T WAS UPON the twenty-third of June, 1314, the King of Scotland heard the news, that the English army was approaching Stirling. The van now came in sight, and a number of their bravest knights drew near to see what the Scots were doing. They saw King Robert dressed in his armour, and distinguished by a gold crown, which he wore over his helmet. He was not mounted on his great war-horse, because he did not expect to fight that evening. But he rode on a little pony up and down the ranks of his army, putting his men in order, and carried in his hand a sort of battle-axe made of steel. When the King saw the English horsemen draw near, he advanced a little before his own men, that he might look at them more nearly.
There was a knight among the English, called Sir Henry de Bohun, who thought this would be a good opportunity to gain great fame to himself, and put an end to the war, by killing King Robert. The King being poorly mounted, and having no lance, Bohun galloped on him suddenly and furiously, thinking, with his long spear, and his tall, powerful horse, easily to bear him down to the ground. King Robert saw him, and permitted him to come very near, then suddenly turned his pony a little to one side, so that Sir Henry missed him with the lance-point, and was in the act of being carried past him by the career of his horse. But as he passed, King Robert rose up in his stirrups, and struck Sir Henry on the head with his battle-axe so terrible a blow, that it broke to pieces his iron helmet as if it had been a nut-shell, and hurled him from his saddle. He was dead before he reached the ground. This gallant action was blamed by the Scottish leaders, who thought Bruce ought not to have exposed himself to so much danger, when the safety of the whole army depended on him. The King only kept looking at his weapon, which was injured by the force of the blow, and said, "I have broken my good battle-axe."
The next morning the English King ordered his men to begin the battle. The archers then bent their bows, and began to shoot so closely together, that the arrows fell like flakes of snow on a Christmas day. They killed many of the Scots, and might have decided the victory; but Bruce was prepared for them. A body of men-at-arms, well mounted, rode at full gallop among them, and as the archers had no weapons save their bows and arrows, which they could not use when they were attacked hand to hand, they were cut down in great numbers by the Scottish horsemen, and thrown into total confusion. The fine English cavalry then advanced to support their archers. But coming over the ground which was dug full of pits the horses fell into these holes and the riders lay tumbling about, without any means of defence, and unable to rise, from the weight of their armour.
While the battle was obstinately maintained on both sides, an event happened which decided the victory. The servants and attendants on the Scottish camp had been sent behind the army to a place afterward called the Gillies' hill. But when they saw that their masters were likely to gain the day, they rushed from their place of concealment with such weapons as they could get, that they might have their share in the victory and in the spoil. The English, seeing them come suddenly over the hill, mistook this disorderly rabble for a new army coming up to sustain the Scots, and, losing all heart, began to shift every man for himself. Edward himself left the field as fast as he could ride.
The English, after this great defeat, were no longer in a condition to support their pretensions to be masters of Scotland, or to continue to send armies into that country to overcome it. On the contrary, they became for a time scarce able to defend their own frontiers against King Robert and his soldiers.
Thus did Robert Bruce arise from the condition of an exile, hunted with bloodhounds like a stag or beast of prey, to the rank of an independent sovereign, universally acknowledged to be one of the wisest and bravest Kings who then lived. The nation of Scotland was also raised once more from the situation of a distressed and conquered province to that of a free and independent state, governed by its own laws.
Robert Bruce continued to reign gloriously for several years, and the Scots seemed, during his government, to have acquired a complete superiority over their neighbours. But then we must remember, that Edward II who then reigned in England, was a foolish prince, and listened to bad counsels; so that it is no wonder that he was beaten by so wise and experienced a general as Robert Bruce, who had fought his way to the crown through so many disasters, and acquired in consequence so much renown.
In the last year of Robert the Bruce's reign, he became extremely sickly and infirm, chiefly owing to a disorder called the leprosy, which he had caught during the hardships and misfortunes of his youth, when he was so frequently obliged to hide himself in woods and morasses, without a roof to shelter him. He lived at a castle called Cardross, on the beautiful banks of the river Clyde, near to where it joins the sea; and his chief amusement was to go upon the river, and down to the sea in a ship, which he kept for his pleasure. He was no longer able to sit upon his war-horse, or to lead his army to the field.
While Bruce was in this feeble state, Edward II, King of England, died, and was succeeded by his son Edward III. He turned out afterward to be one of the wisest and bravest Kings whom England ever had; but when he first mounted the throne he was very young. The war between the English and the Scots still lasted at the time.
But finally a peace was concluded with Robert Bruce, on terms highly honourable to Scotland; for the English King renounced all pretensions to the sovereignty of the country.
Good King Robert did not long survive this joyful event. He was not aged more than four-and-fifty years, but his bad health was caused by the hardships which he sustained during his youth, and at length he became very ill. Finding that he could not recover, he assembled around his bedside the nobles and counsellors in whom he most trusted. He told them, that now, being on his death-bed, he sorely repented all his misdeeds, and particularly, that he had, in his passion, killed Comyn with his own hand, in the church and before the altar. He said that if he had lived, he had intended to go to Jerusalem to make war upon the Saracens who held the Holy Land, as some expiation for the evil deeds he had done. But since he was about to die, he requested of his dearest friend and bravest warrior, and that was the good Lord James Douglas, that he should carry his heart to the Holy Land. Douglas wept bitterly as he accepted this office--the last mark of the Brace's confidence and friendship.
The King soon afterward expired; and his heart was taken out from his body and embalmed, that is, prepared with spices and perfumes, that it might remain a long time fresh and uncorrupted. Then the Douglas caused a case of silver to be made, into which he put the Bruce's heart, and wore it around his neck, by a string of silk and gold. And he set forward for the Holy Land, with a gallant train of the bravest men in Scotland, who, to show their value of and sorrow for their brave King Robert Bruce, resolved to attend his heart to the city of Jerusalem. In going to Palestine Douglas landed in Spain, where the Saracen King, or Sultan of Granada, called Osmyn, was invading the realms of Alphonso, the Spanish King of Castile. King Alphonso received Douglas with great honour and distinction, and easily persuaded the Scottish Earl that he would do good service to the Christian cause, by assisting him to drive back the Saracens of Granada before proceeding on his voyage to Jerusalem. Lord Douglas and his followers went accordingly to a great battle against Osmyn, and had little difficulty in defeating the Saracens. But being ignorant of the mode of fighting among the cavalry of the East, the Scots pursued the chase too far, and the Moors, when they saw them scattered and separated from each other, turned suddenly back, with a loud cry of ALLAH ILLAH ALLAH, which is their shout of battle, and surrounded such of the Scottish knights and squires as were dispersed from each other.
In this new skirmish, Douglas saw Sir William St. Clair of Roslyn fighting desperately, surrounded by many Moors, who were having at him with their sabres. "Yonder worthy knight will be slain," Douglas said, "unless he have instant help." With that he galloped to his rescue, but presently was himself also surrounded by many Moors. When he found the enemy press so thick round him, as to leave him no chance of escaping, the Earl took from his neck the Bruce's heart, and speaking to it, as he would have done to the King, had he been alive--"Pass first in fight," he said, "as thou wert wont to do, and Douglas will follow thee, or die."
He then threw the King's heart among the enemy, and rushing forward to the place where it fell, was there slain. His body was found lying above the silver case, as if it had been his last object to defend the Bruce's heart.
Such of the Scottish knights as remained alive returned to their own country. They brought back the heart of the Bruce, and the bones of the good Lord James. The Bruce's heart was buried below the high altar in Melrose Abbey. As for his body, it was laid in the sepulchre in the midst of the church of Dunfermline, under a marble stone. The church afterward becoming ruinous, and the roof falling down with age, the monument was broken to pieces, and nobody could tell where it stood. But when they were repairing the church at Dunfermline, and removing the rubbish, lo! they found fragments of the marble tomb of Robert Bruce. Then they began to dig farther, thinking to discover the body of this celebrated monarch; and at length they came to the skeleton of a tall man, and they knew it must be that of King Robert, both as he was known to have been buried in a winding sheet of cloth of gold, of which many fragments were found about this skeleton, and also because the breastbone appeared to have been sawed through, in order to take the heart. A new tomb was prepared into which the bones were laid with profound respect.
(Adapted from "Tales of a Grandfather from Scottish History," by Sir Walter Scott)