The History of Leith

October 28, 2010

Leith’s Sea-Dogs: The fighting Bartons Part 1

Barton completely cleared the Scottish coasts of the Dutch ships, and sent to the king a number of barrels full of the heads of the Dutch pirates as a token of the thoroughness with which he had carried out his orders. It was on account of these attacks on the Portuguese
that Robert Barton was arrested and his ship, the Lion, seized by the magistrates of Campvere, in Holland, at the instance of some Portuguese merchants who had been despoiled by the Bartons. He was sentenced to be hung as a pirate if he did not make good their losses ;
but Robin Barton was not to die so ingloriously. James IV. wrote to Margaret of Savoy with all the confidence of one who had no doubt as to the issue, explaining that the attacks against the Portuguese were perfectly legitimate, as they had, been done under letters of marque
given by himself ; and the result was, as James had so confidently anticipated, that Barton and his ship were set free.
This ship of Robert Barton’s would seem to have been the same great war vessel aboard which his gallant brother, Andrew Barton, fought his last fight in August 1511. If this be so, then it shows us, what indeed we know from other sources, that, like the rest of their ships,
the Lion was a joint possession of the Barton family and their friends. Joint-ownership of vessels was the method adopted by shipowners in Leith and other Scottish ports to minimize their losses from the manifold
perils of the sea in mediaeval times, when marine insurance, though common in Italy, the Netherlands, and even in England, was unknown in Scotland. Whether this great ship of the Bartons was a capture from the Portuguese which they renamed the Lion, or whether they had bought her in France or the Netherlands, as was then customary, since shipbuilding had not as yet been an industry in the Port, we have now no means of knowing.
On the capture of the Lion by the Howards the Bartons immediately replaced her by another ship of the same name equally large, for among the warships James IV . sent to help France during the Flodden campaign wiis one named the Lion, under the command of Robert Barton. After his death in 1538 the Lion became the possession of his nephew John, the worthy successor in skill and courage of his famous uncles. That this second Lion was in no way behind her more noted predecessor in size and equipment we learn from the all too brief notice of her untoward fate. ” There is great maine (grief) here,” wrote an English spy from Edinburgh in March 1547, ” for a Scots ship of war, the Lion, wrecked near Dover with eleven score men (that is, fighting men), besides mariners.” We can well believe, as a letter of
James VI.’s to the Kirk Session of South Leith Church tells us, that in those troublous days “poor widows and orphans” of sailormen were always numerous in Leith.
Ever since the marriage of James III. with the saintly Margaret of Denmark there had been a close alliance between Scotland ” and that country which continued to the Union of the Crowns, and led to much
coming and going between Copenhagen and Leith. In 1508 Andrew Barton was sent with ships to assist Denmark in her struggle with the powerful city of Lubeck, the head of the Hanseatic League. But the career of Andrew Barton soon after this came to an end. He had been cruising on the look-out for the richly laden ships of Portugal as they returned from the Indies and the Guinea coast. This capture of Portuguese merchantmen inflicted serious damage on the commerce of London, and the merchants of that city raised a clamour against the interference with their trade.
Henry VIII. had sent no complaint against the brilliant Leith sailorman to the Scottish king.
Evidently he had none to send, for Henry was never slow to air and make the most of a grievance when he had one. Indeed there does not seem to be any act of unlicensed piracy recorded against the Bartons. But that mattered little to the English, who, jealous that Scottish seamen should match, if not even outrival, their mariners
on the sea, determined to effect Barton’s capture. At the earnest request of Sir Thomas and Sir Edward Howard, the latter of whom afterwards perished in such another fight against the French, Henry allowed them to fit out an expedition against Barton, who had with him his great ship, the Lion, and her pinnace, the Jenny Pirwin.
The Howards were piloted by the skipper of a merchant vessel which Barton had plundered the previous day. They came up with him in the Downs. The dread with which the name of the great Leith sailorman
had filled the English seamen is well seen in the reply a sixteenth-century balladist puts into the mouth of this skipper, Henry Hunt, when requested by the Howards to steer their ships to Barton’s haunts :—
” Were ye but twenty ships, and he but one,
I swear by kirk, and bower, and hall,
He would overcome them every one,
If once his beams they do downfall.”
On approaching Barton the English vessels showed neither colours nor ensigns as was the rule with all ships, and especially ships of war even then, but put up willow wands on their masts,
” As merchants use that sayle the sea,”

As the old balladist tells us, but the beams and other contrivances
on Barton’s ship for overwhelming an enemy’s are a pure invention on his part to add to the dramatic effect of his story. Barton, in no way dismayed at the odds against him, boldly engaged the enemy, and with his whistle suspended about his neck by a chain of gold encouraged his men in the desperate conflict
With such opponents as the Howards, Barton well knew that the battle could only end with the death or capture of himself or them.
” Fight on, my men,’ Sir Andrew says,
‘ And never flinch before the foe ;
And stand fast by St. Andrew’s Cross
As long’s you hear my whistle blow.’ ”
By St. Andrew’s Cross he meant the Scottish flag or ensign. Easily distinguished by his rich dress and bright armour, Barton became a special target for his enemies’ marksmen. He was mortally wounded early in the fight, but even then continued to encourage his
men with his whistle as long as life remained to him.
At length his whistle was heard no longer, and, on the Howards boarding his vessel, they found that the gallant Leith captain was slain. Thus died Andrew Barton, the most famous and brilliant sailorman that ever sailed from the Port of Leith in an age when Leith mariners had hardly any rivals, and might with truth be said to have held
” From Noroway’s shores to Cape de Verde,
The mastery of the deep.”
His ship, the Lion, was carried into the Thames, and became, after the Great Harry, the largest man-of-war in the English navy—a remarkable tribute to the Port of Leith and the enterprise of her daring skippers.

source-The Story of Leith

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