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Review of Michael Brown's The Black Douglases


THE BLACK DOUGLASES is yet another impressive work of scholarship regarding Scottish history from Scotland's own Tuckwell Press. Michael Brown has produced a well researched, thoughtful, and comprehensive study of one of the premier Scottish families. He demonstrates how one well placed family was able to become a force of reckoning first in the troublesome Anglo-Scottish border lands then throughout Scotland and even in France during the period of 1300 to 1455. This phenomenal rise was conducted by a series of family leaders invariably named James or Archibald Douglas who generally combined qualities of political acumen, ruthless military efficiency, shrewd feudal management, and a remarkable persistence in the face of adversity.

Their aggrandizement of power was first enabled under King Robert the Bruce (reigned 1306-1329) during his long running wars with England and the need for strong military leaders like Sir James Douglas, known as 'The Good Sir James' whose daring exploits emboldened the Scottish cause and brought terror to the inhabitants of northern England. In the wake of the Bruce's death and a dearth of strong kingship in Scotland, the family moved into the power vacuum to emerge as arbitor of the peace and defender of the realm in the face of renewed and sustained English aggression. The Black Douglases enhanced their position with an impressive web of relationships encompassing the church and notable families alike. Unfortunately, they came to epitomize the concept of the overmighty subject and were finally brought down after a series of bloody and often treacherous conflicts by two very strong kings, JAMES I (reigned 1406-1437, primarily during his last decade) and JAMES II (reigned 1437-1460).

The maps and figures printed in this book are very good and help explain the complexity of inter-relationships of families, lands and castles. Brown's prose is well crafted but this book is more for the medieval or military specialist rather than the casual or general reader. It might also be of some use to family historians in the sense that one can see the influence and lands of numerous families with names such as Sinclair, Drummond, and Hay. It is a must for anyone interested in the intricacy of medieval lordship.