This is the tale of one man’s mortal heart, and that of another’s figurative heart. This is the true story of how two heroes met their deaths; two legendary warriors of their time. One at peace in his bed, after a lifetime spent in the saddle with sword in hand, and the other, outnumbered twenty to one.
On the 7th of June, 1329, Robert the Bruce lay dying in his bed. At around this time, the Reconquista, a concerted effort by Christian forces to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim invaders, which had been raging for several centauries prior, was still in full swing, with forces drawn from all over the Christian world participating. This ‘Crusade’ was to have been joined by none other than the Bruce himself, but dying as he was, his penance in the eyes of God would have to be confined to death bed absolution instead. Concerned by this, it was then that he had his close friend and Lieutenant, one Sir James Douglas (The good Sir James/The Black Douglas) brought to his bed side.
There, he asked him a favor; that upon his death, James was to cut the heart from his chest and carry it to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the heart of the Holy Land, as a mark of penance, and that it should also be carried into battle against “God’s foes”, so that his ambition of Crusading would be fulfilled. And when he had died, his friend did just that, and his heart was removed and placed in a silver casket, which Sir James Douglas then wore around his neck. Several months later, Douglas, as Knight Bannerette, with seven other Scottish Knights and some twenty or so squires and gentlemen in tow, traveled to Berwick upon Tweed, armed with a safe conduct letter from Edward III of England, and a letter of recommendation to King Alfonso XI of Castile. Arriving there in good time, they soon set sail for Sluys in Flanders, France.
There, the Scots then waited for around a fortnight onboard the ship in which they had made the crossing, no doubt awaiting news of the situation with King Alfonso XI and the Moorish forces, the Crusade against Granada, and of the general consensus of the situation; Douglas even holding court with his Knight’s, as the late King would have done; spreading the word of his arrival, and of his planned expedition, and seeing who among the other foreign Knights would be interested in joining his party. Then, sometime around June, news reached Douglas that despite some, if not all, of King Alfonso’s allies having withdrawn their support from the conflict, the King still intended to go to war, quickly set sail for Spain. One tempest later, they found themselves at the mouth of the river Guadalquivir, and then disembarked upstream at the ancient city of Seville. And once again, it seemed, fate had placed the Scots on the side of the underdog.
It was there in Seville that Douglas met with Alfonso XI, and presented him with his credentials. And, it was said that Alfonso was so impressed by Douglas’s reputation, and the task set for him by the late Bruce, that he sought to lavish him with expensive gifts of gold and war-horses, fine armors’ and jewels; all of which Douglas was said to have graciously declined, replying only that he and his men sought to fight for the King as ‘humble pilgrims‘ and gain absolution for their sins in the process. Accepting this, the King then provided veteran soldiers of his own to act as advisers and mentors to the Scottish party, accustomed as those men were to fighting on Spanish terrain, and against the Moors. And it was there in that Spanish city, that Douglas soon found himself the centre of much chivalric attention and curiosity, with numerous foreign Knights seeking him out so as to pay their respects. There was even a good number of English Knights who sought him out also, men who only recently would have called him their mortal enemy, now coming as well-wishers and brothers-in-arms. An exchange was said to have occurred between Douglas and an English Knight, whose name escapes me at the moment, which revolved around the fact that Douglas was relatively free of battle scars, and how that was unusual for a Knight, especially one as hardened and seasoned as Douglas was. It went something like this:
‘You can’t possibly be the man they call the Black Douglas, for there isn’t a scratch nor scar upon your face‘ The Englishman remarked; like most Knights, he was heavily battle scarred.
‘Ah, yes, but when you’re as good a fighter as I, the enemy has less chance to disfigure you‘ Sir James quipped.
Soon, however, such friendly pursuits were to give way to battle; it was time for King Alfonso’s Castilian army to enter the field and begin the war in earnest. Giving command of all foreign Knights to Douglas, the army then advanced south, marching through Ecija and Osuna, then southward still to the meadows of Almargen, which lay some five miles west of the castle of Teba, where they arrived and shortly after began their siege; their camp and intentions quickly drawing the notice of one Berber nobleman, Uthman bin Abi-l-Ulá, who, with six thousand cavalry, and thousands of infantry, had been marching up from the Guadalhorce valley to relieve the castle in case of just such an emergency. Crossing into a second valley, Uthman then made his camp ten miles south of Teba, between two fortresses; Turon, and Ardales castle.
Meanwhile, Alfonso’s siege engines had arrived from Ecija, and were soon given the task of opening up a breach made in the fortress’s wall previously. Despite this, things were not exactly going smoothly for Alfonso’s forces, as the Castilian army soon found the surrounding water sources unsupporting, and had to drive their horses and other livestock further and further afield until they were travelling up to two miles away just to water their beasts. This of course caused mounting tension throughout the multi-ethnic army as the water situation worsened, with five hundred Portuguese knights shortly after declaring their term of service expired, before abandoning the army completely. Even then, Moorish forces had been harrying those seeking water at every conceivable opportunity, so much so that to even drink, Alfonso had needed to provide a small army just to hold back the enemy long enough. Things were not going well, indeed. Worsened further when late one night, forces from Teba sailed out and attacked the besieging army’s frontline; leaving a siege tower in flames as they withdrew.
Knowing that he could never beat the Christian army in open battle, Uthman bin Abi-l-Ulá waited there in his hidden camp, waiting and watching for any opportunity, any advantage to strike; sending out skirmishing forces here and there, scrutinizing the enemy response and the actions they took against his men; noting their tactics, and formations. He could never beat them out in the open, that much was clear, and so he devised a plan; a pincer attack; three thousand Moorish cavalry would make a diversionary attack across the river where the Castilians collected their water, while Uthman himself, would take another three thousand upstream to directly engage King Alfonso’s camp with an attack on its flank. A daring, if predictable move. And one that Alfonso saw coming, thanks to his scouts. And when Uthman’s force sprang from their concealment and rode against his camp, seeing what he thought was a portion riding off to engage those attacking across the river, found instead, the entire camp bristling with ready weapons; the ‘army‘ riding for the divisionary force had simply been a scouting party led by Don Pedro Fernández de Castro to check on the situation at the river. His ruse had failed, and upon seeing his divisionary force beginning to become routed, Uthman had fallen back to support them, but when King Alfonso then dispatched two thousand men to reinforce those already in battle at the river, could do little but join them in retreat.
The Moorish cavalry were routed, and soon began heading back in the direction of their camp at Turon, and it was whilst they were doing so, that Douglas, believing that those of his own men about himself were indicative of a greater force giving chase, did just that, and raced after the enemy with haste; his fellow Scottish Knights, with several other foreign Knights in tow, were to turn out to be his only companions in that pursuit. Having outstripped all but a handful of those men, Douglas suddenly found himself far out in front; his allies far behind him, and the nimble Moorish cavalry not far ahead. Seeing the error of his way, he quickly wheeled his mount around and began to head back for the Castilian main, when he suddenly spied Sir William St. Clair of Rosslyn, a fellow Scottish Knight, battling a company of Moors that had surrounded him after seizing the opportunity to counter their small number of pursuers.
With only a handful of Scottish Knights, Sir William Keith, the brothers Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig and Sir Walter Logan, John St. Clair, younger brother of Sir William, Sir Simon Lockhart of Lee, Sir Kenneth Moir, William Borthwick, Sir Alan Cathcart and Sir Robert de Glen, Douglas galloped out across the valley, turning wide and swinging back around to head directly for the foe. Facing several thousand enemy warriors, he and his nine brave countrymen spurred their steeds forward and raced across the field toward them, to rescue Sir William if they could, or go to God, absolved of their sins as they would. They hurtled into the enemy in good order, with Douglas managing to fight his way to Sir William and seize the reins of his horse, yet could do nothing for the corpse that rode atop it. With his men dying all about him, and the overwhelming sea of enemies breaking over him, Sir James tore the casket from his neck, that which contained the heart of the Bruce, and threw it at the enemy, so that it landed deep among them, crying:
“Now pass thou onward as thou wert wont, and Douglas will follow thee or die.“
And of course, it was not long until all of that brave party was slain.
Yet so impressed was the enemy said to have been with such courage and sacrifice, that they had collected the remains of the Knights and the enameled casket from the battlefield, and then boiled the flesh from the bones, so that they could be more easily transported back to Scotland. Sir William Keith, from Ayrshire, was tasked with returning them, having missed the battle due to a broken arm received in earlier fighting. Returning home to Scotland, he deposited the bones of Douglas at St Bride’s Kirk, in Douglas, South Lanarkshire, With Bruce’s embalmed heart taken to Moray, to Melrose Abbey, and interred under the high alter therein.
Since then and to this day, the Douglas arms display a heart motif; that of the Bruce’s, and was awarded to the Clan in honor of Sir James Douglas’s aforementioned heroism at the Battle of Teba.