Callum Watson - PhD History
On Palm Sunday 1307 – according to John Barbour – James Douglas led an attack on the garrison of Douglas Castle while they were hearing Mass. Having taken the unarmed garrison captive, Douglas and his men took them back to the castle, slaughtered them in the cellar, plundered the castle’s stores, poisoned the well, and burned the entire structure to the ground. This act of brutality – subsequently known as the Douglas Larder – is extreme even by the often gory standards of medieval warfare. Its inclusion in a work like The Bruce – in which Douglas is portrayed as a paragon of chivalry, alongside the likes of Hector – is remarkable. My purpose here is to explore the ways in which Barbour attempts to justify Douglas’ actions with reference to his obligations as a loyal knight in the service of King Robert, and what this tells us about Barbour’s understanding of chivalry more broadly.
|Image One: Harold swears an oath on holy relics (Bayeux Tapestry, ca. 1070. Tapestry. Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, Bayeux, France).|
The first of these obligations results from an exchange between Douglas and the king, which takes place immediately before the events of the Douglas Larder. Douglas seeks permission from the king to visit his lands, which are currently occupied by the English. King Robert is initially unwilling to let Douglas go due to the danger involved, but responds:
“He said, ‘Schyr, nedways I will wend
And tak that aventur will giff
Quhether-sa it be to dey or lyff.’”
J. Barbour, The Bruce, Bk. 5, ll. 242-244
This declaration echoes a formula employed repeatedly in Barbour’s Bruce in which characters express the seriousness of their intentions by swearing to carry them out even at the cost of their life. Oath-making was a key part of political life in medieval Scotland, and thus was taken very seriously. Almost every social contract involved the exchange of oaths, and often this was done while touching the Gospels or other holy items. Thus, by having Douglas express himself in these terms, Barbour reinforces Douglas’ resolve.
However, King Robert not only gives Douglas permission to go, he also offers to assist Douglas in the recovery of his lands if Douglas should find anything ‘anoyis or scaithfull’ (distressful or hurtful, Bk. 5, ll. 249) there. This offer is a potentially huge concession on the king’s part, and can be best explained with the reference to the friendship between the two men. Bruce and Douglas’ friendship is the most important relationship in The Bruce (far more important than the one between Bruce and his poor wife, who only appears when she is captured by the English and again when she is released!). Friendship in the medieval period was a formal arrangement that placed specific responsibilities on the individuals involved – including the provision of mutual assistance in the settlement of disputes. Friendship with the king in particular also offered lucrative opportunities for patronage, as well as influence at a governmental level – as is seen repeatedly throughout The Bruce in Douglas’ influence on the king’s decisions, thanks to their closeness. It is Douglas’ friendship with King Robert that enables him to secure permission to visit his lands, but Bruce’s promise to fulfil his duties as Douglas' friend potentially jeopardise Bruce’s recovery of his own inheritance – which is no less than the entire kingdom. Douglas thus finds himself obliged to find a way to relieve the king of this burden, based on the same principle of mutual assistance that led to Bruce’s promise of aid.
Consequently, Douglas is forced to employ unorthodox tactics in order to achieve his ends. To do so, Douglas must apply to the situation what Barbour refers to as ‘worschip’. For Barbour, ‘worschip’ means using ‘wyt’ (intelligence) to govern one’s ‘hardyment’ (boldness), in order to find the most prudent course of action and make the best of the current circumstances. Barbour devotes considerable space in The Bruce to promoting this principle, elevating martial prudence to the level of a chivalric virtue. In an earlier part of the poem, Barbour places a speech in King Robert’s mouth in which he declares that a prudent knight should ‘ay thynk to cum to purpos’ (Bk. 3, ll. 263), meaning that he should always seek success in his military endeavours. It is this principle that guides Douglas’ behaviour while he is visiting his hereditary lands. Barbour even explains Douglas’ specific concerns when slighting the castle (Bk. 5, ll. 268-270, 415-428). On arriving in Douglasdale, he quickly realises that he cannot compete with the English in terms of manpower, so he resolves to combat them with guile. After taking the castle, Douglas recognises that he cannot garrison the castle and hold it himself, and so he destroys it as completely as he can – thereby denying the English the use of it in the future. Douglas thus ensures the best possible outcome, while putting himself and his men in as little danger as possible, and at the same time absolves the king of any obligation to intervene in the situation.
|Image Four: Sir James Douglas’ tomb in St Bride’s Kirk, Douglas. This may very well have been the kirk in which Douglas found the English garrison on the day of the Douglas Larder!|
In The Bruce, the Douglas Larder is not presented as a vicious act of sacrilege, nor is it presented as an unusually bloody incident in a wider campaign. Rather, Barbour presents it as the tale of a noble knight, alone in enemy territory, drawing on all of his personal resources to fulfil his obligations as a chivalric hero and achieve success in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.
J. Barbour, The Bruce, (A.A.M. Duncan ed. & trans.), (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1997).
S. Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III 1371-1406, (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1996).
M. Brown, The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300-1455 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1998).
S. Cameron, ‘Chivalry and Warfare in Barbour’s Bruce’, in M. Strickland (ed.), Armies, Chivalry and Warfare in Medieval Britain and France: proceedings of the 1995 Harlaxton Symposium (Stamford: Paul Watkins Pub., 1998).
A. Classen, ‘Friendship – The Quest for a Human Ideal and Value from Antiquity to the Early Modern Time’, in A. Classen and M. Sandridge (eds.), Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: Explorations of a Fundamental Ethical Discourse, (Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010).
R. Hyatte, The Arts of Friendship: The Idealisation of Friendship in Medieval and Early Renaissance Literature, (Leiden/New York: Brill, 1994).