SEPTEMBER 26TH 1310
Wan autumn sunlight filtered softly through mist shrouded hardwood trees, their leaves drifting about in flashes of yellows and reds with the slightest breeze. Quietly, a column of mounted soldiers moved among them, the ground covering of wet leaves muffling the horses’ ponderously rhythmic gait. As they neared their objective, the leader of the column silently drew his sword and held it high as a signal to his troop to do the same. Finally, their weapons at the ready, the small army bolted forward almost as one, charging down upon a tiny hamlet that lay ahead of them in a corner of a broad clearing.
A woman with a baby on her hip stepped out of the darkness of her smoke-filled hovel and immediately heard the rumble of the numerous hoof beats. Sweeping the clearing with her eyes she caught the flashes of light off metal at the edge of the woods beyond the tilth of her garden plot, and calling an alarm, ran toward the nearest stand of trees, clutching her baby tightly. A man and another child exited the same hovel to hie in the woman’s footsteps toward the trees, and perhaps a dozen others left their homes to get away from the oncoming death. Adults shrieked and children wailed as they fled in terror.
The last to leave the clutch of wee thatch-roofed, mud and stick huts saw the raiders coming in two separate columns, merging together as they charged toward the village. Knowing there was no escaping such a horde, they ran on anyway, to die with their own. Reaching the tree line, they turned their great round eyes toward their crude huts to watch the end of the world approach.
But the advance had stopped, and instead the soldiers were engaged in a noisy combat amongst themselves. A writhing mass of men and mounts were flailing at each other with vicious and noisy intensity, and as far away as the people in the woods were, they could see the bloody results as men fell to earth to be trampled by their fellows.
What madness was this, an army falling upon itself in such a deadly struggle? Yet the battle raged before the villagers’ incredulous witness until only the victors remained standing. It was then that they saw the rampant lion flag of the Scots king come to the fore and, with a handful of men, move away toward the direction from which the second column of riders had come. Those remaining behind picked through the dead and wounded, taking what they would from the defeated foe.
“He killed them all! All!” stormed King Edward II.
“Save the six that limped in here this morn,” answered Sir Robert de Clifford, nodding slightly in agreement.
“Who gave permission for them to go plunderin’?” barked Edward, scowling blackly.
“‘Twas the Welsh… mostly,” answered Clifford, “They do as they get the notion to do. Impossible to teach them discipline, it seems.”
The king slumped into a chair. He and his staff occupied Shieldhill, an amply supplied manor house in the region of Biggar, while his camped army encircled the grounds of the house and the village it abutted.
“Damn them!” the king hissed. “Did they not yet know that Brus awaits such forays? It is not that they were the first to suffer such slaughter!”
“Sire, these oafs pride themselves upon their prowess at arms, and if they thought of it at all, no doubt held that The Brus and his band would not dare face them. Not an uncommon error in men of their ilk, without officers of worth to lead them.”
Edward glowered at Clifford, but said nothing to contradict the statement. After a moment’s thought, he offered, “Fear for his own hide keeps the damned coward from comin’ to do battle like a true knight, instead of attackin’ without warnin’!” Propping his head atop his fist as it rested on the arm of the chair, he looked eastward over his stagnating army.
“Fear… perhaps,” replied Sir John Seagrave, a large man who had instigated the failed attack on Rosslyn Castle some seven years earlier against a band of Scots led by Sir William Wallace, Lord John “The Red” Comyn, Sir Henry Saint Clair, and Sir Simon Fraser. He continued, an edge of doubt in his voice, “More likely, Sire… it is merely what he has chosen to do.”
“He’ll not have a choice once we meet up with John Macdougall and Richard de Burgh, come from Ireland with their armies,” proclaimed the king confidently. “Then we’ll flush them from the underbrush and into the open!” He grabbed at the air with one hand, catching The Brus in absentia.
Clifford sighed deeply. He can run circles around the likes of us, he thought.
“Send out more spies!” ordered Edward, his temper flaring, “I want to be rid of that baseborn coward before I leave this Godforsaken land!”
“Why not send envoys under a banner of truce to find Brus and invite him to battle here at Biggar where we hold the high ground?” offered Sir Henry Percy.
“You, who were run, huddled and whimperin’ in the bottom of an oxcart, from the Brus’ own Turnberry Castle … you want The Brus to come here?” chided Clifford.
“Better that, than hiein’ south as you did when you heard Black Douglas was lurkin’ in Douglasdale,” gainsaid Percy. “Did ye fear his father’s ghost was guidin’ the young whoreson’s hands for your throat?”
“Cease this bickerin’!” shouted the king, standing and throwing his hands in the air.
The lesser men glared at one another but none went against his king and spoke.
“I shall ask the Earl of Cornwall his thoughts. He’s far more strongly witted than the three of you together!” announced the king, and he held his head high and walked from the solar. The knights bowed appropriately at his exit.
“Cornwall! May he rot in hell! Will we never be rid of that Goddamned Piers Gaveston?” wailed Seagrave once the king was beyond earshot.
The silence that lay like a barren field between them foretold their answer.
DECEMBER 9TH 1310
It was dank and cold and an almost constant barrage of snow showers spat their icy barbs into the faces of all who ventured forth, yet spies were plentiful over the whole of Lanarkshire. King Edward’s spies would locate the Scots and report back to their liege, and King Robert’s spies would guide him to strike the occasional knot of English that had broken away from the main army for plunder or on orders of King Edward.
More than once marauding English troops found themselves against the well-honed blades of Robert’s mounted soldiery, yet when they searched for him and his army, they were not to be found. Edward and his English and Welsh forces constantly combed the fields and forests around Biggar.
Well over a year since Robert de Brus presided over his first Parliament, in March 1309, and almost two years since the Earl of Ross came willingly to his peace, the King of Scots was at last making solid gains toward getting the realm pulled together under his banner. He would have easily done so had it not been for King Edward’s constant abrasion to that cause.
In late summer, with an army of six hundred knights and three thousand infantry scraped from anywhere he could manage, the English monarch had once again invaded Scotland. Only four hundred of his army were of English origin, the remainder mostly Welsh. Three English earls followed their king into Scotland in this invasion: Gloucester, Warenne, and Edward’s constant companion, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, who was but recently brought back from his temporary exile in Ireland. The veteran barons Sir John de Seagraves, Sir John de St. John, Sir Robert de Clifford, and Sir Henry de Percy also followed.
King Robert, however, had an entirely different war in mind than did King Edward.
Realizing at last that The Brus was not going to engage him in a pitched battle, Edward left Biggar within a fortnight. Attempting to reduce Robert’s ability to starve out those small pockets of support in the royal castles still stubbornly held by the English in Scotland, he first took supplies to Castle Bothwell. By doing so, he was also enticing Robert to challenge him along the way, to no avail.
Edward then led his army to Renfrew, situated on an estuary near the western coast, where he awaited the arrival of John Macdougall, Lord of Lorn, and King Robert’s father-in-law, Richard “The Red” de Burgh, Earl of Ulster. Both had thus far failed to deliver promised men and supplies to the English monarch, and this time was no exception. After a week of waiting, he turned his army back to Berwick on the eastern coast. Utilizing a route designed day-by-day from the constant reports of his many spies, he arrived in Berwick at the end of November. By then his three thousand infantry’s time of feudal service to him had elapsed, and they thus left Scotland on foot and made their way home to diverse places in England.
The Scots’ constant attacks on unsuspecting groups of Edward’s army had taken a toll of almost five hundred dead. His hit-and-hide tactics were nearly always successful and provided a regular pinprick to Edward’s wit and spirit, and most of all, his pride.
Robert had not been found except where he had not been expected.
“The Scots ‘king’ will be lookin’ for a truce,” said Piers Gaveston, thoughtfully playing with a sword, tossing it from hand to hand, up and down, swinging it as in battle. Edward watched lustfully, fascinated with the graceful movements of Gaveston’s still youthful form.
“You’ve a notion?” he asked, rotating his head on the upturned pillow to follow the movements of his companion.
“A plot, actually,” replied Gaveston, placing the sword handle against his crotch suggestively. Its effect was not lost on Edward.
“I have the most beautiful necklace for you, dear Brother,” bribed the king teasingly.
“Is it as pretty as the one you gave me that came to you with your French whore?”
Edward giggled. “Oh, it has many more jewels than that trinket, I dare say,” described the king. He took his index finger and, leaning far out of the bed, drew a pretend necklace on Piers’ hairy chest, and traced the ripples in his muscles to his navel. Then he tried to grab the sword, but Piers’ reflexes were far too quick. He had the blade by its handle instantly and swung it lightly away, feigning to cut Edward’s hand, but instead he smiled. He knew he was by far the superior swordsman, but it pleased him to prove it again. He sat on the edge of the bed and used the silk coverlet to wipe the sweat from his face.
“My ‘notion’ is this. When Brus comes to parley,” explained Piers throwing the sword to the flagstone floor with a resounding clang and suddenly rolling up on knees and hands to be atop the king, “we’ll spring our trap and bring him back to Berwick!”
“Break our word?” Edward feigned being startled at the proposition.
“You want to catch Brus?”
Edward again giggled. “I ain’t goin’ back to London without having the son of a whore in my pocket.” He reached up and grabbed Gaveston’s by the long locks at the back of his neck, drawing him down to kiss him hungrily on the mouth.
Within three days, Robert had granted a request for a meeting to take place on the seventeenth of December at Saint Michael’s Kirk in Linlithgow. Its purpose, he was told, was for consideration of the cessation of warring for the winter, citing a chance for the English to leave Scotland without being attacked. However, Robert knew that, in truth, Edward needed to withdraw to the south due to a lack of fodder for his horses and the loss of his feudal infantry.
He also knew that Saint Michael’s was attached to a large earth and wood fortress, then being used as a storehouse and sometimes residence of the English king while he was on campaign in the vicinity.
Suspicion gnawed at Robert’s finely honed distrust of Edward, and he sent James Douglas and Henry Symonds to Linlithgow to see the disposition of the area around the kirk. Soon the two spies wandered the narrow streets of Linlithgow as ordinary folk looking for their next meal, something that was nearer to the truth than either of them wanted to dwell upon.
As they bargained with an old hag for a small loaf of bread, they found the English on whom they had come to spy.
“Make way for the king’s men!” shouted the gruff voice of one accustomed to giving orders to thick heads. Like those around them, the spies did their best to move quickly to the side of the muddy track as forty English soldiers made their way through the crowd in the marketplace and headed straightaway for the road to Saint Michael’s kirk.
Symonds placed a half penny in the withered hand of the old woman and took a small round loaf from among her wares. It was nicely browned and crusty, and as his mouth began to water he broke the bread in two, handing Douglas his share.
“More a’comin’ yonder,” said Douglas quietly, and he nodded in the direction of Robert de Clifford and Henry de Percy just emerging on horseback from a cross street. The two Scots kept their heads down, eating from their purchase and not wanting to be noticed, all the while watching as the two nobles’ horses pushed their way through the crowds, bumping any who dared make way too slowly.
Then trumpets began to blare and English soldiers pushed the people farther from the main part of the street.
“Must be their king,” said Symonds with a sneer. He washed down his bread with a swallow of whiskey from a skin he carried in his kit. He offered the same to Douglas, but he refused, watching instead to see who qualified for such a display.
“Nae ‘tain’t Edward,” said Douglas as he saw coming toward him, in the finest clothing he had ever seen in his life, the cocky Piers Gaveston. Arrow straight he sat, his horse’s trappings riffling across the great beast’s broad chest and down its sides as Gaveston’s cloak flowed gracefully around him. He was the image of a noble king.
Symonds whistled softly. “Wonder who he is, the fancy one.”
“That be the Earl of Cornwall … Robert wants no harm to come to him… e’er!”
“King’s orders,” said Douglas, leaving Symonds wondering why this lavishly costumed English earl was different than any other.
After watching the pomp and power trail off Symonds observed, “‘Ppears they’re headin’ for the kirk.” He took one more swig from the skin before returning it to its hiding place in his kit.
“Aye. It does.” He paused a moment and asked, “But why are they goin’ to the kirk today? Robert won’t be here until tomorrow, soonest.”
“Maybe doin’ the same thing we are, havin’ a look about,” Symonds suggested.
“Maybe,” Douglas answered. “But why so many? There’s only two of us. Why all the soldiers, and the earls and knights?” He turned to look at Symonds as if awaiting an answer, but Symonds merely shrugged his shoulders, at a loss for a reason.
“I’m thinkin’ our wily king was right. He knew somethin’s rotten about this ‘parlee’, and you and I are goin’ to find out what ‘tis that’s a’stinkin’.” Douglas started off through the mud and mire toward the kirk, and Symonds fell in line behind him.
The Story Continues in
Rebel King - Book Three - Bannok Burn
(Battle of Bannockburn)