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

The Story of Pierce-Eye

When William of the Red Face came to the throne of England, there was war again between England and Scotland. It is not quite easy always to know why they fought, for in those fierce days a very small cause was enough to make a war. Sometimes Malcolm fought to help Prince Edgar, sometimes he fought about the border lands. At last it was agreed that the Scottish King should hold the northern part of England, which was called Northumbria, in fief from the English King, and do homage to him for it just as the English King did homage to the King of France for the lands he held there.

To hold a land in fief meant, that in return for the land, the man to whom it was given promised to help his "Over-lord" by sending soldiers to fight for him in time of war. This way of paying for land by fighting was called the feudal system, and it first came into Scotland in the time of Malcolm Canmore.

After this agreement there was peace, but it did not last long. William of the Red Face sent for Malcolm to come into England. Malcolm went, but when he arrived the English King treated him, not as one king might treat another, but as a king might treat a subject. William tried to pretend that Malcolm was his subject and ought to do homage to him for the whole of Scotland instead of only for Northumbria. This made Malcolm very angry. Leaving William in great wrath, he went straight back to Scotland and gathered his army together. Then he marched again into England, fighting and plundering as he went.

William the Red hastily gathered an army, and sent it against Malcolm, and at a castle called Alnwick the Scots were defeated, and their brave King Malcolm slain.

The Scots were besieging the castle. The English had almost given up hope and were thinking of yielding, when an English knight, trusting to win great renown, set forth upon a bold adventure.

He prayed the Governor to give him the keys of the castle. Without armour or weapon of any kind except a spear in his hand, he mounted upon a swift horse. Placing the keys upon the point of the spear, he rode out of the gates, and made straight for the Scottish camp.

As he came near to the camp he was stopped by the guards. "Whence come you?" they asked, surprised to see an English warrior alone, and almost unarmed. "Is it in war or in peace that you come?"

"In peace," replied the knight, "we can hold out no longer. I bring you here the keys of the castle which I would give to your King, in token of submission."

The guards were very glad at the news, and they led the knight through the camp to the tent of the King. With clamour and rejoicing many soldiers followed, gazing in wonder at the unarmed knight with the keys of the castle upon his spear.

Hearing the noise, and wondering what it might mean, King Malcolm came out of his tent. As soon as the English knight saw the King, he lowered his spear, as if he would present the keys to him. But instead of doing so, he suddenly made a swift thrust forward and pierced the King in the left eye. Then, before those around could realise what had happened, he set spurs to his horse, and fled away to the woods near.

Without a groan the King sank to the ground, and when his friends raised him, it was found that he was quite dead. Then the English, taking advantage of the sorrow and confusion into which the Scots were thrown by the death of their King, fell upon them and defeated them with great slaughter. In the battle, Malcolm's eldest son Prince Edward was wounded, so that he died, and filled with grief, the Scots turned back to their own borders.

The English knight who killed King Malcolm was, because of this deed, called Pierce-eye ever after. He was thus, it is said, the founder of the great family of Pierce-eye or Percy, who became Earls of Northumberland.

While these things were happening in England, far away in Scotland the good Queen Margaret lay very ill. She lay praying for her husband and her sons, when, opening her eyes, she saw her younger son, Prince Edgar, standing beside her bed.

His face was so pale and sad, that the sight of it made her afraid. "How fares it with your father and brother?" she asked anxiously.

The Prince stood silent with drooping head and eyes full of tears.

"I pray you," cried the Queen, "tell me. By the Holy Rood and by the obedience you owe to me, tell me the truth."

Then the Prince spoke. "My father and my brother are both slain," he said.

"The will of God be done," cried the Queen; and turning her face to the wall, she died.

Malcolm Canmore was killed in 1093 a.d. He had reigned for thirty-six years, which was a very long time in those wild days. He was fierce and fond of war, but he was brave and generous, and a true knight. He loved his country, and he loved his wife dearly. For her sake he was very kind to the English Prince Edgar, often fighting for him, when otherwise he might have been at peace with the English.

It was probably for Queen Margaret's sake, too, that Malcolm built several monasteries and churches, and restored others, which the Danes had destroyed. One of the churches which he built was at Dunfermline, and there he was buried beside his Queen. He was the first King of Scotland who was buried in Dunfermline, instead of in Iona, but after him many Scottish kings were buried there.

"A king the best who possessed Alban,

He was a king of kings fortunate.

He was the vigilant crusher of enemies.

There was never born nor will be in the east

A king whose rule will be greater over Alban,

There shall not be born for ever

One who had more fortune and greatness."

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