The Great Montrose – To His Mistress

James Graham, the Marquess of Montrose, ‘the Great Montrose’, or just Montrose, was one of the great Scottish warriors of the tumultuous decades of war in the British Isles in the mid 17th Century – the Bishops’ War in Scotland, in which he fought with the Covenanters against Charles I’s troops to stop the Book of Common Prayer being imposed on the Scottish Kirk, then with distinction in the first and third English Civil Wars for his King and against many of his own countrymen and co-religionists. As a Scot and a Presbyterian, Montrose’s decision to fight for Charles seems odd on the face of it. Most Scottish Presbyterians (including his ancestral enemies the Campbells –) fought on the parliamentarian side, seeing their interests lie with the Presbyterians and independents in the English parliament. Montrose helpfully explained his reasons for backing the Cavaliers in his poem ‘To His Mistress’, the mistress in question being a personification of the state or government of Britain, Scotland in particular…

 To His Mistress

My dear and only Love, I pray

That little world of thee

Be govern’d by no other sway

Than purest monarchy;

For if confusion have a part

(Which virtuous souls abhor),

And hold a synod in thine heart,

I’ll never love thee more.

Like Alexander I will reign,

And I will reign alone;

My thoughts did evermore disdain

A rival on my throne.

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.

And in the empire of thine heart,

Where I should solely be,

If others do pretend a part

Or dare to vie with me,

Or if Committees thou erect,

And go on such a score,

I’ll laugh and sing at thy neglect,

And never love thee more.

But if thou wilt prove faithful then,

And constant of thy word,

I’ll make thee glorious by my pen

And famous by my sword;

I’ll serve thee in such noble ways

Was never heard before;

I’ll crown and deck thee all with bays,

And love thee more and more.

Montrose’s poem is full of noble and haughty sentiments. His patriotism is qualified by his abhorance of certain kinds of governance, both religious and secular – namely the hated synods and committees that deign to tell the monarch how to rule his country. Montrose believed that the King should have absolute power in his sphere (though not to impose Anglicanism in Scotland), and the Presbyterian hierarchy freedom to run its own affairs (though not to interfere in civil government).

As well as being a decent poet, Montrose was a great military leader. He did indeed achieve some of the glories for the King’s cause as he promised in the last stanza. By 1645, with the help of the Highlanders and a force of Irish royalists, he had managed to outfight his former allies the Covenanters and had been made by the King the lord-lieutenant and captain-general of Scotland. His supremacy was short-lived. Charles was decisively beaten by the Roundheads at Naseby, and the best of the Scottish generals, Leslie was dispatched against Montrose’s forces in the Scottish Lowlands. Much of Montrose’s Highlanders didn’t fancy sticking around in the Lowlands and the Royalists were roundly beaten in Scotland too.

Montrose fled to Norway, and the pro-parliament Presbyterians held sway in Scotland – only to decide that Montrose had been right all along and plump, disastrously, for the King in the Second English Civil War. Montrose, for his part, rose to fight another day for the Royalist cause in the Third Civil War, and, since he wrote some memorable lines on the occasion, that will be the subject of my next post.


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Filed under History, Poetry

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