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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XI. Battle of Sauchieburn (1488)


Never was any race of kings more unfortunate than that of Stewart. Their reigns were generally disastrous, and their end tragical. Of six successive monarchs, the immediate predecessors of James VI., not one had died a natural death. James III. came to an untimely and unnatural end in the county we are surveying.

A misunderstanding had subsisted between this prince and several of the chief nobility, during the greater part of his reign. James did not possess those talents for government which had distinguished several of his predecessors; for, though sundry wise and useful regulations were established in his reign, and his errors have, no doubt, been much exaggerated, yet it cannot be denied, that marks of an imprudent and feeble mind are visible in the general tenor of his conduct.

A natural timidity of temper, together with a foolish attention to astrology, had filled his mind with perpetual jealousy and suspicion. He had no warrior’s heart; rather that of a coward, a most unhappy reputation for a Scottish king. The impression, during his reign, was that, among Cochran’s Satanic influences, it had been prophesied he should die by the nearest of his kin; and, to defeat this, he put to death his brother Mar. With his son, however, to whom the prophecy had never been applied, he saw its fulfillment coming. A fondness, too, for architecture, music, and other studies, or amusements, which, though innocent and useful, were too trifling to engage the whole time and care of a prince, had rendered him averse to public business. Indolence, and want of penetration, had also led him to make choice of such ministers and favourites, as were not considered qualified for the trust committed to them.

The ministers of state had usually been chosen from amongst the nobility; but, in the reign of James, the nobles, either from his fear or hatred of them, or from a consciousness of his inability to maintain proper dignity, were seldom consulted in affairs of government, and often denied access to the royal presence.

This could not fail to excite the displeasure of the Scottish barons, who, in former reigns, had not only been regarded as the companions and counsellors of their sovereigns, but possessed the great offices of power and trust.

Displeasure developed into indignation, when they beheld every mark of the royal confidence and favour conferred upon Cochran the mason, Hommil the tailor, Leonard the smith, Rodgers the musician, and Torfifan the fencing-master; whom James always kept about him, caressed with the fondest affection, and endeavoured to enrich with an imprudent liberality.

To redress the grievance, the barons had recourse to a method of corresponding with their characteristic ferocity. Unacquainted with the regular method, adopted in modern times, of proceeding by impeachment, they seized upon James’s favourites by violence, tore them from his presence, and, without any form of trial, executed them. James Hommil, scissor (the old name for tailor), did not suffer on this occasion. He was, however, afterwards prosecuted by the Parliament of 1488, for attempting to bring in the English to the king’s aid. Another of the royal suite, James Chisholme, page to his majesty and subsequently chaplain, escaped the fate of his companions; and this youth, son of Edmund first Chisholm of Cromlix, was, in 1487, consecrated Bishop of Dunblane. But so gross an insult, as the executions referred to, could not fail to excite some degree of resentment, even in the most gentle bosom; though true policy would have suggested to a wise prince, so soon as the shock of passion had subsided, the necessity of relinquishing measures, which had given such offence to subjects so powerful as the then Scottish barons. Their influence, indeed, had, by a concurrence of causes, become so predominant, that the combination of a few was able to shake the throne. The attachment of James to favourites was, notwithstanding, so immoderate, that he soon made choice of others, who became more assuming than the former, and consequently objects of still greater detestation to the barons, especially those, who, by residing near the court, had frequent opportunities of witnessing their ostentation and insolence.

Matter came at length to an open rupture. A party of the nobility took up arms; and having, by persuasion or force, prevailed upon the king’s eldest son, then a youth of fifteen, to join them, they, in his name, erected their standard against their sovereign. Roused by the intelligence of such operations, James also took the field. An accommodation at first took place, but upon what terms is not known. The transactions of the latter part of this reign are variously related by historians, and but darkly by the best. Such as lived the nearest to the time, and had the fullest opportunities of information, probably found that they could not be explicit without throwing reflections upon either the father or the son. The malcontents, according to some accounts, proposed that James should resign his crown in behalf of his son. This accommodation, whatever the articles were, being attended with no mutual confidence, was of very short duration. New occasions of discord arose. James, it was asserted, had not fulfilled his part of the treaty. Ignorance, indeed, of the articles prevent us from forming any certain judgment of the truth of the charge. There are, however, strong presumptions in its favour. The Earls of Huntly and Errol, the Marischal, the Lord Glammis, with several others who had hitherto adhered to James, now left him, and joined the disaffected. And, in an Act of Parliament, framed soon after the king’s death, and entitled "The proposition of the debate of the field of Stirling," his receding from certain articles to which he had formerly consented as the foundation of peace, is expressly assigned as the reason which had determined these lords to that sudden change. This document sets forth that the late king, by perverse counsel of divers persons, who were then with him, had broken certain articles which he had subscribed and consented to; and that, therefore, the Earl of Huntly, and others of the king’s lieges, had forsaken him, and adhered to his successor. The confederacy now began to spread wider than ever, so as to comprehend almost all the barons, and consequently their military vassals and retainers, on the south of the Grampians.

James, having crossed the Forth in a vessel of Sir Andrew Wood’s, proceeded to Aberdeen, when the northern counties eagerly poured forth their hands in defence of the royal cause. In April, he advanced by Stirling to Blackness, where an undecisive skirmish took place, and a reconciliation was hastily patched up. The king gave his uncle, the Earl of Athole, to Hailes, as a hostage, while the Earl of Crawford, who had distinguished himself here, was created, as the reward of valour, Duke of Montrose. Lord Kilmauris was, for the same reason, created Earl of Glencairn.

With the prospect of new hostilities before him, James now shut himself up in Edinburgh castle, till, by the arrival of his northern subjects, whom he had summoned to his assistance, he should be in a position to take the field. As, however, Stirling was reckoned more convenient for the rendezvous of the northern clans, he was advised to go thither. Upon his arrival, he was excluded from the castle by Shaw the governor, who favoured the other party. While deliberating what step to take on this unexpected reception, intelligence was brought him that the disaffected lords, at the head of a considerable army, had advanced to Torwood. The only alternative was, either to make his escape by going on board Admiral Wood’s fleet, stationed in the Forth, near Alloa, or engage the enemy with what forces he had collected. Though not distinguished for courage, he resolved upon the latter course, and prepared.

The two armies met in a tract of ground, which now goes by the name of Little Canglar, upon the east side of a brook called Sauchie Burn, about two miles south of Stirling, and one mile from the famous field of Bannockburn. The royal army was drawn up in three divisions. Historians differ about their numbers. Some make them amount to above thirty thousand. The Earls of Menteith and Crawford, the Lords Erskine, Graham, Ruthven, and Maxwell, with Sir David Lindsay of Byres, were each intrusted with a military command. We are not authentically informed how these leaders, with their several divisions, were arranged. Nor is it agreed in what part the king had his station; only, we are told that he was armed cap-a-pee, and mounted on a spirited grey horse, presented to him by Sir David Lindsay; and that Sir David told his Majesty he might at any time trust his life to the animal’s agility and sure-footedness, provided he could keep his seat.

The malcontent army, amounting to eighteen thousand, and mostly cavalry, was likewise ranged in three divisions. The first, composed of East-Lotian and Merse men, was commanded by the Lords Home and Hailes, whose discontent had arisen from the king having annexed to his chapel-royal at Stirling the revenues of the priory of Coldingham, to the disposal of which they had claim. The second line, made up of the inhabitants of Galloway and the border counties, was led by Lord Gray; and the prince had the name of commanding the main body, though he was entirely under the direction of the lords about him. Showers of arrows from both sides began the action; but they soon came to closer engagement with arrows and swords.

The royalists at first gained an advantage, and drove back the enemy’s first line. These, however, being soon supported by the borderers, who composed the second, not only recovered their ground, but pushed the first and second lines of the royalists back to the third. Fighting there was, but no battle.

Any little courage of which James was possessed soon forsook him. He put spurs to his horse, and galloped off, with the view, as is conjectured, of getting on board Admiral Wood’s fleet, which lay in sight five miles distant. As he was on the point of crossing the Bannock, near the village of Milton, a woman happened to be drawing water, and, observing a man in armour gallop full speed towards her, and being alarmed for her safety, left her pitcher, and ran off. The horse, starting at sight of the vessel, threw his rider, who was so bruised with the fall, and the weight of his armour, as to faint away. As the disaster had happened within a few yards of a mill, the miller and his wife carried the unfortunate horseman thither; and, though ignorant of his name and station, treated him with great humanity, and administered to him such cordials as their house afforded. When he had somewhat recovered, he called for a priest, to whom, as a dying man, he might make confession. Being asked who he was, he replied, "I was your king this morning." Thunder-struck at the announcement, the poor woman ran out, wringing her hands, and calling loudly for assistance to the king. Some of the rebels, who happened to pass at the moment, heard her cries and, according to tradition, one of them, a follower of Lord Gray, a priest by profession, exclaimed, "I am a priest. Where is the king?" He was led into the room where the king lay, and, kneeling down beside him, asked if he thought he might recover by the aid of surgery. "I believe that I might," answered James; "but let me have a priest to hear my confession, and to bring me the eucharist." The traitor, it is said, heard his confession, and then basely stabbed him.

The ground where this regicide was perpetuated is full of heroic memories. The place itself is well-known by the name of Beaton’s mill, and stands on the east side of the Bannock. It is no longer a mill; just a small old dwelling-house, with crow-stepped gables. The lower parts of the walls are still the same which received the unfortunate monarch. The stones wear the marks of antiquity, being much mouldered by the weather in the lapse of ages. The upper part of the fabric has been renewed; and the repairs it has undergone seem to have had no other design than to perpetuate the memory of a wretched business, the circumstances of which have been so carefully handed down by tradition, that they are still related by the inhabitants of the village, and correspond to the accounts we meet with in the best historians. Pity that events of a more illustrious character have been denied the same interest and attention by succeeding generations.

After the king’s flight, his troops continued to fight with great bravery; but, at last, finding themselves unable to stand their ground, and discouraged by an uncertain rumour of his death, they began to retreat to Stirling. Well, too, might they feel in vain to defend a cause thus betrayed by its patron; while the adverse ranks, no doubt, shrunk from the horrors of mutual slaughter. They were not hotly pursued, for hostilities had immediately ceased. The army of the confederates lay that night upon the field, and next day marched back to Linlithgow. The number of the slain is uncertain, though it must have been considerable; for the action had lasted several hours. Some of high rank fell on the royal side, among whom were the Earl of Glencairn, and Lords Ruthven and Erskine. This battle was fought on the 11th June, 1488; and was called by diplomatical authority, "The field of Stirling." "The battle of Sauchieburn" is a better name, as distinguishing it from the action between Wallace and the English in 1297. Bannockburn has a better claim to be called the battle of Stirling than either, and probably would have had that title, but for Wallace’s victory which had the start of it in point of time.

The prince, who before the battle, had given strict charge regarding his father’s safety, heard the rumour of his death with great emotions of grief. It was not till some days after, that he obtained a certain account; for, if any of the confederate lords were in the secret, they had kept it carefully from the prince, and from the rest. A report was spread that the king had gone on board Admiral Wood’s fleet, and was alive. The admiral, being called before the young king and the council, declared that he knew nothing of his late master. So little had this prince been accustomed to his father’s company, that he was almost a stranger to his person; for, when Wood had appeared before him, struck with his stately appearance, or perhaps with some resemblance, he seriously exclaimed, "Sir, are you my father?" The admiral, bursting into tears, replied, "I am not your father, but I was your father’s true servant." On the 18th of March, 1483, the property of Largo was granted to this Andrew Wood, of Leith, for his services by land and sea, chiefly in the English war; and confirmed about 1497, with the addition, that the most eminent service had been the defence of Dumbarton, when the English navy came to besiege it. Sir Andrew Wood’s fleet consisted of two ships, viz. ‘Flower’ and ‘Yellow Carvel.’ They compensated their want of numbers by courage, skill, and success. They took five English vessels, which had made an inroad upon the Scottish trade in the Forth. Henry VII. offered a large pension to any one who should kill or capture Wood. Many had declined, when Stephen Bull ventured against him with three stout ships completely manned and equipped, and anchored off the back of the Isle of May. Wood, though not expecting him, fought him hard two days, during which they had drifted to the Tay. At length, Wood captured the three English men of war, and brought them into Dundee. Presenting Bull to James IV., he was handsomely rewarded. The monarch gave presents to the English sailors, and sent them and ships as a gift to Henry, who muttered thanks, and disguised his chagrin. Sir Andrew formed, between Largo House and the church of that name, a canal along which, in a barge, with the appropriate naval honours, he proceeded to and from divine service.

At last the corpse of the king was discovered, and carried to the palace in Stirling castle, where it lay till interred with all due honour, in Cambuskenneth abbey, near the body of his queen, who had died not long before.

The confederate lords endeavoured to atone for their treatment of their late sovereign by their loyalty and duty towards his son, whom they instantly placed on the throne. They also deemed it requisite, for their future security, to have a parliamentary indemnity for their proceedings. Accordingly, in a parliament that met soon after, they obtained a vote, by which everything done in "the Field of Stirling" was justified, and declared "lawful," on account of the necessity they had lain under of employing force against "the king’s evil councillers, enemies of the kingdom." This vote is, in the records, called "The proposition of the debate of the field of Stirling."

The majority of the nation, south of the Tay, soon acknowledged the new king, and the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling surrendered to him. Sir John Lundie was made governor of the latter, instead of James Shaw, whose late treachery had rendered him detestable even to the party whose interest he had intended to serve.

The northern clans, who had adhered to the late king, did not so speedily submit to his successor, but combined to avenge the death upon those who were thought to keep his son still captive among them. Early next year, Lord Forbes made a tour through the northern counties, to excite the inhabitants, and accompanied his arguments with an address to their passions, by displaying the bloody shirt of the murdered king upon a lance. The Earl of Levenax, or Lennox, who had espoused the same cause, raised 5,000 vassals and retainers, and marched northward, to form a junction with Forbes. As, however, the king and confederate lords held Stirling, he crossed the Forth some miles above, and at night encamped in a field adjoining to Tilly-Moss, now called Moss-Flanders. Having no suspicion of danger, and intending to march early next morning, he lay in a careless posture, and had not even set a regular watch. This tempted one MacAlpin to act treacherously. He stole away to Stirling, and gave information of the place where the earl had encamped, and the insecurity of his posture. Lord Drummond, a chief of the confederates, quickly setting out with a considerable force, surprised the earl, and, with little bloodshed, dispersed his army.

The northern clans, hearing of Lennox’s defeat, immediately submitted to the new king, and the whole kingdom soon united in acknowledging his authority. As a penance for the unnatural part he had acted towards his father, he wore, ever after, an iron girdle next his skin, adding a link every year.


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