Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 22

Upon the lamentable death of James II, the army which lay before Roxburgh was greatly discouraged, and seemed about to raise the siege. But Margaret, the widow of their slain Monarch, appeared in their council of war, leading her eldest son, a child of eight years old, who was the successor to the crown, and spoke to them these gallant words: “Fy, my noble lords! think not now shamefully to give up an enterprise which is so bravely begun, or to abandon the revenge of this unhappy accident which has befallen before this ill-omened castle. Forward, my brave lords, and persevere in your undertaking; and never turn your backs till this siege is victoriously ended. Let it not be said that such brave champions needed to hear from a woman, and a widowed one, the courageous advice and comfort which she ought rather to receive from you!” The Scottish nobles received this heroic address with shouts of applause, and persevered in the siege of Roxburgh castle, until the garrison, receiving no relief, were obliged to surrender the place through famine. The governor is stated to have been put to death, and in the animosity of the Scots against every thing concerned with the death of their King, they levelled the walls of the castle with the ground, and returned victorious from an enterprise which had cost them so dear.

The minority of James III was more prosperous than that of his father and grandfather. The affairs of state were guided by the experienced wisdom of Bishop Kennedy. Roxburgh was, as we have said, taken and destroyed. Berwick, during the dissensions of the civil wars of England, was surrendered to the Scots; and the dominions of the Islands of Orkney and Zetland, which had hitherto belonged to the Kings of Norway, were acquired as the marriage portion of a Princess of Denmark and Norway, who was united in marriage to the King of Scotland.

These favourable circumstances were first interrupted by the death of Archbishop Kennedy; after which event, one family that of the Boyds, started into such a degree of temporary power as seemed to threaten the public tranquility (10 May 1466). The tutor of James III was Gilbert Kennedy, a wise and grave man, who continued to regulate the studies of the King after the death of his brother the prelate, but unadvisedly called in to his assistance Sir Alexander, the brother of Lord Boyd, as one who was younger and fitter than himself to teach James military exercises. By means of this appointment, Sir Alexander, his brother Lord Boyd, and two of his sons, became so intimate with the King, that they resolved to take him from under the management of Kennedy entirely. The court was then residing at Linlithgow, and the King, while abroad on a hunting party, was persuaded to direct his horse’s head to Edinburgh, instead of returning. Kennedy, the tutor, hastened to oppose the King’s desire, and seizing his horse by the bridle, wished to lead him back to Linlithgow. Alexander Boyd rushed forward, and striking with a hunting-staff the old man, who had deserved better usage at his hand, forced him to quit the King’s rein, and accomplished his purpose of carrying James to Edinburgh, where he entered upon the administration of affairs, and having granted a solemn pardon to the Boyds for whatever violence had occurred in their proceedings, he employed them for a time, as his chief ministers and favourites. Sir Thomas, one of Lord Boyd’s sons, was honoured with the hand of the Princess Margaret, the King’s eldest sister, and was created Earl of Arran. He deserved even this elevation by his personal accomplishments, if he approached the character given of him by an English gentleman. He is described as “the most courteous, gentle, wise, kind, companionable, and bounteous Earl of Arran; — and again, as “a light, able-bodied, well-spoken man, a goodly archer, and a knight most devout, most perfect, and most true to his lady.”

Notwithstanding the new Earl of Arran’s accomplishments, the sudden rise of his family was followed by as sudden a fall. The King, either resenting the use which the Boyds had made of his favour, or changing his opinion of them from other causes, suddenly deprived the whole family of their offices, and caused them to be tried for the violence committed at Linlithgow, notwithstanding the pardon which he himself had granted. Sir Alexander Boyd was condemned and executed. Lord Boyd and his sons escaped, and died in exile. After the death of Sir Thomas (the Earl of Arran,” the Princess Margaret was married to the Lord Hamilton, to whom she carried the estate and title of Arran.

It was after the fall of the Boyds that the King came to administer the government in person, and that the defects of his character began to appear. He was timorous, a great failing in a warlike age; and his cowardice made him suspicious of his nobility, and particularly of his two brothers. He was fond of money, and therefore did not use that generosity towards his powerful subjects which was necessary to secure their attachment; but, on the contrary, endeavoured to increase his private hoards of wealth by encroaching upon the rights both of clergy and laity, and thus made himself at once hated and contemptible. He was a lover of the fine arts, as they are called, of music and architecture; a disposition graceful in a monarch, if exhibited with due regard to his dignity. But he made architects and musicians his principal companions, excluding his nobility from the personal familiarity to which he admitted those whom the haughty barons of Scotland termed masons and fiddlers. Cochran, an architect, Rogers, a musician, Leonard, a smith, Hommel, a tailor, and Torphichen, a fencing-master, were his counsellors and companions. These habits of low society excited the hatred of the nobility, who began to make comparisons betwixt the King and his two brothers, the Dukes of Albany and Mar, greatly to the disadvantage of James.

These younger sons of James the Second were of appearance and manners such as were then thought most suited to their royal birth. This is the description of the Duke of Albany by an ancient Scottish author: He was well-proportioned, and tall in stature, and comely in his countenance; that is to say, broad-faced, red-nosed, large-eared, and leaving a very awful countenance when it pleased him to speak with those who had displeased him. Mar was of a less stern temper, and gave great satisfaction to all who approached his person, by the mildness and gentleness of his manners. Both princes excelled in the military exercises of tilting, hunting, hawking, and other personal accomplishments, for which their brother, the King, was unfit, by taste, or from timidity, although they were in those times reckoned indispensable to a man of rank.

Perhaps some excuse for the King’s fears may be found in the turbulent disposition of the Scottish nobles, who like the Douglasses and Boyds, often nourished schemes of ambition, which they endeavoured to gratify by exercising a control over the King’s person. The following incident may serve to amuse you, among so many melancholy tales, and at the same time to show you the manners of the Scottish Kings, and the fears which James entertained for the enterprises of the nobility. About the year 1474, Lord Somerville being in attendance upon the King’s court, James III offered to come and visit him at his castle of Cowthally, near the town of Carnwath, where he then lived in all the rude hospitality of the time, for which this nobleman was peculiarly remarkable. It was his custom, when, being from home, he intended to return to the castle with a party of guests, merely to write the words, Speates and raxes; that is, spits and ranges; meaning by this hint that there should be a great quantity of food prepared, and that the spits and ranges, or framework on which they turn, should be put into employment. Even the visit of the King himself did not induce Lord Somerville to send any other than his usual intimation; only he repeated it three times, and despatched it to his castle by a special messenger. The paper was delivered to the Lady Somerville, who, having been lately married, was not quite accustomed to read her husband’s hand writing, which probably was not very good; for in those times noblemen used the sword more than the pen. So the lady sent for the steward, and, after laying their heads together, instead of reading Speates and raxes, speates and raxes, speates and raxes, they made out the writing to be Spears and jacks, spears and jacks, spears and jacks. Jacks were a sort of leathern doublet, covered with plates of iron, worn as armour by horsemen of inferior rank. They concluded the meaning of these terrible words to be, that Lord Somerville was in some distress, or engaged in some quarrel in Edinburgh, and wanted assistance; so that, instead of killing cattle and preparing for a feast, they collected armed men together, and got ready for a fray. A party of two hundred horsemen were speedily assembled, and were trotting over the moors towards Edinburgh, when they observed a large company of gentlemen employed in the sport of hawking, on the side of Corsett-hill. This was the King and Lord Somerville, who were on their road to Cowthally, taking their sport as they went along. The appearance of a numerous body of armed men soon turned their game to earnest; and the King, who saw the Lord Somerville’s banner at the head of the troop, concluded it was some rebellious enterprise against his person, and charged the baron with treason. Lord Somerville declared his innocence. “Yonder,” said he, “are indeed my men and my banner, but l have no knowledge whatever of the cause that has brought them here. But if your grace will permit me to ride forward, I will soon see the cause of this disturbance. In the mean time, let my eldest son and heir remain as an hostage in your grace’s power, and let him lose his head if I prove false to my duty.” The King accordingly permitted Lord Somerville to ride towards his followers, when the matter was soon explained by those who commanded them. The mistake was then only subject of merriment; for the King, looking at the letter, protested he himself would have read it Spears and jacks, rather than Speates and raxes. When they came to Cowthally, the lady was much out of countenance at the mistake. But the King greatly praised her for the despatch which she had used in raising men to assist her husband, and said he hoped she would always have as brave a band at his service, when the King and kingdom required them. And thus every thing went happily off.

It was natural that a prince of a timid, and at the same time a severe disposition, such as James III seems to have had, should see with anxiety the hold which his brothers possessed over the hearts of his subjects; and the insinuations of the unworthy familiars of his private hours turned that anxiety and suspicion into deadly and implacable hatred. Various causes combined to induce the mean and obscure favourites of James to sow enmity betwixt him and his brothers. The Homes and Hepburns, families which had risen into additional power after the fall of the Douglasses, had several private disputes with Albany concerning privileges and property belonging to the earldom of March, which had been conferred on him by his father. Albany was also Lord Warden of the east frontiers, and in that capacity had restrained and disobliged those powerful clans. To be revenged, they made interest with Robert Cochran, the King’s principal adviser, and gave him, it is said, large bribes to put Albany out of credit with the King. Cochran’s own interest suggested the same vile course; for he must have been sensible that Albany and Mar disapproved of the King’s intimacy with him and his companions.

These unworthy favourites, therefore, set themselves to fill the King’s mind with apprehensions of dangers which were to arise to him from his brothers. They informed him that the Earl of Mar had consulted witches when and how the King should die, and that it had been answered that he should fall by means of his nearest relations. They brought to James also an astrologer, that is, a man who pretended to calculate future events by the motion of the stars, who told him, that in Scotland a Lion should be killed by his own whelps. All these things wrought on the jealous and timid disposition of the King, so that he seized upon both his brethren. Albany was imprisoned in the castle of Edinburgh, but Mar’s fate was instantly decided; the King caused him to be murdered by stifling him in a bath, or, as other historians say, by causing him to be bled to death. James committed this horrid crime, in order to avoid dangers which were in a great measure imaginary; but we shall find that the death of his brother Mar rather endangered than added to his safety.

Albany was in danger of the same fate, but some of his friends in France or Scotland had formed a plan of rescuing him. A small sloop came into the road-stead of Leith, loaded with wine of Gascony, and two small barrels were sent up as a present to the imprisoned prince. The guard having suffered the casks to be carried to Albany’s chamber, the duke, examining them in private, found that one of them contained a roll of wax, enclosing a letter, exhorting him to make his escape, and promising that the little vessel which brought the wine should be ready to receive him if he could gain the water-side. The letter conjured him to be speedy, as there was a purpose to behead him on the day following. A coil of ropes was also enclosed in the same cask, in order to enable him to effect his descent from the castle wall, and the precipice upon which it as built There was a faithful attendant, his chamberlain, imprisoned with him in the same apartment, who promised to assist his master in this perilous undertaking. The first point was to secure the captain of the guard; for which purpose Albany invited that officer to sup with him, in order, as the duke pretended, to taste the good wine which had been presented to him in the two casks. The captain accordingly, having placed his watches where he thought there was danger, came to the duke’s chamber, attended by three of his soldiers, and partook of a collation. After supper, the duke engaged him in playing at tables and dice, until the captain, seated beside a hot fire, and plied with wine by the chamberlain, began to grow drowsy, as did his attendants, on whom the liquor had not been spared. Then the Duke of Albany, a strong man and desperate, leapt from table, and stabbed the captain with a whinger or dagger, so that he died on the spot. The like he did to two of the captain’s men, and the chamberlain despatched the other, and threw their bodies on the fire. This was the more easily accomplished that the soldiers were intoxicated and stupified. They then took the keys from the captain’s pocket, and, getting out upon the walls, chose a retired corner, out of the watchmen’s sight, to make their perilous descent. The chamberlain tried to go down the rope first, but it was too short, so that he fell and broke his thigh-bone. He then called to his master to make the rope longer. Albany returned to his apartment, and took the sheets from the bed, with which he lengthened the rope, so that he descended the precipice in safety. He then got his chamberlain on his back, and conveyed him to a place of security, where he might remain concealed till his hurt was cured, and went himself to the sea-side, when, upon the appointed signal, a boat came ashore and took him off to the vessel, in which he sailed for France. During the night, the guards, who knew that their officer was in the duke’s apartment with three men, could not but suppose that all was safe; hut when daylight showed them the rope hanging from the walls, they became alarmed, and hastened to the duke’s lodgings. Here they found the body of one man stretched near the door, and the corpses of the captain and other two lying upon the fire. The King was much surprised at so strange an escape, and would give no credit to it till he had examined the place with his own eyes. The death of Mar, and the flight of Albany, increased the insolence of King James’s unworthy favourites Robert Cochran, the mason, rose into great power, and as every man’s petition to the King came through his hands, and he expected and received bribes to give his countenance, he amassed so much wealth, that he was able in his turn to bribe the King to confer on him the earldom of Mar, with the lands and revenues of the deceased prince. All men were filled with indignation to see the inheritance of the murdered earl, the son of the King of Scotland, conferred upon a mean upstart, like this Cochran. This unworthy favourite was guilty of another piece of mal-administration, by mixing the silver coin of the kingdom with brass and lead, and thereby decreasing its real value, while orders were given by proclamation to take it at the same rate as if it were composed of pure silver. The people refused to sell their corn and other commodities for this debased coin, which introduced great distress, confusion, and scarcity. Some one told Cochran, that this money should be called in, and good coin issued in its stead; but be was so confident of the currency of the Cochran-placks, as the people called them, that he said, — “The day I am hanged they may be called in; not sooner. “This speech, which he made in jest, proved true in reality.

In the year 1482, the disputes with England had come to a great height, and Edward IV made preparations to invade Scotland, principally in the hope of recovering the town of Berwick. He invited the Duke of Albany from France to join him in this undertaking, promising to place him on the Scottish throne instead of his brother. This was held out in order to take advantage of the unpopularity of King James, and the general disposition which manifested itself in Scotland in favour of Albany.

But, however discontented with their sovereign, the Scottish nation showed themselves in no way disposed to receive another king from the hands of the English. The Parliament assembled, and unanimously determined on war against Edward the Robber, for so they termed the King of England. To support this violent language, James ordered the whole array of the kingdom, that is, all the men who were bound to discharge military service, to assemble at the Borough-moor of Edinburgh, from whence they marched to Lauder, and encamped between the river Leader and the town, to the amount of fifty thousand men. But the great barons, who had there assembled with their followers, were less disposed to advance against the English, than to correct the abuses of King James’s administration.

Many of the nobility and barons held a secret council in the church of Lauder, where they enlarged upon the evils which Scotland sustained through the insolence and corruption of Cochran and his associates. While they were thus declaiming, Lord Gray requested their attention to a fable. “The mice,” he said, “being much annoyed by the persecution of the cat, resolved that a bell should be hung about puss’s neck, to give notice when she was coming. But though the measure was agreed to in full council, it could not be carried into effect because no mouse had courage enough to undertake to tie the bell to the neck of the formidable enemy.” This was as much as to intimate his opinion, that though the discontented nobles might make bold resolutions against the King’s ministers, yet it would be difficult to find any one courageous enough to act upon them.

Archibald, Earl of Angus, a man of gigantic strength and intrepid courage, and head of that second family of Douglas whom I before mentioned, started up when Gray had done speaking. “I am he,” he said, “who will bell the cat;” from which expression he was distinguished by the name of Bell-the-Cat to his dying day. While thus engaged, a loud authoritative knocking was heard at the door of the church. This announced the arrival of Cochran, attended by a guard of three hundred men, attached to his own person, and all gaily dressed in his livery of white, with black facings, and armed with partisans. His own personal appearance corresponded with this magnificent attendance. He was attired in a riding suit of black velvet, and had round his neck a fine chain of gold, whilst a bugle-horn, tipped and mounted with gold, hung down by his sides. His helmet was borne before him, richly inlaid with the same precious metal; even his tent and tent-cords were of silk, instead of ordinary materials. In this gallant guise, having learned there was some council holding among the nobility, he came to see what they were doing, and it was with this purpose that he knocked furiously at the door of the church. Sir Robert Douglas of Lochleven, who had the charge of watching the door, demanded who was there. When Cochran answered, “The Earl of Mar,” the nobles greatly rejoiced at hearing he was come, to deliver himself, as it were, into their hands.

As Cochran entered the church, Angus, to make good his promise to bell the cat, met him, and rudely pulled the gold chain from his neck, saying, “A halter would better become him.” Sir Robert Douglas, at the same time, snatched away his bugle horn, saying, “Thou hast been a hunter of mischief too long.

“Is this jest or earnest, my lords?” said Cochran, more astonished than alarmed at this rude reception.

“It is sad earnest,” said they, “and that thou and thy accomplices shall feel; for you have abused the King’s favour towards you, and now you shall have your reward according to your deserts.” It does not appear that Cochran or his guards offered any resistance. A part of the nobility went next to the King’s pavilion, and, while some engaged him in conversation, others seized upon Leonard, Hommel, Torphichen, and the rest, with Preston, one of the only two gentlemen amongst King James’s minions, and hastily condemned them to instant death, as having misled the King, and misgoverned the kingdom. The only person who escaped was John Ramsay of Balmain, a youth of honourable birth, who clasped the King round the waist when he saw the others seized upon. Him the nobles spared, in respect of his youth, for he was not above sixteen years, and of the King’s earnest intercession in his behalf. There was a loud acclamation among the troops, who contended with each other in offering their tent-ropes, and the halters of their horses, to be the means of executing these obnoxious ministers. Cochran, who was a man of audacity, and had first attracted the King’s attention by his behaviour in a duel, did not lose his courage, though he displayed it in an absurd manner. He had the vanity to request that his hands might not be tied with a hempen rope, but with a silk cord, which he ordered to furnish from the ropes of his pavilion; but this was only teaching his enemies bow to give his feelings additional pain. They told him he was but a false thief, and should die with all manner of shame; and they were at pains to procure a hair-tether, or halter, as still more ignominious than a rope of hemp. With this they hanged Cochran over the centre of the bridge of Lauder (now demolished) in the middle of his companions, who were suspended on each side of him. When the execution was finished, the lords returned to Edinburgh, where they resolved that the King should remain in the castle, under a gentle and respectful degree of restraint.

In the mean time, the English obtained possession of Berwick, which important place was never again recovered by the Scots, though they continued to assert their claim to that bulwark of the eastern Marches. The English seemed disposed to prosecute their advantages; but the Scottish army having moved to Haddington to fight them, a peace was conclude, partly by the mediation of the Duke of Albany, who had seen the vanity of any hopes which the English had given him, and, laying aside his views upon the crown, appeared desirous to become the means of restoring peace to the country.

The Duke of Albany, and the celebrated Richard Duke of Gloucester (afterwards Richard the Third), are said to have negotiated the terms of peace, as well between the King and his nobility, as between France and England. They had a personal meeting at Edinburgh with the council of Scottish lords who had managed the affairs of the kingdom since the King’s imprisonment. The council would pay no respect to the Duke of Gloucester, who, as an Englishman, they justly thought, had no right to interfere in the affairs of Scotland; but to the Duke of Albany they showed much reverence, requesting to know what he required at their hands.

“First of all,” he said, “I desire that the King, my brother, be set at liberty.”

“My lord,” said Archibald–Bell-the-Cat, who was chancellor, “that shall be presently done, and the rather that you desire it. As to the person who is with yon (meaning the Duke of Gloucester), we know him not; neither will we grant any thing at his asking. But we know you to be the King’s brother, and nearest heir to his Grace after his infant son. Therefore, we put the King’s person at your disposal, trusting that he will act by your advice in future, and govern the kingdom, so as not to excite the discontent of the people, or render it necessary for us, who are the nobles of Scotland, to act contrary to his pleasure.” James, being thus set at liberty, became, to appearance, so perfectly reconciled with his brother, the Duke of Albany, that the two royal brothers used the same chamber, the same table, and the same bed. While the King attended to the buildings and amusements in which he took pleasure, Albany administered the affairs of the kingdom, and, for some time, with applause. But the ambition of his temper began again to show itself; the nation became suspicious of his intimate connexion with the English, and just apprehensions were entertained that the duke aimed still at obtaining the crown by assistance of Richard III, now king of England. The duke was, therefore, once more obliged to fly into England, where he remained for some time, assisting the English against his countrymen. He was present at that skirmish in 1484, where the old Earl of Douglas was made prisoner, and only escaped by the speed of his horse, Albany soon after retired into France, where he formed a marriage with a daughter of the Earl of Boulogne, by whom he had a son, John, afterwards Regent of Scotland in the days of James V. Albany himself was wounded severely by the splinter of a lance at one of the tournaments, or tilting-matches, which I have described to you, and died in consequence. The fickleness with which he changed from one side to another, disappointed the high ideas which had been formed of his character in youth.

Freed from his brother’s superintendence, the King gradually sunk back into those practices which had formerly cost him so dear. To prevent a renewal of the force put on his person, he made a rule that none should appear armed in the royal presence, except the King’s Guard, who were placed under the command of that same John Ramsay of Balmain, the only one of his former favourites who had been spared by Bell-the-Cat, and the other nobles, at the insurrection of Lauder bridge. This gave high offence in a country, where to be without arms was accounted both unsafe and dishonourable, The King’s love of money also grew, as is often the case, more excessive as he advanced in years. He would hardly grant any thing, whether as matter of favour or of right, without receiving some gift or gratuity. By this means he accumulated a quantity of treasure, which considering the poverty of his kingdom, is absolutely marvellous. His “black chest,” as his strong-box was popularly called, was brimful of gold and silver coins, besides quantities of plate and jewels. But while he hoarded these treasures, he was augmenting the discontent of both the nobility and people; and amid the universal sense of the King’s weakness, and hatred of his avarice, a general rebellion was at length excited against him.

The King, among other magnificent establishments, had built a great hall, and a royal chapel,

within the castle of Stirling, both of them specimens of finely ornamented Gothic architecture(1485). He had also established a double choir of musicians and singing men in the chapel, designing that one complete band should attend him wherever he went, to perform Divine service before his person, while the other, as complete in every respect, should remain in daily attendance in the royal chapel.

As this establishment necessarily incurred considerable expense, James proposed to annex to the royal chapel the revenues of the priory of Coldinghame, in Berwickshire. This rich priory had its lands amongst the possessions of the Homes and the Hepburns, who had established it as a kind of right that the prior should be of one or other of these two families, in order to insure their being favourably treated in such bargains as either of them might have to make with the Church. When therefore, these powerful clans understood that, instead of a Home or a Hepburn being named prior, the King intended to bestow the revenues of Coldinghame to maintain his royal chapel at Stirling, they became extremely indignant, and began to hold a secret correspondence, and form alliances, with all the discontented men in Scotland, and especially with Angus, and such other lords as, having been engaged in the affair of Lauder bridge, naturally entertained apprehensions that the King would, one day or other, find a means of avenging himself for the slaughter of his favourites, and the restraint which had been imposed on his own person. By the time that the King heard of this league against him, it had reached so great a head that every thing seemed to he prepared for war, since the whole lords of the south of Scotland, who could collect their forces with a rapidity unknown elsewhere, were all in the field, and ready to act(1488). The King, naturally timid, was induced to fly to the North. He fortified the castle of Stirling, commanded by Shaw of Fintrie, to whom he committed the custody of the prince his son, and heir-apparent, charging the governor neither to let any one enter the castle, nor permit any one to leave it, as he loved his honour and his life. Especially he commanded him to let no one have access to his son. His treasures James deposited in Edinburgh castle; and having thus placed in safety, as he thought, the two things he loved best in the world, he hastened to the north country, where he was joined by the great lords and gentlemen on that side of the Forth; so that it seemed as if the south and the north parts of Scotland were about to fight against each other. The King, in passing through Fife, visited James, the last Earl of Douglas, who had been compelled, as I have before told you, to become a monk in the abbey of Lindores. He offered his full reconciliation and forgiveness, if he would once more come out into the world, place himself at the head of his vassals, and, by the terror of his former authority, withdraw from the banners of the rebel peers such of the southland-men, as might still remember the fame of Douglas. But the views of the old earl were turned towards another world, and he replied to the King — “Ah, sir, your grace has kept me and your black casket so long under lock and key, that the time in which we might have done you good service is past and gone.” In saying this, he alluded to the King’s hoard of treasure, which, if he had spent in time, might have attached many to his person, as he, Douglas, when younger, could have raised men in his behalf; but now the period of getting aid from either source was passed away.

Mean while, Angus, Home, Bothwell, and others of the insurgent nobility, determined, if possible, to get into their hands the person of the prince, resolving that, notwithstanding his being a child, they would avail themselves of his authority to oppose that of his father. Accordingly, they bribed, with a large sum of money, Shaw, the governor of Stirling castle, to deliver the prince (afterwards James IV) into their keeping. When they had thus obtained possession of Prince James’s person, they collected their army, and published proclamations in his name, intimating that King James III was bringing Englishmen into the country to assist in overturning its liberties, — that he had sold the frontiers of Scotland to the Earl of Northumberland, and to the governor of Berwick, and declaring that they were united to dethrone a king whose intentions were so unkingly, and to place his son in his stead. These allegations were false; but the King was so unpopular, that they were listened to and believed. James, in the mean time, arrived before Stirling at the head of a considerable army, and passing to the gate of the castle, demanded entrance. But the governor refused to admit him. The King then eagerly asked for his son; to which the treacherous governor replied, that the lords had taken the prince from him against his will. Then the poor King saw that he was deceived, and said in wrath, “False villain, thou hast betrayed me; but if I live, thou shalt be rewarded according to thy deserts!” If the King had not been thus treacherously deprived of the power of retiring into Stirling castle, be might, by means of that fortress, have avoided a battle until more forces had come up to his assistance; and, in that case, might have overpowered the rebel lords, as his father did the Douglasses before Abercorn. Yet having with him an army of nearly thirty thousand men, he moved boldly towards the insurgents. The Lord David Lindsay of the Byres, in particular, encouraged the King to advance. He had joined him with a thousand horse and three thousand footmen from the counties of Fife and Kinross; and now riding up to the King on a fiery grey horse, he lighted down, and entreated the King’s acceptance of that noble animal, which, whether he had occasion to advance or retreat, would beat every other horse in Scotland, provided the King could keep his saddle.

The King upon this took courage, and advanced against the rebels, confident in his great superiority of numbers. The field of battle was not above a mile or two distant from that where Bruce had defeated the English on the glorious day of Bannockburn; but the fate of his descendant and successor was widely different.

The King’s army was divided into three great bodies. Ten thousand Highlanders, under Huntly and Athole, led the van; ten thousand more, from the westland counties, were led by the Lords of Erskine, Graham, and Menteith. The King was to command the rear, in which the burghers sent by the different towns were stationed. The Earl of Crawford and Lord David Lindsay, with the men of Fife and Angus, had the right wing; Lord Ruthven commanded the left, with the people of Strathearn and Stormont.

The King, thus moving forward in order of battle, called for the horse which Lord David Lindsay had given him, that he might ride forward and observe the motions of the enemy. He saw them from an eminence advancing in three divisions, having about six thousand men in each. The Homes and Hepburns had the first division, with the men of the East Borders and of East Lothian. The next was composed of the Western Borderers, or men of Liddesdale and Annandale, with many from Galloway. The third division consisted of the rebel lords and their choicest followers, bringing with them the young Prince James, and displaying the broad banner of Scotland. When the King beheld his own ensign unfurled against him, and knew that his son was in the hostile ranks, his heart, never very courageous, began altogether to fail him; for he remembered the prophecy, that he was to fall by his nearest of kin, and also what the astrologer had told him of the Scottish lion which was to be strangled by his own whelps. These idle fears so preyed on James’s mind, that his alarm became visible to those around him, who conjured him to retire to a place of safety. But at that moment the battle began, The Homes and Hepburns attacked the King’s vanguard, but were repulsed by the Highlanders with volleys of arrows, On this the Borderers of Liddesdale and Annandale, who bore spears longer than those used in the other parts of Scotland, charged with the wild and furious cries, which they called their slogan, and bore down the royal forces opposed to them.

Surrounded by sights and sounds to which he was so little accustomed, James lost his remaining presence of mind, and turning his back, fled towards Stirling. But he was unable to manage the grey horse given him by Lord Lindsay, which, taking the bit in his teeth, ran full gallop downhill into a little hamlet, where was a mill, called Beaton’s mill. A woman had come out to draw water at the mill-dam, but, terrified at seeing a man in complete armour coming down towards her at full speed, she left her pitcher, and fled back into the mill. The sight of the pitcher frightened the King’s horse, so that he swerved as he was about to leap the brook, and James, losing his seat, fell to the ground, where, being heavily armed and sorely bruised, he remained motionless. The people came out, took him into the mill, and laid him on a bed. Some time afterwards he recovered his senses; but feeling himself much hurt and very weak, he demanded the assistance of a priest. The miller’s wife asked who he was, and he imprudently replied, “I was your King this morning.” With equal imprudence the poor woman ran to the door, and called with loud exclamations for a priest to confess the King. “I am a priest,” said an unknown person, who, had just come up; “lead me to the King.” When the stranger was brought into the presence of the unhappy monarch, he kneeled with apparent humility, and asked him, “Whether he was mortally wounded?” James replied, that his hurts were not mortal, if they were carefully looked to; but that, in the mean time, he desired to be confessed, and receive pardon of his sins from a priest, according to the fashion of the Catholic church. “This shall presently give thee pardon!” answered the assassin; and, drawing a poniard, he stabbed the King four or five times to the very heart; then took the body on his back and departed, no man opposing him, and no man knowing what he did with the body.

Who this murderer was has never been discovered, nor whether he was really a priest or not. There were three persons, Lord Gray, Stirling of Keir, and one Borthwick, a priest, observed to pursue the King closely, and it was supposed that one or other of them did the bloody deed. It is remarkable that Gray was the son of that Sir Patrick, commonly called Cowe Gray, who assisted James II to despatch Douglas in Stirling castle. It would be a singular coincidence if the son of this active agent in Douglas’s death should have been the actor in that of King James’s son. The battle did not last long after the King left the field, the royal party drawing off towards Stirling, and the victors returning to their camp. It is usually called the battle of Sauchie burn, and was fought upon the 18th of June, 1488. Thus died King James the Third, an unwise and unwarlike prince; although, setting aside the murder of his brother the Earl of Mar, his character is rather that of a weak and avaricious man than of a cruel and criminal King. His taste for the fine arts would have been becoming in a private person, though it was carried to a pitch which interfered with his duties as a sovereign. He fell, like most of his family, in the flower of his age, being only thirty-six years old.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00