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The Bruce
Book 18


The Battle of Byland

SIR EDWARD BRUCE, ever irking at rest, and eager to be at work, a day before the succours arrived that had been sent him by the king, and despite the counsel of all who were with him, set forth upon the march. Besides the Irish chiefs, who rode with him in great bands, he had not in all in the country at that time, I trow, two thousand men.

He set out towards Dundalk. And when Richard of Clare heard that he marched with a small following, he gathered together out of the whole of Ireland all the armed men he could. Thus he had with him at that time twenty thousand equipped horsemen, besides a host of men on foot, and he set out towards the north.

When Sir Edward heard that he was come near, he sent out as scouts the Soulis and the Stewart and Sir Philip the Mowbray, and when these three had seen the enemy's advance, they returned and told the king that their foes were in right great number. Sir Edward made answer quickly, and said he should fight that day though the enemy were three times or four times as many.

"Of a surety," said Sir John Stewart, "I council ye, fight not in such haste. They say my brother is coming, and near at hand, with fifteen hundred men. Were they joined with you ye could with more confidence abide the battle."

Sir Edward looked right wrathful, "What sayest thou?" he asked Soulis.

"I' faith, sir," said he, "I say as my friend has said."

The king then asked Sir Philip, and he answered, "Sir, as our Lord sees me, methinks it no foolishness to await your friends, who make speed to ride hither. We are few; our foes are many. God may grant us good fortune, it is true, but it were a miracle if our strength should overcome so many in battle."

"Alas," said Sir Edward, in great wrath, "I never thought to hear that from thee! Now, help who will, assuredly without longer tarrying I will fight this day. While I live, no man shall say that any force made me flee. God save us from the charge of fouling our fair name!"

"So be it then," said they, "we shall take what God sends."

When the Irish chiefs heard what had passed, and knew for certain that their king, with his small following, would fight against so great and mighty a host, they came to him with the utmost speed, and counselled him most earnestly to await his friends. They would, they said, keep the enemy engaged all that day, and the morrow as well, with their attacks.

But no counsel could prevail; the king's mind was set always upon the battle. And when they saw he was so stubbornly set to fight, they said, "Ye may indeed go to battle with yonder great host, but we account ourselves free utterly, and none of us will stand to fight. Set no store, therefore, by our strength. For our custom in this country is to follow and fight, and to fight fleeing, and not to stand in open battle till one side be discomfited."

"Since that is your custom," he said, "I ask of you no more than this, that ye and your host stand all together in battle array at a distance, without leaving the field, and see our fight and our ending."

They said of a surety they should do this; then they withdrew to their men, who were well nigh forty thousand strong.

The king and those about him, not two thousand in all, arrayed themselves stalwartly to do battle with forty thousand and more. Sir Edward that day would not put on his coat armour, but Gib Harper, whom men held without peer in his estate, wore the whole of Sir Edward's array.

In this wise they awaited the battle, and, their enemies coming at great speed all ready for the encounter, right boldly they met them. So few were the Scots, of a truth, that they were overwhelmed by their foes. Those of them that endeavoured most to make a stand were cut down, and the rest fled for succour to the Irish host. Sir Edward, despite his valour, was slain, and Sir John Stewart as well, with Sir John de Soulis, and others besides of their company. So suddenly were they overcome that few were slain on the spot; the rest made their way to the Irish chiefs who, in battle order, were waiting at hand.

John Thomasson, leader of the men of Carrick in the host, when he saw the discomfiture, withdrew to an Irish chief of his acquaintance, who received him loyally. And when he was come to that chief he saw being led away from the battle the stout Sir Philip the Mowbray. He had been stunned in the fight, and was led by the arms by two men on the causeway that stretched in a long straight line between the place of battle and the town. They held their way towards the town; but when they were midway on the road Sir Philip overcame his dizziness, and perceived he was seized and led away by two of the enemy. In a moment he hurled from him first the one and then the other, then swiftly drew his sword and set out along the causeway towards the fight. The road was full of a multitude of men going towards the town, and he as he met them dealt such blows that against their will he made a full hundred leave the causeway. This was told for a certainty by John Thomasson, who saw the whole achievement.

Mowbray went straight towards the battle, but Thomasson, taking certain heed that the Scots were all completely overthrown, called hastily to him, and said, "Come here, for there is none alive; they are every one slain."

Then Sir Philip stood still awhile, and saw that his friends were all done to death, and he came and joined company with him.

This John Thomasson afterwards wrought so shrewdly that all who had fled to the Irish host, though they had lost part of their weapons, reached Carrickfergus safe and whole. Meanwhile the English who had been in the battle sought among the dead to find Sir Edward, to get his head, and they found Gib Harper in his coat of mail. Then, because of the arms he wore, they struck off his head, and salted it in a bucket, and sent it afterwards to England as a present to King Edward. They supposed it Sir Edward's head, but were deceived because of the splendour of the armour. Nevertheless Sir Edward died there.

In this wise through wilfulness were all these nobles at that time lost, which was afterwards a great regret. Had their extraordinary valour been guided with sense and moderation, unless the greater misfortune befell them, it should have been a right hard task to bring them to disaster. But great and extravagant pride caused them all to pay dear for their bravery.

Those who fled from the battle sped in haste towards the sea-coast, and came to Carrickfergus. And those on the way from King Robert to Sir Edward, when they heard of the discomfiture, returned to the same place. This retreat was not made without difficulty, for many times that day the Irish attacked them; but they held together in close order, defending themselves cautiously, and, sometimes by force, sometimes by craft, and sometimes giving bribes to be allowed to pass scatheless, they made their escape. Then in boats and ships they set forth and arrived all safely in Scotland.

When the people of Scotland had knowledge of Sir Edward's overthrow, the whole land mourned full tenderly for him and for those who were slain with him.

After Edward the Bruce had been discomfited in the manner I have described, and the field had been entirely cleared, so that no resisters were to be seen, the warden, Richard of Glare, and all the hosts with him set out towards Dundalk. They made no direct encounter at that time with the Irish, but hastened to the town. Then they sent overseas to the King of England Gib Harper's head in a bucket. John Maupas carried it to the king, who received it with great delight, and was right blithe at the gift, being full glad to be delivered of so fierce a foe. His heart was so filled with pride because of this that he formed a plan to ride with a great host into Scotland, to avenge himself with a strong hand for the vexation, trouble, and harm that he had suffered there. He gathered a vast host, and sent his ships by sea with great abundance of victual. On that occasion he thought to destroy the whole of Scotland so utterly that none should be left alive therein, and with his people in great array he set forth towards the North. [Professor Skeat has pointed out the looseness of the narrative here. According to the 'Annales Scotiae', John Maupas was the slayer of Edward Bruce, and was himself found afterwards dead upon his body, while Edward II.'s campaign in Scotland did not occur till some four years later, in August 1322.]

When King Robert knew that he was coming upon him with such a host, he gathered men far and near till he had so many about him, and coming to join him, that he felt assured he should do well. He caused all the cattle of Lothian to be withdrawn, and sent them into fastnesses, and appointed men for their defence. With his whole host he lay in hiding at Culross, for his plan was to weaken his foes by fasting and long watching, and after he had enfeebled their strength, to give them battle.

While this was his plan the English host with much greater strength than his came into Lothian, and soon reached Edinburgh, where they dwelt three days. The English ships at sea had all the time contrary winds, and could by no means bring the victual they carried into the firth to relieve the king. When provision failed the host, and they saw they could get no victual by sea, they sent forth a great company to forage throughout Lothian. But they found no cattle, except a lame cow that they came upon in a cornfield at Tranent; her they brought to the host. And when the Earl of Warenne saw that cow coming thus solitary, he asked if they had got no more, and they told him no. "Certes then," said he, "I declare this is the dearest beef I ever yet beheld, for of a certainty it has cost a thousand pounds, and more!"

And when the king and his council saw that they could get no cattle for their host to eat, and that the host suffered greatly from the fasting, they turned homewards again towards England. They meant to lie at Melrose, and sent forward a company of nigh three hundred armed men. But the Lord Douglas, who was then near at hand in the Forest, knew of their coming, and what they were, and with his company he lay in wait privily in ambush in Melrose. He sent a right sturdy friar outside the gate to watch their coming, and bade him keep himself hidden till he saw them come to the corner of the wall, and then cry aloud, "Douglas! Douglas!"

The friar set forth. He was daring, stout, and bold; his great hood covered wholly the armour he wore; he rode a strong horse, and in his hand he carried a spear. Thus he waited till he saw the English coming nigh, and when the foremost were past the corner he shouted "Douglas! Douglas!" and made a charge at them, and deftly bore one down. Then with a shout Douglas and his company sallied forth. And when the English saw so great a force come so suddenly upon them they were right greatly daunted, and fled at once. The Scots rode among them, and slew all they could overtake, and made a great martyrdom there.

Those of the English who escaped unslain returned to their main body, and told the manner of welcome Douglas had given them at their meeting, convoying them roughly back, and denying them open quarters. Then the King of England and his men, seeing their harbingers come back repulsed, were greatly troubled, and deemed it would be great folly to quarter in the Forest. They camped therefore in the open ground beside Dryburgh, and afterwards held their way homewards to England.

And when King Robert heard that they were turned home again, and how their harbingers had been slain, he gathered his host quickly, and went south over the Scottish Sea, and marched towards England. When his host was all got together, he had eighty thousand men and more, and of these he made eight battles, with ten thousand in each battle. Then he passed into England, and with his whole army followed fast upon the English king, till at last he drew near to him, where he lay at Byland with his men. King Robert had knowledge that he lay there in great force, and one night surprised him by a forced march, so that on the morrow, before it was day, the Scots were come into the open field but a little space from Byland.

Between them and Byland there was a rocky hill stretching a long way, with a great pass going up. By no other way could the Abbey of Byland be reached, unless they went a great way round about. And when the vast English host heard King Robert was so near, the greater part of them went to the pass, and seized the hill, thinking to make their defence there. On that ground they displayed their banners and their battles in broad array, and felt assured of defending the place.

When King Robert perceived that they meant to defend themselves there, he sent for his council, and asked what were best to be done. The Lord Douglas answered and said, "Sir, I will undertake in a short time either openly to win yonder place, or else to cause all yonder company to come down to you here in this plain."

"Do so then," said the king, "and God speed thee!"

Douglas therefore went forth, and taking the greater part of the host with him, marched towards the place.

The stout Earl of Moray left his battle, and in great haste, with but three men in his company, came to the Lord Douglas's rout, and before he entered upon the ground took a place in front of them all; for he desired that men should see him. And when Sir James of Douglas beheld him come thus, he prized him greatly for it, and welcomed him right humbly, and took the field beside him.

The English, seeing them do this, alighted and marched against them. Two knights doughty of deed, Sir Thomas Arthin and Sir Ralph of Cobham, came down before all their host. They were both of right great valour, and met their foes right manfully; but they were grievously beset. There some were to be seen making strong attack, and others making stout battle in defence. The arrows flew in great abundance, and the English above rolled down stones from the height. But the Scots set both will and strength to win the pass, and pressed their enemies so that Sir Ralph retired speedily to his host. Sir Thomas was left manfully, and with great strength defending the place, till at last he was taken unawares, and made captive by hard fighting. Because of this defence he was afterwards, to his last day, renowned as the knight of stoutest hand in all England. For this same Sir Ralph of Cobham had the name throughout all England of being the best knight in the country, and because Sir Thomas remained fighting where Sir Ralph withdrew he was prized above him.

As they thus fought, and King Robert, who was wise and prudent in action, saw his men continue so doughtily to ascend the pass against their foes, and saw the enemy thus well defend themselves, he caused all the Erse of Argyll and the Isles who were in his host to speed forthwith up the hill. He bade them leave the pass altogether, and climb up the crags at hand, and make the greatest haste to seize the high ground. This they did forthwith, climbing always up to the height, and heeding no whit the strength of their foes. They bore themselves so that despite the enemy they got to the top of the hill. There they could be seen fighting fiercely, and sturdily driving back their foes. At the same time those who had gone to the pass, notwithstanding the efforts of the English, seized the high ground, and there laid on with all their might, and were to be seen doing dire battle.

A perilous combat took place there; for a knight named Sir John of Bretagne chanced to be at the top of the hill with his men, and made great defence. But the Scots made such assault, and did battle with them so fiercely, that they were brought to dismay, and those of them that could flee made off. Sir John of Bretagne was taken there, and right many of his folk were slain. Two knights of France were taken, the Lord of Sully and the Marshal Bretagne, who was a right great lord at home. [John of Bretagne was Earl of Richmond, and Henry de Sully Grand Butler of France.—Tytler, i. 145.] Of the others, some were dead, and some taken, and the rest every one fled.

And when the King of England, who was still lying at Byland, saw his men wholly discomfited, he made off with the greatest haste, and fled southward with all his might. The Scots, I promise, chased him hard, and took many in the pursuit, though King Edward got away clear with the greater part of his host. Walter Stewart, who ever set his heart upon high deeds of chivalry, gave chase, with five hundred in his company, to the gates of York. There he slew some of the English, and tarried till near night to see if any would come forth to battle. And when he saw none sought to come out, he turned again with all his company, and hastened to the Scottish host.

The Scots had quartered in the Abbey of Byland, and at Rievaulx near by. They dealt among them the King of England's gear that he had left in Byland; they caused it all to be brought out and counted through their hands, and all made glad and merry over it.

When King Robert had taken up his quarters they brought to him the prisoners all unarmed as it behoved. And when he saw Sir John of Bretagne he looked at him with the greatest displeasure, for he was wont to speak haughtily and despitefully at home, and he bade them carry him off at once, and see that he be straitly kept, and said, "Were it not that he were such a caitiff he should pay dearly for his despiteful words."

Sir John meekly begged his mercy, but they led him forth without more ado, and guarded him well till they were come home to their own country. I have heard say he was ransomed long afterwards for twenty thousand pounds.

When the king had spoken thus the French knights who had been taken were brought before him, and he gave them fair welcome, and said, "Right well I know that because of your great worth and valour ye came here to see the fighting. Seeing ye were in the country your strength, your stoutness, and your valour would not suffer ye to eschew the fight, and since by that cause ye were led to it, and neither by wrath nor ill-will, ye shall be received as friends here, where ye are ever welcome."

They knelt and thanked him greatly for the grace that of a truth he showed them, and he caused them to be courteously treated, and kept them long with him, and did them high honour. And when they longed for their own country, he sent them free, without ransom, as a present to the King of France, and gave them great gifts. In this fashion he received his friends with courtesy and kindness, and vigorously confounded his foes.

He lay at Byland all that night, and all the host were glad because of their victory. On the morrow they marched southward, and made their way, burning, slaying, and destroying, and damaging the enemy with all their might, till they came to the Wolds. There they turned northward towards home, and on their way back wholly destroyed the Vale Beauvoir. [Beverloy and the Valley of the Hull. The clergy and inhabitants of Beverley purchased their own safety by a payment of four hundred pounds, equal to six thousand pounds of modern money.— Tytler, i. 14.] Then with prisoners and cattle, with riches and many a fair jewel, they marched home to Scotland, blithe and glad, joyful and gay. And each man went to his dwelling praising God that so fair fortune had befallen them as, by valour and strength and their lord's great nobleness, to discomfit the King of England in his own country.


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