State of Scotland at the death
of Alexander III.—Voyage of Sir Patric Spens.—Competitors for the Crown of
Scotland.— Siege of Carlisle.—Heroism of the Women in the Castle.
Here may ye read of deeds
And by great men achiev'd:
And glorious things by women done;
Full hard to be believ'd.
Never were the prospects of
any country in so deplorable a condition as those of Scotland on the
unlooked-for death of Alexander III. in 1285.
This king had married, not at
Gretna, the sister of Edward I. of England, and probably inherited, after a
period of nearly eight hundred years, and through a long succession of
males, the sceptres of all the Scottish princes that had governed the nation
since its first establishment in the island.
He left no sons to succeed
him in the kingdom ; and his only daughter, Margaret, was the wife of Eric,
King of Norway. These two had a daughter, also called Margaret; and this
grandchild of Alexander now became sole heir to his crown.
Albeit a female, a foreigner,
and an infant, still, owing to the wise and precautionary measures of her
grandfather in settling the succession, she had been duly recognized by the
states; so that, when his demise became known, no rebellious disorders
ensued, as might have been expected, and as was ordinarily the case. She was
universally confessed to be the rightful Queen of Scotland; and six noblemen
peaceably entered upon the administration of affairs, pendente ejus ingressu.
Eric her father, and Edward her great-uncle, also interested themselves in
her favour, whereby she seemed firmly and happily seated upon the Coronation
Stone ere she had crossed the seas to her new kingdom.
The ambition of the English
monarch led him to negotiate a marriage between this youthful " Maid of
Norway," as she was termed, and his eldest son, Edward Prince of Wales; and
as the animosities which in after-times raged so bitterly between the two
countries had not then arisen, but, on the contrary, as a friendly
understanding subsisted between them, the design of uniting the whole island
under one sovereignty was eagerly embraced by all parties; the Scotch even
agreeing that Margaret should be educated at the court of Edward.
The fwo nations
inter-transacted these matters on the most perfect footing of equality :
numerous items of agreement were proposed and granted on both sides: a long
list of articles, touching the privileges of Scotland, was made out without
difficulty or objection: and Edward stipulated to forfeit 100,000 merks to
his holiness the pope for the prosecution of the crusades, in case he should
not abide by the parchment.
When, after some delay, owing
to sending several times to Norway, everything had been arranged to
satisfaction, and Sir Patric Spens had sailed for the joyful purpose of
fetching the infant queen, the astounding intelligence arrived that she had
died somewhat suddenly.
Never did such a piteous
stroke fall upon a nation since the world was inhabited by the race of Adam,
and Nimrod founded the first monarchy.
We owe very little to
Scottish history for the particulars of the grievous voyage of Sir Patric
Spens, but rather derive our knowledge from the v more authentic source of
an unerring tradition, and, as we have said before, we uniformly contend
that tradition is ever the truest part of history. "I find no traces of the
disaster in Scottish history," observes Sir Walter of Abbotsford; "but, when
we consider tlfb meagre materials whence Scottish history is drawn, this is
no conclusive argument against the truth of the tradition."
To this opinion we must all
readily agree, and consider the grand (though rude) metrical romance
detailing the .expedition as a connecting link in the historical chain of
Sir Patric put to sea on the
Monday morning, albeit the season of the year was so tempestuous as to
create no small misgivings in the sailor hearts of those who went with him.
Such was the terror entertained for navigating the north seas in winter,
owing to the frequent disasters that befel in that early condition of
shipbuilding, and science in nautical affairs, that the parliament enacted,
in the reign of James III., that no ship should be fraughted out of the
kingdom, with any staple goods, betwixt the feast of St. Simon's day and
Jude, and Candlemas.
However, "to Noroway o'er the
foam" was their embassage and "be it wind, be it wet, be it hail, be it
sleet," away they must go to fetch the king of Noroway's daughter.
They hoisted their swelling
sails on the Monday morning, as we said; and it should appear that they had
a fair, though boisterous, passage, for they had crossed the German Ocean
and reached their destination by the Wednesday.
They had not been in port a
week, when the Norwegian barons began to^et impatient of their stay;
wherefore they commenced an unamiable course of annoyance on them, by taxing
them with spending Eric's cash, and consuming the substance of Margaret's
fee, by their requisites there in banquets and good harbourage on shore.
This charge they indignantly
repelled in ungentle terms, such as, " Ye lie, ye lie, ye liars loud !" But
they adduced a better argument than abuse; for they declared that, so far
from consuming the riches of the country, they had brought over in the ship
with them as much white money as would suffice for the needments of them
all, as also the eighth part of a peck of gold.
Yet, after this inhospitable
compliment, they felt themselves no longer welcome, but that their room
would be as acceptable as their company; so Sir Patric issued his commands
that they would sail next morning for Scotland. To do this one of his
lieutenants was passing loth, from certain prognostications of foul weather
and pitiful luck. "Alack, my dear master," said he, "I fear a deadly storm.
I saw the new moon, late yes-tre'en, with the old moon in her arms; and, if
we put to sea, I dread lest evil betide us."
These forebodings, however,
were only laughed at as trivial, and were soon overruled or persuaded away;
so that every preparation was made, the sails let go to the wind, the anchor
tilted, the hawsers cast off; and the queen being on board, together with a
courtly assemblage of nobles, they all left the port, and stood out to sea.
Now prepare thine eyes to
weep ! for the hope of three nations upon the yesty brine in
swaddling-clothes is to be engulfed till she sinks to the sandy bottom,
there to be made—food for crabs.
They had barely made a good
offing from the land, when the sky grew heavy and dark, the wind became
gusty and freshening into a gale, and the sea began to run fearfully high;
the anchors were hit away from the ship's bows, the topmasts were sprung by
the violence of her pitching over a head-swell, and every wave that struck
her forward swept her decks from one end to the other.
The man at the wheel (or
simple helm, perad-venture,) gave his place up to an able seaman, whilst he
went aloft to try and get a sight of land ; but the change had scarcely been
made, when she was struck so severely, owing, like enough, to the helmsman
letting her fall off a point from the wind, that her timbers shivered
throughout her whole length, and a bolt, or plank (for it is not quite
certain), started from her side, so that the water rushed into her like a
In this emergency they
resorted to a plan which is still in usage in like cases of springing a
leak, or of getting a shot through a ship's side below the water-line ; only
that, instead of drawing a mat or quilted sail under her bottom and over the
spot, they were enforced to employ "a web of silken cloth." But every
exertion proved unavailing.
The leak gained upon them,
and grievous was their flight.
They seem never to have put
about and run before the wind back for Norway; but to have perseveringly
held on their way homeward, despite a head-wind and head-sea against them.
We are amusingly told how
troubled the Scotch lords were that the water should wet their cork-heeled
shoes; but that, long ere the tragedy had been fully enacted, not only their
shoes, but the very crowns of their hats likewise, were soaked with the salt
They went down in fifty
fathoms1 water when they had got so near their native country as fifty miles
off Aberdeen: the ship foundered and went to pieces; the feather-beds of the
floating nobility (and they were rare articles of luxury in those days)
danced about upon the foam; whilst Sir Patric Spens found a resting-place on
the pebbles and sand, along with his companions in misadventure, where their
bones have become a rich bed of white coral.
Nothing could exceed the
bewailment of universal Scotland when these woful tidings landed upon that
coast and journeyed over the face of the country; we are assured that the
ladies wrung their white hands, and tore their black hair, for the loss of
their true loves whom they were doomed never again to see: but more
important effects than these so lamentable were about to accrue to the
kingdom at large, owing to the untimely death of Margaret the queen. To
these let us turn.
This infant princess had been
the sole and last heir of that King William I. who was taken prisoner by
Henry II. of England before Alnwick, and, therefore, the succession now
devolved upon the issue of David, Earl of Huntingdon, his brother; whose
male line being also extinct, left the succession open to the posterity of
his daughters. These daughters were three: the eldest married Alan, Lord of
Galloway; the second married Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale ; and the third
condescended to Henry, Lord Hastings, an English nobleman. The eldest left
one daughter, wedded to John Baliol, who, by her, had a son who now started
up as a competitor for the vacant crown,— and it will be seen that he is the
heir of the eldest branch ; the second had a son (Robert Bruce), also a
competitor; and the third had a son, who likewise contended for—anything he
When this last had been
driven from the field, Baliol and Bruce strove for the sovereignty: the
former basing his right on being descended of the elder daughter, though he
was her grandson; whilst the latter urged his claim on being only the son,
albeit of the second daughter, and, as he insisted, one degree nearer to the
According to modern ideas of
succession, Baliol was the rightful heir,—we holding it that the grandson of
the oldest branch has priority of claim over the son of the second. In those
days, notwithstanding, men's minds were not clearly settled and satisfied on
this point, and henee arose two powerful factions in Scotland, that
lacerated that nation from Gretna to John-o'-Groat's House.
In this dilemma, with the
sword of civil war hanging over their heads bare and keen, they resolved to
refer their perplexities to the arbitrament of Edward, in the hope that his
mediation might avert the ruin that threatened them.
This was just what he wanted.
Even before the voyage of Sir
Patric Spens, and the death of the Maid of Norway, he seems to have been
fully prepared for anything that might happen; wherefore, when the bishop of
St. Andrew's and the other deputies presented themselves and their troubles
before him, he entered upon an adjustment of the succession with a readiness
and confidence truly admirable.
The opportunity that now
opened itself upon the English monarch, was too tempting for his virtue to
withstand : he was like many other men of the world—he could resist ail}7
desire so long as temptation was out of his way; but, when allured to evil,
he fell as most others do. He thought he had now a chance of renewing, if
not creating, an ancient claim of feudal superiority over the northern half
of the island, which some of tha early kings of England had tried to
establish ;—a claim which had long lain in utter obscurity, and which, if it
had ever been an object of attention, or in the least remembered or
suspected, would have effectually prevented the Scotch barons from selecting
Edward for their umpire.
Although this claim to the
entire sovereignty, which was purposed to bring the whole island under one
sceptre, was pre-eminently unjust at this juncture, it was one that offered
immense advantages to his own kingdom, and might indeed have tended to the
real amelioration of Scotland at that distant day: but, without looking into
the abstract merits of the affair, he had all the old monasteries ransacked
for fusty chronicles writ by his own countrymen; and any passages therein
occurring, which might be construed to his advantage, he seized upon as
proofs of his dominion over that kingdom, and as of his being hereditarily
the superior liege lord over its kings, his feudal vassals. This was letting
in a new light upon the Scotchmen.
Astounded as they now were at
the fatal mistake they had made in the choice of an umpire, their inability
to resist him and cast him off, precluded the possibility of their calling
in another, or of settling their disputes uninterfered with,— particularly
as Edward was by this time marching northwards with a powerful army. He
established himself in the castle of Norham on the south bank of the Tweed,
and here he invited all the competitors and the Scottish parliament to
When they had here put
themselves into his power, he informed them through the mouth of his chief
justiciary, Roger le Braban^n, of his unquestionable claim to the kingdom,
and then called upon them to acknowledge and ratify it.
Their astonishment struck
"Qui tacet, consentire
videtursaith the Roman: and, if Edward thought so now, he afterwards
discovered that, of a truth, they were not willing to relinquish their
rights, however impotent they might be to retain them.
On a subsequent occasion of
the same nature, their rage and indignation had a like power of sealing
their tongues, with the sole exception of the tongue of one baron, who rose
up and nobly said, when they were required to assent to the
proposition,—"Until we have a king, we can give no answer on so momentous a
But the fact was, their king
was among them,— or, at all events, their usurper; and the awe inspired by
his well-known military fame, their own internal dissensions and weakness,
and the fact that a large army was encamped close to them, terrified away
every objection, and drove them to an acknowledgment of their own state of
vassalage. Robert Bruce was the first to confess Edward's superiority, and
John Baliol the last;—to say nothing of the like confessions from nine other
competitors, whom we have not thought it relevant to notice.
He then appointed a number of
commissioners, still further to examine the claims, ordering that their
decisions should be reported to him next year ; but that forsooth in the
mean time, in order to put the true heir in possession of the crown, it was
necessary that all the fortresses should be delivered up into his hands! and
this monstrous demand was complied with, both by the states and by the
claimants themselves! He then made all the especial barons and prelates
swear fealty to him before the assembly broke up; and, these great matters
having been achieved, he marched southwards to quell some disturbances
Meanwhile the commissioners
diligently debated the question of succession, as to the respective titles
of Baliol and Bruce,—a question that was likewise given to most of the
celebrated lawyers of Europe. It was very rightly decided in favour of
Baliol; and, on his doing homage to Edward for his kingdom, the fortresses
were delivered up to him, and he was acknowledged king of Scotland.
Things remaining in this
condition for a space, it became the usurpers policy to incite John of
Scotland to rebellion, for the purpose of creating to himself an excuse for
going to war, merely that he might lead an army northward and still further
establish his dominion over the devoted country : he therefore heaped the
most galling indignities and insults upon his royal vassal, and, in fine,
succeeded in bringing about the consummation of his unworthy plot.
Unable any longer to endure
the oppressions of Edward, the Scots flew to arms and invaded Cumberland.
They directed their march through Gratney, or Gretna, at the head of the
Solway, of which territory the Johnstones were possessors during the
subsequent Border wars,—crossed the Debateable Land,—the sands of the
Eden,—and laid siege to Carlisle.
The siege is one of the most
remarkable in the annals of warfare.
The mighty host that
assembled on the plain beneath the walls amounted to five hundred cavalry,
and forty thousand infantry;—and a force 110 greater has heretofore
conquered kingdoms. To such a degree did the consternation of the English
rise, when they beheld this puissant army marshalled against them, that the
men of the city, instead of resolutely tarrying to defend their homes from
the invaders, fled by the south gate further into their own country, leaving
the women and children behind, to be dealt with even just as it might
happen, for all they cared.
It should appear that their
retirement was so precipitate, that they had little time to take their
valuables away with them; or, peradventure, if it be that they did take away
their valuables, the said "valuables " did not consist in their wives. That
the city would be instantly occupied by the Scots, was looked on as a matter
of course ; but then, as the women could make no resistance, and
consequently were unable to provoke them, they, as harmless, innocent, and
unoffending creatures, were considered by their cowardly husbands as
perfectly safe from slaughter or vengeance, when the enemy should be among
But this very base
pusillanimity residing in their own bosoms caused them to underrate the high
virtues in their wives, and to be ignorant of the excellent magnanimity that
resides in the nature of the other sex, when placed in circumstances of
misadventure or peril.
A gruff voice hoarsely
summoned the city to surrender and open its gates. Yet, what delicate form
is that standing upon the battlements? and what lily-fair hand is that, that
grasps a glittering halberd ? and what sweet-toned voice is that which
responds to the hoarse speaker? saying that, no, forsooth, they could not on
any account render up the city to the bare-kneed Scotchmen ; — that, indeed,
they must be excused; — that, albeit the men had fled away, and had betaken
themselves to safety, still they had left the women behind;—that the women
so left behind had not made up their minds to open their gates just yet, nor
did they think they should until their besiegers were weary of waiting in
the trenches, or sleeping o1 nights in the castle ditch;—that they craved
favour and forgiveness for this want of good courtesy towards their new
visitants;—that they had come to them so suddenly, that they had prepared no
banquet fitting such noble guests;— besides, their husbands and brothers
being absent, they were diffident of giving wassail entertainments, as it
was not their practice to do so in sooth ;—that their voices were not very
deep, nor much given to the commandment of warriors ;— that their arms were
not, peradventure, so brawny as most arms that wield the long-sword, nor
their fingers quite so hard as most fingers that draw the arblast-bow;—but
that for the sake of amusing the Scots, whom indeed they could not on this
present receive into their banquet-hall, being only a company of unprotected
women, they were content to lay aside the broidering needle and the distaff,
to forget white-seam and shell-work for a space, and to strain their fine
sinews with the weight of lifting cruel battle-axes, drawing cloth-yard
arrows, and plying mangonels;—and lastly, that such being their resolution,
from which, if they knew their own minds, they did not mean to swerve, the
strangers must not take it amiss, or hold them discourteous, if they
repeated their first answer to the summons, namely, that the ladies
positively declined opening their gates to so numerous a host of honourable
gentlemen.—Still standing on the battlements, she bid them a hearty
farewell, at the same time apologizing that her throat had grown a little
dry, and her voice a little husky, by reason of speaking a wee bit longer
than was her custom to do.
Ye must not hold it strange,
if we say that a stentorian roar burst from the helmeted and bearded ranks
that swarmed upon the plain, the moment after this address was ended. Here
was matter of infinite mirth and divertisement to the swarthy warriors. A
woman had told them that the men had fled away in terror for safety from the
city; yet, at the same time had told them that their wives and maidens had
thrown aside their needle-work — had refused them entrance—and veritably had
avowed it their determination to defend themselves with cruel weapons made
of steel, and very heavy to lift, against a mighty host of veterans, just
issued from their own country, fresh, healthful, and strong!
Laughing and jesting at the
prospect of much unlooked-for pleasant pastime, they ascended the slopes,
and, planting their scaling-ladders against the walls, began to mount.
The event, howbeit, was
The highest man on the
ladder, so far from stepping over the wall, came toppling downward upon the
pikes of his companions beneath, pierced to the heart with some deadly
weapon. This was not believable,—there must be some mistake. Another
mounted,—down he came : then another,—and he came headlong also.
There was something wrong.
Let a hundred ladders be planted, and let a thousand men hie up and
investigate the cause of this impediment.
There was no mistake in the
matter. The Scots mounted by crowds; but the countless spears of the fair
besieged thrust them back again gasping, and giving out their lives along
with the ruddy fountains of their hearts' blood.
The Scotch were more than
astonished,—they were dismayed. However, they now assaulted the
fortifications systematically, resolutely, and fiercely. The crossbow-men
drew their bolts at the defenders on the towers, staining with crimson many
a white skin; a numerous body essayed to overtop the works by an impetuous
escalade; and the Annandale men, with their steel-headed double-length
spears, tried to clear a way for them to reach the battlements. It was all
in vain :—they were beaten back with the most universal slaughter; they were
cut down wherever they attempted to make a lodgment; and they were minced to
pieces with swords, or pierced to instant death with arrows or partizans,
the moment they showed themselves near the summit of the walls.
This, for a long time, was
too ridiculous for belief; but when repeated efforts only tended to strew
the plain and fill the ditch with their dead countrymen, instead of leading
on to victory, the Scotch looked at each other in wonderment, and turned
away from the city in despair and shame.
Fierce indeed was the
assault; but brave and determined was the defence. The siege was raised, and
given up as impracticable; and the invaders decamped hastily, and marched
eastward into Northumberland, leaving the ladies successful defenders of
*Perhaps we have employed
more words in describing this memorable siege than were absolutely necessary
: but we love to do the ladies justice, and must crave indulgence on that
score. We have not departed from history, since all the old writers agree in
saying that the men retired from the city;— that the women successfully
defended it with vast courage ;— and that the Scotch brought the mighty
host, as mentioned above, over the Border, and invested it to no purpose,
but were enforced to raise the siege, and retire in shame.