The Great Montrose Mourns the King and Anticipates his Own Death

When Montrose, in exile in the Low Countries, heard of the execution of his king, Charles I, his reaction was not one of quiet resignation. Trevor Royle, in his ‘Civil War’, describes it as so: ‘He took to his room for two days and emerged with barbarous and vengeful lines which gave vent to his feelings of personal outrage’ (p554).  Those barbarous and vengeful lines read as so:

 

Great, Good and Just, could I but rate

My Grief and Thy too Rigid Fate!

I’d weep the World in such a Strain,

As it should deluge once again:

But since Thy loud-tongu’d Blood demands Supplies,

More from Briareus’ hands than Argus’ Eyes,

I’ll sing thy dirge with Trumpet-sounds,

And write Thine Epitaph with Blood and Wounds.

 

As Craig Cross helpfully explains, ‘The Great, The Good, The Just’ is Montrose’s epithet for Charles, though many of his compatriots, as shocked as they had been by the King’s execution, would hardly have agreed. Montrose had come out of two days of mourning vengeful and resolute – Charles’ blood is calling for vengeance, the action of the giant Briareus’s hands, not the looking on of the giant Argus Panoptes’ eyes (both are giants from Greek mythology). The dirge, a funeral song, is to be of war trumpets, and the epitaph written with blood and wounds, presumably of Charles’ murderers and enemies. Actually, one could say that Montrose’s own death in his vain attempt at vengeance formed that epitaph…

Montrose was encouraged to raise a rebellion in the north of Scotland while Charles II negotiated with Argyll and the Covenanters in the south. Montrose managed to organize a Royalist expedition from the very north of Scotland, but his army – made up of foreign mercenaries and Orcadian farmhands didn’t stand a chance against the Covenanters who defeated them and marched Montrose to Edinburgh for a public execution. He was hanged and body parts sent around Scotland to be hung from town walls. Before his execution, he wrote the following lines (an ‘airth’ is a direction, point of the compass etc.):

 

Let them bestow on ev’ry Airth a Limb;

Open all my Veins, that I may swim

To Thee, my Saviour, in that Crimson Lake;

Then place my pur-boil’d Head upon a Stake;

Scatter my Ashes, throw them in the Air:

Lord (since Thou know’st where all these Atoms are)

I’m hopeful, once Thou’lt recollect my Dust,

And confident Thou’lt raise me with the Just.

 

Admirably defiant, to the last then. This time posthumously, the Covenanters decided that Montrose had been backing the right horse and, once he had agreed to their terms, backed Charles II (who wasn’t impressed that they’d killed his father’s ally but was hardly in a position to protest). They were soundly beaten by their old ally, Cromwell at Dunbar and Charles II fled abroad again.

Montrose didn’t have to wait for the final judgment for his atoms to be brought back together again. After the restoration his various body parts were gathered together for a state funeral at Holyrood Palace. His head was taken down from the tollbooth in Edinburgh, and replaced with that of his old enemy, Archibald Campbell the Marquess of Argyll.

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Filed under History, Poetry

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