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Significant Scots
James Douglas


DOUGLAS, JAMES, EARL OF DOUGLAS.—This distinguished warrior, the close of whose life was so brilliant and romantic, was the second who bore the title of the earldom. From his earliest years he had been trained to warfare, in which his deeds were so remarkable that he was intrusted with high command, while the utmost confidence was reposed in his valour and leadership. This was especially the case in his final expedition, which was crowned by the victory of Otterburn.

At this period, Robert II., High Steward of Scotland, and son-in-law of Robert Bruce, was seated upon the throne of Scotland. His youth had been spent in war, in which he showed great activity and courage; but after his accession to the crown, he relapsed into a peaceful state, that was supposed by his impatient nobles to be merely the result of indolence. With this character he had already ruled eighteen years, while the war of independence against England still continued to rage; but notwithstanding his inertness, the valour of the Scottish nobility, and especially the Douglases, had succeeded in repelling every English inroad. At length, in 1388, a favourable opportunity seemed to have arrived of carrying an invasion into England. The Black Prince, the great terror of France and prop of the English crown, was dead. Richard II., the King of England, now only twenty-one years old, was ruling with all the folly and arrogance of boyhood; his council was rent with divisions and feuds, the nobility were arrayed against him, while the commons, lately awakened into a sense of their rights by the Wat Tyler insurrection, were equally hostile to the king who misruled, and to the chiefs who impoverished and oppressed them. This state of things presented an opportunity for retaliation and plunder which the Scots could not resist, and they resolved to change their defensive into an aggressive warfare. A council was held for this purpose at Edinburgh; and although Robert II. was opposed to the dangerous measure, his wishes were disregarded. A military muster of the kingdom was ordered to meet at Yetholm, and on the day appointed an army was assembled, composed of the chief force of Scotland. Forty thousand spearmen, including a band of Scottish archers, and twelve hundred men-at-arms, were mustered upon the field of meeting—a greater force than that which had sufficed to achieve the victory of Bannockburn. The Earl of Fife, the king’s second son, to whom the leading of this expedition had been committed, was neither a brave soldier nor a skilful general, but he had craft and policy enough to pass for both, while his chief captains were men inured to war, and well acquainted with the northern borders of England. The great question now at issue was the manner in which the invasion should be conducted, and the part of the English border that could be best assailed; and this was soon settled by a fortunate incident. The English wardens, alarmed at this formidable muster, had sent a squire, disguised as a Scottish man-at-arms, to ascertain its nature and purposes, in which he was fully successful; but, on returning, he found that his horse, which he had tied to a tree in a neighbouring forest, had been stolen by some border freebooter. Encumbered by his armour, and suspected to be other than he seemed, from thus travelling on foot in such an array, he was soon pounced upon by the light-heeled outposts, and brought before the Scottish lords, to whom he made a full confession of all the plans and preparations of his masters. Judging it unsafe to hazard a pitched battle against so large an army, they had resolved to remain quiet until the Scots had crossed the marches, after which they would break in upon Scotland at some undefended point, and work their will in a counterinvasion. This intelligence decided the Scottish lords upon a plan that should at once have the invasion of England and the defence of their own country for its object. Their army was to be divided, and England invaded both by the eastern and western marches, so that the enemy should find sufficient occupation in their own country. In pursuance of this plan, the Earl of Fife, with the bulk of the army, marched through Liddesdale and Galloway, intending to advance upon Carlisle, while the other inroad was to break into Northumberland. As this last was designed for the lightest part of the campaign, not more than three hundred knights and men-at-arms, and about two thousand foot, were allotted to the service; but they were placed under the command of James, Earl of Douglas, who, though young, was already accounted one of the most practised and skilful leaders of the country. He was accompanied by George and John Dunbar, Earls of March and Moray, and several of the most distinguished Scottish knights, who were proud to serve under such a commander.

All being in readiness, the Earl of Douglas commenced the campaign by entering Northumberland. He crossed the Tyne, and by swift and secret marches approached Durham, having given orders to his army not to commence plundering until they had passed that city. It was then only that the English were aware of an enemy in the midst of them, by conflagration and havoc among their richest districts, while the course of the Scots, as they shifted hither and thither by rapid marches, could only be traced by burning villages and a dun atmosphere of smoke. The English, in the meantime, kept within their walls, imagining that this small body was the advanced guard of the main army, instead of an unsupported band of daring assailants. This was especially the case in Newcastle, where Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, famed in English history under the name of Hotspur; Sir Ralph, his brother, whose valour was scarcely inferior to his own, with many gallant knights and border barons, and a numerous host of military retainers, instead of sallying out, held themselves in readiness for a siege. At length, having wasted the country for miles, and enriched themselves with plunder, the Scots prepared to retreat as rapidly as they had advanced, and had marched as far as Newcastle on their return, when Douglas and his brave companions in arms resolved to halt two days before its ramparts, and dare the defenders to come forth and do their worst. This defiance, which breathed the full spirit of chivalry, was not likely to reach the Hotspur’s ears in vain; the gates and sally-ports of Newcastle were thrown open, and numerous bands of the English rushed out, headed by their far famed leader, while the skirmishes that extended over the two days were both frequent and desperate. At length, in one of these encounters, Douglas and Hotspur met front to front, and between these two, each reckoned the bravest of his country, a hand-to-hand combat ensued, such as the wars of Scotland and England had seldom witnessed. In the furious close of the joust, Hotspur was unhorsed, and but for the rescue that interposed, would have been taken prisoner; while Douglas, seizing the lance of his fallen antagonist, with its silken embroidered pennon attached to it, waved it aloft in triumph, and exclaimed in the hearing of both armies, "I will bear this token of your prowess into Scotland, and set it on high on my castle of Dalkeith!" "That shalt thou never do," cried Percy in return; "you may be sure you shall not pass the bounds of this country till you be met with in such wise, that you shall make no vaunting thereof." "Well, sir," replied the Douglas, "come then this night to my encampment, and there seek for your pennon." Thus ended their ominous conference.

After a challenge so given and received, a conflict was inevitable, and Douglas, in continuing his retreat, marched in order of battle, and ready for any sudden onslaught of the enemy. At length the Scots reached the castle and village of Otterburn, about twenty-eight miles from Newcastle, on the second day of their march, and would have continued their progress into Scotland unmolested, but for the earnest entreaties of Earl Douglas, who besought them to stay a few days there, to give Hotspur an opportunity of redeeming his pennon. To this they consented, and chose their ground with considerable military skill, having their encampment defended in front and on one side by a marsh, and on the other by a hill. They had not long to wait. Burning with eagerness to recover his lost pennon and retrieve his tarnished honour, and learning at length that the small force under the Earl of Douglas was unsupported by the army, Hotspur left Newcastle after dinner, and commenced a rapid march in pursuit of the Scots. By waiting a little longer for the Bishop of Durham, who was hastening to his assistance, his army might have been doubled, and his success insured; but as it was, he greatly outnumbered his opponents, as he was followed by eight thousand foot and six hundred lances. In the evening he reached the encampment of the Scots, who, after a day of weary seige against the castle of Otterburn, had betaken themselves to rest, but were roused by the cry of "A Percy! a Percy!" that announced the coming foe. They instantly sprung to their feet, and betook themselves to their weapons. But without giving further time, the English commenced with an impetuous onset upon the front of the Scottish army, drawn up behind the marsh; through which, wearied with a hasty pursuit, they were obliged to flounder as they best could. And now it was that the admirable generalship of Douglas, in selecting and fortifying his encampment, was fully apparent. The front ranks thus assailed, and who bore the first brunt of the battle, were not regular soldiers, but suttlers and camp followers, placed in charge of the plundered horses and cattle, and whose position was strongly fortified with the carriages and waggons that were laden with English spoil. Although only armed with knives and clubs, these men, sheltered by their strong defences, made such a stubborn resistance as kept the enemy for a time at bay, and still farther confirmed them in the delusion that the whole Scottish force was now in action.

Not a moment of the precious interval thus afforded was lost by the Earl of Douglas. At the first alarm he started from supper, where he and his knights sat in their gowns and doublets, and armed in such haste that his armour was unclasped in many places. The regular troops were encamped upon firm ground behind the marsh; and these he suddenly drew up, and silently marched round the small wooded hill that flanked their position, so that when the English had forced the barrier of waggons, and believed that all was now their own, they were astounded at the apparition of the whole Scottish army advancing upon them from an unexpected quarter, with the honoured Douglas banner of the crowned heart floating over its head. They had thus been wasting their valour upon the scum of the invaders, and the real battle was still to be fought and won! Furious with disappointment, Hotspur drew up his men in new order for the coming onset. Even yet he might be the victor, for his soldiers not only outnumbered the enemy by three to one, but were equal in discipline, and superior in military equipments. It seemed inevitable that the banner of the crowned heart must be thrown down and trodden in the dust, unless the skilful head and mighty arm of its lord could maintain its honours against such a fearful disparity. The combatants closed by the light of an autumnal moon, that shone with an uncertain glimmer upon their mail, and half revealed their movements, as they shifted to and fro in the struggle of life and death. Thus they continued hour after hour, while neither party thought of yielding, although the ground was slippery with blood, and covered with the dead and dying—each closed in deadly grapple with his antagonist, that he might make his stroke more sure in the dim changeful moonlight. At length there appeared a wavering among the Scots; they reeled, and began to give back before the weight of superior numbers, when Douglas, finding that he must set his life upon a cast, prepared himself for a final personal effort. He ordered his banner to be advanced, and brandishing in both hands a heavy battle-axe, such as few men could wield, he shouted his war-cry of "A Douglas!" and rushed into the thickest of the press. At every stroke an enemy went down, and a lane was cleared before his onset; but his ardour carried him so far in advance, that he soon found himself unsupported, and three spears bore him to the earth, each inflicting a mortal wound. Some time elapsed before his gallant companions could overtake his onward career. At length the Earl of March, with his brother of Moray, who had entered battle with such haste that he had fought all night without his helmet, and Sir James Lindsay, one of the most stalwart of Scottish knights, cleared their way to the spot, where they found their brave commander dying, while none was beside him but William Lundie, his chaplain, a soldier priest, who had followed his steps through the whole conflict, and now stood ready, lance in hand, beside his master, to defend him in his last moments. Lindsay was the first who recognized the dying Douglas, and stooping down, he asked him how he fared. "But indifferently," replied the earl; "but blessed be God; most of my ancestors have died on fields of battle, and not on beds of down. There is a prophecy in our house, that a dead Douglas shall win a field, and I think that this night it will be accomplished. Conceal my death, raise my banner, shout my war-cry, and revenge my fall." With these words he expired.

In obedience to the dying injunctions of Douglas, his companions concealed the body among the tall fern that grew beside it, raised aloft his standard that was reeling amidst the conflict, and shouted the Douglas war-cry, as if he was still at their head; while the English, who knew that some mighty champion had lately fallen, but were ignorant that it was the Scottish leader, gave back in turn at the sound of his dreaded name. The Scots, who also believed that he was still alive, seconded the fresh onset of their leaders, and advanced with such renewed courage, that the English were at last routed, driven from the field, and dispersed, after their bravest had fallen, or been taken prisoners.

Among the last was Hotspur himself, who had fought through the whole affray with his wonted prowess; Sir Ralph, his brother, who was grievously wounded; the seneschal of York, the captain of Berwick, and several English knights and gentlemen, who were esteemed the choice of their border chivalry.

Such was the battle of Otterburn, fought in the month of August, and in the year 1388. The loss of the English attests the pertinacity of the engagement, for they had eighteen hundred killed, about a thousand wounded, and as many taken prisoners. Such a victory also evinces, more than the most laboured eulogium, the high military skill of the Earl of Douglas, so that, had he lived, his renown might have worthily taken a place by the side of the hero of Bannockburn. But he died while still young, and achieved the victory even when dead by the terror of his name—a different fate from that of his gallant rival, Henry Percy, who was first a traitor to Richard II., his natural sovereign, and afterwards to Henry IV., a usurper, whom he had mainly contributed to elevate to the throne, and who finally died a proclaimed rebel on the field of Shrewsbury, amidst disaster and defeat. On the day after the engagement, the bishop of Durham, whose movements had been anticipated by the impetuosity of Hotspur, arrived upon the field, at the head of ten thousand horse, and a large array of foot—an army sufficient, as it seemed, to trample down the victors at a single charge. But the spirit of Douglas was still among his followers, so that under the command of Moray, they drew up in their former position, and showed themselves as ready for a second combat as they had been for the first; and the bishop, daunted by their bold appearance, drew off his forces, and retired without a blow. The Scots then resumed their route homeward unmolested; but instead of a joyful triumphal march, as it might well have been after such a victory, it was rather a sad and slow funeral procession, in the centre of which was a car that conveyed the body of their hero to the burial-place of his illustrious ancestors. It is not often thus that a soldier’s love and sympathy so overwhelm a soldier’s pride, in the full flush of his success. The funeral was performed with pompous military honours in the Abbey of Melrose, while the epitaph of the departed was indelibly engraven in the hearts of his countrymen and the page of Scottish history.


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