Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 21

We mentioned that James II, in the early part of his reign, conferred on the Earl of Douglas the important post of lieutenant-general of Scotland. But that ambitious nobleman was soon disposed to extend his authority to independent power, and the King found it necessary to take from him the dangerous office with which he had intrusted him. Douglas retired to his own castle meditating revenge; whilst the King, on the other hand, looked around him for some fitting opportunity of diminishing the power of so formidable a rival. Douglas was not long of showing his total contempt of the King’s authority, and his power of acting for himself. — One of his friends and followers, named Auchinleck, had been slain by the Lord Colville. The criminal certainly deserved punishment, but it ought to have been inflicted by the regular magistrates of the crown, not by the arbitrary pleasure of a private baron, however great and powerful. Douglas, however, took up the matter as a wrong done to himself, and revenged it by his own authority. He marched a large body of his forces against the Lord Colville, stormed his castle, and put every person within it to death. The King was unable to avenge this insult to his authority.

In like manner, Douglas connived at and encouraged some of his followers in Annandale to ravage and plunder the lands of Sir John Herries, a person of that country, eminently attached to the King. Herries, a man of high spirit and considerable power, retaliated, by wasting the lands of those who had thus injured him. He was defeated and made prisoner by Douglas, who caused him to be executed, although the King sent a positive order, enjoining him to forbear any injury to Herries’s person(1451). Soon after this, another audacious transaction occurred in the murder of Sir John Sandilands of Calder, a kinsman of the King, by Sir Patrick Thornton, a dependant of the house of Douglas; along with them were slain two knights, Sir James and Sir Allan Stewart, both of whom enjoyed the friendship and intimacy of the sovereign.

But a still more flagrant breach of law, and violation of all respect to the King’s authority, happened in the case of Maclellan, the tutor, or guardian of the young lord of Bomby, ancestor of the Earls of Kirkcudbright (1452). This was one of the few men of consequence in Galloway, who, defying the threats of the Earl of Douglas, had refused to join with him against the King. The earl, incensed at his opposition, suddenly assaulted his castle, made him prisoner, and carried him to the strong fortress of Thrieve, in Galloway, situated on an island in the river Dee. The King took a particular interest in Maclellan’s fate, the rather that he was petitioned to interfere in his favour by a personal favourite of his own. This was Sir Patrick Gray, the commander of the royal guard, a gentleman much in James’s confidence, and constantly attending on his person, and who was Maclellan’s near relative, being his uncle on the mother’s side. In order to prevent Maclellan from sharing the fate of Colville and Herries, the King wrote a letter to the Earl of Douglas, entreating as a favour, rather than urging as a command, that he would deliver the person of the Tutor of Bomby, as Maclellan was usually entitled, into the hands of his relative, Sir Patrick Gray. Sir Patrick himself went with the letter to the castle of Thrieve. Douglas received him just as he had arisen from dinner, and, with much apparent civility, declined to speak with Gray, on the occasion of his coming, until Sir Patrick also had dined, saying, “It was ill talking between a full man and a fasting.” But this courtesy was only a pretence to gain time to do a very cruel and lawless action. Guessing that Sir Patrick Gray’s visit respected the life of Maclellan, he resolved to hasten his execution before opening the King’s letter. Thus, while be was feasting Sir Patrick, with every appearance of hospitality, he caused his unhappy kinsman to be led out, and beheaded in the courtyard of the castle.

When dinner was over, Gray presented the King’s letter, which Douglas received and read over with every testimony of profound respect. He then thanked Sir Patrick for the trouble he had taken in bringing him so gracious a letter from his sovereign, especially considering he was not at present on good terms with his Majesty. “And,” he added, “the King’s demand shall instantly be granted, the rather for your sake.” The earl then took Sir Patrick by the hand, and led him to the castleyard, where the body of Maclellan was still lying.

“Sir Patrick,” said he, as his servants removed the bloody cloth which covered the body, “you have come a little too late. There lies your sister’s son-but he wants the head. The body is, however, at your service.”

“My lord,” said Gray, suppressing his indignation, “If you have taken his head, you may dispose of the body as you will.”

But, when he had mounted his horse, which he instantly called for, his resentment broke out, in spite of the dangerous situation in which he was placed:— “My lord,” said he, “if I live, you shall bitterly pay for this day’s work.”

So saying, he turned his horse and galloped off. “To horse, and chase him!” said Douglas; and if Gray had not been well mounted, he would, in all probability, have shared the fate of his nephew. He was closely pursued till near Edinburgh, a space of fifty or sixty miles.

Besides these daring and open instances of con tempt of the King’s authority, Douglas entered into such alliances as plainly showed his determination to destroy entirely the royal government. He formed a league with the Earl of Crawford, called Earl Beardie, and sometimes, from the ferocity of his temper, the Tiger–Earl, who had great power in the counties of Angus, Perth, and Kincardine, and with the Earl of Ross, who possessed extensive and almost royal authority in the north of Scotland, by which these three powerful earls agreed that they should take each other’s part in every quarrel, and against every man, the King himself not excepted.

James then plainly saw that some strong measures must be taken, yet it was not easy to determine what was to be done. The league between the three earls enabled them, if open war was attempted, to assemble a force superior to that of the crown. The King, therefore, dissembled his resentment, and, under pretext of desiring an amicable conference and reconciliation, requested Douglas to come to the royal court at Stirling (January, 1452). The haughty earl hesitated not to accept of this invitation, but before he actually did so, he demanded and obtained a protection, or safe conduct, under the great seal, pledging the King’s promise that he should he permitted to come to the court and to return in safety. And the earl was more confirmed in his purpose of waiting on the King, because he was given to understand that the Chancellor Crichton had retired from court in some disgrace; so that he imagined himself secure from the plots of that great enemy of his family. Thus protected, as he thought, against personal danger, Douglas came to Stirling in the end of February, 1452, where he found the King lodged in the castle of that place, which is situated upon a rock rising abruptly from the plain, at the upper end of the town, and only accessible by one gate, which is strongly defended. The numerous followers of Douglas were quartered in the town, but the earl himself was admitted into the castle. One of his nearest confidents, and most powerful allies, was James Hamilton of Cadyow, the head of the great house of Hamilton. This gentleman pressed forward to follow Douglas, as he entered the gate. But Livingston, who was in the castle, with the King, thrust back Hamilton, who was his near relation, and struck him upon the face; and when Hamilton, greatly incensed, rushed on him, sword in hand, he repulsed him with a long lance, till the gates were shut against him. Sir James Hamilton was very angry at this usage at the time, but afterwards knew that Livingston acted a friendly part in excluding him from the danger into which Douglas was throwing himself.

The King received Douglas kindly, and, after some amicable expostulation with him upon his late conduct, all seemed friendship and cordiality betwixt James and his too powerful subject. By invitation of James, Douglas dined with him on the day following. Supper was presented at seven o’clock, and after it was over, the King having led Douglas into another apartment, where only some of the privy council and of his body guard were in attendance, he introduced the subject of the earl’s bond with Ross and Crawford, and exhorted him to give up the engagement, as inconsistent with his allegiance and the quiet of the kingdom. Douglas declined to relinquish the treaty which he had formed. The King urged him more imperiously, and the earl returned a haughty and positive refusal, upbraiding the King, at the same time, with mal-administration of the public affairs. Then the King burst into a rage at his obstinacy, and exclaimed, “ By Heaven, my lord, if you will not break the league, this shall.” So saying, he stabbed the earl with his dagger first in the throat, and instantly after in the lower part of the body. Sir Patrick Gray, who had sworn revenge on Douglas for the execution of Maclellan, then struck the earl on the head with a battle-axe; and others of the King’s retinue showed their zeal by stabbing at the dying man with their knives and daggers. He expired without uttering a word, covered with twenty-six wounds. The corpse did not receive any Christian burial. At least, about forty years since, a skeleton was found buried in the garden, just below the fatal window, which was, with much probability, conjectured to be the remains of the Earl of Douglas, who died thus strangely and unhappily by the hand of his sovereign. This was a wicked and cruel action on the King’s part; bad if it were done in hasty passion, and yet worse if James meditated the possibility of this violence from the beginning, and had determined to use force if Douglas should not yield to persuasion. The earl had deserved punishment, perhaps even that of death, for many crimes against the state; but the King ought not to have slain him without form of trial, and in his own chamber, after decoying him thither under assurance that his person should be safe. Yet this assassination, like that of the Red Comyn at Dumfries, turned to the good of Scotland; for God, my dearest child, who is often pleased to bring good out of the follies) and even the crimes of men, rendered the death of Comyn the road to the freedom of Scotland, and that of this ambitious earl the cause of the downfall of the Douglas family, which had become too powerful for the peace of the kingdom.

The scene, however, opened very differently from the manner in which it was to end. There were in the town of Stirling four brethren of the murdered Douglas, who had come to wait on him to court. Upon hearing that their elder brother had died in the manner l have told you, they immediately acknowledged James, the eldest of the four, as his successor in the earldom. They then hastened each to the county where he had interest (for they were all great lords) and, collecting their friends and vassals, they returned to Stirling, dragging the safe-conduct, or passport which had been granted to the Earl of Douglas, at the tail of a miserable cart-jade, in order to show their contempt for the King. They next, with the sound of five hundred horns and trumpets, proclaimed King James a false and perjured man. Afterwards they pillaged the town of Stirling, and, not thinking that enough, they sent back Hamilton of Cadyow to burn it to the ground. But the strength of the castle defied all their efforts; and after this bravado, the Douglasses dispersed themselves to assemble a still larger body of forces. So many great barons were engaged in alliance with the house of Douglas, that it is said to have been a question in the King’s mind, whether he should abide the conflict, or fly to France, and leave the throne to the earl. At this moment of extreme need, James found a trusty counsellor in his cousin german, Kennedy, Archbishop of St Andrews, one of the wisest men of his time. The archbishop showed his advice in a sort of emblem or parable. He gave the King a bunch of arrows tied together with a thong of leather, and asked him to break them. The King said it was beyond his strength. “That may be the case, bound together as they are,” replied the archbishop; “but if you undo the strap, and take the arrows one by one, you may easily break them all in succession. And thus, my liege, you ought in wisdom to deal with the insurgent nobility. If you attack them while they are united in one mind and purpose, they will be too strong for you; but if you can, by dealing with them separately, prevail on them to abandon their union, you may as easily master them one after the other, as you can break these arrows if you take each singly.”

Acting upon this principle, the King made private representations to several of the nobility, to whom his agents found access, showing them that the rebellion of the Douglasses would, if successful, render that family superior to all others in Scotland, and sink the rest of the peers into men of little consequence. Large gifts of lands, treasures, and honours, were liberally promised to those who, in this moment of extremity, should desert the Douglasses and join the King’s party. These large promises, and the secret dread of the great predominance of the Douglas family, drew to the King’s side many of the nobles who had hitherto wavered betwixt their allegiance and their fear of the earl. Among these, the most distinguished was the Earl of Angus, who although himself a Douglas, being a younger branch of that family, joined on this memorable occasion with the King against his kinsman, and gave rise to the saying, that “the Red Douglas (such was the complexion of the Angus family) had put down the Black.” The great family of Gordon also declaring for the King, their chief, the Earl of Huntly, collected an army in the north, and marched south as far as Brechin to support the royal authority. Here he was encountered by the Tiger–Earl of Crawford, who had taken arms for the Douglas party, according to the fatal bond which had cost the Earl William his life. One of the chief leaders in Crawford’s army was John Collasse of Bonnymoon (of Balnamoon), who commanded a gallant body or men, armed with bills and battle-axes, on whom the earl greatly relied. But before the action, this John Collasse had asked Crawford to grant him certain lands, that lay convenient for him, and near his house, which the earl refused to do. Collasse, incensed at the refusal, took an opportunity, when the battle was at the closest, to withdraw from the conflict; upon which Crawford’s men, who bad been on the point of gaining the victory, lost heart, and were defeated. Other battles were fought in different parts of Scotland between the Douglasses and their allies, and those noblemen and gentlemen who favoured the King(18 May 1452). Much blood was spilt, and great mischief done to the country. Among other instances of the desolation of these civil wars, the Earl of Huntly burned one half of the town of Elgin, being that part which inclined to the Douglasses, while he left standing the opposite part of the same street, which was inhabited by citizens attached to his own family. Hence the proverb, when a thing is imperfectly finished, that it is “Half done, as Elgin was burned.”

Huntly, however, was afterwards surprised, and lost a considerable number of his followers in a morass, called Dunkinty, where they were attacked by Douglas, Earl of Murray. This gave rise to a jeering song, which ran thus:—

“Where did you leave your men,

Thou Gordon so gay?

In the bog of Dunkinty,

Mowing the hay.”

In this period of calamity, famine and pestilence came to add to the desolation of the country, wasted by a civil war, which occasioned skirmishes, conflagrations, and slaughters, almost in every province of Scotland.

The royal party at length began to gain ground; for the present Earl of Douglas seems to have been a man of less action and decision than was usual with those of his name and family. The Earl of Crawford was one of those who first deserted him, and applied to the King for forgiveness and restoration to favour. He appeared before James in the most humble guise, in poor apparel, bareheaded and barefooted, like a condemned criminal; and throwing himself at the King’s feet, he confessed his treasons, and entreated the royal mercy, on account of the loyalty of his ancestors, and the sincerity of his repentance. The King, though he had many subjects of complaint against this powerful lord, and notwithstanding he had made a vow to destroy the earl’s castle of Finhaven, and to make the highest stone the lowest, nevertheless granted him a full pardon, and made him a visit at Finhaven, where he accomplished his vow, by getting to the top of the battlements, and throwing a small stone, which was lying loose there, down into the moat; thus, in one sense, making the highest stone in the house the lowest, though not by the demolition of the place. By this clemency the minds of the hostile nobles were conciliated, and many began to enter into terms of submission. But the power of the Douglasses remained unbroken, and it was so great that there appeared little hope of the struggle being ended without a desperate battle (1454). At length such an event seemed near approaching. The Earls of Orkney and Angus, acting for the King, had besieged Abercorn, a strong castle on the frith of Forth, belonging to the Earl of Douglas. Douglas collected the whole strength which his family and allies could raise, amounting, it is said, to nearly forty thousand men, with which he advanced to raise the siege. The King, on the other hand, having assembled the whole forces of the north of Scotland, marched to meet Douglas, at the head of an army somewhat superior in numbers to that of the earl, but inferior in military discipline. Thus every thing seemed to render a combat inevitable, the issue of which must have shown whether James Stewart or James Douglas was to wear the crown of Scotland. The small river of Carron divided the two armies.

But the intrigues of the Archbishop of St Andrews had made a powerful impression upon many of the nobles who acted with Douglas, and there was a party among his followers who obeyed him more from fear than affection. Others, seeing a certain degree of hesitation in the earl’s resolutions, and a want of decision in his actions, began to doubt whether he was a leader fit to conduct so perilous an enterprise. Amongst these last was Sir James Hamilton of Cadyow, already mentioned, who commanded in Douglas’s army three hundred horse, and as many infantry, all men of tried discipline and courage. The Archbishop Kennedy was Hamilton’s kinsman, and took advantage of their relationship to send a secret messenger to inform him that the King was well disposed to pardon his rebellion, and to show him great favour provided that he would, at that critical moment, set an example to the insurgent nobility, by renouncing the cause of Douglas, and returning to the King’s obedience. These arguments made considerable impression on Hamilton, who, nevertheless, having been long the friend and follower of the Earl of Douglas, was loath to desert his old friend in such an extremity.

On the next morning after this secret conference, the King sent a herald to the camp of Douglas, charging the earl to disperse his followers, on pain that he and his accomplices should be proclaimed traitors, but at the same time promising forgiveness and rewards to all who should leave the rebellious standard of Douglas. Douglas made a mock of this summons; and sounding his trumpets, and placing his men in order, marched stoutly forward to encounter the King’s army, who on their side left their camp, and advanced with displayed banners, as if to instant battle. It seems, however, that the message of the herald had made some impression on the followers of Douglas, and perhaps on the earl himself, by rendering him doubtful of their adherence. He saw, or thought he saw, that his troops were discouraged, and led them back into his camp, hoping to inspire them with more confidence and zeal. But the movement had a different effect; for no sooner had the earl returned to his tent, than Sir James Hamilton came to expostulate with him, and to require him to say, whether he meant to fight or not, assuring him that every delay was in favour of the King, and that the longer the earl put off the day of battle, the fewer men he would have to fight it with. Douglas answered contemptuously to Hamilton, “that if he was afraid to stay, he was welcome to go home.” Hamilton took the earl at his word, and, leaving the camp of Douglas, went over to the King that very night.

The example was so generally followed, that the army of Douglas seemed suddenly to disperse, like a dissolving snowball; and in the morning the earl had not a hundred men left in his silent and deserted camp, excepting his own immediate followers. He was obliged to fly to the West Border, where his brothers and followers sustained a severe defeat from the Scotts and other Borderers, near a place called Arkinholme, in the valley of Esk (1 May 1455). Archibald Douglas, Earl of Murray, one of the earl’s’ brothers, falling in the battle, his head was cut off, and sent to the King, then before Abercorn; another, Hugh, Earl of Ormond, was wounded and made prisoner, and immediately executed, notwithstanding his services at the battle of Sark. John, Lord Balvenie, the third brother, escaped into England, where the earl also found a retreat. Thus the power of this great and predominant family, which seemed to stand so fair for possessing the crown, fell at length without any decisive struggle; and their greatness, which had been founded upon the loyalty and bravery of the Good Lord James, was destroyed by the rebellious and wavering conduct of the last earl. That unfortunate nobleman remained nearly twenty years a banished man in England, and was almost forgotten in his own country, until the subsequent reign, when, in 1484, he was defeated and made prisoner, in a small incursion which he had attempted to male upon the frontiers of Annandale. He surrendered to a brother of Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, who, in the earl’s better days, had been his own vassal, and who shed tears at seeing his old master in such a lamentable situation. Kirkpatrick even proposed to set him at liberty, and fly with him into England; but Douglas rejected this offer. “I am tired,” he said, “of exile; and as there is a reward offered by the King for my head, I had rather it were conferred on you, who were always faithful to me while l was faithful to myself, than on any one else.” Kirkpatrick, however, acted kindly and generously. He secured the earl in some secret abode, and did not deliver him up to the King until he had a promise of his life. Douglas was then ordained to be put into the abbey of Lindores, to which sentence he submitted calmly, only using a popular proverb, “ He that cannot do better must be a monk.” He lived in that convent only for four years, and with him, as the last of his family, expired the principal branch of these tremendous Earls of Douglas. Other Scottish families arose upon the ruins of this mighty house, in consequence of the distribution made of their immense forfeited estates, to those who had assisted the King in suppressing their power. Amongst these the Earl of Angus, who, although kinsman to the Earl of Douglas, had sided with the King, received by far the greater share; to an amount, indeed, which enabled the family, as we shall see, to pursue the same ambitious course as that of their kinsfolk of the elder branch, although they neither rose to such high elevation, nor sunk into the same irreparable ruin, which was the lot of the original family.

Hamilton also rose into power on the fall of the Douglas. His opportune desertion of his kinsman at Abercorn was accounted good service, and was rewarded with large grants of land, and at last with the hand of the King’s eldest daughter in marriage.

Sir Walter Scott of Kirkurd and Buccleuch likewise obtained great gifts of land for his clan’s service and his own, at the battle of Arkinholme, and began that course of greatness which raised his family to the ducal dignity. Such, my dear child, is the course of the world, in which the downfall of one great man or family is the means of advancing others; as a falling tree throws its seed upon the ground, and causes young plants to arise in its room.

The English did not make much war upon Scotland during this reign, being engaged at home with their dreadful civil quarrels of York and Lancaster. For the same reason, perhaps, the Scots had the advantage in such actions as took place.

Relieved from the rivalship of the Douglas, and from the pressure of constant war with England, James II governed Scotland firmly. The kingdom enjoyed considerable tranquillity during his reign; and his last Parliament was able to recommend to him the regular and firm execution of the laws, as to a prince who possessed the full means of discharging his kingly office, without resistance from evil-doers or infringers of justice. This was in 1458. But only two years afterwards all these fair hopes were blighted.

The strong Border castle of Roxburgh had remained in the hands of the English ever since the fatal battle of Durham. The King was determined to recover this bulwark of the kingdom. Breaking through a truce which existed with England at the time, James summoned together the full force of his kingdom to accomplish this great enterprise. The nobles attended in numbers, and well accompanied, at the summons of a prince who was always respected, and generally successful in his military undertakings. Even Donald of the Isles proved himself a loyal and submissive vassal; and while he came with a force which showed his great authority, he placed it submissively at the disposal of his sovereign. His men were arrayed in the Highland fashion, with shirts of mail, two handed swords, axes, and bows and arrows; and Donald offered, when the Scots should enter England, that he would march a mile in front of the King’s host, and take upon himself the danger of the first onset. But James’s first object was the siege of Roxburgh.

This strong castle was situated on an eminence near the junction of the Tweed and the Teviot; the waters of the Teviot, raised by a damhead or wear, flowed round the fortress, and its walls were as strong as the engineers of the time could raise. On former occasions it had been taken by stratagem, but James was now to proceed by a regular siege.

With this purpose he established a battery of such large clumsy cannon as were constructed at that time, upon the north side of the river Tweed. The siege had lasted some time, and the army began to be weary of the undertaking, when they received new spirit from the arrival of the Earl of Huntly with a gallant body of fresh troops. The King, out of joy at these succours, commanded his artillery to fire a volley upon the castle, and stood near the cannon himself, to mark the effect of the shot. The great guns of that period were awkwardly framed out of bars of iron, fastened together by hoops of the same metal, somewhat in the same manner in which barrels are now made. They were, therefore, far more liable to accidents than modern cannon, which are cast in one entire solid piece, and then bored hollow by a machine. One of these ill-made guns burst in going off. A fragment of iron broke James’s thigh-bone, and killed him on the spot. Another splinter wounded the Earl of Angus. No other person sustained injury, though many stood around. Thus died James the Second of Scotland, in the twenty ninth year of his life, after reigning twenty-four years (3 Aug. 1460). This King did not possess the elegant accomplishments of his father; and the manner in which he slew the Earl of Douglas must be admitted as a stain upon his reputation. Yet he was, upon the whole, a good prince, and was greatly lamented by his subjects. A thorn-tree, in the Duke of Roxburghe’s park at Fleurs, still shows the spot where he died.


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