This is Past Tense, a podcast about history. This season, we’re talking about the British Civil Wars, or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. If this is your first time listening, you’ll want to go back to start at the beginning, because history is full of names and terminology, and the last thing we want is for you to get lost.
Today we’re going to be stepping outside the timeline a bit, for a small bonus episode to talk about some of the key players, before we go back to your regularly scheduled episode next week. One of the things about history is that there are so many people - and so many of them are called Charles or Edward or Thomas, that they all tend to blur into one. So every so often, we’ll take a breather - just like now - and look at some of the main movers and shakers.
This time, we’re going to talk about two men called James. The first one is James Hamilton, the Earl of Hamilton - who doesn’t actually have another surname, as far as I can find, he’s just Hamilton all the way down - and the second is James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose. Both of them were Scotsmen, both of them were Royalists - even though they really didn’t like each other - and the reason I’m bringing them up now is that they were lurking around in the background for all the things that were going on in Episode 3, but they’re both going to get much more important in Episode 4.
Poor old Hamilton gets a raw deal from history. He was born in 1606, and in 1620, when he was fourteen years old, he was summoned from Lanarkshire down to London, where he was introduced to court. If you remember Charles’s trip to Spain to try and convince the Infanta Maria to marry him, Hamilton was one of the attendants on that trip. That’s really where he became friends with Charles. The next year, he became one of Charles’s gentlemen of the bedchamber - which you’ll remember was a big deal for a guy who didn’t like letting everyone and their uncle into his bedroom. He led the Scottish contingent at Charles’s coronation in 1625, spent a couple of years in the early 1630s fighting for the Swedish in the Thirty Years’ War on mainland Europe, and was appointed to the Privy Council in 1633. Shortly after that, he started becoming more involved in affairs directly relating to Scotland - and round about the time we finished Episode 3, as the crisis in Scotland was beginning to kick off, Charles appointed Hamilton as the King’s Commissioner in Scotland, and this is really where we’re going to start to see why he’s not remembered entirely fondly.
History disagrees about Hamilton. Some people say he was a schemer, out for what he could get. Other people say he was completely inept as a politician. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, it’s perfectly possible to be greedy and useless at the same time. But it does raise questions about how deliberate his particular brand of uselessness was. What we can be sure of is that he had a knack for making enemies - up in Scotland, down in England, even with a guy called Thomas Wentworth, who at the time was the Lord Deputy of Ireland - we’ll meet him properly in a couple more weeks. The anti-prayerbook protesters would soon come to be known as the Covenanters, and when they took control of government in Scotland, Hamilton was sent in to negotiate with them. It was a big job, and an extremely difficult one, and he ended up winding everyone up, being completely ignored, and eventually resigning as Commissioner in 1639 to avoid being booed out of Edinburgh.
James Graham, the Marquis of Montrose, has a reputation as a bit of a Byronic hero. If history hasn’t remembered Hamilton fondly, then it absolutely loves Montrose - the number of historians who’ve also noted that he was physically attractive, that he also wrote poetry, that he was comparatively clear about his principles and very dedicated to them. One of my favourite books that I’ve read for this podcast is John Buchan’s biography of him - you’ll probably know John Buchan better as the writer of the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was made into a small parade of films and also a very good stage show, if you ever get the chance to see it. But if I were John Buchan, I’d be a bit disappointed to be mostly remembered for The Thirty-Nine Steps, because he also wrote 28 other novels, he was a historian with more than forty non-fiction books under his belt - oh, and he was also the governor of Canada. I’m not kidding. I’m a bit in awe of John Buchan, but the main thing is, he was also a very good popular historian, and as far as he’s concerned, the sun shone out of Montrose’s posterior. I shan’t lie to you, Montrose was a bit dreamy. I’ll put a picture on the website, in the notes for this episode, so you can see for yourself.
Montrose was six years younger than Hamilton - he was born in 1612, and studied at Glasgow and St Andrews. In 1633, he went abroad to travel around France and Italy for three years, coming home via London, where apparently he got himself on Hamilton’s wrong side, and, consequently on King Charles’s wrong side. He didn’t get a job in the Scottish court, or in the English one. By the time the riots happened in Edinburgh in 1637, Hamilton was doing very well for himself as a Privy Councillor, and Montrose was one of the protesters. A few months later, Montrose would sign the National Covenant, putting him firmly on the opposite side to the King, and the same side as the Earl of Argyll, who probably by this point counts as the de facto leader of the Covenanters. When fighting kicked off in 1639, Hamilton was one of the leaders on the King’s side, and Montrose was still leading an army for the Covenanters. Montrose was by far the better military leader, but by the time Hamilton was being forced to resign because of being so unpopular, Montrose was starting to get cold feet about upending the political order quite so completely, in favour of a religion that he was, increasingly, not entirely sure about. He started arguing with other Covenanter leaders - particularly Argyll, who was very heavily religious. He also started writing to King Charles in secret. Over the next two years, he made a U-turn - he started speaking out on behalf of the king, criticising Argyll, and ended up being imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle in 1641 as basically a traitor to the Covenanters.
It’s a running theme of this series that Charles could make even his best decisions look shockingly bad, and I want to tell you about this one in particular - it gets referred to most often as The Incident - often in quotation marks or italics, but always with a capital I. I love it, it sounds so embarrassing. What happened was that Hamilton tried to quietly reach out to Argyll, the leader of the Covenanters, to see if they could broker some sort of truce, or friendship. This was in 1641; tensions were already extremely high. But when it emerged that Hamilton and Argyll were quietly trying to make friends, Montrose and his friend Lord Ker accused them of treason, and Lord Ker plotted to have Hamilton, Argyll, and Hamilton’s brother the Earl of Lanark secretly kidnapped, put on a boat out of Leith, and quietly disposed of. John Buchan insists that Montrose was completely innocent on account of being locked up in Edinburgh Castle at the time, but you know, who knows. Anyhow, the plot came out, and was terribly shocking, and King Charles had to publicly come out and say that he had no idea whatsoever about the plot and he definitely didn’t endorse it. To be fair, he probably didn’t know, but he protested so hard and theatrically that everyone believed he did - and everyone believed he’d heard about it from Montrose. The relationship between Montrose and Hamilton never really recovered, not that it was terribly good in the first place, and any scant popularity Charles was getting from people who thought the Covenanters were heavy-handed just evaporated on the spot.
Montrose was finally released from Edinburgh castle a month or so later, and would probably have retreated from public life for longer, had the Civil Wars proper not started the very next year. He came out of retirement to lead Charles’s armies in Scotland. Hamilton’s reputation never got to the heights it had been, although he also fought on Charles’s side. And neither man would outlive King Charles by more than eighteen months. Hamilton was beheaded for treason in London in March 1649, barely six weeks after Charles was beheaded, just around the corner. Montrose was hanged on Edinburgh High Street, in May 1650, by the Covenanters he had once helped to lead. For all the similarities and intertwinings of their stories, they never liked each other. I never really tire of hearing about either of them, and you can be sure they’ll pop up in future episodes.
Past Tense is brought to you by Feasibly Productions. It was written by me, Fiona Barnett. The producer is Emily Benita, the sound editor and technical producer is Ali Alnajjar, the historical consultant is Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and composed by Harry Harris. A bibliography for every episode, including all the little bonus ones like this one, is available at pasttensepod.com. If you have a moment to spare, please do review us on iTunes or wherever you found us - it helps activate the search engine wizardry that means that people who like history can find this podcast. You can also, if you’re really feeling like an overachiever, drop a few coins in our tip jar at patreon.com/pasttensepod. And if you’d like to say hello to us, please do - you can find us on Facebook and Twitter under the handle @pasttensepod. I’ll be back next week with your regularly scheduled full-size podcast. So see you then.