Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
Andrew Barton

BARTON, ANDREW, High Admiral of Scotland.—The fifteenth century was the great era of maritime adventure and discovery; and in these it might have been expected that Scotland would have taken her full share. The troubled state of the country, however, and the poverty of its sovereigns, prevented the realization of such a hope. There was no royal navy, and such ships as were to be found in the Scottish service were merch́ant vessels, and the property of private individuals. Still, there was no lack of stout hardy sailors and skilful commanders; and although the poverty of Scotland was unable to furnish those ample means that were necessary for remote and uncertain voyages of discovery, the same cause made them eager to enjoy the advantages of traffic with those countries that were already known. Another cause of this was the long peace with England during the reign of Henry VII., so that those daring spirits who could no longer find occupation in fight or foray by land, were fain to have recourse to the dangers of another element. The merchant, also, who embarked with his own cargo, was obliged to know something more than the gainful craft of a mere trader. He was captain as well as proprietor, and had to add the science of navigation and the art of warfare on sea, to that of skilful bargaining on shore, and thus, in every variety of ways, his intellectual powers were tried and perfected. This was an occupation well fitted to the Scottish mind, in which it consequently became so pre-eminent, that during the reigns of James III. and James IV., it seemed a doubtful question whether Scotland or England was to bear the "meteor flag" of the island; and of the merchant captains of this period, the most distinguished were Sir Andrew Wood, of Largo; Sir Alexander Mathieson; William Merrimonth, of Leith, who, for his naval skill, was called the "king of the sea," and the Bartons.

This Barton family, which for two generations produced naval commanders of great celebrity, first appeared in Scottish history in 1476. This was in consequence of John Barton, the father of Andrew, having been plundered, and as it has been added, murdered, by the Portuguese, who at that period were all-prevalent upon the ocean. The unfortunate mariner, however, had three sons, the oldest of whom was Andrew, all brought up from boyhood in his own profession, and not likely to allow their father’s death to pass unquestioned. Andrew accordingly instituted a trial in Flanders, where the murder was perpetrated, and obtained a verdict in his favour; but the Portuguese refusing to pay the awarded penalty, the Bartons applied to their own sovereign for redress. James accordingly sent a herald to the king of Portugal; but this application having also been in vain, he granted to the Bartons letters of reprisal, by which they were allowed to indemnify themselves by the strong hand upon the ships of the Portuguese. And such a commission was not allowed to lie idle. The Bartons immediately threw themselves into the track of the richly-laden carracks and argosies of Portugal in their homeward way from India and South America; and such was their success, that they not only soon indemnified themselves for their losses, but obtained a high reputation for naval skill and valour. Among the rich Indian spoil that was brought home on this occasion, were several Hindoo and negro captives, whose ebony colour and strange features astounded, and also alarmed the simple people of Scotland. James IV. turned these singular visitants to account, by making them play the part of Ethiopian queens and African sorcerers in the masques and pageants of his court. This was in itself a trifle, but it gave a high idea of the growing naval importance of Scotland, when it could produce such spectacles as even England, with all its superior wealth, power, and refinement, was unable to furnish.

It was not merely in such expeditions which had personal profit or revenge for their object that the Bartons were exclusively employed; for they were in the service of a master (James IV.) who was an enthusiast in naval affairs, and who more than all his predecessors understood the necessity of a fleet as the right arm of a British sovereign. This was especially the case in his attempts to subjugate the Scottish isles, that for centuries had persisted in rebellion under independent kinglings of their own, and in every national difficulty had been wont to invade the mainland, and sweep the adjacent districts with fire and sword. For the purpose of reducing them to complete obedience, James not only led against them an army in person, but employed John Barton, one of the three brothers, to conduct a fleet, and invade them by sea. The use of ships in such a kind of warfare was soon apparent: the islanders retreated from the royal army, as heretofore, in their galleys, and took refuge among their ironbound coasts, but found these no longer places of safety when their fastnesses were assailed from the sea, and their strong castles bombarded. The chiefs, therefore, yielded themselves to the royal authority, and from thenceforth lived in most unwonted submission. While thus the Scottish flag waved over those islands that had hitherto been the strongholds of rebellion, another of the Bartons was employed to vindicate its dignity abroad and among foreigners. This was Andrew, who for some time had held with his brothers the chief direction of maritime affairs in Scotland, and been employed in the formation of a royal navy, as well as in cruises against the rich carracks of Portugal. The Hollanders, in the true spirit of piracy, by which the maritime communities of Europe were at this time inspired, had attacked a small fleet of Scottish merchant vessels, and not only plundered them, but murdered the crews, and thrown their bodies into the sea. This outrage, from a people with whom the Scots were at peace, was not to be tolerated, and Andrew Barton was sent with a squadron to chastise the offenders. And this he did with a merciless severity, that reminds us of the "Douglas Larder." He captured many of the piratical ships, and not only put their crews to death, but barrelled their heads in the empty casks which he found in the vessels, and sent them home to his sovereign, to prove how well he had discharged his duty.

The time had now arrived, however, when Andrew Barton, after having made so many successful cruises, was to fall upon the deck where he had so often stood a conqueror. His death, also, strangely enough, was mainly owing to the tortuous intrigues of a pontiff, about whom, it is probable, he had heard little, and cared still less. Julius II. having formed designs of political self-aggrandizement which a war betweeu France and England would have prevented, was anxious to find the latter sufficient occupation at home, with its turbulent neighbours, the Scots. Portuguese envoys, therefore, at the English court represented to Henry VIII. the whole family of the Bartons as pirates, who indiscriminately plundered the ships of every country; and they charged Andrew, in particular, with these offences, and represented how desirable it would be if the English seas could be rid of his presence. Henry listened to these suggestions, and, with his wonted impetuosity, assented to their fulfilment, although a war with Scotland was at that time the least desirable event that could have befallen him. It has also been alleged by English writers, that Andrew Barton, in his war against the Portuguese, had not been over-scrupulous in confining himself to his letters of reprisal, but had also overhauled and pillaged English vessels, under the pretext that they had Portuguese goods on board. Such, at least, was generally believed in England; and the Earl of Surrey, to whom the naval affairs of the kingdom chiefly belonged, is declared to have sworn that the narrow seas should no longer be thus infested, while his estate could furnish a ship, or his family a son to command it.

The threat of Surrey was not an idle one. He fitted out two men-of-war, one of them the largest in the English navy, and sent them under the command of his sons, Lord Thomas Howard, and Sir Edward Howard, afterwards lord high admiral, to find and encounter the terrible Scottish seaman. They had not long to seek, for in the Downs they were apprised of his neighbourhood by the captain of a merchant vessel which he had plundered on the day preceding. Barton had just returned from a cruise against the Portuguese, with two ships, one the Lion, which himself commanded, and the other a small armed pinnace. When the Howards approached, they hoisted no war signal, but merely put up a willow wand on their masts, as if they were peaceful traders; but when Andrew Barton approached, they hoisted their national flag, and fired a broadside into his vessel. On finding that he had enemies to deal with, although they were of superior force, he fearlessly advanced to the encounter. Distinguished by his rich dress, his splendid armour of proof, and the gold chain around his neck, to which was attached a whistle of the same metal, the emblem of his office as high admiral of Scotland, he took his stand upon the highest part of the deck, and encouraged his men to fight bravely. The battle commenced, and continued on both sides with the utmost desperation. One manouvre of Scottish naval warfare which Barton used, was derived from an old Roman practice used against the Carthaginians, although he had, perhaps, never read their history; this was, to drop large weights or beams from the yard-arms of his vessel into that of the enemy, and thus sink it while the two ships were locked together; but, to accomplish this feat, it was necessary for a man to go aloft to let the weight fall. The English commander, apprised of this, had appointed the best archer of his crew to keep watch upon the movement, and shoot every man who attempted to go aloft for the purpose. The archer had already brought down two Scottish seamen who had successively ventured to ascend, when Andrew Barton seeing the danger, resolved to make the attempt himself. As he ascended the mast for this purpose, Lord Howard cried to his archer, "Shoot, villain, and shoot true, on peril of thy life." "An’ I were to die for it," replied the man despondingly, "I have but two arrows left." These, however, he used with his utmost strength and skill. The first shaft bounded from Barton’s coat of proof, but the second entered the crevice of his armour, as he stretched up his hand in the act of climbing the mast, and inflicted a mortal wound through the arm-pit. He descended as if unhurt, and exclaimed, "Fight on, my merry men; I am but slightly wounded, and will rest me awhile, but will soon join you again; in the meantime, stand you fast by the cross of Saint Andrew! " He then blew his whistle during the combat, to encourage his followers, and continued to sound it as long as life remained. After his death the conflict terminated in the capture of the Lion, and also the pinnace, called the Jenny Pirwen, which were brought in triumph into the Thames. The Lion was afterwards adopted into the English navy, and was the second largest ship in the service, the Great Henry, the first vessel which the English had expressly constructed for war, being the largest.

Such was the end of Andrew Barton, a bright name in the early naval history of Scotland. While his death was felt as a great national calamity, it was particularly affecting to James IV., whose nautical studies he had directed, and whose infant navy he had made so distinguished among the European maritime powers. Rothesay herald was instantly despatched to London, to complain of this breach of peace, and demand redress; but to this appeal Henry VIII. arrogantly replied, that Barton was a pirate, and that the fate of pirates ought never to be a subject of contention between princes. Here, however, the matter was not to rest. Robert Barton, one of Andrew’s brothers, was immediately furnished with letters of reprisal against the English; and thus commissioned, he swept the narrow seas so effectually, that he soon returned to Leith with thirteen English prizes. War by sea between England and Scotland was soon followed by war by land, and in the letter of remonstrance and defiance to Henry VIII., with which James preceded the invasion of England, the unjust slaughter of Andrew Barton, and the capture of his ships, were stated among the principal grievances for which redress was thus sought. Even when battle was at hand, also, Lord Thomas Howard sent a message to the Scottish king, boasting of his share in the death of Barton, whom he persisted in calling a pirate, and adding that he was ready to justify the deed in the vanguard, where his command lay, and where he meant to show as little mercy as he expected to receive. And then succeeded the battle of Flodden, in which James and the best of the Scottish nobility fell; and after Flodden, a loss occurred which Barton would rather have died than witnessed. This was the utter extinction of the Scottish fleet, which was allowed to lie rotting in the harbours of France, or to be trucked away in inglorious sale, like common firewood. From that period, Scotland so completely ceased to be a naval power, that even at the time of the Union, she not only had no war vessels whatever, but scarcely any merchant ships—the few that lay in her ports being chiefly the property of the traders of Holland;--and full three centuries have to elapse before we find another distinguished Scottish seaman in the naval history of Great Britain.

Return to our Significant Scots Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus