ROBERT was utterly exhausted as he approached the bridge over the Tyne at East Linton, and no wonder.

He had left Richmond Palace, in London, less than 48 hours before. He’d ridden hundreds of miles, forcing his horses to gallop like the wind, in order to reach Edinburgh and deliver a “blue ring”.

The year was 1603, and in those days the journey from London to Edinburgh would normally take many days – even a week. But Robert had already covered most of the distance in little more than two days.

He was now having to travel slower because he’d just had an accident.

It was March, and the weather was as much a challenge as the distance. The road was barely a road in some places, more like a slippery, muddy path mixed with melting snow and patches of ice. His face and hands were red with the cold, his fingers numb even under his gloves.

No wonder he’d lost his grip and fallen as his horse stumbled. As he fell, the poor overworked animal was startled and gave him a heavy kick on his head. It nearly knocked Robert out but he managed to pull himself up from the mud and settle the horse.

East Lothian Courier: James I of England, also James VI of Scotland ruled over a United Kingdom. This portrait of him hangs in the Long Gallery at KiplinJames I of England, also James VI of Scotland ruled over a United Kingdom. This portrait of him hangs in the Long Gallery at Kiplin

The head wound was severe. Blood, mixed with mud, smeared his face, and the pain told him he must now ride at a softer pace, much to the horse’s relief, as the poor creature had been forced to gallop at breakneck speed. Now Robert kept it at a canter, nursing his throbbing and still bleeding head.

Such was his state when he reached East Linton. But by this stage he knew he was on the last leg of his frantic and epic journey. He was desperate to reach Edinburgh in time to deliver the ring to the King before he went to bed. He believed his future prosperity depended on being the first to deliver the news it represented.

Robert Carey was an English nobleman and member of Elizabeth I’s royal court. His father was a cousin of the Queen’s, in whose favour he had found much success and advancement.

But in March 1603 Elizabeth was dying. A deep depression and physical deterioration meant it was clear she was not long for this world. Robert was worried that, after the Queen’s death, his influence and status would end. So his journey with the “blue ring” was part of his plan to curry favour with James VI of Scotland, who would be the new monarch of England.

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The story goes that the sapphire ring was given to Elizabeth by James VI, and that, when she died, a lady-in-waiting called Philadelphia, who was Robert’s sister, pulled the ring from Elizabeth’s dead finger, then went to the window and threw it to her brother, who was waiting in the courtyard below.

Having possession of the treasured ring that had been on the Queen’s finger was evidence of her death, and Robert was determined to honour a promise to James that he’d be the first to bring this news.

He’d already laid plans for his journey by ensuring a relay of horses was ready all along the Great North Road.

The Queen died in the early hours of March 24 1603, and Robert set off on his marathon at around 9am that day.

By the evening of the 26th he had reached Haddington, and soon saw the darkened silhouette of Arthur’s Seat in the moonlit sky.

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He was nearly at his destination – but would he make it before the King retired to bed?

When he finally arrived at Holyrood Palace, he was dispirited when he was told the King had retired for the night.

However, he persuaded the courtiers that his message was of earth-shattering importance and that the King should be woken.

I suspect his physical state of exhaustion, with a blood-spattered wound on his head and mud-covered attire, helped persuade them that his news must indeed be serious.

So Robert was taken to the King’s chamber, where he knelt before the monarch, saluting him as the “King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland”.

This was the news James had waited all his life to hear. But he wanted confirmation that Elizabeth was really dead, and asked for the formal letter from England’s privy council.

Robert did not have it, as he’d set off without their formal agreement. But he had a different kind of evidence. “Here, Your Majesty, a blue ring from a fair lady is the proof.”

James looked at the ring and a huge smile came over his face.

“It is enough,” said the King. “I know by this you are a true messenger.”

James was thankful to Robert for his mission to bring the good news, and promised he would be well rewarded with position and status.

But as soon as James reached London, the political knives were out for Robert and so he was demoted.

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Even still, it wasn’t that bad. He was given a role in governing the household of Charles, the future King, and became an earl. So it seems his mad dash with the “blue ring” did pay off.

There are different versions of this tale but I’d like to keep the last word for the horses.

How many of them were broken by Robert’s 350-mile ride, which was done in around 60 hours?

It was the horses’ achievement as much as Robert’s, although history gives them no credit.

We know nothing of what happened to them after this feat or if they even survived the ordeal.

I’ve often wondered if that kick to the head was really an accident by the horse. I suspect it was deliberate, as the horse must have known Robert had no care for its welfare or life.

If it was deliberate, Robert certainly deserved it. Well done that horse – that’s the part of this story I like best!