Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

A History of the Border Counties
Chapter IX


In 1438 commissioners of the two countries, meeting in London, concluded a new truce which was to last nine years. It contained one new clause of great significance to the Borders—to wit, an enactment which made it unlawful for the inhabitants of the one country to enter the lands, woods, or warrens of any inhabitant of the other, for purposes of fishing, hunting, or fowling. There was also a provision to prevent persons injured by the trespassing of sheep or cattle upon their com or grass from taking the law into their own hands; and a further one for fixing the bounds within which the garrison of Roxburgh Castle should have rights of mowing, grazing, and fuel. The traffic in wool between the two countries was subjected to stringent regulation.

The story of the growing arrogance of the house of Douglas, and of the successive tragedies by which its downfall was effected, though rising far above the region of merely local history, is yet too intimately connected with the Borders to be here passed over. Among the high-handed acts by which James I. had incurred the enmity of his nobles, perhaps there was none less defensible than his forfeiture of the Earl of March. It will be remembered that the elder George of Dunbar had been reinstated in his possessions by Albany, and it is difficult not to suspect the king of animus when, after the lapse of years, he took it upon him to declare that in so doing the regent had exceeded his powers. But what is here to the point is the fact that, in thus destroying the balance of power on the Borders, James acted with far less than his usual judgment; for the disappearance of March left Douglas without a rival.

To “Tineman” had succeeded his son Archibald, Earl of Wigtown, who thus became fifth Earl of Douglas. In the Parliament of 1438 Earl Archibald is mentioned as lieutenant-general of the kingdom, by virtue of which office he seems to have had the young king under his special care. In the intrigues and disputes to which the custody of the king’s person afterwards gave rise, the minority of James II. recalls that of Alexander III., but whilst Douglas lived we hear of no such rivalry. -He took a leading part in public affairs, his influence being beneficially exerted in the passing of parliamentary measures, as well as in the arrangement of the truce with England which has been already referred to. Unfortunately that influence was destined to be too soon withdrawn, for the earl succumbed to a fever in June 1439. Shortly before his death we hear of his sojourning at his castle of Newark in the Forest, having Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, in his company.

He was succeeded by his son William, a lad of not more than eighteen years.2 But, young as he was, the sixth earl seems to have been already fully conscious of the greatness of his position. He has been credited with a policy altogether beyond his years, and at the same time charged with harbouring the dreams of a wild ambition. More credible, however, is the theory which would trace the allegations against him to his insolent splendour and the extravagance of his retinue. At any rate, “records of the time impute no crime to the earl,” who was probably a victim or a scapegoat rather than a traitor or a criminal. For, blameless or not, it is easy to see that in certain quarters there might well be powerful reasons for desiring his decease. A succession of remarkably able men—distinguished specially for that military prowess which in those days won the warmest and speediest recognition—had raised the reputation of his family to the very highest pitch. And, meantime, increase in power and possessions had fully kept pace with reputation. In this respect, indeed, nobody had been more fortunate than the otherwise luckless fourth earl. Then it had not been forgotten in the country that in the Douglases was now vested the Comyn claim to the crown. These facts being taken in conjunction with the character and youth of the present head of the house, it would be by no means surprising if two such scheming statesmen as Crichton and Livingston, though opposed in other matters, should agree as to the desirability of clearing the ground by his removal.

Historical details regarding his fate are meagre. Inveigled to Edinburgh Castle by a friendly invitation from the king, he was subjected by Crichton to a sham trial in the royal presence, and being condemned, was led into the courtyard, and there beheaded, together with his brother David, who had accompanied him. On his way to Edinburgh he had been the guest of the Chancellor at Crichton Castle, and the degree of false security with which the latter had succeeded in inspiring him is shown by the fact that though his retinue would often number more than iooo, he had with him on this occasion but a single attendant, Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who shared his fate. Pitscottie describes the earl as receiving his first intimation that foul play was intended from the placing before him, at the conclusion of a banquet, of a black bull’s head set on a charger.

On the death of the sixth earl and his brother without issue in 1439, the earldom reverted to the second son of Earl Archibald the Grim—James, Earl of Avondale and Lord Balvany, from his corpulence known as “Gross James.” The estates were divided—those on the Border, including Liddesdale and Jed Forest, accompanying the title, whilst those in the north and west, being unentailed, passed to Margaret, only sister of the murdered nobleman, who was known as the “Fair Maid of Galloway.” It was thus to greatly curtailed possessions that the seventh earl succeeded, whilst it is probable that his age and habit of body were deemed sufficient security for his inoffensiveness. During the three years for which he held the title he seems to have made no effort to avenge the murder of his grand-nephews, contenting himself with arranging to reunite the Douglas estates by the marriage of his eldest son with the Fair Maid. Godscroft2 speaks of him as having held the office of warden of all the marches.

It was in the person of William, the eighth earl, that the power of the Douglases reached its height, and between him and King James II. that the duel between the Crown and the feudal baronage of Scotland may be said to have been fought out. The relations of the antagonists were at the outset of the friendliest. Almost immediately on his succession the earl seems to have attracted the attention of the king, after which his rise in the royal favour was extraordinarily rapid. He soon enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing Crichton — the mortal foe of his family — disgraced, whilst he was himself appointed to the lieutenant-generalship of the kingdom. His brothers Archibald, Hugh, and John, became respectively Earl of Moray, Earl of Ormond, and Lord of Balvany, whilst Sir James Hamilton and others of his adherents w’ere advanced to be lords of Parliament. His marriage with the Maid of Galloway, which, though retarded by difficulties as to kinship, was now an accomplished fact, had given him command of the undiminished Douglas estates, and he now’ enjoyed a position of greatness such as had never before been attained by any nobleman in Scotland. This position he held unchallenged for seven or eight years. At the end of that time there was a momentary misunderstanding with James; but in 1451, on submitting himself to the royal will, he was confirmed in the possession of all his offices, lands, and castles, with remainder to his four brothers and their heirs-male. As regards the Borders alone, these confirmatory grants comprised the wardenship of the Middle and West Marches, the Forests of Ettrick and Selkirk, Sprouston, Hawick, Bedrule, Smailholm, and Brondon in the county of Roxburgh, and Romanno, Kingsmeadow, and Glenwhim in that of Peebles, besides Lauderdale and Eskdale.2 Yet these were but a small part of the earl’s total possessions, and do not of course include those of his brothers. During these years he was constantly in the king’s company at Court or elsewhere, and his name appears as witness to nearly every royal charter. Meantime we hear of him incidentally on the Borders as freeing the monks of Melrose from his jurisdiction as lord of the Forest, and as holding his baron’s court in the great hall of Newark.

Notwithstanding his reconciliation with the king, it would appear that Douglas now thought it desirable to strengthen his position, with which object he entered upon an alliance, offensive and defensive, with the powerful Earl of Crawford, sometimes called the “Tiger Earl.” This was probably intended as a counterpoise to the influence of Turnbull, Bishop of Glasgow, and his coadjutor, Crichton the Chancellor—the latter of whom, having retrieved his old position, seems to have availed himself of an absence of Douglas in Rome to prejudice the king’s mind against him. Various cruel, overweening, and high-handed acts are now alleged against the earl. Among others he is accused of endeavouring to seduce the barons of the Border—where, in Godscroft’s words, “he commanded, and might command indeed” — from their allegiance to the king. The same writer asserts, however, that he suffered from having the acts of the Border thieves (of whom we now begin to hear) laid at his door, and tells us that his following on the Border was so large that his enemies dubbed him the Captain of the Thieves. At least it is satisfactory to find that the latest authority decides to reject the too well-known story—first told by the unreliable Pitscottie—of his hurrying on the execution of the Tutor of Bombie whilst he detained the king’s messenger at dinner, and then, in compliance with the royal mandate contained in a sealed missive, delivering up the body of his captive— headless. The question for us to decide is whether the retribution which now befell him is to be regarded as the act of justice or of jealousy, and the majority will probably decide in favour of the latter. In either case the manner of that retribution was indefensible.

To give James his due, there is no ground for suspecting that his bloody act was premeditated. With the amplest and most formal assurances of safety, he summoned Douglas to attend him at Stirling Castle. The invitation went under the Great Seal, and he would be a charitable rather than a sagacious judge who should acquit the proved traitor Crichton of treacherous intentions in it. On obeying the summons, the earl was courteously received and entertained. Supper over, the king broached the points at issue between himself and his subject, Douglas at first dutifully deferring to him. But when the bond with Crawford was brought up, things went less smoothly. The king charged Douglas on his loyalty to forego it, which Douglas declined to do — at least until he should have advertised his confederate. Words then waxed high, and the earl persisting in his refusal to break the alliance, the king suddenly started to his feet, exclaiming, “ False traitor, if thou wilt not, I will! ” and, drawing his dagger, twice stabbed his guest—unarmed, or at least unprepared, as he was—in the body and in the neck. Sir Patrick Gray—to whom is assigned the role of the hoodwinked messenger in the Bombie incident — then struck Douglas on the head with a pole-axe, whilst others present took part in the vile carnage until the body was pierced with six-and-twenty wounds. It was then cast out to nameless burial. Such a deed could not pass unquestioned, and in the June following (1452) a special Act of Parliament was passed to clear James of the charge of murder. Justification was alleged on the ground, first, of Douglas’s having forfeited the benefit of his safe - conduct; secondly, of his having conspired against the king; and, thirdly, of his having withstood the royal persuasions.

The fall of Earl William gave the deathblow to his house. He was succeeded by his brother James, who, being twin with Archibald, had some years before been formally adjudged the elder. James’s reputation as a knight was of the highest, as had been proved by the coming of the freux chevalier De Lalain from Burgundy to Scotland especially to meet him in the lists. They fought a Voutrance in the royal presence, and the account of their combat forms one of the most circumstantial of contemporary narratives of chivalry.' It is said that Earl Douglas was present at the fight with from 4000 to 5000 retainers. But whatever his prowess in the tournament, the last earl, as he proved to be, did not show himself equal to the difficulties of his present situation. His conduct, as it emerges from the conflict of rival historians, abounds in inconsistency. He is said to have been at Stirling with his brothers when the murder was committed, and to have exhorted them with much spirit to a prompt revenge; but, for reasons insufficiently explained, a month was allowed to elapse before effective action was taken. This delay, the salvation of the king, was fatal to the Douglas. At the month’s end, the brothers, with their adherent Lord Hamilton, assembled at the market-cross of Stirling, and, with a blast of five hundred horns and trumpets, proclaimed the king and all who had been plotters or authors of Earl William’s death “perjured traitors to God and man.” The king’s safe-conduct, having the broad seal affixed, was nailed to a board and dragged in contumely through the streets at the tail of a “spittle jade.” But the interval had given time for the popular odium excited by the king’s crime to subside. Perhaps from impatience, when they found this was the case, the earl and his followers burnt and pillaged the town—thus committing a second error of judgment, for their true policy was to draw the people towards them against the king.

Meantime James had not been inactive. On March 2— little more than a fortnight after the murder—we find him at Jedburgh, in the heart of the Douglas country, with what object can only be guessed. In May the power of Crawford, Douglas’s principal ally, was crushed by the Earl of Huntly, after an obstinate battle near Brechin. Douglas himself, who, as the other great Border earl had been before him, was now in treaty with England, renounced his allegiance to his sovereign in a contemptuous document which he caused to be affixed by night to the door of the Parliament House. The king responded by marching through the Douglas country of Peebles, Selkirk, and Dumfries, destroying and harrying as he went. Whether in consequence of this demonstration or not, in August Douglas submitted—formally expressing his forgiveness and that of his brothers for the murder of Earl William, and binding himself for the future to enter into no league against his sovereign. To make the reconciliation more complete, the king now exerted himself to obtain a dispensation for the marriage of the earl with his brother’s widow, thus seeming to interest himself in preserving the integrity of the estates. The earl was actually employed in public business, and it seemed that expediency had triumphed over both ambition and family feeling. In this manner two or three years passed, hut so long as a Douglas remained in power the king found himself unable to rest. Conscious of his own treachery, he may have suspected — perhaps not without reason — the genuineness of his great subject’s submission; or it is possible that he was but biding his time whilst, with the aid of his long-headed adviser Kennedy, Bishop of St Andrews, he won over the more powerful barons to himself. At any rate, ere long he resolved to strike another blow, in the hope of thus for ever ending difficulties which had at one time appeared so overwhelming as almost to lead him to resign his kingdom. Accordingly, in March 1455, having without warning seized and demolished Douglas’s castle of Inveravon, near Linlithgow, he passed at the head of an army, by Lanark, where an encounter took place, through Doug’as-dale, Avondale, and Ettrick Forest, wasting as he went. He then besieged the castle of Abercorn. Douglas summoned his vassals, and marched to its relief. Hamilton, who as usual was with him, and whose lands had suffered in the recent raid, urged him to give battle without delay; but a scruple of loyalty, as unaccountable as it was ill - timed, is said to have held the earl inactive. Perhaps he already foresaw the end. After vain remonstrance, Hamilton, not stanch enough to share his leader’s ruin, consulted his own safety by passing to the enemy. His defection was at once followed by that of the rest of Douglas’s adherents. No course now remained open to the earl but to leave Abercorn to its fate ; and w’hen he fled for refuge to England it was with four or five, not 4000 or 5000, in his train.

The last act of the tragedy still remained to play. The earl’s three brothers sought to rally their adherents on the Border, but met with many disappointments. Nevertheless, on May 1, 1455, they attacked a royal army, composed of Scotts and members of other Border clans, and commanded, it is said, by Douglas, Earl of Angus. A battle was fought at Arkinholm, on the Ewes Water, where the town of Langholm now stands. The Douglases were completely defeated. Moray was slain in the battle, his head being cut off and sent to the king; Ormond, who was made prisoner, was tried and executed; whilst Balvany escaped into England, only to meet his doom eight years later, when he was captured whilst endeavouring to promote a rising in the Douglas interest on the Border. A month or two after the battle the castle of Thrieve, the last stronghold of the Douglases, capitulated.

On June the 10th and nth, in a Parliament held at Edinburgh, Acts of forfeiture were passed against the earl, Balvany, and the countess - dowager. In August the earl and his brother were outlawed, all persons being forbidden to “ressett, house, or herbry, support or supply them in any manner.” The jurisdiction of the warden of the marches over cases of treason was at the same time abolished, and heritable wardenships were declared illegal. Thus at last was recognised the extreme danger to a State of the too-powerful Border chieftain, whose local position enables him, if so minded, to hold out a standing menace to his sovereign, whilst it endows his retainers with an aptitude and training in warfare unattainable by clans in more central and secure situations. The power of the Black Douglases was now entirely broken, and, indeed, this—the main—branch of the family wanted] little of becoming extinct; for both the earl and Balvany were childless, whilst Ormond’s only son was a priest, who eventually became Dean of Brechin. Moray also left an only son, but his history, says ‘The Douglas Book,’ “has not been traced.” The possessions of the Douglases passed to the Crown, sufficing to furnish forth many a Border family who rose upon their fall. Among these were the Scotts of Kirkurd, afterwards of Buccleuch. For his services against the Douglases at Arkinholm and elsewhere, the head of the family, Sir Walter Scott, received, in 1458, a charter of lands in the barony of Crawfordjohn. Again, in 1463, with his son David, he was granted the remaining half of the barony of Branxholm, to be held blench for the payment of a red rose on the Nativity of St John. The latter charter further confirms to the family the lands of Lempitlaw, Elrig, Ranldeburn, Kirkurd, Eck-ford, Whitchester, and part of Langtoun, all on account of the same services.

During the next eight-and-twenty years, which he spent in England, the fugitive earl had ample time to deplore the results of his own indecision of character. At length, weary of exile, he joined the malcontent Albany, brother of King James III., in a desperate endeavour to rouse the Borders. Their hope was that the name of Douglas would stir recollections of past glories; but a generation had grown up which knew not Joseph, and the attempt was a signal failure. Riding towards Lochmaben, the intruders were attacked by a band of Borderers. Albany escaped, but Douglas, aged and unrecognised, allowed himself to be made prisoner. Alexander Kirkpatrick, a former dependent of his own, to whom he surrendered, is said to have wept when he beheld the changes wrought by time and circumstar.ce in his old master. He offered to flee with him to England, but Douglas declined his offer, merely stipulating that his own life should if possible be saved. This was conceded by the king, from whom Kirkpatrick also received the reward which had been promised for the capture of his master. An asylum was provided for the earl in the abbey of Lindores, to which he resigned himself with the observation that “he that may no better be, must be a monk.” There he lingered until his death in 1488. All this, however, is of course anticipatory.

Outside the engrossing history of the house of Douglas there are few events to tell of on the Borders during this reign. There was little warfare with England, the nine years’ truce of the commencement of the reign being by subsequent negotiations extended, first to 1454, then to 1457, and finally to 1461. But of course it would have been too much to expect that these truces should remain entirely inviolate. In 1448 dissensions among the marchmen led to an outbreak of hostilities, in which three of the brothers Douglas—William, James, and Hugh, but especially the last-named—distinguished themselves in reprisals made upon the English at Alnwick and Warkworth, and in the battle of Sark. Indeed it has been suggested that one of James’s motives for avoiding war with England was fear of the distinction likely to be gained therein by the Douglases.

During this and following years successive meetings were held for the regulation of international affairs, and it is to 1449 that the second code of Border laws belongs.2 What is chiefly noticeable, however, is the official recognition at this time that the wardens of the marches were not on all occasions to be depended on to do their duty; and, of course, where they were so inclined, great opportunities for the abuse of justice lay in their hands. Within a limited district they exercised almost sovereign power, and in a region where clan feeling ran so high, the temptation to show undue severity to an enemy, or undue favour to a friend, was sometimes too much for them. Provision was therefore made for checking their proceedings, and those of their lieutenants and deputies, by members of the Councils of the respective kingdoms. A defect in the system of balefires, revealed on the occasion of the recent English incursion, was rectified by an Act of Parliament, which ordained that the fords of Tweed should be regularly watched, and that the. approach of an enemy should be announced by the kindling of beacons on the nearest heights. A single fire was to give warning of suspected danger; two to announce the actual advance of the foe; whilst four—arranged in line, and all flaming together—indicated that great numbers were approaching. An alarm first raised at Hume would be communicated to Edgarhope Castle, thence to Soutra Edge, and so on to Edinburgh, Fife, and Stirling. On this, all fighting men to the west of Edinburgh were to draw to that city, and all to the east of it to Haddington. Burgesses whose towns had been passed by the advancing army on their march were to pursue it. Another statute provided for the stationing on the Middle Marches (those with which we are here specially concerned) of 200 men-at-arms and as many archers, to be maintained at the expense of the lords, barons, and freeholders of the country, who were to be assessed for the purpose. Owners of land near the Border were further required to make their dwellings as capable as might be of defence, to provide men qualified for military service, and to have their horses and arms in readiness for attendance on their chief, or warden, when required.

It will be remembered that Roxburgh and Berwick still remained in the hands of the English. England was now divided by the Wars of the Roses, and James II., though otherwise peaceably inclined, seems to have seen in her internal dissensions an irresistible opportunity of striking a blow for himself. Bishop Leslie tells the story otherwise, representing James as fighting in the Lancastrian interest, or at least in that interest combined with his own; but this version is disproved by Henry VI.’s mandate to the Earl of Salisbury, charging him to raise the northern and midland counties to resist the King of Scotland, who had entered England and laid siege to Roxburgh and Berwick. The siege of Roxburgh received an accession of interest from the arrival of the Lord of the Isles with a large following of Highlanders and Islanders, armed in the Highland fashion with “halbershownes” (or short coats of chain mail), bows, and axes, and vaunting their willingness, in amends for past misdeeds, to march a mile ahead of the king’s forces into England, and take the brunt of the first meeting with the enemy. The advent of these and other auxiliaries led to redoubled efforts on the part both of attackers and defenders. The fighting was of a transitional character, the newer and more deadly class of projectile not having yet supplanted the older one, as is shown by recent orders for supplying the garrison of Roxburgh with “100 bows and 200 sheaves of arrows,” as well as with “ cannons, artillery, and powder,”  We know that James II. was an amateur and expert in the use of the latter. In his wars with the Douglases he had personally directed the attack on Abercorn, where heavy ordnance was brought to bear on the castle, whilst it is generally believed that the great cannon known as Mons Meg was constructed, if not actually for his siege of Thrieve, at least during his reign. This was a kinglike taste, but its gratification was to cost him dear. He had posted a battery on the north side of Tweed, in what are now the pleasure-grounds of Floors Castle, and thither, on Sunday, August 3, 1460, he repaired to superintend the firing of a great gun which had been christened the Lion. As to the precise nature of the accident which followed, there is divergence of statement. One authority says circumstantially that the gun burst through the powder having found its way into some cleft or crack; another limits the accident to the flying off from the piece, as it was discharged, of a “wedge or slice” — which, on the whole, appears the more probable. In either case, the king, who was standing injudiciously near, received a blow which broke his thigh - bone, killing him on the spot. The Earl of Angus, who stood beside him, was also seriously injured, but no other person was struck. It is traditionally supposed that a thorn-tree at Floors marks the spot where the king fell. Though he had reigned three - and - twenty years, he was but in the thirtieth year of his age.

As soon as they had assured themselves of the king’s death, the bystanders covered the body, dreading lest the report of the accident, if rashly communicated, should create a panic in the camp; and, if Leslie is to be trusted, there seem to have been good grounds for these fears, for James possessed to the full the Stewart aptitude for popularity. When in due course the catastrophe was made public, the historian tells us that the people lamented his death “with no lesse sorowe and deulfull meane, nor is sene in ane private house for the decesse of the wel-beloved maister and awner thairof; for in tyme of weare amang his subjectis in the campe, he behaveth himselfe so gentlie towardis all menne, that they semed nocht to feare him as thaire King, bot to reverence and love him like a fader; he wald ryde up and downe amangis thame, and eate and drinke with thame, even as he had bene bot ane private man and fellowe.”

The royal remains were conveyed to Holyrood for interment But this was no time for unavailing grief. The widowed queen, Mary of Gueldres, herself set a noble example of fortitude and patriotism. Stifling her private sorrow, she appeared in the camp in person, and exhorting the chiefs not to relax their efforts against the castle, presented to them her eight-year-old son as the king who should fill his father’s place. Her heroic bearing roused her hearers to enthusiasm, and they continued the assault to such good purpose that the garrison were soon happy to capitulate. Roxburgh Castle had been in possession of the English since the battle of Neville’s Cross, more than a hundred years before, and was now generally felt to be a source of too much danger and uncertainty to be allowed to remain standing. It was therefore demolished by the captors, as Jedburgh had been before it. The child king was crowned in Kelso Abbey by the name of James III., with the unanimous consent of the three Estates, and great rejoicing of the assembled army and people.

The years now following were unusually uneventful in the Border counties. The Wars of the Roses still kept England’s hands full, whilst the seat of much of the war being near to the Border probably drew off a great part of the superfluous martial energy which might have bred disturbance at home. Many Borderers from both sides the marches fought on the Lancastrian side at Towton and Hedgeley Moor, but they did so in a private capacity; whilst the good guidance of Kennedy, Bishop of St Andrews, who now held the helm of affairs, kept the government of the country neutral, except in so far as mere sympathy was concerned. To which side that sympathy leaned none knew better than Edward IV., who, fully conscious of the kn portance which Scotland might yet develop as a factor in the struggle, did his best to undermine her by means of intrigues with the exiled Douglas and the Lord of the Isles. It cannot have escaped the reader that had Douglas been a patriot or even a loyalist at heart, he had had it in his power to render great services to his country by acting as a bulwark against invasion. But his degeneracy from the best of his forebears must be acknowledged; and the purely personal character of his ambition is illustrated by the readiness with which he now embraced a proposal that he should hold his estates under Edward, when the latter, having conquered Scotland, should have restored them to him. The scheme did not stop here, but went on to allot to him the whole of Scotland south of the Firth of Forth, whilst the Earl of Ross and of the Isles was to receive the remainder.

It was probably to Kennedy’s influence also that was due a truce which was concluded in 1463 for fifteen years, but soon afterwards extended to 1519. As regards the marches, the most important new provisions of this agreement are—first, one for further limiting and checking the powers of the wardens, by extending the right of appeal from their jurisdiction to that of a committee of members of council;8- and secondly, a provision enacting that every person to whom a safe-conduct is granted shall be guaranteed by declaration to be no traitor or rebel. The number of a party to whom a safe-conduct may be granted is also limited to three, from which one may infer that the liberality with which (as the pages of the Rotuli and Calendars show) these licences had hitherto been accorded had been abused. Meantime it would be by no means safe to assume that peace reigned undisturbed on the Borders. Though the two kingdoms were in amity, the Borderers had not forgotten their predatory habits, and what was no longer demanded by their country’s interest was now carried on in their own. This is proved by the charge made against King James’s insubordinate brother, Albany, that, whilst as warden of the marches it had been his duty to protect England from injury, he had actually taken part in Border raids, by which the subjects of the King of England had been slaughtered and plundered; and, indeed, it has even been suggested that the payment in advance of the dowry of the English princess Cecilia, who had been betrothed to James’s infant son, was in reality but a species of blackmail or bribe to the Government to restrain the Borderers and the country generally.

In time the difficulties on the Border strained the truce almost to breaking, whilst the elaborate ordinances of frequent march meetings dealt with the situation ineffectually. Indeed it is easy to see that these march meetings were themselves felt to be a source of danger, for it is now enacted that men should attend them unarmed, or with no weapon but a sword or knife, whilst a limit is fixed to the number of the attendants of the wardens, their lieutenants and deputies. Things, nevertheless, got worse instead of better, and— discord being fomented on the English side by the renegade Albany, and on the Scottish by the practices of Louis XI.— the two nations were soon upon the brink of war. For the time the Pope’s intervention stayed the outbreak, but special preparations for resisting attack continued to be made upon the Border—Hermitage Castle receiving a garrison of 100, under command of the Laird of Lamington, whilst the Laird of Edmonstoun commanded 60 in Cessford, 20 in Ormistoun, and 20 in Edgerstoun, and the Laird of Cranstoun 60 in Jedburgh, 20 in Cocklaw, and 20 in Dolphinston.

The story of the assembling of the levies of Scotland upon the Boroughmuir, of the march to Lauder, the meeting in the kirk which gave a nickname to Angus, and the shocking act of barbarity which immediately followed it, is well known; nor is it a part of the history of our counties. Suffice it to say, then, that the Scottish host was soon afterwards disbanded, whilst the English, after advancing as far as Edinburgh, retook Berwick on their return. Albany, who was for a time reconciled to his brother, soon resumed his intrigues with England, which, however—owing to the death of Edward IV.—issued merely in the abortive attempt with Douglas at Lochmaben, which has been already described. During part of this time the king had been detained in duress. As a man born out of due place, season, and condition, James III. deserves some sympathy. In the Florence of that day he would have shone, leaving a name in history as an enlightened patron of the arts. But as recluse and peace-lover—one who “ loved Solitariness and Desert, and never to hear of Wars, nor the Fame thereof, but . . . delighted more in Singing and Playing upon Instruments than he did in the defence of the Borders ”—he remained incompris amid the elements of turbulence in which his lot was cast—a lot additionally imbittered by the hostility of those nearest to him, his brother and his son. If he abused the privileges of monarchy to do as he listed, he had to swim hard against the stream for it, and towards dire retribution. In the final rebellion which ended in his mysterious assassination at Sauchieburn, the Borderers under Angus and Home took the lead against him. A counter-rising against his successor, under the Earl of Lennox, was suppressed in a night engagement near Talla Moss.

With the downfall of the elder or “Black” branch of the Douglases, the younger or “Red” branch, who had assisted in their ruin, and who were represented by the Earls of Angus, came to the front on the Borders. In 1485 the wily, sinuous, double-dealing Archibald “ Bell-the-Cat ” held the office of warden of the East and Middle Marches. In the first Parliament of the new reign he was appointed to exercise justice and preserve order in the shires of Roxburgh, Selkirk, and Peebles. Henry VII. of England was at this time anxious to strengthen his own insecure position by any means which might offer. Angus was just the man for his purpose, and in 1491 we find the two in treaty. The document on which rests the evidence of the earl’s baseness, though still preserved, is much defaced, but what remains legible suffices to reveal the part assigned to him in the agreement. This was to do his utmost to prevent war between the two countries, but, supposing that his efforts failed, to take the side of England, and to surrender Hermitage Castle—in exchange for which he should receive an equivalent. It may be mentioned that as security to this bond, with the earl’s son, we find the name of Robert Elwold (Elliot), son of Robert Elwold, younger, of Hermitage. The young king, James IV., seems to have got wind of this treaty; but Angus—who is known to have taken part in the royal amusements of dice and other games — had obtained an ascendancy over him. Accordingly, after a brief rupture, we find the earl reinstated in the royal favour. The precaution— very necessary under the circumstances — was, however, taken of depriving him of the lordship of Liddesdale with Hermitage, which were bestowed on Patrick Hepburn, the recently created and therefore presumably reliable Earl of Bothwell. Angus was indemnified by a grant of Both well in Lanarkshire, formerly a possession of the Black Douglases. But as the family never regained Liddesdale and Hermitage, notwithstanding that they retained Eskdale and Ewesdale, their power on the Borders was henceforth much diminished.

The current truce—that of i486—having expired (for of course the older one had been set aside), in 1491 a new one was arranged. In general outline it followed the model of its predecessors, containing, however, a special clause intended to restrain offences of a type which was probably very common on the Borders—i.e., those of persons who, having suffered from spoliation, presumed to take the law into their own hands and spoil the spoiler. For some years before this letters of denization have been of growing frequency in the Calendar —whence the present treaty contains a provision aiming to make it impossible for the holders of these letters to use them to shield themselves from the just punishment of crimes. Of course there is nothing very new about these enactments; still they serve to illustrate the special class of difficulties which on the marches continued to beset the relations between the two countries. The truce was to be proclaimed in the principal places of the Border, and among the subscribers are the names of Angus and Bothwell. At the last moment James, acting under French influence, boggled over the ratification, and certain non - essential modifications had to be introduced. It is about this time that the name of Walter Ker of Cessford begins to appear, among those of the ambassadors of the King of Scots,” as that of a trusted intermediary.

We have seen that, with the change of circumstances, England was now, and had been for some time past, the party desiring peace, whilst Scotland could afford to display indifference on the subject. The meteoric apparition of the impostor Warbeck, and the powerful support which he received abroad, made Henry more than ever desirous to maintain the truce. Ridpath  does not hesitate to say that, to all intents and purpose's, he paid for its continuance by his acknowledgment that the balance in the claims and counter-claim^, between the two kingdoms lay on the Scots’ side of the account — which balance was forthwith paid. A truce for seven years was now concluded, but Henry’s anxieties continued unallayed. The qualifications of the hapless and euphuistic lover of the “White Rose of Scotland ” were of a kind to appeal to James IV., who, as we shall yet see, could carry the notions of knightly honour to the point of craze. He espoused Perkin’s cause, and in 1496 we find the Earl of Surrey—Vice-Warden of the Mid Marches under the infant Arthur, Prince of Wales—commissioned, with the Bishop of Durham, to array the men of Redesdale and the marches to resist the Scots, who are “ threatening to attack the North of England immediately in force.” “Bekyns” to warn the marches are to be maintained, and wheelwrights, smiths, and other craftsmen retained to make carriages and waggons for the king’s ordnance for Scotland. The Scots expedition entered England by the Berwickshire route. But fortune did not smile upon it. Had James been as clear-sighted as he was chivalrous, he must have foreseen that the support of their hereditary enemies was not the best means to win the people of Northumberland to the cause of the pretender. The expedition degenerated into a raid, and though renewed, led to no tangible result. Perhaps familiarity, and the vulgarity inseparable from imposture in whatever form, destroyed the glamour which had at first clothed Perkin in the eyes of the king. Diplomacy was also at work against him, and thus in February 1498  a new truce with England was concluded, and, so far as the Border was concerned, the cause of the pretended Duke of York had flickered to extinction. Two of Henry’s precautions against Borderers at this period deserve passing notice. One of them provides against “ privy meetings ” between Scots and Englishmen on the Borders; the other is an act of banishment from the English Border counties of Scots who, being suspected, shall fail to render satisfactory account of themselves. In the new treaty the provisions relating to the Border were, on the whole, of a more stringent character than heretofore, and doubtless did their part in that system of government which • was gradually bringing Scotland into better order than she had known for many years. The above negotiations bring us for a moment into touch with Spain’s brief period of glory, by showing us D’Ayala, the ambassador of Ferdinand and Isabella, empowered to act as mediator between the two kingdoms.

Ferdinand had also a hand in another transaction which was destined to prove of profound significance to the Borders, and eventually, indeed, to lead to their annihilation as a military frontier. This was, of course, the royal match which united James IV. to Margaret, daughter of the far-seeing and peace-desiring Henry VII., and which among its ultimate results included the setting upon the English throne, one hundred and one years .later, of the Scottish king James VI. The girl princess was conducted to Lamberton kirk on the Border, and the marriage took place with much rejoicing at Holyrood on the 8th August 1502. The occasion was celebrated, not by a mere hand-to-mouth truce, of the pattern to which we have been accustomed ever since the Treaty of Northampton, but by the conclusion of a substantial treaty of Perpetual Peace between the two countries.

It was during this reign, says Hill Burton, that “there was the beginning of troubles on the Borders, bearing in some of their features a resemblance to those with which the Highland district had so long afflicted the central government.” These consisted of predatory incursions directed not ostensibly against a hostile, or even a foreign, Power, but towards any quarter whence desirable commodities might be obtained, and this is the first reference in our history to what many persons would no doubt pronounce the distinctive feature of old Border life —i.e., to moss-trooping. We must, however, defer our more extended notice of the practice until it reaches a head in the next reign. In the meantime it may suffice to say that disorders of this character seem in this year to have been the means of bringing the king to the Border counties. He was at Jedburgh on the 5th and nth November, and on the 15th Edmund Armstrong of Liddesdale appeared with his brothers, in answer to the royal command, to meet the charge of burning Bothuichelis (Borthwickshiels), and of the “hereschip” of 300 sheep, 60 oxen and cows, 20 horses and mares, and goods to the value of 100 merks. There were also further indictments of the same character against these Armstrongs and others of the race. At the same time an amnesty was granted for all offences of the kind committed three years before date. Besides the Armstrongs, the family of the Crosars were at this period engaged in harrying the lands of their own countrymen, and there is mention too of a raid “ beyond Tweeddale and Lauderdale,” in which certain Elliots—brothers, nicknamed “ Hob the King ” and “ Dand the Man ”—carried off nine score of sheep. The record of the assize held at Selkirk during the same month also contains charges of a similar description against Walter Scot younger of Edschaw, but the class of offence does not seem to have spread yet to Peeblesshire.

What with disorders such as these, and improvements which he was introducing in the country at large, James had plenty to keep his hands full at home, and ought therefore to have rejoiced in the prospect of lasting peace with England. But he appears to have been dead to his own interest in this respect. As long as Henry VII. lived, that monarch set an example—as admirable as it was rare—of moderation and self-restraint in the treatment of such difficulties as might arise upon the Borders. But with his death, in 1509, the peaceful aspect of affairs began at once to change. A variety of causes now combined to strain relations between the two countries. Among these no doubt the chief was the interest and influence of Scotland’s old ally, France, who being herself embroiled in war with Henry VIII., naturally brought powers of every description to bear on the somewhat simple-minded James to draw him with her into the struggle. The retention of the Queen of Scotland’s jewels by her brother, and the very free construction put by Sir Andrew Barton on his letter of all the way to the riuer of Roul trauellouris be traytouris war trublet, reft, and slane; be nycbt, that tha knew nocht his mynd, he inuades thame with a gret band of men of weir, takes mony of the traytouris, to Jed-burghe bringis thame be force, quhair sum he declares innocent, vtheris worthie of Jugement, quha war chiefe and specialis. Thir war compelit to cum afor the King with thair naket swordes and t-owis about thair neckis, putting thame selfes in the Kings wil; to saue thair lyues, or punis thame at his plesure ; quhome the King commandet to put in strait presone in sindrie places, quhil the sentence war geiuen out against thame. Heirefter was na pairt in Scotland sa quyet as the bnrdours, quhilk afoir was wraket throuch spoylie, reife, and slaucliter.”—Historie, book viii., Dal.-ymple’s translation. The quietness, as we shall soon see, was not of long duration. Jeffrey says that most of the prisoners were Turnbulls (Roxburghshire, vol. ii. p. 164).marque against the Portuguese, tended further to inflame matters. Yet another ground of offence—and that the one with which we are here most concerned—arose out of a blood-feud.

The facts were these. Sir Robert Ker of Femihirst, the head of a second branch of the Ker family, had held the office of warden of the Middle Marches during the reign of Henry VII. Having by strictness in the performance of his duties rendered himself hateful to the more lawless among the Borderers, he was attacked and murdered, while attending a march meeting, by three Englishmen named Lilburn, Starhead, and Heron, called the Bastard. The king, in whose esteem Ker had held a high place, appealed to England for redress. Acting in accordance with his usual policy, Henry showed zeal in complying with this just demand. Starhead and the Bastard had already made good their flight, but Heron of Ford, the legitimate brother of the latter, was seized in his place and delivered with Lilburn to the Scots. Lilburn died in prison, and Heron continued to languish there; but, after the accession of Henry VIII., the fugitives—trusting that bygones were now forgotten— began to show themselves in public once more as if nothing serious had happened. This was too much for Andrew, known as “Dand,” Ker, son of the murdered man, who determined to have revenge. Two of his retainers, named Tait, were therefore despatched across the Border, and having journeyed ninety miles to the house of Starhead, broke into it, slew the owner, and cutting off his head, carried it back in triumph to their employer, by whom it was exposed to the public gaze in Edinburgh. This violent act is represented as a source of grievance to Henry VIII., whilst the continued immunity from punishment enjoyed by the Bastard Heron was equally offensive to James.

At last the tension became unbearable. Portents of the most startling nature were disregarded, and in August 1513 the Scottish army, having assembled on the Boroughmuir to the number of 100,coo fighting men, proceeded to cross the Border. From this time forward there is an air of infatuation about King James’s acts which might have justified his contemporaries in suspecting him to be “fey.” The campaign had opened with a reverse sustained by Lord Home, who, on his return from an incursion into England, had been attacked and routed by an ambush concealed in the tall broom of Mil-field plain. But after this, fortune for a while favoured the Scots, to whom the castles of Norham, Wark, and Etal fell an easy prey. At Ford the too-gallant James came under the fascinations of the scheming chatelaine—-Lady Heron, wife of his prisoner—and a few precious days were wasted in dalliance. Provisions for the army were already beginning to fail, and in the real or pretended search for them many of the Scottish soldiers, whose hearts were not really in the campaign, returned to their homes.

Meantime Surrey, the English commander, having raised an army of some 26,000 men in the northern counties, was advancing under the sacred banner of St Cuthbert to meet the Scots. Acting upon his knowledge of the king’s character, he sent forward Rouge Croix herald to provoke him to a contest, receiving a reply to the effect that James desired it as ardently as himself. The Scots had meantime secured themselves upon the top of Flodden Hill, a roomy tableland formed by the last of the subsiding swells of Cheviot, and it now became Surrey’s object to lure them from this strong position. Again he sought to play upon the king’s weakness, by sending another herald to expostu late against his occupation of ground which was “more like a fortress ” than the impartial plain on which fair battle might be waged. But even the king’s folly stopped short of yielding to such representation. Meantime, every day was of importance to Surrey, for the country around had been wasted, whilst incessant rains served to depress the spirits of the soldiers. In these circumstances, he resolved upon a manoeuvre which, though justified by success, must have seemed risky to the point of foolhardiness. Between him and the enemy wound the Till, a narrow but deep river, enclosed by precipitous banks. This stream was now crossed by the main body of the English army at Twizell bridge, and by the rear-guard at a ford somewhat higher up. And now—while the enemy were divided in the execution of this awkward evolution—now or never was clearly King James’s opportunity for attack. But, in the face of all inducements, he insisted on remaining inactive, fascinated as would seem by his own destiny. It was in vain that the veteran Angus urged him on. He was met by an insult, which he made his excuse for withdrawing from the army, leaving behind him two sons and 200 of his name to perish in the ensuing battle. It was in vain that Borthwick, master of the artillery, flung himself upon his knees and implored to be permitted to bring his guns to bear upon the column. Other tried soldiers joined their entreaties to his, but James remained fixed in his obdurate petulancy. The disastrous results of his conduct were soon apparent. Having at length got his army across the river, Surrey advanced at the head of it to Branxton, which lies to the north-west of Flodden Hill — thus cutting off the Scottish army from their base, and intercepting their return.

Starvation now stared James in the face, and there was nothing for it but to leave his position of vantage and meet the enemy in the plain. Still his men were fresh, and there remained in his favour the chances of a weli-fought day.

Having fired the huts and other temporary buildings which they had been occupying, the Scottish army began to descend the incline. It was the afternoon of the 9th September, and the smoke, hanging low in the heavy atmosphere, for a time concealed their advance. Never probably had Scotland sent forth a more gallant band, under a leader of a higher courage, and yet the greatest of all Scottish military disasters lay ahead of it. For the lesson of Flodden Field is that personal courage, cultivated to the total neglect of military discipline and of military tactics, may become in the presence of a hostile army a source of positive calamity; and a generation had grown up in Scotland who, though matchless in the tourney or the personal combat, had yet lacked the stern preceptorship of warfare.

It was four o’clock when the armies joined battle. The Scots were drawn up in five divisions. The first encounter was between the Scottish left, under Lords Home and Huntly, and the English right, under Edmund Howard, a son of Surrey, and the first advantage lay with the Scots. But the English reverse was quickly repaired by the support brought up by Lord Dacre, whilst the facile advantage gained by Home’s men seems of itself to have tended to demoralise them. The further progress of the battle has been too often and too brilliantly described to require or to excuse detailed recapitulation. Suffice it to say, then, that the incipient confusion was materially heightened by a movement of the Highlanders, who formed the right wing of the army. Galled by the English arrows, they precipitated themselves upon the enemy. But severe as was their impact, its effect was not sustained, whilst the wild and undisciplined movements which succeeded it proved terribly disconcerting to their own allies. The king commanded the centre of the Scottish army. Years before this, his friend Ayala, whilst doing full justice to his courage, had observed of him that he was not a good captain, “because he begins to fight before he gives his orders.” James was to-day to justify the reproach. His quest throughout the battle seems to have been a hand - to - hand conflict with Surrey—the wiser general, to whose greater experience the relative functions of head and hands in an army were familiar. But it was James’s example more than his conduct which was ruinous. Not to be outdone by their sovereign, the Scottish nobles left the posts to which their rank and authority should have held them, and pressed after him into the melle. The gallantry of individual disunited effort, however, availed nothing. James fell, pierced by an arrow and struck down by an axe, and ere night closed on the scene the Scottish army had received its coup-de-grace from the charge which Chester directed upon its rear. But it was not until the rising sun lit up the heaps of the slain, and the ghastly ring of corpses which surrounded the dead king, that the extent of their victory became manifest to the English themselves.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus