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Memoirs and Adventures of Sir John Hepburn
Chapter I. The Hepburns of Athelstaneford


The removal of James VI. and his court to London, and the long peace enjoyed by Scotland during his reign, occasioned a great scarcity of military employment at home, and compelled vast numbers of those brave spirits, whose swords would otherwise have been drawn against their old hereditary foe, to seek fame and fortune under the banners of the various princes who were warring for supremacy in the great religious struggle which then convulsed Europe — the long and desperate contest between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Among these adventurers, the most eminent for his chivalry and gallantry, his accomplishments as a gentleman, his personal prowess and intrepidity as a soldier, for possessing a calm command of his passions, the power of consulting his own mind, and acting with due decision in the midst of great and sudden danger, was John Hepburn, a Scottish soldier of fortune, whose name every historian of his time has recorded with honour.

Descended from a long line of illustrious ancestors, the Hepburns of Hailes and Bothwell, (who deduced their blood from Sir Adam Hepburn, a distinguished warrior under Robert Bruce, from whom he obtained the lands of North Hailes and Traprene,) he was the second son of George Hepburn of Athelstaneford, a small property in East Lothian, which was held feudally of their kinsmen, the Hepburns of Waughton.

The earliest notice of his family occurs on the 24th November 1569, when George Hepburn of Athelstaneford was cited before an assize, for slaying "vmq le Johnne Geddes, and hurting and wounding diverse vtheris,” while besieging the Place and Fortalice of Waughton, in January of that year, the said slaughter having been committed by his son Andrew. Nearly all of his sirname in Haddingtonshire were concerned in this tumult, under Robert Hepburn, younger of Waughton, who was endeavouring to recapture his ancestral house from the kingsmen; and broke into the barbican, from the stables of which he took sixteen steeds; but the Laird of Carmichael, captain of the Tower, sallied forth sword in hand, slew three of the assailants, and drove off the rest. Lord Hunsdon, governor of Berwick, in writing from that place to Cecil, says, he was "advertised that the Hepburns and Hamiltons were besieging Waughton, and that the Lord Home was going with all his forces to rescue it.”

George Hepburn was also acquitted of intercommuning with Harry Hepburn of Fortune and Patrick Hepburn of Kirklandhill, then denounced as rebels and traitors, for being, like himself, adherents of their lord and chief, the outlawed Bothwell, duke of Orkney. He was also found innocent of the charge of slaying three of the king’s soldiers at the battle of Langside, where, in the preceding year, he had fought under the banner of Queen Mary.

George Hepburn had five sons (including the Marshal) and several daughters, whose names there are now no means of ascertaining. He died before 1616, as in that year his eldest son, also named George Hepburn, was retoured in the lands of Athelstaneford.

Two years afterwards, Isabella "sorori germane quond. Georgij Hepburne portionerij de Ethilstanefurd,” obtained a gift of the Abbeymill of Haddington.

Their kinsmen, the Hepburns of Waughton, since the days of the Earl of Bothwell, had been under ban by the government for various causes; and at the time when John Hepburn left his home for the camp, his uncle, the knight, was at feud with Douglas, the powerful baron of Whittinghame, a strong castle in the same county.

“Good honest Johnne,” says the Earl of Mar, in a quaint letter to his friend Murray, a courtier of James VI., “I haive vryttin this letter vnto zou, in regaird of the present straitt of our freind, the laird of Vachtune stands, for he is so huntitt be the laird of Quhittingham, as their is no mesur in itt.”

John Hepburn was born about the year 1598 or 1600, at his father’s house, which is still standing in Athelstaneford, and by the old inhabitants of that sequestered district is pointed out to strangers as the birthplace of a marshal of France, for that is remembered, though his name is forgotten there now. It is a plain old edifice, situated at the east end of the village burying-ground, and not many yards from the foundation of a ruined church, which belonged to the Franciscans of Haddington.

This ancient mansion, the old steps of which young Hepburn helped to hollow, stands about a hundred paces back from the main-street of the hamlet, and is principally distinguished by a great projecting chimney, or ingle lum. It consists of two stories, and occupies a prominent situation on rising ground, overlooking a fertile district, with the Peffer wandering through it to the German sea, which is visible in the distance; the cone of Berwick Law rises on the north-east, and the rocky hills of Dirleton start up abruptly on the west. Before it lie the deep hollow and the ford, where the Scots defeated and slew Athelstan, the Saxon king; and near it is the village kirk, with a few old moss-grown trees, where the gled and the crow build their nests.

Young Hepburn is said to have been tall, active, powerful, and handsome in figure and face. His manner and bearing, when clad in the rich half-armour of the period, were deemed eminently noble and commanding, bespeaking the decision of the soldier, mingled with the politeness of the courtier. From his earliest childhood he was remarkable for his high spirit, quick courage, and invincible resolution.

He was of that constitution of mind which, of all others, was most likely to lead him to eminence; for, to the strongest powers of perception, he added the talent of fortunate decision. "With such minds,” says Lacon, "to resolve and act is instantaneous; they seem to precede the march of time, to foresee events in the very chrysalis of their causes, and to seize that moment for action, which others waste in deliberation.”

Such was Sir John Hepburn.

That presence of mind which enabled him during his military career to avail himself with facility of latent natural resources, amid those sudden and dangerous emergencies incident to the wars of his time, bespoke that courage d'esprit for which this brave cavalier was pre-eminent. He rode with skill and grace, and excelled in the use of the sword—a science at that time sedulously cultivated among the Scottish gentry, for it was the weapon by which all disputes were settled, and to which all men of honour appealed. Colonel Robert Munro, his friend and class-fellow, in his scarce and valuable work, The Expedition, ever speaks of Hepburn with the highest praise. Being "comerades in danger together,” says the colonel, "so being long acquainted, we were comerades in love: first at college, next in our travells in France.” Hepburn left school in 1614; but at what university he studied cannot be stated with certainty, unless he is identified with a Joannes Hepbume, who in the beginning of the following year was matriculated at St Leonard’s College, St Andrews. If so, he must have studied but a short time, as in the close of 1615 he made a continental tour, and visited Paris and Poictiers with Munro, studying the manners and languages of the countries through which they passed, and rendering himself familiar with their history and military institutions.

It is a popular fallacy in Scotland that all the great Scottish generals of the Thirty Years’ War were unlettered soldiers of fortune; but we are assured, says Lord Hailes, that "Sir Robert Munro and Sir John Hepburn joined the more important advantages of academical study in foreign parts, as well as at home.”

It is extremely probable that he was the John Hepburn who studied at St Leonard’s, as that university was founded by one of his family, John Hepbume, prior of the Augustinian Monastery, and son of Adam, second Lord Hailes. Many students of his name were studying there during the first twenty years of the seventeenth century; and one of these, James Hepburn, died at Rome, keeper of the Vatican Library; but, after a search through the MSS. records of the universities of both Edinburgh and St Andrews, the name of Robert Munro could not be found among those who had matriculated.

We are told that the rising fame of Gustavus Adolphus, of whose character young Hepburn “heard frequent commendations, gave birth to a spark of military ardour within his breast, which was never extinguished till his death;” and that, soon after his return home from the Continent, a path was opened to the military emulation of the Scots, by the spirited attempt which was made, in the year 1620, to rescue the kingdom of Bohemia from the grasp of the house of Hapsburg.

The drums of Sir Andrew Gray, a brave soldier of fortune, were then beating up for recruits, to follow him to the Bohemian wars; and with the forces he had mustered, in the spring of 1620, he formed a camp on the Monkrig, a property of the Hepburns in East Lothian, and not far from the rural village of Athelstaneford.

The name of Sir Andrew Gray appears frequently in the histories of James the Sixth’s time; and being a Catholic, he was eminently obnoxious to the Scottish churchmen. In 1594, as a friend of the Lord Home, “Captaine Andro Gray” was classed among papists and traitors by the General Assembly and at the battle of Glenlivat, where, on the 3d October that year, Argyle was defeated with such slaughter by the Gordons, Colonel Andrew Gray, Knight, commanded the Earl of Huntly’s artillery, which consisted of three culverins.


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