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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter XII


The Widow of Annandale, Sir John Charters, and the King,

The story of the widow told
That lived in Annandale:
It does much credit to the king,
And is a goodly tale.

When the king was progressing through the south-western counties of Scotland, for the purpose of noting the depredations of the mosstroopers round about Solway, a widow, who lived by the water of Annan, came to him one day with a piteous tale of injury done to her by some lawless Southrons. She told him that a party of these cruel foes had made an incursion over the border, had attacked her house in passing through the dale, and had brought irreparable ruin and calamity upon her, by carrying off her son and her two cows. The former was her last support—the latter her entire property. She further said, that she had, immediately on the receipt of this wrong, gone to his majesty's warden of the Western Marches, Sir John Charters, of Amisfield, informing him of all that had befallen; feeling not only sure that he would succour her against the common enemy of the country, as an act of friendly justice, but that he would readily proceed to take vengeance on the invaders, as a duty which he, the warden, owed to the king his master, in fulfilment of his office. The party, at the moment of her application, was still ravaging the district only a few miles from Amisfield; and she had urged him to go in quest of the depredators, and dispossess them of their foully gotten booty.

Sir John, howbeit, was not a trustworthy servant. Instead of protecting James's lands from herriment, and James's people from insult, he preferred the luxury and ease of banqueting merrily within his castle walls. Sir John treated the widow with contempt; he jeered at her losses; laughed at her complaint; and rudely dismissed her from his presence.

When these things had been laid before the king, the fire of honest anger arose within his bosom. He comforted her by saying, that he would shortly be in Annandale; that he would not forget her evil usage; that he would get justice done to her; and moreover, that justice should also be done to this traitorous warden, who cared not to do his duty either to his country or to his liege.

With a light heart thp gudewife returned home to abide James's coming into those parts.

A short time after he proceeded thitherward.

On arriving at the head of Nithsdale, he left the greater number of his retainers behind him, and secretly advanced to the village of Duncow: here, again^ he assumed a more perfect disguise, for the purpose of better achieving his meritable design. He dismissed all his attendants saving only two or three, and dressing himself in a foreign habit, he directed his way immediately to the castle of Amisfield, the residence of the warden. When he came to the small brook that ran hard by the building, he advanced entirely alone right up to Amisfield gate.

On seeing the porter, he addressed him with some urgency of manner, requesting him to go to Sir John Charters, and say that the English had crossed the Debateable Land with no friendly • intention, and that if the loyal warden and protector of King James's Marches would repel these bloody heralds of slaughter, he must at once up and be doing.

The porter, knowing his master's humour, declared to the stranger, that he was passing loth to disturb him; but this reluctance was speedily over-ruled when the king put a silver groat into his hand—and so he went.

In a few minutes he returned, saying that Sir John had just sat down to dinner, and that forsooth he would not be interrupted.

This indifference about protecting the land from invaders, was no great proof of devotion to his country and prince ; and to make this essay, had now indeed been the monarch's scheme.

This time he bribed the porter with two groats, desiring him to go once more to his master, and to say, that the general safety of the country depended on his directly firing the beacons, alarming the neighbourhood, and assembling his rentallers.

The knight, upon this second message, flew into a great rage, and threatened to punish the troublesome messenger for his temerity, if he did not leave the castle gate and depart.

But James had not yet done. He sought out another servant, (for the first was too terrified to go of any more errands,) and him he induced, through the potency of gold, to proceed to the banquet hall, and tell the Warden that the guide man of Ballengeigh had been waiting a long space at his gate for admittance, but in vain.

During the interval of the transmission of this message, he threw off his rude attire that covered and concealed the rich vestments of the king of Scotland, and sounded a shrill blast on his bugle horn, as a signal for his attendants to come up.

This act is celebrated in the ballad of the Jollie Beggar, a ballad of his own writing.

"He tuke a horn frae his side, and blew baith loud and shrill, And four-and-twenty belted knights came skipping o'er the hill."

We are assured that Sir John Charters was no stranger to the title of the gude man of Ballengcighand that as soon as this third mission had been taken to him, he fell into a sore perplexity and a most .piteous troublement. He felt like one who had suddenly put himself into infinite jeopardy; — not through weakness or frailty or misfortune, which might be excused, but through a dereliction of duty and an act of absolute treason. And his king too, was actually at the gate, and had been witness to it all !

There was no alternative; he could not shun James's presence. With a guilty conscience, a cowed aspect, and a faltering step, he came out to the barbican.

The high-spirited and offended king now sharply reprimanded him for his criminal abuse of the important trust that had been committed to his charge and fidelity; and bringing to his recollection the ease of the poor widow, lie commanded him to indemnify her tenfold for her loss—aye tenfold. He further added, that if her son were not ransomed within less than a fortnight, he, the offending warden, should assuredly be hung up by the neck.

This public servant was not immediately dispossessed of his office ; but as a further token of the royal displeasance, James punished Sir John in a way which proved severe, but at the same time carried along with it a ludicrous idea. He ruined the knight whilst he conferred an honour upon him. He billeted his retinue consisting of two thousand barons and feudatories, upon him, obliging him to maintain them during the whole of his sojourn in Annandale. The expenses which this honour brought upon him were so ruinous, that the Amisfield family are said never to have extricated themselves out of their encumbrance.


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