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Significant Scots
Sir William Douglas

DOUGLAS, SIR WILLIAM, was the illegitimate son of Sir Archibald, lord of Galloway, commonly called the Black Douglas; but in those days the bend sinister upon the shield of one who was otherwise a good knight and true, was not attended with the opprobrium that branded it in earlier or later periods. Of all the heroes of the illustrious house from which he sprung, Sir William appears to have been the most amiable; while in deeds of arms, although his career was cut short at an early period, he equalled the greatest of his name. His personal advantages, in an age when these were of highest account, corresponded with his reputation; for he was not only of a beautiful countenance, but a tall, commanding form; while his strength was such that few could cope with him on equal terms. His manners also were so gentle and engaging, that he was as much the delight of his friends as he was the terror of his enemies. He was a young warrior, in short, whom Homer would have selected as his hero, or early Greece have exalted into a demigod. As his career was to be so brief, it was early commenced; for we find, that while still very young, he was distinguised not only by his personal feats of valour, but his abilities as a leader, so that in his many skirmishes with the English he was generally successful, even when the latter were greatly superior in numbers. Nor were the charms of romance wanting to complete his history. Robert II., his sovereign, had a beautiful daughter, called Egidia, who was sought in marriage not only by the noblest of her father’s court, but by the king of France, who, in the true fashion of chivalry, had fallen in love with her from the descriptions of his knights that had visited Scotland as auxilliaries, and who privately sent a painter thither, that he might obtain her picture. But to the highest nobility, and even to royalty itself, Egidia preferred the landless and illegitimate, but brave, good, and attractive Sir William Douglas, who had no inheritance but his sword. It was wonderful that in such a case the course of true love should have run smooth: but so it did. Robert II. approved of her affection, and gave her hand to the young knight, with the fair lordship of Nithsdale for her dowry.

Sir William was not permitted to rest long in peace with a beautiful princess for his bride; for the piracies of the Irish upon the coast of Galloway, in the neighbourhood of his new possession, summoned him to arms. Resolved to chastise the pirates upon their own territory, and in their own strongholds, he mustered a force of five hundred lances and their military attendants, crossed the Irish sea, and made a descent upon the coast in the neighbourhood of the town of Carlingford. Being unable to procure boats for the landing of his small army simultaneously, he advanced with a part of it, and made a bold assault upon the outworks of the town. Struck with terror, the inhabitants, even though their ramparts were still unscaled, made proposals for a treaty of surrender; and to obtain sufficient time to draw up the terms, they promised a large sum of money. Sir William Douglas received their envoys with courtesy, and trusting to their good faith in keeping the armistice, he sent out 200 of his soldiers, under the command of Robert Stuart, laird of Durriesdeer, to bring provisions to his ships. But it was a hollow truce on the part of the men of Carlingford, for they sent by night a messenger to Dundalk, where the English were in greatest force, representing the small number of the Scots, and the ease with which they might be overpowered. Five hundred English horse rode out of Dundalk at the welcome tidings, and came down unexpectedly upon the Scots, while the men of Carlingford sallied from their gates in great numbers, to aid in trampling down their enemies, who in the faith of the truce were employed in lading their vessels. But Douglas instantly drew up his small band into an impenetrable phalanx; their long spears threw off the attacks of the cavalry; and notwithstanding their immense superiority, the enemy were completely routed, and driven off the field. For this breach of treaty the town of Carlingford was burnt to the ground, and fifteen merchant ships, laden with goods, that lay at anchor in the harbour, were seized by the Scots. On returning homeward, Douglas landed on the Isle of Man, which he ravaged, and after this his little armament, enriched with spoil, anchored safely in Loch Ryan, in Galloway.

As soon as he had stepped on shore, Sir William heard, for the first time, of the extensive inroad that had commenced upon the English border in 1388, which ended in the victory of Otterburn; and eager for fresh honour, instead of returning home, he rode to the Scottish encampment, accompanied by a band of his bravest followers. In the division of the army that was made for the purpose of a double invasion, Sir William was retained with that part of it which was destined for the invasion of England by the way of Carlisle, and thus he had not the good fortune to accompany James, Earl of Douglas, in his daring inroad upon Durham. After the battle of Otterburn, an interval of peace between England and Scotland succeeded, of which Sir William was soon weary; and, impatient for military action, he turned his attention to the continent, where he found a congenial sphere of occupation. Of late years, the mingled heroism and devotion of the crusading spirit, which had lost its footing in Syria, endeavoured to find occupation in the extirpation or conversion of the idolaters of Europe; and the Teutonic knights, the successors of the gallant Templars, had already become renowned and powerful by their victories in Prussia and Lithuania, whose inhabitants were still benighted pagans. Sir William resolved to become a soldier in what he doubtless considered a holy war, and enlist under the banner of the Teutonic order. He accordingly set sail, and landed at Dantzic, which was now the head-quarters and capital of these military monks. It appears, from the history of the period, that the order at present was filled with bold adventurers from every quarter of Europe; but, among these, the deeds of the young lord of Nithsdale were soon so pre-eminent, that he was appointed to the important charge of admiral of the fleet—an office that placed him in rank and importance nearest to the grand-master of the order. Two hundred and forty ships, such as war-ships then were, sailed under his command—an important fact, which Fordun is careful to specify. But even already the career of Sir William was about to terminate, and that too by an event which made it matter of regret that he had not fallen in his own country upon some well-fought field. Among the adventurers from England who had come to the aid of the Teutonic knights, was a certain Lord Clifford, whose national jealousy had taken such umbrage at the honours conferred upon the illustrious Scot, that he first insulted, and then challenged him to single combat. The day and place were appointed with the usual formalities; and as such a conflict must be at outrance, Sir William repaired to France to procure good armour against the approaching trial. His adversary then took advantage of this absence to caluminate him as a coward who had deserted the appointment; but hearing this rumour, Sir William hastily returned to Dantzic, and presented himself before the set day. It was now Clifford’s turn to tremble. He dreaded an encounter with such a redoubted antagonist; and to avoid it, he hired a band of assassins, by whom Sir William was basely murdered. This event must have happened somewhere about the year 1390-1. In this way Sir William Douglas, like a gigantic shadow, appears, passes, and vanishes, and fills but a brief page of that history which he might have so greatly amplified and so brightly adorned. At his death he left but one child, a daughter, by the Princess Egidia, who, on attaining maturity, was married to William, Earl of Orkney.

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