Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 20

WHEN James I was murdered, his son and heir, James II, was only six years old; so that Scotland was once more plunged into all the discord and confusions of a regency, which were sure to reach their height in a country where even the disputed sway of a sovereign of mature age was not held in due respect, and was often disturbed by treason and rebellion.

The affairs of the kingdom, during the minority of James II., were chiefly managed by two statesmen, who seem to have been men of considerable personal talent, but very little principle or integrity. Sir Alexander Livingstone was guardian of the King’s person; Sir William Crichton was Chancellor of the kingdom. They debated betwixt themselves the degree of authority attached to their respective offices, and at once engaged in quarrels with each other and with one who was more powerful than either of them — the great Earl of Douglas.

That mighty house was now at the highest pitch of its greatness. The earl possessed Galloway, Annan-dale, and other extensive properties in the south of Scotland, where almost all the inferior nobility and gentry acknowledged him as their patron and lord. Thus the Douglasses had at their disposal that part of Scotland, which from its constant wars with England, was most disciplined and accustomed to arms. They possessed the duchy of Touraine and lordship of Longueville in France, and they were connected by intermarriage with the Scottish royal family.

The Douglasses were not only powerful from the extent of lands and territories, but also from possession of great military talents, which seemed to pass from father to son, and occasioned a proverb, still remembered in Scotland. —

“So many, so good, as of the Douglasses have been,

Of one sirname in Scotland never yet were seen.”

Unfortunately, their power, courage, and military skill, were attended with arrogance and ambition, and the Douglasses seemed to have claimed to themselves the rank and authority of sovereign princes, independent of the laws of the country, and of the allegiance due to the monarch. It was a common thing for them to ride with a retinue of a thousand horse; and as Archibald, the Earl of Douglas of the time, rendered but an imperfect allegiance even to the severe rule of James I, it might be imagined that his power could not be easily restrained by such men as Crichton and Livingston — great indeed, through the high offices which they held, but otherwise of a degree far inferior to that of Douglas.

But when this powerful nobleman died, in 1439, and was succeeded by his son William, a youth of only sixteen years old, the wily Crichton began to spy an occasion to crush the Douglasses, as he hoped, for ever, by the destruction of the youthful earl and his brother, and for abating, by this cruel and unmerited punishment, the power and pride of this great family. Crichton proposed to Livingston to join him in this meditated treachery; and, though enemies to each other, the guardian of the King and the chancellor of the Kingdom united in the vile project of cutting off two boys, whose age alone showed their innocence of the guilt charged upon them. For this purpose flattery and fair words were used to induce the young earl, and his brother David, with some of their nearest friends, to come to court, where it was pretended that they would be suitable companions and intimates for the young King. An old adherent of the family greatly dissuaded the earl from accepting this invitation, and exhorted him, if he went to Edinburgh in person, to leave at least his brother David behind him. But the unhappy youth, thinking that no treachery was intended, could not be diverted from the fatal journey. The Chancellor Crichton received the Earl of Douglas and his brother on their journey, at his own castle of Crichton, and with the utmost appearance of hospitality and kindness. After remaining a day or two at this place, the two brothers were inveigled to Edinburgh castle, and introduced to the young King, who, not knowing the further purpose of his guardians, received them with affability, and seemed delighted with the prospect of enjoying their society.

On a sudden the scene began to change. At an entertainment which was served up to the earl and his brother, the head of a black bull was placed on the table. The Douglasses knew this, according to a custom which prevailed in Scotland, to be the sign of death, and leaped from the table in great dismay. But they were seized by armed men who entered the apartment. They underwent a mock trial, in which all the insolences of their ancestors were charged against them, and were condemned to immediate execution. The young King wept, and implored Livingston and Crichton to show mercy to the young noblemen, but in vain. These cruel men only reproved him for weeping at the death of those whom they called his enemies. The brethren were led out to the court of the castle, and beheaded without delay. Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, a faithful adherent of their house, shared the same fate with the two brothers. This barbarous proceeding was as unwise as it was unjust. It did not reduce the power of the Douglasses, but only raised general detestation against those who managed the affairs of James II. A fat, quiet, peaceable person, called James the Gross, indolent from habit of body and temper of mind, next became Earl of Douglas, which was probably the reason that no public commotion immediately attended on the murder of the hapless brothers. But this corpulent dignitary lived only two years, and was in his turn succeeded by his son William, who was as active and turbulent as any of his ambitious predecessors, and engaged in various civil broils for the purpose of revenging the death of his kinsmen.

James the Second, in the mean while, came to man’s estate, and entered on the management of public affairs. He was a handsome man, but his countenance was marked on one side with a broad red spot, which gained him the surname of James with the Fiery Face. They might have called him James with the fiery temper, in like manner; for, with many good qualities, be had a hot and impetuous disposition, of which we shall presently see a remarkable instance.

William, who had succeeded to the earldom of Douglas, was enormously wealthy and powerful. The family had gradually added to their original patrimony the lordship of Galloway, the lordship of Bothwell, the dukedom of Touraine, and lordship of Longueville, in France, the lordship of Annandale, and the earldom of Wigton. So that, in personal wealth and power, the Earl of Douglas not only approached to, but greatly exceeded the King himself. The Douglasses, however, though ambitious and unruly subjects in time of peace, were always gallant defenders of the liberties of Scotland during the time of war; and if they were sometimes formidable to their own sovereigns, they were not less so to their English enemies. In 1448, war broke out betwixt England and Scotland, and the incursions on both sides became severe and destructive. The English, under young Percy, destroyed Dumfries, and in return the Scots, led by Lord Balveny, the youngest brother of Douglas, burnt the town of Alnwick. The Lord Percy of Northumberland, with the Earl of Huntingdon, advanced into Scotland with an army, said by the French historians to amount to fifteen thousand men. The Earl of Douglas, to whom the King had intrusted the defence of the frontiers, met him with a much inferior force, defeated the invaders, and made their leaders prisoners.

Incensed at this defeat, the English assembled an army of fifty thousand men, under the command of the Earl of Northumberland, who had under him a celebrated general, called Sir Magnus Redmain, long governor of the town of Berwick; Sir John Pennington, ancestor of the family of Muncaster, and other leaders of high reputation. The task of encountering this mighty host fell upon Hugh, Earl of Ormond, brother also of the Earl of Douglas, who assembled an army of thirty thousand men, and marched to meet the invaders. The English had entered the Scottish border, and advanced beyond the small river Sark, when the armies came in presence of each other. The English began the battle, as usual, with a fatal discharge of arrows. But William Wallace of Craigie, well worthy of the heroic name he bore, called out to the left wing of the Scots, which he commanded, “Why stand ye still, to be shot from a distance? Follow me, and we shall soon come to handstrokes.” Accordingly, they rushed furiously against the right wing of the English, who, commanded by Sir Magnus Redmain, advanced boldly to meet them. They encountered with great fury, and both leaders fell, Magnus Redmain being slain on the spot, and the Knight of Craigie–Wallace mortally wounded. The English, disconcerted by the loss of their great champion, Magnus, at length gave way. The Scots pressed furiously upon them, and as the little river Sark, which the English had passed at low water, was now filled by the advancing tide, many of the fugitives lost their lives. The victory, together with the spoils of the field, remained in possession of the Scots. The Earl of Northumberland escaped with difficulty, through the gallantry of one of his sons, who was made prisoner in covering his father’s retreat. The King, much pleased with this victory, gave great praise to the Earl of Douglas, and continued to employ his services as lieutenant-general of the kingdom.

This martial family of Douglas were as remarkable for the address with which they sustained the honour of their country in the tournaments and military sports of the age, as in the field of battle. In 1449, a grand combat took place at the barriers, betwixt three renowned champions of Flanders, namely, Jacques de Lalain, Simon de Lalain, and Herve Meriadet, and three Scottish knights, namely, James, brother of the Earl of Douglas, another James Douglas, brother to the Lord of Lochleven, and Sir John Ross of Halket. They fought in the presence of the King at Stirling, with lance, battle-axe, sword, and dagger. The Earl of Douglas himself attended his brother and kinsman with five thousand followers. The combat was to be waged to extremity; that is, the persons engaged were to kill each other if they could, although there was no personal enmity betwixt them, but, on the contrary, much mutual esteem and good-will. They only fought to show which of them was the bravest, and most skilful in the use of arms.

There was a space under the castle rock at Stirling, which was used for such purposes. It was surrounded with a strong enclosure of wooden pales, and rich tents were pitched at each end for the convenience of the champions putting on their armour. Galleries were erected for the accommodation of the King and his nobles, while the ladies of the court in great numbers, and dressed as if for a theatre or ball-room, occupied a crag which commanded a view of the lists, still called the Ladies’ Rock.

The combatants appeared at first in rich velvet dresses, and after having made their dutiful obeisances to the King, retired to their pavilions. They then sallied out in complete armour, and were knighted by the King. James Douglas and Jaques de Lalain rushed upon each other, and fought till all their weapons were broken, saving Douglas’s dagger. The Flemish knight closing with his antagonist, and seizing his arm, Douglas could not strike; but they continued to wrestle fiercely together. The fight was also equal betwixt Simon de Lalain and Sir John Ross; they were neither of them skilful in warding blows, but struck at each other with great fury, till armour and weapons gave way, without either champion obtaining the advantage. James Douglas of Lochleven was less fortunate; Meriadet parried a thrust of the Scotsman’s lance, and before Douglas could get his axe in hand, his antagonist struck him to the ground. Douglas, however, instantly sprung to his feet and renewed the conflict. But Meriadet, one of the most skilful and redoubted champions of his time, struck his antagonist a second time to the earth; and then, as the combat had become unequal, the King cast down his warder or truncheon, as a signal that the battle should cease. All the parties were highly praised for their valour, and nobly entertained by the King of Scotland.

Thus you see how gallantly the Douglasses behaved themselves, both in war and in the military exercises of the time. It was unhappy for the country and themselves, that their ambition and insubordination were at least equal to their courage and talents.


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