Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Douglas, William (1300?-1353)

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DOUGLAS, Sir WILLIAM, Knight of Liddesdale (1300?–1353), was the eldest lawful son of Sir James Douglas of Lothian, though he has been called by many the natural son of the ‘Good’ Sir James. These two Sir James were descended from the same great-grandfather. The ‘Good’ Sir James was progenitor of the Earls of Douglas and Angus; his namesake was ancestor of the Douglases, earls of Morton.

Sir William Douglas was one of the bravest leaders of the Scots during the minority of David II. In 1332 he held the responsible post of keeper of Lochmaben Castle and warden of the west marches. Hostilities had been renewed between England and Scotland, and Douglas led a marauding force into Cumberland, laying waste the territory of Gillsland. In a retaliatory raid led by Sir Anthony Lucy, in which the English were confronted by Douglas and the forces at his command, the Scots were totally defeated, and Douglas, with all the chivalry of Annandale, fell into the hands of their enemies. For two years he was confined in irons in the castle of Carlisle, and was then ransomed for a very considerable sum. He returned to Scotland, and after taking part in the deliberations of the Scottish estates at Dairsie In Fife, he set himself the patriotic task of clearing the country of its southern invaders. For the greater part of seven years he lurked in the recesses of Jedburgh Forest and in other mountainous districts of the south of Scotland, making sudden and daring sallies around against all the towns and castles garrisoned by the English soldiery. In these, says Froissart, many perilous and gallant adventures befell them, from which they derived much honour and renown. He expelled the English from Teviotdale with the exception of the castle of Roxburgh, and he was appointed sheriff of that district and also constable of that castle, the two offices being always conjoined. Much of the territory thus recovered and held against the English by Douglas had belonged to the ‘Good’ Sir James, lord of Douglas, whose brother Hugh was now lord of Douglas. From the latter Douglas received gifts of lands, and David II also rewarded him in 1342 by a grant of the lordship of Liddesdale, which, with its castle of Hermitage, he had likewise wrested from the English. It was from this district he derived the title of Knight of Liddesdale. In another grant a few months later the king acknowledges the services of Douglas to the crown and kingdom as both numerous and important.

He took part in the wars against Edward Baliol, the aspirant to the Scottish throne. Baliol had engaged the services of a body of foreign knights, which was encountered at the Boroughmuir of Edinburgh by the regent Moray, when Douglas's assistance contributed materially to the final success. In December 1337 Douglas accompanied Sir Andrew Moray of Bothwell to the north of Scotland, when they slew at Kildrummie the Earl of Atholl, Baliol's lieutenant, to whom Douglas believed he owed his protracted imprisonment in England. The Scots followed up Atholl's defeat by retaking many of the fortresses north of the Forth, and then laying siege to Edinburgh. Some English troops were despatched to the relief of the garrison, but these were met by Douglas at Crichton Castle, and forced to return. In this fight he sustained a severe wound, but he was soon able to represent his country in some chivalric tournaments with the English which were arranged soon afterwards. On the resumption of hostilities his compatriots elected Douglas as their ambassador to the French court. He obtained five ships of war, and, returning with these while his countrymen were engaged in the siege of Perth, he sailed his ships up the Tay and secured the victory. The remaining Scottish fortresses quickly fell into the hands of the Scots, Douglas aiding in the capture of not a few, while by a shrewd trick of war, with but a few men, he himself effected the capture of the castle of Edinburgh. He contrived to introduce a number of men hidden in some casks, others attending the cart in the disguise of seamen.

David II returned to Scotland from France in 1342. The castle of Roxburgh had been won from the English by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, and to reward him the king, probably unaware of the possession of the same by Douglas, bestowed the custody of the castle of Roxburgh and the sheriffship of Teviotdale on Ramsay. This gave mortal offence to Douglas. Ramsay came down to hold his court at Hawick, and was met by Douglas on apparently friendly terms; but on taking his seat on the tribunal, and inviting Douglas to sit beside him, Douglas drew his sword, wounded and seized his rival, and, carrying him off to his castle of Hermitage, threw him into a dungeon and left him to starve. The king was highly incensed. But Douglas placed himself beyond the reach of the royal vengeance until his pardon had been procured by friends, and on being restored to favour the grant of the offices of constable of Roxburgh Castle and sheriff of Teviotdale was confirmed to him. There is reason, however, to suppose that Douglas from this time wavered in his allegiance to David.

In 1346 Douglas accompanied the Scottish king in his expedition into England, which terminated disastrously at Durham. He was in command of one of the divisions of the army, and after the Scots had achieved certain successes he counselled them to retire. His advice was rejected with scorn, and he soon saw his countrymen defeated and scattered, and his king, with many fellow-knights and himself, a prisoner in the hands of the English. For nearly six years he was detained in England, and he then, to regain his liberty, consented to become an agent of Edward III in some secret negotiations with the Scottish nobles for the release of their king. He went to Scotland on this mission, but the negotiations proved abortive, and Douglas returned to his prison in the Tower. In the following year Edward again offered him his freedom if he would sign an agreement to become his liegeman, make over Liddesdale and his castle of Hermitage, and grant free passage through his lands at all times to Edward's forces, to which Douglas, weary of his captivity, consented and returned to Scotland.

During his absence the independent spirit of the Scots had been kept alive and fostered by others, among whom was William, lord (afterwards earl) of Douglas, the son of Sir Archibald the regent, and consequently nephew of the ‘Good’ Sir James and of his brother Hugh, whom he succeeded. The Lord of Douglas is also said to have been named after the Knight of Liddesdale. He was engaged in active hostilities against the English in the south of Scotland when the Knight of Liddesdale returned from his captivity. In August 1353 they met during a hunt in Ettrick Forest, and the Knight of Liddesdale was slain by his kinsman, the Lord of Douglas. The place where he fell was named Galswood, afterwards William's Hope, and a cross called William's Cross long stood on the spot. His body was conveyed to Lindean Church, near Selkirk, and thence to Melrose Abbey, where it was buried in front of the altar of St. Bridget, and the Lord of Douglas himself afterwards granted a mortification to the church for the saying of masses for the repose of the slain knight's soul. What occasioned the slaughter has never been clearly ascertained. One theory, for which Hume of Godscroft seems mainly responsible, is that expressed in the old ballad which he cites, speaking of an intrigue between the Knight of Liddesdale and the ‘Countess of Douglas.’ There was, however, no Earl of Douglas until 1358, and consequently there was no countess. A much earlier, and probably contemporary historian, John of Fordun, says it was in revenge for the murder of Sir Alexander Ramsay, and also of Sir David Barclay, who is said to have been killed at the instigation of the Knight of Liddesdale while in England after the battle of Durham. It may, however, have been due to the resentment of the Lord of Douglas at his kinsman's agreement with the English king. It has also been suggested that the Lord of Douglas may have been provoked by his kinsman giving away to the English king lands which he claimed as his own. The Lord of Douglas afterwards claimed and obtained the lordship of Liddesdale. The Knight of Liddesdale was also called the ‘Flower of Chivalry.’

[Fordun's Chronicon, with Bower's Continuation; Liber de Melros; Reg. Honor. de Morton; Hume of Godscroft's Houses of Douglas and Angus; Fraser's Douglas Book.]

H. P.