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Significant Scots
William Douglas


DOUGLAS, WILLIAM.—William Douglas, knight of Liddesdale, otherwise well known in Scottish history by the title of the Flower of Chivalry, has been reckoned, on the authority of John de Fordun, to have been a natural son of Sir James Douglas, the companion in arms of Robert Bruce, and as such he is generally mentioned by our Scottish historians. Others, however, make him out to have been lawful son of Sir James Douglas of Loudon. It is in vain to inquire into the date of birth, or early life of the distinguished personages of this period, as the first notice we generally receive of them is in some historic action, when they had attained the age of manhood. Sir William became possessor of the lands of Liddesdale, through marriage with Margaret Graham, daughter of Sir John Graham, lord of Abercorn. His first military exploit was the surprise and discomfiture of John Baliol at Annan, after the battle of Dupplin. On this occasion, the knight of Liddesdale marched under the banner of Andrew Murray, Earl of Bothwell; and so successful was the small band of Scottish patriots, that the adherents of the usurper were completely routed by a sudden night attack, Baliol himself escaping with difficulty, and more than half-naked, upon an unsaddled and unbridled horse, into England. In the following year (1333) Sir William was not so fortunate. Having been appointed warden of the west marches, in consequence of his able conduct in the surprise at Annan, his district was soon invaded by the English, under Sir Anthony de Lucy; and in a battle which ensued near Lochmaben, towards the end of March, Douglas was taken prisoner, and carried to Edward III., by whose command he was put in irons, and imprisoned for two years. During this interval the battle of Halidon Hill occurred, in which the Scots were defeated with great slaughter, and their country again subdued. But in 1335, the knight of Liddesdale was set free, on payment of a heavy ransom; and on returning to Scotland, he was one of the nobles who sat in the parliament held at Dairsie, near Cupar-Fife, in the same year. He had not long been at liberty when a full opportunity occurred of vindicating the liberties of his country, and the rightful sovereignty of his young king, now a minor, and living in France. Count Guy of Namur having crossed the sea to aid the English, invaded Scotland with a considerable body of his foreign men-at-arms, and advanced as far as Edinburgh, the castle of which was at that time dismantled. A furious conflict commenced between these new invaders and the Scots on the Borough-muir, in which the latter were on the point of being worsted, when the knight of Liddesdale opportunely came down from the Pentlands with a reinforcement, and defeated the enemy, who retired for shelter to the ruins of the castle, where they slew their horses, and made a rampart of their dead bodies. But hunger and thirst at last compelled these brave foreigners to capitulate, and they were generously allowed to return to England unmolested, on condition of serving no longer in a Scottish invasion.

This successful skirmish was followed by several others, in which the knight of Liddesdale took an important share. He then passed over into Fife, and took in succession the castles of St. Andrews, Falkland, and Leuchars, that held out for the English. After this he returned to Lothian, and betook himself to his favourite haunts of the Pentlands, thence to sally out against the English as occasion offered. The chief object of his solicitude was Edinburgh Castle, which he was eager to wrest from the enemy. On one of these occasions, learning that the English soldiers in the town had become confident and careless, he at night suddenly rushed down upon them from his fastnesses, and slew 400 of their number while they were stupified with sleep and drunkenness. It was to a warfare in detail of this description that the Scots invariably betook themselves when the enemy were in too great force to be encountered in a general action; and it was by such skirmishes that they generally recovered their national freedom, even when their cause seemed to be at the worst. After this, by a series of daring enterprises, William Douglas recovered Teviotdale, Annandale, Nithsdale, and Clydesdale from the English. These successes so raised his reputation, that Henry, earl of Derby, who was appointed to the command of the English troops in Scotland, was eager to try his valour in single combat with the bold insurgent. They accordingly encountered on horseback at Berwick, but at the first career, Douglas was so severely wounded in the hand by accident with his own lance, that the combat had to be stayed. Soon after, the knight of Liddesdale, in an encounter with Sir Thomas Barclay, was worsted, with the loss of all his followers except three, himself escaping with difficulty through the darkness of the night. But this mischance he soon retrieved by a series of skirmishes, in which, with greatly inferior numbers, he routed the English, and shook their possession of Scotland. But his most remarkable exploit of this nature was a desperate encounter, or rather series of encounters, which he had in the course of one day with Sir Laurence Abernethy, a leader of the party of Baliol. On this occasion Sir William Douglas was four times defeated; but with unconquerable pertinacity he still returned to the charge, and in the fifth was completely victorious. It was by these exploits, and especially the last, that he worthily won the title of the "Flower of Chivalry." After this he was sent by the High Steward, now governor of Scotland, to France, to communicate the state of affairs to his young sovereign, David, and obtain assistance from the French king. In this mission he was so successful, that he soon returned with a squadron of five French ships of war, that sailed up the Tay to aid the Steward, at this time employed in the siege of Perth, which was held by the English. Sir William joined the besiegers, but was wounded in the leg by a javelin discharged from a springald, and unfitted for a time for further action. So opportune, however, was his arrival with the reinforcement, that the Scots, who were about to abandon the siege, resumed it with fresh vigour, and Perth was soon after taken.

The cause of Baliol was now at so low an ebb, and the country so cleared of the enemy, that little remained in their possession except the castle of Edinburgh, from which the knight of Liddesdale was eager to expel them. But the garrison were so numerous, and the defences so strong, that an open siege was hopeless, and he therefore had recourse to stratagem. He prevailed upon a merchant sea-captain of Dundee, named Walter Curry, to bring his ship round to the Forth, and pretend to be an Englishman pursued by the Scots, and desirous of the protection of the castle, offering at the same time to supply the garrison with provisions. The stratagem succeeded. The commander of the castle bespoke a cargo of victuals on the following morning, and Douglas, who was lurking in the neighbourhood, at the head of 200 followers, at this intelligence disguised himself and twelve of his men with the gray frocks of the mariners thrown over their armour, and joined the convoy of Curry. The gates were opened, and the draw-bridge lowered to give entrance to the waggons and their pretended drivers; but as soon as they came under the gateway, they stabbed the warder, and blew a horn to summon the rest of their party to the spot. Before these could arrive, the cry of treason rang through the castle, and brought the governor and his soldiers upon the daring assailants, who would soon have been overpowered, but for their gallant defence in the narrow gateway, while they had taken the precaution so to arrange the waggons that the portcullis could not be lowered. In the meantime, the followers of Douglas rushed up the castle hill, and entered the conflict, which they maintained with such vigour, that the whole garrison were put to the sword, except Limosin, the governor, and six squires, who escaped. After this important acquisition, the knight of Liddesdale placed the castle under the command of Archibald Douglas, one of his relatives.

Scotland was thus completely freed from the enemy, and the people were impatient for the return of their king from France, to which country he had been sent in boyhood, during the ascendancy of the Baliol faction. Accordingly, David II., now in his eighteenth year, landed at Innerbervie on the 4th of June, 1341, and was received with rapture by his subjects, who recognized in him the pledge of their national freedom, as well as the son of their "good king Robert." But this feeling was soon damped by the difficulties of the young sovereign’s position, as well as the indiscretions of his government. As for the knight of Liddesdale, he, like his compatriots, had so long been accustomed to independent military command during the interregnum, that he was unwilling to submit to royal authority when it opposed his own personal interests; and of this he soon gave a fatal proof, in the foul murder of Sir Alexander Ramsay of Palwolsie, as brave a leader and a better man than himself, because the latter was appointed keeper of Roxburgh Castle, and sheriff of Teviotdale, offices which Douglas thought should have been conferred upon himself, as he had recovered these places from the enemy with much toil and hazard. The particulars of this revolting atrocity are too well known, both from history and popular tradition, to require a further account. It is enough to state that after such a deed—as cowardly as it was cruel, even according to the principles of chivalry itself—the knight of Liddesdale continued to be entitled, as well as esteemed, the "Flower of Chivalry;" and that David II., so far from being able to punish the murderer, was obliged to invest him with the office for the sake of which the crime had been committed.

After this action, and during the short interval of peace that continued between England and Scotland, the character of Sir William Douglas, hitherto so distinguished for patriotism, appears to have become very questionable. This has been ascertained from the fact, that Edward III. was already tampering with him to forsake the Scottish, and join the English interests, and for this purpose had appointed Henry de Percy, Maurice de Berkeley, and Thomas de Lacy "his commissioners," as their missive fully expressed it, "with full powers to treat of, and conclude a treaty with William Douglas, to receive him into our faith, peace, and amity, and to secure him in a reward." Such a negotiation could scarcely have been thought of, unless Douglas, even already had been exhibiting symptoms of most unpatriotic wavering. He held several meetings, not only with these commissioners, but also with Baliol himself, and appears to have fully accorded to their proposals, and agreed to accept the wages of the English king. But whether the promised advantages were too uncertain, or the risk of such a change of principle too great, the treaty was abruptly broken off; and Douglas, as if to quell all suspicion, made a furious inroad, at the head of a large force, across the English border, although the truce between the two countries still continued; burnt Carlisle and Penrith; and after a skirmish with the English, in which the bishop of Carlisle was unhorsed, he retreated hastily into Scotland. By this act the truce was at an end, and David II., believing the opportunity to be favourable for a great English invasion, as Edward III. with the flower of his army was now in France, assembled a numerous army, with which he advanced to the English border, and took the castle of Liddel after a six days’ siege. It was now that the knight of Liddesdale counselled a retreat. His experience had taught him the strength of the English northern counties, and the warlike character of their barons, and perhaps he had seen enough of the military character of David to question his fitness for such a difficult enterprise. But his advice was received both by king and nobles with indignation and scorn. "Must we only fight for your gain!" they fiercely replied; "you have filled your own coffers with English gold, and secured your own lands by our valour, and now you would restrain us from our share in the plunder?" They added, that England was now emptied of its best defenders, so that nothing stood between them and a march even to London itself, but cowardly priests and base hinds and mechanics. Thus, even already, the moral influence of William Douglas was gone, the patriotic character of his past achievements went for nothing, and he was obliged to follow in a career where he had no leading voice, and for which he could anticipate nothing but defeat and disaster.

The Scottish army continued its inroad of merciless desolation and plunder until it came near Durham, when it encamped at a place which Fordun calls Beau-repair, but is now well known by the name of Bear Park. It was as ill-chosen as any locality could have been for such a purpose; for the Scottish troops, that depended so much upon unity of action for success, were divided into irregular unconnected masses by the hedges and ditches with which the ground was intersected, so that they resembled sheep inclosed within hurdles, ready for selection and slaughter; while the ground surrounding their encampment was so undulating that an enemy could approach them before they were aware. And that enemy, without their knowing it, was now within six miles of their encampment. The English barons had bestirred themselves so effectually that they were at the head of a numerous force, and ready to meet the invaders on equal terms. On the morning of the day on which the battle occurred, the knight of Liddesdale, still fearing the worst, rode out at the head of a strong body of cavalry, to ascertain the whereabouts of the English, and procure forage and provisions; but he had not rode far when he unexpectedly found himself in front of their whole army. He was instantly assailed by overwhelming multitudes, and, after a fierce resistance, compelled to flee, after losing 500 men-at-arms; while the first intelligence which the Scots received of the enemy’s approach was from the return of Douglas on the spur, with the few survivors, who leaped the inclosures, and their pursuers, who drew bridle, and waited the coming of their main body. Into the particulars of the fatal conflict that followed, commonly called the battle of Durham, which was fought on the 17th of October, 1346, it is not our purpose at present to enter: it was to the Scots a mournful but fitting conclusion to an attempt rashly undertaken, and wise counsels scornfully rejected. Fifteen thousand of their soldiers fell; their king, and the chief of their knights and nobles, were taken prisoners; and among the latter was Sir William Douglas, who, along with the Earl of Moray, had commanded the right wing. He was again to become the inmate of an English prison! The capture of such an enemy, also, was reckoned so important, that Robert de Bertram, the soldier who took him prisoner, obtained a pension of 200 merks to him and his heirs, until the king, now absent in France, should provide him in lands of equal value.

The history of a prisoner is commonly a blank; but to this the captivity of Douglas forms an exception. He was still able to nurse his feuds and wreak his resentments, and of this Sir David Berkeley soon had fatal experience. This man, who had assassinated Sir John Douglas, brother of the knight of Liddesdale, was himself assassinated by Sir John St. Michael, purchased, as was alleged, to commit this deed by Sir William himself. This occurred in 1350, after the latter had been in prison nearly four years. In the meantime, Edward III. being in want of money for the prosecution of his French wars, endeavoured to recruit his empty coffers by the ransom of the prisoners taken at the battle of Durham, so that many of the Scottish nobles were enabled to return to their homes; but from this favour the knight of Liddesdale was excepted. The king of England knew his high military renown and influence in Scotland; and it is probable that upon these qualities, combined with the knight’s unscrupulous moral character, he depended greatly for the furtherance of a scheme which he had now at heart. This was the possession of Scotland, not, however, by conquest, which had been already tried in vain, or through the vice-royalty of Baliol, who was now thrown aside as a worthless instrument, but through the voluntary consent and cession of king David himself. David was a childless man; he was weary of his captivity, and ready to purchase liberty on any terms; and the High Steward of Scotland, who had been appointed his successor by the Scottish Parliament, failing heirs of his own body, had shown little anxiety for the liberation of his captive sovereign. On these several accounts David was easily induced to enter into the purposes of the English king. The knight of Liddesdale was also persuaded to purchase his liberty upon similar terms; and thus Scotland had for its betrayers its own king and the bravest of its champions. The conditions into which Douglas entered with Edward III, in this singular treaty were the following:—He bound himself and his heirs to serve the king of England in all wars whatever, except against his own nation; with the proviso annexed, that he might renounce, if he pleased, the benefit of this exception: That he should furnish ten men-at-arms and ten light horsemen, for three months, at his own charges: That, should the French or other foreigners join the Scots, or the Scots join the French or other foreigners in invading England, he should do his utmost to annoy all the invaders "except the Scots:" That he should not openly, or in secret, give counsel or aid against the king of England or his heirs, in behalf of his own nation or of any others: That the English should do no hurt to his lands or his people; and his people do no hurt to the English, except in self-defence: That he should permit the English at all times to pass through his lands without molestation: That he should renounce all claim to the castle of Liddel: and that should the English, or the men of the estates of the knight of Liddesdale, injure each other, by firing houses or stack-yards, plundering, or committing any such offences, the treaty should not thereby be annulled; but that the parties now contracting should forthwith cause the damage to be mutually liquidated and repaired. To these strange terms Douglas was to subscribe by oath for their exact fulfilment, on pain of being held a disloyal and perjured man and a false liar (what else did such a treaty make him?); and that he should give his daughter and his nearest male heir as hostages, to remain in the custody of the king of England for two years. In return for all this he was to be released from captivity, and to have a grant of the territory of Liddesdale, Hermitage Castle, and certain lands in the interior of Annandale.

Sir William, having obtained his liberty at such a shameful price, returned to Scotland, and attempted to put his treasonable designs in execution. But during his absence another William Douglas had taken his place in influence and estimation. This was the nephew of the good Sir James, also his own god-son, who, having been bred to arms in the wars in France, had returned to Scotland, and assumed his place as the head of the Douglases, a position which his valour was well fitted to maintain, for he quickly drove the English from Douglasdale, Ettrick Forest, and Teviotdale. To him the knight of Liddesdale applied, in the hope of winning him over to the cause of Edward; but this nobleman not only rejected the base proposal, but, being made thus aware of the treachery on foot, assembled his vassals, broke into Galloway, and compelled the barons of that wild district to renounce the cause of England, and return to their rightful allegiance. Soon after, Annandale, which the treacherous knight had designed to make the head-quarters of his perfidious movements, was overrun and occupied by the High Steward and his son. Thus Sir William was foiled at every point, and that chiefly through the agency of his own god-son, whom be therefore hated with a deadly hatred. These failures were soon closed by a deadly termination. One day, while the knight of Liddesdale was hunting in the depths of Ettrick Forest, he was set upon and slain at a place called Galford, by a band of armed men employed for that purpose by Lord William himself. The causes of such a deed—which in the estimation of the church was nothing less than spiritual parricide, on account of the religious relationship of the parties—can scarcely be found in the contending interests of the rivals, and the mutual injuries that had passed between them; and therefore it was alleged that the "Flower of Chivalry," whose morals were those of too many knights of the period, had seduced the affections of Lord William’s wife, and was thus requited for his crime. Such was the report of the time, and Fordun has quoted the following verse from an ancient ballad upon the subject:--

"The Countess of Douglas out of her bower she came,
And loudly there did she call,
‘It is for the lord of Liddesdale
That I let the tears down fall.’"

The body, on being found, was carried to Linden Kirk, a chapel in Ettrick Forest, and afterwards interred in Melrose Abbey. But by his murder of Ramsay, as well as his subsequent treason, Sir William Douglas had obliterated the recollection of his great and gallant deeds, so that he died unregretted, and was soon forgot.


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