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

Robert the Bruce—The Heart of the King

King Robert did not live long to enjoy the peace which at last had come to the land. He was not an old man, but he had lived such a hard life that he seemed older than he was. Now he became so ill that he knew he could not live long.

When he felt that he was dying, he called all his nobles and wise men to him. As they stood round him, Bruce told them that he must soon die, and bade them honour his little son David as their King.

With tears of sorrow the nobles promised to do as the King asked.

Bruce then turned to the good Lord James. "My dearest and best friend," he said, "you know how hard I have had to fight for my kingdom. At the time when I was sorest pressed, I made a vow that when God should grant me peace, I should go to the Holy Land to fight for the Sepulchre of Christ. But now that I have peace, my body is feeble, and I cannot fulfil my heart's desire. Yet I would fain send my heart whither my body cannot go. There is no knight so gallant as you, my dear and special friend. Therefore I pray you, when I am dead take my heart from my body, carry it to the Holy Land, and there bury it."

At first Douglas could not speak for tears. After a few minutes he said, "Gallant and noble King, I thank you a thousand times for the honour you do me. Your command shall be obeyed."

"Dear friend, I thank you. You give me your promise?" said the Bruce.

"Most willingly. Upon my knighthood I swear it."

"Thanks be to God. Now I die in peace, since I know that the bravest knight in all my kingdom will do for me what I cannot do for myself," said the King, as he lay back content.

Not many days after this the great King died. From all the land there arose a cry of mourning and sorrow. With tears and sobs, with the sound of sad music and wailing, the people followed their King to his last resting place in Dunfermline Abbey.

"All our defence, they said, alas!

And he that all our comfort was,

Our wit, and all our governing,

Alas is brought unto ending.

Alas, what shall we do or say?

For in life while he lasted, aye

By all our neighbours dread were we,

And in many a far country

Of our worship spread the renown,

And that was all for his person."

Wrapped in a robe of cloth of gold the great King was laid to rest, and a beautiful tomb of white marble was raised over his grave. Long ago the tomb has disappeared, but the place where Robert the Bruce lies is still pointed out in the Abbey of Dunfermline.

True to his promise, the Douglas ordered the heart of Bruce to be taken from his body after he was dead. The heart was then embalmed. That is, it was prepared with sweet-smelling spices and other things to keep it from decay. Douglas enclosed the heart in a beautiful box of silver and enamel, which he hung round his neck by a chain of silk and gold. Then, with a noble company of knights and squires, he set sail for Palestine.

On his way he passed through Spain. There he heard that the King of Spain was fighting against the Saracens. The Saracens were the people who had possession of Palestine. They were unkind to the Christians, and insulted their religion. Douglas therefore thought that he would be doing right to help the King of Spain, before passing on to the Holy Land.

The armies met, and there was a great battle. The Scots charged so furiously that the Saracens fled before them. But thinking that the Spaniards were following to help them, the Scots chased the fleeing foe too far. Too late, Douglas found that he and his little band were cut off from their friends, and entirely surrounded by the fierce, dark faces of the enemy.

There was no escape. All that was left to do was to die fighting. Taking the silver box containing King Robert's heart from his neck, Douglas threw it into the thickest of the fight, crying, "On, gallant heart, as thou wert ever wont, the Douglas will follow thee or die." Then springing after it, he fiercely fought until he fell, pierced with many wounds. Round him fell most of the brave company of nobles who had set sail with him.

When the battle was over, the few who remained sought for their leader. They found him lying dead above the heart of Bruce. They had now no wish to go on to the Holy Land, so they turned home, taking the body of Douglas and the heart of Bruce with them. Douglas was buried in his own church at Castle Douglas, the heart of Bruce in the Abbey of Melrose.

"The trumpets blew, the cross bolts flew, the arrows flashed like flame,

As spur in side, and spear in rest, against the foe we came.

"And many a bearded Saracen went down, both horse and man,

For through their ranks we rode like corn, so furiously we ran.

"But in behind our path they closed, though fain to let us through,

For they were forty thousand men, and we were wondrous few.

"We might not see a lance's length, so dense was their array,

But the long fell sweep of the Scottish blade still held them hard at bay.

"But thicker, thicker, grew the swarm, and sharper shot the rain,

And the horses reared amid the press, but they would not charge again.

"Then in his stirrups Douglas stood, so lionlike and bold,

And held the precious heart aloft all in its case of gold.

"He flung it from him, far ahead, and never spake he more

But—'Pass thee first, thou dauntless heart, as thou wert wont of yore.'

"There lies beside his master's heart, the Douglas, stark and grim;

And woe is me I should be here, not side by side with him.

"And, Scotland, thou may'st veil thy head in sorrow and in pain;

The sorest stroke upon thy brow hath fallen this day in Spain.

"We bore the Good Lord James away, the priceless heart he bore,

And heavily we steered our ship towards the Scottish shore.

"No welcome greeted our return, no clang of martial tread,

But all were dumb and hushed as death before the mighty dead.

"We laid our chief in Douglas Kirk, the heart in fair Melrose:

And woeful men were we that day—God grant their souls repose."

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