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Under Many Flags
Chapter IV. Sir John Hepburn (continued)


The march of Gustavus and his army, after the victory of Breitenfeld, was “a triumphal progress.” On September 22nd he was at Erfurt, into which he threw a garrison of Scots; on October 3rd he reached Wurzburg; and proceeded to storm its strong castle on the height beyond the Main. Traversing Franeonia with fire and sword, and capturing every town of importance that lay in his line of advance, he sat down before Oppenheim and its castle in December. Oppenheim, with the castle where the Emperor Rudolph had died about twenty years previously, was situated on the Imperialist bank of the Rhine; on the other was a strong fort or sconce, erected on an eminence, and surrounded by a double ditch, which was held by about a thousand veteran soldiers. The castle, which occupied the summit of a high hill, swept with its cannon the low plains on the other side of the river, and greatly harmed Hepburn’s men, whom the King had ordered to reduce the sconce.

On the afternoon of Sunday, the 14th, Hepburn with his brigade, and Colonel Winckel with the Blue, began to entrench themselves before the enemy’s works; while Gustavus on the other bank invested the town. The night was bitterly cold; and the ground thickly covered with snow. The Scots foraged about for food, and kindled huge fires behind their breastworks; near one of which Hepburn and Monro sat down to enjoy their supper, with “a stone jar of Low Country wine,” while their horses stood picketed behind them. The glow of the watch-fire, reflected on their armour, drew the attention of the Spanish garrison of the castle, and presently a 32-lb. shot came swinging across the river, passed over the heads of the two captains, and crashed into Hepburn’s lumbering old coach, which stood unused among the piled-up baggage. The next shot killed one of Monro’s soldiers, who sat close by, refreshing himself with what proved to be his last can of flip and his last pipe of tobacco. The canonnade then became vigorous, and many a brave Scot was struck down in the course of that gloomy night. Just before midnight a gallant sortie was made by the garrison, but Hepburn’s pikemen drove them back with great loss, and in the morning the commander capitulated, being allowed to march out with all the honours of war. Placing in the sconce a couple of hundred musketeers, Hepburn prepared to carry his brigade and the Blues across the river to assist the King in his attack upon the castle—a fortalice of great size and strength, held by a Spanish garrison. The passage was successfully made; but as Hepburn advanced, great was his surprise to hear loud firing within the castle, and to see the garrison throwing themselves over the ramparts, and flying in all directions, piteously crying for quarter as they fell into the hands of Hepburn’s men.

The circumstances which brought about this extraordinary result are related in Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier.

The town of Oppenheim, having surrendered, was held by two hundred Scots of Sir James Ramsay’s regiment, with whom some thirty officers, who had lost their men—dead, wounded, or missing—served as “Reformadoes.” The cavalier tells us that these officers came to him, and declared that if he would give them permission, they would surprise the castle and carry it, sword in hand. “I told them,” he says, “that I durst not give these orders, my commission being only to keep and defend the town; but they being very importunate, I told them they were volunteers, and might do what they pleased, that I would lend them fifty men, and draw up the rest to second them, or bring them off, as I saw occasion, so as I might not hazard the town.” Thereupon they sallied forth, cut in pieces the guard, and burst open the gate. The Spaniards were knocked down before they knew what the matter was; the King and Sir John Hepburn, advancing to the assault, found that they had been anticipated, and that the castle was already theirs.

On entering, Gustavus was received by the Reformadoes, who saluted him with their pikes. The King, lifting his hat, and turning towards them, said, with his usual frank and sunny smile—

“Scots! brave Scots! you were too quick for me.”

The whole army now crossed the Rhine, and marched upon Mainz, which offered but a nominal resistance, and threw open its gates on the 12th of December—just three days after the King’s thirtieth birthday. There he and his soldiers spent their Christmas-tide; not sorry to exchange headquarters and rude rations for the luxuries of a wealthy city, and pledging each other in deep draughts of Rhenish wine.

Hepburn’s brigade garrisoned Mainz until the following March; but Gustavus opened the campaign of 1632 in February by the capture of Kreutznach. On March 21st he entered Nuremburg, its Protestant citizens receiving him as their champion and deliverer. Tears of joy streamed down the bearded cheeks of the men; the women sighed and sobbed in hysterical enthusiasm ; it was one of those scenes of passionate emotion which occur only when the popular heart is deeply touched. Soon the name of Gustavus was on every lip, and his picture in every house. It was pleasant no doubt to be the recipient of such homage; but the soldier-king could not stay long to enjoy it. On April 3rd he was before Donauworth, which was carried swiftly, in no small measure through the desperate courage of Hepburn and his Scots—an important service for which Gustavus tendered them his public thanks. On the 4th he prepared to cross the Lech and force his way into Bavaria. On the opposite side of the river lay Count Tilly in strong entrenchments, while each ford was commanded by a heavy battery. The task seemed impossible; but Gustavus was not to be denied. First he swept the enemy’s positions with a tremendous fire, which almost silenced the Imperialist guns, and mowed down his serried ranks by scores and hundreds; then, concealing his movements by thick clouds of vapour from burning piles of damp wood and wet straw, he threw across from bank to bank a portable bridge of ingenious construction, and passed over it his infantry, the Green Brigade as usual leading the van. Tilly had been mortally wounded by a cannon-shot above the knee, and had retired to Ingolstadt to die. Deprived of their commander, and overwhelmed by the furiousness of the Scots-Swedish attack, the Imperialists retreated in hot haste, and left Bavaria open to the conqueror, who captured Raine, and Neuburg, and Augsburg in succession.

At Ingolstadt he met with a severe check. It was defended by a strong garrison, while the Duke of Bavaria was encamped on the other side of the Danube.

Hepburn’s brigade was ordered to invest it. On Thursday evening, April 19, the King, expecting a sally, instructed him to remove to some high ground which offered a good defensive position. Here the Scots remained under arms through a bitterly cold night, while the glint of their lighted matches enabled the garrison to harass them with a destructive fire from sunset to sunrise; so that the night seemed “the longest in the year,” says Monro, “though in April; for at one shot I lost twelve men of my own company, not knowing what became of them.” So hot was the service, that “he who was not that night afraid of cannon-shot might next day, without harm, have been brayed into gunpowder.”

Three hundred men were killed on the ground, but the morning sun saw the Scots stubbornly maintaining their posts. Gustavus, however, was unwilling to waste more time, and raising the siege, continued his march into the interior of Bavaria. On May 7 he entered the capital, the fair and prosperous city of Munich, situated on the historic stream of “Iser, rolling rapidly.” The three Scots regiments of the Green Brigade headed the advance, their drums beating the “Old Scots March,” and the wild skirl of the pipes of Lord Reay’s Highlanders echoing far on the morning air. To prevent plundering, he gave a gratuity of five shillings to every soldier; but discovering that Duke Maximilian had buried a large number of guns in the arsenal, he had them disinterred by the Bavarian peasants, paying them fairly for their labour. He also levied a heavy contribution on the inhabitants. The Swedish army encamped outside the city, the garrison of which was composed exclusively of Scots, under Hepburn, whom Gustavus appointed Governor.

Hepburn, who had been at Munich when a young subaltern in Sir Andrew Gray’s battalion, placed guards at the gates as a matter of course, and occupied the great market-place where were held the celebrated fairs of St. James and the Three Kings of Cologne. Two Scots regiments were quartered in the splendid Electoral Palace, where they drank freely of the choicest wines, lived on the best fare, and took their ease on sumptuous couches—in agreeable contrast to the “lodging on the cold ground” which was their frequent lot. This was when they were off duty; but the duty seems to have been strict enough. “We were ordained,” says Monro, "to lie in the great court of the fortress, night and day in our arms; to guard both the Kings’ persons [Gustavus and Frederick of Bohemia], and to set all the guards, when I was commanded, with our whole officers, not to stir from our watch”—their meals being served up from the King’s own table. The special honour thus accorded to the Scots not unnaturally provoked the jealous murmurs of the Swedes and the Dutch.

Meanwhile, Tilly had been succeeded as the Imperialist generalissimo by that extraordinary man, Wallenstein, Duke of Friedland—the hero of Schiller’s famous trilogy of tragedies—whose craft as statesman and capacity as military commander are still estimated variously by historians, according to their prejudices or partialities. Having levied and equipped an army of sixty thousand men, he suddenly broke into Bohemia, crushcd the Saxon garrison at Prague (May 4), recovered several fortified towns, and in a few weeks restored the province to the Empire. He then prepared to swoop upon Saxony; but, at the earnest solicitation of the Emperor, who saw his hereditary dominions threatened by the success of Gustavus, he changed his plans, and uniting with Maximilian of Bavaria, advanced into the Upper Palatinate to confront the Swedish army. Gustavus, on hearing of his march, fixed upon Nuremberg as his centre of operations, and calling in all his scattered detachments, converted it speedily into an impregnable camp. Then, with about twenty thousand Swedes and Scots, he prepared to resist his formidable enemy.

On reconnoitring the Swedish position, Wallenstein felt its strength, and abandoning all hope of carrying it by assault, prepared to reduce it by famine. For this purpose he entrenched himself near Fiirth—about five miles to the north of Nuremberg—on a range of wooded hills, the base of which was washed by the river Rednitz. Here he could command the principal roads by which Gustavus received his supplies; while with his light cavalry he harassed and cut off the Swedish foraging parties. It was not long before the success of his strategy was proved ; the population of Nuremberg, which had been increased by hundreds of the fugitive peasantry, as well as the Swedish army, began to suffer from the scarcity of provisions. In the track of famine always comes pestilence ; so that death was soon reaping a rich harvest in the unhappy city. Meanwhile, Gustavus was receiving reinforcements from the banks of the Rhine, the Oder, and the Elbe; the force collected by Oxenstjerna, his great chancellor, numbering thirty-six thousand experienced soldiers, with sixty pieces of cannon, who marched into Nuremberg on August 12th. The King thereupon resolved on an immediate attack of Wallenstein’s position, in the hope of raising the blockade.

It was at this conjuncture that a quarrel broke out between the King and his Scotch lieutenant. The cause of it is not easy to discover. We are told that Gustavus, after some high words had passed between them, taunted Hepburn (he was a Roman Catholic) with his religion, and also jested at his love of fine armour and rich apparel. It is further said that Hepburn was offended with Gustavus for having, not long before, preferred a younger soldier to some post of danger. But neither of these reasons seems an adequate explanation. Gustavus was not given to such light talking as is here imputed to him; nor was Hepburn so thin of skin as to be provoked by it into throwing up a high and honourable position. The real motive must have been something graver —something which touched a king’s pride and a veteran soldier’s self-esteem. Whatever it was it ended in a rupture, Hepburn exclaiming, “Sir, I will never more unsheath my sword in the quarrels of Sweden!”

Gustavus then gave the command of the Green Brigade to Hepburn’s friend and comrade, Lieutenant-Colonel Monro; but as it was impossible for Hepburn to quit the beleaguered city, he remained as a spectator of the last tragic scenes of the great contention.

On August 22, Gustavus opened a heavy cannonade against the Imperialist lines, in the hope of bringing on a general engagement. Maximilian of Bavaria was eager to accept the challenge ; but Wallenstein held firmly to his strong position. Gustavus then crossed the Rednitz, and drew up his army on the left flank of the enemy; on the morning of the 24th, under a tremendous storm of cannon-shots, throwing forward a division against the heights of the Alte Veste and the Altenburg, the latter of which was crowned by a ruined castle. Hepburn, though holding no command, could not absent himself from such a scene. Arrayed in his costly suit of inlaid armour, a close casque with gorget, breast and back pieces, “pauldrons, vambraces, and gauntlets,” with pistols in his holsters, he mounted his charger, and rode near the King.

From a military writer I borrow the following description, though with some fear that it bears marks of exaggeration—

“Posted on the steep and rocky heights of the Alte Veste, and that crowned by the ruined Altenburg, with the Bibert and the Rednitz flowing at their base, the whole entrenched and palisaded position of the Imperialists shone with long lines of polished helmets, that glinted above the green breastworks and hastily-constructed barricades. Tall pikes and polished arquebuses glittered incessantly in the sunshine, and the brass muzzles of eighty pieces of cannon peered forth from under the shade of rock, bush, and tree. Here and there, in the foreground, a circle of crows or ravens wheeling above the long grass, marked where lay a dead horse or unburied soldier, shot in some recent skirmish.

“As the dense battalions of the Swedes approached, a tremendous cannonade began. The musketeers and arquebusiers volleyed from flank to flank, and the roar seemed as if it would rend heaven; while the whole hills, from the river at their base to the ruins on the Altenburg, were sheeted with fire and enveloped in snow-white smoke.

“Hepburn still continued to look on as a mere spectator amid that terrible cannonade, which was ploughing the earth under his horse’s feet, and mowing down the columns like grass around him, even when a part of his old brigade advanced to storm the ruined fortress, the highest point of those hills from the summit of which Wallenstein, calmly and securely, from his artillery shrouded in smoke, poured fire and death upon the plain below.”

The attack was made with great vigour by two thousand chosen musketeers, mostly Scots, as an old Nuremberg writer of the period informs us, who, having their colours at the base of the heights, advanced, supported by a column of pikes, in the face of the enemy’s eighty pieces of ordnance charging up-hill with desperate valour. But it was useless, the immense strength of the works defied their efforts, and though the assault was five times repeated, the Imperialists remained unshaken.

As Harte says, quaintly—"The King, though ever fixed in one place, formed the disposition of each attack and dispatched his orders accordingly, and the whole combined operations proceeded only upon one principle, which was to possess the summit of the mountain—a task rendered difficult by nature, and more so by the intervention of art and the obstinate resistance of the Imperial troops; for Wallenstein’s army was a piece of machinery, which he forced to act almost as he pleased. On the contrary, Gustavus’s men loved and adored him on a principle of honour, and sought death out of free choice and pure magnanimity. Yet the height of the mountain was unattainable, though not a single Swede behaved amiss.” The reader may form some idea of its strength from the following circumstance: word was brought Wallenstein by an aide-de-camp that the King had mounted the hill, to which he answered hastily, with a mixture of profaneness and surprise— “That he could not believe there was a Supreme Being in heaven if that castle could possibly be taken from him.”

Gustavus in this unavailing struggle lost about two thousand killed and wounded. Among the former were many gallant Scotch adventurers — Captain Patrick Jones, Lieutenant-Colonel Maclean, Captain Traill, and Hector Monro of Katvall, and others. An old friend, Colonel Monro, was sorely wounded in the left side by the “clicket” of his rapier, which a bullet drove against his coat-of-mail, battering it flat.

The night was cold and foggy, and great was the suffering of the wounded as they lay on the blood-red field. Some were half immersed in the waters of the Rednitz; others lay crushed under fallen stockades and breastworks; others were almost stifled by the weight of dead bodies of men and horses. At the first coming of dawn Gustavus felt a deep anxiety for the safety of Sinclair and Monro’s Scotchmen, who were posted far in advance among the rocks, immediately under the ruins of the Altenburg. “Is any officer of the field at hand?” he asked of one of his attendants. “No one but the Colonel Hepburn,” was the reply; and our hero, who had remained near the King, and slept in his armour by the side of his charger, rode up instantly.

“Sir John,” said Gustavus, “I entreat you to look in upon our poor soldiers in the Altenburg, and discern if there be any place where cannon may be brought to bear against the old castle.”

Hepburn dashed off to the Scotch position, and after reconnoitring, returned in safety to Gustavus. "I found,sir,” he reported, “the Scottish musketeers almost buried in mud and water; but I have discovered a piece of ground from which, if the earth were raised a little, four pieces of battering artillery might be directed against the Altenburg, at a distance of only forty paces.”

“I had rather,” replied the King, with some emotion, “that you had found me a place at ten times that distance, for I cannot bear the thought of seeing my brave soldiers torn to pieces a second time.”

Gustavus soon afterwards gave orders for a general retreat—previously going in person to draw off the Scots on the Altenburg, and seeing that Monro was so severely wounded as to be scarcely able to walk, he took that officer’s halfpike, and desiring him to retire as fast as he could, closed up the last file, marching on foot like the merest subaltern.

Unable to maintain his position at Nuremberg, Gustavus, leaving there a garrison of four thousand men, broke up his camp on September 8, and marched towards Neustadt. With bold defiance he marched along the whole line of the enemy’s works, with drums beating and colours flying; but Wallenstein refused to be drawn into a general action.

At Neustadt, Hepburn took leave of the King, and in company with the Marquis of Hamilton, Sir James Hamilton, and Sir James Ramsay, set out on his journey to England by the way of France; while his old comrades of the Green Brigade marched upon Rain, and thereafter stormed Kaufbeuren and besieged Kempten, and once more vindicated the renown of Scottish arms on the fiercely contested field of Nordlingen (August 26, 1634), when, in the glory of victory, Monro’s regiment closed its career.

Late in the autumn of 1632, Hepburn and his companions arrived in London, where both Sir John and the Marquis of Hamilton were cordially received by Charles I. It is sometimes asserted that Hepburn was knighted by King Charles; but the evidence is convincing that he owed his spurs to Gustavus Adolphus. He remained in London for some months ; and then, wearying of inaction, the restless adventurer crossed over to France, and offered his services to Louis XIII., who at once appointed him Colonel of a regiment formed of the old Scottish companies so long held in high esteem by the French sovereigns. His commission as Colonel was dated January 26, 1633. He was soon afterwards gratified with the rank of Marichal-de-Camp, which was second only to that of Lieutenant-General, and entitled its holder to command the left wing in all engagements with the enemy. While in Paris he was admitted to the friendship of Cardinal Richelieu, who frequently consulted him on military subjects, and in his correspondence invariably alluded to him in terms of respect and admiration.

The regiment of which he was Colonel was about six thousand two hundred strong, and numbered in its ranks representatives of such historic names as Murray, Seaton, Erskine, Forbes, Home, and Leslie. One of his pikemen was a John Middleton, who greatly distinguished himself by his ability and courage. In future years he rose to be Earl of Middleton, Lieutenant-General of Scottish cavalry, and Governor of Edinburgh Castle. He was entrusted with the command of the English and Scotch regiments at Tangier, and died in 1673. Over his cups he would often boast that he had carried a pike under the famous captain, Sir John Hepburn, in Alsace and Lorraine.

In the spring of 1634, Hepburn’s regiment formed part of the army which, under the Marichal de la Force, invaded the province of Lorraine, which Richelieu desired to wrest from the Empire. The direction of the siege was entrusted to the Scottish captain, together with the Marquis de Toneins and the Vicomte de Turenne—afterwards so distinguished as a military commander. Between these two young warriors a keen rivalry arose ; each endeavoured to excel the other in feats of arms. Turenne was the more successful, and carried the bastion which the Marquis on the previous day had vainly attempted. Having thus gained a point Cappui, Hepburn pushed the siege with such vigour that on July 21 the place surrendered. It is only fair to say that from the histories of the time it would seem that the besieged, though defeated in the struggle, shared an equal bravery with the besiegers.

After the fall of La Mothe, Hepburn received orders to rejoin and co-operate with the Marichal de la Force, who, with 25,000 infantry and 5000 cavalry, was on his march towards the German frontier. At the head of seven regiments of pike-men and musketeers, seven squadrons of horse, and a train of artillery, he crossed the Rhine, on December 19, near Mannheim, and took up a position which enabled the Marichal de la Force to pass over the main army unopposed. Then our gallant knight pushed on to the relief of Heidelberg, which from its rocky heights looks down upon the blue waters of the Neckar; and took possession of it on the 23rd, compelling the Imperialist forces to effect a rapid retreat, though not without several hard-fought actions. It would appear to have been at this time that Hepburn, in answer to some intrusive advice from Cardinal Richelieu’s favourite captain, Father Joseph, let fall the pointed remark which passed into a soldier’s proverb—“Go not so fast, Pere Joseph, for, believe me, towns are not taken with a finger-end.”

At Landau, early in the new year (1635), the Marichal effected a junction with the Scotch and Swedish veterans under that fine soldier, Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, who, among the military leaders of the Thirty Years’ War, holds a foremost place. His force was made up chiefly of the seasoned old soldiers who had served in the Scottish brigades of Gustavus Adolphus; and among them were the survivors of Hepburn’s Green Brigade. They welcomed their former commander with martial enthusiasm, their drums beating the Scots March as he approached, while a shout of joy rang along their ranks, and the last piper of Mackay’s Highlanders skirled loud and long a wonderful strain. As all desired to take service under him in France, they were formed into one corps, which the French designated Le Regiment d’Hebron.1 This corps was 8316 strong, including the Colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel Munro, and Major Sir Patrick Monteith, 45 captains, I captain-lieu-tenant, 45 lieutenants, 48 ensigns, 4 surgeons, 6 adjutants, 2 chaplains, 1 drum-major, 1 piper, 88 sergeants, 288 corporals, 288 lance-pesades, 96 drummers, and 48 companies, each consisting of 150 musketeers and pikemen. Thus Hepburn’s regiment was numerically equal to the force with which Wellington won his earlier victories.

In 1635 the direction of the French army passed into the hands of Cardinal de La Valette—a true priest of the Church Militant, but by no means a capable commander—who at Frische was saved from defeat only by a bold and skilful movement of Hepburn against the flank of the Imperialist army. Retreat, however, was unavoidable, and the French army recrossed the Rhine at Bingen, hotly pursued by the enemy, who were kept at bay only by the steadfast courage of Hepburn’s Scots. “They fought for eight days consecutively almost without intermission, leaving the roads by which they fell back redder with their enemies’ blood than with their own.” The result of the campaign was that the Imperialists recovered Lorraine, which Richelieu had made such great efforts to conquer, and threatened France with invasion.

In the spring of 1636 Hepburn and his soldiers continued to serve under the Duke of Weimar in Lorraine, and Hepburn rendered such eminent services by his courage and conduct that Louis XIII. created him a Marshal of France. Through the immense energy of Richelieu the French army had been greatly reinforced, and under La Valette effected a junction with Duke Bernhard, who then laid siege to the strongly-fortified town of Saverne. This was in the merry month of May. As the garrison expected to be relieved by the Imperialists under Count Gallas, it offered a steadfast resistance, and harassed the operations of the besiegers with infinite activity. The heavy guns of the latter succeeded, however, in breaking the town-wall; and on June 9 a general assault was attempted. There was no want of daring on the part of the attacking regiments, who were led by Hepburn and Turenne ; but the besieged fought with a desperation which completely foiled them. Not less disastrous was a second, and even a third effort. The besiegers then renewed the fire of their batteries with increased vigour, and made every preparation for a final and successful one. It was then that Hepburn, in his eagerness to examine the extent of the principal breach, approached too near, and got within the range of the guns of the Imperialists. A musket-ball struck him in the neck and passed into the body, inflicting a mortal wound. His soldiers carried him into shelter, the surgeons examined the wound; but nothing could be done— he was already dying. His last words, it is said, were a lamentation that he should lay his bones so far from the green kirkyard where mouldered those of his ancestors.

Thus, on July 21, 1636, our gallant Scot ended his stirring career. He was then in his thirty-sixth or thirty-eighth year, according as he was born in 1598 or 1600—a point on which authorities differ.

When the sad news reached the great French minister, he wrote to La Valette as follows—

“I cannot express to you my profound regret at the death of poor Colonel Hepburn, not only because of the high esteem in which I held his character, but on account of the affection and zeal he always showed in his Majesty’s service. His loss has moved me in so sensible and lively a manner that it is impossible for me to receive any comfort. I do not question what you say in your letter that it has affected you very particularly, for to tell the truth, he was a gentleman very necessary to us at this juncture. I have paid to his memory all the respect in my power to express my sense of his value, ordering prayers to be made to God for him, and assisting his nephew (George Hepburn of Athelstaneford) as if he were my own son.”

Hepburn was buried, with great solemnity, in the cathedral of Toul.

He was undoubtedly one of the very ablest of those gallant Scottish gentlemen who served in the European wars of their time with so much distinction; not very scrupulous as to the cause for which they fought, but honourably faithful to their employer as long as they continued in his service. For their restless courage and adventurous temper there was then no other outlet. No India offered them those opportunities of gaining fame and fortune which it was to provide for their descendants, nor was there then any British army in which they could employ their brilliant courage and patient fortitude in the service of the empire of which their country formed no inconspicuous part. Upon these “soldiers of fortune,” therefore, I do not feel disposed to pass any severe censure; and least of all upon one who was among the noblest of them— whom both Gustavus Adolphus and Richelieu loved and trusted—whose bravery, military skill, humanity, and fine qualities of character commanded the admiring testimony of his contemporaries.


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