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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 25 - Death of David; His Character


The latter days of King David were darkened by a great sorrow. His life till now had been singularly unclouded by misfortune. In most things he had a fair measure of success. His foreign policy displayed ability and tact: his internal administration was wise and upright, bating the tremendous error of his church policy—a considerable deduction however. His qualities as a hero procured him respect in the eyes of all the sovereigns of his time, and his devotion to his duties as a ruler, and his love of country, joined to a noble simplicity of a character, and an unaffected frankness and accessibility, made him the idol of his people. Not in his own days only but even in ours, he remains a conspicuous figure in the long line of our royal personages. As the result of this combination of qualities, not the monarch only, but the country of Scotland stood out in bulkier proportions and bolder relief before the rest of Christendom than it had done for some centuries previous. To crown his satisfaction, David had the prospect, when his days should be fulfilled, of transmitting the sceptre of a kingdom, which, now placed on a settled basis, gave promise of flourishing, to his only son Henry, Prince of Northumberland.

Prince Henry had already given proof of his capacity to govern, and his virtues had endeared him to his father, and not less to the nation, who rejoiced to think that when King David should go hence his throne would be filled by a prince so worthy to succeed him. But this bright prospect was suddenly overcast by an unexpected stroke that befell the royal house. Prince Henry, the heir of all this power, sickened and died (1142), and the bitter task of the father was to lay in the grave, in the prime of life, that son who had ever stood before his imagination as wearing his crown and swaying his sceptre when he himself should be resting in the tomb.

With Prince Henry the joy of David’s heart and the happiness of his life departed. Age had already dimmed his eye when this shadow fell to deepen the gloom and sadness which years after bring with them. From this moment the landscape was less fair to one who had always found in the aspects of nature one main source of enjoyment, and who had often turned from the cares of his kingdom to find relaxation in the cultivation of his flowers and the engrafting of his fruit trees. His life, too, came within the shadow of this eclipse, as well what of it was past as the much briefer space that lay before him. Where the father had sowed in toil and anxiety, the son, coming after him, was to reap in peace, so David confidently expected. But the prince who should have been the inheritor of the fruits of all these labours had gone to the grave, and his removal had written "vanity and vexation" upon all the endeavours and achievements of David. The blow was all the heavier to both king and people from the circumstance that the three sons of the deceased prince were of tender age, and it was impossible not to forecast that much of what the wise and patriotic monarch had won for Scotland would be put in peril, and it might be wholly lost, by the weakness and the inexperience, or by the blunders or the crimes of a young reign. Such

were the heavy clouds that obscured the evening of a day which during its currency had enjoyed a larger amount of sunshine than was the average experience of the monarchs of that time.

David, feeling that his end was not now distant, began to prepare for his departure by setting his kingdom in order. It was now that he was able to estimate the full extent of the loss he had sustained in the death of his son Henry. Summoning his three grandchildren into his presence, he declared the eldest, Malcolm the undoubted heir of the throne. To William, the second, he assigned the principality of Northumberland, and to David, the youngest, he bequeathed the Earldom of Huntingdon, his family inheritance. He charged the nobility to give effect to the royal will touching the succession, and in particular, he recommended Malcolm to the care of Macduff, Earl of Fife, the man of greatest influence among the Scottish nobles. Taking with him the young prince, Macduff made the circuit of the kingdom, and showed Malcolm to the nation as their future sovereign.1 It was some consolation to the aged monarch, whose heart was still bleeding from his recent grief, to know who would sit upon his throne after him, and that he had prepared the way for his undisputed succession. These arrangements concluded, David was left free to engage in more solemn preparations for his departure from earth. He had often contended on the battle field, but now he was to engage in conflict with an enemy against whom a coat of mail and a sword of steel could afford him no defence. He must arm himself with quite different weapons. He multiplied his acts of devotion, and spent his days and nights in prayer. He was now residing in Carlisle. He had been partial to this city all life long; and now, in the evening of his day, he came thither, that here his eyes might close for the last time on all earthly scenes. The environments of this city, ore akin to the landscapes with which he had been familiar in his youth than the rugged if grander aspects of his more northern dominions; the meadows spread around its walls; the soft flowing Dee, that waters them, and the genial breezes from the western ocean must have had a soothing influence on both mind and body of one who to the burden of state, which he had long borne, had now superadded the burden of old age. When the priests saw that his last day was near they offered to have the sacrament brought to him in his chamber. The King would in nowise suffer it so to be; on the contrary, he made himself be carried to the church and received the sacrament at the altar. Expressing a wish to enter the Kingdom where all the inhabitants are kings, he clasped his hands as in prayer, and breathed his last. King David died on the 24th of May 1153, having reigned twenty-nine years, two months, and three days. The royal remains were carried to Dunfermline, and there interred with becoming pomp and splendour.

The character of David it is not easy to paint. To delineate the various qualities of which it was made up, to pronounce judgment upon them one by one, to be laudatory here, and critical or condemnatory there, were easy enough; but to balance nicely and accurately, and from numerous diverse qualities to educe a unity, and from conflicting and discordant passions and aims to extricate and establish the one predominating characteristic which differentiates the man from all others, and make the one accomplished result of his life stand out from lesser issues is not so easy. It is neither the dissecting power of analysis, nor the constructive art of synthesis that can enable us to do this; it is only the slow revealing light of Time that can aid us here. Had we stood by the grave of King David when his dust was being lowered into it, we would have found nothing but panegyric to pronounce over him. We would have spoken of him, as doubtless those who stood around his tomb spoke of him, as the patriotic King, the lover of his people, the accomplished knight and warrior, the upright and wise administrator, and, it may be, the reformer of religion. But the hour of death, or the day of burial, when virtues only are remembered and faults are forgotten, is not the time to weigh calmly and dispassionately the characters of men who have occupied public, and especially royal station; nor is it the time to forecast the issues to spring from their lives. A good character is like a good tree, it bringeth forth good fruit: but we must wait till the fruit has been ripened, and then we may pronounce upon its quality. If the fruit is acrid, or if it is poisonous we may be sure, however luxuriant the foliage and lovely the blossom, that there is somewhere in the tree a principle of evil. Buchanan, no worshipper of the kings, or flatterer of princes, has taxed the powers of his pen to the uttermost to paint in brilliant colours the character of David. "Although his whole live," says the historian, "was exemplary beyond anything which history records; yet for a few years before his death, he devoted himself so entirely to preparations for another and a better world, that he greatly increased the veneration which his earlier years had inspired. As he equalled the most excellent of the former kings in his warlike achievements, and excelled them in his cultivation of the parts of peace, at last, as if he had ceased to contend with others for pre-eminence in virtue he endeavoured to rival himself, and in this he so succeeded, that the utmost ingenuity of the most learned who should attempt to delineate the resemblance of a good king, would not be able to conceive one so excellent as David during his whole life evinced himself."2 This is just what we would have expected Buchanan to say, had he said it when David was but newly dead; but the wonder is that this eulogium was written when the king had been four hundred years in the grave, and when the true character of David’s policy had proclaimed itself in the ruin of the letters, of the arts, and of the religion of his native land! Had the historian come to love a system which dragged martyrs to the stake, and chased himself into exile when he penned this panegyric on the prince who of all who ever reigned in Scotland had distinguished himself by his zeal to have that system set up in the land. Or did the historian’s insight and sound judgment forsake him in this instance, and failing to distinguish a wise from a destructive policy, did he award praise where he ought to have pronounced censure, if not condemnation? We can excuse him only by saying that in viewing the character of David he adopted a wrong stand point. He looked at the virtues which diffused happiness within the narrow circle of his court, and during the brief span of his lifetime only, and abstracted his view from the evils of his policy which spread desolation over the wider area of his realm, and prolonged their pernicious action for the space of four centuries. Seen from the one point of view King David’s character reveals itself in brilliance, seen from the other it receded into blackness. The historian, however, is responsible for the stand-point he adopts; it is one of the main elements of justice and truth.

In politics, as in religion, we must walk by "faith" and not by "sight." Vices which are "seen" are by that very circumstance deprived of half of their evil. It is the vices that are not seen, or that present themselves in the guise of virtues that accomplish the greatest mischief. Nations have been destroyed, and the world’s happiness has been blighted, not so much by vicious characters as by false principles. All history is full of examples of this truth, some of them, on a colossal scale. Monsters like Nero and Caligula have not been the greatest scourges of mankind. The abhorrence awakened by their wickedness has set bounds to its destructive influence. Their crimes are reprobated rather than imitated. Not so the inventors or propagators of a false principle. It is they who have been the greatest desolators of the world. Such principle once enthroned in the world’s belief, before it can be overthrown must first demonstrate its own falsity; ages may be necessary to enable it to do this; meanwhile, it is dominating mankind, and working its slow but terrible ruin in silence.

As a man David must be judged by his personal accomplishments and qualities; as a king—and it is as a king that the Scots have to do with him—he must be tried by the air and scope of his policy. There can be no difficulty in applying that standard, and measuring thereby the obligations which posterity owes to his labours, and the reverence in which it ought to hold his memory. If his policy was enlightened and beneficent we shall have only to look around and witness the monument of it in a great and prosperous country; but if evil we shall in like manner read the tokens of it in a land weighed down under a load of woes. What say the four centuries that come after David? They rise up in the judgment against him. This is a witness that cannot lie. We are confronted with an array of facts which it is dismal to recall or to recite; the children of the soil sold to strangers, the acres of the country parted among proud Normans and greedy priests, the churches of the Culdees in ruins; the reverent services of the sanctuary converted into pantomime, the flocks fed with ribald jests and silly tales; all the springs of the nation’s well-being dried up, and above the ruin which Scotland comes in a few centuries to present sits enthroned a great red Moloch which demands to be worshipped with sacrifices of blood.

It has been pleaded in David’s behalf that he was educated in England, that the native church of his country, the Columban, had grievously degenerated, and that he was sincere in the change he introduced in the religion of his kingdom. But all this goes a very little way to excuse him, as most assuredly it had not the slightest effect in mitigating the evils to which his policy gave birth. Sincerity to be of any value must be founded on rational conviction, and rational conviction, David had none. He came from England with the fore-gone conclusion that the Romish was the better religion, and must be set up in Scotland. David had evidence within his reach which would have enabled him to arrive at a sound conclusion on this point had he chosen to avail himself of it. He knew3 that this new form of worship was distasteful to the great body of the Scots; he knew that for centuries they had resisted its introduction and withstood conversion to it; he knew that former kings who had essayed on a small scale what he was not purposing to do on a large, had had to employ intrigue and violence; he knew that the scheme he contemplated would cross the most venerated traditions of the Scots, and desecrate their most cherished memories, and dry up the deepest springs of their power. As one who was to reign over a people who had once been enlightened and great, and had left their record as such in history of nations, he was bound to have weighed all these considerations. He could not forecast the future and foresee all the ruin that was to follow his policy; but the past was open to his scrutiny, he was bound to hear what it had to say, and had he listened to it would have warned him to shun the path on which he was now entering, as one that might lead to the fall of his house, and would most surely entail calamity upon the nation.

 

This, at least, David might have known, that, in his ecclesiastical polity, he reversed all the maxims of equity and honour which had guided him in his civil administration. He had fought for the ancient honour of Scotland against the mail-clad warriors of England, but he weakly betrayed it to the men in frocks and cowls from abroad. He had combatted for his English principalities and earldoms; not a footbreadth of territory would he surrender to Stephen, but he ruthlessly stript the Culdees of lands and heritages which they held by tenures more ancient and more sacred than his own, and therewith he enriched foreign priors and abbots. He adjudicated with scrupulous fairness betwixt man and man, but he did not hold scales of justice equally even betwixt the ancient Scottish church and the new intruder, the Roman. This was not the part either of a good knight or of a patriotic king. Nor must the fact be overlooked, for we see in it retribution, and we learn from it instruction, that the same man who drew upon Scotland this inundation of English clerics, drew upon it the inundation of English armies. It is to King David that the Scots owe their wars with the English. His ill-advised attempt to place his niece Maud on the throne of England, and to restore the Anglo-Saxon family to the government of that realm, awakened the resentment of Stephen, and provoked those aggressions upon the independence of Scotland, which, continuing under the two Edwards, resulted in two centuries of humiliation and calamities to the Scottish nation. It was a farther evil consequence of David’s policy that it broke the unity of the nation so that Scotland could no longer bring its whole heart into the struggle, as it has done in its conflict with the Dane. Every Norman monk whom David had planted in the kingdom, in his heart wished success to the English arms. It was the interest of these foreign ecclesiastics that there should be but one kingdom, and that it should be under the Norman sceptre, and so an effectual guarantee obtained that the old Culdeeism should never more lift up its head, or dispute possession of the country with the new churches which David had planted in the land. All this was well known to the English monarchs, and thence the persistency of their attempts to crush the independence of the northern kingdom. If the consciousness of this emboldened the English sovereigns, it in an equal degree dispirited the Scots. The treachery to country which crept in with the foreign friars spread like a poison through the nation, and did its work in paralyzing the heart of Scottish patriotism and enfeebling the arm of Scottish valour. In the great conflict that soon thereafter opened, noble after noble gave way, battle after battle was lost, and England was on the very point of triumphing, not over Scotland only, but over herself as well. The same blow that would have struck down Scotland would have struck off one of the main arms of England’s strength, and sorely crippled her in the conflicts that lay before her. A staunch ally would in the future have been missing from her side in many a battle by sea and by land; and what would have been more to be deplored, England, in her greater enterprise of subjugating the world by the arts of peace would have been without her most zealous and efficient fellow-labourer. It had almost come to be so. The policy of David had inflicted a deadly blight on Scottish patriotism, and it lay benumbed for two centuries. During the currency of these dreary years the throne was filled by weak sovereigns, and the English were busy plotting to put chains upon the limbs of the Scottish nation. The patriotic spirit that slumbered but was not dead awoke amid the carnage of the battle-fields of Wallace and Bruce. The greater struggle for liberty, political and spiritual, which Bannockburn inaugurated, was prolonged for two hundred years. To chronicle the triumphs and defeats which marked the course of the momentous struggle; to paint the shining virtues of the patriot, the heroic deeds of the warrior, and the sublime triumphs of the martyr which shed upon it so resplendent a lustre; to describe the combat lighted up this hour with the glory of magnanimity and self devotion, and darkened the next by the blackness of perfidy and cowardice; to exhibit the alternate hopes and fears which agitated the bosoms of the combatants, and above all portray the great principles which underlay the conflict, and which expanded the intellect and sustained the soul of those who were engaged in it, and impelled them to fight on till their great task was accomplished, and Scotland stood erect in a perfect liberty, prepared to take her place by the side of her sister of England as her meet yoke-fellow in the sublime mission of extending to the nations of the world, that liberty which they had vindicated for themselves, will be our business in the subsequent volumes of this history


FOOTNOTES

1. Buchanan, Hist. Scot., lib. vii., c. 36.

2. Buchanan, Hist. Scot., lib. vii. c. 36.