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The Bruce
Book 12


The First Stroke of the Fight

NOW as Douglas set forth it chanced that the King of England, having come with his great host near to the place where the Scots were arrayed, caused a halt of his whole division to be made, in order to take council whether they should pitch their camp that night, or at once join battle. But the vanguard knew nothing of this halt and delay, and rode in good array, without stopping, straight to the Park. And when the Bruce knew they were come so near in full order of battle, he set his men in array. He rode upon a grey palfrey, small and spirited, ordering his ranks, with an axe in his hand. On his basnet he wore everywhere a hard leather hat, and on it, for a sign that he was king, a high crown.

Gloucester and Hereford with their hosts were approaching near, and before them all there came riding, with helm on head and spear in hand, the gallant Sir Henry de Bohun. He was a good and bold knight, cousin to the Earl of Hereford, and was clad in strong fine armour. He came on his steed a mark-shot before all the rest, and knew the king by his arraying his men and by reason of the crown on his basnet, and he spurred at him.

When the Bruce saw him come on so openly before all his comrades he turned his horse towards him. And when Sir Henry saw the king come fearlessly on, he rode at him with the utmost speed. He thought he should right easily vanquish and overpower him since he saw him mounted so ill. They dashed together in straight career, but Sir Henry missed the king, and the Bruce, standing in his stirrups, with his keen strong axe dealt him such a mighty blow as neither hat nor helmet could withstand. The heavy stroke that he gave clove skull and brain; the axe-handle shivered in two; and De Bohun crashed helpless to the earth. This deed, performed so doughtily, was the first stroke of the battle.

When the king's men saw him so stoutly, at the first encounter, without fear or hesitation, slay a knight thus at a single stroke, they were seized with courage and came hardily on. And when the English saw them so stoutly advance they were greatly daunted, more especially because the king had so speedily slain that good knight. They every one drew back, and so much feared the king's might that they durst not abide the battle. And when the king's men saw them thus withdraw in a body, they made a great dash at them. The English in haste took flight, and their pursuers overtook and slew some of them. But, to tell the truth, the slain were few; their horses' feet got most of them away. But though so few died there, they were heavily repulsed, and galloped off with the greatest disgrace.

When the king had stopped the pursuit and returned, the lords of his company blamed him greatly—as much as they durst—for putting himself to the hazard of meeting so strong and sturdy a knight in such array as they saw him in. It might indeed, they said, have been the ruin of them all. The king made them no answer, but lamented his axe-handle thus with one stroke broken in two.

The Earl Thomas was still fighting with foes on every side. He slew many of them, and though his men and he were weary, they nevertheless stubbornly and manfully defended themselves with their weapons till the Lord Douglas, making the utmost speed, drew near. The English, as they fought, when they saw the Douglas at hand, gave way and made an opening. Sir James, by their wavering, knew they were nigh discomfited, and bade those with him stand still and press no further.

"Those fighting yonder," he said, "are of such great valour that by their own strength, though no man help them, they shall right soon discomfit their enemies. Were we now, when they are at the point of victory, to come into the battle, it would be said that we had overthrown the enemy, and they who have stood the brunt with great labour and hard fighting should lose part of their praise. It were a sin to lessen the honour of one of such sovereign nobleness, when by plain, hard fighting he has achieved here an unlikely thing. He shall have what he has won."

When the Earl and those fighting with him saw the enemy thus fall into confusion, they fell upon them with haste, and pressed them with strokes wondrous many and heavy, till at last they fled and durst abide no more. Their slain, both men and horses, they left on the spot, and made off with the utmost speed. They did not hold together, but fled singly, and those that were overtaken were slain. The others returned to their host sad and sorry for their loss.

Having thus acquitted himself, the Earl, and his men as well, being weary and hot and all covered with sweat, took off their basnets to air themselves. They looked, I vow, like men who had indeed put their foes to the proof in battle, and this right doughtily they had done. They found that of all their company there was but one yeoman slain, and they praised God and were right glad and joyous that they had so escaped. Then they set out towards the king, and soon drew nigh to him. He asked them of their welfare, and made gladsome cheer to them because they had borne themselves so well. And all ran in great joy to see the Earl of Moray, everyone eager to do him honour for his high worth and valour. So eagerly did they run to see him then that nigh all the knights were gathered together. And when the good king saw them thus assembled, blithe and glad that their enemies were repulsed, he held him silent a little while, then in this wise spoke to them:

"Sirs," he said, "we should praise Almighty God who sits above, for sending us so fair a beginning. It is great discouragement to our foes to have been twice repulsed thus early in the struggle. For when the others of their host shall hear and know for certain in what fashion their vanguard, which was so strong, and afterwards yonder other pretty rout, that I trow was of the best men they could get, have been so suddenly put to flight, I am full well assured that many a heart shall waver that seemed erstwhile of mighty valour. And if the heart be dismayed, the body is not worth a mite. I trow, therefore, that a good ending shall follow this beginning. Nevertheless, I say not this to you in order that ye should follow my desire to fight; for with you shall rest the whole matter. If ye think it expedient that we fight, we shall fight; and if ye will that we depart, your desire shall be fulfilled. I shall consent to do in either fashion right as ye shall decide. Therefore speak plainly your desire."

At that they all cried with one voice, "Good king, without more delay, to-morrow, as soon as ye see light, ordain you wholly for the battle. We shall not fail you for fear of death, nor shall any effort be wanting till we have made our country free."

When the king heard them so manfully and boldly declare for battle, saying that neither life nor death should so discourage them as lead them to eschew the fight, he was greatly rejoiced in heart, and in great gladness said, "Sirs, since ye will it so, make ready in the morning, so that by sunrise we shall have heard mass; and be well prepared, each man in his own squadron, before the tents, in battle order, with banners displayed. See to it that ye nowise break array, and, as ye love me, I pray you let each man for his own honour provide himself a good banner- bearer, and, when it comes to the fight, set his heart and strength to break the mighty pride of our foes. They will come in horse array, and ride upon you at the greatest speed: meet them with spears boldly, and wreak on them the mighty ill that they and theirs have done to us, and have yet the will to do if only they have the strength.

"And, certes, methinks that we may well be undismayed, valiant, and of great prowess, for we have three great vantages. First, we have right on our side, and every man should do battle for the right. Next, they are come here, trusting in their great strength, to seek us in our own land, and have brought, right to our hand, riches in such great plenty that if we win, as may well befall, the poorest of you shall be made therewith both rich and mighty. The third advantage is that we are constrained to stand in battle for our lives, our children, our wives, and the freedom of our country, while they are made to fight only because of their mightiness, and because they esteem us lightly, and because they seek to destroy us all. It may happen yet that they shall rue their fighting.

"And, certes, I warn you of one thing. If it happen, as God forbid! that in action they find us cowards, and thus openly overcome us, they will have no mercy on us. Now, since we know their cruel intent, methinks it should accord with sense that we set stubbornness against cruelty, and so make bold endeavour. Wherefore I require and pray you that, with all the strength ye have, ye strive without cowardice or dismay, so stoutly to meet those that first come to the encounter, that the hindmost of them shall shall tremble. Think on your great manhood, your valour, and your doughty deeds, and of the joy that awaits you if it falls to us, as may well happen, to win the battle. In your hands, without fail, ye carry honour, praise, riches, freedom, welfare, and great gladness, if ye bear yourselves manfully; and the contrary altogether shall befall if ye let cowardice and weakness surprise your hearts. Ye might have lived in thraldom, but because ye yearned to be free ye are come together with me here. To gain your end it is needful that ye be valiant and strong and undismayed.

"I warn you well of one more thing— that no greater harm can befall us than to be taken by their hand, for right well I know they would slay us as they did my brother Neil. But when I think on your valour and the many great deeds of prowess ye have so gallantly done, I trust, and believe of a surety, that we shall have full victory in this battle. Though our enemies have great might, they are on the side of wrong and presumption, and are moved by nothing more than hunger for dominion. The strength of this place, as ye see, shall keep us from being surrounded. And I especially pray you all further, both greater and less, that none of you by reason of greed, have an eye to seize their riches, nor yet to take prisoners, till ye see them so far defeated that the field is plainly ours. Then, at your pleasure, ye may take all the wealth there is. If ye work in this wise ye shall for certain have the victory.

"I know not what more to say. Ye know well what honour is. Bear yourselves in such fashion as to keep your honour. And I promise here, upon my honour, that if any die in this battle, his heir, be he ever so young in age, shall possess his land from the first day without guardian's due, or fee to overlord.

"Now make ye ready for the fight. Almighty God be our help! I counsel ye to lie all night armed, prepared for battle, that we be at any moment ready to meet our foes."

Then answered they all with one voice, "As you direct it shall be done!" And they went straightway to their quarters, and ordered them for the battle. Afterwards, in the evening, they came together for the attack, and remained thus all the night, till it was daylight on the morrow.

When, as I have told, the Clifford and all his host were repulsed, and the great vanguard of the English also was constrained to flee, they of the vanguard told their fellows of their repulse, and how the Bruce had slain at one stroke so openly the best of their knights, and how the whole of the king's host and Sir Edward Bruce's had made right stoutly to attack them when they gave back, and how they had lost men; and Clifford further told how Thomas Randolph had taken the open field with a small following, and had slain the valiant Sir William Dayncourt, and how manfully the Earl had fought, causing his host, like a hedgehog, to set out spears all around, and how the English horse had been driven back, and many brave men among the riders slain; at the tidings the English were seized with dismay and fear and in five hundred places and more they could be seen whispering, together, and saying, "Our lords ever will battle by might against the right, but whoso wrongfully makes war tries God all too greatly, and perchance comes to grief, and it may hap that we shall do so here."

And when their lords saw their discouragement, and the whispering they held together, two and two, they sent heralds forthwith throughout the host, to proclaim that it should be no whit discouraged, since in skirmishes it was the common happening at times to win and at times to lose, but that in the great battle they could by no means fail, and that when the Scots fled full amends should indeed be made. Therefore they urged them to be most valorous and stout, and to stand strong in the battle, and take amends at their hand.

The lords might urge as they pleased, and the men might promise to full all their behest with stalwart strokes; nevertheless, I trow they remained fearful in their hearts.

King Edward took the advice of his privy council that he should not fight before the morrow, unless he were attacked. The host therefore quartered that night in the Carse, and made all ready, and got their gear in order against the battle. Because of the pools in the Carse they broke down houses and thatch, and carried them to make bridges that they might pass over. And some say yet that, when night fell, nigh all the Castle garrison, knowing their evil case, went forth and carried doors and windows with them, so that before day they had bridged the pools, and the host had all passed over, and with their horses occupied the firm ground, and, arrayed in their gear, stood ready to give battle.

The Scots, when it was day, devoutly heard mass, then took a slight meal, and made themselves ready. And when all were come together, and ranged in their divisions, with broad banners displayed, they made knights, as the custom is among those of the craft of war. The king knighted Walter Stewart and the stalwart James of Douglas, and others also of great nobleness, each in his degree. When this was done they all went forth in brave array: and openly took the field. Many an active man, stout and bold and valorous, was there.

On the other side the English could be seen in their hosts, shining bright as angels. But they were not arrayed in the same fashion as the Scots, for all their divisions were together in one mass. Whether it was through the exceeding straitness of the ground on which they were arrayed to abide the battle, or whether through lack of courage, I know not; but it seemed they were one and all in a single mass, except only the vanguard, which, a right great company, was arrayed by itself, and made ready for the battle. That company covered a huge broad field, and many a shining shield and many a piece of armour burnished clear, and many a man of mighty valour, and many a banner bright and glorious, might be seen in that great host.

And when the King of England saw the Scots venture to take the field so openly on foot, he marvelled and said, "What! will yonder Scots fight?"

"Yea, for a surety, sir," said a knight. It was Sir Ingraham de Umphraville, and he added, "Of a truth, sir, now I see the most marvellous sight by far that ever I beheld—Scotsmen undertaking to fight against the great might of England, and to give battle in the hard open field. But if you will trust my counsel ye shall discomfit them with ease. Ye shall withdraw hence suddenly, with host, banners, and pennons, till we have passed our tents, and ye shall forthwith see that, despite their lords, they shall break array, and scatter to seize our gear. And when we see them thus scattered, spur we boldly on them, and we shall have them right easily, for none shall then be in close array to withstand our great strength."

"By my faith," said the king, "I will not do so; for there shall no man say that I avoided the battle, or withdrew me because of any such rabble."

As this was said the Scots all most devoutly knelt down, and made a short prayer to God to help them in that fight. And when the English king saw them kneeling, he quickly said, "Yonder folk kneel to ask mercy!"

"Ye say truth now," said Sir Ingraham; "they ask mercy, but not at you. They cry to God for forgiveness. I tell you one thing for certain, yonder men will win all or die. None there shall flee for fear of death."

"Now so be it," said the king, "we shall see presently."

He caused the trumpets to sound the assembly, and on either side could be seen full many active and valiant men all ready to do deeds of chivalry.

Thus they were ready on either side, when with great pomp the English vanguard made straight for the division ordered and led by Sir Edward Bruce. They spurred their steeds, and rode sturdily upon the Scots, and Sir Edward's host met them right boldly, and at their encounter there was a crashing of spears that could be heard a long way off.

At their meeting, of a surety, many a steed was stabbed, and many a good man borne down and slain, while many a deed of valour was doughtily and boldly achieved. They struck at each other with different weapons, and though some of the horses that were stabbed reared and bore back most madly, the others, notwithstanding, who could come to the encounter, made no stopping for that hindrance, but right boldly rushed to battle. And the Scots met them most stubbornly with spears sharpened for cutting, and well-ground axes, wherewith they dealt full many a stroke.

The fight at that place was fierce and stubborn, and many valiant and active men, overthrown in the onset, were never able to rise again. The Scots made diligent endeavour to overthrow the vast might of their foes. I trow they were to shirk no pain or peril till their enemies were brought to hard perplexity.

When the Earl of Moray saw the English vanguard advance bold and straight against Sir Edward, and the Scots meet them with full great might, he made, with his banner, towards the great rout where the nine divisions were together. These were so broad, and had so many banners, and such number of men, that they were a wonder to see. The good Earl made his way towards them with his division in stout array, and joined battle most boldly with a great crash of breaking spears. For the enemy attacked without ceasing, spurring haughtily on horseback as if they would over-ride the Earl and all his company.

But the Scots met them so sturdily that they bore many of them to the ground. Many a steed was stabbed there, and many a brave man felled under foot with no power to rise again. There a stern battle was to be seen, some attacking and some making defence, and many a great and rude blow was struck upon either side, till blood burst through the coats of mail, and streamed to the earth.

The Earl of Moray and his men so stoutly bore themselves that they gained ground ever more and more upon their enemies, though, of a truth, these were ten to one, or more. It seemed, indeed, as if the Scots were lost among so great a host, like men plunged in the sea.

And when the English saw the Earl and all his men fight so stoutly and fearlessly and undismayed, they charged with all their might. And the Scots, with spears and bright swords and axes that cut sharply, met them face to face. A mighty struggle took place there, and many men of great valour, with spears, maces, knives, and other weapons, exchanged their lives. Many fell dead, and the grass grew red with blood. The active and valiant Earl and his men fought so manfully that whosoever had seen them that day must have said they did their duty well upon their foes.


 


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