Tales from Froissart
edited by Steve Muhlberger, Nipissing University
A few Scots take Berwick
King Charles of France instigates the Scots to make war on England. The king of Scots commissions four earls to make preparations. While this was in train, a few Scots take quick action to seize the strategic border stronghold of Berwick.
Book II, ch. 7. Summons were immediately issued for the assembling of the forces by a certain day in the marches, which is the country bordering on England. Whilst this summons was obeying, a valiant squire of Scotland, named Alexander Ramsey, set off with forty men from his company, determined to perform a gallant enterprise. They were all well mounted, and, having rode the whole night through bye-roads, came to Berwick nearly at day-break. A squire attached to the earl of Northumberland, called William Bisset, was governor of the town of Berwick; and a very able knight, called sir Robert Abeton, was constable of the castle.
When the Scots were arrived near Berwick, they concealed themselves, and sent a spy to obverve the state of the castle. The spy entered it as far as the ditches, wherein there was not any water, nor indeed could any be retained in them, for they were of moving sands: he looked about him on all sides, but did not see a soul; upon which, he returned back to his masters. Alexander Ramsay directly advanced with his companions, without speaking a word, and passed the ditches: they had brought good ladders with them, which they placed against the walls. Alexander was the first who mounted them sword in hand, and entered the castle followed by his men without opposition.
When they had all entered, they hastened to the great tower where sir Robert Boynton slept, and began to cut down the door of it with the axes they had brought. The governor was suddenly awakened: he had slept all the night, and kept but a poor watch, for which he paid dear.
He heard the door of his chamber broken, and thought it might be done by some of his own men who wanted to murder him, because he had quarrelled with them the preceding week. With this idea, he opened a window which looked on the ditches, leaped out of it without further consideration, and thus broke his neck and died on the spot. The guards of the castle, who towards day-break had been asleep, awakened by his groans, found the castle had been scaled and taken: they began to sound their trumpets, and to cry out, "Treason! treason!"
John Bisset, the governor of Berwick, on hearing their cries, armed himself, as well as all the able men of the town, and advanced toward the castle, when they plainly heard the noise of the Scots; but they could not gain entrance, for the gates were shut, and the drawbridge raised. Upon this, John Bisset, having considered a short time, said to those with him: "Come quickly: let us break down the supports of the bridge, so that none can sally out, nor get away without danger from us."
They soon got hatchets and wedges, and the supports of the gate next the town were destroyed. John Bisset sent off a messanger to the lord Percy at Alnwick, which is but twelve short leagues off, to request he would come immediately to his assistance with all his forces, for that Berwick castle had been taken by the Scots. He also said to Thomelin Friant, who was the person he sent: "Tell my lord of Percy the state you have left me in, and how the Scots are shut up in the castle, and cannot get away, unless they leap the walls; so let him hasten here as fast as he possibly can."
Alexander Ramsay and his men having scaled the castle of Berwick, thougth they had done wonders, as in truth they had: they would have been masters of the town if John Bisset had not acted so prudently, and slain whomever they pleased, or shut them up in the tower, for such was their intention: they said, "Let us now go into the town; it is ours; and seize all the riches, which we will make the good men of the town carry away for us, and then we shall set fire to it, for it cannot now make any resistance: in three or four days' time, succours will come from Scotland, so that we shall save all our pillage: and on our departure we will set the castle on fire, and by these means repay our hosts."
All his companions assented, for they were eager for gain. They tightened on their arms, and each grasped a spear, for they had found plenty in the castle, and opening the gate, let down the draw-bridge. When the bridge was let down, the chains which supported it broke; for the pillars on which it should have rested were destroyed, and the planks carried into the town. When John Bissard and the inhabitants who were there assembled, saw them, they began shouting out, "Oh what, are you there? keep where you are, for you shall not go away for a certainty without our permission."
Alexander Ramsay, seeing their appearance, soon found they intended to keep them confined in the castle, and that they must get away as well as they could: he therefore shut the gates, to avoid their arrows, and ordered his people to inclose themselves within, intending to defend the castle. They flung all the dead into the ditches, and shut up the prisoners in a tower. They thought the place was full strong enough to hold out until succours should come from Scotland, for the barons and the knights were assembling in the marches and in that neighbourhood: the earl of Douglas had even left Dalkeith, and arrived at Dunbar. We will now return to the squire whom John Bisset sent to Alnwick, and speak of his arrival, and of the information he gave to the earl of Northumberland.