The Roasting of the Commendator of Crossraguel in the Black Vault of Dunure
THE EARL COOKS THE COMMENDATOR.
EARL GILBERT, the feudal chief of the Kennedy’s had set his eye upon the lands of Crossraguel. The abbey, fair even in its ruins, stands by the wayside some two miles south west of Maybole, the steep-streeted capital of Carrick. It is older than the Kennedys themselves. Tradition, indeed, ascribes to the great Carrick family a more remote genesis; but reliable history does not instal them in the Castle of Dunure at an earlier period than the battle of Largs. When Alexander beat back Haeo and his Norsemen on the shore of Largs in 1263 a portion of the invading army took refuge in Dunure, whither they were pursued by a strong body of the Scots, led by the progenitor of the Earls of Cassillis and the Marquises of Ailsa. The keep was stormed, the original Kennedy entered into possession, and from that day to this vast stretches of country in Ayrshire have been in possession of the descendants of the doughty warrior. By policy, by conquest, by marriage, they gradually extended their domains, until they became the greatest individual force in the south-west of Scotland.
Crossraguel Abbey had rather more than attained its majority when the first of the Kennedys entered into possession of Dunure. Abbey, and Castle, and Kennedys, they kept on together, growing older and older. Centuries passed over their heads. Nature and its ravages assaulted the walls of Crossraguel and of grey Dunure; but, after three hundred years had gone, each, after its own fashion, still opposed itself to the great destroyer. Father Time had touched them lightly.
At no period of its existence did Crossraguel rise into any importance as a monastic institution. Its lands were not extensive; its wealth was small; it never tried to stem the restless current in the world without. It sat in the midst of an open country, and the holy fathers of these good old times had at all events not only every opportunity of communing with Nature in her solitudes, but, if so inclined, of admiring her in her beauty. To-day the ruin looks over a well-cultivated country, diversified with woodland, backed by rising hills, and intersected by streams. Three, hundred years ago the greater part of Carrick was woodland; but there is no reason to doubt that when Earl Gilbert cast his covetous eyes upon the grain-bearing fields and fat beeves of the abbey, the development of agriculture had reached a higher point around Crossraguel than it had in the surrounding country, which, harried by rival Kennedys and raided by lesser barons and squires of every degree, was without the security necessary to the encouragement of the Carrick farmers of these unsettled and stormy times. The Earl's character is best read in the light, of what eventuates later on; but history describes him as a man of stern aspect, of unbending, inflexible will, and of pride which could not bear to be brooked. He was the terror of Carrick, from the border of Kyle to the banks of the Stinchar, and beyond the hills of Galloway he was hardly less supreme. The smaller barons, save in combination, were powerless to oppose him; and during all his life-time be was, so far as they were concerned, practically unchecked. When, therefore, in 1570, his covetous soul went out to the lands of Crossraguel, he little dreamt that in the Commendator of the Abbey, Allan Stewart, he should find a man as stubborn as himself, and as resolved to maintain his rights as the Earl was to abrogate them.
Earl Gilbert was the nephew of Quintin Kennedy, the last and the best known of the Abbots of Crossraguel. It was he who, in 1562, contended for three successive days in a house in Maybole with John Knox. The abbot was the author of a work in defence of the mass, nor was he slow to fulminate against those to whom the mass was an abomination. One Sunday of that year, preaching in the chapel of Kirkoswald, a village adjacent to the abbey, he publicly announced his determination to defend his views against anybody who would impugn them. Knox was in the neighbourhood, and, hearing of the challenge, he repaired the following Sunday to Kirkoswald to take up the ecclesiastical glove which the abbot had thrown down. Apparently the reformer did not wish to have a scene in the church, so he called upon the abbot privately to tell him his intention. It cannot be said that the abbot lacked courage, but, not wishing to have any disturbance in the church, he decided to remain at home. This he accordingly did, and Knox, doubtless glad of the opportunity to expose the sins of Rome, occupied his pulpit, and declaimed to the congregation concerning the errors adherent to the mystic woman of the Apocalypse. The abbot immediately afterwards challenged him to open debate. Knox responded. There were some preliminary difficulties in the way, the abbot desiring the disputation to take place in presence of a limited number of persons on both side; Knox, on the other hand, being anxious to have the question of the mass thrashed out in open meeting. Ultimately the reformer gave way, and the dispute was carried on in Maybole in presence of forty adherents of each of the rival champions of faith. There is no record of the argument save that left by Knox; but it may be doubted whether any good resulted from the controversy. Even in the times in which we live religious disputation tends mainly to acrimony, and there is no reason to believe, though both claimed the victory, either that the Scottish reformer touched the heart or understanding of the abbot, or that the abbot quenched by one single degree the fiery zeal Of the reformer. Knox, however admits that Quintin Kennedy and his "flatterers and collatoralles, bragged greatly" of their triumph.
The good abbot Quintin rested from his controversies, and with his life went out that of Crossraguel as a monastic institution. Allan Stewart was appointed Commendator. The Commendator was, nominally, the trustee of a benefice during a vacancy; but not unfrequently, through the influence of the Pope, he was granted, for his own behoof, the revenues of the benefice in life-rent. This seems to have been the case with Allan Stewart. The Earl of Cassillis had exerted all the influence which he was capable of wielding in order to secure the Commendatorship, with its very substantial advantages, on his own behalf. His efforts were, however, in vain so he resolved to accomplish his aim by other and more direct means. He could not bear to be thwarted; and he formed a resolution to obtain by force or by fraud what his influence had failed to secure for him.
What follows partakes so much of the horrible that one would gladly, if at all possible, relegate it to the limbo of legend or of tradition. Unfortunately, however, for the sake of so much humanity as was incorporated in the person of Earl Gilbert, every detail is vouched for to the letter.
Having then, through the influence of his relative, Captain James Stewart of Cardonald, near Paisley, been appointed Commendator of the Abbey and its lands, Allan Stewart, in the early autumn of 1570, went down to Ayrshire to visit what was practically, so far as his lifetime was concerned, his own property. He was the guest of his brother-in-law, the laird of Bargany, also a, Kennedy, and the nearest approach to a dangerous rival in Carrick whom the Earl of Cassillis had. The feud, which subsequently broke out into open hostility between Cassillis and Bargany, was as yet only smouldering; but the newly appointed Commendator could not well have more greatly incensed the Earl against him than by his residence in the house of his hostile kinsman on the banks of the Girvan. The Earl noted the movements of the Commendator; and on a day late in the month of August, when Stewart was in the wood of Crossraguel, he took him prisoner. He was careful, however, not to use violence but the moral compulsion which he employed was certainly not far removed from actual force. In the complaint which Stewart lodged with the Privy Council the following, year he says that the Earl of Cassillis, the Earl's brother Thomas, the Master of Cassillis, and their accomplices, to the number of sixteen or thereby "came to me and persuadit me be their flatteries and deceatful wordis to pas with thame to his Castle and place of Dunure; being always myndit gif I had made refusal to pass with them, to have taken me perforce." Making a virtue of necessity, the hapless Commendator yielded to the exigencies of the situation. He accompanied the Earl and his followers to Dunure.
The Castle of Dunure stands in its ruins on a rock about seven miles south-west of Ayr. It may have been, it undoubtedly was, a stronghold in the days when Allan Stewart Passed within its ramparts; but at its very best and strongest it has never, save from its association been worthy to be put in comparison with many of the other strong square peels and castles which stud the south-west of Scotland.
It was impregnable from the sea, for the waters of the Firth of Clyde wash the base of the crag on which it stands. The land behind, at no great distance from it, dominates and in these days of heavy ordnance it would be easily demolished. It was, in the period of its strength, protected by heavy ramparts and by a deep fosse; and held by a determined garrison, it was quite capable of resisting anything, short of a sustained siege. When, therefore, the heavy gates closed on the unfortunate Commendator, he must have felt himself powerless in the grasp of his captor. Six of the Earls retainers were ordered to watch him, so that escape was impossible. His horse was taken from him, he was relieved of his weapons of defence, and for that and the two following days he was left to realise his helplessness and to borrow such strength as he could obtain from the consciousness of the injustice that was being done him. Without the walls of the keep everything was suggestive of unrestrained freedom. The boundless, fetterless sea rolled in its majesty before him; the wind whistled at will in the great chimneys and turrets and caught up the sprays of the restless breakers which broke upon the rocks beneath; and the sea-birds, strong arid unfettered of pinion, flew and screamed and dived as they listed, amid the foam.
On the first day of September the Earl returned to Dunure from Cassillis House, where, as a rule, he resided, and placed his demands before his captive. In the interval he had evidently consulted his agent, for he brought with him " made in parchment," "a five-year tack and a nineteen-year tack, and a charter of feu of all the lands of Crossraguel," which he called upon the Commendator to subscribe. This Stewart refused to do, pointing out to him that his demands were unreasonable, the more so that the Abbey lands were already " disponit" to the tenants and possessors thereof. The Earl used all his powers of persuasion and of cajolery in vain, so he resorted to other and sterner means. There are two narratives of what followed, one in " The History of the Kennedys," the other the complaint of the Commendator to the Privy Council. The latter perhaps being the more accurate, though not the more detailed, is subjoined. I have taken the liberty of anglicising a word here and there that the reader may have no difficulty in following Stewart's remarkable story.
The Earl, " after long boasting and bullying" of me, caused me to be carried by John Kennedy, his baker; John M'Leir, his cook ; Alexander Ritchard, his pantryman ; Alexander Eccles, and Sir William Todd, to the Black Vault of Dunure; where the tormentors denuded me of all my clothes perforce, except only my sark and doublet; and then bound both my hands at the wrist with a cord, as he did both my feet; and bound my soles betwixt an iron grate and a fire. and, being bound thereto, could in no way stir or move, but had almost died through my cruel burning. And seeing no other appearance to me but either condescend to his desire or else to continue in that torment until I died, took me to the longest life, and said, 'I would obey his desire,' albeit it was sore against my will. And, to be relieved of my said pain, subscribed the foresaid charter and tack, which I never yet read nor knew what therein was contained, which being done, the said Earl caused the said tormentors of me swear upon a Bible never to reveal one word of this my unmerciful handling to any person or persons. Yet he, not being satisfied with these proceedings, came again upon the seventh day of the foresaid month, bringing with him the same charter and tack, which he compelled me to subscribe and required me to ratify and approve the same before a notary and witnesses, which altogether I refused. And therefore he, as of before, bound me, and put me to the same manner of tormenting, and I said notwithstanding 'he should first get my life ere ever I agreed to his desire' ; and being in so great pain, as I trust man was never in with his life, I cried, 'Fie upon you! will you (not) ding whingaris (thrust a short sword) in me and put me out of this world! or else put a barrel off powder under me rather than to be used in this unmerciful manner'! The said Earl, hearing me cry, bade his servant, Alexander Ritchard, put a table-napkin in my throat, which he obeyed, the same being performed at eleven o'clock at night; who then, seeing that I was in danger of my life, my flesh consumed and burned to the bones, and that I would not condescend to their purpose, I was relieved of that pain, where-through I will never be able nor well in my life-time."
Though the Commendator in his complaint affirms that he did not ratify the documents, there can be no doubt that he did. Probably the pain which h underwent in the Black Vault was so intense " to drive from his memory any recollection of his having subscribed the obnoxious feu charter.
The element of the grotesque is added to that of the horrible in the narrative given of the occurrence in "The History of the Kennedys," where it is entitled " The Erle of Cassillis Tyranny against a Quick* Man." It may seem rather a strange thing to find the historian of the Kennedy family revel in such a scene; but all through his work, indeed, he brings forward events which a sycophantic narrator would studiously have kept in the background. The author is unknown. It is supposed by some that the history is the work of Mure of Auchendrane, probably in many respects the most dangerous and unscrupulous enemy that the Kennedys had; by others that it was written by a schoolmaster in Ayr, who likewise rejoiced in the name of Mure, and who must either have been exceptionally faithful as a chronicler, or, like his namesake of Auchendrane, must have been animated 'by deadly rancour against the Kings of Carrick. Here, as above, I give the story in the quaint, graphic language of the narrator, again anglicising it for the behoof of the reader:-
After that certain days were spent, and that the Earl could not obtain the feus of Crossraguel according to his own appetite, he determined to prove if that a collation could work that which neither dinner nor supper could do of a long time. And so the said Master (Stewart) was carried to a secret chamber, and with him passed the honourable Earl, his worshipful brother, and such as were appointed to be servants at that banquet. In the chamber there was a great iron chimney, under it a fire; other great provision was not seen. The first course was-
‘My Lord Abbot,' said the Earl, ' it will please you confess here that with your own consent you remain in my company, because you dare not commit yourself to the hands of others.'
The Abbot answered-
‘Would you, my lord, that I should make a manifest falsehood for your pleasure? The truth is, my lord, that it is against my will that I am here; neither yet have I any pleasure in your company.’
‘But you shall remain with me at this time,' said the Earl.
'I am not able to resist your will arid pleasure,' said the Abbot, ' in this Place.'
‘You must then obey me,' said the Earl.
"And with that there were presented unto him certain letters to subscribe, amongst which there was a five-years' tack and a nineteen-years' tack, and a charter of feu of all the lands of Crossraguel, with all the clauses necessary for the Earl to haste him to hell! For if adultery, sacrilege, oppression, barbarous cruelty, and theft heaped upon theft deserve hell, the great King of Carrick can no more escape hell for ever than the imprudent Abbot escaped the fire for a season, as follows :-
"After that the Earl espied repugnance, and that he could not come to his purpose by fair means, he commanded his cooks to prepare the banquet. And so, first, they fleeced the sheep-that is, they took off the abbot's clothes, even to his skin ; and, next, they bound him to the chimney, his legs to the one end and his arms to the other; and so they began to apply the fire, sometimes to his hips, sometimes to his legs, sometimes to his shoulders and arms. And that the roast should not burn, but that it might roast in sop, they spared not to anoint it with oil. (Lord, look Thou to sic cruelty') And that the crying of the miserable man should not be beard, they closed his mouth that his voice might be stopped. In that torment they held the poor man, while that offtimes he cried 'for God's sake to despatch him, for he bad as much gold in his own purse as would buy powder enough to shorten his pain. The famous King of Carrick and his cooks, perceiving the roast to be enough, commanded it to be taken from the fire, and the Earl himself began the grace in this manner 'Benedicite Jesus Maria! You are the most obstinate man that ever I saw! If I had known that you would be so stubborn, I would not for a thousand crowns have handled you so! I never did so to a man before you!' And yet he returned to the same Practice within two days, and ceased not until he had attained his foremost purpose; that is, he had gotten all his deeds subscribed as well as a half-roasted hand could do it! "
It is little wonder that the narrator adds, in the bitterness of his soul, that "in that time God was despised and the lawful authority was contemned in Scotland."
THE ROAST DOTH NOT AVAIL THE EARL.
Having attained his object, the Earl left the Castle of Dunure in the hands of a body of his servants, with strict injunction, that the suffering Commendator was to be kept a close prisoner. But the dark deed could not, and did not, hide. Tidings of what had occurred reached Bargany, and incited the natural and the righteous ire of the rival Kennedy on the banks of the Girvan. It needed but a spark to enkindle a conflagration; and, in place of a spark, here was a veritable fire itself. Bargany knew with whom he had to deal, and he acted swiftly and decisively. He at once despatched ten or twelve of his servants under cloud of night to Dunure, under the leadership of " David Kennedy of Maxweltown, who had been his page before." These men, skilfully led and evidently well acquainted with the weaknesses of Dunure, entered the chapel, which was outside the moat at the end of the drawbridge, but which, nevertheless, was connected with the main body of the castle. In the morning, when the keepers were opening the outer gate, they sallied forth, sword in hand, entered the house, made captive, the domestics, whom they confined for safety in the keep, and brought encouragement to the half-roasted Commendator. The deed was a daring one, and might have proved fatal to those who did it ; for the Alaster of Cassillis and the Laird of Culzean, Sir Thomas Kennedy, learning what had befallen, speedily mustered a strong body of the Earl's retainers, marched across the country from Cassillis, crossing the shoulder of Carrick Hill, and at once proceeded to active operations. By piercing the chapel walls, they would have obtained entrance to the dungeons, and this they immediately attempted : but the small garrison manfully held them at bay, threw large stones down from the battlements upon them, and, breaking the roof of the chapel, compelled them to stay their housebreaking operations.
The Master of Cassillis was foremost in the attack. He did not incite or direct his followers to attempt a deed in the execution and danger of which he did not share. Seeing however, that a forcible entrance was not to be obtained, he resolved to adopt other and more active measures, and he threatened the defenders that if they did not yield up the castle he would set fire to the chapel and burn them out. But they were not to be thus daunted. On the contrary, they advised him to be more moderate in his determination. Whether he set about firing the chapel or not it is impossible to say; but at all events his efforts came to naught, and he finally desisted from the attack when " the wind of ane hacquebute blasted his shoulder." This mishap excited his wrathful "furie"; but, irate thought he was, he suspended operations and left the Bargany men in possession.
Bargany himself was meanwhile rousing the West Country to indignation, and stirring it to revenge. The Earl had plenty of foes in Ayrshire, and to these Bargany either went in person or sent messengers to apprise them of what had taken place, and to request their assistance. He was backed by letters from the Privy Council. His posts rode over the hills of Carrick, the broad lands of Kyle, and the fields of Cunninghame ; and ere long at the head of a strong force, bent on vengeance, he appeared in front of the grey keep of Dunure, and relieved the small garrison who had so effectually surprised it.
The Earl would fain have dared the combat, but the odds were, too great; and without let or hindrance the Commendator, still bearing manifest traces of his cruel treatment, was conveyed to the Market Cross of Ayr, where he denounced his persecutor, and exhibited his scars and his burns to an indignant population. Ayr was at all times more friendly to Bargany than it was to his kinsman of Cassillis; and it can well be believed that the burghers promised their aid in having justice done upon the, headstrong " King of Carrick."
The Privy Council summoned the Earl into its presence; and he had the boldness not only to obey the summons which, perhaps, he could not well have refused to do-but to question the legitimacy of the tribunal. The offence, he had committed, he said, if offence it was, was either civil or criminal. In either case it was a matter for the regularly constituted courts of the realm ; and therefore be, demanded to be taken "before the judges competent."
The Regent and the Council dealt very leniently with the Earl. He bad doubtless his friends at Court; and it may be presumed that, in the disturbed state in which the country was, they were by no means anxious to incur the pronounced, and in all probability the active, hostility of the powerful chief of the Kennedys. They accordingly declined to view the unholy transaction in its criminal capacity, or to remit it to the Court of Justiciary, before which, by right, the Earl ought to have appeared. Falling back on their function to secure the quietness of the realm, they ordained him to find caution in the amount of two thousand pounds not to molest the Commendator anew or to interfere with his rights over Crossraguel, its fruits, rents, profits, or duties. Bargany was dissatisfied with the leniency of the Council, and made preparation for taking practical revenge but mutual friends interposed to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. The Earl, if not ashamed of his action, was wise enough to comprehend the strong feeling of hostility to him which it had created in the Westland ; and, by way of making such amends as he could, and stilling the popular tumult, he gave the " brunt " Commendator a certain sum annually by way of solatium. On the whole, it may be conceded that he escaped the just consequences of his misdeed very easily ; though from that day to this the memory of the cruel wrong which he did in the Black Vault of Dunure has remained the darkest stain on the by no means unchequered annals of the Kennedys of Cassillis.
The following year Earl Gilbert obtained by payment what he had failed to obtain by fraud and cruelty combined, and he lived to enjoy, as best he could the fruits of the Abbacy until, five, years later, he was thrown from his horse and fatally injured. Naturally, his treatment of the Abbot took a strong hold upon the superstitious peasantry of the country-side; and many a weird story floats over Carrick to this day concerning the unhallowed Intercourse which he had with the powers of darkness. The same story, for instance, is told concerning his death as is narrated concerning the final leave-taking with this world of "the bluidy Dalziel " how that one night as the master of an Irish coaster was sailing down the Firth of Clyde under the lee of Ailsa Craig he espied coming over the waters to meet him a chariot of fire and horses of fire ; how the skipper, nerving himself in face of the extraordinary and terror-inspiring spectacle, put his speaking-trumpet to his mouth and shouted to the spiritual driver, " Whence, and whither bound "? how the driver replied in a voice of thunder, " From hell to Cassillis for the soul of the Earl "! and how, later on the same night, the same shipmaster beheld the diabolic equipage return with another passenger, who wailed and howled above the storm which blew in sympathy with the occasion. There was also the familiar crow, which, as the remains of the King of Carrick were being borne in pomp to their last resting place in Maybole, flew on heavy pinion towards the procession, and lighted on the coffin. So long as the evil bird sat above the body of the Earl, the horses could not move the carriage on which it rested; but no sooner had the Satanic emissary-if not the Great Spirit of Darkness himself-resumed his flight, than the horses proceeded without the slightest difficulty. It is told, too, how that in the Black Vault of Dunure the Earl had a raven for his " familiar," and that the bird of ill omen encouraged him-nay, urged him-to the roasting of the Commendator. Education and enlightenment, however, are rapidly driving these 'baleful traditions into oblivion.
Sir Walter Scott has not suffered the scene to escape immortality ; for in " Ivanhoe " he has gone far in the direction of reproducing its horrors. "In these very scales," said the Norman Baron, Front-de-Boeuf, to the trembling Jew, Isaac of York, "in these very scales shalt thou weigh me out a thousand silver pounds after the just measure and weight of the Tower of London." The demand was spoken in the dungeon of Torquilstone Castle ; and it was made by the Baron to the Jew in the presence of two Saracen slaves ready to obey the slightest nod of their. imperious lord. Isaac protested his inability to tell down such a ransom. "This dungeon," retorted the Norman is no place for trifling. Prisoners ten thousand times more distinguished than thou have died within these walls, and their fate hath never been known ! But for thee is reserved a long and lingering death, to which theirs were luxury."
On a given signal the Saracens disposed a quantity of charcoal in a large rusty grate, and exercised the bellows until the fuel came to a red glow.
"Seest thou, Isaac," said Front-de-Boeuf," the range of iron bars above that glowing charcoal ? On that warm couch thou shalt lie stripped of thy clothes as if thou wert to rest on a bed of down. One of these slaves shall maintain the fire beneath thee., while the other anoint thy wretched limbs with oil, lest the roast should burn. Now choose betwixt such a scorching bed and the payment of a thousand pounds of silver. for, by the head of my father, thou hast no other option."
It was in vain that the Jew appealed to the humanity of the Norman nobleman ; he was inexorable. The furnace was all aglow, the Saracens had seized their victim and were ready to lay him on the bars, when the covetous heart of Isaac gave way before the terrible torture with which he was threatened. More fortunate he than the tortured Commendator of Crossraguel!