Post-classical history

Douglas, James (d. 1330)

A Scottish knight, also known as “the Black Douglas” and “Good Sir James”; leader of the only expedition against the Muslims to have originated in the kingdom of Scotland (1330).

James’s father, Sir William le Hardi, lord of Douglas in Clydesdale, died a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1299; his estates had been confiscated after the English occupation of Scotland by King Edward I in 1296. In 1306 the landless James joined the Scottish resistance under King Robert Bruce, and in the course of the next two decades rose to become one of his leading supporters, with a reputation as a daring and imaginative military leader. Robert knighted James on the eve of the battle of Bannockburn (1314) and bestowed on him extensive lands in southern Scotland, which formed the basis of the future greatness of his descendants.

When King Robert died without having fulfilled his wish of undertaking a crusade against the Muslims (7 June 1329), Douglas was chosen to lead a kind of crusade by proxy, in which he was to carry the king’s embalmed heart in a silver casket around his neck, even though the actual removal of the heart meant that Douglas incurred an automatic excommunication, as such interference with corpses had been condemned by the pope in the bull Detestandae feritatis abusum (1299).

The intended goal of Douglas’s expedition is open to dispute: a safe-conduct from King Edward III of England mentions travel to the Holy Land, but Douglas also secured letters of recommendation to King Alfonso XI of Castile. As the last Christian foothold in Outremer had been lost in 1303, any armed invasion of the Holy Land with the forces available to Douglas would have faced insurmountable difficulties. However, it is possible that a campaign against Muslim Granada was envisaged as the military component of the expedition, with the additional aim of a peaceful pilgrimage carrying Bruce’s heart to Jerusalem. Douglas sailed to Flanders in the spring of 1330 with a substantial number of Scottish knights and soldiers, and then on to Seville in Spain. There the Scots joined Alfonso XI in a campaign against the town of Teba, held by Muhammad IV of Granada. During fighting at the river Guadalteba in August 1330, the Scots initially routed the Moors opposing them, but were then separated from the rest of the Christian army. Although Teba surrendered soon after, the Scottish crusade had suffered heavy losses, including Douglas himself and the knights William Sinclair and Robert and Walter Logan.

The “bludy hert” of Robert Bruce in the coat of arms of the Douglas family. Nineteenth-century sculpture from Newmains Farm, Douglas, Scotland. (Courtesy John Gavin, Douglas Valley Rural Authority Partnership)

The “bludy hert” of Robert Bruce in the coat of arms of the Douglas family. Nineteenth-century sculpture from Newmains Farm, Douglas, Scotland. (Courtesy John Gavin, Douglas Valley Rural Authority Partnership)

The survivors of the expedition brought back the casket containing Robert Bruce’s heart for burial at Melrose Abbey, and Sir James’s bones for burial at Douglas Kirk; the sentence of excommunication was lifted by Pope John XXII in 1331. The symbol of Bruce’s bludy hert (bloody heart) was incorporated into the Douglas family coat of arms in memory of James’s deeds.

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