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Memoirs and Adventures of Sir John Hepburn
Chapter XXIX. Saverne Besieged - Hepburns dies a Marshal of France


It might prove tedious, perhaps, to recount the many brilliant actions and encounters in which Hepburn and his soldiers distinguished themselves, while serving in Lorraine, during the spring of 1636, with the army under Bernard, duke of Weimar; but so eminent were his services, his valour as a soldier, and skill as a leader, that Louis XIII. ordered the diploma of a Marshal of France to be expedited under his great seal, for le Chevalier de Hebron, as he was named at the court of Versailles.

Charles IV., duke of Lorraine, against whom they fought, was a brave and generous prince, and though in early life destined for the church—having, indeed, been coadjutor-Bishop of Toul—on relinquishing the mitre for the helmet, and espousing his cousin, the beautiful Princess Nicola, he had fought at Prague, and earned the reputation of being one of the best generals of the time.

The summer of 1636 saw the war recommenced with renewed vigour. Marshal Crecqui made some progress in Milan, where he stormed the castle of Fontaine, losing in the assault the gallant Marshal de Thoiras; but thereafter the Spaniards carried the war into Picardy, and captured La Chapelle, Brai upon the Somme, Bohain and Corbie, carrying terror even to the gates of Paris. The disinterested ability of Richelieu, however, soon raised fifty-two thousand troops, by whose activity all these places were retaken.

The Cardinal took every means to insure the success of the new campaign, and, after frequent consultations on the subject with Hepburn and the Duke de la Valette, he concluded a treaty with Duke Bernard, in which it was stipulated that, in consideration of an annual subsidy, he should maintain, for the service of France, eighteen thousand men, whom he was to command, as being general of those German troops whose princes were in alliance with Louis against the Emperor; that he should take an oath of allegiance to the former, who would cede to him the noble province of Alsace.

Immediately on the conclusion of this treaty, Hepburn (who had not yet received from Paris his diploma of Marshal) with his strong Scottish regiment of eight thousand men, and the Cardinal de la Valette, with a body of French troops, joined Duke Bernard. The bad success of the last campaign had so much discouraged the Cardinal that he would have renounced the trade of war altogether, had not Richelieu obliged him to assume command of the army; and he opened the new campaign with the siege of Saverne, which had been taken in the close of the preceding year. It was obstinately defended, as the garrison daily expected to be relieved by the Count Galas, who had appointed Colonel Mulheim governor, and made him a promise to that effect.

It was doomed to be the scene of the gallant Hepburn’s last military service.

Favoured by his well-known skill, the Dukes of la Yalette and Saxe-Weimar made all their approaches under his eye and with his advice; and thus the place was invested early in the month of May.

Situated among chestnut woods, the town of Saverne, or Elsace-zabeme, is situated on the margin of the winding Sarre, and is overlooked by the beautiful mountains of Alsace. A strong castle, that in former days had been the residence of the Bishops of Strasburg, which crowned the summit of a steep and lofty rock, defended the city. The only approach to this citadel was by a narrow pathway, hewn through the solid rock by the vassals of an ancient bishop. It was steep, narrow, difficult of access, and was swept by the depressed ordnance of the strong ramparts that overshadowed it.

Being brave, numerous, and determined, the utmost resistance was expected from the garrison of Colonel Mulheim; and when the place was first invested by La Yalette, a delay which occurred in bringing up the French artillery (consequent to the deep and devious nature of the mountain paths) deferred active operations for a time, and enabled the besieged to put Saverne in the best possible state of defence.

On the arrival of the cannon, hostilities were commenced on two points, Hepburn and the Cardinal-Duke assailing one side, and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar the other.

By the 9th of June the batteries of the latter had effected a breach in the town wall, and the French, Scottish, and German regiments advanced to a general assault.

It was a bright summer day; the weather was intensely warm, though in the north of France, and the sun shone brightly on the polished helmets and pike-heads of les enfans perdus as they advanced over the rough heaps of masonry that led to the breach in the shattered ramparts. On they went, column after column, with their drums beating, the pikes in front, and banners bending forward; while close and fast the musketry volleyed from the rear, replying to the closer and more deadly fire poured upon their ranks from every angle of the works above and below.

Fast fell the dead, and faster still the wounded on every side, till, met at the summit of the breach by Colonel Mulheim and his heavily-armed Germans, the career of the forlorn hope was stopped, and a close and deadly struggle ensued. Nothing was heard for a time, says an eyewitness, but the clash of swords and pikes, with the heavier blows of clubbed muskets and swinging partisans, as they struck fire from the tempered corslets and morions, amid which the tall plumes of Hepburn, Turenne, and Count Jean of Hanau were seen floating in the foremost ranks; while the shouts of the victorious, the cries of the despairing and the dying, the roar of the muskets, arquebusses, and pistols, with the deeper boom of culverin and canon-royale, seemed to lend only a greater stimulus to the fury of the assailants, who fought blindly on, amid corpses, ruins, and smoke, fire-belching bombardes and bristling pikes, till whole companies of them were hurled from the summit of the breach, to perish miserably on the advanced weapons of their comrades, or on the rocks below.

The combat upon the ruins continued for three consecutive hours, (according to Father Louis Laguille,) till the resolution of the besieged, together with the approach of night, compelled the troops of the Cardinal to retire at last. They left four hundred men lying dead and dying among the crumbling masonry, with several officers of distinction—the chief of whom,'Count Jean Jacques of Hanau, was found shot through the head, with his magnificent armour trampled flat, and drenched in blood.

Two days afterwards, a second assault was attempted with as little success; and then a third, which was also foiled, after the most lavish expense of blood and toil on both sides.

Despite Colonel Mulheim’s assurances of relief from the Count Galas, many officers and soldiers of the garrison, who had left the army of Sweden and taken service under the Emperor, dreaded to undergo the punishment of desertion, (which they feared might be their meed if they fell into the hands of their old commanders, Hepburn and Duke Bernard,) and, acting under this impression, they made a desperate attempt to leave the town by a postern gate; but, being discovered by the Scots of le Regiment d'Hebron they were repulsed in the essay, with the loss of thirty killed and twenty taken prisoners.

Piqued at a resistance so obstinate, La Yalette and Hepburn ordered the fire of their batteries to be redoubled, and every means were taken to render the next assault successful.

"It was in this interval,” says Father Louis Laguille, that the French army had the grief to lose Colonel Hepburn, a general of very great experience, who, after long service in Sweden, had lately passed into that of France, with the rank of marschal-de-camp.”

Having somewhat rashly volunteered to examine the principal breach, with his usual coolness and temerity he approached too near, and at a time when the strong batteries of the town and castle were all firing on the trenches with greater fury than ever. At that crisis, a ball shot from the ramparts, either at random, or by some musketeer whom the glitter of his rich armour had attracted, struck the brave Hepburn in the neck, where his jointed gorget failed to protect him, and he sank from his horse, to be borne away by his faithful Scottish soldiers, a party of whom immediately rushed forward to his assistance.

His fall was the signal for a fourth general assault. Anxious for revenge, led by the brave Vicomte de Turenne, a strong column of French and Scottish troops advanced to the same breach near which Hepburn had fallen but a few minutes before. Sword in hand, the Vicomte led the dangerous way, and, exposed to a terrible fire of cannon and musketry, crossed the fosse, mounted the breach, and, though his right arm was broken in the assault, stormed the walls, and effected a complete lodgment for his troops within the town.

Ere this was achieved, with the familiar din of the distant strife in his ears, Hepburn expired, with his unbuckled armour on, his sword by his side, and the friends he loved—the comrades of his Bohemian wars, his Swedish and Bavarian triumphs—standing sadly and darkly around him. He died like the hero he had lived, in the blood-stained trenches, with the Scottish standard drooping over him, and surrounded by the dead, the wounded, and all the frightful debris of that protracted siege, just as the sun set behind the mountains of Alsace.

His last words were touchingly expressive of regret that he should be buried so far from the secluded kirk-yard where the bones of his forefathers lay.

So fell this brave soldier of fortune, ere the baton and diploma, that would have made him a marshal of France, could reach the camp of La Valette. It was on the 21st day of July 1636, and when he was not more than in his thirty-sixth or thirty-eighth year. The moment he expired the Cardinal-Duke notified the event to their mutual friend Richelieu, who that day month received the letter at Charonne, and replied as follows :—

“I cannot express to you, my lord, my great concern for the death of poor Colonel Hepburn, not only for the great esteem I have for his character, but for the affection and zeal he has always testified for his Majesty’s service. His loss has touched me in so sensible and lively a manner that it is impossible far me to receive any comfort. I do not question what you tell me in your letter, that it has afflicted yourself in particular; for, to tell the truth, he was a gentleman who was very necessary to us at this juncture. I have paid to his memory all the respect that lay in my power, to express my value for him, ordering prayers to be made to God for him, and assisting his nephew (George Hepburn of Athelstaneford) with what he requires, as if he were my own son.

“The ransom of Mettemich is secured to him, and whatever is due to his uncle shall be most punctually paid him. Saverne costs us exceeding dear; but we must bear patiently what pleaseth God.

"I find it extremely difficult,” continues the Cardinal, u upon whom to bestow the aforesaid colonel’s regiment, because his eldest captain, who is related to him, is a Huguenot, and the Catholics earnestly petition to have it conferred upon one of their party, among whom we find the Sieur Douglas, who is descended from one of the best families in Scotland. In the mean time nothing shall be resolved upon here, relating to this melancholy occasion, till we have received advice from you, which we desire you to send by the first opportunity.”

The final two pages of this chapter were not readable due to the pages being damaged. We provide a scan of the pages as some part of them are readable.


Sir John Hepburn's plaque, Toul Cathedral


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