Gateway to the Classics: Scotland's Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Scotland's Story by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall

James II. of the Fiery Face—The Fall of the Black Douglases

The gay, young William Douglas who was killed at the Black Dinner was succeeded by his uncle James. He was so fat, and old, and idle, that he was called Gross James. But he did not live long, and he was succeeded in the earldom by his son William, who was prouder and fiercer than any of the Douglases had ever been.

The King was now growing up, and he began to take the ruling of the kingdom into his own hands. War again broke out between England and Scotland. Douglas, although he was an unruly subject, was a fierce enemy of the English. He now marched with all his soldiers against them, and fought so well that the King made him Lieutenant-General of Scotland. But the Douglas became so proud and daring that King James was obliged to take this office from him again.

Terribly angry, Douglas went to his castle, vowing to avenge this insult. He defied the King in every way that he could. He leagued himself with other great lords against the King, wasting and destroying the lands of those who would not join with him.

This was nothing but rebellion, and one gentleman called Maclellan refused to join. Douglas at once seized Maclellan and imprisoned him.

When the King heard of this, he was very angry, and at once sent Sir Patrick Grey, Maclellan's uncle, to Douglas, with a letter asking him to release Maclellan.

As King, James ought to have commanded Douglas to let Maclellan go, but the Earl was so dreadfully powerful that the King dared not.

Sir Patrick Grey rode off with the letter as fast as he could, and arrived at Douglas castle just as the Earl had finished dinner. Sir Patrick wished to deliver the King's letter at once, but Douglas would not take it, though he greeted his guest with a great show of friendliness.

"Have you dined?" he asked.

"No," said Sir Patrick.

"Then you must dine first before we come to business. It is ill talking between a full man and a fasting."

So the Douglas called for beef and for wine, and set before his visitor the best that his castle could provide.

Sir Patrick sat down and ate well and heartily, for he was hungry after his long ride, and the Douglas sat beside him talking cheerfully.

But Douglas had guessed why Sir Patrick had come. Secretly he sent a message to his soldiers, and while Sir Patrick dined, his nephew was led out to the green grass beside the castle. There he was made to lay his head upon a block, and with one blow the headsman struck it off. Then a cloth was thrown over the dear body and it was left there alone.

At last, after much delay, Douglas broke the seal of the King's letter, and read it. He sat some time as if thinking it over. Then, looking up, he said, "I thank you, Sir Patrick, for bearing to me this message from my liege lord. So far as it is possible he shall be obeyed."

Taking Sir Patrick by the hand, he led him out to the grassy courtyard. "You have come a little too late," he said, pointing to the dead body. "There lies your nephew; but he wants the head. Take his body and do with it what you will."

With a sad heart Sir Patrick replied, "My lord, since you have taken his head, dispose of his body as you please."

Then, filled with wrath and sorrow, he called for his horse and leaped upon it. Turning in the saddle, "My lord," he cried in a voice shaking with anger, "if I live, you shall be well rewarded for the deed you have this day done."

The proud Earl flushed scarlet from throat to brow. "Who dares defy the Douglas in his castle?" he cried. "To horse, men, to horse, and after him."

Sir Patrick, seeing the Earl's fury, set spurs to his horse and galloped hard. After him came the Douglas-men thundering along on their mighty chargers. But Sir Patrick's horse was good and tried. He seemed to understand his master's danger, and he galloped as he had never galloped before. It was a fast and furious race, and not till the walls of Edinburgh came in sight did the Douglas-men give it up.

Sore at heart and weary of limb, Sir Patrick made his way to the King and told him his sad tale.

Angry and sorrowful too was the King when he heard the news. He knew not what to do with this wild, wicked lord. For it seemed Douglas had respect neither to King nor crown, and the very throne was in danger.

Yet Douglas and the King had once been friends. So at last James resolved to send for the Earl and to talk with him kindly and calmly, and try if he could not reason with him, and make him give up his wicked ways.

The King wrote a letter and sealed it with his great seal, asking Douglas to come to the court at Stirling, and promising him that his life and liberty should be safe, in spite of all he had done. This letter was called a "safe-conduct," which means that it was the King's promise to the Earl that no one should attack or hurt him, and that he might safely come and go again to his own lands.

Trusting to this safe-conduct, the great Earl came, with him his five stalwart brothers, and a large band of followers. The King received him kindly, and gave him a fine supper, hoping by gentleness and friendliness to win him from his wild ways.

When supper was over, James drew Douglas aside in order to talk with him privately. At first they both seemed quiet and calm, but as the King urged Douglas to give up his league with the other nobles, they both grew hot and angry.

"I will not break my bond for any man's asking," said Douglas insolently. Then growing more and more angry, he poured forth a torrent of scornful words against the King.

James, who had a fiery temper, suddenly lost control of himself. Drawing his dagger, "False traitor," he cried, "if you will not break the bond, this shall." With that he struck the Earl in the body. Sir Patrick Grey, who stood near, remembering the threat he had made as he rode away from castle Douglas, struck him down with his battle-axe. Others crowded round, and soon the great Earl lay dead with twenty-six wounds in his breast.

This was a wicked action on the King's part, and although it was done in a fit of passion, that was but a poor excuse for so unkingly an act, for James had given his word that Douglas should return safe to his own lands. It was an act too, which did no good, but rather evil, for the Earl had five strong brothers ready to avenge his death. Choosing James, the eldest, as their head, they gathered their friends and followers together. Through the streets of the town, in scorn they dragged the King's safe-conduct tied to the tail of an old, broken down cart-horse. Then, as they could not storm the castle because it was so strong, they wasted the town with fire and sword. Their four hundred trumpeters blew upon their trumpets, and heralds cried to all the four winds of heaven that never again would a Douglas acknowledge James as King or Prince, and that they should not cease to war against him till they were avenged upon him for his tyranny and treachery. Again the trumpets sounded, that all might know there was strife for ever between the Douglas and the King.

So was a mighty rebellion kindled. All Scotland rang with civil war. The throne seemed to tremble, and almost at times there was doubt whether James Stewart or James Douglas should reign in Scotland. But at the height of its pride and splendour the Douglas fortune began to turn. Many nobles forsook the Earl's banner and joined themselves to the King. At last one morning Douglas awoke to find his camp silent and deserted. Of the forty thousand men that he had led out scarce one hundred remained.

The struggle was over. The Earl broke up what remained of his army, and fled to hide in the wildest parts of the Border lands, where once he had ruled as lord. Then, with a few followers, he fled into England. Many years later he returned to Scotland, and, old and broken, he died a monk in the Monastery of Lindores.

Thus ended the power of the Black Douglases.

The Earl of Angus, who was himself a Douglas, had greatly helped the King during this rebellion. Now he was rewarded by the title of the Douglas and by much of his land. So it was said that the Red Douglas put down the Black. But although the Red Douglases became famous, they never rose to such great power as the Black Douglases had done.

Now at last for some years the land had peace. James ruled firmly and wisely. People began to keep the laws. All seemed well. But alas, soon these happy days were over.

Although the English had long before been driven out of Scotland, the Border castle of Roxburgh had remained in their hands ever since the days of Edward iii. James now made up his mind to drive them out of this last stronghold, and he laid siege to the castle.

It shows how well James had ruled his land, that all the chieftains flocked to his aid. Even Donald, Lord of the Isles, the wildest of them all, came with his men to help the King.

But the siege lasted long, and the soldiers began to be weary of it, when they were cheered one morning by the arrival of the Earl of Huntly with a fresh army. The King was so pleased at this that he ordered the gunners to load the cannon and bombard the walls once more.

In those days, gunpowder had not been long in use, and people did not know how to make good cannon. They were made of pieces of iron, or wood, bound together. James was standing near one of these clumsy guns, watching the men fire, when it burst. Splinters flew in all directions. One hit the King and killed him where he stood.

So died King James ii. He was only twenty-nine, and had reigned twenty-three years. He was called James of the Fiery Face, because he had a great red mark on one cheek. Perhaps he may have been also called so because he had a fiery temper, as we know he had, from the way in which he killed Douglas. That is the only bad thing we hear about him. Otherwise he was a good king.

In the Duke of Roxburgh's park at Fleurs, a hawthorn tree may still be seen which marks the spot where he died.

"But ever alas! this king of great renown,

When he had brought his realm to great stability,

East, West, South, North, up and down,

There was nothing but peace and unity;

Yet came there a chance most suddenly,

This potent prince, this King of great renown,

Was murdered by a misfortunate gun."

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