Sir James Douglas

The Scottish patriot Sir James Douglas (1286-1330) supported Robert Bruce, later King Robert I, in the Scottish struggle for independence from England.

James Douglas was the eldest son of a notable Scottish patriot, Sir William Douglas, called "the Hardy." Sir William had been among the early leaders of resistance to the ambitions of Edward I of England to dominate Scotland. Edward imprisoned Sir William in the Tower of London and, on the latter's death in 1297, confiscated the Douglas estates.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the young James appears to have grown up with passionate anti-English feelings. He reached manhood just as Robert Bruce laid claim to the crown of Scotland (1306) and from that time was one of Bruce's most faithful and important lieutenants.

Douglas's career may be divided into two phases. The first was the 8 years of Bruce's struggle to claim the Scottish crown. This was a period of virtual guerrilla warfare, with Douglas emerging from his hiding places for a daring raid or the capture of a strategic castle. At the decisive Scottish victory at Bannockburn in 1314, Douglas commanded one of the four divisions of the Scots and, for his skillful leadership, was knighted on the battlefield by Bruce, now firmly established on the throne.

After Bannockburn, in the second phase of his public career, Douglas served as Warden of the Marches (the disputed frontier area between England and Scotland). In 1317 he diverted an English threat to the borders by staging a raid deep into English territory. Ten years later he dispersed the danger of an English invasion by an audacious attack in which he surprised the enemy forces by night and nearly captured the young Edward III in his bed.

Bruce's reliance on, and affection for, Sir James never ceased. When the King was dying in 1329, he apparently asked Sir James to carry out the spirit of an unfulfilled crusading vow by bearing Bruce's heart to the Hold Land. During the subsequent journey Douglas joined the King of Castile in a "crusade" against the Moslems in Spain and died there in battle in 1330.

It is as a hero of Scotish romance and legend that Douglas's real fame lies. Two sobriquets, "the Good" and "the Black Douglas," indicate his differing reputations in Scotland and in England (though "black" probably referred originally to the color of his hair). His name lives on, especially through the works of Sir Walter Scott, Castle Dangerous and Tales of a Grandfather.

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Further Reading on Sir James Douglas

A full treatment of Douglas is in Sir Herbert E. Maxwell, A History of the House of Douglas … (2 vols., 1902). The principal near-contemporary source is John Barbour's long poem The Bruce (ca. 1375; trans. by W. M. Mackenzie, 1909, and by Archibald A. H. Douglas, 1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Davis, I. M., The Black Douglas, London, Routledge and K. Paul, 1974.