As Long as a Hundred Live

In the stirring, if historically loose, epic, Braveheart, Mel Gibson first gave vent to what seems to be — from a scan of his cinematic oeuvre — the "Passion" he feels most strongly after that he has for his faith; namely, that for the liberty of all Men under their God.

In the great mise en scene at Stirling Bridge — strategic chokepoint of the country — his character tells the Scots, nervously arrayed before the awesome feudal levies and the glittering chivalry of Longshanks’ vassals:

"I am William Wallace, and I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What will you do with that freedom? Will you fight?"

Here, a disgruntled ranker heckles him:

"Fight against that? No, we will run, and we will live."

Gibson has been given his moment by the scriptwriter and he delivers a short but compelling harangue:

"Aye, fight and you may die: run and you’ll live — at least a while…. And, dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance — just one chance — to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom?! Alba gu brath!"

All good, emotive stuff and something which would surely do the Scottish rugby team a power of good to watch before they next run out to take on the might of the Sassenach at Murrayfield (or it would if they weren’t all second-rate Kiwi mercenaries, that is).

Clearly, this Hollywood hokum is but one example of the traditional, set-piece, pre-battle peroration of defiance, of which Tacitus — who died (perhaps fortuitously) around 1800 years too early to meet Jerry Bruckenheimer — was such a master.

Among the epithetically curt Roman’s great imaginings, were the words he ascribed to the Pictish chieftain Calgacus, when faced with the legions of Tacitus’ father-in-law and idol, Agricola, general of the u2018robbers of the world’:

"Since then you cannot hope for quarter, take courage, I beseech you, whether it be safety or renown that you hold most precious. Under a woman’s leadership the Brigantes were able to burn a colony, to storm a camp, and had not success ended in supineness, might have thrown off the yoke. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, never likely to abuse our freedom, show forthwith at the very first onset what heroes Caledonia has in reserve."

But, fiction aside, the historical Atlantic Celts — doomed through the ages to fight the neighbouring Sassenach, or Sais (especially those who mustered under their Norman and Angevin overlords) — did indeed set down, on three separate occasions, ringing declarations of their desire to be free to choose their own lords and to adhere to their own laws and customs.

Best known of these —and perhaps the inspiration for Gibson’s speech — was the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, by which the peers of Wallace’s contemporary, Robert de Bruce — himself part Celt and part Norman — urged the pope (in his role as the Kofi Annan of the 14th century) to recognize their right to self-determination and, hence, to confirm Bruce’s legitimacy as King Robert I of Scotland.

In truth, the nobles of Scotland were nearly forty years behind their Welsh counterparts in this, for these latter had already made an equally bold assertion of their historic liberties during the rebellion of 1282 — an event triggered by Edward Longshanks’ tacit approval of the Marcher Lords—led encroachment of English Law into areas reserved by treaty for the very different Welsh system of law.

The rising was, in fact, launched, without his prior approval, by Llywelyn the Great’s younger brother Dafydd and the severely discomfited English were led to respond to a series of initial Welsh military successes by sending the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Pecham (or Peckham), to Llywelyn’s base at Aber, near Bangor, to try to mediate.

In an echo of much more recent events, that the noble prelate’s intentions were rather less than honourable can be seen in the fact that Longshanks’ commander, Luc de Tay, Seneschal of Gascony, broke the ensuing truce by attempting to cross the Menai Straits to Anglesey during its course — and was roundly defeated for his pains, much to the English king’s later cost.

Thereupon, Pecham tried the traditional imperial approach, attempting to bribe Llewelyn with the promise of title to English lands and an income for life if he were to betray the Welsh cause, only to be soundly rejected by the prince himself.

A few days later, the leading men of Wales, styling themselves the u2018Walenses’, wrote to Pecham, delivering this ringing asseveration of their claims to nationhood and independence.

"The Prince should not throw aside his inheritance and that of his ancestors in Wales and accept land in England, a country with whose language, way of life, laws and customs he is unfamiliar…

"Let this be understood: his council will not permit him to yield… and even if the Prince wishes to transfer [his people] into the hands of the King, they will not do homage to any stranger as they are wholly unacquainted with his language, his way of life and his laws.

"If they were to accede, they may have to suffer imprisonment and cruel treatment as have the inhabitants of the other cantrefi [Welsh administrative divisions], in ways harsher than those of the Saracens."

The plea fell, naturally on deaf ears. Hostilities were resumed and Llywelyn marched south to the strategically important upper Wye Valley, near Builth — perhaps led on by the duplicity of the Marcher Lord and sometime ally against Westminster Roger Mortimer (more of whose family below).

There, Llywelyn became involved in a fight with a common Shropshire man-at-arms and was killed.

The rebellion dragged on for some time afterwards, but Longshanks was now unassailably in the ascendant and Welsh hopes for independence were utterly dashed when Dafydd was hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury the following year, thus extinguishing the ancient royal house of Aberffraw [historical details after Hanes Cymru by John Davies].

Thirty-odd years later, there was yet another forerunner to the Arbroath episode; one which, curiously, linked the Welsh, the Irish, and the Bruces — and one which also involved the egregious Mortimers once more.

In 1315 — the year after the Scots’ famous victory at Bannockburn — Domnhal O’Neill, Rí — or High King — of Ulster, became tired of the depredations he and his people were enduring at the hands of the Norman Lords and so he invited King Robert to join him and the other Ulster chiefs in a rising against the English.

As a result, Bruce dispatched his high-tempered brother Edward, Earl of Carrick, who landed at Larne with 6,000 troops and, together with O’Neill’s levies, marched south to defeat the English three times in succession at Ards, Dundalk and Ardee.

The combined Scots and Irish army then marched to Coleraine where they succeeded in persuading the O’Conors to abandon their allegiance to Richard de Burgh, the English Earl of Ulster. De Burgh, who by one of those typical genealogical twists of the Middle Ages was Robert Bruce’s father-in-law, reacted by launching an attack on O’Neill’s army, only to be summarily defeated in his turn.

In the aftermath of the battle, on the 2nd of May, 1316, Edward Bruce was duly proclaimed King of Ireland at Dundalk.

Later that same year, as if to underline this renaissance, Edward wrote a letter to the noted Welsh condottiere, Gruffudd Llywd, in which he suggested a pan-Celtic alliance against the English. Llywd, more interested in the narrower game of power politics he was playing with the factions at the English court, is said to have replied favourably, but to have done nothing concrete.

With Welsh involvement not forthcoming, Robert the Bruce himself landed at Carrickfergus with reinforcements in late 1316 and, in the Spring of 1317, the combined Scots-Irish army marched further south to Cashel and Limerick, only to be deflected from their strategic objective by the news that Roger Mortimer, Edward II’s lieutenant, had landed reinforcements at Youghal.

At this juncture, it was the turn of Domnhal O’Neill and twenty-two other Irish Chieftains to look for papal intervention. Thus, they sent a Remonstrance in Latin to Pope John XXII, asking him to support them against the English — but the Pope, perhaps calculating that the latter could pay the bigger bribes, supported the Plantagenet cause. [With thanks to Searc’s Web Guide.]

The plea — known as the Remonstrance of the Irish Princes, contains some familiar echoes. It reads:

For ever since that time, when the English upon occasion of this grant aforesaid [the 1155 Bull Laudibiliter of the English Pope Adrian IV which endorsed Henry II’s invasion of the island], and under the mask of a sort of sanctity and religion, made their unprincipled aggression upon the territories of our realm, they have been endeavouring with all their might, and with every art which perfidy could employ, completely to exterminate and utterly to eradicate our people from the country. And by their acts of low false cunning, they have so far prevailed against us, that after having violently expelled us, without regard to the authority of any superior, from our spacious habitations and patrimonial inheritance, they have compelled us to repair, in the hope of saving our lives, to mountainous, woody and swampy, and barren spots; and to the caves of the rocks also, and in these like beasts, to take up our dwelling for a length of time.

Nay, even in such places they are incessantly molesting us, and exerting themselves to the utmost of their power to expel us from them with audacious falseness asserting, in the depth of the frenzy which blinds them, that we have no right to any free dwelling place in Ireland but that this whole country belongs of right, entire and entirely to themselves alone. Whence it is that on account of these and many other like atrocities, there have arisen, between us and them, enmities irreconcilable and wars without end. From which have followed mutual slaughters, continual depredations, constant rapine, and instances of perfidy and fraud of detestable character, and too frequently repeated.

But alas, our miserable fate! For want of a fit ruling authority, the correction and redress of these evils, which are so justly due to us, we look for in vain… For we hold it as an undoubted truth, that in consequence of the aforesaid false suggestion and the grant [Bull Laudibiliter] thereupon founded, more than 50,000 persons of the two nations — from the time when the grant was made to the present date — have perished by the sword, independently of those who have been worn out by famine, or destroyed in dungeons. These few observations, relative to the general origin of our progenitors and the miserable position in which the Roman Pontiff has placed us, may suffice for the present occasion. Know further, Most Holy Father, that King Henry of England, to whom the grant was made, allowing him to invade Ireland in the manner aforesaid, and likewise the four kings who succeeded Henry, have plainly transgressed the limits of the conditions on which the grant was made to them in the Papal Bull according to the distinct articles contained in it, as is clearly evident from a reference to the substance of the Bull itself…

For it is those people who, by their deceitful and crafty scheming, have alienated us from the monarchs of England, hindering us, to the very great detriment of the king and realm, from holding lands — those lands which are our own by every rightful title — as voluntary tenants immediately under those princes; between whom and us they are sowing everlasting discord under the powerful influence of their covetous desires to get possession of our lands. This, indeed, seems to be a peculiarly characteristic habit of theirs, and one that gives rise to many an act of perfidy and fraud — that they never cease from sowing such discords in their unprincipled way, not only between such as are distant in blood from one another, but also between brothers and near kinsmen. And seeing that in their circumstances and language, as well as in their actions, they are alien from us, and from other people to a far greater extent than can possibly be described in any writing or statement, all hope of our maintaining peace with them is therefore entirely out of the question. For such a spirit of pride are they possessed of, and such an excessive passion for tyrannizing over us, and such a proper and natural determination have we formed to shake off the intolerable yoke of their bondage and recover our inheritance, which, in defiance of all justice, they have so wickedly seized upon, that as there never has been hereforto so neither will it ever be possible in future, that any sincere concord can be established, or maintained, between us and them in this life…

Let no man then be surprized if we are endeavouring to save our lives and making whatever efforts we can to defend the privileges of our independence against these cruel tyrants and usurpers of our rights, especially as the said king [Edward II], who was at that time styling himself the lord of Ireland, as well as the aforesaid kings his predecessors, have totally failed in our own case and in the case of most of our people, to secure to us the titles of possessions of our several properties. If then upon these grounds we are driven to fight with the king himself and our enemies aforesaid now resident in Ireland, we are herein doing nothing unlawful, but are, on the contrary, engaged in a highly meritorious undertaking… Therefore, without any remorse of conscience whatsoever, we will fight with them as long as life shall last in defence of our rights, never to cease from fighting with them and annoying them, until they, for default of power, give over their unjust worrying of us.

Again, military, as well as diplomatic, failure was to attend Celtic efforts. In October, 1318 Edward Bruce was assassinated at Dundalk and his head was sent to London. The Irish and Scottish troops dispersed and many of the Ulster Chiefs were subsequently taken and executed, including Domnhal O’Neill’s son Brian.

O’Neill himself was expelled from his lands in Tyrone by John de Bermingham and was forced to take to the heather. He hid in the Fermanagh mountains, in fear of his life, for seven years before dying at Loch Leary, Ardstraw, County Tyrone, in 1325. History does not record whether he ever heard of the events at Arbroath and of the triumph, at last, of Celtic arms.

Though Bruce was part Norman, the roots of his kingship were Celtic, and, continued Prebble, "a Celtic tradition was here invoked, the memory of the Seven Earls, the Seven Sons of Cruithne the Pict in whom, it was believed, had rested the ancient right of tanistry" (the Celts’ practice of elevating their kings by selection from among the peers).

"What is important," he wrote, "is the passionate sincerity of the men who believed it, who were placing a new and heady nationalism above the feudal obligations that had divided their loyalties less than a quarter of a century before."

"In its mixture of defiance and supplication, nonsensical history and noble thought, two things make the Declaration of Arbroath the most important document in Scottish history. Firstly it set the will and the wishes of the people above the King."

Though Bruce was part Norman, the roots of his kingship were Celtic, and, continued Prebble, "a Celtic tradition was here invoked, the memory of the Seven Earls, the Seven Sons of Cruithne the Pict in who, it was believed, had rested the ancient right of tanistry" (the Celt’s practice of elevating their kings by selection from among the peers).

Moreover, Peebles rightly maintained, "the manifesto affirmed the nation’s independence in a way no battle could, and justified it with a truth that is beyond nation and race. Man has a right to freedom and a duty to defend it with his life… The truth once spoken cannot be checked, the seed once planted controls its own growth, and the liberty which men secure for themselves must be given by them to others, or it will be taken as they took it. Freedom is a hardy plant and must flower in equality and brotherhood."

Judge for yourselves, whether Prebble was correct in his commentary:

"From these countless evils we have been set free, by the help of Him Who though He afflicts yet heals and restores, by our most tireless Prince, King and Lord, the Lord Robert. He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, met toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Macabaeus or Joshua and bore them cheerfully. Him, too, divine providence, his right of succession according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all have made our Prince and King.

"To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by law and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.

"Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.

"It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."