The Young Montrose by Nigel Tranter

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There are a lot of novels about the English Civil War, but very few about the other elements of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”. Maybe the Bishops’ Wars and the civil war in Scotland have got an image problem. They don’t really fit into the Whig “1066 and all that” view of history, nor do they fit into the romantic Highland history image in the way that the Jacobite rebellions do. Also, it gets rather confusing when major figures change sides, which is what the Marquis of Montrose does – first he’s the leader of the Covenanters, then he’s the leader of the Scottish Royalists. And the whole thing’s messy enough in England. The king is prevented from becoming some sort of despot. This is good. Despots are what they had in places like France and Spain: we don’t do that here. Hurrah! Except that then Cromwell chops the king’s head off, and, following that, tries to turn the country into a theocracy, taking old men who won’t say their prayers by their left legs and throwing them down the stairs, banning mince pies and saying that you can’t play football on Sundays. And massacring people in Ireland. This is clearly not good. All rather head-scratching.

And it’s worse in Scotland. Jenny Geddes chucking her stool about in Edinburgh Cathedral makes an entertaining story, but the militant Covenanters are quite frightening. And then you get the Covenanters supporting Charles II against Cromwell and the Puritans, which always seems so totally arse-about-face. Very confusing.

All right, I’ll be serious now. To get back to the original point, there aren’t a lot of novels about this period in Scottish history. Most of the focus is on England. It was back then as well, and that was a big part of the problem. The Stewarts/Stuarts had been on the throne of Scotland for centuries, and then, come the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, they took themselves off to London as fast as their legs (or horses) could carry them. James I and VI managed the situation relatively well, but Charles I made a mess of it. Of all the reasons given for the English Civil War, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms generally, surely the main one has to be that Charles was such a prize idiot! He badly mismanaged the situation in both England and Scotland, and Ireland as well, and contrived to offend just about everyone.   Ruling without Parliament. Monopolies. Ship money. And, the issue which kicked things off in Scotland, unwanted religious reforms.

I don’t know who edited this book, but “Arminians” were referred all the way through it as “Armenians”! It sounded as if Charles I and William Laud were trying to turn the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland into a branch of Oriental Orthodoxy, which really would have been interesting. Oh well. Anyway, the so-called Bishops’ Wars broke out in Scotland, with Montrose as the leader of the Covenanters. Then, because the militant, extremist Covenanters were so frightening, Montrose ended up as leader of the Royalists.

What a horrible choice! A very silly monarch who’d put everyone’s backs up and offended nearly everyone’s ideas of what was important, or a bunch of religious extremists. Anyway, he took the Royalist side, and, as a soldier, he did an excellent job … but the war was bloody and brutal, and, as we all know, the Royalists were doomed to defeat.

Montrose eventually met a sticky end at the hands of Cromwell, but this book doesn’t go that far. What it does is present an important reminder of the fact that, for over a century, England and Scotland were part of a personal union but not an official political union, and an interesting picture of a man caught up in an impossible set of circumstances, who tried to do his best in what was really a no-win situation. It’s all very sad, really. The seventeenth century in British history was one great big mess. It’s supposed to be the defining time in British history, but it can’t have been very much fun for the people who lived through it.

 

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