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Significant Scots
Sir Andrew Wood

WOOD, SIR ANDREW, Admiral to James III. and James IV.—While the war between England and Scotland was at the fiercest, both countries seem to have been unconscious of the particular arm in which the secret of their great strength lay. Hence their vessels were entirely fitted, not for war but merchandise, and their battles at sea were nothing more than paltry skirmishes, which occurred when two ships crossed each other’s track, instead of the wholesale encounter of opposing fleets; while the only naval tactics of the time was for the strongest to board, and the weakest to run away. But between two such nations this state of things could not always continue; and when they found that they could not only defend themselves, but annoy each other, as effectually by sea as by land, ships became stronger and better manned, and the art of working and fighting them more perfect. It was full time, indeed, that it should be so, when the continental nations were immeasurably our superiors in navigation, and when an "Invincible Armada" might at any time be landed upon the shores of England or Scotland, not for the conquest of one or other of the rival countries, but the island at large. Fortunately, therefore, it happened that, coeval with the opening of India to Portugal, and the discovery of America by Spain, the Scots and English were making such improvements in nautical science as were ultimately to fit them for being the first of maritime powers. This, indeed, was a prospect as yet too remote to occur to them, and therefore the prevailing motive was a merely immediate advantage—the power of inflicting on each other the greatest amount of mischief, and having a Bannockburn or Chevy Chase on sea as well as land. Into this new contention the Scots pressed with their wonted ardour, and so successfully, that towards the end of the 15th century it seemed as if they, and not their more wealthy neighbours, were to possess the ocean-flag of the island. This superiority they owed to the two Bartons, and especially to Sir Andrew Wood, of Largo.

Until this brave admiral emerged into public notice, the name of Wood had acquired no place in Scottish history, so that we are unable to determine the family from which he sprung. Abercromby, in his "Martial Achievements of the Scots Nation," supposes him to have been a cadet of the ancient family of Bonington, in Angus. Even of the early life and exploits of Sir Andrew Wood nothing can be ascertained, owing to the scantiness of our Scottish historical records of this period. It is commonly asserted that he was born about the middle of the 15th century, at the old kirk-town of Largo, in Fifeshire. He appears to have commenced life as a trader; and as he was captain, supercargo, and ship-owner in his own ventures, like many of the chief merchants of the day, he was obliged to fight his way from port to port, and combine the daring courage of a bold privateer, and the science of a skilful navigator, with the gentle craft of a trafficker and bargain-maker. His chief place of residence when on shore was Leith, at that time rising in consequence as one of the principal ports of Scotland; and there his growing wealth as a merchant, and renown as a skipper, gradually raised him to consideration among the highborn and powerful of the country. He was now the possessor of two ships, called the Flower and the Yellow Caravel, each of about 300 tons burden, but superior to most vessels of their size, in men, arms, and sailing equipments, with which he traded to the Dutch and Hanse towns, then the chief commercial marts of Scotland. As he had soon riches enough, his mind aspired to higher objects, and fortunately he served a king by whom his claims could be appreciated. James III. granted to him, as his pilot, a lease of the lands of Largo, on the tenure of keeping his ship, the Yellow Caravel, in repair, for conveying his Highness and the queen to the Isle of May, when they should make a pilgrimage thither; afterwards these lands and the town of Largo were granted to him hereditarily and in fee, in consideration of his public services, and especially his defence of the royal castle of Dumbarton, when it was besieged by the English navy. This grant, which was made to Wood by James III. in 1483, was afterwards confirmed by James IV. in 1488, and 1497. Soon after the first of these dates, and before 1488, he received the honour of knighthood, and married Elizabeth Lundie, a lady belonging to an ancient family of Fife-shire, by whom he had several sons. He was now a feudal baron, who could ride to a national muster with a train of armed followers at his back; a redoubted admiral, whose ships had cleared the seas of every foe that had opposed them; a skilful financier and wise counsellor, in consequence of his past habits and experience; and in every way a man whom nobles would respect, and kings delight to honour. From this period he abandoned trading, and devoted himself to those great public interests in which his rank as well as talents required him to take a part.

Events soon occurred that conferred upon the admiral a species of distinction which he was far from coveting. A rebellion, headed by some of the principal nobles of the kingdom, broke out, and James III., one of the most pacific of sovereigns, found himself dragged into the field, and compelled to fight for crown and life against his own subjects. On this occasion Sir Andrew Wood received the king on board one of his vessels lying in Leith Roads, and crossed to the coast of Fife, where his ships lay at anchor. The previous destination of the fleet was Flanders; and on hoisting sail, the report was spread abroad that James was escaping to the Netherlands. Enraged at this, the rebels seized his baggage and furniture, which were on their way to be shipped at the Forth, and committed great outrage upon the persons and property of the sovereign’s best adherents. But no such flight was contemplated, for the king landed in Fife, and summoned a military muster of his subjects, after which he joined the northern lords who adhered to his cause, and prepared for battle. He was now at the head of such an imposing force that the rebels were daunted, and after a trifling skirmish at Blackness, they proposed peace, which was granted to them on terms more favourable than they had merited. This, however, was the more necessary on the part of the king, as the insurgent lords had taken his eldest son, the Duke of Rothesay, now scarcely seventeen years old, from under the care of his guardians, and placed him at their head, under the title of James IV. After this pacification, the king rewarded the most trusty of his adherents with fresh grants of crown lands, and among those whose loyal services were thus requited, was Sir Andrew Wood, of Largo.

But this return of tranquillity was a short and treacherous interval, for James III. had scarcely settled down to his wonted pursuits of poetry, music, and the fine arts—pursuits better fitted for a sovereign of the 19th century than one of the 15th—than the insurgent lords mustered in greater force than ever, while the royal army had dispersed to their homes. Until his troops could be assembled, James repaired to Stirling Castle for refuge, but was there denied entrance, and obliged to abide the issue with such an army as could be mustered upon a hasty summons. During the interval, Wood was cruising in the Forth, with the Flower and Yellow Caravel, while the contending forces were mustering near Stirling—landing occasionally with his brother and armed followers, to aid the royal party should the battle be fought in the neighbourhood, but still keeping near his shipping, to hold the command of the sea, and be ready to receive his master in the event of a reverse. The affair was soon decided, by the battle of Sauchieburn, in which the forces of James were defeated, and himself foully assassinated while flying from the field. The deed was done so secretly, that both friends and enemies supposed he was still alive, and had taken shelter in the Yellow Caravel, a supposition strengthened by the fact that boats had been employed all day in conveying wounded men from the shore to the vessels. The victorious insurgents, who had now reached Leith, and were aware of Wood’s fidelity to his master, resolved to remove the king from his keeping, and accordingly, in the first instance, they sent messengers to inquire if James was in his ship. He replied that he was not, and gave them leave to search it if they were still unconvinced. Not satisfied, however, with the assurance, the insurgent lords, now masters of Scotland, sent him an order to appear before their council and there state fully how matters stood, but this he boldly refused to do, without receiving sufficient pledges for his safe return. Powerful though they were, he was upon his own element, where he could annoy them, or escape from them at pleasure. Aware of this they were obliged to give hostages, in the persons of Lords Fleming and Seton, that he should come and return unharmed. The lords being safely housed in his cabin, Sir Andrew landed from his barge at Leith, and presented himself before the council. On his entrance an affecting incident occurred. Young James IV, who had seen so little of his murdered parent that he had grown up ignorant of his person, and now beheld a stately, noble looking man, clothed in rich armour, enter the hall, went up to him, and said, "Sir, are you my father?" "Sir, I am not your father," replied the admiral, while tears fell fast from his eyes at the question, "but I was a servant to your father, and shall be to his authority till I die, and enemy to those who were the occasion of his down-putting."

The dialogue that occurred between him and the lords, after this affecting incident, was brief and stern. They asked if he knew of the king, or where he was, to which he answered, that he neither knew of his highness, nor where he was at present. They then demanded who those persons were who had retired from the field, and been conveyed to his ships; to which he answered, "It was I and my brother, who were ready to have spent our lives with the king in his defence." "He is not, then, in your ships?" they rejoined; to which he answered boldly, "He is not in my ships, but would to God that he were in my ships in safety; I should then defend him, and keep him scatheless from all the treasonable creatures who have murdered him, for I hope to see the day when they shall be hanged and drawn for their demerits." These were hard words to digest, and when we remember the names of those proud magnates of whom the council was composed, and how unscrupulous they were in dealing with their enemies or resenting an affront, we can the better appreciate the boldness of the man who, though alone, thus rebuked and denounced them. They writhed under his bitter words, but dared not resent them, for they knew that their brethren, Fleming and Seton, were in the Yellow Caravel, and that the good ship had ropes and yard-arms. They dismissed him, therefore, in safety, and it was well that they did so; for when the lords who were in pledge returned, it was in great dismay, for the sailors had become impatient at the detention of their commander, and were fully prepared to hang them if his stay on shore had been continued much longer.

In this way the brave Wood had bearded a whole troop of lions in their den, and retired with impunity; but still they were determined that he should not escape unpunished. He might be denounced as a public enemy, and assailed with the same power that had sufficed to crush the king. It was dangerous, too, that such a man should go at large, and repeat among others those threats which he had thrown in their own teeth. Accordingly, with the new sovereign, James IV., at their head, they applied to the skippers of Leith, desiring them to proceed against Wood, and apprehend him, offering to furnish them with sufficient ships, weapons, and artillery for the purpose; but one of their number, Captain Barton—probably one of those bold Bartons who, like Wood himself, were famed at this time for exploits of naval daring—declared that there were not ten ships in Scotland that could give battle to the admiral with the Flower and Yellow Caravel alone, so high was his skill, and so completely seconded with good artillery and practised seamen. Reluctantly, therefore, they were obliged to remit their designs of vengeance, and pass on to the subject of the young king’s coronation. Wood also turned his attention to his own affairs, the chief of which was a quarrel with the good citizens of Aberdeen towards the close of 1488, concerning the forest of Suckett and the castle hill of Aberdeen, which, he alleged, had been granted to him by James III. On this occasion the Aberdonians denied his claim, and stood to their defence, which might have been followed by a cannonade, had not the privy council interfered between the angry admiral and the equally incensed citizens. It was then found that the property in question had been granted to the city in perpetuity by Robert Bruce, upon which Wood abandoned his claim.

All this was but sorry practice, however accordant with the spirit of the age, and the high talents of Wood were soon employed in a more patriotic sphere of action. James IV., one of whose earliest proceedings was to distinguish between his selfish partizans, that had made him king for their own purposes, and those who had generously espoused the cause of his unfortunate father, received the latter into favour; and among these was the ocean hero, with whose first appearance he had been so mournfully impressed. Having himself a high genius for naval architecture, and an earnest desire to create a national navy, he found in Wood an able teacher, and the studies both of sovereign and admiral, for the building of ships that should effectually guard the coasts of Scotland and promote its commerce, were both close and frequent. An event soon occurred to call their deliberations into action. About the commencement or earlier part of the year 1489, a fleet of five English ships entered the Clyde, where they wrought great havoc, and chased one of the king’s ships, to the serious damage of its rigging and tackle. As this deed was committed during a season of truce, the actors were denounced as pirates; and James, who felt his own honour sensibly touched in the affair, commissioned Sir Andrew to pursue the culprits, after he had proposed it to the other naval captains, but in vain. The knight of Largo undertook the enterprise, and set off in his favourite vessels, the Flower and Caravel, in quest of these dangerous marauders. He fell in with the five English ships off Dunbar Castle, and a desperate conflict commenced. But though the English were so superior in force, and fought with their wonted hardihood, the greater skill, courage, and seamanship of Wood prevailed, so that all their ships, with the captains and crews, were brought into Leith, and presented to the king.

This event was most unwelcome to Henry VII. of Eng1and, and all the more especially, that on account of the truce he could not openly resent it. Still the flag of England had been soiled, and something must be done to purify it. He therefore caused it to be announced underhand, that nothing would please him so much as the defeat or capture of Wood, and that whoever accomplished it should have a pension of 1000 a-year. This was a tempting offer, considering the value of money at that period; but such at the same time was the renown of the Scottish captain, that the boldest of the mariners of England shrunk from the enterprise. At length, Stephen Bull, a venturous merchant and gallant seaman of the port of London, offered himself for the deed, and was furnished with three tall ships for the purpose, manned with numerous crews of picked mariners, besides pikemen and cross-bows, and a gallant body of knights, who threw themselves into this daring adventure as volunteers. Bull directed his course towards the Frith of Forth, and cast anchor behind the Isle of May, where he lay in wait for the Scottish admiral, who had gone as convoy of some merchant ships to Flanders, and was now on his return home; and to avoid the chances of mistake, the Englishman seized some fishing-boats, and retained their owners, that they might point out to him the expected ships as soon as they came in sight. In the meantime, Sir Andrew was sailing merrily homeward, little anticipating the entertainment prepared for him (for the truce with England still continued), and had already doubled St. Abb’s Head. No sooner did he appear in sight, than Stephen Bull ordered his prisoners to the masthead, to ascertain if these ships were the Flower and Yellow Caravel; and on their hesitating to answer, he promised to set them free should these be the ships in question. On learning that his expected prey was within reach, he prepared for battle with great glee, being confident of victory. He caused a cask of wine to be broached, and flagons handed among the crews; drank to his captains and skippers, bidding them be of good cheer, for their enemy was at hand, and ordered the gunners to their posts. In this trim he weighed anchor, and bore down with hostile signal upon the Scots. It was well on this occasion that Wood possessed one of the best attributes of a good sailor—that he was not to be caught napping. Unexpected though this breach of the truce was, his ships were kept in such admirable order, that a few minutes of preparation sufficed. "My merry men," he said, "be stout against these your enemies, who have sworn and avowed to make you prisoners to the king of England, but who, please God, shall fail of their purpose. Therefore, set yourselves in order every man at his own station, and let your guns and cross-bows be ready. But above all, use the fire-balls well from the main-tops, keep the decks with your two-handed swords, and let every good fellow here think of the welfare of the realm and his own honour. For mine own part, with God to help, I shall show you a good example." He then distributed wine among the sailors, who blithely pledged each other, and stood to their weapons prepared for immediate action.

And now commenced an engagement such as, taking the numbers of the combatants into account, the ocean had seldom as yet witnessed; it was a fearful meeting, where skill and undaunted courage, and the determination to do or die, were animated by such professional rivalry and national hatred. The battle was commenced on the part of the English by a distant cannonade, but the Scottish vessels being smaller in size, the shot passed above their decks without doing mischief. In the meantime, Wood, who had got to windward of his adversary, bore down upon him under a full press of sail, closed upon him, threw out his grappling-irons, and even lashed the ships together with strong cables, that all might be settled by a hand-to-hand encounter. The battle, that commenced at sunrise, continued during the whole of a summer day with such desperate determination, that nothing but the darkness of night parted them. When they separated on equal terms, and lay-to, waiting for the morning to renew the combat. The morning came, the trumpets sounded, the ships again grappled with the pertinacity of bull-dogs, and the fight became so keen, that the vessels, left to their own management, drifted into the mouth of the Tay, while the crews were engaged in close struggle upon the deck. Roused also by the din, the inhabitants, men, women, and children, crowded to the shore, and cheered their countrymen by their shouts and gesticulations. "Britannia, rule the waves"—yes, when these rival flags shall be blended together, and these gallant combatants be fighting side by side! At length, the superior skill of Wood and the practised seamanship of his crews prevailed over equal courage and far superior numbers; the three English vessels were compelled to strike, and were carried into the port of Dundee, while Sir Andrew brought his gallant antagonist to the king as prisoner. James IV., who was one of the last of the flowers of chivalry, received Stephen Bull and his followers with courtesy, enriched them with princely gifts, and after praising their valour, set them at liberty, and sent them home in their own ships without ransom. He also desired them to tell their royal master, that he had as manly men in Scotland as there were in England, and was fully able as well as determined to defend his own coasts and merchantmen. The significant hint was added, that if they came again to Scotland in such hostile fashion, they would neither be so well entertained, nor be allowed to skip homeward so dry-shod. This at least the prisoners averred when they had reached London in safety. Henry VII., whatever might be his private feelings, expressed his gratitude for the kindness of the Scottish king. While enemies were thus rewarded, Sir Andrew was not forgot, for he was guerdoned with fresh grants of lands, and received into greater favour than ever.

Sir Andrew Wood, now incontestably the greatest naval hero of his age, had done enough for fame, and no further exploits like those off Dunbar or St. Abb’s Head remained to be achieved. In 1503, he was employed against the turbulent chiefs of the isles, who were always breaking into rebellion, and was so successful, that the inhabitants were reduced to submission wherever his ships appeared. Afterwards we find him captain of that enormous pageant ship, the Great Michael, with Robert Barton as his lieutenant. This vessel, upon which not only the greater part of the timber, but also of the wealth of Scotland had been expended, was found, when finished, to be as useless as Robinson Crusoe’s boat, on which he had bestowed such labour, and made it so large, that he could neither navigate nor even launch it. With all this expenditure upon eight or ten good ships, and these two heroes to command them, Scotland might have sent out such a fleet as no naval power in Europe could have equalled. We suspect that even Wood, in bringing such a ship into action, would have been as much encumbered as David was when he was equipped in the armour of Saul. Fortunately, no opportunity occurred for such a hazardous trial, as the Great Michael was afterwards wrecked on the French coast, and suffered to rot in the harbour of Brest, after it had been carried off to sea under a different commander. After the disastrous battle of Flodden, Sir Andrew again appears in the character of ambassador at the court of France, whither he was sent to invite the Duke of Albany, nephew of James III., to assume the regency of Scotland. In 1526, he was present at the battle of Linlithgow Bridge, one of those feudal conflicts that were so frequent during the minority of James V.; and so late as 1538 he was still alive, as appears from a deed of remission of that date. By this time he must have been a very aged man, and perhaps the perplexed witness of those striking events by which the reformation of religion in Scotland was heralded, and a new world introduced. But during his retirement from active life, his affection for the sea appears to have clung to him like a first love, and he evinced it by causing a canal to be made from his castle to the kirk of Upper Largo, on which he was rowed in a barge every Sunday by his old boat’s crew, when he went to the church to attend mass. The year of his death is uncertain, as no record can be found of it. He was buried in Largo kirk, where his family tomb still arrests the eye of the historian and antiquary.

Note: We now know for certain that the Admiral was dead by November 1517, which proves that Victorian researchers really did confuse him with his son, another Sir Andrew, who was indeed close to King James V.

October 26, 2018
Lord High Admirals of Scotland

Dear Alastair,

I hope you have been keeping well since we last communicated.

I keep coming across claims, presumably made by over-enthusiastic contributors that Sir Andrew Wood of Largo and his contemporary the privateer Andrew Barton were both Lord High Admirals of Scotland. Neither of them was. It was one of those hereditary posts that were reserved only for the very highest in the land such as those related to the Royal Family. Probably few, if any, had so much as put a ship to sea in their life! Wood was, however, made Admiral of Scotland - the equivalent today of Admiral of the Fleet, for he would certainly have been the most senior active mariner of his day.

After the disgraced Duke of Albion, brother of James III, from 1488 came the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Earls of Bothwell

My regards,

Nick Wood
(Clan Wood Society)

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