Chapter XII. The Battle of Methven

Bruce had, during the previous week, sent messages saying to several of his friends in Annandale and Carrick that he might at any time be among them, and at Dumfries he found many of them prepared to see him. The English justiciaries for the southern district of the conquered kingdom were holding an assize, and at this most of the nobles and principal men of that part were present. Among these were, of course, many of Bruce's vassals; among them also was John Comyn of Badenoch, who held large estates in Galloway, in virtue of which he was now present.

As soon as the news that Bruce had arrived in the town spread, his adherents and vassals there speedily gathered round him, and as, accompanied by several of them, he went through the town he met Comyn in the precincts of the Grey Friars. Concerning this memorable meeting there has been great dispute among historians. Some have charged Bruce with inviting Comyn to meet him, with the deliberate intention of slaying him; others have represented the meeting as accidental, and the slaying of Comyn as the result of an outburst of passion on the part of Bruce; but no one who weighs the facts, and considers the circumstances in which Comyn was placed, can feel the least question that the latter is the true hypothesis.

Bruce, whose whole course shows him to have been a man who acted with prudence and foresight, would have been nothing short of mad had he, just at the time when it was necessary to secure the goodwill of the whole of the Scotch nobles, chosen that moment to slay Comyn, with whom were connected, by blood or friendship, the larger half of the Scotch nobles. Still less, had he decided upon so suicidal a course, would he have selected a sanctuary as the scene of the deed. To slay his rival in such a place would be to excite against himself the horror and aversion of the whole people, and to enlist against him the immense authority and influence of the church. Therefore, unless we should conclude that Bruce -- whose early career showed him to be a cool and calculating man, and whose future course was marked throughout with wisdom of the highest character -- was suffering from an absolute aberration of intellect, we must accept the account by those who represent the meeting as accidental, and the slaying as the result of an outburst of passion provoked by Comyn's treachery, as the correct one.

When Bruce saw Comyn approaching he bade his followers stop where they were and advanced towards Comyn, who was astonished at his presence.

"I would speak with you aside, John Comyn," Bruce said; and the two withdrew into the church apart from the observation of others.

Then Bruce broke into a torrent of invective against Comyn for his gross act of treachery in betraying him by sending to Edward a copy of their agreement.

"You sought," he said, "to send me to the scaffold, and so clear the way for yourself to the throne of Scotland."

Comyn, finding that dissimulation was useless, replied as hotly. Those without could hear the voices of the angry men rise higher and higher; then there was a silence, and Bruce hurried out alone.

"What has happened?" Archie Forbes exclaimed.

"I fear that I have slain Comyn," Bruce replied in an agitated voice.

"Then I will make sure," Kirkpatrick, one of his retainers, said; and accompanied by Lindsay and another of his companions he ran in and completed the deed.

Scarcely was this done than Sir Robert Comyn, uncle of the earl, ran up, and seeing what had taken place, furiously attacked Bruce and his party. A fierce fray took place, and Robert Comyn and several of his friends were slain.

"The die is cast now," Bruce said when the fray was over; "but I would give my right hand had I not slain Comyn in my passion; however, it is too late to hesitate now. Gather together, my friends, all your retainers, and let us hurry at once to attack the justiciaries."

In a few minutes Kirkpatrick brought together those who had accompanied him and his companions to the town, and they at once moved against the courthouse. The news of Bruce's arrival and of the fray with the Comyns had already reached the justiciaries, and with their retainers and friends they had made hasty preparations for defence; but seeing that Bruce's followers outnumbered them, and that a defence might cost them their lives, they held parley and agreed to surrender upon Bruce promising to allow them to depart at once for England. Half an hour later the English had left Dumfries.

Bruce called a council of his companions.

"My friends," he said, "we have been hurried into a terrible strife, and deeply do I regret that by my own mad passion at the treachery of Comyn I have begun it by an evil deed; but when I tell you of the way in which that traitor sought to bring me to an English block, you will somewhat absolve me for the deed, and will grant that, unhappy and unfortunate as it was, my passion was in some degree justified."

He then informed them of the bond into which he and Comyn had entered, and of its betrayal by Comyn to Edward.

"Thus it is," he said, "that the deed has taken place, and it is too late to mend it. We have before us a desperate enterprise, and yet I hope that we may succeed in it. At any rate, this time there can be no drawing back, and we must conquer or die. It was certain in any case that Comyn and his party would oppose me, but now their hostility will go to all lengths, while Edward will never forgive the attack upon his justiciaries. Still we shall have some breathing time. The king will not hear for ten days of events here, and it will take him two months at least before he can assemble an army on the Border, and Comyn's friends will probably do nought till the English approach. However, let us hurry to Lochmaben Castle; there we shall be safe from any sudden attack by Comyn's friends in Galloway. First let us draw out papers setting forth the cause of my enmity to Comyn, and of the quarrel which led to his death, and telling all Scotchmen that I have now cut myself loose for ever from England, and that I have come to free Scotland and to win the crown which belongs to me by right, or to die in the attempt."

Many of these documents being drawn out, messengers were despatched with them to Bruce's friends throughout the country, and he and his followers rode to Lochmaben.

Archie Forbes went north to his own estate, and at once gave notice to his retainers to prepare to take the field, and to march to Glasgow, which Bruce had named as the rendezvous for all well disposed towards him. From time to time messages came from Bruce, telling him that he was receiving many promises of support; the whole of the vassals of Annandale and Carrick had assembled at Lochmaben, where many small landowners with their retainers also joined him. As soon as his force had grown to a point when he need fear no interruption on his march toward Glasgow, Bruce left Lochmaben. On his way he was joined by the first influential nobleman who had espoused his cause; this was Sir James Douglas, whose father, Sir William, had died in an English prison. At the time of his capture his estates had been bestowed by Edward upon Lord Clifford, and the young Douglas, then but a lad, had sought refuge in France. After a while he had returned, and was living with Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews, who had been one of Wallace's most active supporters.

The young Douglas, on receiving the news that Bruce was marching north, at once mounted, rode off, and joined him. He was joyfully received by Bruce, as not only would his own influence be great among his father's vassals of Douglasdale, but his adhesion would induce many others to join. Receiving news of Bruce's march, Archie moved to Glasgow with his retainers. The English garrison and adherents in Glasgow fled at his approach. Upon arriving there Bruce solemnly proclaimed the independence of Scotland, and sent out notices to all the nobles and gentry, calling upon them to join him.

Fortunately the Bishop of St. Andrews, and Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, another of Wallace's friends, at once declared strongly for him, as did the Bishop of Moray and the Abbot of Scone. The adhesion of these prelates was of immense importance to Bruce, as to some extent the fact of their joining him showed that the church felt no overwhelming indignation at the act of sacrilege which he had committed, and enabled the minor clergy to advocate his cause with their flocks.

Many of the great nobles hostile to the Comyn faction also joined him; among these were the Earls of Athole, Lennox, Errol, and Menteith; Christopher Seaton, Sir Simon Fraser, David Inchmartin, Hugh de la Haye, Walter de Somerville, Robert Boyd, Robert Fleming, David Barclay, Alexander Fraser, Sir Thomas Randolph, and Sir Neil Campbell. Bruce's four brothers, Edward, Nigel, Thomas, and Alexander, were, of course, with him. Bruce now moved from Glasgow to Scone, and was there crowned King of Scotland on the 27th of March, 1306, six weeks after his arrival at Dumfries. Since the days of Malcolm Canmore the ceremony of placing the crown on the head of the monarch had been performed by the representative of the family of Macduff, the earls of Fife; the present earl was in the service of the English; but his sister Isobel, wife of Comyn, Earl of Buchan, rode into Scone with a train of followers upon the day after the coronation, and demanded to perform the office which was the privilege of the family. To this Bruce gladly assented, seeing that many Scotchmen would hold the coronation to be irregular from its not having been performed by the hereditary functionary, and that as Isabel was the wife of Comyn of Buchan, her open adhesion to him might influence some of that faction. Accordingly on the following day the ceremony was again performed, Isobel of Buchan placing the crown on Bruce's head, an act of patriotism for which the unfortunate lady was afterwards to pay dearly. Thus, although the great majority of the Scotch nobles still held aloof, Bruce was now at the head of a considerable force, and he at once proceeded to overrun the country. The numerous English who had come across the Border, under the belief that Scotland was finally conquered, or to take possession of lands granted them by Edward, were all compelled either to take refuge in the fortified towns and castles held by English garrisons, or to return hastily to England.

When the news of the proceedings at Dumfries and the general rising in the south of Scotland reached Edward he was at the city of Winchester. He had been lately making a sort of triumphant passage through the country, and the unexpected news that Scotland which he had believed crushed beyond all possibility of further resistance was again in arms, is said for a time to have driven him almost out of his mind with rage.

Not a moment was lost. Aylmer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, was at once commissioned to proceed to Scotland, to "put down rebellion and punish the rebels," the whole military array of the northern counties was placed under his orders, and Clifford and Percy were associated with him in the commission. Edward also applied to the pope to aid him in punishing the sacrilegious rebels who had violated the sanctuary of Dumfries. As Clement V was a native of Guienne, and kept his court at Bordeaux within Edward's dominions, his request was, of course, promptly complied with, and a bull issued, instructing the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Carlisle to excommunicate Bruce and his friends, and to place them and their possessions under an interdict. It was now that the adhesion of the Scottish prelates was of such vital consequence to Bruce. Had the interdict been obeyed, the churches would have been closed, all religious ceremonies suspended, the rites of the church would have been refused even to dying men, and the dead would have been buried without service in unconsecrated ground. So terrible a weapon as this was almost always found irresistible, and its terrors had compelled even the most powerful monarchs to yield obedience to the pope's orders; but the Scotch prelates set the needs of their country above the commands of the pope, and in spite of repeated bulls the native clergy continued to perform their functions throughout the whole struggle, and thus nullified the effect of the popish anathema.

King Edward was unable himself to lead his army against the Scots, for he was now sixty-seven years old, and the vast fatigues and exertions which he had undergone in the course of a life spent almost continually in war had told upon him. He had partially lost the use of his limbs, and was forced to travel in a carriage or litter; but when he reached London from Winchester a grand ceremony was held, at which the order of knighthood was conferred by the king upon the Prince of Wales, and three hundred aspirants belonging to the principal families of the country, and orders were given that the whole military array of the kingdom should, in the following spring, gather at Carlisle, where Edward himself would meet them and accompany them to Scotland. The Earl of Pembroke, with Clifford and Percy, lost no time in following the orders of Edward, and with the military power of the northern counties marched into Scotland. They advanced unopposed to the Forth, and crossing this river proceeded towards Perth, near which town the Scottish army were gathered. Archie Forbes, who stood very high in favour with Bruce, had urged upon him the advantage of carrying out the tactics formerly adopted by Wallace, and of compelling the enemy to fall back by cutting off all food supplies, but Bruce would not, in this instance, be guided by his counsel.

"When the king advances next spring with his great army, Sir Archie, I will assuredly adopt the course which you point out, seeing that we could not hope to withstand so great an array in a pitched battle; but the case is different now. In the first place all the castles and towns are in the hands of the English, and from them Pembroke can draw such provision as he needs. In the second place his force is not so superior to our own but that we may fight him with a fair hope of victory; and whereas Wallace had never any cavalry with him, save at Falkirk when they deserted him at the beginning of the battle, we have a strong body of mounted men-at-arms, the retainers of the nobles with me, therefore I do not fear to give them battle in the open field."

In pursuance of this determination Bruce sent a challenge to Pembroke to meet him with his army in the open field next day. Pembroke accepted the challenge, and promised to meet his opponent on the following morning, and the Scotch retired for the night to the wood of Methven, near Perth. Here many of them set out on foraging excursions, the knights laid aside their armour, and the army prepared for sleep.

Archie Forbes was much dissatisfied at the manner in which Bruce had hazarded all the fortunes of Scotland on a pitched battle, thereby throwing away the great advantage which their superior mobility and knowledge of the country gave to the Scots. He had disarmed like the rest, and was sitting by a fire chatting with William Orr and Andrew Macpherson, who, as they had been his lieutenants in the band of lads he had raised seven years before, now occupied the same position among his retainers, each having the command of a hundred men. Suddenly one who had been wandering outside the lines in search of food among the farmhouses ran hastily in, shouting that the whole English army was upon them.

A scene of the utmost confusion took place. Bruce and his knights hastily armed, and mounting their horses rode to meet the enemy. There was no time to form ranks or to make any order of battle. Archie sprang to his horse. He bade his lieutenants form the men into a compact body and move forward, keeping the king's banner ever in sight, and to cut their way to it whenever they saw it was in danger. Then, followed by his two mounted squires, he rode after the king. The contest of Methven can scarce be called a battle, for the Scots were defeated before it began. Many, as has been said, were away; great numbers of footmen instantly took flight and dispersed in all directions. Here and there small bodies stood and fought desperately, but being unsupported were overcome and slain. The king with his knights fought with desperate bravery, spurring hither and thither and charging furiously among the English men-at-arms. Three times Bruce was unhorsed and as often remounted by Sir Simon Fraser. Once he was so entirely cut off from his companions by the desperation with which he had charged into the midst of the English, that he was surrounded, struck from his horse, and taken prisoner.

"The king is taken!" Archie Forbes shouted; "ride in, my lords, and rescue him."

Most of the Scotch knights were so hardly pressed that they could do nothing to aid the king; but Christopher Seaton joined Archie, and the two knights charged into the midst of the throng of English and cut their way to Bruce. Sir Philip Mowbray, who was beside the captured monarch, was overthrown, and several others cut down. Bruce leapt into his saddle again and the three for a time kept at bay the circle of foemen; but such a conflict could have but one end. Archie Forbes vied with the king in the strength and power of his blows, and many of his opponents went down before him. There was, however, no possibility of extricating themselves from the mass of their foes, and Bruce, finding the conflict hopeless, was again about to surrender when a great shout was heard, and a close body of Scottish spearmen threw themselves into the ranks of the English horse. Nothing could withstand the impetuosity of the assault. The horsemen recoiled before the levelled spears, and the pikemen, sweeping onward, surrounded the king and his companions.

"Well done, my brave fellows!" Archie cried; "now keep together in a close body and draw off the field."

The darkness which had at first proved so disastrous to the Scots was now favourable to them. The English infantry knew not what was going on. The cavalry tried in vain to break through the ranks of the spearmen, and these, keeping closely together, regained the shelter of the wood, and drew off by way of Dunkeld and Killiecrankie to the mountains of Athole. On their way they were joined by Edward Bruce, the Earl of Athole, Sir Neil Campbell, Gilbert de la Haye, and Douglas, and by many scattered footmen.

To his grief Bruce learned that Randolph, Inchmartin, Somerville, Alexander Fraser, Hugh de la Haye, and others had been captured, but the number killed had been small. When once safe from pursuit a council was held. It was agreed at once that it was impossible that so large a body could find subsistence in the mountains of Athole, cooped up as they were by their foes. The lowlands swarmed with the English; to the north was Badenoch, the district of their bitter enemies the Comyns; while westward lay the territory of the MacDougalls of Lorne, whose chieftain, Alexander, was a nephew by marriage of the Comyn killed by Bruce, and an adherent of the English.

Beyond an occasional deer, and the fish in the lochs and streams, the country afforded no means of subsistence, it was therefore decided to disband the greater portion of the force, the knights and nobles, with a few of their immediate retainers, alone remaining with the king, while the main body dispersed and regained their homes. This was done; but a few days later a messenger came saying that the queen, with the wives of many of the gentlemen, had arrived at Aberdeen and sought to join the king. Although an accession of numbers was by no means desirable, and the hardships of such a life immense for ladies to support, there was no other resource but for them to join the party, as they would otherwise have speedily fallen into the hands of the English. Therefore Bruce, accompanied by some of his followers, rode to Aberdeen and escorted the queen and ladies to his mountain retreat.

It was a strange life that Bruce, his queen, and his little court led. Sleeping in rough arbours formed of boughs, the party supported themselves by hunting and fishing.

Gins and traps were set in the streams, and Douglas and Archie were specially active in this pursuit; Archie's boyish experience at Glen Cairn serving him in good stead. Between him and Sir James Douglas a warm friendship had sprung up. Douglas was four years his junior. As a young boy he had heard much of Archie's feats with Wallace, and his father had often named him to him as conspicuous for his bravery, as well as his youth. The young Douglas therefore entertained the highest admiration for him, and had from the time of his joining Bruce become his constant companion.

Bruce himself was the life and soul of the party. He was ever hopeful and in high spirits, cheering his followers by his gaiety, and wiling away the long evenings by tales of adventure and chivalry, told when they were gathered round the fire.

Gradually the party made their way westward along Loch Tay and Glen Dochart until they reached the head of Strathfillan; here, as they were riding along a narrow pass, they were suddenly attacked by Alexander MacDougall with a large gathering of his clansmen. Several of the royal party were cut down at once, but Bruce with his knights fought desperately. Archie Forbes with a few of the others rallied round the queen with her ladies, and repelled every effort of the wild clansmen to break through, and continued to draw off gradually down the glen. Bruce, with Douglas, De la Haye, and some others, formed the rearguard and kept back the mass of their opponents. De la Haye and Douglas were both wounded, but the little party continued to show a face to their foes until they reached a spot where the path lay between a steep hill on one side and the lake on the other. Then Bruce sent his followers ahead, and himself covered the rear. Suddenly three of the MacDougalls, who had climbed the hillside, made a spring upon him from above. One leapt on to the horse behind the king, and attempted to hold his arms, another seized his bridle rein, while the third thrust his hand between Bruce's leg and the saddle to hurl him from his horse. The path was too narrow for Bruce to turn his horse, and spurring forward he pressed his leg so close to the saddle that he imprisoned the arm of the assailant beneath it and dragged him along with him, while with a blow of his sword he smote off the arm of him who grasped the rein. Then, turning in his saddle, he seized his assailant who was behind him and by main strength wrenched him round to the pommel of the saddle and there slew him. Then he turned and having cut down the man whose arm he held beneath his leg, he rode on and joined his friends.

In the course of the struggle the brooch which fastened his cloak was lost. This was found by the MacDougalls and carried home as a trophy, and has been preserved by the family ever since, with apparently as much pride as if it had been proof of the fidelity and patriotism of their ancestors, instead of being a memento of the time when, as false and disloyal Scotchmen, they fought with England against Scotland's king and deliverer.