Archive for February, 2010

The Black Douglas.  The very name evokes images of dread.  He is said to have had thick black hair and a thick, black beard, but to the English, the name referred strictly to his deeds.  Starting immediately after Bannockburn, when Edward II refused to grant recognition to the Scots as an independent nation, James Douglas embarked on a series of border raids, plundering, pillaging, and burning much of the north of England.  So dreaded was his name that a rhyme sprang up about him:  

Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,

Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,

The Black Douglas shall not get ye.

One famous story tells of a mother consoling her child with the rhyme above.  At the final words, a voice behind her said, “At least not tonight.”  The Black Douglas had stood behind her in silence, listening to her sing.  (To the best of my knowledge, Douglas did neither her nor her child any harm.)

It is hard to imagine that a child’s hobby horse could have any relation to medieval warfare, or a man of such fierce reputation.  And yet, it is from the horses ridden by Robert Bruce and the Black Douglas and their men that we get the name hobby horse.

The Irish Hobby is the official name of the breed, developed before the 13th century, and now extinct, though it was used to develop many current breeds, including the Connemara and the Irish Draught.  They were smaller horses, sometimes described as more like ponies, whose strength was in being light, agile, and swift.   The name, in fact, is believed to come from the French hobin, which is said to come in turn from the Gaelic obann, meaning swift. 

The hobbin’s speed came, in part, from being well suited to the bogs, forests, and hills of Ireland and Scotland.  Being light and agile allowed it to move easily through such places, where the large English warhorse was at a disadvantage.  Even in such rough conditions, hobelars–the men who rode the hobbins–could cover an astonishing 60 to 70 miles a day, allowing them to make the lightning strike-and-retreat raids across the English border for which James Douglas was especially famed.

Unlike the warhorse, trained for battle, the hobbin was essentially a mode of transport.  The Scots typically rode in fast, dismounted to fight on foot, and rode out again.  The humble hobbin, however, might claim some credit for the Scots frequent ability to outfight much larger armies.  Imagine how it might have been:

The Connemara Pony, a breed believed to be similar to the hobbins ridden by James Douglas and his men.

 Half a dozen Scots, leaning low over their hobbins’ necks, shot in and out among mist-laced trees. Dark hair streamed behind them, tartans flapped over their shoulders in the wild night ride. Sweat and horseflesh stung their noses; adrenaline drove them, hearts pounding. From behind came the shouts of a score of English knights, their large warhorses crashing through the dark woods. The hobbins bolted up a rocky hill like mountain goats, and scrambled, nimble-footed, down the other side . They skimmed the spongy bog at the bottom, into the cover of forest beyond. Although the hobbin has the reputation of being a Scottish horse, King Edward saw their many assets.  England used them in its  own share of attacks on the Scots, often with far uglier and blacker methods than Douglas used.  At least one source reports the English crucifying priests on their own church doors.  While the church burned.

Silhouetted by the moon, the first English charger stumbled at the top of the hill, struggling to keep its footing under a thousand pounds of knight, armor, and weapons. The Scots loosed a storm of arrows, felling knights as they picked their way down the slope.

One armor-covered stallion burst onto the moor.  Mud sucked at its fetlocks, dragging it down. It lifted its nose, bared its teeth with an angry scream, yanking its leg. Two more knights reached the bog. The Scots loosed another volley; three mired horses and riders went down.

None of it is quite what we think of today when we see children skipping with their hobby horses to the jovial strains of the William Tell Overture.

John Balliol is a name largely unknown to Americans, but he had the fortune–good or bad–to be briefly king of Scotland.

John Balliol’s kingship came via several avenues.  The first was the luck of the draw: he just so happened to be born a great-great-great grandson of David I of Scotland.  I’m guessing most of us don’t even know the names of our great-great-great grandfathers, but in his case, such a name was vitally important to an entire nation; in fact, to two, as we’ll see.

The second factor in John Balliol’s kingship was a series of unfortunate deaths.  He would have lived part of his life under the rule of Alexander III of Scotland.  Alexander had three children, all of whom preceded him in death: David, the younger son, in 1281, Margaret, Queen of Norway, in childbirth 1283; and the elder brother, Prince Alexander, in 1284.  This left Alexander’s young granddaughter, Margaret, known as The Maid of Norway, as his sole heir.  With Alexander’s wife and three children all dead, and a country in need of an heir, Alexander re-married.  His race home to his new bride, despite adverse weather, ironically, led to his death when his horse fell over a cliff in the dark, and exactly the situation a new wife was supposed to prevent. 

Alexander’s young granddaughter, three or four years of age when Alexander died, was sent from Norway, in 1290, to take the throne of Scotland.  Not only did she become ill on the voyage, but a storm blew her ship off course.  She died on September 26, 1290 on Orkney Island, at the age of 7.

This left a country that had, just a few short years before, had a monarch and four clear heirs, with no obvious successor to the throne.

Into this void stepped thirteen men, all claiming the right of succession.  Maybe six of these had strong claims, with Robert Bruce, “the Competitor,” grandfather of the better known Robert the Bruce, Robert I of Scotland, and John Balliol having the strongest.  John Balliol and his three older brothers–all of whom had predeceased him, leaving him as the possible heir–were descended from an elder daughter of the line of King David, while Bruce was descended from a second daughter, but a generation closer to David I.

Still, civil war threatened to break out.  The Scots invited Edward I, Edward Longshanks, King of England, to settle the matter.  Edward chose John Balliol, viewing him as the weaker and more easily controlled man.  So on the 17th of November, 1292, Balliol became king of Scotland. 

His reign was short-lived.

Fortunately for Scotland, perhaps unfortunately for John himself, neither he nor Scotland was quite as weak as Longshanks expected.  At first, homage to Edward I, as the self-declared Lord Paramount of Scotland, was forced from the Scottish nobility.  (Does anyone besides me sense a medieval Death Star hovering at the border?  Actually, it was called a trebuchet in those times.)  Edward did his best to undermine John’s authority and humiliate him, demanding and receiving legal authority, money, and troops.

In 1294, Edward demanded Scottish troops for his war against France, setting a deadline of September 1. Scotland’s response was to immediately enter their own negotiations both with France and Norway.  In October of 1294, John Balliol openly defied Edward.  By the summer of 1295, Edward became aware of Scotland’s negotiations with France, and, being a medieval king, did what medieval kings (usually) did best: he gathered his troops to wage war. 

1296 saw the outbreak of hostilities, as Edward Longshanks, in a brief respite from his war against France, drove his army north to conquer the Scots.

John Balliol was known in his own lifetime by, and has come down through history with, the moniker Toom Tabard, meaning empty coat.  It stems from the incident at his capture and forced abdication on July 10, 1296, in which Edward Longshanks, ever on the lookout for a good chance to humiliate a man, ripped the heraldic insignia from Balliol’s tabard, or tunic.

Balliol’s brief kingship ended with capture of himself and his son by Longshanks, and his forced abdication on July 10, 1296.  He was imprisoned  in England’s Tower of London, released in 1299 briefly into the custody of the Pope, and in 1301, allowed to go to his estates in France, where he lived out the rest of his life in exile.