The Ghost that
Jethart by John
& Jean Lang
Six centuries before Edward the Peacemaker reigned over Britain, the
people of Scotland knew the blessing of having for a King one who was
known as "The King of Peace."
Alexander the Third was a child of eight when he inherited the Scottish
crown, and was only two years older when he married the Princess
Margaret, eldest daughter of Henry the Third of England. Even in his
early boyhood the young King displayed a wisdom, an energy, and a
forcefulness in his management of affairs that marked him for a great
ruler, and made his royal father-in-law's fond vision of gradually
gaining such an ascendancy over Scotland, that he might in time be able
to claim that kingdom as an appanage of England, fade altogether away.
Alexander had only recently come of age when he had to defend his
country against her old enemies, the Norsemen, and his complete victory
was a triumph for him and for his people. Nineteen years later, his only
daughter, Margaret, married Eric, King of Norway, and the Scots saw
peace for them and for their children smiling on them from every side.
But if prosperity as a monarch was his, misfortune overshadowed King
Alexander's private life. His wife died; his children died. His eldest
son, born at Jedburgh, and married, as a lad, to a daughter of the Count
of Flanders, died childless. His daughter, the young Queen of Norway,
died the year after her marriage, leaving behind her the baby who has
come down to us, even through chilly history, as a pitiful little
figure, known as "The Maid of Norway."
In 1285 King Alexander was wifeless and childless, and the heir to the
Scottish crown was his two-year-old grandchild in "Norroway ower the
In the eyes of all his people the King's duty was plain. He was only
forty-four, a brilliant parti for the daughter of any royal or noble
house, and the Scots wished a man, not a maid, to rule over them. He
must, obviously, marry again. Joleta, also called Yolande, daughter of
the Count de Dreux, and a descendant of the Kings of France, was his
chosen bride. She was of surpassing fairness, and even most of those who
had harboured scruples with regard to the match, because the maid had
been destined for a nunnery, forgot such scruples when they looked upon
On All Saints' Day, 1285, the wedding—a more brilliant function than
anything that had ever before been held in Scotland—was celebrated in
Jedburgh Abbey. The little grey town on the Jed was packed with Scottish
and French nobles and their retinues. Few were the noble houses that
were not there represented, and the monks of Beauvais—the black-cloaked
Augustinian friars from St. Quentin's Abbey—who held rule at the Abbey
of Jedburgh in those days, must have had their ears gladdened by the
constant sound of the French tongue coming from seigneur, squire, and
page-boy who passed them on the causeway.
There was nothing awanting in pomp or in splendour at the royal wedding.
The trees were shedding their leaves, the bracken and the heather on the
moors were brown, and winds that swept across the Carter Bar and down
from the Cheviots had a winter nip in them; but indoors there was warmth
enough, and all the gorgeousness and feasting and merrymaking that the
most exacting of guests could desire for the marriage of a great king.
The banquet after the wedding was followed by a masque. Musicians
ushered into the banqueting hall of the castle a gorgeously attired
procession of dancers, many of them armed men. It was a radiant scene
for the bright eyes of Queen Yolande. Lights flashed on swords and on
armour, and on the sumptuous trappings and brilliant-coloured attire of
lords and of ladies, for courts in those days looked like hedges of
sweet-peas in the summer sun. The musicians played their best, the
guests mingled gaily with the dancing mummers, and then, suddenly, above
all the sounds of music and of revel, there arose a cry, a woman's cry,
shrill and full of fear. What was that grisly figure that appeared
amongst the dancers?—a grinning skeleton—a dancing Death. No masquer
this, but a grim messenger from the Shades, bringing dire warning to
one, at least, of that gay company. As it had come, so it vanished, but
all the gaiety had gone from the merry throng. The ill-omened dancer had
laid a chilly hand on the heart of many a wedding guest.
There were some who said it was a monkish trick, contrived for his own
ends by one of the brethren from Beauvais, but, less than six months
later, all Scotland believed that the skeleton masquer at Jedburgh had,
indeed, come to warn an unfortunate land of its approaching doom.
On a dark March night of 1286, King Alexander rode along the rough cliff
path between Burntisland and Kinghorn on a horse that stumbled in the
darkness, and in the morning, on the rocks far down below, the grey
waves lapped against the ashen dead face of a mighty king.
Not only was the fair Queen Yolande a widow. Scotland was widowed
indeed. For long years thereafter she was to be a battlefield for
fiercely contending nations, and if the ghost that danced at Jethart was
truly a portent of the death of the King of Peace, it also was a portent
of the death of many a gallant warrior and of much grievous spilling of
innocent blood in the woeful years to come.