Sir James of Douglas - The Good Sir James

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Sir James Douglas: The “Good”
or “The Black”?

Kindly contributed by Sam Bradley

The little knowledge we have is chiefly from Barbour, who tells us he was a youth, ‘bot ane litill page,’ when his father was imprisoned. Barbour has also preserved a word-portrait of his hero. He was, it is said, of commanding stature, well formed, large-boned, and with broad shoulders; his countenance was somewhat dark or swarthy, but frank and and open, set off by locks of sable hue. Courteous in manner, wise in speech, though he spoke with a slight lisp, gentle in all his actions. Terrible in battle, and at all times an enemy to everything treacherous, dishonourable or false.
Sir James Douglas was born in 1286 at Douglas Castle, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the son of William “Le Hardi” Douglas. Le Hardi was most notable for being the first Lord to join Sir William Wallace (aka Braveheart) in his revolt against English rule. It’s been said that he was a “crusader, warrior, egoist, and went through his life with very little regard for anyone else.” Sir James’ mother was Elizabeth Stewart, daughter of Alexander Stewart, the High Steward of Scotland. Although a marriage was never verified, he had a son, Sir Archibald “the Grim” who became the possessor of the estates and the third earl of Douglas.

Sir James became lord of Douglas and was called “the Good” by the Scots. Ironically, he was considered to be the most feared knight in Scottish history. He mastered fear as a tool of war and was ferocious and relentless in battle. His unique raiding style won him the dreaded title of the “Black Douglas” by the English.

By 1297, open revolt had spread across Scotland. This became the “First War of Scottish Independence”. Ultimately, some Scottish nobles agreed to swear allegiance to King Edward I of England. During the “Capitulation of Irvine” the Scots worked out surrender negotiations. As part of the surrender, both Sir Robert the Bruce and Sir William Douglas agreed to turn over their eldest children as hostages to assure their allegiance. In reality, they had no intention of doing so. The Bruce hid his infant daughter and Sir William sent Sir James to France. While the negotiations took place, Wallace continued to lay plans and gather men.

When Sir James returned three years later, he found the Englishman, Robert de Clifford, in possession of his estates. Douglas Castle was built sometime before 1288 and had been a stronghold of the Douglas family, but in 1307 the castle had been captured and garrisoned by the English. The bishop of Saint Andrews interceded with the king on James's behalf, asking that the Douglas lands be returned in exchange for Sir James' oath of fealty, but he was thoroughly rebuffed. That refusal changed Scottish history.

Sir Andrew Moray and Sir William Wallace became known as the first significant Scottish patriots. During the winter of 1296-97, Sir Andrew escaped captivity by the English and began to recruit forces against them. In May 1297, Sir William Wallace killed the English sheriff of Lanark, an incident known as the Action at Lanark. Then, with the blessing of the bishop of Glasgow, he gathered an army of men that also believed in Sir William’s stand against the English. He joined forces with Sir James’ father and when King Edward I discovered that he had defected to the Scottish cause, he sent Robert Bruce, the Scottish Earl of Carrick, to attack the Douglas castle. “The Bruce” chose instead to support the country of his birth. He joined forces with Douglas and the others standing against England.

Because of the king’s rebuff concerning the return of his lands, Sir James pledged his loyalty to Robert Bruce. That loyalty developed into friendship and Sir James became the ablest lieutenant of the Bruce. Early on, Bruce’s fledgling army experienced defeat at the Battle of Methven. Sir James escaped with the Bruce and accompanied him as he wandered in the Highlands. The next year they returned to the south of Scotland

Bruce asserted a claim to the Scottish throne, and it was that or living as a fugitive. He was also driven by the need to protect his extended family. With the support of the bishop of Glasgow, Bruce became King Robert I of Scotland in 1306. He then began a campaign to free his kingdom from the British. Now, along with Bruce and Wallace, Sir James became one of the three great heroes of Scottish independence. His unswerving loyalty to the king of Scotland and his ferociousness in battle became the source of romance and legends.

Sir James was crafty, resourceful, relentless, and occasionally ruthless. He had an appreciation of psychological warfare with his understanding that inciting fear gave him an advantage. He created a formidable reputation for himself as a soldier and a tactician. He used weather and natural landscape features in his battle strategies. While Bruce campaigned in the north, Sir James used the cover of Selkirk Forest to mount his own highly effective attacks. The previous defeats at Methven and Dalrigh, where James Douglas had been wounded, had provided them valuable lessons in tactics. Although at a disadvantage in conventional Medieval warfare, they saw an advantage in guerrilla warfare. They were fast moving, agile and lightly equipped to exert maximum effectiveness against the English who were often stuck in static defensive positions.

Sir James was determined to retake his ancestral estates in Douglasdale. With only two men he made a sneak attack on the castle where he sought out Thomas Dickson, a loyal tenant who knew him as a young boy. Dickson helped recruit local men willing to ambush the castle garrison. They chose Palm Sunday, 1307 for the attack knowing the garrison would be together at chapel. Sir James and his men filed into the church with weapons hidden under their clothing. The war cry "A Douglas!" echoed through the kirk and the carnage began. It was a fierce fight, and all of the English soldiers were either slain or seriously injured. Sir James and his men then retired to the castle where they sat down to the meal intended for the garrison. The took what was useful from the castle stores, then poisoned the wells with salt and dead horses. The members of the garrison who had survived the attack were then beheaded and their bodies thrown in with those of their already deceased comrades. The bodies, on the pile of stores was then set on fire. The event has become known as "Douglas' larder". There was an altruistic purpose to this barbarism. The English King had a policy of killing any Bruce supporters usually by hanging or drawing and quartering. Sir James knew the local men who assisted him and remained behind could only be safe if there was no one left alive to identify them.

Despite his efforts, Douglas castle was retaken by the English again, but Sir James wasn’t about to give up. He hid a large body of men near the castle while a smaller party drove off the cattle that grazed outside the castle walls. The English rode out with an attacking force. The Scots fled, leading them in the direction of a pre-arranged ambush. When they had them where they wanted them, other Scots came out from cover and laid into the English, who then broke and fled for the safety of the castle. Most were cut down before reaching the castle, but others succeeded slamming shut the gates and taking refuge inside. Sir James and his force rode off leaving the survivors to manage their dead.

Sir James third attack on his castle involved employing a ruse to draw out the castle’s defenders. In the distance castle guards would have seen a line of pack horses laden with hay led by country women. Sir James knew sustenance for the castle’s horses was running low and, as expected, soldiers set out to capture the hay train. Imagine their surprise when the country “women” threw aside their long cloaks to reveal they were armed Scots who then mounted their horses and turned to attack. As before, the Scots were joined by a larger contingent that had lain in wait. Once again the English were completely overwhelmed. Sir James had a large contingent and then attacked the castle. They razed the castle to the ground to deny it's further use to the enemy.

To the English, Sir James and his men were phantoms, thieves of the night who appeared out of nowhere, wreaked havoc then disappeared just to reappear later disguised as cattle, old women and even oxen. That’s when the English named him "the Black Douglas". He deserved this moniker when in 1312, he successfully penetrated Hartlepool carrying off spoils and taking prisoners. Two years later they returned again to ravage, plunder and destroy villages. The frightened Hartlepool inhabitants took to the sea for safety.

In 1314, Sir James employed another cunning ploy in his intent to capture the powerful fortress at Roxburgh. Again, he chose a chose a day of religious worship. Sixty men wore black cloaks to cover their armour and, just after sunset approached the castle on their hands and knees. The sentries on top of the wall most likely assumed the dark shapes were cattle. Rope ladders were thrown over the walls and the fearsome war cry of “Douglas!” echoed through the castle. The generally unarmed and frolicking inhabitants were all slain. This was a major victory for King Robert and Sir James became knighted in the field.

Not much later, King Edward II marched into Scotland with an army over twice the size of the Bruce's. On the eve of the battle at Bannockburn, Sir James was made a knight banneret. This a battlefield distinction that allowed a knight to lead his men in battle under his own banner. During the battle he commanded one of the king's four divisions where they overwhelmed the larger English army then received Bruce's blessing to chase the English King back across the border.

In late 1316, King Robert was summoned to Scotland and Sir James became the warden of the southern marches. He wasted Northumberland; ninety towns and villages were burned and destroyed, and the canny and more experienced Scottish warriors slaughtered an army of almost 20,000 at Mitton-on-Swale (September 20), in a fight known as “The Chapter of Myton” . As terrible as that sounds, he showed his “good” side in 1322 when he captured the pass of Byland in Yorkshire. During the battle, three French knights surrendered to him. Honoring the relationship between Scotland and France, Sir James gave them safe return to France, forfeiting the ransom. King Robert rewarded him with the “Emerald Charter,”which gave him criminal jurisdiction over the family estates and released the lords of Douglas from various feudal obligations. It was formalized when the king took an emerald ring from his own hand and placed it on Sir James’ finger(1). A large two-handed sword, another of the king’s gifts, once held in Douglas Castle. Sir James' heirs became Earls of Douglas and Douglas Castle was finally rebuilt.

Probably the most famous story of Sir James is when, 1329 the Bruce asked him to carry his heart to the Holy Land after his death. The pilgrimage began in 1330. He was accompanied by another knight banneret, seven knights, and twenty-six esquires. He bore the silver casket that containing the embalmed heart of the Bruce around his neck. When the company stopped in Spain, Sir James offered assistance to Alfonso, king of Castile and Leon, who was at war. After all he had been through fighting the English, it was a misinterpreted command that caused the Scots to become surrounded by the moors. Knowing this would be his last battle, Sir James removed the cask from around his neck and declared “Pass first in fight, as thou wert wont to do, and Douglas will follow thee, or die”. He went out fighting. The surviving Scottish knights brought his body back to Scotland where he was entombed in the town of Douglas. From that day on the Douglases have borne a human heart in their coat of arms.

In all his deeds was Douglas true
For nothing would he have to do
With treachery, nor with a lie
His heart was set on honour high
All things did he so nobly do
That he was loved by all he knew 
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
As those say that set eyes on him When happy, lovable was he
And meek and sweet in company
But those with him in battle saw
Another countenance he wore!
In speech a little lisp had he
That suited him right wondrously.......





portrait inscription 

In the early 16th century Charles II D'Amboise commissioned Bernardino de' Conti to do a portrait painting for him in 1505 AD. Although a friend and patron of Leonardo Da Vinci, D'Amboise picked de' Conti for his traditional style of oil painting. Prominently inscribed on the top left the painting reads, "The Earl of Douglas surnamed Black Dudley" (referring to James, Lord of Douglas c.1286-1330).

It is unknown how many renditions de' Conti created, but there is one that resides in the Seattle Art Museum, another once owned by Henry VIII belongs to the Royal Family (Hanging notes: above the door of the Coffer Chamber; Location: Privy Gallery), and at least one belongs in a private collection. A 'little picture' appears in the inventory of Henry VIII in 1542, Whitehall Palace no. 774.

It is recorded as: Sold to: R [reserved], sold; Witchard Sold for: £2 10s; Sale date: 22/03/1649 or 50



1.  At this period, also, Douglas received various rewards for his long and varied services. In 1318 he had received a grant of the lands of Polbuthy, or Polmoody, in Moffatdale. He now received the lands, castle, and forest of Jedburgh with Bonjedward, and the barony of Stabilgorton (Staplegordon)  in Eskdale. His estate of Douglas was defined by a bounding charter to include the two parishes of Douglas and Carmichael, and he further received the extensive barony of Westerkirk in Eskdale. About this time, also, he had grants of Ettrick Forest, of Lauderdale and the barony of Bedrule in Teviotdale.  In 1328, the estate of Fawdon, in Northumberland, and other lands in England belonging to his father, were restored to Sir James Douglas.


More about this remarkable character of Scottish history can be read in the linked articles.


See also:

  • Article on a painting of the Black Douglas
  • Enlarged image of statue at Bonaly Tower
  • Sword presented to Sir James by Robert the Bruce
  • Sword taken into battle at Teba
  • Who was the Black Douglas?
  • Battle of Byland Abbey
  • Wars of Scottish Independence
  • Sir James Douglas slays the Peacock of the North
  • Myth and History: The Case of the Black Douglases
  • Assault the castle of Rutherglen near Glasgow, 1308/09
  • Defeat of the Macdougals at the Pass of Brander
  • Campaign in Galloway - yet to be written
    •  Reputed links with the Knights Templar
  • How Sir James got his lands

  • Source


    Sources for this article include:

  • Paul, Sir James Balfour (Lord Lyon King of Arms). The Scots Peerage. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1904 , Vol. 3.
    •  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Entry for Douglas, Sir James (d. 1330). Published 23 Sep 2004
    •  Fraser, Sir William. The Douglas Books. Edinburgh, 1885. Vol. I, p. 106
    •  Paton, Henry, Dictionary of National Biography Online. Volume 15, Entry for Douglas, James
    •  Johnston, George Harvey. "The Earls of Douglas." The Heraldry of the Douglases: With Notes on All the Males of the Family, Descriptions of the Arms, Plates and Pedigrees. Edinburgh: W. & A.K. Johnston, Limited, 1907. pp. 13-15 available online
    •  Cokayne, G.E. The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland Great Britain and the United Kingdom. London: St Catherine Press, 1916, Vol. IV, pp. 430-440
    •  Battlefields of Britain. Medieval, First War of Scottish Independence, Battle of Methven, 1306. available online
  • The Royal Collection

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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