The Douglas Archives

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James the Good: The Black Douglas by David R. Ross

Review by "Wasp":

This was a frustrating book to read. It is a lot more sensible than many patriotically inspired histories and avoids many of the pitfalls of the Douglas legend, only to tumble headlong into others. My comments relate to the end of the book with the familiar story of Douglas' death in Spain fighting the Moors of Granada, or 'Saracens' as most sources describe them.
David Ross shows an imperfect understanding of the history of the Muslim Christian conflict in Iberia, and for a man who prides himself on relating the history to the geographical settings, he repeats the errors of those who have gone before him. It would seem that like many of them he has not examined a modern map of southern Spain or the Teba district

Regarding Douglas' mission with Bruce's embalmed heart, Ross states as fact that Bruce requested his heart be "taken on crusade, to be presented at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and to be returned to be buried at Melrose." This was alleged by the unreliable Le Bel and copied by Froissart. While letters of safe conduct from Edward III's court also state that this was Douglas' intended destination, John Barbour, author of the influential epic poem 'Brus,' states only that the heart was to be born in battle 'against God's foes'. As Ross himself points out, another letter from Edward's court makes it pretty clear that Sir James' first destination was going to be Spain. He also points out that the recapture of Jerusalem by the 'Saracens' and the expulsion of the Christians from Outremer made a military expedition to the Holy Land unlikely.

Inexplicably, even the blurb of the Product Description repeats this mistake: "Ross' research found him retracing Sir James' journey to the Holy Land..." (Still, why bother reading the product you're promoting, eh? Leave that to the public who pay for the privilege).

The author speaks of Jerusalem being "in the hands of the Saracen", the Moors "having invaded Spain" and Castillo de la Estrella being "in the hands of the Moors" as if these were all recent events. The Muslim presence of Palestine and southern Spain dated back six to seven hundred years- (longer than the permanent European presence in America to date). The campaigns in 1319-1333 on the SW border of Granada were not crusades- despite the attempts of Alfonso XI to obtain Papal recognition.

As far as the actual expedition is concerned, Ross kicks off by omitting a key figure- in Barbour's story, at least- Sir William Sinclair of Roslin, but includes Sir Alan Cathcart and Symon Loccard of Lee, two knights whose apocryphal presence on the expedition appears to be based on ancestral myths, promoted with dogged persistence by the families concerned. He then repeats the very tenuous anecdote that Douglas visited Santander, based on a wholly unreliable C19th reference to a memorial stone that has never been identified and was supposedly pointed out by a Spanish general who was in fact besieging Bilbao at the time.

Once in Spain, Ross's geography continues to falter. The 'castillo de la Estrella' was never known by that name in the C14th. This romantic name is of uncertain origin but dates from much later- (and is highly unlikely to have anything to do with the Douglas coat of arms of three mullets).

The Scots would almost certainly not have marched eastwards to Teba from Seville (The route would have been southeast, anyway) but southerly from Cordoba, where Alfonso' had mustered his army in July 1330.

The castle of 'Turron' (Turon) 'a few miles away on the far side of Guad Teba' was actually a full ten miles distant from the Rio Guadalteba in the adjacent valley of the Rio Turon. That's a long way to come raiding each day in August heat. The labyrinth of hills and arroyos between the two valleys was the main scene of fighting between Granadan and Christian forces and may be the site of Douglas's death.

Ross refers to Moorish detachments "only attacking the Christians when they went to the Guada Teba to draw water." It was August and the number of mounts, pack beasts, as well, perhaps, as commissary herds, in the Castilian army must have been considerable and the watering process almost continual. As the Castilian chronicles make clear, there was daily contact between Moorish raiders and Christian patrols.

Like many before him, Ross has chosen to place Douglas's death in the climactic battle when the Granadan general, Uthman, attempted to destroy Alfonso's siege camp by coup de main. The conventional theory is that a prolonged battle description in Barbour's 'Brus' correlates to the Christian response to a diversionary attack intended to draw the Christian army down to the river. This identification seems to be inspired by a romantic need for Douglas to die contributing to the Christian victory- despite serious factual and logical objections to such an interpretation and strong circumstantial evidence that he had died some days previously. Although the details are not clear and the conclusion is not accepted by some commentators, Castilian sources suggest Douglas was killed in an earlier skirmish with Moorish raiders that somehow got out of hand. Le Bel, copied by Froissart, also describe Douglas making a drastic mistake that results in the Scots dying unsupported by their allies in the midst of an overwhelming Moorish force. Castilian and Scottish myth makers attached to the Royal courts of the C14th appear to have chosen either to gloss over this misfortune or present it as a tragic but glorious mischance in the chaos of battle. Romantics led by Sir Walter Scott followed suit and many modern historians appear to be doing the same.

Ross should have examine the sources more carefully. He repeats without question that Douglas was killed 25th March 1330. The one primary source that makes reference to the date of Douglas' death -Fordun/ Bower- (also the only source to mention Teba before Lord Hailes in the late C18th) in fact states August 25th 1330. The siege of Teba did indeed take place in August 1330 but given the dramatically different version of Douglas' end that Fordun suggests, the specific date, while not unlikely, cannot be relied on as fact without supporting evidence.

Mercifully, there is no reference to the much-loved but fraudulent story of Douglas throwing the casket containing Bruce's heart into the thick of the enemy just before he died- a literary invention of the C15th that evolved over the centuries till Sir Walter Scott fashioned the familiar final version in the 1830s.

Ross's instincts were right. If only he had looked more carefully at his sources and read the more intelligent, although admittedly flawed, commentaries of the past twenty years, he could have written a much better book.

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