Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

Queen Margaret and the Robber


[BECAUSE of Henry VI's periods of insanity, much responsibility of protecting his right to the crown during the Wars of the Roses fell upon his queen, Margaret of Anjou. One of her adventures is here described.
The Editor. ]

IN the spring of 1463, "England was again set afield" at the fatal battle of Hexham. "King Henry," says Hall, "was the best horseman of his company that day, for he fled so fast no one could overtake him; yet he was so closely pursued that three of his horsemen, or bodyguard, with their horses, trapped in blue velvet, were taken,—one of them wearing the unfortunate monarch's cap of state, called a bicocket,' embroidered with two crowns of gold, and ornamented with pearls." Margaret succeeded in effecting her escape with the prince and a few of her people. They fled towards the Scotch border, taking with them as many of the crown jewels and other treasures as they could secure: among these, as the unfortunate heroine afterwards told her cousin, the Duchess of Bourbon, were some large vessels of silver and gold, which she hoped to have carried safely into Scotland; but while thus laden, she and her company were overtaken by a party of plunderers, who robbed them of everything, and even despoiled her and the little Prince of Wales of their ornaments and rich array,—fatal trappings of state, which, being of a fashion, color, and material rigorously forbidden by the sumptuary laws to persons of lower degree, of course betrayed the rank of the royal fugitives, and subjected the unfortunate queen to very barbarous treatment. "They dragged her," she said, "with brutal violence and furious menaces before their leader, held a drawn sword in readiness to cut her throat, and threatened her with all sorts of tortures and indignities; whereupon she threw herself on her knees with clasped hands, weeping and crying aloud for mercy, and implored them by every consideration, human or divine, and for the honor of nobility, of royalty, and above all, for the sake of womanhood, to have pity on her, and not to mangle or disfigure her unfortunate body; so as to prevent it from being recognized after death. For although," continued she, "I have had the ill-luck to fall into your hands, I am the daughter and the wife of a king and was in past time recognized by yourselves as your queen. Wherefore, if now you stain your hands with my blood, your cruelty will be held in abhorrence by all men, throughout all ages." She accompanied these words with floods of tears, and then began to recommend herself with earnest prayers to the mercy of God.

While Margaret was engaged in these agonizing supplications, some of the ruffians began to quarrel about the division of the rich booty of which they had despoiled her. From angry words, they fell to furious fighting one with another; a dreadful slaughter ensued, which proved a providential diversion in favor of the royal prisoners, for the men who had been preparing to put the queen to a cruel death, ran to take part in the conflict in order to secure their share of the plunder, and paid no further heed to her or her son. Margaret took advantage of their attention being thus withdrawn to address herself to a squire, who was the only person remaining near her, and conjured him, "by the passion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to have pity on her, and do what he could to assist her to make her escape." This squire, whose heart God had touched with compassion for her distress, and who was luckily provided with a horse which was able and willing to carry, not double, but threefold, responded to her appeal in these encouraging words: "Madame, mount behind me, and you, my lord prince, before; and I will save you, or perish in the attempt." Margaret and her boy promptly complied with this direction, and made off unpursued, the ruffians being too much occupied in rending each other, like savage beasts over their prey, to observe the escape of their prisoners.

The scene occurred in the neighborhood of Hexham Forest, and thither the fugitives directed their flight, as offering the best facilities for concealment. Such was the decision of the squire, who was the conductor of the party; as for Margaret, she was in no condition to form a judgment as to what course to take, for, as she afterwards declared, not only her brain, but every nerve and vein in her whole body retained so terrible an impression of the frightful peril with which she had been menaced, that when they plunged into the dark depths of the forest, she fancied every tree she saw was a man with a naked sword in his hand, who kept crying to her, "A la mort!" In this piteous state of excitement, maternal solicitude for her boy being the master-feeling, she kept repeating "that it was not for herself she feared, but for her son. Her death would be a matter of little moment, but his would be too great a calamity,—utter ruin to every one; for being the true heir of the crown, all might go right again if his life could but be preserved." Then she again abandoned herself to paroxysms of terror for that precious child, not believing it possible that they should ever get clear of the forest without falling a second time into the hands of the pitiless foes, from whom they had escaped by scarcely less than a miraculous intervention of Providence. Margaret had, indeed, only too much cause for alarm, although the danger which appeared still present to her was over, for perils no less frightful surrounded her on every side. Hexham Forest was then a sort of "dead man's ground," which few travelers ventured to cross, except in large parties well armed; for it was the resort of the ferocious banditti of the northern marches, who were the scourge and terror of both the Scotch and English border, and whose rapacity and cruelty had placed them out of the pale of humanity.

The night which succeeded a day so fatal to the cause of Lancaster closed over the fugitive queen and her boy while they were wandering in the tangled mazes of Hexham Forest. Neither of them had tasted food since an early hour in the morning, but the pangs of hunger and thirst were probably bravely borne by the princely child, who had been early inured to hardships, and disregarded by the hapless mother while clinging in her despair to that last frail plank of the foundered bark, which she had labored for the past twelve years to steer through seas too stormy for a female pilot's skill. To add to her distress, Margaret was uncertain whether the king her husband was alive or dead, as they had fled in different directions. While she was lamenting over the calamitous events of that disastrous day, she suddenly perceived, by the light of the rising moon, an armed man of gigantic stature and stern aspect advancing towards her with threatening gestures. At first she imagined that he belonged to the band of pitiless ruffians from whom she had fled, but a second glance at his dress and equipments convinced her that he must be one of the forest outlaws, of whose remorseless cruelty to travelers she had heard many frightful instances. Her courage rose with the greatness of the danger, and perceiving that there was no possibility of escape except through God's mercy, maternal love impelled her to make an effort for the preservation of her son, and she called the robber to her. There is something in the tone and manner of those whose vocation is to command which, generally speaking, insures the involuntary respect of attention. The robber drew near, and listened to what Margaret had to say. The popular version of the story is, that she took the little prince by the hand, and presented him to the outlaw with these words: "Here, my friend, save the son of your king." But if Margaret's own account of this memorable passage of her life is to be credited, she was not quite so abrupt in making a communication attended with such imminent danger to her son, nor before she had in some degree felt her way by an eloquent impassioned appeal to the compassion of the unknown outlaw. She commenced the parley by telling him that if he were in quest of booty, she and her little son had already been rifled by others of all they possessed, showing him that they had been despoiled even of their upper garments, and had nothing now to lose but their lives; yet, although she supposed he was accustomed to shed the blood of travelers, she was sure he would have pity on her, when she told him who she was. Then bending her eyes upon him, she pathetically added, "It is the unfortunate Queen of England, thy princess, who hath fallen into thine hands in her desolation and distress. And if," continued she, "O man! thou hast any knowledge of God, I beseech thee, for the sake of His passion who for our salvation took our nature on Him, to have compassion on my misery. But if you slay me, spare at least my little one, for he is the only son of thy king, and, if it please God, the true heir of this realm. Save him, then, I pray thee, and make thine arms his sanctuary. He is thy future king, and it will be a glorious deed to preserve him,—one that shall efface the memory of all thy crimes, and witness for thee when thou shalt stand hereafter before Almighty God. O man! win God's grace to-day by succoring an afflicted mother, and giving life to the dead." Then, perceiving that the robber was moved by her tears and earnest supplications, she put the young prince into his arms with these words: "I charge thee to preserve from the violence of others that innocent royal blood, which I do consign to thy care. Take him, and conceal him from those who seek his life. Give him a refuge in thine obscure hiding-place, and he will one day give thee free access to his royal chamber and make thee one of his barons, if by thy means he is happily preserved to enjoy the splendor of the crown, which doth of right pertain to him as his inheritance."

The outlaw, whose heart, to use the impressive words of the royal heroine of this strange romance of history, "the Holy Ghost had softened," when he understood that the afflicted lady who addressed these moving words to him was indeed the queen of the land, threw himself at her feet and wept with her; declaring, withal, "that he would die a thousand deaths, and endure all the tortures that could be inflicted on him, rather than abandon, much less betray, the noble child." He also besought the queen to pardon all his offenses against the law, with no less humility than if she had borne the scepter of sovereign authority in London, and his life depended on her fiat. One of Margaret's French biographers affirms that this outlaw was a ruined Lancastrian gentleman; but this statement receives no confirmation from Margaret's own account of the matter, who spoke with anguish of the dire necessity which had constrained her to entrust her only child to the protection of a robber. No belted knight, however, could have acquitted himself more nobly of the trust the unfortunate queen had confided to his honor. Raising the weary prince in his arms, he led the way, followed by the queen and the squire, to his secret retreat,—a cave in a secluded spot on the south bank of the rapid little stream which washes the foot of Blackhill, where the royal fugitives were refreshed, and received all the comfort and attention his wife was able to bestow. The local traditions of Hexham and Tynedale preserve a lively remembrance of this incident. The robber's den, which afforded shelter in their utmost need to the Lancastrian queen and Prince of Wales, is still known by the name of "Queen Margaret's Cave," and seems to have been well adapted to the purpose. The entrance to it is very low, behind the bank of the rivulet or bourn, and was formerly concealed from sight and surrounded by wild wood. Its dimensions are thirty-four by fourteen feet: the height will barely allow a full-grown person to stand upright. A massive pillar of rude masonry in the center of the cave seems to mark the boundary of a wall, which, it is said, once divided it into two distinct apartments. When warmed and cheered by fire and lamp, it would not appear quite so dismal a den as at present.

Such was the retreat in which the queen and prince remained perdue  for two days of agonizing suspense. On the third morning their host encountered Sir Pierre de Breze and an English gentleman, who, having escaped the robbers at Hexham, had been making anxious search for her and the prince. From these devoted friends Margaret learned the escape of her royal husband, and the terrible vengeance that had been executed on Somerset, and her faithful adherents the lords Hungerford and Roos. Margaret received these tidings with floods of tears. A few hours later, the English gentleman by whom Breze was accompanied, having gone into the neighboring villages to gather tidings of public events, recognized the Duke of Exeter and Edmund Beaufort, the brother and successor of the unfortunate Duke of Somerset. He conducted them to the retreat of the proscribed queen and the youthful hope of Lancaster. Margaret's spirits revived at the sight of these princes, whom she had numbered with the slain of Hexham, and she determined to send them to their powerful kinsman the Duke of Burgundy, to solicit an asylum at the court of Dijon for herself and the Prince of Wales, while she once more proceeded to the court of Scotland, where she imagined King Henry had found refuge. On quitting the dwelling of the generous outlaw, from whom she had received such providential succor in her dire distress, she accorded all she had to bestow,—her grateful thanks. The Dukes of Somerset and Exeter offered a portion of their scanty supply of money as a reward to his wife for the services she had rendered to the queen; but, with a nobility of soul worthy of a loftier station, she refused to receive any portion of that which might be so precious to them at a time of need. "Of all I have lost," exclaimed the queen, "I regret nothing so much as the power of recompensing such virtue." Accompanied byBreze and the squire, and attended by the outlaw of Hexham in the capacity of a guide, Margaret and the young prince her son took the road to Carlisle, from whence she once more proceeded to her old quarters at Kirkcudbright.

by Agnes Strickland

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