Otterburn And Elsdon
( Originally Published 1920 )
Andrew Lang's account of Otterburn - Confused ballad accounts - The Elizabethan ballad and the Sir Walter touch - Froissart's account - The battle - The death of Douglas and capture of Hotspur - Foeman's courtesy - An enchanting village: its Green, with bull-ring, cockpit and pinfold - Badger-baiting and ratting in the last century - The Moat Hills from primitive man to Roman and Saxon - The old church and its memorials - A fortified rectory - Its connection with the Umfravilles - Winter's gibbet.
CLOSE to the point at which the pretty Otter burn joins the Rede is Otterburn. Little needs adding to the account of Otterburn in Mr. Andrew Lang's posthumous " Highways and Byways of the Border." Though the work had to be completed by other hands, this bears obvious evidence of his personality. In it he had a theme after his own heart, a great and chivalrous fight described from contemporary evidence by Froissart and enshrined in ballad poetry. But I think much is to be said in favour of the opinion of Cadwallader Bates that the ballad accounts were considerably mixed. It was an era crammed with hard fighting, and incidents of various battles became hopelessly intertwined. Even the version quoted by Mr. Lang from " The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border" does not impress one with its accuracy. We know that Sir Walter was but too eager to welcome a new ballad. He accepted the vamp of Surtees, though a colder critic might easily have detected the imposture.
I canna tell a' I canna tell a'
Its vivacity has not the ring of old. Both vivacity and lilt are far removed from the rugged simplicity of the true ballad. Equally open to criticism is the version of Otterburn quoted approvingly by Mr. Lang. It is claimed to be of Elizabethan origin, but as printed it was pieced together by Sir Walter Scott from the recitation of two old persons living in the vale of Ettrick. The Sir Walter touch is very apparent.
The account given by Froissart is more to be trusted. He collected information from participants in the fight and wrote a clear and intelligible story. The minstrels had many doughty deeds to celebrate in the stormy fourteenth century, and probably as the original ballads were passed on by word of mouth, incidents from one fray got interlarded with incidents from another. On the other hand, there are passages in the more modern version which bear traces of having been inserted by the greatest romantic novelist in our literature. A few discrepancies will be noticed in our summary.
Otterburn was not one of the great battles of history, but a typical Border fray in which the qualities developed during generations of hard fighting are vividly illustrated - the keen rivalry between the houses of Douglas and Percy, the valour equally of Scots and English, the chivalry and courtesy of the fighters and so on.
The scene opens with a skirmish before the walls of Newcastle, in which Douglas captured Hotspur's pennon and vowed he would display it on the highest tower of his Castle of Dalkieth. " By God you shall not carry it out of Northumberland," swore Percy. They trysted to meet at Otterburn in the high wild Cheviot country thirty miles from Newcastle. Percy would have followed Douglas at once had not wiser counsel prevailed. Experienced chiefs pointed out that the Scottish force was probably but the advance guard of an army which they could not hope to attack successfully with the small force at their disposal ; better to lose a pennon than a battle which would leave the country defenceless, urged the cautious veterans. But a day or two later armed Scots rode in with the news that Douglas had not more than three thousand men with him and had captured Pontland Tower and taken Sir Raymond de Laval in his castle. Percy joyfully gave the order" To horse ! To horse ! " and led his followers at once on the enemy's track.
The young Earl Douglas, a brave and wary soldier, had taken precautions against a surprise by night.
After a long march the English must have lost their freshness when they arrived at the Scottish camp late on a moonlight night in August. Yet at first it looked as if they would carry the camp by a coup de main. Some of the Scots were at supper, others had retired to sleep after their fruitless attacks on Otter-burn Tower, when to shouts of " Percy ! Percy ! " the attack was begun. Douglas, however, had arranged his men so that the servants' quarters, which he had strengthened with men-at-arms, would be entered first. They were placed at the entrance of the marsh on the road to Newcastle. Douglas had a plan carefully prepared beforehand. While the lords were arming, a body of infantry was despatched to help the servants to make a fight and cause delay. It is obvious that there could have been little opening for the bowmen. Froissart expressly says the night was advanced and what light there was came from the moon. Some of the lines in " Chevy Chace " were probably taken from some minstrel's version of the Battle of Homildon Hill. For example, the following lines apply directly to the later battle :
The Englishmen had their bows bent
Yet bides Earl Douglas upon the bent,
This fits in exactly with what we know of Homildon ; but at Otterburn, while Percy was hacking his way through the medley of armed servitors and trained soldiers, the Scots were marching round the mountain side to fall on the English flank unexpectedly. But it was a day of no flinching. The English, though taken by surprise, met the attack in good order and the battle now raged. " Great was the pushing of lances and many men were struck down at the first onset." It was an encounter of heroes. Douglas, with the ardour of youth, ordered his banner to advance to the shout of " Douglas ! Douglas ! " The two Percies, Harry and Ralph, equally hot, rushed to answer the challenge with the counter-cry, " Percy ! Percy ! "
At first the English prevailed and the Scots were pushed back, so that the battle would have gone in their favour but for the exceptional gallantry of Sir Patrick Hepburne and his son, who rallied their followers and fought like the heroes they were to defend the banner of Douglas. In fact, both armies earned the high tribute paid them by Froissart. " It was the hardest and most obstinate battle ever fought, for the English and Scots are excellent men-at-arms." With both hands Douglas seized his battle-axe and dashed into the middle of his enemies, dealing mighty blows to right and left till three spears struck him at once-his shoulder was pierced by one, his stomach by another and a third entered his thigh. He was borne to the ground fighting desperately, but never rose again. Fortunately for the Scots the English did not know the leader had fallen. Douglas received another and this time a mortal blow from a battle-axe, but, when found and recognised, continued with his last breath to direct the fight. His was a soldier's death and Froissart's account of it needed none of the embroidery - fine though that embroidery is - which is found in the later ballads. " I dreamed a dead man won a: fight and that dead man was I " is evidently a ballad-maker's addition. So is the command, " Bury me by the bracken bush and say a kindly Scot lies here."
The capture of Ralph Percy, " so weakened by loss of blood that he could scarcely utter his own name," and the vivid detail that Sir John Maxwell, to whom he yielded, asked who he was, for he knew him not, is in keeping with other events of the great fray. Even to-day the feeling of regret is fresh when we read of the tired-out Hotspur fighting long and valiantly with Sir Hugh Montgomery and being compelled to give in at last.
No other battle has so frequently been described in prose and verse, and there is no need here to go into the details so fully given by Froissart. But one of them at least leaves a pleasant savour behind it. This was the capture after a long struggle of Sir Matthew Redman, the Governor of Berwick, by Sir James Lindsay and the promise given and accepted that if allowed to go for fifteen days to Newcastle he would thereafter "come to you in any part of Scotland you may appoint." Before the period had expired, Sir James Lindsay was himself a prisoner in Newcastle, having been taken by the forces under the Bishop of Durham. " I believe," he said ruefully, when he had met Redman and recounted his ill-luck, " there will be no need of your coming to Edinburgh to obtain your ransom, for we may finish the business here if my master consent to it." " We shall soon agree to that," replied Redman, " but you must come and dine with me. . . ." " I accept your invitation," answered Lindsay. In such manner did these two sup in each other's company.
Nowhere are the characteristics of old Northumberland more clearly revealed than in the remote and now shrunken village of Elsdon, which nestles in a pretty valley a few miles from Otterburn. Its probable connection with the battle arose from the discovery, when the church was renovated, of more than a thousand skulls, described by the late Professor Veitch as being of " lads in their 'teens, and of middle-aged men, but none of old men or women." That they may have been the remains of those slain is at least possible. A similar discovery of what appears to have been a common grave at Southdean on the Scottish side may be explained on the supposition that the Scots carried as many of their dead as they could to the nearest consecrated burial-place over the Border.
The village is built round a green where the people of a comparatively recent date used to enjoy the sports considered unsuitable to a more refined age. Here is a stone for the ring used in bull-baiting and also the cockpit. No trace is left of the equally cruel badger-baiting, but this required no permanent fixture, as the gameness of a dog was tested either by setting him to draw the block from under a heap of faggots or out of a long box soaped inside to make it slippery. Up to the second quarter of the nineteenth century nearly every inn had its rat-pit. A common form of bet was that a dog should kill its own weight in rats in as many minutes as it weighed pounds. For this purpose a black and tan terrier was bred so small that it could pass through the rough circle formed by joining the thumbs and outstretched fingers of a man's two hands.
There is a village pound, too, which can scarcely be yet called a relic as there are many pounds on English commons still extant, though few in Northumberland. Bull-baiting and cock-fighting are of yesterday, but Elsdon has in the Mote Hills a heritage that takes us back through many civilisations. Originally it was perhaps only a heap of detritus formed by the hill-stream which, though in summer but a slender burn, is, like other mountain waters, subject to raging floods in winter. Neolithic man perhaps took advantage of the accumulations and added to them for purposes of defence. They may have begun that hollowing-out of the road by which the height of the rampart fighter broke in at a moment when things were not going too well for Scotland, and the passage is confirmed by the other early chronicles.
was increased. Following them came the Roman, whose military eye did not fail to notice how suitable the mounds were for the purpose. Saxons, when their time came, brought over their own ideas and saw in them the Mote Hills ready made. They were Law Courts and places for deliberation.
In the old church built on the foundation of one still older a great deal of local history may be traced. There is the tablet of the Reeds, " the ancient family of Troughend for about 800 years," and the one to the memory of Mrs. Anne Elizabeth Grose, daughter of the antiquary, Capt. Grose, immortalised by Burns.
A chield's among ye takin' notes and faith he'll print it.
There are beautiful fourteenth-century windows and Roman stones, well-preserved sedilia and many other relics and memorials.
Elsdon Rectory is also Elsdon Castle. It was a tower in the possession of the rector as far back as 1415. The arms of the Umfravilles were probably placed there in 1436 in the time of Sir Robert Umfraville. He was better known as Robin-Mendthe-Market, from the success of his raids into Scotland. According to Mr Howard Pease he possessed the Manor of Otterburn and he was Warden of the Middle Marches. When he died, in 1436, he was interred before the altar of St. Mary Magdalene in Newminster Abbey. After the Conquest, Tynedale and Redesdale were bestowed on Robin-with-the-Beard, that is to say, " Robert de Umfraville, Knight, lord of Tours and Vian, to hold by defending that part of the country forever from wolves and enemies with the sword which King William had by his side when he entered Northumberland." Gilbert Umfraville, known as " the Guardian and Chief Flower of the North," in 1226 married the Countess of Angus and brought the Earldom of Angus into his family for at least two generations.
Some three miles east of Elsdon is the Steng Cross, near which on high ground the body of William Winter dangled in chains till it fell to pieces and had to be put into a sack. He was executed at Newcastle with his female accomplices for the murder of an old woman at Haws Pele, and his body was exposed near the scene of his crime. It is believed to be the last occasion on which that practice was carried out. Many superstitions linger still about the gibbet, one of them being the rustic belief that toothache might be cured by rubbing the teeth against a chip cloven from it.
Though dreary enough in winter, no village could be more enchanting than Elsdon in summer, set among its hills of green grass or purple heather with a pretty brook running past and all the charm of an old and pleasant world hanging about its houses.