Surely a military leader’s prowess rest on two primary points of understanding – identifying the enemy’s strengths, and understanding his own force’s collective demeanour. In a recent foray through the Introduction to Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, two notable remarks caught the ardent reader’s eye. The first was that often quoted phrase attributed to Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey. Following the harrying of Jedburgh on the 23rd September of 1523, when the town was all but destroyed – Howard notes that “which town is so burnt that it must be rebuilt before new garrisons are lodged there. The burning was committed to two sure men, Sir William Bulmer and Thos. Tempest. The town was much stronger than he expected. It had twice as many houses as Berwick, and could have lodged 1,000 horse in garrison. It had six good towers, now completely thrown down”
The Scots, however, did not simply give up without a fight or let the English ride over the border unchallenged. Jedburgh’s inhabitants had hauled the thatch off their own roofs and set it a-flame in the street, causing Surrey to note that the“smoke was very noisome.”
Neither did the next day’s assault on Ker of Fernihurt’s stronghold did not go entirely to plan – “Fernherst stood marvellously strong within a great wood,” notes a letter from Surrey to Wolsey. This English force was led by Sir Arthur Darcy and Sir Marmaduke Constable, who had 700 men and some ordnance at their disposal. They chose to enter that great wood with 300 of their men, plus the ordnance. In the wood they “were sorely handled by hardy men that would not budge a foot.” The English finally got control of Ferniehurt and “threw it down”, but the resistance was not yet over.
Surrey had Lord Dacre within the main force, but Dacre would not make camp with the others, despite Surrey’s orders against this, and good provision of land having been made for Dacre and his men. In the night, after Surrey’s assault on Jedburgh Abbey, the horses of Dacre’s force:
broke loose, and ran from the field, creating great alarm among the standing watch, who shot at them divers guns, and above a hundred sheaf of arrows. At last they ran madly into the field, to the number of 1,500. Above fifty fell over a great rock, more than 250 ran into the town [Jedburgh], being on fire, and were carried off by the women badly burnt. Thinks about 800 horses are lost by this folly, by not lying within the camp. “I dare not write the wonders that my lord Dacre and all his company do say they saw that night, six times, of sprights and fearful sights.” They all say the devil was among them six times. “I assure your grace, I found the Scots at this time the boldest men and the hottest that ever I saw in any nation,” keeping them in a continual skirmish. If they could muster 40,000 men as good as the 1,500 or 2,000 he saw, it would be hard to encounter them.”
Surrey, therefore, could recognise a tenacious enemy, even if that enemy was defeated. We should wonder how those horses came to get loose, and just how devilish the Scots around stricken Jedburgh were those days and nights.
Contrast this with the remarks attributed to the captain of a band of mercenaries, who had been hired to bolster the forces of the Borders chiefs and exiled lords, who sought to put an end to Arran’s rule over the young King James VI. They attacked Stirling, complete with those mercenaries. In one of his fine footnotes to the history he presents, Scott notes a point highlighted by Godscoft: those mercenaries had firearms, rather than the preferred weapon of the Border spearmen. However, they were “such bad masters of their craft, that their captain was heard to abserve, ‘that those who knew his soldiers as well as he did, would hardly chuse to march before them.’” Another man, who no doubt lived to fight another day – in this case not by knowing his enemy but his men.
To avoid Scott’s introductions is to deprive oneself of such wry smiles as such digressions encourage, so avoid them at your peril.