Black Douglas

Sir James Douglas

Sir James Douglas (The Good)

The early years

James's father William le Hardi, had fought against the English and had commanded Berwick castle during the siege by Edward I in 1296. After Berwick town had been put to the sword and the castle could hold out no longer, William Douglas surrendered the castle to Edward. The surrender terms were for the safe conduct and release of the castle garrison, Edward however reneged on this agreement and sent Douglas off to captivity in chains. Douglas however escaped or was released, because he reappears as a supporter of Wallace at the start of his rebellion. He later joined with Bruce and the Stewart and was among other Scottish leaders who surrendered to Edward at Irvine. Most were allowed to go free on production of a hostage for their future good behaviour, Douglas refused to hand over his son James and was once again sent off in chains, this time to Berwick castle, here his captors called him "savage and abusive" and he was transferred to the Tower of London. It was here in 1299 that William Douglas died as an enemy of the English. John Barbour the chronicler believed he was murdered.



Black Douglas body

Meanwhile young James had been spirited off to Paris to keep him safe from Edward. It was here that the young James learnt of his father's death and the forfeiture of his Douglas Estates, which Edward awarded to the English Sir Robert Clifford. This left Douglas alone and destitute in Paris, fortunately for him he met the Scottish Bishop of St Andrews, William Lamberton who took him in to his household. Here it is presumed that he was schooled to one day resume his rightful place as a Lord of the Scottish realm.

Douglas, aged about eighteen, returned to Scotland with Lamberton at a time when most of the nobles including Lamberton had made their peace with Edward. The Bishop presented Douglas at court to petition for the return of his estates, when Edward heard whose son he was he became angry and brusquely refused, James having to be hurriedly removed from his sight.

It seems very likely that the first meeting between Bruce and the young James Douglas took place in 1297 at a time when Bruce had sworn allegiance to Edward I, mainly because of his opposition to King John Baliol. Bruce had been charged by Edward with despoiling the Douglas lands and if possible to capture William Douglas, On hearing that William Wallace had started a rebellion in Galloway and that Sir Andrew de Moray had risen in the North, Bruce decided to throw in his lot with the rebels. Taking the Lady Douglas and the teenaged James along with him in order to remove them from Edwards wrath. He made his way along with those of his men who would follow to Irvine, where the rebel forces including William Douglas were encamped. It was after the surrender of these forces, apart from Wallace, that William Douglas was taken into captivity and James sent off to Paris.


Meeting Bruce

In 1306 after the murder of his rival for the throne, John Comyn, Bruce declared himself rightful King of Scotland. It was on his way to his coronation at Scone that James Douglas, coming from Berwick, where he had been staying with Bishop Lamberton, rode to meet him and give his allegiance.

Barbour described the meeting thus," And when Douglas saw him coming he rode forward in haste and greeted him and made obeisance very courteously and told him all his conditions and who he was and how Clifford held his inheritance. Also that he came to do homage to him as his rightful king and was ready in everything to share his fortune. And when Bruce had heard his desire he received him with much pleasure and gave him men and arms. He felt he should be worthy, for his fathers all were doughty men. Thus they made their acquaintance that never afterwards by any chance of any kind was broken while they lived".

Robert the Bruce

It is claimed that there and then Bruce did Douglas the supreme honour of dubbing him Sir James Douglas.



The Douglas Larder

In 1307, at a time that Bruce's forces were hiding in the Carrick hills near Turnberry, Douglas sought permission to launch an attack on his own property of Douglas castle, still at this time in English hands. Accompanied by only two men James made his way to his ancestral estates in Douglasdale. Here he sought out a Thomas Dickson, a loyal tenant who would have known him as a young boy. With Dickson's help he recruited more of the local men in order to ambush the castle garrison.

On Palm Sunday while the garrison were attending church service some of Douglas's men mingled with the congregation with others waiting outside, although the attack started prematurely Douglas was victorious, capturing or killing the entire garrison. Douglas and his men then retired to the castle where they sat down to the meal ready prepared for the garrison upon their return. After taking what was useful from the castle stores, the wells were poisoned and all remaining supplies were scattered across the cellars, the remaining prisoners were brought down and beheaded with their bodies joining those of their already deceased comrades on the pile of stores, the whole lot was then fired, this episode became known as the "Douglas Larder".

Although this may seem barbaric to people of today, it must be kept in mind that it had been Edward the English King who had started the policy of killing any Bruce supporters out of hand, usually by hanging, drawing and quartering, therefore Douglas had to consider the safety of the local men who would remain behind, there must be no-one to identify them.

Douglas castle was soon reoccupied by the English but Douglas struck again. He hid a large body of men near the castle and then sent a smaller party to drive off the cattle belonging to the garrison, which were grazing outside of the castle walls. Thirlwall, according to Barbour the castles new commander, rode out with an attacking force. The Scots quickly rode off in the direction of the ambush, pursued by Thirlwall and his men. The Scots came out from cover and waylaid the English, who broke and fled for the safety of the castle. Most were cut down before achieving the safety the castle afforded, the remainder slammed shut the gates and took refuge inside. Douglas had not come to lay siege, therefore he and his force rode off leaving the English to retrieve their dead, including their commander Thirlwall.

Douglas's third attack on his own castle again employed a ruse to draw out the castles defenders. What appeared in the distance to be a line of pack-horses laden with hay and led by gowned country women were seen from the castle. Since fodder was running short for the castles horses a force set out to capture this baggage train. On approaching close, the figures threw aside their long enveloping cloaks to reveal an armed Scot's force. They dropped their bundles of hay, mounted their horses and turned to the attack. A larger force which once again had lain in wait also emerged to join the fight. Once again the English were completely overwhelmed, Douglas this time having a greater body of men with him attacked the castle. Barbour points out that the captain of the castle was a Sir John of Webton, found amongst his possessions was a letter from a lady who promised that if he could defend "ye adventuris castell off Douglas" (the dangerous castle Douglas) for a year she would marry him. It seems that this triggered off the chivalrous side of Douglas, as he permitted all the prisoners captured in the castle to depart for England unharmed. Then in line with King Robert's policy he razed his own castle to the ground to deny it's use to the enemy, and thus displayed his own loyalty to his King.

After these three atacks on Douglas castle, James Douglas's reputation as a figure of terror was greatly enhanced. To the English he seemed to be able to appear from nowhere, wreak havoc and then disappear once again. The English dubbed him "the Black Douglas".

Battle of Bannockburn

Black Douglas

He is first mentioned as riding forward toward the English line of march, on Sunday 23rd June 1314, along with the Marishal, Sir Robert Keith, in order to estimate the strength of the English army. What they saw was described by Barbour " many braided banners, standards and spear pennons, and so many mounted knights all flaming in gay attire, and so many broad battles taking such vast space as they rode, as might, by their number and battle array, have dismayed the greatest and boldest and best host in Christendom". Bruce ordered Douglas and Keith to say that the English were in "ill-array" in order to keep up the spirits of his forces.

The next mention of Douglas is later the same day. The English force arrived in sight of Stirling late in the day, to find the Scots astride the old Roman road that led to Stirling. King Edward sent Robert Clifford and Henry Beaumont with 300 horse along the carse, below the roman road, either to strengthen the garrison at Stirling or to impede the Scot's retreat. Clifford and Beaumont led the force along a narrow bridle path leading to the castle. Within the gorge, which the path followed, the English Knights were well hidden from the Scottish positions. Once the force was sighted Randolph quickly gathered his men and charged down towards the English, blocking their path. He knew that there would be no option but to fight, as the English were horsed and would be confident of breaking the Scots lines. So, as the English cavalry gathered for the charge, within the Scots schiltrom spears were grounded and muscles strained in preparation for their impact.

The first wave of cavalry hit the Scots with tremendous force. Their lines held and many English Knights crashed to their deaths on the wall of spikes. The cavalry withdrew, gathered and charged again, but still they could not break through. This continued for some time, each charge weakening as more knights fell, their own dead blocking their path.

Meanwhile James Douglas, concerned for Randolph and his men persuaded Bruce to let him take a small division of reinforcements down to the battle. On approaching closer he saw it was not the Scots who were failing, but the English, who unable to break the schiltrom had given up charging and had now resorted to throwing their hand weapons at the Scots, though to little effect. So Douglas, in a chivalric gesture, seeing that it was Randolph's fight, and almost won, held his men and watched as his friend finished the English himself.

The English cavalry began to retreat. Suddenly the Scots, confident now of victory, did something before unheard of in medieval warfare, the schiltrom instead of remaining as a stationary defensive unit advanced in formation and went on the attack For the English knights this was the last straw. Exhausted, they now found their force split in two by the Scots advance and they scattered, one part of the squadron to the castle, the larger back to the main body of the army. Amazingly Randolph reported the loss of only one man.

Monday 24th of June, the morning of the battle, saw James Douglas receiving the honour of being created a Knight Banneret (senior cavalry commander), an honour only conferred on the battlefield. In front of the massed ranks of the army Bruce would have taken his sword and slashed off the forks of Douglas's knights pennon, to convert it to the Bannerets square standard.

Once battle was joined, Douglas was in command of the third schiltrom, on the left flank. This schiltrom initially suffered casualties from a body of Edward's Welsh archers, who had crossed the Pelstream burn in order to outflank the Scots. However these archers were soon driven off by Keith the Marishal and his 500 light horse. It is worth mentioning here that Douglas unlike modern day commanders would have been on foot in the thick of the fighting.

The Battle itself is well documented, suffice to say here that the Scots won the day and Edward fled the field accompanied by 500 mounted knights. Douglas on seeing the flight of the English King asked permission of Bruce to give chase. At this point, with large numbers of English sheltering under the castle rock and a possibility of reforming their ranks, Bruce could only spare 60 horse to accompany him. Fortunately Douglas met with Sir Lawrence Abernethy who, with 80 horse, had come to join the English. On being appraised of the situation he came over to the Scots and pledged his allegiance, thus Douglas more than doubled his force although still heavily outnumbered. Douglas caught up with the retreating English near Linlithgow but rather than taking the direct route to Berwick over the Lammermuir hills, Edward turned East towards Dunbar. This denied to Douglas many ambush point among the hills. He did however tail the English so closely, that according to Barbour they could not stop even to pass water and any whose horses broke down were quickly captured.

At Dunbar Edward and some of his chosen knights took refuge in Earl Patrick of Dunbar's castle, abandoning their steeds outside, then took ship for Berwick. The main body of the English knights were pursued another fifty miles by Douglas and Abernethy, even shedding their Armour to increase the speed of their horses did not stop more English falling into Scots hands. It is tempting to think, if Douglas had more men could he have captured the King of England?



The Crusades

It had always been an intention of Bruce's to crusade but affairs within his own country had precluded this. So on his deathbed, on 7th June 1329, had Douglas make a promise that once he, the Bruce, was dead his heart would be removed from his body and taken by Douglas on crusade against the infidels in the holy land. A silver casket was constructed to hold the Bruce's heart and in early 1330, accompanied by a number of knights and men-at-arms, Douglas set sail from Berwick. Douglas's company sailed by way of Sluys then Santander and then down the coast of Portugal. Knowing that the moors were attempting to increase their foothold in Europe, they sailed up the Guadalquivir to Seville. Once there they offered their services to Alfonso XI of Castile, who had a base at Seville. Douglas, due to his past exploits, was one of the most famous men in Europe. Understandably many knights including many of his old adversary's, the English, gathered to see this renowned warrior. Disbelief travelled through the gathered knights at sight of Douglas, this could not be the great warrior, he bore not the slightest scar upon his face. This was a time when most knights would have borne scars attesting to their former battles. Douglas remarked "I have always had strong hands to protect my face".

The Scots were assimilated into Alfonso's army, Douglas being given command of a portion. A move eastward was then made to besiege the moors who had recently captured a fortress midway between Granada and Seville, the Castillo della Estrella (Castle of the Star), close by the small village of Teba. The Christian army settled in for the siege but a Moorish army led by Osmin, a notable soldier, came to the relief of the castle and encamped at Turron on the other side of the Rio Guadalteba. Osmin attempted to deceive the Christians by sending one part of his force toward the castle, the main force circling around in order to attack the Christian camp. Alfonso realising what was happening sent a force including Douglas and his men down to contest the river crossing, keeping the bulk of his forces back to protect the camp.

It is not exactly clear what happened next, suffice to say that Douglas and his men found themselves deep into enemy territory. Forming his men into a wedge formation, himself at the front, they charged at the Moorish forces in an attempt to drive through and back to the main body of the Christian army. Almost on the point of breaking through to safety, Douglas seeing William Sinclair of Roslin isolated and attacked by the moors pulled his steed around and headed back into the melee. The moors quickly closed in around them and Douglas disappeared under the surge of moors.

The crusade

Osmin meanwhile finding the Christian camp well defended had withdrawn from the field of battle. In the aftermath of the battle a Scot, one William Keith of Galston, who had earlier suffered a broken arm and had took no part in the current fight, took to searching the battlefield with the remaining Scots. They found Douglas's body, with five fatal wounds, surrounded by many bodies of the enemy. On retrieving Douglas's body the silver casket containing Bruce's heart was discovered underneath him. A few days later the castle fell to the Christian forces.

Douglas's men would not hear of him being buried on foreign soil, so in line with current practices his body was boiled in a cauldron until the flesh fell from the bones, This was buried in hallowed ground at Teba, his skeleton and heart were taken back to Scotland and interred in St Brides church in Douglas village. Bruce's heart was conveyed to Melrose Abbey and there buried.