STORIES are delightful to
read, even if they be nought but fable. Therefore should stories that
are true, if well told, have double pleasure for the hearer. The first
pleasure is in the tale as a tale, and the second in the truth of it,
that shews the happening right as it was. Thus truths wholesome for
man's mind are made pleasant to his ear. Fain would I, therefore, set my
will, if my wit suffice, to put in writing a true tale, that it endure
henceforth in memory, that no length of time destroy it, nor cause it to
be wholly forgotten. For stories of old time, as men read, picture to
them the deeds of the stout folk that lived of yore right as if done
before their eyes. And surely praise is fairly due to those who in their
time were wise and strong, who spent their lives in great labours, and
often, in hard stress of battle, won right great prize of chivalry and
acquitted themselves of cowardice.
Such was King Robert of
Scotland, brave of hand and heart, and good Sir James of Douglas, so
stout a knight in his time that his achievement and nobleness were
renowned in far lands. Of them I purpose to make this book. God grant
that I may so treat the matter, and bring it to an end, that it say
nought but truth.
When King Alexander, guide and leader of Scotland, was dead, [Alexander
III. fell over the crag at Kinghorn, March 16, 1286; his granddaughter
Margaret, the Maid of Norway, died October 7, 1290.] the land lay
desolate six years and more, till the baronage at last came together,
and made diligence to choose a king one come of the ancestry of kings
of the realm, who should have most right to be their head.. But fierce
envy made great dissension among them. For some would have Baliol to be
king because he was come of the offspring of the eldest sister; and
others altogether denied that claim, and said he should be king who was
in as near degree and come of the nearest male in a collateral branch.
They said succession to a kingdom was not like that to lower fiefs, for
there should succeed no female while any male was to be found of equal
descent. They declared it was quite otherwise than the method of lower
inheritance, for if this method were followed the next of kin, whether
man or woman, should succeed. For this reason that party thought that
without question the Lord of Annandale, Robert the Bruce, Earl of
Carrick, should succeed to the kingdom. [Baliol was grandson of the
eldest daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon. Bruce was son of the
The Barons were thus at discord that could in no way be brought to
settlement, till at last they all agreed that their whole argument
should be sent in writing to Sir Edward, King of England, and he should
swear that, without guile, he would decide the question which of these
two should succeed to such an eminence: and let him reign that had the
arrangement seemed to them the best, for at that time all was peace and
quiet between Scotland and England, and they could not perceive the hurt
looming towards them. Since the King of England had held such friendship
and alliance with their king who was so noble, they trusted that he, as
a good neighbour and friendly umpire, would judge in loyalty. But all
otherwise went the game.
Ah! Blind folk, full of all folly! Had ye
be-thought in your hearts the peril that might arise to you, ye had not
wrought in that fashionhad ye taken heed how that king always, without
rest, laboured to gain sovereignty, and by force to seize lands, like
Wales and Ireland, bordering his own that he put them to such bondage
that their nobles must run on foot like rabble when he went to war! No
man of Wales durst bestride a steed in battle, nor abide after nightfall
in castle or walled town, lest he lose life or limb. In such bondage
Edward held those that he overcame by his might. Ye might have seen he
should seize by sleight what he could not by open force. Had ye taken
heed what thraldom was, and had ye considered his custom, that grasped
always, without giving again, ye should, without his decision, have
chosen a king who might well and rightly have held the land. Wales might
have been an example to you had ye foreseen. Wise men say he is happy
who corrects himself by others' errors. For evil things may befall as
well to-morrow as yesterday. But ye trusted in loyalty, like simple folk
without guile, and knew not what should afterwards take place. In this
wide world is none that shall for certain know things that are to
befall; but God Almighty reserves to Himself the foreknowledge of the
changes of all time.
In this manner were the barons agreed, and
with their whole consent messengers were despatched to Edward, then
warring against the Saracens in the Holy Land. And when he knew their
embassy he made ready without delay, and left plans that he had made,
and returned again to England. And presently he sent word to Scotland
that they should meet together, and he would come forthwith to do
everything as they had written. But he made sure, through their dispute,
to find a way, by craft and force, to seize the whole sovereignty. And
he said to Robert the Bruce, "If thou and thy offspring for evermore
wilt hold of me in chief, I shall decide that thou be king." "Sir," he
answered, "as God will save me, I desire not the kingdom, unless it fall
to me by right; and if God will that it do so, I shall hold it every way
as freely as behoves a king, that is in freest royalty, as my ancestors
did before me." The other, enraged, swore that he should never have it,
and turned in wrath away. But Sir John the Baliol assented to all his
will, and through that assent much evil afterwards befell. He was king
but a little space, and by great subtlety and guile, for small reason or
none, he was presently arrested, and degraded from honour and dignity.
Whether this was wrong or right God Almighty knows.
When the mighty King Edward had in this way
done his pleasure on John the Baliol, so soon convicted and undone, he
forthwith went to Scotland, and seized the whole country. So completely
was this done that both castle and town, from Wick to the Mull of
Galloway, were in his possessions and filled with Englishmen. Then he
made Englishmen sheriffs and bailies and the other officers of all
kinds necessary for the government of country. These officers were so
wholly cruel, wicked, and covetous, and so proud and disdainful, that
Scotsmen could do nothing at any time to please them. The wives and
daughters of the Scots they would often violate ruthlessly, and if any
man were wroth thereat they lay in wait for him with greater harm, and
soon found occasion to bring destruction upon him. And if any man had by
him any thing of value, such as horse, or hound, that pleased their
fancy, by right or wrong they would have it. And if any offered to
gainsay them they would so deal that he should either lose land or life,
or live in misery. For they doomed folk as they pleased, taking no heed
to right or reason. Ah, how cruelly they doomed them! Good and gallant
knights, for little or no cause, they hanged by the neck. Alas! that
folk who had ever been free should, through their great misfortune and
folly, be so wickedly treated as to have their foes for their judges.
What greater wretchedness may man endure?
Ah! freedom is a noble thing. Freedom makes
man to have zest in life, and gives him all comfort. He that lives free,
lives at ease. A noble heart can have no ease, nor aught else to
pleasure it, if freedom fail. For liberty to please oneself desired
above all things. Nor may he who has always been free well know the
actual state, the suffering and wretchedness, that are coupled with foul
thraldom. But if he had made trial of it, then should he know it all by
heart, and should think freedom more to be prized than all the gold in
the world. Thus evermore do untoward things make evident their
opposites. He that is thrall has nought his own; all that he has is
abandoned to his lord, whoever he be. He has not even so much freedom as
to leave alone, or do, the desire of his heart. Clerks may question,
when they fail into debate, whether, if a man bid his thrall do aught,
and at the same time the thrall's wife come to him and demand her due,
he should leave undone his lord's behest, and first pay his debt, and
afterwards fulfil his lord's command, or leave his wife unpaid, and do
what he is ordered. I leave the solution to them of more renown. But
since they make such comparison between the duties of marriage and a
lord's bidding to his thrall, ye may see verily, though none tell you,
how hard a thing this thraldom is. For wise men know well that marriage
is the strongest bond that any man can undertake. But thraldom is far
worse than death. As long as a thrall lives it mars him, body and bones,
while death troubles him but once. To put it shortly, none can tell the
whole condition of a thrall.
In such manner and such bondage Scotsmen
lived, both the poor and those of high rank. For of the lords some were
slain, and some hanged, and some drawn, and some put fast in prison,
without reason or cause. And among others imprisoned was Sir William,
Lord of Douglas. [The elder Douglas had risen in arms with Wallace, but
yielded himself prisoner to Edward in 1297.] Of him they made a martyr,
for they slew him in prison, and gave his fair lands to the Lord of
Clifford. He had a son, a little boy, then but a small page, but
afterwards of great prowess. His father's death he so avenged that in
England, I undertake to say, there was none living that did not dread
him. For so many skulls he cleft that none alive can tell the number.
But wondrous hard things befell him ere he was brought to his estate. No
adventure could dismay his heart, nor prevent his doing the thing on
which he was set. For he took especial thought always to act advisedly.
He held that man of small account who should suffer hurt from none; and
he took thought to achieve great things, and hard toils, and combats
that should double his fame. Wherefore, in all his lifetime he was in
great hardship and trouble. Never would he yield to mischance, but would
drive the enterprise right to an end, and take the fate God sent.
His name was James of Douglas, and when he
heard his father was so cruelly put in prison, and that his whole lands
were given to the Clifford, he indeed knew not what to do or say; for he
had no means, nor was there any that knew him would do as much for him
as see him sufficiently provided for. Then, utterly at his wit's end, he
suddenly conceived the desire to voyage oversea, and stay in Paris for a
time, and endure his misfortune where none knew him, till God sent him
help. And as he thought, so he did. He set forth soon afterwards for
Paris, and lived there very simply. Nevertheless he was glad and jolly,
and gave himself to such thoughtlessness as youth demands, sometimes to
ribald company. And that may ofttimes be of service, for knowledge of
many conditions of life may be of use at times in many ways. So it
befell Robert, the good Earl of Artois in his time; for frequently the
feigning of ribald abandonment greatly served his purpose. And Cato
tells us in his writings, "It is sometimes good sense to feign
In Paris he dwelt nearly three years, and then came tidings oversea that
his father was done to death. At that he was woeful and distraught, and
thought he would return home, to see if he, through any effort, might
regain his inheritance, and redeem his men out of their thraldom.
He came in haste to St. Andrews, where the
Bishop received him most courteously and made him wear his knives, to
carve before him at table, and clad him right honourably, and gave order
where he should lodge. There dwelt he a very long time, and all men
loved him for his nobleness, for he was of most fair demeanour, wise,
courteous, and debonair. He was liberal and kind also, and above all
things loved loyalty.
The love of loyalty is a gracious thing.
Through loyalty men live righteously. With the virtue of loyalty a man
may come to be of high account, and without it none, however strong or
wise he be, may win renown. For where it fails no bravery can make a man
so good as to be called simply a good man.
Douglas in all his deeds was loyal, for he
deigned not to deal with treachery or falsehood. His heart was set on
high honour, and his demeanour such that all who were near loved him.
But he was not so fair that we should speak greatly of his beauty. In
visage he was somewhat grey, and he had black hair, I have heard tell.
But his limbs were well made, his bones great, and his shoulders broad.
His body was well formed and lithe, so they that saw him have said to
me. When he was blithe he was lovable, and in company he was meek and
sweet; but whoever saw him in battle beheld him of another countenance.
In speech he lisped somewhat, but that suited him right wondrous well.
To good Hector of Troy he might in many things be likened. Hector had
black hair, like him, and limbs stark and right well made, and he lisped
also as Douglas did, and was compact of loyalty, and courteous and wise
and strong. But in manhood and mighty strength I dare compare to Hector
none that ever was in the world. Nevertheless the Scottish knight so
wrought as to win great renown in his time.
Douglas dwelt at St. Andrews till it chanced
that the proud King Edward came to Stirling with a great company to hold
an assembly. Thither went many barons and among them the good Bishop
William of Lamberton, taking with him this squire, James of Douglas.
The Bishop led him to the king, and said,
"Sir, I bring you this child, who seeks to be your man, and prays you of
your grace to receive hero his homage and grant him his inheritance."
"What lands does he claim?" said the king.
"Sir, if it be your pleasure, he claims the
lordship of Douglas, for his father was lord thereof."
The king then, extremely enraged, said, "Sir
bishop, of a surety, if thou wouldst keep thy fealty make no such
speech to me. His father was ever my cruel foe, and died for it in my
prison. He was against my majesty, therefore am I entitled to be his
heir. Let the boy go, get land where he may, for thereof assuredly he
has none. The Clifford shall have his lands, for he has served me
The bishop heard him answer thus, and durst speak to him then no more,
but went hastily from his presence, for he sorely dreaded his cruelty.
The king did what he came to do, and went afterwards to England again
with many a man of might.
Sirs, who care to hear, here now begins the
romance of men that were in great distress, and experienced right great
hardship ere they came to their desire; but afterwards, by God's grace
and their great valour, despite their foes, one and all, they came to
great estate and honour. Where God helps, what can withstand? In truth,
their enemies were sometimes more than a thousand to one, but God
Almighty, in His foresight, preserved the heroes to avenge the harm and
the persecution done by that multitude of rascal folk to inoffensive,
worthy people who could not help themselves. These heroes were like the
Maccabees who, as the Bible says, with great bravery and valour fought
many a stiff battle to deliver their country from evil bondage. They
wrought so by their prowess that with few followers they won victory
over mighty kings, and made their country free, for which their name
should be praised.
This lord, The Bruce, of whom I spoke before, [Robert the Bruce, the
hero of the poem, was really the grandson of Baliol's rival, who died in
1294. Barbour here, for epic purposes, uses a poetic licence.] saw all
the kingdom so ruined and the folk so troubled that he was moved to
great pity. But whatever pity he felt he made no shew of it, till it
chanced that Sir John Comyn, as they came riding from Stirling, said to
him, "Sir, will ye not see how this country is governed? They slay our
folk without cause, and hold the land without reason, while ye should be
its lord. If ye will trust me ye shall cause yourself be made king.
Provided ye give me all the land now in your possession, I shall be your
helper. And if ye will not do this, nor take such state upon you, let
all my land be yours, and let me take the state on me, and bring the
country out of bondage. For there is neither man nor page in all this
land that is not fain to make himself free."
The Lord Bruce hearkened to what he said,
believing he spoke in honesty, and, since it pleased his mind, he soon
gave his assent, and said, "Since ye so wish, I will blithely take the
state upon me, for I know the right is mine, and often a just cause
makes the feeble strong."
Thus the barons first came to agreement. And
that same night their bonds were written, and oaths made, to secure what
they had agreed upon.
But of all things, woe be to treason! For
there is neither duke nor baron nor earl nor prince nor mighty king,
though he be never so wise nor strong, that can for ever be on guard
against treason. Was not all Troy with treason taken, when ten years of
the war were past? Many thousands of those without had been slain by the
strong hand, as Dares tells, and Dictys, [Dictys of Gnossus and Dares
the Phrygian, legendary authors of accounts of the Fall of Troy] who
knew all their state. Troy could not have been taken by strength, but
treason took the city by deceit. And Alexander the Conqueror, who took
Babylon and the whole length and breadth of the world in twelve years by
his doughty deeds, was afterwards, by great treason, destroyed with
poison in his own house, [This was the account of Alexander's death
given in the medieval romance] dividing his land before he died, and
exciting great pity by his death. Julius Caesar, too, who by his bravery
won Britain and France, Africa, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and all Europe,
and for his might and valour was first made Roman Emperor, was
afterwards stabbed to death with daggers in his capital by those of his
secret council; and when he saw words might not avail he closed his eyes
with his band, to die with more honour. Also Arthur, who by his valiant
deeds, made Britain mistress and lady of twelve kingdoms that he won,
and further, as a noble, gained in battle the freedom of all France, and
vanquished Lucius Iberius, then Emperor of Rome, yet, notwithstanding
all his great valour, was slain through treason and wickedness, with
other good men more than enough, by Modred his sister's son. Thereof
"The Brat" bears witness. [Barbour is said to have written another great
poem called "The Brut,' but he is hero probably quoting from Layamon's
"Brut," which was derived from the French "Romans de Brut" of Waco,
which again was borrowed from the Latin "History" of Geoffrey of
Monmouth. From the same material, in Elizabethan times, Sir Thomas
Malory derived his "Morte d'Arthur," and from this at a later day came
Tennyson's "Idylls of the King."]
So this covenant-making fell out. For the
Comyn rode to the King of England, and told the whole happening, though
not, I trow, the whole truth of it. But he gave him the bond, which soon
showed the offence. For this afterwards, since he could offer no excuse
for his deed, he suffered death.
When the king saw the bond he was enraged
beyond measure, and swore that he should take vengeance on Bruce, who
presumed to contend or rise or conspire in such ways against him. And
Sir John Comyn, he said, should be rewarded highly for his loyalty; and
Comyn humbly thanked him. Then Edward thought to have the rule of all
Scotland without gainsaying, if once Bruce were brought to death.
But the fool's expectation often fails, and
wise men's aims come not always to the ending they look for. Only God
knows truly what shall befall. By His proper plan the matter fell out as
I shall afterwards tell.
Comyn took his leave and
went home. And the king thereafter hastily called a parliament, and
summoned thither the barons of his realm. And he sent to the Lord Bruce,
bidding him come to that gathering. And he, having no knowledge of the
treason or falsehood, rode to the king without more delay, and took
lodging in London the first day of their meeting. Afterwards, on the
morrow, he went to court.
The king sat in parliament, and there before
his privy council he called the Lord Bruce, and showed him the bond. The
Bruce was in utmost peril of his life, but Almighty God, who would not
that he died so, preserved him for higher things. The king handed him
there the bond, to see the seal, and asked if he had sealed it. He
looked at the seal intently, and answered him humbly, and said, "How
foolish am I! My seal is not always with me; I have another to bear it.
Therefore if it be your will, in order to see this letter and be advised
of it, I ask respite till tomorrow when ye take your seat, and then
without longer delay, I shall produce this letter here before your full
council. For this I give in pledge my whole inheritance."
The king thought him worthy enough of trust,
since he gave his lands in pledge, and be let him go with the letter, to
produce it, as was agreed.
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