Monday, May 11, 2020

The gallant turncoat - or how a Covenanter became a Royalist

by Anna Belfrage

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
Chances are that if the subject of gallant soldiers during the English – British – Civil War comes up, Prince Rupert of the Rhine gets all the votes. Personally, I am not all that fond of Rupert, however brave and committed he was to Charles I’s cause. I dare say it may be a contrary streak in me – or, alternatively, it is because my heart fixed at a very early age on another of the royalist heroes, namely James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, who is often referred to as The Great Montrose.

Little James was the last – and only son – of the six children born to his parents. He lost his mother when he was still a small child, and in 1626 his father, John Graham, also died, leaving fourteen-year-old James as Earl of Montrose.

James was the chief of the Clan Graham, and he was destined to be an influential man in Scotland. By the mid-1630s, James was looking forward to an ordered life, enlivened by the odd heated debate in Scottish parliament. Plenty of time for his growing family and for his more romantic hobbies, such as writing poetry. Not to be – and all because of the mounting tension between Charles I, King of England, Ireland and Scotland, and his subjects.

There were various reasons for the strained relationship between Charles I and his people. First and foremost, Charles was a firm believer in Divine Right, as per which he ruled by the will of God, and was only accountable to God – definitely not to Parliament. Secondly, Charles perceived himself entrusted with the spiritual well-being of his subjects – which included a major say in how his people worshipped. Thirdly, Charles was a firm believer in hierarchical power constructions – at least within the church – so he advocated a church ruled by bishops (and himself, seeing as Charles was the Head of the Anglican Church).

In Scotland, none of this went down well. Specifically, the powerful Presbyterian Scottish Kirk growled in warning. In Scotland, the Kirk was ruled by the General Assembly, had no time for such fripperies as bishops, and as to the ridiculous notion of having the king as some sort of head of church…No: absolutely not.

Things might never have come to a head had not Charles I been advised by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and deeply distrustful of Calvinism in all its forms – which included the Scottish Kirk. Laud recommended that Charles play hardball, insisting the Anglican Church had to take precedence.

Charles was no fool – far from it – and recognised that imposing the Anglican Church in one fell swoop on the Scots would not go down well. Instead, he aimed for a compromise, an attempt to create a cohesive approach to religion, which is why he presented his subjects with a Common Book of Prayer, a little writ based on Anglican rites and prayers.

To the Scots belonging to the Kirk, Anglicans were borderline papists. To the Scottish Highlanders who clung to the Catholic faith, the Anglicans were as horribly Protestant as the Lowland Presbyterians – with the added disadvantage of being English. In brief, no one in Scotland wanted the Common Book of Prayer, and when Charles tried to enforce its use, hell broke loose.

(c) City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.
The Signing of the National Covenant
This, very briefly, is the background to the National Covenant, a document drawn up in 1638 by the Scots which subtly told Charles I to back off when it came to matters of religion – or face the consequences. (For more detail, see this post)  Charles was not good at compromising – comes with the territory when you believe you rule by God’s decree – and soon enough he had a war on his hands, as more or less every adult male in Lowland Scotland signed their name to the Covenant, including the majority of the Scottish nobility.

One of the signatories was Montrose, not because he was a fervent Presbyterian, but because he disliked the fact that Charles had decided to promote politically powerful bishops in Scotland. As far as Montrose was concerned, temporal power was best left in the hands of the Scottish Parliament and the king.

Another of the signatories was a certain Archibald Campbell, future Earl of Argyll. Just like Montrose, Argyll was far from being a rabid Presbyterian – but like Montrose he was a firm believer in Scotland being separate from England in all matters, including religion. Very little other than this conviction united these two men. Where Montrose was tall, dashing and charming, Argyll was neither dashing nor tall – or much inclined to ooze charm. But Argyll was rich – very rich – and as the chief of the Clan Campbell he was a force to be reckoned with – far more powerful than Montrose.

Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll
Argyll had not had an easy start in life. His mother died young, his father remarried a Catholic lady and decided this new love of his life was far more important than his son and heir, so he converted to the papist faith and departed for Spain and the 17th century version of the Costa del Sol. (Not really: Archibald Campbell senior took service with Felipe III of Spain) Little Archie was left quite abandoned in Scotland, albeit with a guardian to keep an eye on him. His father made over the estates and titles to his son, but granted himself a hefty annual income, which caused considerable strain on the Argyll finances. Once little Archie came into his own (Papa died in 1638) he had his work cut out for him in repairing the damage done to his wealth – and to his family name, what with his father defecting to the papists.

Anyway: the whole debacle surrounding the Common Book of Prayer resulted in war, with Montrose capably leading the Covenanter armies against Charles I. At the time, things were pretty straightforward for Montrose: he was defending his country and its unassailable rights against a king who tried to impose foreign practices.

While Montrose was off fighting, Argyll was busy constructing a Presbyterian powerbase. Soon enough, the previously so united Covenanters were divided into a faction that demanded Scotland be ruled by the Kirk and the estates, and a more moderate faction who sought some sort of compromise with the king. As the Bishops’ War progressed, Montrose moved towards the Royalist party, torn between loyalty to his country and to his king. Truth be told, he was having second thoughts about the whole Covenanter thing, concerned that too much power was ending up in the hands of the Kirk and men of a most Puritanical bend. Men like Argyll. By now, the temperamental differences between the two men had hardened into personal dislike.

By Divine Right - Charles I
The First Bishops’ War was concluded by the Treaty of Berwick in 1639, at which Charles was obliged to grant major concessions to the Covenanters. Charles, however, had no intention to bide by the terms, and instead planned an invasion of Scotland. Montrose was caught between a rock and a hard place: betray his country or his king? In the event, his loyalty to Scotland won out, and accordingly he was instrumental in leading the troops that yet again defeated Charles.

In 1641, Charles decided to visit Scotland –  a belated attempt to smooth things over, perhaps? Montrose decided to take the opportunity of ridding Scotland of Argyll, whom he considered dangerously radical and far too powerful. Montrose planned to accuse Argyll of treason before Parliament, but Argyll found out and disarmed the plot by arresting Montrose. Obviously, the two men detested each other, and things weren’t exactly improved when Montrose was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Scotland by Charles in 1644.

By this point, England had for some years been embroiled in the Civil War, which spilled over into Scotland. Montrose led the Royalist forces, David Leslie and Argyll headed the Covenanters, now allied with the Parliamentarian and Puritan factions in England.  Montrose called out the Highlanders who had little love for the Covenanters and augmented his forces with 2 000 well-trained Irish infantrymen. Over the coming year, he led his men to one victory after the other.

Mind you, not everything Montrose did was brilliant and honourable, as demonstrated by the atrocities unleashed on Aberdeen in the autumn of 1644. The little town had refused to yield when Montrose asked them to, and when one of the drummer boys accompanying the heralds was shot by a member of the Covenanter garrison, Montrose swore revenge. So when Aberdeen fell, Montrose allowed his soldiers to go on a murderous spree through the town, doing nothing to contain his men as they ravaged and raped, pillaged and killed.

At Inverlochy, Montrose destroyed Argyll’s beloved Campbell clansmen and went on to defeat the Covenanter army on several occasions before crowning his efforts by the victory at Kilsyth in August of 1645. Montrose was now effectively in control of all of Scotland, Argyll and his companions forced to flee before his victorious army. It was time, in Montrose’s opinion, to proclaim Charles I as the true ruler of Scotland.

Unfortunately for Montrose, the Royalist faction in England suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Naseby earlier in 1645. So instead of basking in the glory of his victories, Montrose was obliged to hasten to Charles’ aid, with David Leslie and the Covenanter Army in hot pursuit. The Highlanders deserted en masse, so it was with a substantially reduced force that Montrose faced Leslie at the battle of Philiphaug in September of 1645. What followed was a rout and a massacre, with the grim Covenanters exacting revenge on the defeated Irishmen for Aberdeen. A distraught Montrose escaped, riding for the protective wilderness of the Highlands.

In 1646, Montrose was ordered to lay down arms by the captured Charles I. He did so reluctantly and went into exile, but being a restless sort, he could not stay away – especially not after hearing Charles I had been executed. He offered his services to the young Charles II, was restored to the post of Lord Lieutenant of Scotland, and began to plan his return. In 1650 Montrose landed in Scotland to raise an army on behalf of Charles II, but the clans did not rally, and at the battle of Carbisdale Montrose was yet again defeated and forced to flee. He sought protection from a certain Neal MacLeod, who happily turned him over to the Covenanter regime and claimed the promised reward, which was why Montrose found himself transported towards Edinburgh as a prisoner.

Charles II was quick to wash his hands of Montrose, eager to comply with the terms dictated by Argyll to recognise him as king, and so a gleeful Argyll was in a position to accuse the valiant and loyal Montrose of treason. The sentence, of course, was a foregone conclusion. It is said that as Montrose was paraded through the streets of Edinburgh, the crowds stood in respectful silence. Likewise, it is said that at some point the cart on which Montrose was seated passed beneath Argyll’s window. For an instant, their eyes met, after which Montrose went on to pass his last night on earth at the Tolbooth.

On 21 May of 1650, Montrose met his end with style. Dressed in scarlet and lace, with beribboned shoes, white gloves and stockings, he was taken to the thirty-foot high gallows. He had been forbidden the right to address the crowd, and instead he was bundled up the ladder, had the noose placed round his neck and was shoved off by the weeping hangman.  Once hanged, he was quartered, his head affixed on a spike and his torso buried in unconsecrated ground.

Montrose's tomb (photo Kim Traynor)
Over a decade later, a restored Charles II attempted to make amends for his betrayal by arranging for a magnificent state burial, at which Montrose’s various body parts were brought together and interred in St Giles. Too little, too late, in my opinion, but today, Montrose’s remains rest in the northern aisle of the cathedral. Ironically, more or less opposite, along the southern aisle, is a monument to Montrose’s nemesis, Argyll, who was to follow Montrose onto the gallows a decade or so later. Fittingly, Montrose himself has written the verse that adorns his grave:

Scatter my ashes, strow them in the air
Lord, since thou knowest where all these atoms are,
I’m hopeful Thou’lt recover once my dust
And confident Thou’lt raise me with the just

(All images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain unless otherwise indicated)

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published June 23, 2016.


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England. She has recently released A Flame through Eternity, the third in a new series, The Wanderer, a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense with paranormal and time-slip ingredients.

At present, Anna is working on a new medieval series in which Edward I features prominently as well as a book set in 1715 where magic lockets and Jacobite rebels add quite the twist.

Find Anna:


BUYLINK A Rip in the Veil:


  1. I suspect my friend Anna knows I am in love with Montrose. Her post sets it out rather well. Ihad never heard of him until I dedicaed my novel about Kirkcaldy to Scotsman Iain Grimston, who thanked me for referring him to Kirkcaldy with the retort that his hero was Montrose,who soon was mine.

  2. Wonderful post about my lifelong hero - I first discovered him in a couple of books by Margaret Irwin and loved him ever since.
    If I ever have a decision to make, I always remember his lines:

    He either fears his fate too much,
    Or his deserts are small,
    That dares not put it to the touch
    To gain or lose it all.

    Quite appropriate for today!
    Thank you for reminding me.

  3. John Buchan stated that Montrose's heart was kept by his family in a casket made from his sword. It was lost somewhere in France in the 19th century. I sometimes wonder if an object resembling a rusty darning egg languishes in a junk shop somewhere. What a find it would be!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.