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Wilson's Border Tales
The Royal Grant to Peebles


In the archives of the town of Peebles, there was, for a long time, retained a curious piece of antiquity, which, from its importance, was, a great many years ago, laid hold of by a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The loss to the good town, resulting from this depredation, it would not be easy to make up. The relic was the gift of a king—no less a king than James I.—the sternest of monarchs, yet the wisest, perhaps, that Scotland ever saw. It conferred a right, or rather a privilege of exemption, in favour of an official dignitary of the town, of the greatest importance, no doubt, at the time it was granted, and, even at the more enlightened period when it disappeared, of no small value.

It is worthy of remark, that the records of our burghs are not under the very best guardianship. There are several towns in Scotland, (Peebles is, indeed, an exception,) where the archives are treated as if they were little better than waste paper. We would recommend to the official conservators of these valuable relics, to take a lesson from the irreparable loss sustained by Peebles, and to remember that there are, in this country, a great number of individuals possessed of that mania for the collection of records with which the first Edward of England was, as regards Scotland, so grievously afflicted. Antiquaries deny to them the application of the law of property. They conceive they have a right to seize a piece of antiquity wherever they can find it, whether in the shape of an old brick-bat, which formed part of the monument of King Richard II., or a grant of duties and customs in favour of a burgh.

Having made these remarks, in the spirit of justice to all Scotch towns, and, in particular, with peculiar sympathy for the people of Peebles, who have lost one of their royal grants, we proceed to state the nature of the document, and the circumstances under which it was granted. The following is an exact copy:—

"We hereby exeem the ladye of the Provost of Peebles, from the sumptuarie lawe passed by our Parliament, held at Perth, on the 1st day of July 1427, and declare, that she maye, with perfect immunitie frae our Royal displeasure, wear ‘purfled sleeves.’ Given at Peebles, on our passage therethrow, this 10th day of August 1429.

JAMES REX."

We do not envy the man who could either laugh or turn up his nose at the perusal of this ancient relic. It contains a great deal more philosophy than many printed books of high and ambitious pretensions. It forms at once a chapter, of the legislation of an ancient kingdom, and of the human mind. We verify these statements by the account we are to give of the circumstances attending this grant.

It is known that King James I. called together more Parliaments than all the prior Kings of Scotland put together. During the first fourteen years of his reign, he assembled no fewer than thirteen Parliaments. When these were assembled, it was of course necessary that the legislators, who had come from all parts of the kingdom to make and mend laws, should have something to do; as a legislative assembly, without some new law to make, or improvement to suggest, is in a much worse position than an artisan without work. The shoemaker who has no shoe to cobble, may conceal his want of work from everybody but his wife, who feels the want of the fees; but a great number of lords and prelates, collected from all parts of the kingdom to make laws, and without any subject on which to exercise their legislative functions, must sit and look each other in the face, experiencing and acknowledging a want of trade, which it is at all times very unpleasant to make known. The king who assembles them, is even in a worse predicament; because he is in the situation of a master who has no work to give his journeymen.

When, therefore, the Parliament of James fell out of work—after having exhausted such recondite subjects as the regulation of cruives, which were measured by the length of a pig three years old, from the point of the snout to the tip of the tail, and other equally subtle points—the King found them work in regulating the dress of the women, who, in those early days, began to decorate their fair persons with the most costly habiliments. As it was plain that their reason had no control over their desire to appear gay, it was thought a legitimate subject of Parliamentary enactment to regulate what kind of dresses ladies of a certain rank should wear.

It was, accordingly, enacted by a Parliament held in 1427—that "neither commoners’ wives, nor their servants, should wear long trains, rich hoods or ruffs, purfled sleeves, or costly curches of lawn;" and, "that all gentlemen’s wives take care that their array do not exceed the personal estate of their husband."

At a time when the rage for dress was a new passion, which had broken out from the powers and chains of feudal depreciation and bondage, an act of parliament, of the kind now mentioned, could not fail to be a grievous calamity to those who felt that their charms required embellishment. Even in these days it may be easily figured what would be the consequence of binding down the ladies to common mankies, or Aberdeen sey; and every kind-hearted individual, who sympathises in the misfortunes of her fellow creatures, must feel for the ladies of the fifteenth century, whose toilette was put under the legislative authority of a Hume or a Roebuck.

When the enactment we have mentioned was published on the kirk-doors of Scotland, the effect was just such as may, by a comparison of states and feelings, be conceived. The wife of the Provost of Peebles was, in a particular degree, aggrieved, in consequence of a rivalship she had long carried on in dress, with the lady of a knight, Sir George Cockburn, who sat in the same place of worship. Lady Cockburn had been annoyed by the exact imitation which the Provost’s lady had observed in her mode of dressing; and accordingly, she rejoiced in the provisions of the act of parliament, which allowed a knight’s lady to wear "purfled sleeves." and denied that exquisite privilege to the wife of a commoner. The triumph was decided; it was sealed by the seals of the members of the Scottish parliament, it was impossible to touch it. All competition between Mrs Purves and Lady Cockburn, was for ever at an end. There was nothing that the former could wear, that the other.could not wear; but she was, by act of parliament, prevented from wearing what the other was entitled to wear.

It will come very far short of the truth to look at this matter with the eye of a cold calculating reason, applied for the purpose of ascertaining the precise amount of disadvantage, which, in a utilitarian point of view, was suffered by those in Mrs Purves’ condition, in consequence of this famous statute. There is no ordained optimum for all people. The question is, how much relative unhappiness did this occasion to Mrs Purves? Unquestionably much—perhaps as much as if her husband had lost one thousand merks. But there was really justice in the lady’s case. The tyranny of drawing a line of demarcation between God’s creatures by act of Parliament, is admitted. If anything of the kind were attempted in our day, it would produce a rebellion, and perhaps the loss of a million of lives. Justice is the same goddess, whether she puts in her scales the fates of kingdoms, or the bijouterie of the toilette.

The competition between the two ladies having amounted at least on the part of Mrs Purves, to a passion, the act of Parliament rendered her miserable. The husband had no powers of consolation for her. She gave up going to the church, mourned over her discomfiture at home; became peevish, sick, and heart-broken, and denied all remedies which were suggested for her relief. One thing only could cure her, and that was, an exemption from the decree which had passed against the liberty of her toilette. The husband knew that this would be attended with the greatest difficulty. The king, who had covered with blood the "heading hill" of Stirling for the sake of justice, would care but little for the griefs of the wife of the Provost of Peebles.

It happened that King James took a tour along the Borders and, in his way, as was customary in those times, he made certain grants, by way of favour, or largess, to the corporations through whose liberties he passed. To various of the towns he gave exclusive rights of pasturage over certain of the crown lands; to some a right of fishing; to some a right of levying petty customs; to some a right to hold fairs and markets, and so forth. Indeed, it is known that the greater part of the privileges and immunities of the towns of Scotland were granted in this way. When James came to Peebles, it became the talk of the inhabitants what was to be their guerdon. The members of the council deliberated upon it in their chamber; and some proposed a right of pasturage—some of levying petty customs—some one thing and some another—as suited their views of public or private policy. The charge of the petition was committed to the Provost. There was, however, a stronger power at home. Mrs Purves had a petition; and it was clear that her husband had little prospect of any further domestic bliss unless the prayer of that petition was granted.

Though an honest man, Purves knew the value of domestic happiness in competing with public principle. A man may sacrifice much to public duty, as witness the case of Brutus; but it may be doubted if any man, however much a lover of justice, ever sacrificed for a smile of the stern goddess, the loves, the happiness of his domestic life—the comfort of his "ain fireside." The Provost felt the delicacy of his position. He owed something to the town, and something to himself, who had done much for his fellow citizens, and got not even thanks for his pains. When the council made their suggestions to him, he said he would think of the various boons that were proposed to be asked; and, the matter being thus left in his hands, when the King arrived, he repaired to the royal presence to present his request at the feet of his sovereign.

"Well, our worthy and well-beloved servant," said the King, "who hath the charge of our loyal town of Peebles, what is the request that thou hast to make for the exercise of our royal bounty, which, thanks to the approaching termination of our journey, hath few more draughts to be made upon it, at this time? We have always loved thy ancient burgh, for its steadiness in the royal cause, and its peaceable attitudes in times of commotion, and shall be well pleased to redress any grievances that may press upon the inhabitants, or grant such privileges as may be consistent with the principles of our government."

"Richt illustrious Sire," replied the Provost, on his knees, "it is weel kenned, in these parts, that the royal bounty has been drawn upon by the Border towns, to an extent beyond what was anticipated, even by thy most liberal anticipations, and we would be richt laith to put the guid opinion that your Majesty has been pleased to entertain o’ us by ony unreasonable request, at a time, especially, when your Majesty is about to join your richt fair and weel-beloved Queen, Joanna, whase image is nae doot mair in your Majesty’s mind, than the sma’ concerns o’ an insignificant though faithfu’ toun. The prayer I hae to mak is, therefore, that, when you return to your palace, ye may enjoy that domestic peace and happiness, whilk is denied to your Majesty’s servant, wha noo sues at your Majesty’s feet."

"We do not see," replied the monarch, "what our heppiness in our palace has to do with the prosperity of Peebles, or thy own individual benefit and distinction. Thy prayer is, besides—thanks to our good Queen—unnecessary, seeing we have that which thou prayest for already; and it is not in the power even of the good town of Peebles to wish us a more faithful consort, or greater domestic happiness, than we at present enjoy. But thou hast contrasted thy own domestic condition with ours, and stated that thou has not peace at ‘yer ain fireside,’ a calamity which we—sovereign of Scotland though we are—have no power, we fear, either to remove or to assuage. We can grant thee a right to levy petty customs, to cast feal and divot, and we might even extend to thee some exemption from public burdens; but we cannot interfere between our subjects and their wives; for, in our opinion, it would be unseemly in a royal crown to be visited with the ‘reddin’ straik.’"

As the monarch finished his speech, he laughed at his own attempt at wit; but the subject was not one of laughter to the Provost, who adhered to his point.

"Yer Majesty," he replied, "has mair power in this matter than yer modesty allows ye to think; and since ye hae condescended to smile on the occasion, wharby my boldness is greatly countenanced, I wad say that my domestic peace and comfort is entirely in yer Majesty’s hands."

"Then we have more power than we thought we had." Said the King, "Canst thou unriddle this mystery?"

"If yer Majesty," said the Provost, "would tak the trouble to read this sma’ petition, ye wad maybe there find whar the riddle lies; and, also, the way to unriddle it to the satisfaction o’ yer humble servant, and the bringing back o’ his domestic peace, without which a’ his honours as Provost are o’ nae avail to his happiness."

The King having read the petition, smiled, and gave orders to his chamberlain to draw out the grant we have submitted to our readers.

These are the circumstances attending that extraordinary relic. The inhabitants felt disappointed; but Mrs. Purves vied with Lady Cockburn, and outshone her. The grant was constructed generally to imply, that all Provosts’ wives of Peebles might wear purfled sleeves—a privilege of which the inhabitants were as proud as if they had got the power of casting feal and divot on the surrounding muirs.


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