Longsword by David Pilling

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Subtle traitors, part two...

SUBTLE TRAITORS, Part 2 - by David Pilling

The red bull of Dacre

After the collapse of their rebellion, the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland fled for safety into Scotland. The ‘bankrupt earls’, as they were called, were desperate enough to look for shelter in Liddesdale, that dark valley in the Scottish West March and home to the most dangerous of reiver families. In the depths of a foul December, the worn-out riders pushed through the Debateable Land and finally reached the outskirts of the valley. By now they had dwindled to just a handful: the earls themselves, Northumberland’s Countess, Lady Anne, her attendants and about forty mounted soldiers. This exhausted bunch of fugitives was all that remained of the great rebel army that had swept through northern England and threatened York.

They were met by two of the most infamous reivers of Liddesdale, Black Jock Ormiston and Jock of the Side. Ormiston is mentioned in government correspondence as an outlaw and ‘principal murderer’ who once rode with Bothwell, Queen Mary’s ill-fated lover. Jock of the Side is more difficult to identify, since there were so many Scottish reivers of that name. He may well be the same Jock mentioned in the ballads of Hobbie Noble, a semi-legendary English outlaw. According to the ballad, Jock rescued Hobbie from prison in Newcastle, and was famous in his own right as a ‘great thief’:

“He is weil kend, John of the Syde,
A greater thief did never ryde.”

All in all, these two rough characters were not the sort of delicate company Lady Anne Percy was used to. She had to make the best of it, for her husband agreed to leave his wife and her attendants in Jock’s tender care. Even in Liddesdale, there was no safety for the earls; Moray, the Scottish regent, offered the reivers a reward to hand over their guests, and at the same time sent a band of soldiers to threaten them if they refused. Faced with Moray’s wrath, Ormiston informed the earls they must be out of Liddesdale within twenty-four hours. Northumberland and Westmoreland were forced to take to the road again. Too exhausted to go any further, Lady Anne was left behind at Jock’s house, described as a ‘cottage not to be compared to any dog kennel in England.’

The earls now made their way to the house of Hector Armstrong of Harlaw, who cheerfully agreed to take them in. On Christmas Eve, in true reiver style, Hector betrayed Northumberland to Moray’s men in return for cash. Westmoreland bravely tried to rescue his ally, but was driven off by the regent’s soldiers. Poor Simple Tom remained a prisoner of the Scots for two years, until he was bought by the English and handed over to Lord Hunsdon. After a further spell of prison at Berwick, he was taken to York and beheaded. His head was spiked over the gates of the city he had once dreamed of capturing.

Queen Elizabeth’s troubles were far from over. Westmoreland remained at large, now a guest of the Scotts of Buccleuch, and Crookback Dacre had yet to make his move. On 23rd January 1570, the fragile peace was shattered by the assassination of Moray, shot in the stomach at Linlithgow by one James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh. Moray was the one man in Scotland able to keep the Borderers in check, and with his death their last restraint fell away. Walter Scott of Buccleuch, that old scoundrel, gleefully informed Westmoreland that “the regent is as cold as my bridle bit.” As was his habit when excited, the earl tore off his bonnet and threw it into the fire. Within hours he and his Scottish allies, joined by exiles from England, were in the saddle and tearing over the border to loot, raid and destroy.

Their aim, apart from wanton destruction, was to stir up a new war between England and Scotland. Fresh trouble in the north, so soon after the recent rebellion, could only serve Queen Mary’s ends. Their chief ally on the English side was Crookback Leonard Dacre, now fully committed to the rebel cause. Unlike the earls, Dacre cared little for Mary, and was chiefly motivated by the loss of his inheritance: his nephew, heir to the Dacre barony, had died after falling off a vaulting-horse in 1569. Leonard, a Catholic, had expected to inherit the baronetcy, but instead Elizabeth chose to give it to the Protestant Howards. Enraged at being passed over, Dacre threw in his lot with the rebels. From his manor at Naworth, he gave orders for 3000 riders to muster under the famous red bull banner of the Dacres. Leonard’s ancestor, Thomas Dacre, had carried the red bull (pictured) to victory over the Scots at Flodden in 1513, and it would now be unfurled against the Queen of England.

With Dacre’s assistance, the allies threatened to overrun the entire line of the March. Lord Scrope at Carlisle wrote a bleak message of the Queen, warning that his city stood in danger. The defence of the north lay in the hands of Lord Hunsdon and the ubiquitous Sir John Forster, who had done so much to crush the revolt of the earls. Fortunately for Queen Elizabeth, these two were as tough and capable as they come. Together they scratched together a force of Borderers and Middle March riders, and set out to hunt down Dacre before he could be joined by his allies from Scotland. They rode hard from Hexham at the dead of night, their way lit by bale-fires burning all along the frontier. There was a nightmarish quality about the scene: “Every hill was full of horse and foot,” Hunsdon later wrote, “crying and shouting as if they had been mad.”

More to come in Part 3…

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