Good King Robert’s Testament
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Categories: Medieval

Good King Robert’s Testament

A group of soldiers in full suits of mail with bascinets and kettle hats and lances or axes and shields in their hands are standing in water on the left. A group of men in pseuydo-antique robes, one of them with a Jewish hat and the rest bare-headed, hold swords and axes and stand on land on the right
Soldiers and civilians in the age of Bannockburn (pharaoh’s soldiers drowning in the sea?) on folio 24v of the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library BL Royal 2 B VII, painted in London c. 1310-1320). A good general doesn’t plan for miracles!

Throughout the long five hundred years of war between Scottish and English kings, the Scots tended to win the wars but lose the big battles. Scotland was a smaller and poorer kingdom, and the way of fighting battles that the Scots were good at (lining up big masses of spearmen and axemen with jacks and steel caps) was not very effective against the way that the English were good at (dismounting their armed men and galling the enemy with arrows until they charged, breaking formation as they came because no prince in Europe could keep a large army together long enough to drill it). A fourteen-line gem of a poem describes the way of fighting which proved most successful in campaign after campaign:

On fut suld be all Scottis weire, // weire = Wehr “defense”
By hyll and mosse themself to reare. // reare: roar? an earlier edition has weire “defend”
Lat woods for wallis be bow and speire,
That innymeis do them na deire.
In strait placis gar keep all store,
And byrnen ye planeland thaim before.
Thane sall thai pass away in haist
Wenn that thai find na thing but waist.
With wykes and waykings of the nyght // wyke: wake
And mekill noyis maid on hytht, // mekill: big, large
Thaime sall ye turnen with gret affrai, // affray: fright, alarm
As thai ware chassit with swerd away.
This is the counsall and intent
Of gud King Robert’s testiment.

– After Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Art of War: The Middle Ages from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century. New and Cheaper Issue (Meuthen & Co.: London, 1905) p. 579

Now roll that around in your mouth a bit and savour it. Enjoy the language and the rhythm and the joy with which it describes something horrible in ways that poor crofters and shepherds can understand. Think about how rare it is to have something like this from the side which was wise to avoid battle. And then if you really must, go on where I ask my annoying academic question, namely where does this poem come from?

Until the 1990s there were very few serious books on medieval warfare in English, so many people knew and loved Oman’s version. Jerry Pournelle has a character recite it to himself in Janissaries (1979) and George Macdonald Fraser quotes it in The Steel Bonnets. But Oman was not the kind of scholar who bothered with such things as footnotes or checking a printed edition when he could recite a source from memory, and I don’t have Fraser’s book with me in Austria. I also could not find this poem anywhere online except the Wikipedia article for Scorched Earth, a trade book by Ronald McNair Scott called Robert The Bruce: King Of Scots and an article in a conference proceedings by Alastair John MacDonald which I can’t obtain either (“Good King Robert’s Testament? Guerrilla Warfare in Later Medieval Scotland.” In Brian Hughes and Fergus Robson (eds.) Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) pp. 197-217).

But when I tracked down Oman’s text, the spelling of the first line lead me to the entry for “were v 1” in The Dictionary of the Scots Language:

Bower Chron. II 232 n.: On fut suld be all Scottis weire / Be hyll and mosse thaim self to weire / Lat wod for wallis be bow and speire [L. Scotica sit guerra pedites, mons, mossica terra Silvæ pro muris sint, arcus, et hasta securis];

Their link to an explanation of “Bower Chron.” does not work for me, but I think they mean Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon, and they quote a Latin version which is disconcerting. And I can find a ‘translation’ which renders the second-last couplet as “Then as they leave, with great array / Smite with the sword and chase away.” which is not what the Middle English in Oman’s version says. (In Oman’s version, give the English empty bellies, alarms and wakings at night, and dreadful noises on the heights and they will run away in great fear <with gret affrai> just as if, <as>, they had been beaten with the sword, not because they have been beaten with the sword). We don’t have the new edition and translation of the Scotichronicon by D.E.R. Watt published in nine volume between 1987 and 1998, but volume 2, page 232 of this edition from 1759 has the Latin text and then gives a “Scots version” as printed by someone called Hearne (its book 12, chapter 8 if you have access to another edition):

An excerpt from the footnotes of an 18th century printed book with a Middle English version of a Latin text

I think that is as far back as I can afford to go, but it looks like the Latin version is first recorded a hundred years after the Bruce’s death, and the English version comes from somewhere obscure and might even be a re-translation from the Latin. That does not mean that these aren’t authentic medieval sentiments, but I think we should take the attribution to the Bruce with a wee pinch of salt. As the late Will McLean taught us, we should distrust any anecdote memorable enough to circulate on its own.

Regardless, I hope you enjoyed the poem!

Like all good singers of songs, I am passing around the hat for donations through Patreon or or even liberapay.

PS. The wooden walls in the Scots version come from Herodotus via Justin, Epitoma Historiarum Philippicarum, 2.12.13-14)

PPS. The Latin, which may be the only version surviving in a medieval manuscript, goes as follows:

Scotica fit guerra pedites, mons, mossica terra:
Silvae pro muris sint, arcus, et hasta securis.
Per loca stricta greges munientur. Plana per ignei
Sic inflammentur, ut ab hostibus evacuentur.
Insidiae vigiles sint, noctu vociferantes.
Sic malè turbati redient velut ense fugati
Hostes pro certo, sic rege docente Roberto.

– Walter Goodall (ed.), Joannis de Fordun Scotichronicon: cum supplementis et continuatione Walteri Boweri Insulae Sancti Columbae Abbatis (Edinburgh: R. Fleming, 1759) vol. 2 p. 232

Edit 2019-09-05: In his edition of the Scotichronicon, Donald Watt’s note to book 12 chapter 10 pages 431-432 says that the Scots version is a marginal note in sixteenth-century handwriting to a Latin manuscript no earlier than 1480. This does not mean that the Scots text is late, but it is very possible that it was attributed to the Bruce after his death for the same reason that rants floating from inbox to Facebook group to tumblr get attributed to celebrities.

The article by Alastair John MacDonald is less interested in the authenticity of the poem than in whether it really describes Scottish strategy and whether this kind of warfare was seen as “improper” or “irregular” in the 14th century.

Edit 2022-06-27: fixed typo, fixed link broken when WordPress introduced the block editor

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2 thoughts on “Good King Robert’s Testament

  1. Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’ | Book and Sword says:

    […] borrowed this volume in hopes that it would have more clues as to the oldest source for Good King Robert’s Testament (it did not, although Alastair John MacDonald very kindly helped me with modern editions of the […]

  2. Some Thoughts on ‘Unconventional Warfare from Antiquity to the Present Day’ – Book and Sword says:

    […] borrowed this volume in hopes that it would have more clues as to the oldest source for Good King Robert’s Testament (it did not, although Alastair John MacDonald very kindly helped me with modern editions of the […]

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