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Under Many Flags
Chapter VII. A Soldier of Fortune: General Patrick Gordon


AMONG the numerous Scots who figured in the court and camp of Peter the Great the most distinguished was General Patrick Gordon ; and it so happens that of him we know the most, since he took the precaution to write the record of his career, with its more stirring experiences, in the form of a Diary. From its unpretending, and, I think, veracious pages I have chiefly gathered the particulars which I have woven into the following narrative.

Patrick Gordon was a native of Buchan—a land of granite, worthy to have produced a man with such granitic strength of character. He was the son of the gudeman [For the benefit of English readers I may explain that a “laird” was one who held his estate direct from the Crown; a “gudeman” held it from a great house, like the Dukes of Gordon or the Earls of Sutherland.] of Auchleuchries, and was born in 1635, on the eve of the great contest which was to convulse both England and Scotland with its throes. At the age of five he was sent to school at Crochdan, at nine he was removed to one at Achridy; and when the war-troubles between the two countries broke out, he went with his family to reside at Achmade.

He was only sixteen when he resolved to go out into the world, and see what it had to offer to a young fellow with a clear brain, a stout heart, and an iron will. Some kind of equipment was provided for him by his father and uncle, though neither had much money to spare, and embarking at Aberdeen, he sailed for Dantzic. As a matter of course he happened upon one of his own countrymen, whose heart warmed towards the young adventurer, and supplied him with “bite and sup,” until he pushed on to Konigsberg. Then he fell in with a zealous Jesuit priest—another Scot—Father Alexander Menzies, who induced him to enter a Jesuit college at Braunsburg, hard by, but the close watch and ward under which he was kept proved intolerable to a youth of Gordon’s temper. Moreover, he had no ambition to become either priest or scholar; he longed for the life adventurous; and quickly resolved to bid his custodians an unceremonious farewell. Slipping out of the college, one fine Tuesday morning, with a staff in one hand, a little bag (containing his linen and some books) in the other, and seven and a half dollars in his pocket, he “pilgrimed it away all alone.” It was a bright fresh morning, and the enterprise suited his disposition; so that he had no misgiving until, in a patch of woodland, he came to a dividing of the ways, and stood hesitating which to choose—which led to fortune, which to failure.

After he had made his choice, a spasm of doubt possessed him, as it takes possession of all of us under similar circumstances. For though we have decided, and have no intention of going back, we cannot help a momentary apprehension that the other may have been the right way after all. “I began,” he says, “with serious thoughts to consider my present condition, calling to mind from whence I was come—from my good, loving parents and friends—and where I was now, among strangers whose language I understood not, travelling, myself knew not well whither, having but seven dollars by me, which could not last long, and when that was gone I knew not where to get a farthing more for the great [homeward] journey and voyage which I intended. To serve or work, I thought it a disparagement [such was the pride of the Gordons !]; and to beg, a greater. With these and such-like thoughts ”—natural enough to a lad of seventeen— “I grew so pensive and sad that, sitting down, I began to lament and bewail my miserable condition. Then, having my recourse to God Almighty, I, with many tears, implored His assistance, craving also the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, and all the saints in heaven.” At this moment, he says, an old man came riding up on the right hand, and perceiving that he wept, said to him in Dutch— “Cry not, my child; God will comfort you.” With which words being much consoled, he sprang to his feet, and resumed his journey.

That night he lodged in a Krue (“Kroog”), or village tavern, and indulged himself at supper with half a stoup of beer. On asking for a bed he was conducted to an empty waggon in the stable, where he laid himself down, with his cloak partly over and partly under him, and his coat and valise as a pillow; but by and by the maid of the inn, prepossessed perhaps by the tall, well-favoured young Scot, brought him a proper pillow, and he slept so comfortably that he woke not until half-an-hour before sunrise. Resuming his journey, he was greatly troubled by sore feet, and this trouble increasing upon him, he was at length compelled to hire a seat in a waggon which carried him to Dantzic. There he discovered that the last ship bound for a British port had sailed, and that he would have to wait some months for another chance. What was to be done? In Dantzic and its neighbourhood quite a little colony of Scotchmen was planted, and its hospitality did not fail him; but it was a kind of hospitality that young Gordon did not relish; and being advised that Poland offered the chances of a career, he set out on a journey to Warsaw. On arriving there, he obtained lodgings in the Luzinski suburb; then looked about him. He recognized not a few of his own countrymen, but his poverty induced him to hold back from their society; and he saw none who were likely to employ him. So he worked his way to Posen by assisting a man in charge of a team of horses; found there some more Scots, and being recommended by them to the kindly notice of a young Polish noble, travelled with him to Hamburg.

Gordon was now on the verge of twenty—a mere youth in years, but in knowledge of the world, in knowledge of men and manners, as old as the wisest of old men, or the oldest of wise men, and well able to hold his own among his fellows. At the moment of his arrival Hamburg was full of recruiting officers, who were levying men for the great Swedish army; and the streets echoed with the din of cavaliers ranting and carousing in every ale-house. A tall, strongly built, athletic young Scot, like this hero of ours, with resolution in the poise of his head and the carriage of his body, intelligence in the keen glance, and fearlessness on the firm-set lips, became at once an object of interest to the Swedes, who made every effort to secure him. “In all their discourses they extolled a soldier’s life; telling that riches, honours, and all sorts of worldly blessings lay prostrate at a soldier’s feet, wanting only his will to stoop and take them up; then, falling out in commendation of our countrymen, than whom no better sojers were of any nation to be found, and that albeit nature had endowed them with a genius fit for anything, yet did they despise the ease, advantage, or contentment any other trade might bring, and embraced that of a soldier, which, without all dispute, is the most honourable.” Gordon, however, turned a deaf ear to these advances. He was not minded to enlist in the ranks; nothing less than an officers commission would satisfy his young ambition.

It is not true, perhaps, that Fortune always favours the bold; but it favoured young Gordon, for it brought him into contact with one of his own class, a Gordon of Troup, who held the rank of Rittmaster, or captain, in the Swedish army. Through this man’s good services he was happily started on what proved to be a prosperous career. On July 25, 1655, he joined the Swedish army in its camp near Stettin, in command of a company. Thence he followed that brilliant but erratic meteor of war in his iniquitously aggressive campaign against the Poles. To Gordon, as to other soldiers of fortune, the right or wrong of the quarrel in which he fought mattered little. His sole principle of military morality was loyal service to his employers, and this he was rigid in his observance of. More than once taken prisoner by the Poles, and pressed to join them, he refused their liberal offers, and when an exchange took place returned to the Swedish flag. It was not until 1659, when, having once more fallen into their hands, the Poles refused to exchange him, that he yielded to their solicitations, and the force of circumstances; and after a good deal of huxtering accepted the lucrative post of quartermaster. That such an appointment should have been given to a young man of twenty-four is a convincing proof that he had already come to be known as a brave soldier and a good officer.

That he was a man of hard temper, with 110 scruple about bloodshed, we know from his projected attempt on the life of the individual whom he mistook for the regicide Bradshaw. This was in 1658, when the Poles were encamped at Werder.

“An English ambassador,” he says, “called Bradshaw, having been on his journey to Moscovia and not admitted, returned that way, and was lodged in Lamehand’s tavern. We getting notice thereof, and judging him to be that Bradshaw who sat President in the Highest Court of Justice upon our sovereign King Charles I. of blessed memory, were resolved, come what will, to make an end of him; and being about fifteen with servants, six whereof might be accounted trusty weight, the others also indifferent, we concluded that, doing the feat in the evening, we could easily make our escape by benefit of the strait ground and darkness of the night, and so, being resolved, we took our way thither. Being come near, and asking a boor come from thence some questions, he told us that just now some officers were come from Elbing to the ambassador, and some forty dragoons who were to guard and convey him to Marienburgh, which made us despair of doing any good (?), and so we returned. We had resolved to make our addresses to him, as sent with a commission from Field-marshal Von der Linde to him; and being admitted, seven or eight of us, to have gone in and stabbed him, the rest guarding our horses and the door; and so, being come to horse, make our escape to Dantzic.”

I do not quote this autobiographical passage with any intention of asking the reader to admire it, and assuredly I do not quote it as reflecting the slightest credit upon Quartermaster Patrick Gordon. It describes what seems to me a really dastardly project for committing a great crime with the least possible risk of life or limb to those engaged in it; and no amount of royal favour can be held to have justified it. We learn from it the extent to which the stormy influences of the age deadened men’s moral sense; so that when they planned with the utmost coolness the murder of a political opponent, they were not at all concerned if the blow aimed at him struck somebody else. I can find no ground for believing that if Gordon had slain the ambassador, and afterwards discovered that he was not the regicide, he would have felt very great regret.

Gordon had been only a few months in the Polish service when he heard of the restoration of the Stuarts, and for a moment thought of carrying his ambition and experience into the pay of his own country. But his father wrote to him that the army had been disbanded, and that Britain offered no field for military enterprise. He remained, therefore, in Poland, but discontentedly; for he wanted opportunities of distinction—ample room and verge enough to beat his daring wings. There must have been an air of command about the man, young as he was, for he was treated even by his superiors with marked deference. The Russian ambassadors showed as much eagerness to secure him as the Poles had done, and earnestly desired their colonels to engage him in the Czar’s service, promising that he should not be delayed longer than three years, one year with the rank of major, and two years with that oflieutenant-colonel. He did not accept their offers at the time, but held them in reserve that he might have another string to his bow.

He seems to have had some thought of entering the Emperor’s service in the hope of fighting against the Turks; but when an opportunity offered he began to dwell on the Russian bid, and to obtain a better knowledge of the Muscovite system he made his way to Riga to consult with an experienced soldier, one General Douglas. Him, however, he missed, but, as usual, Scotchmen were there; two of his old comrades and friends, as he calls them, Alexander Landells and Walter Airth, to whom, over a cup of wine, he revealed his position and prospects. They told him that the Muscovite pay was not very liberal, but it was sure; that promotion was speedy; that many Scotchmen of high quality were serving under his standard; and that they themselves, with many others, were about to join. “So that the consideration,” says Gordon, “of at least a certain livelihood, preferment, good company, and my former promises and engagements, confirmed me in my resolution to go to Moscow.”

At Koluminsko, a country house belonging to the Czar, Gordon had his first interview with Peter the Great, whom he was to serve for so many years with equal capacity and faithfulness, and assist in the great work of building up and consolidating the Russian empire. He was at once placed upon the Imperial staff; and at the head of a regiment,

which he was to train and discipline, was dispatched to Novogorod. There he gave an example of his very practical and resolute temper. The rich burgesses of that opulent city were exceedingly reluctant to admit the officers and soldiers into their houses. “Amongst the rest,” says Gordon, “a merchant, by whom my quarters were taken up, whilst my servants were cleansing the inner room; he broke down the oven in the outer room which served to warm both, so that I was forced to go to another quarter. But, to teach him better manners, I sent the provost-marshal to quarter by him, with twenty prisoners and a corporalship of sojours, who, by connivance, did grievously plague him a week; and it cost him near a hundred dollars before he could procure an order out of the right office to have them removed, and was well laughed at besides for his incivility and obstinacy.”

At the outset his position in the service had its inconveniences. The Muscovites regarded these Scotch soldiers of fortune who were crowding into their regiments with not unnatural dislike. A foreign immigration is seldom popular with the natives. “Our country for ourselves!” is a sentiment to which everybody but a cosmopolitan philosopher will respond, and with which the Muscovites of those days were in cordial agreement. “Strangers,” writes Gordon, “are looked upon as a company of hirelings, and at the best (as they say of women) ”— O churlish Patrick!—“ but necessaria mala (necessary evils). No'honour or degree of preferment here to be expected but military, and that with a limited command, in the attainment whereof a good mediator or mediatory, and a piece of money or other bribe, is more available than the merit or sufficiency of the person ; a faint heart under fair plumes, and a cuckoo in gay clothes, b?ing as ordinary here as a counterfeited or painted visage.”

Some of the earlier entries in his Diary at this period seem worth transcribing—

“1661. September 17.—I got orders to receive from a Russ 700 men to be in one regiment, being runaway sojours out of several regiments, and fetched back from divers places. Having received them, I marched through the Sloboda of the strangers to Krasira Villa, where we got our quarters, and exercised these soldiers twice a day in fine weather.

“September 20.—I received money (25 roubles) for my welcome, and the next day sables, and two days thereafter damask and cloth.

“September 25.—I received a month’s means in cursed copper money, as did those who came along with me.

“September 27.—About thirty officers, most whereof I had bespoke in Riga, came to Moscow, most of them being our countrymen, as Walter Airth, William Guild, George Keith, Andrew Burnet, Andrew Calderwood, Robert Stuart, and others, most whereof were enrolled in our regiment.”

For more than a twelvemonth after his arrival in Moscow, Gordon suffered from depression of spirits.

He had a severe illness—an attack of intermittent fever, and was exposed to frequent annoyances from the ignorant jealousy of the Muscovites. Of their ignorance he records a striking sample—A Lithuanian officer was advised by his Italian doctor to sprinkle cream-of-tartar upon his food. They spoke in Latin, and the Russian captain of the guard, overhearing the words “cremor tartari" reported that the patient and his physician had been discussing the affairs of Crim Tartary. The physician with difficulty escaped torture.

Through these and other trials Gordon steadily did his duty after the old Scottish fashion, and steadily rose in the esteem and confidence of his employers. In 1662 he was made a lieutenant-colonel. He then determined that “it would be for his advantage to take unto himself a wife; that he should be much happier as a married man than he was as a bachelor.” After looking carefully around, he fixed his choice on the daughter of Colonel Philip Albrecht von Bockhoven—a handsome, amiable, well-educated girl, who, however, was only thirteen, while Gordon was twenty-seven. Neither the young lady nor her parents raised any objection; and, after a two years’ courtship, Gordon and she were happily married.

In 1666 the Czar sent him on a mission to Charles II. He thus describes his interview with the so-callcd Merry Monarch—

“October 9.—I found his Majesty standing under a canopy bareheaded, with many nobles about him. Having entered the room, and performed the usual reverences, I took the Emperor’s letters from my brother-in-law. After I had the short compliment, his Majesty was pleased to receive the letters with his own hand, and gave them up immediately to one standing by, and asked me for the good health of his Majesty, which I answered after the ordinary way. Then his Majesty was pleased to say that this message was so much the more acceptable that the Czar had been pleased to entrust one of his own subjects with it, and caused tell me that I might use the freedom of the Court.”

As regards the latter privilege he notes, two days later, that the King’s locksmith, by order, brought a key which opened the doors to the park, galleries, and other passages in the Court. His name was engraved upon it, and it cost him a fee of twenty shillings to the locksmith, and five shillings to the locksmith’s man. Twenty-five shillings seems little enough for the freedom of the Court!

Gordon remained in London until the following January, when, having fulfilled the mission with which he had been entrusted, he took leave of the King on the 22nd, gave a farewell dinner—“a valete dinner,” as he calls it—to his friends at The Cock Tavern in Suffolk Street; left London on the 29th, embarked at Dover on February 6, and landed at Nieuport on the following evening. But he did not reach Warsaw until June 6, when he was received by his wife and comrades with great rejoicing.

One of the experiences of his long journey is not without interest. It occurred on the road from Gluckstadt to Hamburg, March 8.

He had hired a great waggon with four horses, and had for his companions a sea-captain, and another who was travelling with his wife. The weather being very cold, they caused a good deal of straw to be put in, which, by and by, occasioned a disaster. For the captain’s wife, sitting beside her husband, had with her, as the fashion then was, a pot with coals in a wooden case. By some accident the coals ignited the straw, and compelled a general retreat. While the captains and others were striving with their hats and cloaks to damp and stifle the fire, Gordon threw out the cloak-bags, but not before some holes were made in his new Ferendine cloak, and a Mr. Deeri’s little bag of linen, worth fifteen or twenty dollars, completely destroyed. The two captains’ hats and cloaks were also ruined.

For nearly ten years, from June 1667 to January 1677, a great gap occurs in the General’s Diary; and for information as to this period of his life we must turn to other sources. From these we know that he lost favour with the Czar, for some unexplained reason, and had to wait until the next reign before he could even obtain payment of the expenses he had incurred on his English mission. From 1670 to 1677 he had command in the Ukraine, and assisted in subduing the Cossacks of Little Russia. In 1678 he made vigorous efforts to obtain permission to leave Russia, but in vain; his value being too well understood. In the same year he acquired fresh laurels by his successful defence of Tschigerin against the combined forces of the Turks and Tartars. In 1683, when he held the chief command in the Ukraine, he was raised to the rank of Lieutenant-General. Three years later he obtained six months’ leave of absence, and visited Scotland, to look after the inheritance which had come to him by the death of his parents; but was compelled to leave his wife and children behind him as hostages for his return. He reached London in the middle of April, and was graciously received by James II. and his Queen. The freedom of the Court was again granted to him.

To follow the General in all his doings in England and Scotland would be superfluous. With true Scottish caution he carefully noted down all his disbursements during his stay, and some of these items have an interest as illustrating the different prices of commodities then and now. For example. On May 4, 1686, he writes—“This day I went to the City, and by the way did meet the Scots battalion, marching through the City, well-clothed, armed, and disciplined. I took my leave of friends in the City, and, returning, saw the tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, acted in Whitehall, in the presence of the King, Queen, and all the Court. Expended this day for freight and meat for two servants to Scotland, forty shillings; on the way to thence, twelve shillings; for my two servants’ diet, while I was at Chertsey, four shillings; for dinner, eightpence; tea and ale, sixpence.

“May 6.—I began to look about me for horse furniture, and Major Dougall bought for me a saddle, with furniture and saddle-cloth, for seventeen shillings tenpence. Gave to a poor widow, two shillings; to Shenton, fourpence; for trimming, sixpence; for dinner, with wine, two shillings sixpence; to the boy, at night, fourpence; for carrying things to the boat, one shilling. I saw the Scots battalion exercised in the Hyde Park before the King and Queen, and saw the comedy, Rehearsal [the Duke of Buckingham’s celebrated burlesque] acted.

“May 7.—I hired another more private lodging at a brazier’s in Pall Mall, paying for a chamber, five shillings sixpence a week, and a bed for my servants. . . . May 8.—I moved to my new lodgings, paying house-hire and some books which I bought, two pounds eighteen shillings threepence; for dinner, two shillings sixpence; for a trunk mail, seven shillings sixpence; for two pair of stockings, eight shillings; for candle, sixpence.”

On May 17, accompanied by Sir Ewan Campbell, Lord of Lochiel, General Patrick Gordon left London, and travelled northward. Next day he rode through Godmanchester, where he saw “the most, in such a place, handsome and beautiful woman he ever saw in his lifetime.”Is Godmanchester still favoured in this way. Crossing the Ouse, he and his friend found their horses fading, and “were forced to think of swapping.” In the end they effected a bargain, but not a profitable one, and Gordon exclaims, with a sigh, “so are travellers preyed upon everywhere.” On the 2ist they rode through the green glades of Sherwood, with its memories of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. They reached Newcastle on the 25th; Wooler the next day; crossed the Border on the 27th, and spent the night at Lauder. About three o’clock the next day they entered Edinburgh, and Gordon took up his residence in the Canongate at the sign of the King’s Arms.

In the Scottish capital he visited everybody of note, and saw everything of interest. He had been absent from his native country so long that the attraction of the dimly-remembered scenes which caught his eye was enhanced by their air of novelty. On June 21 he crossed to Burntisland. On the 23rd he was at Arbroath, and next day at Aberdeen, where kith and kin, and the men of his clan, gave a great welcome to the veteran soldier who had so well sustained the good repute of the name of Gordon.

At Aberdeen he was very busy.

“July 7.—I went to see the College in the Old Town, and was very well received, and showed all worth the seeing there. I went to the Links afterwards. In the evening the Earl of Aberdeen came, to whom I paid a visit.

“July 8.—I was invited to a collation by the Lord Provost and Magistrates, when, with my friends, I was heartily entertained, and all my relations who were there made burgesses. My sister and sister-in-law being come into the town to see me, we made very merry with good music.

“July 12.—In the evening the Lord Marshal came to town, whom I visited, he coming over to my lodging, where we supped and were merry.

“July 13.—I went with some friends to the Bridge of Dee, and dined in a tavern upon excellent fresh salmon.”

But the end soon came to Gordon’s merrymaking and junketing, to the fresh salmon and the old wine; and having arranged his private affairs to his satisfaction, he prepared to return to his Muscovite employers. He left on the 1 Sth, being escorted to his vessel by the magistrates of the city; but owing to the stormy weather which prevailed, did not arrive at Riga until August 2. Thence he went on to Moscow, and husband, wife, and children were reunited on December 27.


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