Scots Mercenaries

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Scottish mercenaries in the Thirty Years War

The seventeenth century witnessed important changes in the conditions under which men were engaged to fight in armed units. Before the mid-seventeenth century, rulers and states alike raised men (when they were needed) through private contractors: these included great nobles and, increasingly, private commanders of less social significance. Often, rights and obligations of military service already existed. ‘Feudal’ military service, rendered to a monarch in exchange for rights in lands, remained a legal reality well into the seventeenth century. Britain’s Charles I, and France’s Louis XIII and Louis XIV each attempted to raise men using medieval institutions such as knight service and the ban et arrière ban, or feudal levée. Being limited by strict rules, governing the length and type of service a gentleman need perform, such institutions were employed, usually, in conjunction with other means of placing men under arms, including the recruitment of paid bodies of men for specific periods of time. Two other options presented themselves to early-modern rulers: one was to pay soldiers from the coffers of the royal household, effectively placing a number of a monarch’s subjects under arms voluntarily and in exchange for direct remuneration. Another was to raise sums of money to employ companies of professional soldiers who were often aliens, men from abroad. By the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), the vast majority of armed forces on the European continent were international soldiers who had been raised by private contract.

At the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the commanders of regiments subsisting entirely upon contract-based payments from major European Crowns, had become proficient entrepreneurs. Scots provided a large number of these enterprising colonels and the reputation of the professional Scottish soldier was high indeed. Scots played a prominent part throughout the Thirty Years’ War and excelled as part of Danish forces under that king, before the 1630s. Thereafter, Scots were a high-profile section of the Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf ’s military machine. They were at the forefront of the army that the Swedish king sent into Germany in the 1630s. By 1648, there could be found in every army in Europe, high-ranking Scottish commanders: some even served beyond the pale of Christian Europe in the forces of the Ottoman Empire.

Scottish soldiers had fought abroad since at least the Middle Ages. From the earliest times they augmented military forces ranging from Northern Ireland to Russia, and from Scandinavia to Italy. This study focusses on the way in which Scottish regiments in northwest Europe were integrated into contemporary political and military structures at a time when it was increasingly difficult to raise armies privately and for long periods of time without the express involvement of local rulers. The position of British regiments in French service is instructive to the study of this challenge to the private military enterprise system perfected during the period of the Thirty Years’ War. In many ways they are a model for the replacement of privately raised units, with those of a standing army, while in other ways they represent the problems which monarchs faced in challenging the strongly entrenched independence of contractually established private units.

The position of military leaders in the changing environment of the seventeenth century presents a rich field of study. For example, the rights to gifts and property of commanders or their officers under the jurisdiction of foreign monarchs, was singularly fraught and particularly affected the heirs of a number of high-ranking Scottish soldiers abroad. Similarly, the politique nature of naturalisation and settlement rights of Scottish soldiers abroad, and the recognition and maintenance of their social status, are important issues which have received little scholarly attention. They are studied here as issues of great importance to any analysis of the effects of increasing Crown control of armed forces.

The process by which foreign regiments were integrated into larger national armies, is an important concern in this study. It is particularly relevant in its effect on the attitudes of Scottish men and women associated with military service abroad. The differing experiences of foreign service of officers and men is also highly instructive of the increasingly divergent rationale for their enlistment, particularly as the attitude of France towards British forces changed markedly in the 1670s.

Scots abroad might be vilified as foreigners or fêted as old friends, depending on the place and time. They were particularly ‘clannish’, or family-orientated in terms of how they arranged their service in regiments abroad, and allegiance to family and kin in many ways reflected a wider sense of nationhood or ‘Scottishness’ among such men. The restoration of Charles II provided many opportunities for the articulation of national and personal loyalty to the sovereign by his Scottish subjects abroad. The genuine nature of many Scots’ statements of allegiance to their ‘natural’ king and country after 1660 should, however, be treated with caution. Though many were proud to call themselves Scots, and the establishment of a connection to Scotland by soldiers abroad often provided the basis for successful employment there based on kinship. Statements of Scottish identity were, therefore, employed by many Scots overseas, who saw distinct advantages in maintaining links with the country of their or their ancestors’ birth.

The presence of Britons abroad carried considerable diplomatic and political implications for British kings. However, the transformation from private to standing military units might also be effected by changes in military technology. Advances in drill techniques, weaponry and siege-craft all affected traditional notions of military service, helping to alter stereotyped methods of raising and equipping bodies of armed men.

The particular relationship of France to Britain in the Sun King’s reign singles it out for specific attention in this work: it shared a long association with Scotland and played host to Scots from at least as early as the Middle Ages. English regiments could be found in countries such as Portugal, following the 1662 marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, while Scottish forces fought across central and eastern Europe. But the longest-standing Scottish regiments existed in France. Russia drew a small, but significant number of Scots to its service, and they are mentioned throughout this study. In contrast, a great number of Scots served in Germany and Sweden before 1660 and many of these men lived to see the Restoration, although few played a significant role in the political, economic or social development of Britain thereafter.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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