Battle Of Homildon Hill
( Originally Published 1920 )
FOURTEEN years had to pass before Hotspur obtained his revenge for Otterburn. The latter was fought in 1388, the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402. Humbleton, or Homildon, is a hamlet close to Wooler, and the famous hill of the same name lies to the West of it. The Scots had been long preparing for war, but this encounter was a chance one. The Scots had ridden a foray nearly as far as Newcastle. They were led by that Douglas who was nicknamed the " Tine-man," and he had with him a band of fire-eating young nobles and famous war-worn veterans.
Among the latter was Sir John Swinton of Swinton, concerning whose family one would like to make a little note. During the war with Germany few names were more widely known than that of his descendant, General Swinton. It had long ceased to be a secret that he was the author of some remarkable military stories published after the Boer War, and for a time he was the " Eyewitness " who described our battles in France and Belgium. He does not himself live at Swinton, but has for it the feeling of its being home, the place where his forefathers lived for eight centuries. In 1829 it was sold to another branch of the same family. The village of Swinton is within twelve miles of Berwick on-Tweed by way of Norham and Ladykirk, and Swinton House is a good mile beyond it. Situated in the Merse of Berwick-shire and within a short ride of three formidable English castles, twelve miles from Berwick, four from Norham and six from Wark, the original home of the Swintons was burned too again and again by the raiders. Its walls never had a chance of growing old.
Berwick had a tank given it as a war memorial in recognition of the valour and public spirit of its inhabitants, and naturally General Swinton, as a neighbour of the old Border Town and as the military originator of tanks, who had raised and commanded the first tank unit, was asked to take a leading part in the ceremony of placing it in permanent quarters. His discourse on tanks was highly interesting, but for my purpose not so much so as his reference to Border life and particularly to the part played in the battle of Homildon Hill by one of his ancestors. It was natural that a soldier should talk of war at Berwick, " which of all cities except Jerusalem had borne the record for sieges." The Swintons of Swinton played a shrewd part in Border warfare. Colonel Summers, who was present, in a speech full of humour recited a few impromptu lines about the Swintons. They ran :
Of old along the Scottish Border
Now to the changing mood of time
On a day in mid-September, five centuries ago, Douglas and his raiders, laden with booty, were hastening back from the Tyne to the Tweed and had crossed the Glein, or Glen, were in fact within an hour's ride of their native land, when they heard that the Percies were waiting for them at Milfield. They had believed the Earl of Northumberland to be following them and were surprised to find Hotspur barring the road home.
Then the Percy out of Bamburgh
The Scots decided on a defensive policy and took up a strong position on the slopes of Homildon Hill, and the English quickly took ground on a similar position on the hill opposite, called Harehope. This is how they stood when five hundred English archers, who had been sent out to collect provisions for the army, returned and, seeing the glitter of armour worn by the Scottish knights, sent a flight of arrows among them, and thus the battle began. The archers entered by the Monday Cleugh and shot up hill. Hotspur, as was his wont, would have charged recklessly, but the Earl of March, who was with him and at feud with Douglas, seized his bridle and persuaded him to adopt safer tactics. Douglas trusted too much to his position.
Knights and men fell to the arrow flight as modern soldiers fall before the fire of machine guns.
It was General Swinton's ancestor who rallied his countrymen. He asked what good would come from standing still and allowing themselves to be shot down like deer in a park instead of grappling with the foe hand to hand as was their brave custom. General Swinton, recalling the incident with pride, asked what would have happened if they had possessed a tank to carry them up the hill. , His forebear's dauntless words had an immediate effect. There was one man who seconded his proposal in a remarkable manner. This was Adam Gordon, chief of the Gordons in the days when they lived at Gordon in the Merse of Berwickshire and had not branched off into those Gordon families that now belong to the North and are represented by the Duke of Gordon, the Marquis of Huntley, and Lord Aberdeen. He was one of the greatest fighters of his time. In his hot youth, the Borders being too quiet for him, he had signed on with John of Gaunt, and legend says he was the hero who, according to Froissart, leaped the barrier gates at Noyon and for love of the fray fought the chivalry of France for more than an hour " alone against them all " - " giving many grand strokes with his lance." When the army began to move and he had to rejoin it, he cleared the way with a thrust or two, sprang back, and mounting, with his page in front, cried : " Adieu, adieu, Seigneurs, grands mercis ! " and spurred away.
At Otterburn he had fought a good fight, and now at Homildon must have become a grizzled warrior of about fifty. It was he who refused to be a passive resister when in the words of the so-called Chevy Chase ballad :
Yet bides the Earl Douglas upon the bent.
The line obviously refers to Homildon and not Otterburn.
Adam Gordon must have been born with the fighting spirit strong within him. The founder of the family was killed with his sovereign and friend Malcolm Canmore at the disastrous siege of Alnwick Castle in 1093, and three other heads of the house met with a similar fate at different times and in different battles. He had been at feud with Swinton, but forgot the personal quarrel in admiration. He kneeled before Swinton and begged that he would bestow on him the honour of knighthood. This being done, the two, with as many as cared to come, rushed down the hill to get to grips with the foe. But the relentless English archery made their bravery of no avail. The little band was wiped out and there followed a complete rout of the Scottish host. Of the ten thousand originally composing it eight hundred were left dead on the field, five hundred more were drowned in their heavy armour as they tried to cross the Tweed, and the list of prisoners was long and distinguished. It included Douglas with five arrow wounds and a lost eye, Montgomery, Murdack of Fife, the eldest son of the Duke of Albany, and eighty other notabilities.
English archery was at its best in this battle : the chronicles relate that the English arrows sticking in the bodies and armour of their adversaries made the Scottish army look like a gigantic hedgehog with its spines sticking out ; but the victory was the beginning of the end for Hotspur. The Government demanded that Douglas and the other distinguished prisoners should be sent to London, not in order to deprive the victors of such ransom as they might impose, but that they should have pawns in hand when arranging the long contemplated peace with Scotland. But the Percies, father and son, considered Henry IV, the King whom they had made, a stingy paymaster, and they had not been recompensed for their outlay as custodians of the marches. Henry pleaded an empty treasury. " Gold I have none; gold thou canst not have." He and the fiery Hotspur nearly came to blows in the palace. Percy demanded the release of his brother in-law Mortimer, then in captivity. The King retorted that Mortimer was a traitor. "And thou too art a traitor for shielding him," he added fiercely, unsheathing his dagger. " Not here but on the field " was Hotspur's challenging answer. The quarrel ultimately resulted in the battle of Shrewsbury, where Hotspur was slain. Shakespeare does justice to his fame and his valour in the play of Henry IV, although it is his obvious intention throughout to make Prince Hal outshine that hero from the North who with a little guiding and management would have become one of the most useful as he certainly was the most valiant of subjects.
Lord Archibald Douglas cut a figure in this battle which if it stood alone might lead to misapprehension. His nickname Tine-man was not meant to carry the imputation of cowardice. He had only struck one of those runs of ill-luck which come to all. In the battle of Shrewsbury, where Hotspur fell, he was taken prisoner, but not being an English subject was honourably entreated as a prisoner of war. Sir Walter Scott has drawn a virile picture of him in "The Fair Maid of Perth," where he figures as a rugged, domineering soldier who ends by winning the admiration of the reader, but to the Wizard's great and kindly and patriotic mind every member of that house was glorified by the memory of the "Dowglas Dowglas tender and true." In a note, however, he shows that there were good historical reasons for assuming that Douglas shared with the Duke of Albany the guilt of murdering the Duke of Rothesay, his son-in-law, Albany's nephew and heir to the Scottish crown then worn by his father, the weak, amiable, irresolute Robert the Third. The cause of his feud with George Dunbar, Earl of March, is an integral part of this the most exciting of the Waverley novels. After a marriage between Rothesay and March's daughter had been consummated, Douglas forced the weak monarch to bring about a divorce so that Marjory of Douglas should take the place of Elizabeth of Dunbar.
" Rather than this woman had been scorned it were better that the Scots had given her a dower of two hundred thousand pieces of gold." After quoting this passage from John Major, the Pursuil,ant of the Easter Marches, Captain G. C. Swinton, adds : " To the son of Gospatrick the Douglasses, though valiant men, were mushroom upstarts, while the Earl was a bastard at that."
Scott was weaving a romance, not writing history. He sinned in good company, since Shakespeare had already set fact at defiance when he made Hotspur fall to the sword of Prince Hal. After reproducing the Remission or Pardon issued by King Robert and first printed by Lord Hailes, he remarks : " Lord Hailes sums up his comment on the document with words which as Pinkerton says leave no doubt that he considered the Prince as having been murdered, viz., The Duke of Albany and the Earl of Douglas obtained a remission in terms as ample as if they had actually murdered the heir-apparent.' "
Scott, indeed, had a sovereign disdain of dates. He makes the great fight on the Inch of Perth take place before instead of after the death of Rothesay in 1402, and Rothesay some time before his death taunts Douglas on the loss of that eye which he was yet to use at the battle of Homildon. Nathless it is not for dates that we read " The Fair Maid of Perth," but for that imaginative genius which makes the old time live again. There is a minor point to which we would draw attention. Hal o' the Wynd is an armourer with an enthusiasm for his craft, and the romance is full of the glory and richness of the war-gear forged and worn. It was therefore in exact keeping with the spirit of the time that Douglas and the nobles and knights who accompanied him should have new armour made for this great expedition when under the most illustrious of Scottish leaders they expected to meet the most renowned English soldier of his day. And it was their undoing, because it was their new and shining armour which first attracted attention and thus proved a target for the deadly bowmen of Hotspur's army.