Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Subtle traitors, part 3

...and third and last!

SUBTLE TRAITORS, part 3 - by David Pilling


While Lord Hunsdon and Sir John Forster scrambled to muster their forces, the rebellious Leonard Dacre gathered his own troops at Naworth. The Border had been in turmoil for a month. Starting on January 26th, and continuing every night for four weeks, the Scottish reivers hit England with one foray after another. Among them was the Earl of Westmoreland, recently fled into Scotland after his failed rebellion. He and his allies Ferniehurst, Scott of Buccleuch and Johnston, sought to provoke war between the two kingdoms. When the north slithered into chaos, they intended to ride south, liberate Mary Queen of Scots, and topple Elizabeth Tudor from her throne.  

Westmoreland and his crew were not equipped to realise these high ambitions. Their attack on Wark Castle was beaten off, and they had to content themselves with burning corn and stealing sheep belonging to the captain of the garrison, Rowland Forster. On January 30th they rode as far as Morpeth, where they were rumoured to have allies. On other occasions they targeted Kirknewton, about six miles from the Scottish border, where they roughed up local tenant farmers and carried a few away as prisoners. More seriously, they attacked Learmouth, though this town also proved too well-stocked and garrisoned to be taken. The English ambassador in Scotland, Thomas Randolph, carefully monitored events and sent a detailed report to Queen Elizabeth in London. He described the raids themselves as mere pin-pricks; worryingly, however, they had the full support of the Marian party and might lead to a full-scale rising in northern England. Elizabeth was warned by other agents of “whispering and mutiny” in the northern counties.

The English and Scottish confederates invested their hopes in Dacre. He had proved a fickle ally in the past, but only he had the power to raise enough men to threaten the north. Elizabeth was alive to the danger he posed, and ordered her wardens to arrest him. Lord Scrope, Warden of the West March, appreciated the danger of simply riding to Naworth and seizing the culprit: the Dacre family was far too popular in the north country and his tenants would resist any such attempt. Instead Scrope tried subtlety and invited Dacre to Carlisle on false pretences. Dacre refused to walk into such an obvious trap. He pretended he was too ill to travel and was suffering from a “contagious ague” as well as a sore leg. At the same time he sent a secret message to the rebels in Scotland with apologies and promised “he would soon show himself openly their friend.” His brother Edward, always true to the Marian cause, reassured Westmoreland of Dacre’s support:

“My lord of Westmoreland, he hath assured me, upon his honour, by giving his hand unto me, that if he might have the certainty of your handwriting, that you would maintain the Catholic faith and the Queen of Scottish action, he would with like parts, be yours, til death.”


Leonard now set about putting his fine words into action. He openly gathered forces from among the English and Scots borderers, until he had 3000 riders under his command. To anxious queries from royal officers, he explained that he needed these men to defend his lands against rebel raids. To his tenants, he claimed that Queen Elizabeth meant to seize his rightful inheritance. In reality Dacre meant to use these men to help Westmoreland depose the Queen and install Mary in her place.

For all his cleverness and scheming, he had reckoned without Elizabeth’s loyal wardens. Hunsdon and Forster rode hard through the night with about 1500 men and arrived at Naworth on the morning of February 20th, intending to arrest Dacre. On the way they had witnessed hundreds of men, horse and foot, scrambling to join the traitor’s army. Naworth was too strong to attack, so the wardens decided to push on to join Lord Scrope at Carlisle. They had to move quickly: Dacre’s forces were swelling by the hour, and another 1500-2000 men under Westmoreland and Buccleuch expected to cross the border at any moment.  

Had Dacre sat tight at Naworth and waited for reinforcements, Anglo-Scottish history might have taken a very different course. As it was, the little army marching across his front proved too tempting a target to ignore. He led his men out of Naworth and shadowed the wardens for four miles, until Hundson and Forster arrived at the banks of the Hell Beck, a river flowing through one of the loveliest parts of Cumberland. Here, amid a landscape of beautiful woodland and rocky river gullies, Dacre chose to offer battle. He seized a ridge of high ground above the Beck, unfurled his red steer banner and ordered his men to send up the old war-cry:
“UPON THEM! UPON THEM! A DACRE, A DACRE, A RED BULL!”

With their backs to the rushing water, Hunsdon and Forster had little choice but to fight. Hunsdon’s men hurriedly formed up, even as Dacre’s entire force spilled down the moor in a headlong charge. Lord Hunsdon was impressed by the valour of the rebels: it was, he later wrote, “the bravest charge upon my shot I ever saw.”

Brave but futile. Dacre’s mixture of tenant farmers, Border riders and outlaws were up against trained soldiers, who calmly unleashed a volley of caliver and pistol fire into their ranks. The rebel line staggered, but still the red bull banner flew, and the survivors tore into Hunsdon’s troopers. At this crucial moment, with the fight raging all across the moor, a trumpet sounded: old Forster came plunging into the rebel flank at the head of five hundred horse, laying about him with pistol and sabre like a man half his age. The impact of his wild charge shattered Dacre’s army, and the battle dissolved into a chaotic series of duels and melĂ©es, fought up and down the length of the Beck. According to one chronicler, Dacre had summoned a number of women to fight alongside their menfolk: “there were among them many desperate women that gave the adventure of their lives and fought stoutly.”

In the end, the rebels were slaughtered. Three to four hundred were left dead on the field, many other seriously wounded, and over two hundred taken prisoner. Dacre himself was nearly caught, but was rescued and hustled off the field by a band of Scots. He left his red bull standard behind him, promptly seized by Hunsdon as a trophy of war. Hunsdon begged the Queen for permission to keep the banner and display it in his hall (“which I trust the law of arms will allow me to bear”).

The rebel cause lay in ruins. Hopes for a cooperative rising between Scots and English, to liberate Mary and revive the Catholic faith in England, had failed utterly. Even so, Dacre and Westmoreland remained free to cause further trouble, and the borderlands were far from settled. Lord Scrope offered a full parson to any who chose to submit, but later reported that only five hundred or so had agreed to come into the peace. Thousands more wandered the March or went into southern Scotland, where they were greeted and openly maintained by Scotsmen who held fast to the Marian cause.

For the time being, at least, the Border was secure from invasion. After their victory Hunsdon and Forster rode on to Carlisle, where Hunsdon spied a company of Scottish riders approaching from the north. This was the advance guard of Westmoreland’s army, arrived just too late to join Dacre. In his letters Hunsdon thanked God for the deliverance, and remarked that in another three hours Dacre would have been reinforced by hundreds of Scots. “If we had tarried,” he reflected, “Dacre would have been past dealing with.” For her part, Elizabeth sent back a reply full of unusual warmth and gratitude, in which she referred to Hunsdon as “my Harry.”

As so often on the Border, it had been touch and go.

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