James III.—How a Mason Became an Earl
James iii. was neither a soldier nor a statesman. He hated war, and he hated pomp and ceremony and great crowds of courtiers and servants. He would have been better pleased had he been a simple gentleman who could live quietly, spending his time in reading and study. But in those days reading and study were not thought fit occupations even for simple gentlemen. War was the only fit occupation for gentlemen and knights, and so the King did not make friends with the great and warlike nobles, but with humble men whose tastes were like his own.
His chief friends were Cochrane, an architect, or as the proud nobles called him scornfully, a mason; Rogers, a musician; Leonard, a smith; Hommel, a tailor; and Torphichen, a fencing master. But his greatest friend amongst them was Cochrane, the mason.
It made the proud nobles very angry to see that the King preferred the company of such people to theirs. And they began to think that one of his younger brothers would have made a much better King.
These brothers were called the Duke of Albany and the Earl of Mar. They were both tall, handsome men, splendid soldiers and knights, and quite unlike the King in every way.
Although they were so different, the King loved his brothers. But Cochrane the mason and his friends did not like Albany and Mar, so they began to whisper evil things to the King against them. They pretended that Albany and Mar were in league with witches and wizards, and that they would cause the King's death. The King was very superstitious, as many people were in those days when witches and wizards were still believed in. He was timid too, and soon grew so afraid of his brothers that he ordered them to be seized and put in prison. Albany, however, managed to escape to France, and from there he went to England. Mar was taken, and died soon after in prison, killed, it is said, by the King's orders.
Then, Cochrane, the King's favourite, became greater and greater. He received the dead Earl's money and lands, and henceforward called himself the Earl of Mar. The King allowed him to issue coins, which, instead of being entirely of silver, were mixed with copper. The people were very angry at this, and they refused to sell their goods for "Cochrane's plaks," as they called them. They insisted that this money should be called in again. But Cochrane would not listen. "By heaven," he cried, "the day I am hanged it shall be called in, and not before."
The King would do nothing without his favourite's advice. If a man wished to ask anything of the King, he was obliged to flatter and to make friends with Cochrane. To be ruled by a mason was very bitter to the great barons, so gradually James lost the love of many of the greatest men of the kingdom, and they began to plot together to rid themselves of Cochrane and the others who were the King's favourites.
At this time the King of England prepared to make war once more against Scotland. He meant to help the Duke of Albany, and to set him upon the throne instead of James. He thought this would please the Scots, but, however angry they were with their own King, they had no mind to allow the King of England to interfere. So, when James called his soldiers together they came eagerly.
It was a very great army which gathered on the Borough-muir near Edinburgh, and marched southwards. Besides foot soldiers and horsemen, the King brought some of the great cannon from Edinburgh castle, and over these, he made Cochrane captain.
Cochrane came to battle in very great state. He rode upon a splendid horse, a golden helmet was carried before him, and in front of it marched four trumpeters, blowing upon golden horns. Behind him rode three hundred men clad in white. His tent was made of silk, and even the cords were twined with silk and gold.
All this show made the nobles more bitterly angry than ever with Cochrane. Very early one morning, as they were encamped at Lauder, they met together in the church there, to discuss how they might rid themselves of this upstart, as they called him.
They were all agreed that Cochrane must die. But how was it to be done? That was the question. He was powerful, he was brave, he was loved by the King, he was constantly surrounded by soldiers and servants. How was it to be done?
In this doubt and difficulty, one of the lords, seeing that although the nobles were discontented enough, they lacked courage and decision, told a story. "Once upon a time," he said, "all the mice met together, to consult how they should defend themselves against their great enemy the cat. The cat was so big, and they were so small, that they could not kill him. And he prowled about so quietly on his soft paws, that he was often close upon them before they had time to run away. At last, after much talking, they decided to hang a bell round his neck, so that they should always be able to hear when their enemy was coming. But the plan failed, for no mouse could be found bold enough to hang the bell round the cat's neck."
As soon as this lord had done speaking, Archibald, Earl of Angus, started forward. "There is no need of delay," he cried, "I will bell the cat." From this speech he was known ever after as "Archibald-bell-the-cat."
At this moment, there came a loud knocking at the church door, which was barred and guarded.
"Who knocks thus loudly?" demanded the knight who kept the door.
" 'Tis I, the Earl of Mar," came the answer.
"Haha!" cried Angus, "the victim has been beforehand with us. He saves us the trouble of seeking him. Unbar the door."
The heavy bolts were slowly pushed back, the door swung open, and Cochrane entered. He was, as usual, splendidly dressed. He wore a hunting costume of black velvet. Round his neck hung a heavy chain of gold, at his belt a golden horn set with jewels. He came forward with a haughty, careless smile.
Angus met him. "A halter would better become you," he cried, pulling the gold chain roughly from his neck.
"You have been a hunter of mischief long enough," said another knight, snatching at his horn.
Cochrane was not easily made afraid, but he was astonished at this rough usage. "My lords," he said, "is this jest or earnest?"
"It is good earnest," they replied, "as you shall soon see. You and your fellows have taken too much advantage of our King this long while. Now that is at an end and you shall receive the reward of your misdeeds."
The fierce, stern nobles crowded round Cochrane, and he was quickly bound hand and foot. Then a party of soldiers hurried to the King's tent. There they found all the other favourites. They seized every one of them, except a boy called Ramsay. He clung to the King, and James held him tight in his arms, and prayed so earnestly for his life, that the nobles spared him. But all the others were led out to Lauder bridge, and hanged there in a row, with Cochrane in the middle.
Even at the last moment, Cochrane could not forget his grandeur and finery. He begged to be hanged with a silken cord from his tent, and not with a hempen rope like a common thief.
"Thou art but a false thief and traitor," the lords replied, "and deserve no better"; and instead of hanging him with a silken cord, they hanged him with one of horse-hair, which was thought to be more disgraceful even than hemp. As soon as he was hanged, they made a proclamation, calling in all Cochrane's plaks. Thus his words came true.
So died the King's favourites, most of them for no greater fault than that they were low born.