Last Updated on December 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011
Sir Walter Scott’s second major work, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, is a narrative poem concerning the events of the Battle of Flodden, fought between England and Scotland in 1513. The poem, published in 1808, is divided into six cantos, each of which begins with an introductory dedication to one of Scott’s friends before proceeding with Marmion’s tale.
The narrative begins with Lord Marmion’s arrival at the castle of Sir Hugh the Heron, a Scottish lord. Marmion has been sent as an emissary by King Henry VIII of England to King James IV of Scotland; he hopes to persuade King James to call off his plans for raids in the Border country. Marmion has come to Sir Hugh to request a guide for his journey through Scotland; a palmer (that is, a religious pilgrim) is sent to accompany him.
Far away from Marmion and Sir Hugh, an abbess and several nuns are sailing to “St. Cuthbert’s holy isle.” One of the nuns on the ship, Clara de Clare (who is often referred to as “Clare” throughout the poem), became a nun after the death of her betrothed in order to avoid marriage to another man who loved her only for her inheritance. The abbess is traveling for an inquisition of two prisoners on the ship with them; one is a murderer, and the other is a former nun named Constance de Beverley. Constance is to be executed for breaking her vows and leaving her convent, but before her death, she tells her story.
Constance left the convent to follow a “traitor” whom she was in love with: this man is Lord Marmion. In spite of his “vows” to Constance, Marmion fell in love with Clara de Clare because of her beauty and inheritance. To win Clara for himself, Marmion accused Ralph de Wilton, Clara’s fiancé, of treason against the king of England. De Wilton attempted to defend his honor by dueling Marmion, but he ultimately “found overthrow or death, / Beneath a traitor’s spear.” At this point, Clara fled to the convent, though the king of England promised that Marmion would have her. While telling this story, Constance produces documents proving Marmion’s guilt and de Wilton’s innocence. Constance is executed after finishing her tale.
Meanwhile, Marmion and the palmer continue their journey in Scotland. They stop at an inn one night, and Marmion passes the evening in merriment until his squire sings a song that reminds him of Constance and causes him to feel guilty for abandoning her. Marmion attempts to assuage his guilt and convince himself that Constance is safe, but toward the end of the song, he thinks he hears a “death-peal” ringing—such as those that are rung in nunneries to signal the death of a nun.
That night, Marmion is unable to sleep, so he embarks on a nighttime ride; when he returns, Marmion’s squire notes that he has rushed back to the inn “at utmost speed” and appears to have fallen. In a later conversation with Sir David Lindesay, his escort to King James’s court, Marmion reveals that during this ride, he encountered someone he thought had “long been dead.” When Marmion fell to the ground, this man had the chance to attack him—but after a moment, he “plunged [his sword] in the sheath” and “vanish[ed]” instead.
Marmion meets with King James, who refuses to call off his battle plans and puts Marmion and his men under the care of Douglas, Earl of Angus. The abbess and her nuns—including Clara—are also under Douglas’s care, as their ship was captured by the Scots that morning. The abbess fears for both Clara’s safety and her own when she learns that they are to be escorted back to England by Marmion, so she speaks with the palmer in secret and recounts the story of Marmion’s lies and Clara’s suffering. She gives the palmer Constance’s papers, which are letters that Constance had forged for Marmion implicating de Wilton, and implores him to take the forgeries to the king to absolve de Wilton and protect Clara.
When Marmion learns that Clara is among the nuns, he separates her from the group to “repair” her to her “good kinsman, Lord Fitz-Clare.” He brings Clara with him to Douglas’s castle. There, Clara meets de Wilton—who reveals that he has been disguising himself as a palmer and acting as Marmion’s guide during their time in Scotland. While everyone thought he had died during his duel with Marmion, a friend tended to his wounds, and de Wilton recovered. This friend, having observed de Wilton’s broodings on revenge, made him promise to never kill his “deadliest enemy” even if he had the chance. It was de Wilton who met Marmion during Marmion’s nighttime ride at the inn, and it is because of his promise to his friend that de Wilton spared Marmion. De Wilton informs Clara that he has revealed his identity and told his story to Douglas, who soon reinstates him as a knight.
Marmion and de Wilton both fight for England in the Battle of Flodden. Marmion is badly wounded, and Clara takes pity on him and tends to him as he dies. In his last moments, Marmion appears penitent: he expresses concern for Constance and is outraged when he learns of her death. “Marmion” is buried in an extravagantly decorated tomb; however, it is not his body that lies there, for his body has been confused with that of a peasant who died near him. The real Marmion is buried in an unmarked grave near the place of his death.
In the end, the narrator describes Marmion as “noble” and instructs that any reader who has left “the right path for the wrong” in temptation should not pronounce judgment on him. De Wilton fights honorably and courageously in the Battle of Flodden and recovers his honor and property. He reunites with Clara, and the two are happily married.
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