William Wallace and ‘The Flying Spur’ plaque in Southwood Lane, Highgate

In Memory of Malcolm Stokes, long standing and much-valued member of the HHS Publications Committee, who passed away on 19th July. Malcolm lived at Southwood Park, on the site of Southwood Court, where the William Wallace plaque can still be seen in the boundary wall on Southwood Lane. Our condolences to Isobel, his widow.

There is an episode linking Highgate with the escape of Robert the Bruce following the execution of William Wallace, the Scottish Patriot, at Smithfield in 1305. The facts of this episode are well chronicled and are recounted by JH Lloyd, A History of Highgate, 1888, and by others, as recounted below.

When the mansion known as Southwood Court was erected in Southwood Lane during the 19th century, high in the main chimney stack on the North face of the mansion was a curved stone plaque depicting a winged spur.

'The Flying Spur' plaque
‘The Flying Spur’ plaque

Having been born, and for many years resident within a few yards of Southwood Court, owned by Viscount Southwood of Fernhurst, I became very familiar with this plaque. Some 40 years ago, during a visit to my neighbour, Viscount Southwood confirmed the significance of the carving, expressing his belief that the emblem had been hewn out of a stone from the ruins of the Bishop’s Lodge – although it was not clear whether such a stone had been gleaned from Hornsey Parish Church tower or from some other unrecorded source.

Following the death of Lord Southwood nearly twenty years ago, the Southwood Court Estate was sold to developers and later, when I observed that the mansion was in an advanced state of demolition and feared that the carving might fall with the rubble and be lost forever, I paid a hurried personal call to the Borough Surveyor’s office and drew attention to its presence and historic interest. Happily, as a result, the plaque was preserved and subsequently installed breast high in the Southwood Lane boundary wall of the former estate – where it remains as a reminder of the events of 1305.

'The Flying Spur' plaque in the boundary wall of the former Southwood Court
‘The Flying Spur’ plaque in the boundary wall of the former Southwood Court

‘The Flying Spur’ – The Story

William Wallace, the Scottish Patriot, having been executed at Smithfield on 23 August 1305, his remains were secretly removed to the chapel of the Bishop of London’s Lodge at Highgate, then in the occupation of Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester, Edward I’s son-in-law, to await the opportunity of removal to Scotland.

Robert Bruce, one of the four Regents ruling under John de Baliol, King of Scots (c.1249-1314), in London at the time to advise the King on the settlement of the Government of Scotland, fell under suspicion of treachery and withdrew from Court disguised as a Carmelite Friar, also going to the Bishop’s Lodge at Highgate.

The King (Edward I) received information as to Bruce’s whereabouts in a letter read aloud in the presence of the Earl of Gloucester, a warm friend of both the Scottish Patriots. The King became suspicious of Gloucester and ordered him to remain in the audience chamber under surveillance of the Marshal. Gloucester, thus unable to write to, or even to whisper a warning message for Bruce, turned to Lord Montgomery, newly returned from a mission to Spain. Montgomery, horrified at the fate of Wallace and himself intending that evening to accompany Gloucester to Highgate to pledge friendship for Bruce, was the only other person in the audience chamber sharing Bruce’s secret with the King’s son-in-law.

The Earl took off one of his spurs, tying to it a feather, and drawing out a purse of gold, handed them to Lord Montgomery ‘with an easy air’, bidding him to hand them to the groom ‘of whom we spoke’ at ‘my Lodge in Highgate’ as ‘he would know what use to make of them’. Montgomery went at once to the Bishop’s Lodge and, the ground being wet and soft, he reversed the shoes of the spare horse which he had brought for Bruce’s escape. Bruce thus left the Lodge on the horse and had hardly gained the cover of the nearby woods before the King’s troops crossed the surrounding Park, with the intention of capturing him.

Image credits

Courtesy of Janet Owen

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