Edinburgh after Flodden

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Edinburgh after Flodden
by William Edmonstoune Aytoun

The great battle of Flodden was fought on the 9th of September, 1513. The defeat of the Scottish army, mainly owing to the fantastic ideas of chivalry entertained by James IV,m and his refusal to avail himself of the natural advantages of his position, was by far the most disastrous of any recounted in the history of the northern wars. The whole strength of the kingdom, both Lowland and Highland, was assembled, and the contest was one of the sternest and most desperate upon record.

For several hours the issue seemed doubtful. On the left the Scots obtained a decided advantage; on the right wing they were broken and overthrown; and at last the whole weight of the battle was brought into the centre, where King James and the Earl of Surrey commanded in person. The determined valour of James, imprudent as it was, had the effect of rousing to a pitch of desperation the courage of the meanest soldiers; and the ground becoming soft and slippery from blood, they pulled off their boots and shoes and secured a firmer footing by fighting in their hose.

"It is owned," says Abernathy, "that both parties did wonders, but none on either side performed more than the king himself. He was again told that by coming to handy blows he could do no more than another man, whereas, by keeping the post due to his station, he might be worth many thousands. Yet he would not only fight in person, but also on foot; for he no sooner saw that body of the English give way which was defeated by the Earl of Huntley, but he alighted from his horse, and commanded his guard of noblemen and gentlemen to do the like and follow him. He had at first abundance of success; but at length the Lord Thomas Howard and Sir Edward Stanley, who had defeated their opposites, coming in with the Lord Dacre's horse, and surrounding the King's battalion on all sides, the Scots were so distressed that, for their last defence, they cast themselves into a ring; and being resolved to die nobly with their sovereign, who scorned to ask quarter, were altogether cut off. So say the English writers, and I am apt to believe that they are right."

The battle was maintained with desperate fury until nightfall. At the close, according to Mr. Tytler, "Surrey was uncertain of the result of the battle: the remains of the enemy's centre still held the field; Home, with his Borderers, still hovered on the left; and the commander wisely allowed neither pursuit nor plunder, but drew off his men, and kept a strict watch during the night. When the morning broke, the Scottish artillery were seen standing deserted on the side of the hill; their defenders had disappeared; and the Earl ordered thanks to be given for a victory which was no longer doubtful. Yet, even after all this, a body of the Scots appeared unbroken upon a hill, and were about to charge the Lord-Admiral, when they were compelled to leave their position by a discharge of the English ordnance.

"The loss of the Scots in this fatal battle amounted to about ten thousand men. Of these, a great proportion were of high rank; the remainder being composed of the gentry, the farmers, and landed yeomanry, who disdained to fly when their sovereign and his nobles lay stretched in heaps around them." Besides King James, there fell at Flodden the Archbishop of St. Andrew's, thirteen earls, two bishops, two abbots, fifteen lords and chiefs of clans, and five peers' eldest sons, besides La Motte the French ambassador, and the secretary of the King. The same historian adds—"The names of the gentry who fell are too numerous for recapitulation, since there were few families of note in Scotland which did not lose one relative or another, whilst some homes had to weep the death of all. It is from this cause that the sensations of sorrow and national lamentation occasioned by the defeat were peculiarly poignant and lasting—so that to this day few Scotsmen can hear the name of Flodden without a shudder of gloomy regret."

The loss to Edinburgh on this occasion was particularly great. All the magistrates and able-bodied citizens had followed their King to Flodden, whence very few of them returned. The office of Provost or chief magistrate of the capital was at that time an object of ambition, and was conferred only upon persons of high rank and station. There seems to be some uncertainty whether the holder of this dignity at the time of the Battle of Flodden was Sir Alexander Lauder, ancestor of the Fountainhall family, who was elected in 1511, or that great historical personage, Archibald Earl of Angus, better known as Archibald Bell-the-Cat, who was chosen in 1513, the year of the battle. Both of them were at Flodden. The name of Sir Alexander Lauder appears upon the list of the slain; Angus was one of the survivors, but his son, George, Master of Angus, fell fighting gallantly by the side of King James. The city records of Edinburgh, which commence about this period, are not clear upon that point, and I am rather inclined to think that the Earl of Angus was elected to supply the place of Lauder. But although the actual magistrates were absent, they had formally nominated deputies in their stead. I find, on referring to the city records, that "George of Tours" had been appointed to officiate in the absence of the Provost, and that four other persons were selected to discharge the office of bailies until the magistrates should return.

It is impossible to describe the consternation which pervaded the whole of Scotland when the intelligence of the defeat became known. In Edinburgh it was excessive. Mr. Arnot, in the history of that city, says,—

"The news of their overthrow in the field of Flodden reached Edinburgh on the day after the battle, and overwhelmed the inhabitants with grief and confusion. The streets were crowded with women seeking intelligence about their friends, clamouring and weeping. Those who officiated in absence of the magistrates proved themselves worthy of the trust. They issues a proclamation, ordering all the inhabitants to assemble in military array for defence of the city, on the tolling of the bell; and commanding, 'that all women, and especially strangers, do repair to their work, and not be seen upon the street clamorand and cryand; and that women of the better sort do repair to the church and offer up prayers, at the stated hours, for our Sovereign Lord and his army, and the townsmen who are with the army.'"

Indeed the council records bear ample evidence of the emergency of that occasion. Throughout the earlier pages, the word "Flowdoun" frequently occurs on the margin, in reference to the various hurried orders for arming and defense; and there can be no doubt that, had the English forces attempted to follow up their victory, and attack the Scottish capital, the citizens would have resisted to the last. But it soon became apparent that the loss sustained by the English was so severe, that Surrey was in no condition to avail himself of the opportunity; and in fact, shortly afterwards, he was compelled to disband his army.

The references to the city banner, contained in the following poem, may require a word of explanation. It is a standard still held in great honour and reverence by the burghers of Edinburgh, having been presented to them by James the Third, in return for their loyal service in 1482. This banner, along with that of the Earl Marischal, still conspicuous in the Library of the Faculty of Advocates, was honourably brought back from Flodden, and certainly never could have been displayed in a more memorable field. Maitland says, with reference to this very interesting relic of antiquity,—

"As a perpetual remembrance of the loyalty and bravery of the Edinburghers on the aforesaid occasion, the King granted them a banner or standard, with power to display the same in defense of their king, country, and their own rights. This flag is kept by the Convenor of the Trades; at whose appearance therewith, it is said that not only the artificers of Edinburgh are obliged to repair to it, but all the artisans or craftsmen within Scotland are bound to follow it, and fight under the Convenor of Edinburgh as aforesaid."

No event in Scottish history ever took a more lasting hold of the public mind than the "woeful fight" of Flodden; and even now, the songs and traditions which are current on the Border recall the memory of a contest unsullied by disgrace, though terminating in disaster and defeat.

Edinburgh after Flodden[edit]

I[edit]

News of battle!—news of battle!

Hark! 'tis ringing down the street:

And the archways and the pavement

Bear the clang of hurrying feet.

News of battle? Who hath brought it?

News of triumph? Who should bring

Tidings from our noble army,

Greetings from our gallant King?

All last night we watched the beacons

Blazing on the hills afar,

Each one bearing, as it kindled,

Message of the opened war.

All night long the northern streamers

Shot across the trembling sky:

Fearful lights, that never beckon

Save when kings or heroes die.

II.[edit]

News of battle! Who hath brought it?

All are thronging to the gate;

"Warder—warder! open quickly!

Man—is this a time to wait?"

And the heavy gates are opened:

Then a murmur long and loud,

And a cry of fear and wonder

Bursts from out the bending crowd.

For they see in battered harness

Only one hard-stricken man,

And his weary steed is wounded,

And his cheek is pale and wan.

Spearless hangs a bloody banner

In his weak and drooping hand—

God! can that be Randolph Murray,

Captain of the city band?

III.[edit]

Round him crush the people, crying,

"Tell us all—oh, tell us true!

Where are they who went to battle,

Randolph Murray, sworn to you?

Where are they, our brothers—children?

Have they met the English foe?

Why art thou alone, unfollowed?

Is it weal, or is it woe?"

Like a corpse the grisly warrior

Looks from out his helm of steel;

But no word he speaks in answer,

Only with his armèd heel

Chides his weary steed, and onward

Up the city streets they ride;

Fathers, sisters, mothers, children,

Shrieking, praying by his side.

"By the God that made thee, Randolph!

Tell us what mischance hath come!"

Then he lifts his riven banner,

And the asker's voice is dumb.

IV.[edit]

The elders of the city

Have met within their hall—

The men whom good King James had charged

To watch the tower and wall.

"Your hands are weak with age," he said,

"Your hearts are stout and true;

So bide ye in the Maiden Town,

While others fight for you.

My trumpet from the Border-side

Shall send a blast so clear,

That all who wait within the gate

That stirring sound may hear.

Or, if it be the will of heaven

That back I never come,

And if, instead of Scottish shouts,

Ye hear the English drum,—

Then let the warning bells ring out,

Then gird you to the fray,

Then man the walls like burghers stout,

And fight while fight you may.

'T were better that in fiery flame

The roofs should thunder down,

Than that the foot of foreign foe

Should trample in the town!"

V.[edit]

Then in came Randolph Murray,—

His step was slow and weak,

And, as he doffed his dinted helm,

The tears ran down his cheek:

They fell upon his corslet,

And on his mailèd hand,

As he gazed around him wistfully,

Leaning sorely on his brand.

And none who then beheld him

But straight were smote with fear,

For a bolder and a sterner man

Had never couched a spear.

They knew so sad a messenger

Some ghastly news must bring:

And all of them were fathers,

And their sons were with the King.

VI.[edit]

And up then rose the Provost—

A brave old man was he,

Of ancient name and knightly fame,

And chivalrous degree.

He ruled our city like a Lord

Who brooked no equal here,

And ever for the townsmen's rights
Stood up 'gainst prince and peer.

And he had seen the Scottish host
March from the Borough-muir,

With music-storm and clamorous shout
And all the din that thunders out,

When youth's of victory sure.

But yet a dearer thought had he,

For, with a father's pride,

He saw his last remaining son

Go forth by Randolph's side,

With casque on head and spur on heel,

All keen to do and dare;

And proudly did that gallant boy

Dunedin's banner bear.

Oh, woeful now was the old man's look,

And he spake right heavily—

"Now, Randolph, tell thy tidings,

However sharp they be!

Woe is written on thy visage,

Death is looking from thy face:

Speak, though it be of overthrow—

It cannot be disgrace!"

VII.[edit]

Right bitter was the agony

That wrung the soldier proud:

Thrice did he strive to answer,

And thrice he groaned aloud.

Then he gave the riven banner

To the old man's shaking hand,

Saying—"That is all I bring ye

From the bravest of the land!

Ay! ye may look upon it—

It was guarded well and long,

By your brothers and your children,

By the valiant and the strong.

One by one they fell around it,

As the archers laid them low,

Grimly dying, still unconquered,

With their faces to the foe.

Ay! ye well may look upon it—

There is more than honour there,

Else, be sure, I had not brought it

From the field of dark despair.

Never yet was royal banner

Steeped in such a costly dye;

It hath lain upon a bosom

Where no other shroud shall lie.

Sirs! I charge you keep it holy,

Keep it as a sacred thing,

For the stain you see upon it

Was the life-blood of your King!"

VIII.[edit]

Woe, woe, and lamentation!

What a piteous cry was there!

Widows, maidens, mothers, children,

Shrieking, sobbing in despair!

Through the streets the death-word rushes,

Spreading terror, sweeping on—

"Jesu Christ! our King has fallen—

O great God, King James is gone!

Holy Mother Mary, shield us,

Thou who erst did lose thy Son!

O the blackest day for Scotland

That she ever knew before!

O our King—the good, the noble,

Shall we see him never more?

Woe to us and woe to Scotland,

O our sons, our sons and men!

Surely some have 'scaped the Southron,

Surely some will come again!"

Till the oak that fell last winter

Shall uprear its shattered stem—

Wives and mothers of Dunedin—

Ye may look in vain for them!

IX.[edit]

But within the Council Chamber

All was silent as the grave,

Whilst the tempest of their sorrow

Shook the bosoms of the brave.

Well indeed might they be shaken

With the weight of such a blow:

He was gone—their prince, their idol,

Whom they loved and worshipped so!

Like a knell of death and judgment

Rung from heaven by angel hand,

Fell the words of desolation

On the elders of the land.

Hoary heads were bowed and trembling,

Withered hands were clasped and wrung:

God had left the old and feeble,

He had ta'en away the young.

X.[edit]

Then the Provost he uprose,

And his lip was ashen white,

But a flush was on his brow,

And his eye was full of light.

"Thou hast spoken, Randolph Murray,

Like a soldier stout and true;

Thou hast done a deed of daring

Had been perilled but by few.

For thou hast not shamed to face us,

Nor to speak thy ghastly tale,

Standing—thou, a knight and captain—

Here, alive within thy mail!

Now, as my God shall judge me,

I hold it braver done,

Than hadst thou tarried in thy place,

And died above my son!

Thou needst not tell it: he is dead.

God help us all this day!

But speak—how fought the citizens

Within the furious fray?

For, by the might of Mary,

'Twere something still to tell

That no Scottish foot went backward

When the Royal Lion fell!"

XI.[edit]

"No one failed him! He is keeping

Royal state and semblance still;

Knight and noble lie around him,

Cold on Flodden's fatal hill.

Of the brave and gallant-hearted,

Whom ye sent with prayers away,

Not a single man departed

From his monarch yesterday.

Had you seen them, O my masters!

When the night began to fall,

And the English spearmen gathered

Round a grim and ghastly wall!

As the wolves in winter circle

Round the leaguer on the heath,

So the greedy foe glared upward,

Panting still for blood and death.

But a rampart rose before them,

Which the boldest dared not scale;

Every stone a Scottish body,

Every step a corpse in mail!

And behind it lay our monarch

Clenching still his shivered sword:

By his side Montrose and Athole,

At his feet a southern lord.

All so thick they lay together,

When the stars lit up the sky,

That I knew not who were stricken,

Or who yet remained to die,

Few there were when Surrey halted,

And his wearied host withdrew;

None but dying men around me,

When the English trumpet blew.

Then I stooped, and took the banner,

As ye see it, from his breast,

And I closed our hero's eyelids,

And I left him to his rest.

In the mountains growled the thunder,

As I leaped the woeful wall,

And the heavy clouds were settling

Over Flodden, like a pall."

XII.[edit]

So he ended. And the others

Cared not any answer then;

Sitting silent, dumb with sorrow,

Sitting anguish-struck, like men

Who have seen the roaring torrent

Sweep their happy homes away,

And yet linger by the margin,

Staring idly on the spray.

But, without, the maddening tumult

Waxes ever more and more,

And the crowd of wailing women

Gather round the Council door.

Every dusky spire is ringing

With a dull and hollow knell,

And the Miserere's singing

To the tolling of the bell.

Through the streets the burghers hurry,

Spreading terror as they go;

And the rampart's thronged with watchers

For the coming of the foe.

From each mountain-top a pillar

Streams into the torpid air,

Bearing token from the Border

That the English host is there.

All without is flight and terror,

All within is woe and fear—

God protect thee, Maiden City,

For thy latest hour is near!

XIII.[edit]

No! not yet, thou high Dunedin!

Shalt thou totter to thy fall;

Though thy bravest and thy strongest

Are not there to man the wall.

No, not yet! the ancient spirit

Of our fathers hath not gone;

Take it to thee as a buckler

Better far than steel or stone.

Oh, remember those who perished

For thy birthright at the time

When to be a Scot was treason,

And to side with Wallace, crime!

Have they not a voice among us,

Whilst their hallowed dust is here?

Hear ye not a summons sounding

From each buried warrior's bier?

"Up!"—they say—"and keep the freedom

Which we won you long ago:

Up! and keep our graves unsullied

From the insults of the foe!

Up! and if ye cannot save them,

Come to us in blood and fire:

Midst the crash of falling turrets,

Let the last of Scots expire!"

XIV.[edit]

Still the bells are tolling fiercely,

And the cry comes louder in;

Mothers wailing for their children,

Sisters for their slaughtered kin.

All is terror and disorder,

Till the Provost rises up,

Calm, as though he had not tasted

Of the fell and bitter cup.

All so stately from his sorrow,

Rose the old undaunted Chief,

That you had not deemed, to see him,

His was more than common grief.

"Rouse ye, Sirs!" he said; "we may not

Longer mourn for what is done:

If our King be taken from us,

We are left to guard his son.

We have sworn to keep the city

From the foe, whate'er they be,

And the oath that we have taken

Never shall be broke by me.

Death is nearer to us, brethren,

Than it seemed to those who died,

Fighting yesterday at Flodden,

By their lord and master's side.

Let us meet it then in patience,

Not in terror or in fear;

Though our hearts are bleeding yonder,

Let our souls be steadfast here.

Up, and rouse ye! Time is fleeting,

And we yet have much to do;

Up! and haste ye through the city,

Stir the burghers stout and true!

Gather all our scattered people,

Fling the banner out once more,—

Randolph Murray! do thou bear it,

As it erst was borne before:

Never Scottish heart will leave it,

When they see their monarch's gore!

XV.[edit]

"Let them cease that dismal knelling!

It is time enough to ring,

When the fortress-strength of Scotland

Stoops to ruin like its King.

Let the bells be kept for warning,

Not for terror or alarm;

When they next are heard to thunder,

Let each man and stripling arm.

Bid the women leave their wailing,—

Do they think that woeful strain,

From the bloody heaps of Flodden

Can redeem their dearest slain?

Bid them cease,—or rather hasten

To the churches, every one;

There to pray to Mary Mother,

And to her anointed Son,

That the thunderbolt above us

May not fall in ruin yet;

That in fire, and blood, and rapine,

Scotland's glory may not set.

Let them pray,—for never women

Stood in need of such a prayer!

England's yeomen shall not find them

Clinging to the altars there.

No! if we are doomed to perish,

Man and maiden, let us fall;

And a common gulf of ruin

Open wide to whelm us all!

Never shall the ruthless spoiler

Lay his hot insulting hand

On the sisters of our heroes,

Whilst we bear a torch or brand!

Up! and rouse ye, then, my brothers,

But when next ye hear the bell

Sounding forth the sullen summons

That may be our funeral knell,

Once more let us meet together,

Once more see each other's face;

Then, like men that need not tremble,

Go to our appointed place.

God, our Father, will not fail us

In that last tremendous hour,—

If all other bulwarks crumble,

He will be our strength and tower:

Though the ramparts rock beneath us,

And the walls go crashing down,

Though the roar of conflagration

Bellow o'er the sinking town;

There is yet one place of shelter,

Where the foeman cannot come,

Where the summons never sounded

Of the trumpet or the drum.

There again we'll meet our children,

Who, on Flodden's trampled sod,

For their king and for their country

Rendered up their souls to God.

There shall we find rest and refuge,

With our dear departed brave;

And the ashes of the city

Be our universal grave!"