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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 12 - Malcolm Canmore and William the Conqueror


Scotland was on the threshold of great changes. The day on which Malcolm Canmore took his seat on the Lia-Fail at Scone and assumed the crown of his ancestors, may be said to have been the first day of the new age. The war with the Viking now lay behind the Scots. They had brought their nationality and independence out of these bloody fields not only intact, but more consolidated than ever. But the nation had not yet made its final escape from the refining fires of the battlefield: the struggles that lay before it were different in kind and higher in character than those rude contests which had exercised their strength till now. The past battle had lasted two centuries; the coming one was to continue four hundred years, and to conquer in it would demand greater patience and a more enlightened patriotism than had sufficed to win victory on previous fields.

The new invaders were not to come clad in mail and brandishing spear; they were to appear in the soft garb of peaceful ecclesiastics. This was a mode of warfare the simple-minded Scots did not understand. It was easier for them to withstand the battle-axes of the Dane than the sophisms of the priest. Armies of stealthy-paced men, with shorn crowns, hands clasped in prayer, and eyes up-turned, as if they deigned not to regard the earth on which they trod, or coveted aught upon it, were to cross the Tweed, and without fighting so much as one pitched battle, were to take possession of the country and spread their tents by its river sides, and appropriate its meadows and pasture-lands as their peculiar inheritance, leaving the more sterile parts, the bare moor, and the rocky mountains, to the children of the soil. For an invasion like this the Scots of the twelfth century were but ill prepared. The oil in Columba’s lamp was far spent, its flame had sunk low, and the consequence was that the men who had boldly met the Danes and chased them from their shores, or flung them into Scottish graves, were likely to offer only a feeble fight to the champions of an arrogant ecclesiasticism, and in the end bow their necks to an authority that claimed to be Divine.

For a short space, however, this battle was postponed. Other cares pressed on the attention of Malcolm the "big head" and his Scots, who, though they had waxed valiant in the fight of arms, were grown lukewarm in that other combat which it was their special mission to maintain with that great spiritual power which was trampling on the independence of all nations, and was about to put her yoke on their neck. Let us first briefly narrate these preliminary occurrences before c coming to the greater battle beyond.

It is the 14th October 1066, and the knights and warriors whom William Duke of Normandy has led across the sea are mustering on the field of Hastings. The battle about to be joined betwixt Harold and William is for the crown of England. With the close of the bloody day comes a close to the life and reign of the English king. Harold is stretched a corpse on the field, and his crown has passed to the conqueror William. In the short, stout, iron-featured, deep-thoughted, slow-speaking Norman duke of the English have found a master. They saw without alarm the sceptre pass into his strong hand; but when it began to grow into an iron rod they knew what the Norman victory on the field of Hastings imported, and stood aghast at the vista it had opened. Nevertheless the tyrant of Normandy was the best friend of the England of that day. William found the country without unity, and therefore without power: it was transferring its sceptre from one weak hand to another; it was wasting its blood in useless battles, and its patriotism in party strifes. Progress had become impossible to it; but when William stood up, this miserable antagonism of interests and parties, which was pulling England in pieces, had an end. Faction fled before him. Angle and Saxon and Dane, to which we have now to add Norman, began to cohere and grow into one people, and now England entered on its great career.

William had fulfilled his mission. He had called into being the great English people of the future, and ought to have rested content with what he had accomplished. But like almost all men who have been the special favourites of fortune, and have been visited with sudden and overflowing success, William did not know when he had finished his work and come to the limit beyond which no effort of ambition and no strength or skill in arms could carry him. And now we are brought back to Scotland, the independence and nationality of which was again brought into jeopardy by the triumph of the Norman arms in England.

It is not easy to determine whether it was Malcolm Canmore of the English monarch who was to blame for the fierce war that now broke out betwixt England and Scotland. Certain it is there is no bloodier chapter in all the Border history of the two kingdoms than that which we are now called briefly to write. There were interested motives on both sides prompting to a policy of war. William might feel that his English conquests were not secure till he had enclosed them within the four seas, and could stretch his sceptre from the Channel to the Pentland Frith. And it was equally natural for the Scottish king to seek to fortify himself against the formidable danger which had suddenly risen on his southern frontier buy expelling the Norman from the throne of England, and seating upon it a scion of its ancient kings. Malcolm has been all the more open to this suspicion from the circumstances that the heir to the English throne was not his brother-in-law. And yet it does not appear to have been Malcolm but William who took the initiative in this enterprise.

Edgar Aetheling, the representative of the royal family of England, was now resident at the court of Malcolm Canmore. How he came to be so we shall immediately see. William the Conqueror saw danger to his throne in the escape of Edgar to the Scottish court, and demanded that the royal fugitive should be given up. Sooner than surrender into the hands of his enemy the prince who had cast himself upon his protection, Malcolm would risk crown and kingdom and all. His refusal incensed the haughty ruler of England, and his anger was still more inflamed by seeing Malcolm open the gates of his kingdom to the crowd of Saxon nobles who, chased from England by the terror of William, had flocked to Scotland. Flushed with success, the Conqueror would deal with the little country as he had dealt with the greater: he would add it to his English possessions, and of the two countries make one England. His victorious arms had already accomplished a greater achievement.

William sent his army, but did not come in person. According to the English chroniclers, the main authority for these warlike events, he gave the command of his forces to an Earl Roger. William’s lieutenant never returned to tell him how he had sped. Approaching the Scotch border his army was routed and dispersed, and himself slain by his own soldiers in expiation of his want of skill or his want of success. William sent a greater army, giving the command of it to the Earl of Glo’ster. Glo’ster perpetrated an harrowing amount of sack and pillage as he advanced northward, but won no victory. Before him was a champaign country, where the plough was at work, and villages smiled; behind him was a devastated land, strewed with corpses, and darkened with the smoke of burning habitations.

A third army, more numerous than the first two, William is said to have sent against Scotland. The command was given to his brother Odo, formerly Bishop of Beyaux, now created Earl of Kent. Odo had no better success than his predecessors. Having gleaned what remained of the spoil of these provinces, Odo was returning southward laden with booty, when Malcolm fell upon, dispersed his army with great slaughter, and returned to Scotland with troops of miserable captives in his train. Even yet William was incapable of perceiving that he had undertaken a task beyond his power.

Instead of dying out, the war acquired a new life. The powerful monarch with whom the Scottish king maintained this combat now felt the necessity of bringing all his resources into it, and the flames burst out in greater vehemence and on a wider area. The Saxon chronicle tells us that in the year 1072 King William came in person into Scotland, sending his fleet into the Tay, and marching his land troops round by Stirling to Abernethy, and there he came to terms with Malcolm, the King of Scotia.

There is a consent of English historians as regards this march into Scotland of William the Conqueror. It receives some appearance of probability from the fact that in 1072 he had made a conquest of the Isle of Ely, and this might afford him leisure to raise an army and strike at the root of all his dangers by subduing Scotland. The English say he entered Scotland by Galloway, the provinces of Durham and Northumberland being so depopulated and ravaged that they could not subsist his army on its march through them. Ailred,1 Abbot Rivaux, says that he traversed Lothian and Stirlingshire, crossing the Forth by the Carse, the great gateway of entrance into the northern division of the kingdom of Scotland. Florence of Worcester tells us that he penetrated to Abernethy, his fleet being in the Tay. Neither king could feel at ease in view of fighting. If William should be defeated he could not hope to carry back his army into England. If Malcolm were beaten, the loss of battle might be to him the loss of his kingdom. This gives probability to the statement of the English chroniclers, in which the Scotch agree with them in the main, that a peace was patched up betwixt the two princes, that Malcolm "became Williams’s man," that is, for the possessions he held in England, and that he gave Duncan, his eldest son by his first wife, Ingibiorg, as a hostage. The youth was then about ten years of age. After this transaction William, we are told, back his army into England.

We should but wary and indeed disgust our readers by dwelling farther on these raids, the accounts of which are so various, so confused, and so conflicting. Only one thing about them is certain, even the immense destruction of human life which they occasioned. The area of their devastation enlarged and contracted by turns. Now the strife would confine itself to one unhappy district; then it would expand and cover the whole of what is now Yorkshire, enveloping in flames the cities of Durham and York. Anon it would take a westward direction, leaving its red prints on Cumberland, and turning the waters of the Solway into blood. Again it would return eastward, and now it was the Humber which was darkened by the smoke of burning towns and villages. Old Simeon of Durham has painted the doleful spectacles with which the men of these parts were at that time familiar. The harvests, he tells us, were swept off, the trees were cut down, towns were given to the flames, and their inhabitants to the sword, and, saddest of all, bands of young men and young women were led away to become bondsmen and bondswomen to their Scotch captors. The outcome of this terrible strife was that the boundaries of the two kingdoms were fixed much as they had been before it began. The dividing line was drawn through Stanmore Moor, where a cross was set up, displaying on its sculptured face the arms of the two kings, and saying to each, "Hitherto your sceptre may be stretched, but not beyond."

William the Conqueror had now leisure to reflect how easily he had won England, and how completely baffled he had been in his attempts to make himself master of Scotland. Was there not more in this than mere valour could explain? When he thought of the brilliant success which had attended his arms in the one case, and the humiliating repulses they had suffered in the other, did it not occur to him that the Power to whom belongs the issues of battle does not always fight on the side of the "biggest battalion," and that arms are not the supreme Arbiter of the fate of kingdoms and monarchs? Whether William knew it or not, it is a truth most sure. We at this day can very clearly see what a misfortune it would have been to both kingdoms had William succeeded in subjecting the northern country to his sway. We should indeed have had a larger England, but we should have had no Scotland. It may be said that a Scotland we should still have had, not as a distinct nationality, but as part and parcel of the greater country to be formed of the two. That is true: we should have had the mountains, and straths, and rivers of Scotland. The soil would not have been annihilated by its absorption into England; but the spirit of the Scots would. It is its spirit and not its acres that forms Scotland. Scotland could benefit England not otherwise than by preserving its Celtic fire, its Teuton doggedness, and its Norse bravery, and taking care that its keen love of independence and its philosophic mood of reflection should not die out. England needed such a neighbour to steady it, and be a balance to it in religion and politics. All these national characteristics would have been crushed out of Scotland by its subjection to the iron sway of William the Conqueror, and the loss would have been not less great to England than to the northern country itself.

The blame of these furious and bloody wars may, we think, be fairly meted out in equal portions betwixt the English and the Scottish sovereign. These incursions had their initiative doubtless in ambition, but the originating motive was soon lost in the desire for retaliation and revenge which grew stronger with each new raid. The palm of victory can be claimed by neither. William rushed on the Scottish frontier to be broken by the shock, and Malcolm swept like a whirlwind into Northumbria to achieve only fruitless expeditions. We may say of both kings, they sowed toil and blood, and reaped a harvest of ashes. The praise of bravery—if bravery in such a contest can be called a virtue—must be awarded to the northern sovereign. It was a bold thing in the king of a little country like Malcolm to stand up against a powerful conqueror like William of Normandy. The resources of the two men were very unequal. Having buried one host in the graveyard, which the Border counties had become, Malcolm could with difficulty raise another from the scattered villages and thinly populated glens and mountains of Scotland. William was more advantageously situated. With the rich and populous England at his back, with the plains of Normandy, the breeding-ground of armies, also to draw from, the English monarch could throw any number of men on the Scottish spear, knowing that if they were slaughtered, as so many hosts had been before them, he could quickly supply their place from the well-stocked recruiting fields—English and French—to which he had access.


FOOTNOTES

1. Ailred puts the following words into the mouth of Walter l’Espec, "Angliae victor Willelmus per Laodoniam, Calatriam, Scotiam usque ad Abenith penetraret."