James Douglas (1286-1330)

Relation to me: 19th Great Grandfather

James was known as the Good Sir James as well as the Black Douglas. He was a Scottish knight and a feudal lord, as well as one of the chief commanders during the Wars of Scottish Independence.

He was the eldest son of Sir William Douglas, who was known as “le Hardi”, or “the bold”. William was the first noble supporter of William Wallace and had died in 1298 as a prisoner in the Tower of London. James’ mother was Elizabeth Stewart, she was the daughter of Alexander Stewart, the 4th High Steward of Scotland. She died in about 1287 or early 1288. James’ father would remarry later that year. Destruction of records in Scotland makes an exact date or even year impossible to pinpoint for James’ birth, but some believe it to have been in about 1286.

James was sent to France for his safety in the early days of the Wars of Independence, and was educated in Paris. While there he met William Lamberton, the Bishop of St. Andrews,


Artists Depiction of William Lamberton


who would take him as a squire. He would eventually return to Scotland with Lamberton to obtain the lands of his that had been seized and awarded to Robert Clifford. Lamberton would present him at the occupying English court to petition for the return of his land shortly after the capture of Stirling Castle in 1304. When Edward I of England had heard of whose son he was he became angry and James was forced to depart.

James Makes an Alliance with Bruce

After being “kicked out” of Edward’s court, James faced life as a landless outcast on the fringes of feudal society. The return of his ancestral estates was to become an overriding consideration, inevitably impacting on his political allegiances. In John Barbour’s rhyming chronicle, “The Brus”, as much a paean to the young knight as the hero king, Douglas makes his feeling plain to Lamberton:

“Sir, you see,

How the English tyrant forcibly

Had dispossessed me of my land

And you are made to understand

That the earl of Carrick claims to be

The rightful king of this country.

The English, since he slew that man,

Are keen to catch him if they can;

And they would seize his lands as well

And yet with him I faith would dwell!

Now, therefore, if it be your will,

With him will I take good or ill.

Through him I hope my land to win

Despite the Clifford and his kin.”

–The Brus, John Barbour

This was a particularly dramatic moment in Scottish history. Robert Bruce, the Earl of Carrick had slain John Comyn, a leading Scottish rival on the 6th of February 1306 at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. Robert Bruce immediately claimed the crown of Scotland in the defiance of the English king.

Just seven weeks after the killing in Dumfries, Robert was crowned the king of Scotland on March 25th. While he was on his way to Glasgow to meet with Bishop Wishart, and then to Scone, the traditional site of Scottish coronations, that Robert was met by James, riding on a horse borrowed from Lamberton. The site is traditionally believed to be at the summit of a hill in Dumfries and Galloway, now being known as the Crown of Scotland. James explains his circumstances and immediately offered his services to Robert Bruce, and John Barbour records the moment as such:

“And thus began their friendship true

That no mischance could e’er undo

Nor lessen while they were alive.

Their friendship more and more would thrive.”

–The Brus, John Barbour

James was set to share in Robert’s early misfortunes, having been present at the defeats at Methven and the Battle of Dalrigh. For both men these setbacks were to provide a valuable lesson in tactics. Limitations in both resources and equipment meant that the Scots would always be at a disadvantage in conventional medieval warfare. By the spring of 1307, when the war was renewed, they had learned of the value of guerrilla warfare, which at the time was known as “secret war”. They learned to use fast moving, lightly equipped and agile forces to have the most effect against an enemy that was often locked into static defensive positions.

The Douglas Larder

For most of 1307 and the early part of 1308, James’ actions, although confined for the most part to his native Douglasdale, were essential to keeping the enemy in the south and freeing Robert to campaign in the north. James soon created a formidable reputation for himself as a soldier and a tactician.

While Robert was campaigning in the north against his domestic enemies, James used the cover of Selkirk Forest to mount highly effective mobile attacks against the enemy. He also showed himself to be utterly ruthless, particularly in his relentless attacks on the English garrison in his own Douglas Castle, the most famous of which quickly passed into popular history.

Barbour dates the incident to Palm Sunday of 1307, which fell on March 19th. Some question as to whether this date is too early arise, as Bruce and his small army were established in the southwest of Scotland at the time, suggesting that Palm Sunday of 1308, on April 17, is a more accurate date. However, Barbour also states that at the time of the Douglas Larder that the Scots were not yet established in the southwest of Scotland and indeed that James was the only one of Robert’s men anywhere in the area. There is reason to think that Barbour’s date is probably correct. He also says that the Larder was the first act toward becoming established in that part of Scotland.

With the help from a local farmer, Thomas Dickson, a former vassal of his father, James and his small troop were hidden until the morning of Palm Sunday. When the garrison left the battlements to attend the local church, with local support James entered the church and the war cry ‘Douglas! Douglas!’ went up for the first time. Some of the English soldiers were killed and others were taken as prisoners. Those that were prisoners were taken into the castle, which was then largely empty. All the stores were piled together in the cellar and the wine casks were burst open and the wood used for fuel. The prisoners were then beheaded and placed on top of the pile and then it was all set alight.

Before departing the area, the wells were poisoned with salt and the carcasses of the dead horses. The local people soon gave the whole gruesome episode the name of the ‘Douglas Larder’. This was meant as an example of the frightfulness in war and was meant to leave a lasting impression, not least upon the men who came to replace their dead colleagues. Further attacks followed by a man who would now be known to the English as “The Black Dowglas”. It would seem by these acts that James was an early practitioner of psychological warfare and guerrilla warfare. It also seems as though he had the knowledge that fear alone could do much of the work of a successful commander.

In August of 1308, James met with the king for a joint attack on the MacDougalls of Lorn, kinsmen of the Comyns, for the climax to Robert’s campaign in the north. Back in 1306, the MacDougalls had intercepted and mauled the royal army at the Battle of Dalrigh. Now, two years later, they waited for the arrival of their opponents in the narrow Pass of Brander, between Ben Cruachan and Loch Awe in Argyllshire.


Brander Pass


While Robert pinned down the enemy in a frontal advance through the pass, James, going completely unobserved, led a party of loyal Highlanders further up the mountain. He then launched a surprise attack from the rear. Soon the Battle of the Pass of Brander turned into a rout. Soon after, James returned south with Edward Bruce, the king’s brother, in another successful assault on Rutherglen Castle near Glasgow, going on to a further campaign in Galloway.

Roxburgh Falls

In the years that followed, James was given the time to enhance his skills as a soldier. Edward II would come north with an army in 1310 however, in a fruitless pursuit of an enemy that simply refused to be pinned down. Frustrations would be caused and are detailed in the “Vita Edwardi Secundi”, a contemporary English chronicle, as follows:

“The king entered Scotland with his army but not a rebel was to be found…At that time Robert Bruce, who lurked continually in hiding, did them all the injury he could. One day, when some English and Welsh, always ready for plunder, had gone out on a raid, accompanied by many horsemen from the army, Robert Bruce’s men, who had been concealed in caves and woodland, made a serious attack on our men…From such ambushes our men suffered heavy losses. For Robert Bruce, knowing himself unequal to the king of England in strength or fortune, decided it would be better to resist our king by secret warfare rather than dispute his right in open battle.”

Edward was even moved to write to the Pope in impotent fury, complaining that:

“Robert Bruce and his accomplices, when lately we went into parts of Scotland to repress their rebellion, concealed themselves in secret places after the manner of foxes.”

In the years before 1314, the English presence in Scotland was reduced to a few significant strongholds, there were both strengths and weaknesses in this. The Scots had no heavy equipment or a way of attacking castles by conventional means provisioned enough to withstand a blockade. In dealing with this problem the Scots responded in the manner of foxes; and among the more cunning of their exploits was James’ capture of the powerful fortress at Roxburgh.

His tactic, even though simple, was brilliantly effective. On the night of February 19th or 20th of 1314, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, several dark shapes were seen beneath the battlements and were mistakenly assumed to have been cattle. James ordered his men to cover themselves with their cloaks and crawl towards the castle on their hands and knees. With most of the garrison celebrating just prior to the fast of Lent, the Scots scaled hooks with rope ladders attached that they threw up the walls. Taken by complete surprise, the English were overwhelmed in a short amount of time. Roxburgh Castle, among the best in the land, was slighted or destroyed in accordance with Robert’s policy of denying strong points to the enemy.

Battle of Bannockburn

The greatest challenge for Robert Bruce came in 1314 as well, as Edward invaded Scotland with a large army, aimed at the relief of Stirling Castle, but with real intentions of pinning down the foxes. The Scottish army, about a quarter of the size of the enemy force, was poised to the south of Stirling, ready to make a quick withdrawal into the wild country to the west. However, their position, which was just north of the Bannock Burn, had strong natural advantages and the king made ready to suspend for a time the guerrilla tactics pursued.

On the morning of June 24th, the day of the main battle, Barbour says that James was made a knight, which would have been curiously late in his career. Many people believe that James was made a knight banneret. The knight banneret was established under King Edward I, and was not one with command responsibilities so much as one with great honors. They would fight under their own banner unlike a knight bachelor who was limited to a pennon. In Barbour’s “The Brus” he says in Book XV that James had fought under his own banner, so James had to have been a knight banneret. Barbour, also states that James and others were knighted on the field of the Battle of Bannockburn, “each in their own degree”, which would seem to say that not all that were knighted were bachelors. Others believe that he was knighted late in his career, there is disagreement on the point.

Traditional Scottish accounts dating from the 1370s state that during the battle, Thomas Randolph, the 1st Earl of Moray, had commanded the vanguard, the left wing, though nominally led by the young Walter Stewart was commanded by his cousin James. Edward Bruce took the right wing, King Robert the rearguard. However, contemporary English accounts state that the Scottish army consisted of three units, so the idea that James and Stewart commanded a unit could be a later invention or the English account is simply mistaken.

Once the English army was defeated, James requested the honor of pursuing the fleeing Edward and his party of knights. A task carried out with such relentless vigor that the fugitives, according to Barbour, “had not even leisure to make water”. In the end, Edward managed to escape from James by taking refuge in Dunbar Castle.


Battle of Bannockburn Painting


The Battle of Bannockburn had effectively ended the English presence in Scotland, with all strong points, except Berwick, now in Bruce’s hands. It did not, however, end the war. Edward had been soundly defeated but he still refused to abandon his claim to Scotland. James’ one struggle had ended and another was about to begin.

James a Warlord

Bannockburn had left northern England open to attack and in the years following the battle many communities in the area became closely acquainted with the ‘Black Dowglas’. Along with Randolph, James was to make a new name for himself in a war of mobility, which had carried the Scots raiders as far south as Pontefract and the Humber. In a real sense this ‘war of the borders’ belonged uniquely to James, and became the basis for his family’s steady ascent to greatness in the years to come.

War had ruined many ancient noble houses, it was the true making of the house of Douglas. The tactics used by James were simple but effective. His men would ride into battle, retreated if the occasion demanded it, on small horses known as hobbins, giving the name of “hobelar” to both horse and rider, all fighting as if they were on foot. The Scottish hobelars were to cause the same degree of panic throughout northern England as the Vikings lordships had in the 9th century.

With the king, Moray, and Edward Bruce diverted in 1315 to a new theater of operations in Ireland, James became even more significant as a border fighter. In February of 1316 he won a significant engagement at Skaithmuir near Coldstream with a party of horsemen sent out from the garrison of Berwick. The dead included Edmond de Caillou Gascon governor of Berwick Castle, and seemingly a nephew of Piers Gaveston, the former favorite of Edward II. James thought this to be the toughest fight in which he had ever been a part of. Further successes would follow for James.

Another raiding party that was led by Edmund FitzAlan, the 9th Earl of Arundel, was intercepted and defeated at Lintalee, to the south of Jedburgh; a third group was defeated outside the walls of Berwick, where their leader, Sir Robert Neville, known as the “Peacock of the North”, and the elder son to Ralph Neville, 1st Baron Neville de Raby, was killed by James in single combat. James’ status and reputation was such that he was made Lieutenant of the Realm, with the Steward, when Bruce and Moray went to Ireland in the Autumn of 1316.

His military achievements inevitably increased his political standing still further. When Edward Bruce, the king’s brother and designated successor, was killed in Ireland at the Battle of Faughart in August of 1318, James was named as the Guardian of the Realm, as well as the tutor to the future Robert II, after Randolph if Robert should die without a male heir. This was decided at a parliament that was held at Scone in December of 1318. It was here noted that “Randolph and Sir James took the guardianship upon themselves with the approbation of the whole community”.

Myton and Byland

In April of 1318, James was instrumental in capturing Berwick from the English. For the first time the castle and the town had been in Scottish hands since 1296. For Edward, seemingly blind to sufferings of his northern subjects, this was one humiliation too many. A new army was assembled, the largest since 1314, with the intention of recapturing what had become a symbol of English prestige and their last tangible asset in Scotland. Edward would arrive at the gates of the town in 1319, Queen Isabella accompanying him as far as York, where she took up residence. Not willing to risk a direct attack on the enemy, Bruce ordered James and Moray on a large diversionary raid into Yorkshire.

It appears that the Scottish commanders had news of the Queen’s whereabouts, since the rumor spread that one of the aims of the raid was to take her prisoner. As the Scots approached York, the Queen was quickly removed from the city, eventually taking refuge in Nottingham. With no troops in the area, William Melton, the Archbishop of York, set about organizing a home guard, which of necessity included a great number of priests and other minor clerics. The two sides would meet up at Myton-on-Swale, with inevitable consequences.

So many priests, friars and clerics were killed in the Battle of Myton that it became widely known as the ‘Chapter of Myton’. It was hardly a passage of any great military glory for James but as a strategy the whole Yorkshire raid produced the result intended. There was such dissension among Edward’s army that the attempt on Berwick was abandoned, it was to remain in Scottish hands for the next fifteen years.

Four years later, Edward mounted what was to be his last invasion of Scotland, advancing to the gates of Edinburgh. Bruce pursued a scorched-earth campaign, denying the enemy any essential supplies. It was so effective that they were forced to retreat by spur of starvation alone. Once again, this provided signal for the Scottish to advance. Bruce, Douglas, and Moray would cross the Solway Firth and advanced by rapid stages deep into Yorkshire. Edward and Isabella had taken up residence at Rievaulx Abbey, all that stood between them and the enemy raiders was a force that was commanded by John de Bretagne, the 1st Earl of Richmond, positioned on Scawton Moor, between Rievaulx and Byland Abbey. To dislodge him, King Robert used essentially the same tactics as that of Brander in 1308. While James and Moray attacked from the front, a party of Highlanders scaled the cliffs on Richmond’s flank and attacked from the rear. The Battle of Old Byland turned into a rout, and Edward and his queen were forced into a rapid and undignified flight from Rievaulx, the second time in three years that a Queen of England had taken to her heels.

Even More Raids


King Edward II of England


In 1327, the hapless Edward II was deposed in a coup that was led by his wife and her lover, Roger Mortimer, the Lord of Wigmore. He was replaced by Edward III, his teenage son, even though all power remained in the hands of Mortimer and Isabella. New political arrangements in England had effectively broke truce with the former king that was arranged some years before. Once again raids had began, with the intention of forcing concessions from the government.

In mid-summer, Douglas and Moray were ravaging Weardale and the adjacent valleys. On July 10th, a large English army, under command of the young king, left York in a campaign that resembles nothing less than an elephant in pursuit of a hare. The English commanders finally caught sight of their elusive opponents on the southern banks of the River Wear. The Scots were in good position and declined all attempts to draw them into battle. After a while they left, only to take up an even stronger position at Stanhope Park, a hunting preserve belonging to the bishops of Durham.


Edward III of England


On the night of August 4th at Stanhope Park, James led an assault party across the river in a surprise attack on the sleeping English, later described in a French eye-witness account:

“The Lord James Douglas took with him about two hundred men-at-arms, and passed the river far off from the host so that he was not perceived: and suddenly he broke into the English host about midnight crying ‘Douglas! Douglas!’ ‘Ye shall all die thieves of England’; and he slew three hundred men, some in their beds and some scarcely ready: and he stroke his horse with spurs, and came to the King’s tent, always crying ‘Douglas!’, and stroke asunder two or three cords of the King’s tent.”

Panic and confusion spread throughout the camp: Edward himself narrowly escaped capture, his pastor was killed in his defense.

The Battle of Stanhope Park, minor as it was, had been a serious humiliation. After the Scots outflanked their enemy the following night, they headed back to the border. Edward is said to have wept in impotent rage, his army retired to York and then disbanded. With no other recourse Mortimer and Isabella opened peace negotiations. Finally, the following year negotiations were agreed upon with the Treaty of Northampton. It would recognize the Bruce monarchy and the independence of Scotland.

Final Campaign and Death

In 1329, Robert Bruce died. According to Jean Froissart, when Bruce was dying he asked that James, as his friend and lieutenant, carry his heart to the Holy Land and present it at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as a mark of penance. Barbour alternatively has Bruce ask that his heart should simply be carried in battle against “God’s foes” as a token of his unfulfilled ambition to go on crusade. Since Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands since 1187, this second version of his request is perhaps more likely.

When Bruce was dead, his heart was cut from his chest and placed in a silver and enameled casket that James placed around his neck. In early 1330, James set sail from Berwick upon Tweed, accompanied by seven other knights with twenty-six squires and gentlemen. The party first stopped at Sluys in Flanders. There it might be that James received confirmation that Alfonso XI of Castile was preparing a campaign against the Muslims of the kingdom of Granada. In anticipation, he had with him a letter of introduction to King Alfonso from Edward III of England, his cousin. Accordingly, the Scots sailed on to Seville, where, according to John Barbour, James and his solemn relic were received by Alfonso with great honor.

James and his company joined Alfonso’s army, which then was setting out for the Granada frontier to siege the castle of Teba. Uthman, the Berber general in command of the Moorish forces, marched to relieve the border stronghold. It was during this siege that James Douglas was killed.

Sources and commentators differ as to how James died. According to Jean Froissart and the Gran Cronica de Alfonso XI, James was killed as the result of making a premature attack on the enemy. Gran Cronica suggests that this might have been during a fight for access to water. While citing John Barbour, some modern commentators believe he died in the decisive Battle of Teba. They describe a grand battle in Spain but the setting is vague and the outcome ambiguous.

According to Gran Cronica de Alfonso XI, Uthman, unable to bring the Christians to battle, devised a strategy in an attempt to force them to abandon the siege. The body of cavalry was sent to make a diversionary attack across the Guadalteba River, luring Alfonso out to fight while Uthamn circled around to attack the Christian camp and destroyed the besieging army’s supplies. Alfonso however, having received information of Uthman’s preparations, kept most of his army back in camp while he sent a contingent to meet the demonstration on the river. It is part of this force that some commentators assume that James and his company joined the battle. When Uthman arrived at the enemy’s camp he found Alfonso’s men armed and ready. He then abandoned his attack and rode to support the diversionary force on the river where, unable to withstand the Castilian assault, his men were already starting to fall back.

Uthman arrived too late to prevent a general rout and the entire Granadan force was driven back in confusion to their camp in the Turon valley, ten miles to the south. It’s in this phase of the battle that some modern commentators have placed James’ death, either caught in flank when Uthman’s forces reached the river or in the ensuing pursuit to the Granadan camp. According to John Barbour’s description of James’ last battle, when the enemy broke, James and his companions followed hard behind. Having outstripped most of his men in the pursuit, James suddenly found himself far out in front with only a few of his followers around him. As he was riding back to rejoin the main body, he saw William St. Clair of Rosslyn surrounded by a body of Moors. They seized their opportunity and quickly rallied and counterattacked. With the few knights that were with him, James turned aside to attempt a rescue but, outnumbered twenty to one, the group was overrun.

It has become a popular legend that James then took from his neck the silver casket containing the heart of Bruce and threw it before him among the enemy, saying, “Now pass thou onward as thou wert wont, and Douglas will follow thee or die.” This anecdote has its origin in a 16th century addition to Barbour’s poem which, however, describes James as making the gesture at the beginning of his final battle. It was Sir Walter Scott in his “Tales of a Grandfather” who had created the image of Douglas throwing Bruce’s heart as his dying act. The “Castilian Cronica” makes no reference to such catastrophe. It does, however, state that in a fierce skirmish some days prior to the climatic battle, an unnamed ‘foreign count’ (arguably a reference to Douglas), had died as a result of his own rash behavior. This is one of only two battle casualties mentioned individually in the Castilian narrative of the campaign.

Barbour relates that James and all his men that were caught with him were killed, including William St. Clair of Roslyn and Robert Logan of Restalrig. He also states that, after the battle, James’ body and the casket with Bruce’s heart were recovered. James’ bones, the flesh boiled off of them, were taken back to Scotland by Sir William Keith of Galston in Ayrshire (who had missed the battle because he had a broken arm), and deposited it at St. Bride’s Church. By tradition Sir Simon Locard was a member of the company and also survived, but is not found in any of the sources. The heart of Bruce was taken by Moray, the regent, and solemnly interred under the high altar of Melrose Abbey.


James Douglas’ Tomb


The poet and chronicler, numerously referenced throughout this post, John Barbour, provides us with a pen portrait of James, among the first of its kind in Scottish history:

“But he was not so fair that we

Should praise his looks in high degree.

In visage he was rather grey;

His hair was black, so I heard say,

His limbs were finely made and long,

His bones were large, his shoulders strong,

His body was well-knit and slim

And those say that set eyes on him,

When happy, loveable was he,

And meek and sweet in company,

But those with him in battle saw

Another countenance he wore!”

–the Brus, John Barbour


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