there were changes of mount. That, indeed, is the essence of the business, for no horse ever foaled can keep its pace beyond a certain limit. The present writer once, in his youth, rode 75 miles in the Northern Transvaal at a stretch on one horse; but, after the Boer fashion, he off-saddled every two hours for twenty minutes a thing impossible in a really hustled journey.

This story tells of the ride of Sir Robert Gary from London to Edinburgh with the news of the death of Elizabeth. The distance by any road was little less than 400 miles, but he probably took short cuts after he crossed the Border. He did the course in something under sixty hours a most remarkable achievement. When William HI. died at 8 a.m. on March 8, 1702, the news, though sent off at once, did not reach Edinburgh till 10 p.m. on llth March 85 hours. Gary’s record was not indeed approached till the days of post-chaises and flying mails. In 1832 the Reform Bill passed the Lords at 6.35 a.m. on Saturday, 14th April, Sixty-five minutes later Mr. Young of The Sun newspaper left the Strand in a post-chaise and four, with copies of the paper containing a report of the debate and the division, and on Sunday, at 7.30 p.m., he arrived at the house of his agent in Glasgow. The distance was 403 miles, and it was covered in 35 hours 50 minutes.”

‘Five years later, when the completion of Telford’s new Carlisle–Glasgow road had reduced the distance to 397 miles, the mail which “brought to Glasgow news of the death of William IV. left the General Post Office at 8 p.m. on 20th June and reached Glasgow at 2 p.m. on 22nd June & total of 42 hours. But till 1832 Gary’s record would seem to have held the field. Now for the story. Sir Robert Gary, who afterwards became Earl of Monmouth, was the youngest of the ten sons of Henry Lord Hunsdon, who was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. He had a varied and adventurous youth. As a very young man he visited Scotland with Walsingham, and thus formed his first acquaintance with King James. The Scottish king would have taken him into his service; but there were difficulties with Elizabeth, and young Gary consequently went to the Low Countries with the Earl of Essex. When Mary of Scots was beheaded he was chosen to carry Elizabeth’s explanations to James in Scotland, and the following year he was again at Dumfries with the Scottish king, who was busy suppressing refractory Maxwells. In 1589, being very hard up, he wagered 2,000 with another courtier that he would walk the 300 miles to Berwick in twelve days. He won his bet, and thereafter, he tells us, was enabled to live for some time at Court like a gentleman. He must have been no mean pedestrian, and that in an age when the gentry rode too habitually to walk well.

After that he crossed the Channel again with Essex, ancTcommanded a regiment with some distinction, so that he was knighted on the field by his general. When the French war was ended he found himself without employment and considerably in debt. He was lucky enough, however, to be appointed successor to old Lord Scroop, the Warden of the West Marches. The Scottish border was at that time divided into three Wardenships the East Marches, from the sea to the Great Cheviot; the Middle Marches, from Cheviot to the Liddel; and the West Marches, extending to the Solway shore.

He was now in his early thirties, and for some years he led a stirring life, keeping order among the Armstrongs, Elliots, and Grahams in the “ Debateable Land.” Sir Robert was not the most elevated of characters; he was a true courtier, steering the frail barque of his fortunes with caution and skill in the difficult waters of the queen’s favour. Once he was sent on a very confidential mission to James at Edinburgh, and seeing that the King of Scots must sooner or later come to the English throne, he laboured to stand well with him. Presently he became Deputy-Warden for his father in the East Marches, and was given the Captainship of Norham Castle on Tweed. There he had perpetual troubles with Sir Robert Ker of Cessford, the ancestor of the Dukes of Roxburghe, and on the whole got the better of that stalwart Borderer. There seems to have been little ill-will in the Marches in those days. Both sides laboured to outwit the other, but they bore no grudge for failure, and one month would be harrying each other’s lands and the nest hobnobbing at huntings and festivals. By and by Sir Robert Ker became his hostage and guest, and the two grew fast friends.

When Lord Hunsdon died Sir Robert was made Warden in his father’s place, and with the help of the Fosters, Ridleys, Musgraves, Fenwicks, and Widdringtons, exercised a strong, if cautious, rule throughout the bounds of Cheviot. He led an expedition against the Armstrongs, who sheltered themselves in the Bog of Tarras, and by a swift march got in on their rear and made a large haul of prisoners. Sir Walter Scott., in his early journeyings in Liddesdale, found that the people there had still a tradition of what they called “Mc Gary’s raid.” It was the most creditable period of his life, and he seems to have enjoyed it, for there was that in the man which delighted in alarums and excursions.

But once a courtier always a courtier. Throughout these stirring years Gary was perpetually haunted by anxiety as to how he stood in the Queen’s favour, and when he could spare the time would go South to show himself at Court. At the end of the year 1602 he was in London and found Elizabeth very ill. “She took me by the hand and wrung it hard, and said, ‘Young Robin, I am not well,’ and then discoursed with me of her indisposition and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days; and rp. her discourse she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs. I was grieved at first to see her in this plight, for of all my life before I never knew her fetch a sigh but when the Queen of Scots was beheaded.”

The great Queen was now seventy years of age. All spring and summer she had been very well and had gone maying in the Lewisham woods. The Ambassador of Scotland had been kept waiting in corridors, as if to announce to his master that the time was far distant when he could transfer himself to Whitehall. In the autumn the Court had been especially gay; but Lord Worcester had noted that the Queen was failing, and that in the winter “ the tune of Lullaby “ would be tlie one wanted. In the middle of January 1603, on the insistence of her doctors, she moved to Richmond, where the Court and Council followed her. At first nothing would persuade her to go to bed; and when Nottingham and Cecil insisted she replied that the word “ must “ was not used to princes. “ Little man, little man,” she cried to Cecil, “ if your father had lived you durst not have said so much; but you know I must die and that makes you presumptuous.”

On the 22nd of March she was obviously sinking. She told Nottingham that only a king must succeed her, and when pressed to be more explicit, added, “ Who should that be but our cousin of Scotland? “ On Wednesday, 23rd March, she was speechless, and that afternoon called her Council to her bedchamber. When she was asked about her successor she put her hand to her head at the mention of the King of Scots, which the watchers interpreted to signify acquiescence. The archbishop and her chaplains remained with her praying during the night, and at about three on the morning of the 24th she died.

Gary was in a fever of impatience. He remembered his old acquaintance with King James, and realized that whoever took trim the first news of the Queen’s death would stand a good chance of rising high in his favour. But he was also aware that the Lords of the Council would do their best to prevent any unauthorized messenger, and that they certainly would not authorize him. On the night of the 23rd he went back to his lodging, leaving word with the servants of the Queen’s household to let him know if it were likely the Queen would die, and giving the porter an angel to let him in at any time he called. Between one and two on Thursday morning he received a message that the Queen was at the point of death, and he hastened to the royal apartments. There at first he was forbidden entrance, the Lords of the Council having ordered that none should go in or out except by their warrant. But a friend managed to get him in, and passing through the waiting ladies in the ante-chamber he entered the privy chamber, where the Council was assembled. The Lords dealt with him brusquely, for they had divined his intention and forbade him to go to Scotland till they sent him. He then went to his brother’s room, roused Mm, and made him accompany frim to the gate. The porter could not refuse, in spite of the Council’s orders, to let out Lord Hunsdon, and the zealous Sir Robert managed to follow in his train, Gary was a man of action and did not let the grass grow under Ms feet. He rode straight to the Knight Marshal’s lodging by Charing Cross, where he slept till morning. At nine o’clock he heard that the Lords of the Council were in the old orchard at Whitehall, and he sent the Marshal to tell them that he awaited their commands. They were determined that Gary should not move; but they told the Marshal to send for him, as if they meant to dispatch him, at once to King James. One of them, however, Lord Banbury, whispered in the Marshal’s ear that if Gary came he would be detained and another sent in his stead. The Marshal met Gary arriving at the gate, and told him the facts. Gary’s mind was made up. He turned, mounted his horse, and rode for the North.

The start was made between nine and ten o’clock. The route was probably the Great North Road to Doncaster, where he slept the night, having covered 155 miles since the morning. Next day he reached his own house at Widdrington in Northumberland, the house of the March Warden, having left some very weary cattle on the road behind him. There he gave his deputies instructions to see to the peace of the Borders, and next morning to proclaim James King of England at Morpeth and Alnwick. At dawn on Saturday, the 26th, he took the road again and reached his Castle of Norham about noon, travelling probably by the eastern end of the Cheviots and the town of Wooler.

It was a disastrous morning, for he had a bad fall and was kicked by his horse on the head, so that he lost much blood. But Gary was a true moss-trooper^ and though forty-three years of age was as tough in body as any young Armstrong or Elliot. He did not tarry at Norham, but set off at once for Edinburgh, probably by the valley of the Leader and Soutra Hj.ll. He complains that he was compelled to ride a “ soft pace ” because of his wounds, or he would have been in Edinburgh early in the evening in time for supper.

He finally arrived at Holyrood about nine or ten, and found that the King had gone to bed. Crying that he had great news for the royal ear, he was at once taken to the King’s chamber, where he knelt and saluted James as monarch of England, Scotland, Ireland, and France. The King gave him, his hand to kiss and welcomed him kindly, listening eagerly to the tale of the Queen’s sickness and death. He asked if there were any letters from the Council. But Gary explained the position and how narrowly he had escaped from them. But he gave the King “ a blue ring from a fair lady ” (I presume Queen Elizabeth), on which His Majesty said, “ It is enough. I know by this you are a true messenger.” Gary was handed over to Lord Home, with strict instructions for his entertainment, and the Bang’s own surgeons were sent to look after him. When he kissed hands on departure, James thus addressed him: “I know you have lost a near kinswoman and a loving mistress; but take here my hand. I will be as good a master to you, and will requite this service with honour and reward.”

Sir Robert went to bed a happy man, and for a day or two his fortunes looked roseate. But presently came the bitter complaint by the Lords of the Council of his unauthorized performance and he realized that James’s gratitude was a brittle thing and that he had too many competitors for the.royal favour. For a year or two the poor moss-trooper was under a cloud. But his tough and wary spirit could not be permanently eclipsed, and before long he had risen again to favour. He accompanied Prince Charles and the Duke of Buckingham on their wild visit to Spain, and was given an earldom by Bang Charles I.

As I have said, his was no very elevated character, and Ms name lives in English history only because of his mad three days’ ride, which for more than two hundred years was not equalled.

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05