I’m always interested in the comments that readers of the blog leave. Sometimes a post attracts no comments at all, even though quite a few people have looked at it. Sometimes a post gets lots of comments & the comments lead me on to other books. Last week’s Sunday poem was by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. I knew a little bit about him, mostly because I vaguely remembered reading Margaret Irwin’s novel, the Proud Servant, many years ago (It’s now available again as part of the wonderful Bloomsbury Reader publishing initiative). George left a comment recommending John Buchan’s historical novel, Witch Wood, so I’ve downloaded the Canongate edition of that & I also remembered that I had C V Wedgwood’s biography of Montrose on the tbr shelves.
C V Wedgwood is one of my favourite historians. She specialised in the 17th century & her books, The King’s Peace, the King’s War & The Trial of Charles I are the most accessible, beautifully-written accounts of the English Civil War I’ve read. I also have her biography of The Earl of Strafford on the tbr shelves, just waiting for inspiration. I picked up her short (150pp) biography of Montrose & read half of it in one sitting.
James Graham was a golden boy. Born into a wealthy family, he was handsome, charming, privileged but his wealth & advantages hadn’t made him superior or arrogant. His great strength was as a leader of men & it was his personal qualities of honesty & integrity in his dealings with both friends & enemies that made him so loved & admired in his day. Unfortunately he was an honest man in a time of great dissemblers & he gave his loyalty to a man, Charles I, who didn’t keep his side of the bargain.
Charles I was King of Scotland but rarely visited his Northern kingdom. As a consequence, he didn’t know the Scottish nobles &, always lacking in judgement, fell under the influence of the Duke of Hamilton, a wily politician & no friend to Montrose. Montrose’s relationship with Charles never really recovered from the bad impression of him that Charles received from Hamilton. Montrose initially joined the Covenanters in the religious struggles over the use of the Anglican prayer book in Scotland. Basically, Charles wanted the Scots to use the Anglican form of worship & the Presbyterians refused. There were violent scenes in churches as the clergy tried to enforce the new rules & eventually, Charles sent an army north to suppress the rebels. Montrose joined the Covenanting army &, although they were successful in pushing Charles’s army back over the border, Montrose realised that there were plenty of men on his side with no idea of fair play & loyalty to a cause.
Although Montrose had opposed Charles over the Covenant, he was a loyal subject & when the Civil War broke out, was determined to fight for his King. Charles was suspicious & initially reluctant to accept Montrose’s offer of service but was forced to reconsider as his fortunes in Scotland grew more disorganised. The Covenanters, of course, regarded Montrose as a traitor to their cause & were determined to defeat his army & see him dead.
All Montrose’s actions during the Civil War show him to be an exceptional leader, without the need for personal aggrandizement & totally committed to the King’s cause. He raised troops throughout Scotland, relying on the ties of family & kinship to command loyalty as well as his personal qualities. The Covenanting army soon gave chase & Montrose’s troops kept one step ahead through a series of brilliant feints & manoeuvres that kept them one step ahead of the enemy. When they had to turn & fight, Montrose’s grasp of strategy & knowledge of the terrain made him a formidable & almost unbeaten opponent. Time & again Montrose looked to be trapped & he led his men out of danger & turned the tables on his enemy. Unfortunately all this was largely unsupported by Charles who had too many calls on his purse & left Montrose to his own devices.
By 1646 Montrose had won some great victories & was preparing for the spring campaign when he heard that Charles had surrendered to the Scots army that had invaded England. Charles was forced to repudiate Montrose & order him to disband his army. Montrose went into exile where he continued to try to raise money & troops for Charles. He was shocked by the news of Charles’s execution & vowed to revenge the murder, convincing the new king, Charles II, to appoint him Lieutenant-Governor of Scotland. He immediately planned an invasion of Scotland to restore Charles to the throne. Unfortunately the inexperienced young king was indecisive & when he received the Scots ministers, rumours spread that he would abandon Montrose as his father had done. Privately Charles encouraged Montrose but publicly, the Scots declared him a traitor & soon he was on the run. He was captured days later at Ardvreck Castle amid rumours of treachery.
Montrose was brought to Edinburgh where he was sentenced by the Scots parliament to a shameful death – hanged, his head set on the Tolbooth & his quartered body to be set on the town gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth & Aberdeen. For a nobleman, this was a shameful death, but the parliament were determined to destroy his fame & his cause. Montrose’s progress through the streets of Edinburgh became a triumph as the people were impressed by his youth & bearing & maybe ashamed at the shabby treatment he was receiving from their leaders.
C V Wedgwood sums Montrose up so beautifully in the final pages of her biography that I’ll leave you with her words.
His single year of victory earned him a place in local legend, in Gaelic song and Scottish ballad, but it was his death which made him, to all posterity, the Great Marquess; for it was in that last month that the greatness of his nature, responding to the awful challenge, turned the squalid prose of life into a poetic tragedy which few could watch unmoved. It was then that the hero and the poet in him triumphed at once over his weaknesses as a man and the baseness of his enemies. He earned his place in history and legend not for what he did, but for what he was. The quality of the human soul matters more than the political causes for which men fight and die. Good and evil in politics change from age to age but good and evil in themselves are unchanging. The life and character of Montrose, rightly studied, throw a steady shaft of light on this eternal problem.