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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter VI


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 begun,
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 those times.

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 flood.

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 spray.

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 could get.

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 common stock.

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 attend him.

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 them dumb.

"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 point."

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 there.

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 them.

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 passing strange.

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 their city.*

*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.


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