13 April 2011

Cowards: The Douglases at the Battle of Poitiers

Blythe Gifford

The words "Scotsman" and "coward" are rarely used in the same sentence, but if you look deeply enough, you'll find one or two Scotsmen who chose to "live to fight another day." Among them were Lord William Douglas, who was a minor character in my book, HIS BORDER BRIDE, and his cousin, Archibald the Grim.

William, later the first Earl of Douglas, and Archibald, later the third earl of Douglas, traveled to France in 1356 with forty knights, ostensibly on pilgrimage. Scotland may have been the Douglas home, but according to Michael Brown in The Black Douglas, William grew to manhood in France and "was as much a French as a Scottish noblemen." As a result, he and Archibald found themselves fighting on the French side of the Battle of Poitiers, one of the decisive conflicts of the Hundred Years War.

Thinking himself the expert in fighting the English, Lord William Douglas advised King John to have his knights fight on foot, instead of on horseback, since English archery was devastating to mounted troops.

The result was disaster.

The English won a decisive victory, even capturing the French King John.

And the Douglases? Well, they were luckier.

According to the chronicler Froissart, William "for some time fought very valiantly; but, when he perceived that the discomfiture was complete on the side of the French, he saved himself as fast as he could; for he dreaded so much being taken by the English..."

Other, perhaps more sympathetic accounts, say his own men forced him off the field.

And Archibald? He was captured by the English, presumably wounded. Scottish historian Fordun relates that his armor was an immediate tip off to his captors that here was a man worth a handsome ransom.

Fortunately for Archie, Sir William Ramsay a fellow knight, happened along. Seeing Douglas, Ramsay started cursing, accusing him of being a "base knave" who had murdered his master and stolen his armor. Archibald apparently held his tongue and played along. Ramsay held out his foot, forcing Douglas to remove his boot, and then he hit Douglas with it.

The English were taken in and Douglas was ransomed for forty shillings, a relative pittance, appropriate to the rascal Ramsay made him out to be.

And so both Douglases lived to fight another day. And to die of natural causes.

Blythe Gifford has written five, 14th century medieval romances for Harlequin Historicals featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket, most recently HIS BORDER BRIDE. The Chicago Tribune called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance." She is working on her next book, which will again be set on the Scottish Borders.


Keena Kincaid said...

Cowardly? I think I'd call that a wise retreat. He lived to fight another day. :-)

Pamala Knight said...

The Douglases sound like they held personal preservation above king and country. Thanks for giving us the story behind your character, Blythe. I always love reading about your extremely thorough research.

Blythe Gifford said...

Cowardly or smart definitely depends on your point of view, Keena. Pamala, the William Douglas character appears in my book just before he goes off to France. I wanted to tell this story in the book, but it would have been gratuitous, so I saved it to use as an author's extra!


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.