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Chapter XI. Robert The Bruce

At the last great invasion by Edward, Archie did not take the field, seeing that Comyn, in despair of opposing so vast a host, did not call out the levies. Upon the approach of the English army under the Prince of Wales he called the whole of his tenants into the castle. Great stores of provisions had already been collected. The women and children were sent away up into the hills, where provisions had also been garnered, and the old men and boys accompanied them. As the Prince of Wales passed north, bands from his army spreading over the country destroyed every house in the district. Archie was summoned to surrender, but refused to do so; and the prince, being on his way to join his father on the Forth, after himself surveying the hold, and judging it far too strong to be carried without a prolonged siege, marched forward, promising on his return to destroy it. Soon afterwards Archie received a message that Wallace had returned. He at once took with him fifty men, and leaving the castle in charge of Sandy Graham, with the rest of his vassals, two hundred and fifty in number, he rejoined his former leader. Many others gathered round Wallace's standard; and throughout Edward's march to the north and his return to the Forth Wallace hung upon his flanks, cutting off and slaying great numbers of the marauders, and striking blows at detached bands wherever these were in numbers not too formidable to be coped with.

Stirling was now the only great castle which remained in the hands of the Scotch, and King Edward prepared to lay siege to this. Save for the band of Wallace there was no longer any open resistance in the field. A few holds like those of Archie Forbes still remained in the hands of their owners, their insignificance, or the time which would be wasted in subduing them, having protected them from siege. None of the nobles now remained in arms.

Bruce had for a short time taken the field; but had, as usual, hastened to make his peace with Edward. Comyn and all his adherents surrendered upon promise of their lives and freedom, and that they should retain their estates, subject to a pecuniary fine. All the nobles of Scotland were included in this capitulation, save a few who were condemned to suffer temporary banishment. Sir William Wallace alone was by name specially exempted from the surrender.

Stirling Castle was invested on the 20th of April, 1304, and for seventy days held out against all the efforts of Edward's army. Warlike engines of all kinds had been brought from England for the siege. The religious houses of St. Andrews, Brechin, and other churches were stripped of lead for the engines. The sheriffs of London, Lincoln, York, and the governor of the Tower were ordered to collect and forward all the mangonels, quarrels, and bows and arrows they could gather; and for seventy days missiles of all kinds, immense stones, leaden balls, and javelins were rained upon the castle; and Greek fire -- a new and terrible mode of destruction -- was also used in the siege. But it was only when their provisions and other resources were exhausted that the garrison capitulated; and it was found that the survivors of the garrison which had defended Stirling Castle for upwards of three months against the whole force of England numbered, including its governor, Sir William Oliphant, and twenty-four knights and gentlemen, but a hundred and twenty soldiers, two monks, and thirteen females.

During the siege Wallace had kept the field, but Archie had, at his request, returned to his castle, which being but a day's march from Stirling, might at any moment be besieged. Several times, indeed, parties appeared before it, but Edward's hands were too full, and he could spare none of the necessary engines to undertake such a siege; and when Stirling at length fell he and his army were in too great haste to return to England to undertake another prolonged siege, especially as Aberfilly, standing in a retired position, and commanding none of the principal roads, was a hold of no political importance.

A short time afterwards, to Archie's immense grief, Sir William Wallace was betrayed into the hands of the English. Several Scotchmen took part in this base act, the principal being Sir John Menteith. Late historians, in their ardour to whitewash those who have for ages been held up to infamy, have endeavoured to show that Sir John Menteith was not concerned in the matter; but the evidence is overwhelming the other way. Scotch opinion at the time, and for generations afterwards, universally imputed the crime to him. Fordun, who wrote in the reign of Robert Bruce, Bowyer, and Langtoft, all Scotch historians, say that it was he who betrayed Wallace, and their account is confirmed by contemporary English writings. The Chronicle of Lanercost, the Arundel MSS., written about the year 1320, and the Scala Chronica, all distinctly say that Wallace was seized by Sir John Menteith; and finally, Sir Francis Palgrave has discovered in the memoranda of the business of the privy council that forty marks were bestowed upon the young man who spied out Wallace, sixty marks were divided among some others who assisted in his capture, and that to Sir John Menteith was given land of the annual value of one hundred pounds -- a very large amount in those days.

The manner in which Wallace was seized is uncertain; but he was at once handed by Sir John Menteith to Sir John Seagrave, and carried by him to London. He was taken on horseback to Westminster, the mayor, sheriffs, and aldermen, with a great number of horse and foot, accompanying him. There the mockery of a trial was held, and he was in one day tried, condemned, and executed. He defended himself nobly, urging truly that, as a native born Scotsman, he had never sworn fealty or allegiance to England, and that he was perfectly justified in fighting for the freedom of his country.

Every cruelty attended his execution. He was drawn through the streets at the tails of horses; he was hung for some time by a halter, but was taken down while yet alive; he was mutilated and disembowelled, his head then cut off, his body divided in four, his head impaled over London Bridge, and his quarters distributed to four principal towns in Scotland. Such barbarities were common at executions in the days of the Norman kings, who have been described by modern writers as chivalrous monarchs.

A nobler character than Wallace is not to be found in history. Alone, a poor and landless knight, by his personal valour and energy he aroused the spirit of his countrymen, and in spite of the opposition of the whole of the nobles of his country banded the people in resistance against England, and for a time wrested all Scotland from the hands of Edward. His bitter enemies the English were unable to adduce any proofs that the epithets of ferocious and bloodthirsty, with which they were so fond of endowing him, had even a shadow of foundation, and we may rather believe the Scotch accounts that his gentleness and nobility of soul were equal to his valour. Of his moderation and wisdom when acting as governor of Scotland there can be no doubt, while the brilliant strategy which first won the battle of Stirling, and would have gained that of Falkirk had not the treachery and cowardice of the cavalry ruined his plans, show that under other circumstances he would have taken rank as one of the greatest commanders of his own or any age.

He first taught his countrymen, and indeed Europe in general, that steady infantry can repel the assaults even of mailclad cavalry. The lesson was followed at Bannockburn by Bruce, who won under precisely the same circumstances as those under which Wallace had been defeated, simply because at the critical moment he had 500 horse at hand to charge the disordered mass of the English, while at Falkirk Wallace's horse, who should have struck the blow, were galloping far away from the battlefield. Nor upon his English conquerors was the lesson lost, for at Cressy, when attacked by vastly superior numbers, Edward III dismounted his army, and ordered them to fight on foot, and the result gave a death blow to that mailed chivalry which had come to be regarded as the only force worth reckoning in a battle. The conduct of Edward to Wallace, and later to many other distinguished Scotchmen who fell into his hands, is a foul blot upon the memory of one of the greatest of the kings of England.

Edward might now well have believed that Scotland was crushed for ever. In ten years no less than twelve great armies had marched across the Border, and twice the whole country had been ravaged from sea to sea, the last time so effectually, that Edward had good ground for his belief that the land would never again raise its head from beneath his foot.

He now proceeded, as William of Normandy after Hastings had done, to settle his conquest, and appointed thirty-one commissioners, of whom twenty-one were English and ten so called Scotch, among them Sir John Menteith, to carry out his ordinances. All the places of strength were occupied by English garrisons. The high officers and a large proportion of the justiciaries and sheriffs were English, and Edward ruled Scotland from Westminster as he did England.

Among the commissioners was Robert Bruce, now through the death of his father, Lord of Annandale and Carrick; and Edward addressed a proclamation to him, headed, "To our faithful and loyal Robert de Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and all others who are in his company, greeting;" and went on to say that he possessed the king's fullest confidence. But though Scotland lay prostrate, the spirit of resistance yet lingered in the hearts of the commonalty. Although conquered now the memory of their past success still inspired them, but until some leader presented himself none could stir. It was in August that Wallace had been executed. Archie had received several summonses from the English governors of Stirling and Lanark to come in and do homage to Edward, but he had resolutely declined, and the task of capturing his castle was too heavy a one to be undertaken by any single garrison; still he saw that the time must come, sooner or later, when he would have to choose between surrender and death. When matters settled down it was certain that a great effort would be made to root out the one recalcitrant south of the Forth. For some time he remained gloomy and thoughtful, a mood most unusual to him, and his mother, who was watching him anxiously, was scarcely surprised when one day he said to her:

"Mother, I must leave you for a time. Matters can no longer continue as they are. Surrender to the English I will not, and there remains for me but to defend this castle to the last, and then to escape to France; or to cross thither at once, and enter the service of the French king, as did Wallace. Of these courses I would fain take the latter, seeing that the former would bring ruin and death upon our vassals, who have ever done faithful service when called upon, and whom I would not see suffer for my sake. In that case I should propose that you should return and live quietly with Sir Robert Gordon until times change."

Dame Forbes agreed with her son, for she had long felt that further resistance would only bring ruin upon him.

"There is yet one other course, mother, and that I am about to take; it is well nigh a desperate one, and my hopes of success are small, yet would I attempt it before I leave Scotland and give Aberfilly back again to the Kerrs. Ask me not what it is, for it were best that if it fail you should not know of it. There is no danger in the enterprise, but for a month I shall be absent. On my return you shall hear my final resolve."

Having attired himself as a lowland farmer, Archie proceeded to Edinburgh, and there took ship for London; here he took lodgings at an inn, which he had been told in Edinburgh was much frequented by Scotchmen who had to go to London on business. His first care was to purchase the garments of an English gentleman of moderate means, so that he could pass through the streets without attracting attention.

He was greatly impressed with the bustle and wealth of London.

"It is wonderful," he said to himself, "that we Scots, who were after all but an army of peasants, could for nigh ten years have supported a war against such a country as this, and it seems madness to adventure farther in that way. If my present errand fails I will assuredly hold firm to my resolve and seek a refuge in France."

Archie ascertained that Robert the Bruce lodged at Westminster, and that great gaieties were taking place at the court for joy at the final termination of hostilities with Scotland, now secured by the execution of Wallace. He despatched a letter to the earl by a messenger from the inn, saying that one who had formerly known him in Scotland desired earnestly to speak to him on matters of great import, and begging him to grant a private interview with him at his lodging at as early an hour as might be convenient to him. The man returned with a verbal reply, that the earl would see the writer at his lodging at nine o'clock on the following morning.

At the appointed time Archie presented himself at the house inhabited by Bruce. To the request of the earl's retainer for his name and business he replied that his name mattered not, but that he had received a message from the earl appointing him a meeting at that hour.

Two minutes later he was ushered into the private cabinet of Robert Bruce. The latter was seated writing, and looked up at his unknown visitor.

"Do you remember me, Sir Robert Bruce?" Archie asked.

"Methinks I know your face, sir," the earl replied, "but I cannot recall where I have seen it."

"It is five years since," Archie said, "and as that time has changed me from a youth into a man I wonder not that my face has escaped you."

"I know you now!" the earl exclaimed, rising suddenly from his seat. "You are Sir Archibald Forbes?"

"I am," Archie replied, "and I have come now on the same errand I came then -- the cause of our country. The English think she is dead, but, though faint and bleeding, Scotland yet lives; but there is one man only who can revive her, and that man is yourself."

"Your mission is a vain one," Bruce replied. "Though I honour you, Sir Archibald, for your faith and constancy; though I would give much, ay all that I have, were my record one of as true patriotism and sacrifice as yours, yet it were madness to listen to you. Have I not," he asked bitterly, "earned the hatred of my countrymen? Have I not three times raised my standard only to lower it again without striking a blow? Did I not fight by Edward at the field of Falkirk? Ah!" he said in a changed tone, "never shall I forget the horror which I felt as I passed over the field strewn with Scottish corpses. Truly my name must be loathed in Scotland; and yet, Sir Archibald, irresolute and false as I have hitherto proved myself, believe me, I love Scotland, the land of my mother."

"I believe you, sir," Archie said, "and it is therefore that I implore you to listen to me. You are now our only possible leader, our only possible king. Baliol is a captive at Rome, his son a courtier of Edward. Wallace is dead. Comyn proved weak and incapable, and was unable to rally the people to offer any opposition to Edward's last march. Scotland needs a leader strong and valiant as Wallace, capable of uniting around him a large body, at least, of the Scotch nobles, and having some claim to her crown. You know not, sir, how deep is the hatred of the English. The last terrible incursion of Edward has spread that feeling far and wide, and while before it was but in a few counties of the lowlands that the flame of resistance really burnt, this time, believe me, that all Scotland, save perhaps the Comyns and their adherents, would rise at the call. I say not that success would at once attend you, for, forgive me for saying so, the commonalty would not at first trust you; but when they saw that you were fighting for Scotland as well as for your own crown, that you had, by your action, definitely and for ever broken with the English, and had this time entered heart and soul into the cause, I am sure they would not hold back. Your own vassals of Carrick and Annandale are a goodly array in themselves and the young Douglas might be counted on to bring his dalesmen to your banner. There are all the lords who have favoured your cause, and so stood aloof from Comyn. You will have a good array to commence with; but above all, even if unsuccessful at first, all Scotland would come in time to regard you as her king and champion. Resistance will never cease, for even Wallace was ever able to assemble bands and make head against the English, so will it be with you, until at last freedom is achieved, and you will reign a free king over a free Scotland, and your name will be honoured to all time as the champion and deliverer of our country. Think not, sir," he went on earnestly as Bruce paced up and down the little room, "that it is too late. Other Scotchmen, Fraser and many others, who have warred in the English ranks, have been joyfully received when at length they drew sword for Scotland. Only do you stand forth as our champion, believe me, that the memory of former weakness will be forgotten in the admiration of present patriotism."

For two or three minutes Bruce strode up and down the room; then he paused before Archie.

"By heavens," he said, "I will do it! I am not so sanguine as you, I do not believe that success can ever finally attend the enterprise, but, be that as it may, I will attempt it, win or die. The memory of Robert Bruce shall go down in the hearts of Scotchmen as one who, whatever his early errors, atoned for them at last by living and dying in her cause. My sisters and brothers have long urged me to take such a step, but I could never bring myself to brave the power of England. Your words have decided me. The die is cast. Henceforward Robert Bruce is a Scotchman. And now, Sir Archibald, what think you my first step should be?"

"The English in Scotland are lulled in security, and a sudden blow upon them will assuredly at first be wholly successful. You must withdraw suddenly and quietly from here."

"It is not easy to do so," Bruce replied. "Although high in favour with Edward, he has yet some suspicions of me -- not," he said bitterly, "without just cause -- and would assuredly arrest me did he know that I were going north. My only plan will be to appear at court as usual, while I send down relays of horses along the northern road. You will ride with me, Sir Archie, will you not? But I must tell you that I have already, in some degree, prepared for a movement in Scotland. Comyn and I have met and have talked over the matter. Our mutual claims to the crown stood in the way, but we have agreed that one shall yield to the other, and that whoso takes the crown shall give all his lands to be the property of the other, in consideration of his waiving his claim and giving his support. This we have agreed to, and have signed a mutual bond to that effect, and though it is not so writ down we have further agreed that I shall have the crown and that Comyn shall take Carrick and Annandale; but this was for the future, and we thought not of any movement for the present.''

"It were a bad bargain, sir," Archie said gravely; "and one that I trust will never be carried out. The Comyns are even now the most powerful nobles in Scotland, and with Carrick and Annandale in addition to their own broad lands, would be masters of Scotland, let who would be called her king. Did he displease them, they could, with their vassals and connections, place a stronger army in the field than that which the king could raise; and could at any moment, did he anger them, call in the English to his aid, and so again lay Scotland under the English yoke."

"I will think of it, Sir Archie. There is much in what you say, and I sorely doubt the Comyns. Henceforth do not fear to give me your advice freely. You possessed the confidence of Wallace, and have shown yourself worthy of it. Should I ever free Scotland and win me a kingdom, believe me you will not find Robert Bruce ungrateful. I will give orders tomorrow for the horses to be privately sent forward, so that at any hour we can ride if the moment seem propitious; meanwhile I pray you to move from the hostelry in the city, where your messenger told me you were staying, to one close at hand, in order that I may instantly communicate with you in case of need. I cannot ask you to take up your abode here, for there are many Scotchmen among my companions who might know your face, or who, not knowing, might make inquiry of me as to your family; but among the crowd of strangers who on some business or other at the court throng the inns of the city of Westminster, one figure more or less would excite neither question nor comment."

That afternoon Archie took up his abode at Westminster. A week later one of Bruce's retainers came in just as Archie was about to retire to bed, and said that the Earl of Carrick wished immediately to see Master Forbes. Sir Archie had retained his own name while dropping the title. He at once crossed, to Bruce's lodging.

"We must mount at once!" the earl exclaimed as he entered. "What think you? I have but now received word from a friend, who is a member of the council, to say that this afternoon a messenger arrived from the false Comyn with a letter to the king, containing a copy of the bond between us. Whether the coward feared the consequences, or whether he has all along acted in treachery with the view of bringing me into disgrace, and so ridding himself of a rival, I know not; but the result is the same, he has disclosed our plans to Edward. A council was hastily called, and it has but just separated. It is to meet again in the morning, and the king himself will be present. I am to be summoned before it, being, as it is supposed, in ignorance of the betrayal of my plans. It was well for me that Edward himself had pressing engagements, and was unable to be present at the council. Had he been, prompt steps would have been taken, and I should by this time be lying a prisoner in the Tower. Even now I may be arrested at any moment. Have you aught for which you wish to return to your inn?"

"No," Archie replied. "I have but a change of clothing there, which is of no importance, and we had best lose not a moment's time. But there is the reckoning to discharge."

"I will give orders," the earl said, "that it shall be discharged in the morning. Now let us without a moment's delay make to the stables and mount there. Here is a cloak and valise."

The earl struck a bell, and a retainer appeared.

"Allan, I am going out to pay a visit. Take these two valises to the stable at once, and order Roderick to saddle the two bay horses in the stalls at the end of the stables. Tell him to be speedy, for I shall be with him anon. He is not bring them round here. I will mount in the court."

Five minutes later Bruce and Archie, enveloped in thick cloaks with hoods drawn over their faces, rode north from Westminster. At first they went slowly, but as soon as they were out in the fields they set spur to their horses and galloped on in the darkness.

The snow lay thick upon the ground, and the roads were entirely deserted.

"Farewell to London!" Bruce exclaimed. "Except as a prisoner I shall never see it again. The die is cast this time, Sir Archie, and for good; even if I would I can never draw back again. Comyn's treachery has made my action irrevocable -- it is now indeed death or victory!"

All night they rode without drawing rein, save that they once changed horses where a relay had been provided. They had little fear of pursuit, for even when Bruce's absence was discovered none of his household would be able to say where he had gone, and some time must elapse before the conviction that he had ridden for Scotland, in such weather, would occur to the king. Nevertheless, they travelled fast, and on the 10th of February entered Dumfries.

G. A. Henty