Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

The Ghost that Danced at Jethart

Six centuries before Edward the Peacemaker reigned over Britain, the people of Scotland knew the blessing of having for a King one who was known as "The King of Peace."

Alexander the Third was a child of eight when he inherited the Scottish crown, and was only two years older when he married the Princess Margaret, eldest daughter of Henry the Third of England. Even in his early boyhood the young King displayed a wisdom, an energy, and a forcefulness in his management of affairs that marked him for a great ruler, and made his royal father-in-law's fond vision of gradually gaining such an ascendancy over Scotland, that he might in time be able to claim that kingdom as an appanage of England, fade altogether away. Alexander had only recently come of age when he had to defend his country against her old enemies, the Norsemen, and his complete victory was a triumph for him and for his people. Nineteen years later, his only daughter, Margaret, married Eric, King of Norway, and the Scots saw peace for them and for their children smiling on them from every side. But if prosperity as a monarch was his, misfortune overshadowed King Alexander's private life. His wife died; his children died. His eldest son, born at Jedburgh, and married, as a lad, to a daughter of the Count of Flanders, died childless. His daughter, the young Queen of Norway, died the year after her marriage, leaving behind her the baby who has come down to us, even through chilly history, as a pitiful little figure, known as "The Maid of Norway."

In 1285 King Alexander was wifeless and childless, and the heir to the Scottish crown was his two-year-old grandchild in "Norroway ower the faem."

In the eyes of all his people the King's duty was plain. He was only forty-four, a brilliant parti  for the daughter of any royal or noble house, and the Scots wished a man, not a maid, to rule over them. He must, obviously, marry again. Joleta, also called Yolande, daughter of the Count de Dreux, and a descendant of the Kings of France, was his chosen bride. She was of surpassing fairness, and even most of those who had harboured scruples with regard to the match, because the maid had been destined for a nunnery, forgot such scruples when they looked upon her beauty.

On All Saints' Day, 1285, the wedding—a more brilliant function than anything that had ever before been held in Scotland—was celebrated in Jedburgh Abbey. The little grey town on the Jed was packed with Scottish and French nobles and their retinues. Few were the noble houses that were not there represented, and the monks of Beauvais—the black-cloaked Augustinian friars from St. Quentin's Abbey—who held rule at the Abbey of Jedburgh in those days, must have had their ears gladdened by the constant sound of the French tongue coming from seigneur, squire, and page-boy who passed them on the causeway.

There was nothing awanting in pomp or in splendour at the royal wedding. The trees were shedding their leaves, the bracken and the heather on the moors were brown, and winds that swept across the Carter Bar and down from the Cheviots had a winter nip in them; but indoors there was warmth enough, and all the gorgeousness and feasting and merrymaking that the most exacting of guests could desire for the marriage of a great king. The banquet after the wedding was followed by a masque. Musicians ushered into the banqueting hall of the castle a gorgeously attired procession of dancers, many of them armed men. It was a radiant scene for the bright eyes of Queen Yolande. Lights flashed on swords and on armour, and on the sumptuous trappings and brilliant-coloured attire of lords and of ladies, for courts in those days looked like hedges of sweet-peas in the summer sun. The musicians played their best, the guests mingled gaily with the dancing mummers, and then, suddenly, above all the sounds of music and of revel, there arose a cry, a woman's cry, shrill and full of fear. What was that grisly figure that appeared amongst the dancers?—a grinning skeleton—a dancing Death. No masquer this, but a grim messenger from the Shades, bringing dire warning to one, at least, of that gay company. As it had come, so it vanished, but all the gaiety had gone from the merry throng. The ill-omened dancer had laid a chilly hand on the heart of many a wedding guest.

There were some who said it was a monkish trick, contrived for his own ends by one of the brethren from Beauvais, but, less than six months later, all Scotland believed that the skeleton masquer at Jedburgh had, indeed, come to warn an unfortunate land of its approaching doom.

On a dark March night of 1286, King Alexander rode along the rough cliff path between Burntisland and Kinghorn on a horse that stumbled in the darkness, and in the morning, on the rocks far down below, the grey waves lapped against the ashen dead face of a mighty king.

Not only was the fair Queen Yolande a widow. Scotland was widowed indeed. For long years thereafter she was to be a battlefield for fiercely contending nations, and if the ghost that danced at Jethart was truly a portent of the death of the King of Peace, it also was a portent of the death of many a gallant warrior and of much grievous spilling of innocent blood in the woeful years to come.