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Wilson's Border Tales
The Maid of Coquet Side


Of all the mountain streams which indent the towering heath-clad hills of Northumberland, and drain the morasses which are frequently found in the high lands in the western and central parts of the county, perhaps not one of them is so justly admired, and so deservedly celebrated, for the varied scenery which its banks present, as the serpentine, crystal Coquet. From her source among the hills to the once important castle of Harbottle; from thence to the verdant plains overlooked by the darkly-frowning, towering Simonside; from thence to the ancient town of Rothbury, embosomed in hills of the bleakest and most romantic description—where shall we find a mountain stream presenting such attractions to the tourist, and whose banks display such comfortable farms, such a respectable and intelligent class of farmers and graziers, and the general population possessing so liberal a share of that comfort, intelligence, industry, and happiness, which so much distinguishes our own "merry England" from other nations, and which is the best criterion by which we may judge of the internal happiness and prosperity of any country? As she pursues her serpentine course down the vale, it is impossible not to admire the frowning and almost terrific grandeur of the scene presented to the eye of the traveller as he approaches the crag end. Here the only road leading down the valley is bounded on the north side by a succession of hills, the tops and sides of which are almost completely covered with crags of immense size, which project considerably in many places, and, in imagination, threaten the timid traveller or invalid with almost immediate destruction. Often have we stood in the depth of winter, when our fingers were tingling with cold and our toes pinched with the intensity of the frost, admiring the wild grandeur of the scene spread around—which, to us, had always a peculiar charm, arising from associations which it is almost impossible to trace or analyze. The similarity of the scene to some of the romantic glens in a different dale, "where we spent life’s early day," always command our attention and admiration; and, as we wind our solitary way along the valley,

"Pleas’d with the present, full of glorious hope,"

we are always, in a manner, so rivetted to the scene by an invisible chain, and so happy and pleased with ourself, our fellow-creatures, and all around, animate and inanimate, that we generally spend more time in travelling a few miles in this, to us, delightful region, than a plodding man of business would do in passing from its source to the metropolis. Our imagination wanders to the days of bygone years, when the joyful gladness of youthful days shed its enlivening radiance on the heart, filling it with the pleasing anticipation of a succession of years of unvarying happiness and success, when we should leave the vale of our nativity, mingle with the "busy hum of men," acquire a name and importance in the scale of society, and, perhaps, in the autumn of our age, after a course of industrious perseverance in the path of life which our too sanguine imagination had chalked out for us, retire to the dell where we and our playmates had gambolled round the glassy pool,

"Deluded the trout from the wild rushing spray,"

explored the craggy dell to enjoy our evening ramble, or "held high converse with the mighty dead," by poring over their volumes—treasures bequeathed to posterity—in the silence of solitude, where not a sound was heard to break the holy calm save the rushing of the waters over the adjoining linn into the deep reservoir below.

These and similar scenes invariably recur to our recollection, and imagination delights in taking an excursive and retrospective view of the past, when we travel through this romantic neighbourhood. We think of our school days— when the capacious and ardent mind of a never-to-be-forgotten teacher inspired us with a love for literature and the sciences—when we shared the same desk with those whose genius and perseverance would, in all probability. have enabled them to reach the highest pinnacle of the hill of science, and all the honours and emoluments which accompany such distinction, had not the relentless hand of the "king of terrors" so soon seized the most valued victims, severed them from tender friends and connections, and this world of vanity and ambition, and left us in her wanderings to wonder at the inscrutable decrees of Providence, and ponder on their bright but brief career.

To a native of the southern counties the feelings produced would, probably, be very different; but, on descending the valley, the prospect expands; and, when the view-hunter reaches the mouldering ruins of Brinkburn Priory, the scene is truly picturesque. The extreme solitariness of the situation, its beautiful seclusion on the very margin of the Coquet—which here winds round the west, south, and southeast sides of it—the various hanging woods which adorn the precipice on the southern side of the river, and the surrounding woods on the north side, make it one of the most delightful retreats which we have ever beheld. On emerging from the woods below, the prospect becomes extensive, embracing a large extent of richly cultivated country, through which the Coquet winds her way like a silver serpent, glittering in all the brilliancy of summer’s sunshine, and adds her plaintive melody to the general concert of creation, as she murmurs on through the beautiful little town of Felton, with its pleasing avenues, shady arbours, and sloping gardens and then meanders through verdant meadows, rocky dells and closely-embowering woods, till she passes the once majestic and still towering ruins of Warkworth Castle— commanding even in their desolation — and then mingles her pure and limpid waters with the dashing surf of the immeasurable ocean, with the Coquet Isle nearly opposite to her estuary. Were we one of the most powerful potentates of Europe, we would spend our days on the banks of the delightful stream, where, in autumn and winter, we might enjoy the pleasures of the field and the chase; and, when the returning warmth of spring again re-peopled the woods with numerous tiny songsters, bedecked the verdant plains from their state of embryo, and all God’s creation seem joyful and grateful at the departure of the withering blasts and frigid storms of winter—where we might again inhale the pure salubrious western breeze, brushing down the declivity from the bleak sides of Rimside Moor, sally forth with our fishing apparatus duly prepared, and feel once more how delightful it is

"In the sweet-flowing streams of the Coquet to stand,
With the creel on the back and the rod in the hand!"

Were we, we say, the most powerful monarch in Europe, we would wager our crown to a capon that he who cannot find happiness—that plant of celestial seed—on the banks of this river, will never find it on any spot in the wide creation. For where shall we find more delightful retreats from the summer’s sun, more romantic walks, more beautiful streams, more spacious parks, more gorgeous woodlands, more hospitable inhabitants, more fair, intelligent, and bewitching maidens! When the mind is relieved from the tedium of business by the rural sports which the resident here may enjoy, and prepared by the smiles and conversation of a faithful friend to appreciate the value and explore the pages of antiquity, what is there which the wide world can present or the most restless mind crave, that would induce us to prefer any other "location" to a secluded residence on the banks of the crystal Coquet?

But we forget that, in expatiating on the beauties of our favourite stream, we are digressing; and we now hasten to lay before our readers the following tale, the principal events of which are intimately connected with Coquet Side.

Four hundred and fifty years ago, the aspect of the eastern part of Northumberland presented a very different appearance to the eye of the traveller from what it does at the present day. The high rising grounds and towering mountains on the north side of the Coquet, and from ten to twenty miles westward from the seacoast, in all probability presented a covering of waving heath, as they do at the present day; but the gentle declivities from thence to the banks of the river, have undergone a complete alteration. The natural covering of wild wood, which almost totally covered both sides of the river to a considerable distance, has gradually and almost totally disappeared, by the united efforts of the woodman’s stroke, and the fertilizing hand of the agriculturist; and the fields which now annually display the riches of Pomona and resound with the jocund laugh of the reaper, have been the scenes of many a gallant chase and the witnesses of many a sanguinary conflict.

At the time of which we write, there stood, on the southern bank of the Coquet, about a mile and a half above the present town of Felton, a small but substantial residence, which was not sufficiently strong to merit the appellation of a fortress, nor yet so humble, as to lead the wayfaring traveller to imagine that it was tenanted by an ordinary retainer of the Earl of Northumberland, whose domains, with the exception of about a hundred acres attached to the residence in question, extended to a considerable distance around.

A person possessing this residence and property would, now-a-days, be denominated by the appellation of respectable, whatever might be the calibre of his mind or the extent of his literary attainments; but this word, in the times of which we write, was neither so much used nor so significant in its meaning, as it is in the present perverted state of society. The most powerful only were then the lords of the creation; and, under their protection and guidance, the more humble inhabitants of the soil were, from infancy, reared for warlike enterprises, and led on as the ambition of their superior directed; while the reflecting and comprehensive minds of a few were but just beginning to burst the bonds of the Church of Rome.

This residence—all traces of which, it is almost needless to add, the all-corroding hand of time has now completely obliterated—was situated on a rising ground overlooking the windings of the Coquet, which here murmur round the north side of the eminence, in the form of a circular arch, and was inhabited by Nicholas Merburry, a faithful esquire of the celebrated Earl of Northumberland, who had had occasion for his services in many a sanguinary conflict, and had long known the fidelity and attachment with which he had served him in many negotiations in which he had been employed. Merburry had, in early life, married a young lady named Agnes Clifford—daughter of a younger branch of that noble family—by whom he had an only daughter named Matilda, now just verging on womanhood.

The personal appearance of Matilda was all that the eye of a connossieur of female beauty could desire to attract the eye, and captivate and hold in thrall the affections. Of the middle size, her person was formed with such exact symmetry that it might have served as a model for a statuary; while, in her complexion, the colours of the flaunting rose were so triflingly blended with the hues of the modest lily, that we are tempted to exclaim with "the Wizard of the North," in describing one of his heroines—

"Oh, call her fair, not pale!"

There is a pleasing eloquence that lurks in every look and lineament, and which is always ready to spring forth and give silent though powerful expression to affection, sympathy, and all the hidden emotions of the innermost recesses of the female bosom. Of this eloquence, nature had bestowed upon Matilda a liberal portion; so that a physiognomist might have discovered, in the intelligent benignancy of her looks, the purity of her intentions spring from a heart filled with love to every fellow-creature.

But the beauties of her mind were not less fascinating than the graces of her person; for under the maternal direction of her intelligent and liberal-minded mother, she had acquired an education far beyond the generality of maidens of that day; while her modesty, sweetness of temper, and benevolence of disposition, threw a pleasing softness over her fine features, which almost approached to langour, and which was seldom changed to a more lively expression, except for the purpose of enlivening those companions with whom she most frequently associated—for dispelling their sadness, or for promoting their happiness.

Could such a lovely and retired being be seen and not admired? Could she be admired even by the most avaricious and unprincipled, without his thoughts being refined and purified, and his heart acknowledging the sincerest affection? We imagine our readers will answer in the negative; and so responded the hearts of many of Matilda’s youthful friends, who had seen her grow up like one of the lovely flowers that flourished on the banks of the stream that murmured round her dwelling.

Of all Matilda’s youthful companions, Henry Mowbray alone seemed to possess any hold on the maid’s affections. When raffled by her intimate connections on her future prospects and choice in life, the mention of her other acquaintances was listened to with indifference; but when the name of Henry Mowbray was introduced, the observing eye might have discovered, by the gentle blush which suffused her cheek, and the tremulousness of her voice, occasioned by the violent palpitations within her bosom, that her interest in his welfare and happiness was of no ordinary character, but was weaving that gentle net around her heart which leads to the consummation of all our earthly felicity, or plunges us into the dark abyss of despondency and despair.

Henry Mowbray had been reared on the banks of the same stream, and had known Matilda familiarly from childhood. They had, in infancy, culled the primroses on Coquet’s verdant banks, and formed them into bouquets for each other. In youth, they had rambled together, enjoying the beauties of the woodland scenery spread out on the sloping banks below them, like a large amphitheatre, as they stood in the shade, secure from the ardent rays of the summer’s sun, or, in evening, watched the golden orb of day as he sank in slowly-retiring majesty behind the waving heath on the tops of the darkly-frowning Simonside Hills. Thus they spent the calm, flowery, and blissful period of youth. What wonder, then, that Matilda should feel for this companion of her childhood, and fervently pray for his happiness! or that he, when absent from her, should "sigh for the days that were gone," think of the happy evenings he had spent in her society, and anxiously count the days that would intervene before he could see her again!

The period in which their destinies were cast was peculiarly ill fitted for securing domestic happiness. The frequent inroads of the Scots, and the depredations they committed on the southern side of the Borders during the reigns of Richard II. and Henry IV., made property comparatively valueless; and many a happy youth was suddenly summoned from the side of his betrothed bride to array himself round the standard of his chief, and accompany him to the battle-field, from which he never returned.

The spring of 1388 was one of the greatest importance to the family of the Earl of Northumberland. Being by far the most powerful nobleman in this part of the kingdom, and the most formidable and incessant enemy the Scots had, they were always willing to embrace any opportunity of harassing his adherents, and plundering his domains.

It was almost the middle of June of the above-mentioned year, that the Scots, under the command of the Earls of Fife and Strathearn, two sons of the Scottish king, assisted by Archibald Earl of Douglas, and the Earls of Mar and Sutherland, assembled their adherents, to the number of forty thousand, in order to revenge some injuries which they considered they had received from the English. Their levies were made secretly, and assembled in Teviotdale; but the Earl of Northumberland having discovered their place of assembling, endeavoured to entrap them by stratagem. He and the neighbouring nobles agreed to hold themselves in readiness with their vassals, so as to be prepared for any sudden irruption of the enemy; and, having assembled a considerable number of his own adherents along the eastern coast, who took up their temporary residence at Warkworth, then one of the principal baronial residences of the Earl, he despatched our hero, Henry, (who was nearly of the same age as his own warlike sons, and their frequent companion,) and a few other trusty friends, to endeavour to ascertain the situation, strength, and intentions of the Scots.

After scouring the Borders to the westward of the Cheviots, without discovering the object of their search, they separated; and our hero pursued his route to the northwest, towards the Teviot, thinking they might yet be in their former position. Not differing materially from the Scots in dress, arms, or language, he adopted the hazardous expedient of entering their camp to ascertain their intentions. Having accordingly tied his horse to a tree, he approached the Scots, and was readily taken for a Scotchman; and, having remained some time, observed their strength, and discovered that they intended to devastate Northumberland, he embraced the earliest opportunity of retreating, and retraced his steps to the place where he had left his horse, the fleetness of which he expected would soon bear him to the vale which contained all he held dear. How great was his disappointment, on reaching the place, to find that some one had taken him away, and to see that he was pursued by some horsemen from the Scottish camp, his sudden disappearance having excited their suspicions. Being interrogated as to his business, and not giving a satisfactory answer, he was hurried back to the Scottish army and there obliged to disclose, in some degree, the intentions of the Northumbrian barons, and then obtained his liberty. He then returned to the vale of his nativity to disclose the events of his journey.

The Scots, having thus discovered the caution of the Northumbrian nobles, altered their own plans, and divided their army into two parts. One part was dispatched to the neighbourhood of Carlisle; and the other, under command of James Douglass and the Earls of Moray and March, was directed to march into Northumberland, and lay waste the country round. They so planned their movements that, by hasty and secret marches, he descended the vale of Reed, crossed over the country to the Tyne, and pursued his journey southward to the neighbourhood of Durham, with such celerity that the first notice the inhabitants had of an approaching enemy, was in the smoke of their conflagrations, the ruin of their property, and the destruction of their hopes.

It is not necessary for our purpose to pursue the invaders in their career of devastation; but such was the success of their irruption, that they laid waste the country round Durham without meeting with an opposing enemy; and, having recrossed the Tyne a little above Newcastle, laden with booty, they pursued their course homeward, and encamped at Otterburn on the evening of the 15th of August. Here they erected a temporary fortification round the east and south sides of their camp, the north being sufficiently protected by a tract of marshy ground, and the west side occupied by their spoil.

The Earl of Northumberland having discovered their retreat, sent his two sons, Henry and Ralph Percy, accompanied by the Northumbrian barons, and the flower of their brave men, to endeavour to intercept the retreat of the invaders; and, after pursuing their route up the vale of Coquet, to a place known now by the name of Hepple, they crossed the river, and continued their march up a solitary dell which leads south-westward through the mountainous tract between the vales of Coquet and Reed, till they gained the rising-ground which gives the traveller an extensive view into the mountainous region through which the Reed winds her course. Pursuing their route up this dreary dell, in the darkening shades of evening, which makes its bleakness doubly cheerless to the solitary wanderer, they reached the eminence above-mentioned, and then pursued their way along the high road to the westward, till they crossed the little rivulet known by the name of Otterburn-burn, a little above the village.

After proceeding about half a mile farther, suddenly they found themselves in the vicinity of the Scottish army, part of which had laid themselves down to rest, exhausted by the fatigues of their march. Immediately the ardour of the Northumbrian commander, so well known by the appellation of Hotspur, stimulated his followers to an immediate attack. The resolute valour and well-known intrepidity of this warrior, produced an instantaneous movement among his adherents; they attacked the fortifications of the enemy by moonlight—a season when battles would have redoubled horrors—and the desperate clang of arms resounded through the peaceful vale.

The Scots, aided by their temporary fortification, sustained the attack of the Northumbrians. Their horse had the advantage of anticipating the attempt; for, having always expected to be pursued, they had perceived the advantage to be derived from the possession of a hill on their left, which is now known by the name of the Hottwoodhead. Consequently, wheeling round this hill, while the Northumbrians attacked the entrance of their camp, they assaulted them in flank, made great slaughter, and occasioned considerable confusion. The Northumbrians, however, soon restored their ranks; but the temporary confusion enabled the Scots to march out of their camp, and arrange their forces in order of battle. The combat now raged with unabated fury, till the face of the moon became shrouded in dense clouds, and the darkness of midnight separated the combatants—now unable to distinguish friends from foes. Again the moon shed forth her silvery rays on the gory plains with brilliancy and again the renowned leaders led on their men to the attack with redoubled ardour. The Northumbrians charged with greater impetuosity, the Scots gave way a little, and the standard of Douglas was nearly taken, by a valiant band led on by Henry Mowbray, who fought near the side of his heroic master. It was then that the two Hepburns from the one wing, and Douglas from the other, rushed to the front, where the danger was greatest, and, after a display of the most desperate valour, succeeded in gaining for their men the position they had lost.

Yet Douglas pressed forward, and having discovered his adversary, Hotspur, in the thickest of the fight, insolently braved the young hero to engage; and, after a desperate conflict, the gallant Douglas fell beneath his valiant sword.

His followers having discovered their leader weltering in his blood, raised the well-known cry of "A Douglas"—at which a considerable number of the Scots rushed to that part of the field, thinking the greatest danger to be there, and charged with such impetuosity that the Northumbrians, now overpowered by numbers, were obliged to give way; yet so powerfully, and with such gallant resolution, did they maintain the conflict, that the loss on each side was said to be nearly equal. It was then that the gallant Hotspur and a number of the leaders, among whom was Henry Mowbray, were taken prisoners, and conducted back to the Scottish camp, where they found Ralph Percy, who had been severely wounded and taken prisoner in a different part of the field.

Such was the result of the celebrated battle of Otterburn, remarkable not only for the resolute valour of the contending chieftains and their adherents, but also for its varied issue, and the proof it gives of the mutability of all our earthly prospects. The victor, in the highest expectation of military glory, was prevented by death from enjoying the fruits of his victory; while his vanquished enemy, though now a prisoner along with his gallant companions, and his army routed, enjoyed, after the conflict, many years of military fame. The bodies of Douglas and his noble companions who fell with him on the field, were carried over the hills by the retreating army; and, on the third day after the battle, were interred, with great military pomp, within the walls and opposite the great eastern window of Melrose Abbey.

It is unnecessary for us to dwell on the succeeding events, which are well known to the lovers of history. Such of the prisoners as were of noble descent, and likely to bring considerable ransoms, were carried by the victorious invaders into Scotland; but, after remaining some time in captivity, they once more obtained their liberty by paying their stipulated ransoms.

It would be impossible for us to describe the feelings with which the Northumbrian warriors crossed the mountains, when they once more found themselves at liberty, and breathing the pure air of their native hills; or to describe the anxious hopes with which they pursued their routes to their varied habitations, where fond parents, devoted wives, or attached maidens, were anxiously waiting for their return, with all the torturing fears which invariably accompany, such a state of agonizing suspense.

Henry Mowbray having reached the dwelling of his parents, was not lone in visiting the habitation of Matilda, whose happiness at his return was more visible in the anxious tenderness of her looks than in the multitude of her words. She had not, till this dangerous separation, known how nearly he was linked to her happiness; nor had he before thought that the feeling with which he regarded her was anything but the purity of friendship, based on their intimacy from childhood. But now they found that they were all to each other that was necessary to constitute happiness; and the flowery banks which they had gambolled over in the happy innocence of childhood they again wandered over in the full consciousness of mutual affection, and the thrilling and indescribable hope of succeeding years of unalloyed felicity.

The current of their lives now ran smoothly, and weeks glided rapidly and almost imperceptibly away. The seasons made another revolution, and Henry and Matilda were married, and, in their peaceful retirement, drank of the pure fountain of connubial bliss. The dissipated citizen may despise their happiness, and smile at their retired and monotonous pleasures; but it was a monotony of the most delightful description; and the ever-varying seasons, as they glided speedily by, still found them cheerful, contented, uncloyed, and happy. The rising verdure of spring, the waving luxuriance of summer, the sweet but declining graces of autumn, and the wild grandeur and majestic frowns of winter, awakened in their bosoms springs of gratitude to the omnipotent Governor of the universe, which, in the giddiness and frivolity of an inhabitant of a large city, are sealed up for ever. Had they even been allowed to carve out for themselves their own destiny, it would perhaps have been impossible for them to have pitched upon a state in which they could have enjoyed a greater measure of worldly felicity.

Twelve years of comparative composure followed the union of Henry and Matilda; and, in that time, four smiling children enlivened their evening fireside, with their innocent prattle and heartfelt glee. During that period they chiefly lived at the residence we have described, where Matilda’s childhood and youth had glided innocently away, and where she, and the only man she ever loved, were now enjoying that calm and holy feeling of tranquil happiness, which can only spring from a similarity of dispositions and that affection which is based on the purest esteem. Old Nicholas, her father, was wrapped up in the happiness of his only child, and delighted with the innocent society of his grandchildren; and was frequently seen walking, with the deliberate step of his age, beside his tiny companions, along the flowery margin of the crystal Coquet; and fervently wishing that he might, uninterruptedly, watch their progress to maturity. His fatherly care of them was, however, destined to suffer one interruption, and that was occasioned by his joining the valiant band which defeated the invading Scots at Homeldon in 1402. He, as is well known, was chosen by the earl of Northumberland, to carry the tidings of the victory to King Henry; and was rewarded by that monarch, for first bringing him intelligence of the victory, with a pension of 40 pounds a-year—no inconsiderable sum in those days. This increased his wealth, but made no augmentation to his happiness; for, wrapt up in his children and his children’s children, he was, before, possessed of all that constitutes terrestrial happiness. His amiable daughter and her devoted husband, in the beautiful language of Thompson,

"Flourish’d long in tender bliss and rear’d
A happy offspring, lovely like themselves
And good, the grace of all the country round."


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