Friday, 21 June 2013

Bon-Accord; Aberdeen’s most famous battle that never was?

Aberdeen’s civic motto is a curiosity in heraldic history, as unlike many other medieval Scottish burghs which sported mottos of a religious theme, ours was a French phrase loosely translated as “good agreement”.  Heraldist, Sir George McKenzie, writing in 1680, described the motto’s origin: “the word was given them by King Robert Bruce, for killing all the English, in one night, in their Town, their word being that night ‘Bon-Accord’”.  The Lord Lyon, King of Arms made no mention of this in 1674 when Aberdeen’s coat of arms was officially recognised by his court.  Modern-day historians dismiss the tale of Bruce’s secret attack on Aberdeen castle in 1308 as a myth, especially its connection with the phrase ‘bon-accord’.  So is the recovery of what had been the late Alexander III’s local residence on Castlehill the most famous battle that never was?  To answer this we need some solid evidence.

Wind back the clock to the violent upheaval which was later known as the Scottish Wars of Independence.  With the Scottish succession in crisis and the English monarch snapping at his heels, Robert Bruce, who had a strong claim to the crown, finally seized it for himself in 1306.  Two years later he is in Aberdeen, having defeated his Scots enemies, the Comyns at the battle of Barra near Oldmeldrum.  William Kennedy’s 1818 Annals of Aberdeen states that buoyed up by this victory, Bruce led his army up to Aberdeen Castle under cover of darkness and slaughtered the English garrison.

However, in the very same volume, Kennedy quotes a contemporary letter sent by Edward II of England to Sir Gilbert Petchez, the knight he had appointed constable of Aberdeen Castle, dated July 1308, two months after Bruce’s victory over the Comyns, ordering him to “go to Scotland and aid in the relief of Aberdeen Castle which is besieged by land and sea”.  So perhaps it was no overnight raid?  Another royal missive from the same date orders William le Betour, English naval captain, to depart immediately from Hartlepool with the fleet to aid the retaking of the castle.  It now sounds as if Bruce was in possession, fending off the English reinforcements!

There is much argument as to whether Hector Boece, chronicler and principal of Kings College was correct in stating that “in order to leave no place of refuge for the English in Aberdeen, they removed all the fittings and levelled the Castle to the ground”, very shortly after routing the occupying force.  Considering that there is no further mention of Aberdeen Castle or this siege after 1308 in contemporary documents, we can surmise that Edward II, the rather ineffectual son of ‘The Hammer of the Scots’, failed to recover the castle before it was razed to its foundations by Bruce and the citizens of Aberdeen.  By 1313, the younger Edward grudgingly recognises Robert I in official communications, and would be left in no doubt after the decisive victory for the Scots which would follow at Bannockburn.

As to the veracity of our motto’s origin, I offer a personal theory; the soldiers of England were highly-trained knights of Norman descent, thus French would have been their first language.  Even the lowly Anglo-Saxon infantry would have at least recognised the tongue when they heard it.  So for Robert the Bruce to have given his forces such a phrase as the signal to attack that night showed a bit of ingenuity.  Any soldiers on duty who might have heard French spoken would hardly have suspected their local enemies were about to pounce, therefore it must have been a quick and bloody attack.

The real truth of the matter will never be known, as the council records from 1414-30, the time period when the motto was apparently chosen, have been lost.  Legend has taken over and perhaps explains why the name “Castlegate” (i.e. castle-gait, the way to the castle) still endures today.  

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