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The Bruce
Book 17

The Siege of Berwick

THE Scottish lords were glad when they knew the king was come again. They made great haste to meet him, and he received them right blithely, and made a feast and gladsome cheer. They were more wondrously rejoiced at his coming than tongue can tell, and they entertained him with great feasting and honour. Wherever he rode the whole country gathered in delight to see him, and great gladness was in the land. The whole country from the Reidswyre [The Reidswyre was the high pass at the source of the Reid where the road between Jedburgh and Newcastle crossed the border. More than one border skirmish took place there. One of these skirmishes, fought July 7th, 1576, is still remembered in a well known ballad, 'The Raid of the Reidswair.'] to the Orkney was now won to his hand. No part of Scotland was outside his rule except Berwick alone.

The captain of the town at that time was one who held all Scots in suspicion, and treated them most evilly. He had them ever in ill-will, and made diligence ever to keep them down. But at last one day a burgher, Sym of Spalding, bethought him it was a right vexatious matter to be constantly rebuffed in such fashion. Accordingly he determined in his heart secretly to make a covenant with the marshal, whose cousin he had married, and he did forthwith what he planned. He sent letters to the marshal with speed and secrecy by a trusty man, and set him a time to come at night privily to the Cowport with ladders and stout active men. He bade him keep faith truly, and promised to meet him at the wall, where his watch should fall that night.

When the marshal saw the letter he took thought for a short space, for he knew that by himself he bad not might or power enough to achieve so great an enterprise, and if he asked any to help him the other Scottish leaders would be made jealous. Therefore he went straight to the king, and showed him, between themselves, the letter and the business.

When the king heard the plot thus word by word described, it appeared to him to be without deceit, and he said to the marshal, "Certes, thou hast done wisely to disclose the matter first to me, for if thou hadst discovered it to my nephew, the Earl Thomas, thou hadst displeased the Lord Douglas, and the same the other way about. But I shall work in such fashion that thou shalt gain thy purpose, and have despite of none of them. Thou shalt keep truly to thy day, and with the men whom thou caust procure thou shalt make an ambush in Duns Park. Only, be secret. And I shall cause the Earl Thomas, and also the Lord of Douglas, each with a small body of men, to be there and do as thou shalt direct."

The marshal then at once took leave and went his way, and kept what was said private and secret till the appointed time. Then he took with him to his tryst the best men of Lothian, for he was sheriff of that district. All privily with his following he came in the evening to Duns Park. Soon afterwards the Earl Thomas came with a good company, having met with the Lord Douglas. They were a right fair host when they were met together there.

Then the marshal told the covenant line by line to the two lords, and they went their way forward. They left their horses far from the town, and, to make the tale short, they so wrought that, without any man seeing them, except only Sym of Spalding, who caused the enterprise to be undertaken, they set their ladders to the wall, and all came up. They kept in a secret nook till the night should be past, and arranged that most of their men should go in a body with their lords, and keep a fixed stance, while the rest should all scatter through the town, and take and slay the men they could come at.

But they soon broke their arrangement, for whenever day dawned two thirds and more of the men scattered through the town. So greedy were they for the spoil that they ran as if they were mad, and seized houses and slew men. The English, seeing their foes thus so suddenly come upon them, raised the cry throughout the town, and rushed together here and there, and ever as they came together would stand and make fight. Had they been warned I am well assured they should have sold their lives dear; for they were brave men, and were far more in number than those who attacked them. But they were so scattered that they could in no wise be got together.

There were two or three great melees, but the Scots bore themselves so well that their foes were ever driven back, and at last were so overwhelmed that they altogether fled. Some reached the castle, but not all, and some slid over the wall, and some were taken prisoner, and some were slain in the strife.

In this way matters went till it was near noonday. Then those that were in the castle, and the others who had fled to them there, being a right great company, saw the Scottish banner standing little defended, and protected by few, and they opened their gates suddenly, and made a bold sally on the Scots.

Then the valiant Earl Thomas and the good Lord of Douglas, with the few followers who were with them, met them stoutly with their various weapons. There, had one been at hand, he might have seen men demean themselves boldly and sturdily. The English fought fiercely, and laboured with all their might to drive the Scots back again, and I trow of a truth they would have done this, for the Scots were fewer far than they, if it had not been for a new-made knight, Sir William of Keith and of Gaiston (for he had different surnames). Sir William bore himself right well that day, and made most bold assault, and dealt mighty strokes about him. Where he saw the throng thickest he charged with all his strength, and fought with such force that he made way for his following. Those that were near him drove so boldly at their foes that at last the English altogether turned their backs and made for the castle.

They entered it at great cost, for they were pressed so hard there that they lost many of the rearmost. Nevertheless those that entered sparred their gates hastily, and ran quickly to the walls, for they were not then all secure.

In this wise, by dint of great valour and high enterprise, was the town taken. [The town of Berwick was taken on March 28, 1318, the castle five days later.] All the spoil there was quickly seized by the Scots. They found victuals in great abundance, and all pertaining to the provisioning of a town. This they saved from destruction. Then they sent word to the king, and he was blithe, and sped thither right swiftly. And as he rode through the country men gathered to him till he had a great and valiant following. The people of the Merse and Teviotdale, and the men of the Forest and the eastern part of Lothian, went to Berwick in strong force before the coming of the king, so that none dwelling beyond the Tweed durst well appear at that time.

When the men in the castle saw their enemies gather before them in such number, and saw no hope of rescue, they were greatly dismayed. Nevertheless they held the castle stubbornly for five days. Then on the sixth day they yielded it, and went to their own country.

Thus were castle and town brought into possession of the Scots. And soon afterwards the king came riding to Berwick with his host, and quartered fair and well, and all his great lords beside him, in the castle. The rest all in common quartered in the town.

The king then took counsel and decided not to break down the wall, but to provide castle and town well with men and with victual and all kinds of gear useful or necessary for their keeping in time of war.

Walter, Steward of Scotland, who was then young and handsome and the king's son-in-law, had such great desire and yearning to be near the border that he took Berwick into his keeping, and received from the king, town, castle, and donjon. Bruce sent men of great renown into England to drive a prey, and they brought out a great abundance of cattle. And he treated with certain countrymen for victual, and brought it quickly in great abundance to the place, so that both town and castle were well provisioned for a year or more. The good Steward of Scotland then sent for his friends and followers till he had with him, besides archers, burghers, and cross-bowmen, five hundred active and valiant followers who bore ancestral arms. He had also John Crab, a Fleming of great skill in the making of gear for the defence and attack of castle or town. None more skilful was to be found. He caused engines and cranes to be made, and procured Greek fire, with springalds and shot of different kinds pertaining to the defence of a castle. He made provision in right great quantity, but he had no cannon, for up to that time these had not been seen in use in Scotland.

And when the town was garrisoned in this fashion the noble king set forth and rode towards Lothian, leaving the stout Walter Steward and his host in Berwick, with diligent order to prepare gear for the defence of the place if it should be attacked.

When the king of England was told how Berwick had been taken by force, and furnished with men and victual and munition of war, he was vastly vexed. He called his council hastily, and determined to lead his host thither, and, with all the force he could gather, lay siege to the town, and entrench his army strongly, so that so long as they chose to lie there they should be altogether secure. And if the Scots should attack them, the English, doing battle at their trenches, should have great advantage. He felt the more assured, for it would be a great folly to make open attack on so strong a force in its entrenchments.

When his plan was thus shaped, he caused his whole host to be gathered from far and near. He had then a great multitude with him. The Earl Thomas of Lancaster, who, they say, was afterwards made a saint, was there, and all the other earls and mighty barons of England able to fight. All these he took with him to the siege, and he caused his ships to bring by sea shot and other gear, with great store of victual.

He came to Berwick with all this host victualled and arrayed, and to each of his great lords separately he appointed a field for their quarters. There presently were to be seen pavilions of sundry kinds set up in such number that they formed a town greater than Berwick and its castle. Then, on the other side, by sea, came so many ships, with victual, armour, and men, that all the harbour was filled.

And when those in the town saw their enemies come in such strength and number by land and sea, they, like able and right valiant men, made ready to defend the place. They were prepared either to die or drive back their foes; for their captain treated them very graciously, and most of those who bore arms with him were of his blood and his near kin, or else were his allies. They were of high courage and right noble bearing, being none of them dismayed. By day they kept in full array, and by night they set good watch.

For full six days they remained thus without any great struggle. During that time the English had so enclosed their host with trenches that they were strongly fortified. Then with all hands they busily got ready their gear to attack the town. And on the Eve of the Nativity of the Virgin, early in the morning, the English host armed, and boldly displayed its banners, and gathered to its standards, with engines of many kinds, such as scaffolds, ladders, and coverings, pikes, hoes, and staff-slings. To each lord and his battle was appointed a place where he should attack.

And when those within the town saw the English host thus range themselves in order, they hastened to their posts. These were right strongly provided with stones, shot, and everything needed for defence. There the Scots waited the attack of the enemy.

When the English were all ready the trumpets sharply sounded the advance, and each man with his gear, in his appointed place, went to the assault. To each battlement archers were assigned to shoot. All things being thus ready, they hastened towards the town, and quickly filled the ditches, and boldly advanced with their ladders to the walls.

But those above upon the wall made stout defence, and the ladders and men upon them they threw flat on the ground. Then in a little space were to be seen men boldly making assault, some doughtily setting up their ladders, and some on ladders pressing up, while those on the wall risked every danger till their enemies were thrown down. At great disadvantage they defended their town, for, if the truth must be said, the walls were then so low that a man on the ground could, with a spear, strike another on the wall in the face. The arrows also flew so thick that it was a wonder to see them.

Walter Stewart rode ever about with a company to see where help was most needed, and where the enemy pressed most he gave succour to his men. The great multitude outside had so surrounded the town that no part of it was free from them. Everywhere the assailants could be seen giving themselves boldly to the attack, and the defenders striving doughtily with all their might to thrust them back again.

Thus they bore themselves till noon was past. Then they in the ships with great endeavour prepared a vessel to come with all her gear right to the wall to make an attack. They drew their boat, full of armed men, up to the middle of the mast, and they had a bridge to let fall from the boat to the battlement. They rowed the ship with barges alongside, and pressed hard, and set all their intent to tow her past the bridge-house to the wall. They brought her till she came very near. Then men could be seen greatly busied, some attacking and some making defence in many ways and with great labour.

Those in the town bore themselves well, and the shipmen were so handled that they could by no means bring their vessel near enough the wall to let their fall-bridge reach it. But they remained fighting so long that the ebb left the ship aground. Then in a little space those on board were in more evil plight by far than before. When the tide ebbed, so that men could go to the ship dry foot, there sallied forth to her from the town a right great company, and presently they set her on fire. Within a short time they burnt her up, some of those within her being slain and some having fled and escaped. The Scots captured there an engineer known far and near as the most cunning of his craft; then they returned into the town.

It was a happy chance indeed that they got in so quickly; for when the English saw the ship on fire, there came a great company of them at the utmost speed up by the sea. But before they came the Scots had passed in and barred the gate, and made it fast.

The English host made diligent attack that day, and those within defended themselves ever in such fashion that their assailants with all their force could in no way effect their purpose. And when the time of evensong was near, the host outside, being weary, and some of them right cruelly wounded, looked at the defenders, and saw it was not to be easy to take the town while such defence was made by its captains. They beheld their ship burnt and many of those in it lost, and their people wounded and weary, and they caused the retreat to be blown.

After the shipmen were repulsed the other vessels made no more attack; for by means of this ship they had everyone thought that the town should easily be taken. Some say that more than one ship tried at that time to reach the town; but since no more than one was burnt, and it was in it the engineer was captured, I have here made mention of one ship alone.

When they had blown the retreat, the English, having endured great hardships, withdrew altogether from the wall, and abandoned the whole attack. And those within, being weary, and many of them sore wounded, were blithe and glad when they saw their enemies thus withdraw. And when they knew for certain that the English had gone to their tents they set good watches on the wall, and went all to their quarters, and took their ease for their weariness. Others who were sore wounded had the service of good leeches [medics], who helped them as they best could. On both sides they were weary. That night they did no more; and for five days thereafter they lay still, neither doing the other much hurt.

Now leave we these folk lying here at rest, and turn the course of our tale to the doughty King Robert.

When he knew for certain that the King of England had with a strong force laid siege to Berwick, where Walter Stewart lay with his men, he gathered a host from far and near and formed a plan. He determined not to attack the King of England in battle, especially at his trenches, for such an attack might easily prove folly. But he ordered two lords, the Earl of Moray and the Lord Douglas, to pass with fifteen thousand men into England, and burn and slay and make great harrying there. So that when those besieging the town heard of the destruction being made in England, they should be so fearful and so anxious for the lives of their wives and children, and for the loss of their goods, that they should hasten to leave the siege, and march quickly to rescue their gear, their friends, and their land.

To this intent Bruce sent forth these lords, and they set out hastily, and, passing into England, burned and slew, and laid waste the country. They wrought hurt pitiful for those that wished it any good to see, for they destroyed everything as they went. They passed to and fro destroying thus till they reached Ripon, and they wholly destroyed that town, and took their quarters at Boroughbridge and Mitton close by.

And when the men of that district saw their land so destroyed they came together with the greatest speed, archers, burghers, and yeomanry, priests, clerks, monks, and friars, farmers, and men of all crafts, till there were gathered together full twenty thousand of them. Right good armour and enough they had. The Archbishop of York they made their captain; and they took counsel and determined, since the Scots were far fewer than themselves, to attack them in open battle.

The Archbishop displayed his banner; other Bishops who were there did the same; and they set forth all in a body by the nearest way towards Mitton.

And when the Scots heard that the enemy were coming near, they made ready after their best fashion, and divided themselves into two battles. Douglas took the vanguard and the Earl Thomas the rear, for he was chieftain of the host; and thus ordered, in good array, they set out towards their foes.

When each caught sight of the other they pressed forward on both sides to fight. The English came on in good order, with brave and hardy bearing, in one straight front, with a banner, till they were so near that each side could easily see the other's faces. Three spear lengths I trow might be the space between them, when such panic seized the English host that, without more ado, they turned, showed their hacks, and fled.

When the Scots saw them thus all flee in dismay, they dashed upon them with great speed, and slew and took a vast number. The rest fled in the utmost fear to seek refuge as they best could. They were chased so closely that a full thousand perished. Of these, three hundred were priests: for this reason the skirmish was called the Chapter of Mitton. [The Chapter of Mitton was fought Sept. 20, 1319.] When this host was overthrown, and pursuit ended, the Scots marched throughout the land, slaying, destroying, and burning.

Meanwhile, the English who lay at the siege of Berwick, before the fifth day was past, had made sundry engines to go again to the attack. Among great devices they made a sow that had a strong covering without and many armed men within. They also made tools for mining, and they had sundry scaffolds higher than the wall, and arranged also that the town should be strongly attacked by sea.

And those within, seeing them prepare such mighty engines, by the cunning counsel of Crab set up a high crane running on wheels, which they could bring where most need was. They also took pitch and tar, with lint and hards and brimstone, and dry sticks that would burn easily, and mixed them together, and made of them great faggots girded with broad bands of iron. Of these faggots they might have a great tun full. They planned to use them in a blazing bundle by means of their crane, and if the sow came to the wall, to let them fall burning upon her, and with a strong chain keep her there till all were burnt who were within. They also prepared engines for throwing stones, and made ready diligently, and appointed each man to his place of guard. Sir Walter, the brave Steward, was to ride about with armed men, and watch where there was most to be feared, and give succour there with his company.

And when both sides had thus fully made ready for the attack, on the Rood Eve at dawn the English host blew the assault. Then, with its many engines, that great host came stoutly on. They quickly surrounded the town, and attacked with good will, and set all their strength to it, and pressed the garrison hard.

But the Scots, exposing themselves to wounds and death, defended themselves right well. They cast the ladders to the ground, and drove at their foes with catapult stones so diligently that they laid many low, some swooning, some hurt, and some slain. The English foot soldiers, however, drew the wounded nimbly away, and retreated no whit on that account, but kept stoutly at the assault. At the same time the defenders above assailed them so hard and constantly, and wounded so many, and made such great defence, that they kept back the onset of their foes.

In such fashion they fought till near noon. Then the besiegers in great array pushed their sow towards the wall. At that, those within brought up the engineer who had been captured, and laid great threats upon him, and swore he should die unless he used his craft upon the sow, and broke her to pieces. And he, seeing clearly that his end was near unless he could accomplish their desire, determined to do all he could. In great haste the catapult was got ready, and aimed at the sow. He drew the trigger, and smartly hurled out the stone. It went straight over the sow, and fell a little way behind her.

Then those within her shouted aloud, "Forward to the wall! without doubt all is ours!"

Then the engineer nimbly bent the catapult again, and the stone was smartly hurled out. It flew forth with a whizz and a roar, and fell right in front of the sow. The hearts of the assailants then began to quake, but still, with all their strength, they pushed the sow towards the wall, and brought her close up to it.

The engineer then quickly bent his catapult once more, and hurled forth the stone. It went straight towards the sky, and with great weight in a furious rush drove down right by the wall, and hit the sow in such fashion that it broke in sunder with its dint the main beam, which was the strongest to resist a stroke. The men within the sow ran out with the greatest speed, and the men on the walls called out that "The sow had farrowed there!"

John Crab then, having his gear all ready, set fire to his faggots, and hurled them over the wall, and burnt the sow to bare firebrands.

While all this was going on, the English host was making fierce and diligent attack, and the Scots, in great risk of death, were manfully and with great strength defending the place. The shipmen brought their ships with great engines to the assault. Their top-castles were furnished well with active men in armour of steel, and their boats were drawn up and made fast high upon their masts. Thus mightily prepared they pressed towards the wall. But the engineer staved in a long-boat with a stone, and the men in her fell down, turning over and over, some of them stunned, and some dead. Thenceforth none of the ships durst undertake to attack the wall.

But the rest kept up the attack on every side so eagerly that of a truth it was great marvel that the Scots held them back. The garrison were at great disadvantage, as I have already told, because their walls were then so low that a man could very easily with a spear strike up in the defender's face. Many of them were sore wounded, and the rest were labouring so hard that none of them had time to take rest. Their adversaries assailed so stoutly, and they within were so straitly beset, that their warden, who with a hundred armed men, active and bold, rode about to see where his people were hardest pressed, and to relieve those that had need, came at sundry times upon places where the defenders were all dead, or all sore wounded. There he had to leave part of his company, so that by the time he had made one circuit, of all his men there was only one remaining. He had left them all to relieve where he saw need.

The English attacking at the Marygate hewed down the barrier, and made a fire at the drawbridge, and burnt it down, and thronged in great numbers right to the gate to set it on fire. Those within sent a messenger quickly to the warden, to tell him how hard they were beset. And when Sir Walter Stewart heard how their enemies strove so straitly with them, he caused all the armed men in the castle to come out, seeing that no assault was made there that day. With that company he hastened to the Marygate, and ascended the wall, and saw the whole danger. Forthwith he was convinced that unless help were given at once the English would burn the gate with the fire they had put to it. Therefore he determined upon a sudden and bold manoeuvre. He caused the gate to be thrown wide, and with a force of men scattered the fire he found thereat.

He set himself a right difficult feat, for the assailants attacked him with their naked weapons. He made defence with all his might, and it was a fierce sight to behold the stabbing, thrusting, and striking. But the Scots made sturdy defence, and with a great force of men kept the gate, and stood at it despite their foes till night caused both sides to give up the struggle.

When night fell the English host all withdrew from the attack, wounded, weary, and hard stricken. With evil cheer they left the assault, and went to their quarters, and set their watches. They took their ease as they best could, for they had great need of rest.

That night they spoke all in common of those within the town, and marvelled that they had made such stout defence against the great assault. Those within, on the other hand, when they saw their foes withdraw so completely, were all blithe, and quickly appointed watches, and went to their quarters. Few of them were slain, but many were cruelly wounded, and the rest beyond measure weary.

It was in truth a hard assault, and of a certainty I never heard tell of a few men so hard assailed making better defence. Of one thing that befell there I marvel; that is, that during all that day, when the enemy made their greatest attack, and the shot fell thickest, women and little children gathered up arrows in armfuls, and carried them to the men on the walls, and not one of them was slain or even wounded. It was a miracle of God Almighty; to nothing else can I attribute it.

All remained quiet that night on either side, but on the morrow there came tidings out of England to the English host telling how their men were slain and overthrown at Boroughbridge and Mitton, and how the Scots still rode throughout the land, burning and destroying.

And when King Edward heard this news he gathered his whole council to decide whether it were better to remain about the town and assail it till it were taken, or to march into England and rescue his land and men.

His council warmly disagreed, for the men of the south wished him to remain till he had won the town and castle, but the men of the north would have none of this. They feared to lose their friends and goods through the ravage of the Scots, and they would that he left the siege and rode to rescue the land.

The Earl Thomas of Lancaster was one of those who counselled the king to go home, and because Edward inclined more to the desire of the men of the south than to that of the north countrymen, he took it so ill that he had his gear packed up in haste, and with his whole battle, which was near a third part of the host, took his way home to England. He made off home without leave, and thereafter befell a difference between him and the king which lasted till Andrew Hardclay was set upon the Earl by Edward. Hardclay took him at Pontefract, and on the hill beside the town struck off his head without redemption. He was also hanged and drawn, and along with him a right fair following. It was said afterwards that this Thomas, who in this wise was made a martyr, became a saint, and did miracles, and that envy caused these to be hidden. But whether he was a holy man or no, he was slain in this fashion at Pontefract.

When the king of England saw him dare to depart so openly, he deemed it perilous to lie there with the rest of his host, and he had his harness packed up, and fared home to England.

The Scots destroying in England soon heard tidings of the breaking up of this great siege, and they set out westward and passed home by Carlisle with prisoners and plunder of many kinds. The lords went to the king, and the rest went their ways, each man to his own dwelling.

The king, of a surety, was wondrous glad that they were come home whole and sound, and had discomfited their foes. Without loss of men they had succoured the garrison besieged in Berwick when it was in the greatest danger, and when the English attack had made its way right to the wall. And when the king had asked tidings as to bow they had fared in England, and the progress and success of their march, and when they had told him all their adventure, and how the English had been discomfited, he was right blithe in his heart, and entertained them with games and sport.

In this way were Berwick and those within it rescued. He was worthy to be a prince who by his valour and craft could conceive so excellent a strategy, and without loss bring it to a good ending.

To Berwick then he took his way, and when he heard there how boldly the place had been defended he greatly praised the garrison. Above the rest, he commended Walter Stewart's great valour for the right great defence he made at the gate, when the bridge had been burnt. And of a surety praise was rightly due to one who so stoutly, in plain fight, made defence at an open gate. Could he have lived till he was of perfect age, without question his renown must have spread far. But death, who watches ever with all her might to despoil the weak and the strong, had great envy of his worth, and in the flower of his youth she made an end of all his doughty deeds, as I shall tell in another place.

When the king had dwelt there some time be sent far and near for masons, the most cunning of their craft, and caused them to raise the wall ten feet round all his town of Berwick. Soon afterwards be took his way with all his host towards Lothian, and presently he gave order for both men-at-arms and yeomanry to pass into Ireland and bring his brother help.


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