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The Bruce
Book 1


STORIES are delightful to read, even if they be nought but fable. Therefore should stories that are true, if well told, have double pleasure for the hearer. The first pleasure is in the tale as a tale, and the second in the truth of it, that shews the happening right as it was. Thus truths wholesome for man's mind are made pleasant to his ear. Fain would I, therefore, set my will, if my wit suffice, to put in writing a true tale, that it endure henceforth in memory, that no length of time destroy it, nor cause it to be wholly forgotten. For stories of old time, as men read, picture to them the deeds of the stout folk that lived of yore right as if done before their eyes. And surely praise is fairly due to those who in their time were wise and strong, who spent their lives in great labours, and often, in hard stress of battle, won right great prize of chivalry and acquitted themselves of cowardice.

Such was King Robert of Scotland, brave of hand and heart, and good Sir James of Douglas, so stout a knight in his time that his achievement and nobleness were renowned in far lands. Of them I purpose to make this book. God grant that I may so treat the matter, and bring it to an end, that it say nought but truth.

When King Alexander, guide and leader of Scotland, was dead, [Alexander III. fell over the crag at Kinghorn, March 16, 1286; his granddaughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, died October 7, 1290.] the land lay desolate six years and more, till the baronage at last came together, and made diligence to choose a king— one come of the ancestry of kings of the realm, who should have most right to be their head.. But fierce envy made great dissension among them. For some would have Baliol to be king because he was come of the offspring of the eldest sister; and others altogether denied that claim, and said he should be king who was in as near degree and come of the nearest male in a collateral branch. They said succession to a kingdom was not like that to lower fiefs, for there should succeed no female while any male was to be found of equal descent. They declared it was quite otherwise than the method of lower inheritance, for if this method were followed the next of kin, whether man or woman, should succeed. For this reason that party thought that without question the Lord of Annandale, Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, should succeed to the kingdom. [Baliol was grandson of the eldest daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon. Bruce was son of the second daughter.]

The Barons were thus at discord that could in no way be brought to settlement, till at last they all agreed that their whole argument should be sent in writing to Sir Edward, King of England, and he should swear that, without guile, he would decide the question which of these two should succeed to such an eminence: and let him reign that had the right!

This arrangement seemed to them the best, for at that time all was peace and quiet between Scotland and England, and they could not perceive the hurt looming towards them. Since the King of England had held such friendship and alliance with their king who was so noble, they trusted that he, as a good neighbour and friendly umpire, would judge in loyalty. But all otherwise went the game.

Ah! Blind folk, full of all folly! Had ye be-thought in your hearts the peril that might arise to you, ye had not wrought in that fashion—had ye taken heed how that king always, without rest, laboured to gain sovereignty, and by force to seize lands, like Wales and Ireland, bordering his own that he put them to such bondage that their nobles must run on foot like rabble when he went to war! No man of Wales durst bestride a steed in battle, nor abide after nightfall in castle or walled town, lest he lose life or limb. In such bondage Edward held those that he overcame by his might. Ye might have seen he should seize by sleight what he could not by open force. Had ye taken heed what thraldom was, and had ye considered his custom, that grasped always, without giving again, ye should, without his decision, have chosen a king who might well and rightly have held the land. Wales might have been an example to you had ye foreseen. Wise men say he is happy who corrects himself by others' errors. For evil things may befall as well to-morrow as yesterday. But ye trusted in loyalty, like simple folk without guile, and knew not what should afterwards take place. In this wide world is none that shall for certain know things that are to befall; but God Almighty reserves to Himself the foreknowledge of the changes of all time.

In this manner were the barons agreed, and with their whole consent messengers were despatched to Edward, then warring against the Saracens in the Holy Land. And when he knew their embassy he made ready without delay, and left plans that he had made, and returned again to England. And presently he sent word to Scotland that they should meet together, and he would come forthwith to do everything as they had written. But he made sure, through their dispute, to find a way, by craft and force, to seize the whole sovereignty. And he said to Robert the Bruce, "If thou and thy offspring for evermore wilt hold of me in chief, I shall decide that thou be king." "Sir," he answered, "as God will save me, I desire not the kingdom, unless it fall to me by right; and if God will that it do so, I shall hold it every way as freely as behoves a king, that is in freest royalty, as my ancestors did before me." The other, enraged, swore that he should never have it, and turned in wrath away. But Sir John the Baliol assented to all his will, and through that assent much evil afterwards befell. He was king but a little space, and by great subtlety and guile, for small reason or none, he was presently arrested, and degraded from honour and dignity. Whether this was wrong or right God Almighty knows.

When the mighty King Edward had in this way done his pleasure on John the Baliol, so soon convicted and undone, he forthwith went to Scotland, and seized the whole country. So completely was this done that both castle and town, from Wick to the Mull of Galloway, were in his possessions and filled with Englishmen. Then he made Englishmen sheriffs and bailies and the other officers of all kinds necessary for the government of country. These officers were so wholly cruel, wicked, and covetous, and so proud and disdainful, that Scotsmen could do nothing at any time to please them. The wives and daughters of the Scots they would often violate ruthlessly, and if any man were wroth thereat they lay in wait for him with greater harm, and soon found occasion to bring destruction upon him. And if any man had by him any thing of value, such as horse, or hound, that pleased their fancy, by right or wrong they would have it. And if any offered to gainsay them they would so deal that he should either lose land or life, or live in misery. For they doomed folk as they pleased, taking no heed to right or reason. Ah, how cruelly they doomed them! Good and gallant knights, for little or no cause, they hanged by the neck. Alas! that folk who had ever been free should, through their great misfortune and folly, be so wickedly treated as to have their foes for their judges. What greater wretchedness may man endure?

Ah! freedom is a noble thing. Freedom makes man to have zest in life, and gives him all comfort. He that lives free, lives at ease. A noble heart can have no ease, nor aught else to pleasure it, if freedom fail. For liberty to please oneself desired above all things. Nor may he who has always been free well know the actual state, the suffering and wretchedness, that are coupled with foul thraldom. But if he had made trial of it, then should he know it all by heart, and should think freedom more to be prized than all the gold in the world. Thus evermore do untoward things make evident their opposites. He that is thrall has nought his own; all that he has is abandoned to his lord, whoever he be. He has not even so much freedom as to leave alone, or do, the desire of his heart. Clerks may question, when they fail into debate, whether, if a man bid his thrall do aught, and at the same time the thrall's wife come to him and demand her due, he should leave undone his lord's behest, and first pay his debt, and afterwards fulfil his lord's command, or leave his wife unpaid, and do what he is ordered. I leave the solution to them of more renown. But since they make such comparison between the duties of marriage and a lord's bidding to his thrall, ye may see verily, though none tell you, how hard a thing this thraldom is. For wise men know well that marriage is the strongest bond that any man can undertake. But thraldom is far worse than death. As long as a thrall lives it mars him, body and bones, while death troubles him but once. To put it shortly, none can tell the whole condition of a thrall.

In such manner and such bondage Scotsmen lived, both the poor and those of high rank. For of the lords some were slain, and some hanged, and some drawn, and some put fast in prison, without reason or cause. And among others imprisoned was Sir William, Lord of Douglas. [The elder Douglas had risen in arms with Wallace, but yielded himself prisoner to Edward in 1297.] Of him they made a martyr, for they slew him in prison, and gave his fair lands to the Lord of Clifford. He had a son, a little boy, then but a small page, but afterwards of great prowess. His father's death he so avenged that in England, I undertake to say, —there was none living that did not dread him. For so many skulls he cleft that none alive can tell the number. But wondrous hard things befell him ere he was brought to his estate. No adventure could dismay his heart, nor prevent his doing the thing on which he was set. For he took especial thought always to act advisedly. He held that man of small account who should suffer hurt from none; and he took thought to achieve great things, and hard toils, and combats that should double his fame. Wherefore, in all his lifetime he was in great hardship and trouble. Never would he yield to mischance, but would drive the enterprise right to an end, and take the fate God sent.

His name was James of Douglas, and when he heard his father was so cruelly put in prison, and that his whole lands were given to the Clifford, he indeed knew not what to do or say; for he had no means, nor was there any that knew him would do as much for him as see him sufficiently provided for. Then, utterly at his wit's end, he suddenly conceived the desire to voyage oversea, and stay in Paris for a time, and endure his misfortune where none knew him, till God sent him help. And as he thought, so he did. He set forth soon afterwards for Paris, and lived there very simply. Nevertheless he was glad and jolly, and gave himself to such thoughtlessness as youth demands, sometimes to ribald company. And that may ofttimes be of service, for knowledge of many conditions of life may be of use at times in many ways. So it befell Robert, the good Earl of Artois in his time; for frequently the feigning of ribald abandonment greatly served his purpose. And Cato tells us in his writings, "It is sometimes good sense to feign foolishness."

In Paris he dwelt nearly three years, and then came tidings oversea that his father was done to death. At that he was woeful and distraught, and thought he would return home, to see if he, through any effort, might regain his inheritance, and redeem his men out of their thraldom.

He came in haste to St. Andrews, where the Bishop received him most courteously and made him wear his knives, to carve before him at table, and clad him right honourably, and gave order where he should lodge. There dwelt he a very long time, and all men loved him for his nobleness, for he was of most fair demeanour, wise, courteous, and debonair. He was liberal and kind also, and above all things loved loyalty.

The love of loyalty is a gracious thing. Through loyalty men live righteously. With the virtue of loyalty a man may come to be of high account, and without it none, however strong or wise he be, may win renown. For where it fails no bravery can make a man so good as to be called simply a good man.

Douglas in all his deeds was loyal, for he deigned not to deal with treachery or falsehood. His heart was set on high honour, and his demeanour such that all who were near loved him. But he was not so fair that we should speak greatly of his beauty. In visage he was somewhat grey, and he had black hair, I have heard tell. But his limbs were well made, his bones great, and his shoulders broad. His body was well formed and lithe, so they that saw him have said to me. When he was blithe he was lovable, and in company he was meek and sweet; but whoever saw him in battle beheld him of another countenance. In speech he lisped somewhat, but that suited him right wondrous well. To good Hector of Troy he might in many things be likened. Hector had black hair, like him, and limbs stark and right well made, and he lisped also as Douglas did, and was compact of loyalty, and courteous and wise and strong. But in manhood and mighty strength I dare compare to Hector none that ever was in the world. Nevertheless the Scottish knight so wrought as to win great renown in his time.

Douglas dwelt at St. Andrews till it chanced that the proud King Edward came to Stirling with a great company to hold an assembly. Thither went many barons and among them the good Bishop William of Lamberton, taking with him this squire, James of Douglas.

The Bishop led him to the king, and said, "Sir, I bring you this child, who seeks to be your man, and prays you of your grace to receive hero his homage and grant him his inheritance."

"What lands does he claim?" said the king.

"Sir, if it be your pleasure, he claims the lordship of Douglas, for his father was lord thereof."

The king then, extremely enraged, said, "Sir bishop, of a surety, if thou wouldst keep thy fealty make no such speech to me. His father was ever my cruel foe, and died for it in my prison. He was against my majesty, therefore am I entitled to be his heir. Let the boy go, get land where he may, for thereof assuredly he has none. The Clifford shall have his lands, for he has served me loyally always."

The bishop heard him answer thus, and durst speak to him then no more, but went hastily from his presence, for he sorely dreaded his cruelty. The king did what he came to do, and went afterwards to England again with many a man of might.

Sirs, who care to hear, here now begins the romance of men that were in great distress, and experienced right great hardship ere they came to their desire; but afterwards, by God's grace and their great valour, despite their foes, one and all, they came to great estate and honour. Where God helps, what can withstand? In truth, their enemies were sometimes more than a thousand to one, but God Almighty, in His foresight, preserved the heroes to avenge the harm and the persecution done by that multitude of rascal folk to inoffensive, worthy people who could not help themselves. These heroes were like the Maccabees who, as the Bible says, with great bravery and valour fought many a stiff battle to deliver their country from evil bondage. They wrought so by their prowess that with few followers they won victory over mighty kings, and made their country free, for which their name should be praised.

This lord, The Bruce, of whom I spoke before, [Robert the Bruce, the hero of the poem, was really the grandson of Baliol's rival, who died in 1294. Barbour here, for epic purposes, uses a poetic licence.] saw all the kingdom so ruined and the folk so troubled that he was moved to great pity. But whatever pity he felt he made no shew of it, till it chanced that Sir John Comyn, as they came riding from Stirling, said to him, "Sir, will ye not see how this country is governed? They slay our folk without cause, and hold the land without reason, while ye should be its lord. If ye will trust me ye shall cause yourself be made king. Provided ye give me all the land now in your possession, I shall be your helper. And if ye will not do this, nor take such state upon you, let all my land be yours, and let me take the state on me, and bring the country out of bondage. For there is neither man nor page in all this land that is not fain to make himself free."

The Lord Bruce hearkened to what he said, believing he spoke in honesty, and, since it pleased his mind, he soon gave his assent, and said, "Since ye so wish, I will blithely take the state upon me, for I know the right is mine, and often a just cause makes the feeble strong."

Thus the barons first came to agreement. And that same night their bonds were written, and oaths made, to secure what they had agreed upon.

But of all things, woe be to treason! For there is neither duke nor baron nor earl nor prince nor mighty king, though he be never so wise nor strong, that can for ever be on guard against treason. Was not all Troy with treason taken, when ten years of the war were past? Many thousands of those without had been slain by the strong hand, as Dares tells, and Dictys, [Dictys of Gnossus and Dares the Phrygian, legendary authors of accounts of the Fall of Troy] who knew all their state. Troy could not have been taken by strength, but treason took the city by deceit. And Alexander the Conqueror, who took Babylon and the whole length and breadth of the world in twelve years by his doughty deeds, was afterwards, by great treason, destroyed with poison in his own house, [This was the account of Alexander's death given in the medieval romance] dividing his land before he died, and exciting great pity by his death. Julius Caesar, too, who by his bravery won Britain and France, Africa, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and all Europe, and for his might and valour was first made Roman Emperor, was afterwards stabbed to death with daggers in his capital by those of his secret council; and when he saw words might not avail he closed his eyes with his band, to die with more honour. Also Arthur, who by his valiant deeds, made Britain mistress and lady of twelve kingdoms that he won, and further, as a noble, gained in battle the freedom of all France, and vanquished Lucius Iberius, then Emperor of Rome, yet, notwithstanding all his great valour, was slain through treason and wickedness, with other good men more than enough, by Modred his sister's son. Thereof "The Brat" bears witness. [Barbour is said to have written another great poem called "The Brut,' but he is hero probably quoting from Layamon's "Brut," which was derived from the French "Romans de Brut" of Waco, which again was borrowed from the Latin "History" of Geoffrey of Monmouth. From the same material, in Elizabethan times, Sir Thomas Malory derived his "Morte d'Arthur," and from this at a later day came Tennyson's "Idylls of the King."]

So this covenant-making fell out. For the Comyn rode to the King of England, and told the whole happening, though not, I trow, the whole truth of it. But he gave him the bond, which soon showed the offence. For this afterwards, since he could offer no excuse for his deed, he suffered death.

When the king saw the bond he was enraged beyond measure, and swore that he should take vengeance on Bruce, who presumed to contend or rise or conspire in such ways against him. And Sir John Comyn, he said, should be rewarded highly for his loyalty; and Comyn humbly thanked him. Then Edward thought to have the rule of all Scotland without gainsaying, if once Bruce were brought to death.

But the fool's expectation often fails, and wise men's aims come not always to the ending they look for. Only God knows truly what shall befall. By His proper plan the matter fell out as I shall afterwards tell.

Comyn took his leave and went home. And the king thereafter hastily called a parliament, and summoned thither the barons of his realm. And he sent to the Lord Bruce, bidding him come to that gathering. And he, having no knowledge of the treason or falsehood, rode to the king without more delay, and took lodging in London the first day of their meeting. Afterwards, on the morrow, he went to court.

The king sat in parliament, and there before his privy council he called the Lord Bruce, and showed him the bond. The Bruce was in utmost peril of his life, but Almighty God, who would not that he died so, preserved him for higher things. The king handed him there the bond, to see the seal, and asked if he had sealed it. He looked at the seal intently, and answered him humbly, and said, "How foolish am I! My seal is not always with me; I have another to bear it. Therefore if it be your will, in order to see this letter and be advised of it, I ask respite till tomorrow when ye take your seat, and then without longer delay, I shall produce this letter here before your full council. For this I give in pledge my whole inheritance."

The king thought him worthy enough of trust, since he gave his lands in pledge, and be let him go with the letter, to produce it, as was agreed.


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