The First Blast of the Trumpet
And wond’rous weel they kept their troth;
This sturdy royal band
Rush’d down the brae, wi’ sic a pith,
That nane could them withstand.
The Ballad of the Laird of Muirhead, Traditional
St Mary’s Abbey, Haddington, 13 September 1513
The sound of raindrops drumming non-stop against the window shutter woke her early. Elisabeth groaned. Since the day of the miracle of the flood, the rain had never ceased. The constant downpours not only seemed to be confirming her guilt but were conspiring to make her punishment more difficult. Three times a day she had to get down on her hands and knees and wash the chapel floor. Already the skin on her hands was chapped and raw from wringing out the cloth in a bucket of cold water and the scabs on her knees never had time to heal. More rain, more pain.
As she splashed through the puddles on her way to the chapel, she noticed that there seemed to be more beggars than usual sheltering in the courtyard. Heaps of tattered rain-soaked blankets stirred and, from deep within one huddled pile, a child whimpered.
At Mass that morning, Prior Hepburn was raising the sacred chalice for the Eucharist when a bedraggled, glaur-ridden figure came staggering up the aisle to the high altar. Elisabeth’s heart sank at the muddy trail left by his tattered footcloths.
Sister Maryoth rose from her knees. ‘How dare you break in to our service! This is a house of God. We are at prayer.’
The lad slumped down at the altar steps and burst into sobs.
‘Aye, and all your prayers will be needed on this woeful day. Scotland is lost. Our king and countrymen – all wede awa!’
The nuns fluttered round him, anxious for news of their kinfolk. The noblest lairds of the land had fallen on the fatal field of Flodden, among them the gallant twenty-one-year-old Earl of Bothwell, Adam Hepburn, cut down while leading the bold men of East Lothian into the fray.
‘My nephew! Slain? The king’s army routed?’ Hepburn’s florid face grew pale. ‘May God have mercy on their souls.’
Some of the nuns followed his lead and began to pray but, when one of the older nuns began keening, others joined in this more ancient custom, their doleful lament drowning out any religious prayers.
‘And who brings these terrible tidings?’
With his tattered clothing slathered in gore and glaur, and his face gaunt with exhaustion, the lad was scarcely recognisable.
‘The cream of the country perish, but you survive?’ the prior accused. ‘How is it that you escaped? Or did you flee the field afeart, Harry Cockburn?’
The prior lumbered down from the altar and began kicking the stable lad as he lay crumpled on the steps. Meanwhile, Sister Maryoth had hurried off to the kitchen where the abbey watchmen, men too old for warfare, were keeping their pelts dry but slaking their drouth with ale.
‘Coward and sneak thief that you are, Harry Cockburn! Scum such as you don’t deserve to live. I’ll have you scourged until the skin flakes from your back like the bark of a birch.’
Grabbing Harry by the scruff of the neck, Hepburn signalled to the watchmen who tied his hands behind his back and marched him down the aisle. While Sister Maryoth led the little procession out of the chapel, the prior shuffled back up the altar and flicked through the pages of the Holy Missal. The Mass in Time of War for the salvation of the king’s servants and the extinction of his enemies was no longer right and fitting.
‘Requiem eternam.’ He growled the opening words of the Mass for the Dead.
Outside the chapel, clusters of stragglers and camp followers who had come seeking food and shelter lay sprawled around the abbey courtyard. Their forty days’ supply of victuals had been used up long before the battle, leaving their menfolk too weak and hungry to fight. As she passed among them handing out weak ale and bread, Elisabeth tried to glean any scraps of information about Adam or Lindsay, but there had been too much carnage, too much butchery for the slain to be identified.
Removing their shoes to keep their footing as they charged down the slippery brae, many of the men had tripped over their unwieldy pikes and were trodden into the marsh by those coming behind. Others had been trampled to death as they stumbled to cross the burn.
‘There was a burn?’ Elisabeth gave a jolt. Hadn’t Betsy warned Adam of a burn?
Tragically, that was their undoing. In their plan of attack, the officers hadn’t foreseen the marshy stream hidden among reeds at the foot of the brae.
‘And yet the rout was foretold,’ a woman with a bairn suckling at her breast declared, ‘but they paid no heed. Did it never cross their mind why the accursed field was named Flodden edge? And now the burn is running crimson with their blood.’
‘It was thon French general’s fault.’ Hauching phlegm in her throat, a sturdy woman dressed in ill-fitting breeches, spat out a slimy gobbet to show her contempt. ‘Arming our men-folk with waffly bits of stick. For, if thon fancy French spikes didn’t shatter in the rumption, the English bill hooks smashed them all to smithereens. Waving a handful of thistles would have been wiser. At least they could have stung their arses.’
Her vitriol unleashed a communal catharsis of grief among the women who began to pour out their harrowing descriptions. How could they begin to identify their loved ones scythed down in battle? They’d had to leave the butchered carcases of their loved ones strewn about the field, to be feasted on by flocks of corbies and gnawed at by curs and rats.
Elisabeth pinched her wrists to keep from fainting and swallowed hard to keep the brash from rising in her throat. And when they described how crows pecked out the eyes from cloven heads and gorged on minced brains, her hand flew to her mouth. Did they howk out Adam’s bonny blue een?
And what about the king’s herald? Was there any news of him? In his red and gold tabard he would have stood out on the battlefield, but the women shook their heads wearily. The chaos was such that many were still unaccounted for. Could he have been taken prisoner? Nay, they jeered. Knowing that the English would grant no quarter, the Scots had fought to their last breath. Few, if any, had surrendered.
When the camp followers had tried to bury their dead, the triumphant English had chased them from the field, mercilessly stripping the bodies naked of anything valuable. These sluts and whores, as Adam had cried them, began beating their breasts with guilt and remorse that their men-folk hadn’t been given a decent burial. It was true that the Abbess of Coldingham had shown some Christian charity by allowing the fallen to be buried in the abbey graveyard, but only the corpses of the few identified as highborn. Those of the common soldiers were left as fodder for the corbies.
‘And King James? What of him?’ Elisabeth feared the reply, for she was sure that Lindsay would have shared his fate. He would never, ever have left his monarch’s side. Reports were contradictory. That the king had fallen under his own banner; that Lord Hume had carried him off the field, wounded but still alive; that the English had taken him prisoner. So there was still hope.
But not for Sister Maryoth. The sisters took it in turns to press their ear against the door of the chapel, listening to the sounds of wailing and lamentation within. Consider how his sacred flesh was scourged to shreds, she howled, how his divine head was crowned with thorns, the blood gushing down his heavenly face. Consider how the nails impaled his hands and feet.
In penitential sackcloth, Sister Maryoth was following Christ on his final journey to Golgotha. The coarse cloth chafed at her skin while around her waist she’d fastened a heavy chain that cut into her flesh, forming angry-looking weals. After dragging herself on her knees around each station on the Via Sacra, she flopped face down onto the cold flagstones to contemplate the horror of the Crucifixion.
These acts of self-mortification she endured for the sake of her brother, John, Lord Hay of Yester. Though Maryoth believed that he’d be given martyr status for sacrificing his life at Flodden and gone straight to heaven, she shouldn’t dare to presume divine will. Offering up her suffering, however, should ensure a plenary indulgence for his soul’s immediate release from purgatory or, at the very least, a considerable reduction in his sentence there. Hell wasn’t an option.
Witnessing this display, the sisters swithered from being awe-stricken at her extreme piety to being worried that she’d lost her wits. Her lamentations, however, left Elisabeth cold. Her own scullion hands and skinned knees were testament to her thrice-daily penance. What a pity Sister Maryoth had not put her self-indulgent breast-beating to better use by giving the chapel floor a good scrubbing while on her knees.
Two days and nights Sister Maryoth fasted and kept vigil until very early on the third morning, while the rest of the convent slumbered, she fell into a swoon. Flashes of light zigzagged in front of her eyes and illuminated her soul with a revelation: that the slaughter of the flower of Scottish manhood was not the fault of the foolish and misguided King James. No, Almighty God was taking revenge: casting his Son and Mother into the waters had been an act of blasphemy.
Coming out of her trance, Sister Maryoth sat beneath the feet of the Black Madonna to interpret this divine disclosure. What had possessed this wild child to commit such a sacrilege? An evil spirit or, heaven forfend, Satan himself? After all, Elisabeth been brought up by that old witch, Betsy Learmont. What black arts had she taught her? The Prince of Darkness was amongst them and God in his wisdom had entrusted his humble and obedient servant Maryoth with the task of purging this evil from their midst.