Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Rivals

I actually have a small pile of books sitting on my shelf (all right, one of my shelves) awaiting review on this blog. I have little idea how this has come about. I must have been blogging about something else in the meantime. Wargaming, possibly. Anyway, as I think the books are quite interesting, I shall attempt to work my way through them, while, in the background, terrain construction continues.

Anyway, some of you may remember a while ago I wondered about finding a book about the English Civil Wars written from a Scottish point of view. The inherent paradox in that sentence suggests reasons why historians have, from time to time, attempted to re-name the English Civil Wars to the British Civil wars or The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (and one Principality, of course). Nomenclature aside,  there is not all that much, at least accessible to the average reader without an eye-watering book budget, on the causes, course and consequences of the Wars (call them what you will) in parts of the British Isles other than England.

An honourable exception to this is the current book: The Rivals: Montrose and Argyll and the Struggle for Scotland by Murdo Fraser (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2015). The author is a Conservative Party Member of the Scottish Parliament, and apparently has been since 2001, which at some points during that period must have been a rather lonely existence. Be that as it may, it is a good book.

As the title suggests, the book focusses on the contest between James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, and Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll. They were of similar background and separated by five years in age (Argyll being the older). Their early careers were, in fact, rather similar. They were both Scottish nobles attempting to make their way in the world with the paradox that the seat of Scottish political power was in London with the King and his court.

Both men were supporters of the Scottish kirk and its Presbyterian ways, and both signed the National Covenant, the protest against the imposition of a new Prayer Book on the Scottish Church by Charles I and his government. Argyll was more the political steerer, Montrose the man of action. Montrose dealt with Scottish supporters of the King in the north of Scotland, Argyll pulled the strings in Edinburgh, and the Bishops Wars turned into a military, financial and political fiasco for Charles I.   

The alliance of Argyll and Montrose did not last. The problem was, inevitably, the King. Charles I, whatever his faults, had the ability to inspire loyalty in some of his subjects. This seems to have been in the case of Montrose, simply because he was king. Alongside many others of Charles’ subjects, he simply could not conceive of the king not being kingly, that is, of not having the rights and privileges of being king. This, of course, was, at least partly what the wars were fought over: what exactly did these consist of?

Montrose then, drifted towards the Royalist party while Argyll became the political head of the Scottish ‘rebel’ side. Contacts and apparent shared interests with the English Parliament (such as was left in London) lead, eventually, to the Solemn League and Covenant, the invasion of England by the Scottish army and the defeat of Prince Rupert at Marston Moor in 1644, and the loss of York. Montrose, at about the same time, after a number of abortive attempts, started to win a series of victories over Scottish forces in Scotland itself.

Fraser notes a few things about the campaigns of 1644-5 in Scotland. Firstly, Montrose might have been a good, inspirational commander but his ability to undertake scouting was poor. Three times he was surprised by Government forces. Once he won (Kilsyth – he was lucky), once he drew Fyvie Castle, and once he lost (Philliphaugh). Montrose’s problem, of course, was that he had to keep winning; the war was one of reputation, at least in part.

The second thing Fraser observes is Argyll’s activities during the war. He was accused of cowardice, not least for being half-way down the loch on his boat as his forces went down to defeat at Inverlochy. Fraser thinks that this was probably sensible. Argyll was not a military man particularly, and his forces were led by an experienced solider. Further, he was not terribly well anyway, and, finally, his existence alive as a political operator in Scotland was, probably, much more important than a heroic death against clan rivals.

The machinations of the various sides after the end of the First Civil War are complex enough in England. In Scotland they are even more tortuous. There were various factions, within the Kirk, within government, within defeated Royalist themselves, and that is without taking into consideration the involvement of English and Irish affairs. The point of importance is that the Scottish army was a respectable force which no-one could afford to ignore. An invasion of England from Scotland was a serious matter. The Scots, in general, had experienced officers and that made their forces quite formidable.

In the end Montrose and Argyll are linked by the fact that both were betrayed by Charles II. Montrose launched a rather pointless campaign in 1650 which he knew was hopeless, and which was used by Charles to apply pressure to the Scots. When it inevitably failed and Montrose was captured, execution was inevitable. After the Scots were smashed by the New Model Army, Argyll sort of retired and attempted to rebuild his estates which had been ravaged by the war. After the Restoration he went to London to kiss hands, and was arrested for treason. He faced a lengthy trial in Edinburgh, packed with his enemies. Argyll’s defence was sunk by letters showing that he had informed on Scottish Royalists for the Cromwellian regime. He, too, was executed.

Fraser notes that it is impossible to understand seventeenth century politics without understanding the religion of the people involved. He also notes that the tensions between centralisers and the periphery continue to this day, particularly with reference to Scotland. Montrose, he suggests, saw the King and central government as a bastion against anarchy. Argyll saw central government as potential tyranny. It is always possible that both were right, to some degree.

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