by Alison Millard

Published in "The Review of the Charlotte Mary Yonge Fellowship"
Edition Number 17 – Autumn 2003


Cameos from English History: From Rollo to Edward II

by the Author of The Heir of Redclyffe

THIS book first appeared in 1868 and was succeeded by eight more volumes, the last being The Eighteenth Century in 1899. The copy I have is dated 1877 and is the fourth edition : a good steady seller, then.

Charlotte Yonge explains in the introduction that the origin was a series that began in The Monthly Packet in 1856. It continued irregularly until 1889.

"Young people learn the history of England by reading small books which connect some memorable event that they can understand, and remember, with the name of each king ... But when they begin to grow a little beyond these stories, it becomes difficult to find a history that will give details and enlarge their knowledge without being too lengthy." Her intention was to select characters or events "and work them out as fully as materials permitted, so that each, taken by itself, might form an individual Cameo, or gem in full relief, and thus become impressed upon the mind."

The way this was done in The Monthly Packet was not really effective, according to the author, so for collection in book form she re-wrote them. She sets out both what the Cameos are and what they are not:

"None of them lays claim to being put together from original documents; they are only the attempt at collecting, from large and often not easily accessible histories, the more interesting or important scenes and facts, and at arranging them so that they may best improve the imagination and memory of the young, so as to prepare them for fuller and deeper reading ... Nor have we excluded the mythical or semi-romantic tales of our early history. It is as needful to a person of education to be acquainted with them, as if they were certain facts, and we shall content ourselves with marking what come to us on doubtful authority." (Page 2.)

As there is already something of a Scottish flavour to this Review, I thought it might be appropriate to reproduce some of the chapter dealing with the death of Robert the Bruce and the subsequent peregrinations of his heart...

"One of the great spirits of the time was passing away in Cardross in Scotland. Robert the Bruce lay on his deathbed, and calling for his nobles, bade them swear fealty to his infant son, and appointed Randolph, Earl of Moray, as regent for the child; for Sir lames Douglas he reserved a yet dearer, closer charge. Long ago, as he lay on his bed at Rachrin, had he vowed to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; but before he had given rest to his country the deadly sickness had seized him which was cutting him off in his fifty-fifth year. He therefore entreated that Douglas would carry his heart, to fulfil his vow, instead of himself, and that, making his way to Jerusalem, he would lay it finally in the Holy Sepulchre.

Weeping so that he could hardly speak, Sir James thanked his master for the inestimable honour and vowed, on his faith as a knight, to do his bidding. Robert likewise gave his nobles a set of counsels for the defence of his kingdom, showing how truly he estimated its resources and method of warfare; for it is said that no reverse ever afterwards befell the Scots but by their disregard of what they called 'Good King Robert's Testament' - precepts he had obeyed all his life, and which stood nearly thus in old Scottish:

'On foot should be all Scottish war, By hill and moss themselves to ware; Let woods for walls be; bow and spear And battle-axe their fighting gear; That enemies do them na dreir, In strait places gar keep all store, And burn the plain land them before: Then shall they pass away in haste, When that they find nothing but waste; With wiles and wakening of the night, And mickle noise made on height; Then shall they turn with great affray, As they were chased with sword away. This is the counsel and intent Of Good King Robert's Testament.'

With these fierce, though sagacious counsels, the hero of Scotland died on the 7th of June, 1329. He was buried in Dunfermline Abbey, after his heart had been extracted and embalmed according to his command; but the dissolution of the convents made sad havoc among the royal tombs of Scotland, and two churches had risen and fallen above his marble tomb before it was discovered among the ruins in 1819, and his remains were found in a winding-sheet of cloth of gold, and the breast-bone sawn through. Multitudes were admitted to gaze on them, and there were many tears shed, for, in the simple and beautiful words of Scott, 'There was the wasted skull which once was the head that thought so wisely and boldly for his country's deliverance; and there was the dry bone which had once been the sturdy arm that killed Sir Henry de Bohun between the two armies at a single blow, the evening before the battle of Bannockburn.'

The Bruce's heart was inclosed in a silver case, and hung round the neck of Douglas, who sailed at once on his pilgrimage, taking with him a retinue befitting the royal treasure that he bore. But on his way he landed in Spain, and esteeming that any war with any Saracen was agreeable to his vow, he offered his aid to King Alonso of Castile. But he was ignorant of the Moorish mode of fighting and, riding too far in advance with his little band, was inclosed and cut off by the wheeling horsemen of the Moors ... He was so entangled that he saw no escape and taking from his neck his precious charge he threw it before him, shouting aloud, 'Pass onward as thou wert wont! I follow or die!' He followed and died. His corpse was found on the battlefield lying over the heart of Bruce. The crowned and bleeding heart shines emblazoned on the shield of the great Douglas line.

The heart itself was given into the charge of Sir Simon of Lee, but he did not deem it needful to carry his burthen to Jerusalem, and it was buried beneath the altar of Melrose Abbey."

Alison Millard


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