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Significant Scots
Archibald Douglas


DOUGLAS, ARCHIBALD, surnamed BELL-THE-CAT, was the son of George, fifth Earl of Angus. The elder branch of the noble house of Douglas, that was represented by the holders of the earldom of that name, and the dukedom of Touraine in France, had become so powerful, and so dangerous to the royal family, that the Stuarts had tried by every plan, both of violence and policy, to lessen its influence and circumscribe its power. One method which they adopted was, to exalt the house of Angus, a younger branch of the family. But this only superseded one evil by another, and the Earls of Angus soon threatened to become as formidable to royal authority as the Earls of Douglas had formerly been. Archibald, who succeeded to the earldom of Angus when only six or seven years old, was born to an inheritance which his father had greatly enlarged, so that when the young minor attained to manhood, he was by far the most powerful nobleman in Scotland, and he was commonly called the "Great Earl of Angus." He married, in 1468, Elizabeth Boyd, daughter of Robert, Lord Boyd, the all-powerful and afterwards disgraced minister of James III., by whom he had four sons and three daughters.

During the earlier part of the reign of James III., little of Angus is known, except that he was distinguished for stature, strength, and courage, like most of his race, as well as for great possessions and political influence. It was probably during this reign that an event occurred, characteristic of the man and the times. One day, at table, as the king was conversing with his courtiers, of the men of Scotland who were pre-eminent in corporeal endowments, all present, except Spence of Kilspindie, gave the preference to the Earl of Angus. This man, in a luckless hour for himself, began to speak disparagingly of the earl, in the true Scottish fashion of doubt, saying, "It is true, if all be good that is up-come," insinuating that the earl’s valour and courage might not be quite corresponding to his appearance. Douglas heard of the taunt, and vowed a deadly revenge. One day after this, while riding from Douglas to Tantallan, having sent his train another way, the earl continued his journey, attended by a single follower, each having a hawk on his wrist; and in the neighbourhood of the town of Fala, they lighted at a brook, for the purpose of bathing their birds. While thus employed, the laird of Kilspindie approached them, travelling from the opposite direction. "Is not this Spence?" the earl asked of his retainer; "the man who made question of my manhood? I will go and give him a trial of it, that we may know which of us is the better man." The servant would have dissuaded him from encountering one his inferior in rank, and offered to go in his stead; but to this Angus answered, "I see he hath one with him; do thou grapple with the attendant, whilst I deal with the master." Having fastened their hawks, that they might not fly away, and mounted their horses, the pair rode forward to achieve this double duel. "Wherefore did you speak of me so contemptuously, and doubt whether my courage was equal to my appearance?" cried Angus, in a loud tone of challenge. Spence, thus confronted, and brought to bay, would fain have excused himself, but the other would not be so satisfied. "We are both tall fellows, and one of us must pay for it," he exclaimed; while the other, warming in anger, replied, "If better may not be, there is never an earl in Scotland but I will defend myself against him, and kill him if I can, rather than that he should kill me." They alighted from their horses, and commenced a desperate combat with their two-handed swords. But the affair was of brief continuance; for Angus, with one tremendous blow, cut asunder the other’s leg by the thigh-bone, so that the limb was lopped off like a branch beneath the gardener’s pruning-hook, and Spence died,a few moments after. When the conflict between the principals was thus ended, Angus put a stop to that which had commenced between the two retainers, and said to Spence’s follower, "Go thy way, and tell my gossip the king that there was nothing but fair play here. I know my gossip will be offended; but I will get me into Liddesdale, and remain in the Hermitage till his anger is over.’ This he did; and the only penalty he underwent for the deed was of exchange of the lands of Liddesdale for those of Bothwell, as the king declared that no order could be kept with the Earls of Angus as long as they held the former.

In the history of Scotland, nothing can be more revolting than the feuds and factions of the nobles, by which the country was rent asunder, unless it be the readiness with which they joined the cause of England when their avarice or ambition was solicited by a tempting bribe. Such had ever been the case since the war of Scottish independence commenced. An excuse, perhaps, might be found for the earliest defaulters, in the fact that they were Anglo-Normans, who had but recently become Scotsmen; that they held estates in England sometimes more valuable than those they possessed in Scotland; and that their homage was due to the sovereign of either kingdom indifferently, as their lord paramount. But no such excuse can be offered for their unworthy successors, who continued the same course of treachery and double-dealing, after a descent of more than two centuries had made them natives of the soil. Hence it was that the reign of James III. was so full of trouble, and finally so disastrous. In consequence of his unwarlike habits, and devotedness to mean favourites, the Scottish nobles preferred his brother, the Duke of Albany, whose stirring spirit and martial disposition were more to their taste; and when the latter intrigued with the king of England to supplant his royal brother, and reign in his stead, a powerful band of the Scottish nobility were ready to support him, although the price of English aid was to be nothing less than the independence of Scotland. Albany was to be king; but he was to reign as vassal of Edward IV., and do homage to the latter for his crown. In this infamous coalition, we regret to find the Earl of Angus a leading member; and from his possessing the wardenship of the eastern marches, by which the keys of Scotland were at his belt, he seems to have been the firmest dependence of the unscrupulous Albany. On one occasion, however, in the midst of these intrigues, we find Angus acting with a more patriotic spirit. After a peaceful season of unwonted duration between the two countries, James III., at the instigation of France, resolved in 1480 to make war on England; upon which Edward IV. prepared for resistance, by appointing his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III., lieutenant-general of the north, to conduct an invasion into Scotland. But before this able leader could assemble his forces, the Earl of Angus, at the head of a small army, made a furious irruption across the marches into England, and for three days ravaged the rich districts of Northumberland, and then retired unmolested, laden with plunder. After this bold deed, however, he retired again to his intrigues; and when Albany consented to hold the Scottish crown from Edward IV. as his vassal, Angus was one of the commissioners appointed by the duke to draw up the articles of negotiation, and complete the treaty.

In the meantime, the conduct of the weak infatuated king of Scotland seemed too much to justify these treasonable proceedings. In addition to the few scholars and lovers of the fine arts whom he had taken into his confidence, his chief associates were astrologers, quacks, and low mechanics, whose society he preferred to that of his high-born nobles and experienced statesmen. It was not wonderful, therefore, that not only the aristocracy, but also the commons preferred, to such a sovereign, the stately bearing, popular demeanour, and chivalrous accomplishments of his brother, Albany. But of all the favourites of James, the most valued, and consequently the most obnoxious, was Cochrane, a man of low birth, and an architect by profession, but indignantly termed in our old chronicles a stone-mason, whom the king had raised to the earldom of Mar. Such a man was well fitted, as a royal favourite, for the ruin of a weak, confiding master; for he not only outshone the nobles by the splendour of his style of living, but even excelled most of them in personal comeliness, strength, and dexterity in warlike exercises, so that he could confront the frowning courtiers with a fearlessness equal to their own. But his crowning offence, and one for which he merited full punishment, was the advice which he gave to his sovereign during a season of great dearth, to debase the current coin, by which, while he increased his own wealth, and enriched the royal treasury, the price of provisions was raised, and the bitterness of famine aggravated. it seemed to the nobles a convenient season to wreak their resentment, by sweeping the royal favourites from their path. It is also alleged, that in this crisis the Earl of Angus and his associates entertained the further design of dethroning James, and exalting Albany in his room.

All being in readiness for the accomplishment of their purposes, the Duke of Gloucester, who was privy to their design, put his forces in motion, and laid siege to the town of Berwick. A muster of the Scottish troops was the consequence; and an army of fifty thousand, that was assembled at the Boroughmuir, marched first to Soutra, and then to Lauder, having the king at their head, accompanied by his unworthy minions. Most conspicuous among these was Cochrane, to whom the command of the artillery was intrusted, and who, on this occasion, appeared with a splendour which few Scottish kings had hitherto equalled. His pavilion was of silken drapery, the fastening chains of which were richly gilt; his camp-furniture shone with gold and silver; and his body-guard consisted of three hundred tall retainers, dressed in rich liveries, and armed with battle-axes. It was the last glitter of a falling star before it disappeared for ever! On encamping at Lauder, the nobles assembled in the church, and proceeded to deliberate upon the best means of removing the favourites from the royal person. Cochrane, as the most obnoxious, was the chief object at which their discussion pointed; but to punish him was a task of danger, not only on account of his master’s protection, but his own courage, and the military retainers by whom he was surrounded. All this was expressed by Lord Gray, who repeated on the occasion a homely apologue. "The mice," he said, "having been continually annoyed by the inroads of the cat, met in council to devise the best mode of delivering themselves from her tyranny. At length, after various measures had been proposed, it was agreed that the best plan was to hang a bell round her neck, that thus they might receive due notice of the destroyer’s approach. This pleased the whole meeting; but just when they were about to break up, the question occurred, ‘What mouse will adventure to hang the bell about the cat’s neck?" Here the speaker paused; upon which Angus, raising his stalwart form in the midst of the council, briefly and boldly exclaimed, "I will bell the cat!" From this answer he derived the singular cognomen by which he is known in Scottish history.

No sooner had this decision been announced than a knocking was heard at the church door; upon which Douglas of Lochleven, who kept guard there, demanded to know who it was that sought admittance. "It is I, the Earl of Mar," cried the person without. He thought that a council of war had been assembled, and was desirous to be present at their deliberations. The door was gladly opened to the victim, who entered, unsuspicious of danger. "It does not become thee to wear this collar," cried Angus, stepping up to him, and rudely snatching from his neck the gold chain which he wore; "a rope would suit thee better " "Nor yet this horn," said Douglas of Lochleven, plucking away the jewelled hunting-horn that dangled by his side; "thou hast already hunted after mischief too long!" Cochrane, as fearless as any man present, imagined that nothing more than some rude pleasantry was intended, and asked, "My lords, is this jest or earnest?" The only answer given was his instant seizure; his hands were pinioned, and a guard was placed over him. Having thus secured the principal culprit, the conspirators strode onward to the royal tent; and, before an alarm could be raised in the king’s behalf; not only his favourites, but himself also were prisoners in their hands. No trial followed of the men who were already prejudged and doomed. They were dragged to Lauder bridge; and there Torphichen the dancing-master, Hummil the tailor, Rogers the musician, Leonard, Preston, and the other royal favourites, were hanged over the parapet. Cochrane, who felt his "ruling passion strong in death," only requested to be hanged with one of the silken cords from his tent, and not strangled with a hempen rope, like a sorry cur; but, instead of acceding to his dying wish, they hanged him over the bridge in a halter of horse hair. After this the nobles disbanded their feudal array, being only anxious to secure the person of the king, while the Duke of Gloucester was enabled to take Berwick without resistance, and advance unopposed to the capital. It was now deemed a fitting time by Angus and his associates to hint at their plan, which they had kept in reserve, of dethroning the king, and placing Albany in his room, under English protection; but the Scottish nobles were not only astonished, but indignant at the idea. They had caballed against the king, and executed summary justice upon his favourites; but to sacrifice the liberties of their country had never entered into their calculations. Bell-the-Cat, therefore, with all his audacity, was obliged to unite with them, not only in opposing the English invasion, but effecting a reconciliation between the royal brothers. After this last measure was accomplished, Angus returned to his disloyal and unnational intrigues, as the principal negotiator of the Duke of Albany with the English government; until, at last, the duke himself was impeached by the Estates as a traitor, and obliged to flee, first to England and afterwards to France, where, a few years after, he was killed, not in actual battle, but in the chance-medley of an idle tournament.

After the departure of the Duke of Albany from the kingdom, the Earl of Angus scarcely appears in Scottish history; or, if his name occurs, it is only incidentally. It is scarcely to be supposed, however, that he remained idle during the plots that were afterwards formed against James III.; and it is certain, that when the rebellion broke out, he was one of the insurgent lords who fought against the royal army at the battle of Sauchie Burn, at which the king was assassinated while he fled from the field. On the accession of James IV., still a minor, the earl was allowed to take his full share in the government; but when the young king had arrived at manhood, his vigorous intellect soon perceived that the lords, who had arrayed him in arms against his father, and procured his advancement to the throne, had only used him as a tool for their own selfish purposes. He therefore regarded them with displeasure; and among the foremost of these was the Earl of Angus, who, in consequence, went to England full of resentment, and there entered into a secret treaty with Henry VII., the particulars of which are unknown. It appears, however,"to have been so suspicious, that on his return to Scotland, he was met by an order from the king to confine himself in ward in his castle of Tantallan; and soon after, the lands and lordship of Liddesdale, and the castle of Hermitage, were taken from him, and given to the Earl of Bothwell.

The reign of James IV. was popular and energetic--one of those reigns, indeed, in which neither royal favourite nor royal antagonist can have much hope of success. For years, therefore, extending from 1491 to 1513, we hear nothing in our national annals of the bold ambitious Earl of Angus; and it is probable that during this long interval he quietly took his place as a Scottish councillor in the Estates, and a feudal chief among his retainers, neither suspected nor giving cause of suspicion. It is also not unlikely, that seeing his country in peace, and every year becoming more prosperous, his better feelings may have taught him that those turbulent schemes in which he had been formerly engaged were not, by any means, the best for ultimately accomplishing the happiness and independence of Scotland. That such was the effect of his retrospections, as years advanced upon him, may be charitably concluded from the closing scene of his career.

That scene was connected with one of the saddest events in Scottish history. Henry VII., the leading feature of whose politics was to keep peace with Scotland, and whose endeavours to that effect had been eminently successful, died; and his son and successsr, Henry VIII., was to the full as quarrelsome as his father had been prudent and conciliatory. Between two such fiery spirits, therefore, as himself and James IV., brothers-in-law though they were, the unwonted tranquillity that had prevailed so long between the two kingdoms could scarcely be expected to last much longer; and, in 1513, James invaded England, at the head of an army one hundred thousand strong. Not only the whole military force, but all the noble houses of Scotland, had been mustered for the occasion; and among the latter was Angus, still, in spite of his former failures, the most powerful peer of the realm. But his experienced eye seems to have soon detected the blunders and anticipated the disastrous close of this expedition, which James commenced with a mere chivalrous freak. He was advancing, forsooth, three steps into English ground to vindicate the beauty and fair name of the Queen of France, as her chosen knight-errant and champion. The king’s whole conduct was commensurate with this beginning. He squandered his vast resources in the capture of a few paltry castles; allowed himself to be besotted with the charms of an English lady whom he had taken prisoner, and who deliberately betrayed him to her countrymen; and loitered away his opportunities in her company, until more than half his army had deserted, while the English had assembled in full force. All this Angus witnessed, and witnessed, perhaps, with the bitter consciousness that his past dealings had deprived him of the moral influence by which he might have effectually interposed and arrested the coming ruin. At length, to crown his career of utter madness, James took up his position, and appointed his time for the approaching action, exactly according to the wishes of Surrey, the English general, who piqued the knight-errantry of the former to that effect. It was now time for the Scottish nobles to interpose; and Angus, whose experience, years, and rank entitled him to this privilege, earnestly advised the king either to make an instant attack, or commence a retreat while it was still in his power. But to these wise suggestions the king—across whose mind, perhaps, the scene of Lauder bridge at that moment flitted—replied, "Angus, if you are afraid, you may go home." The earl burst into tears at this degrading taunt, and replied, that his former life might well have spared him such a reproach from his sovereign. "As for myself," he added, "my age renders my body of no service, and my counsel is despised; but I leave my two sons and my vassals in the field. May the end be happy, and my forebodings unfounded!" With these words he rode away from the encampment, accompanied by a few attendants.

His forebodings, alas, were but too well-founded! The battle of Flodden was fought, in which the flower of Scottish manhood and nobleness was "a’ wede away;" and the old disconsolate man could scarcely have reached his home, and rested beneath its roof, when the stunning intelligence reached him. But besides this great national calamity, by which Scotland was threatened with a subjugation more complete than any she had yet experienced, Angus himself, both as a father and a feudal chief, was heavily visited by the event; for his two sons, George the Master of Angus, and Sir William Douglas of Glenbervie, were both slain, along with two hundred gentlemen of the name of Douglas. In consequence of these tidings, the earl retired to St. Mains in Galloway, where he led a life of austere mortification and devotion, which, however, was soon terminated; for he died there about a year after, and his body was buried in the church of St. Mains, while his heart was carried to Douglas, to the resting-place of many of his ancestry. His death occurred about the sixty-first or sixty-second year of his age.


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