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Steve Murdoch, ed. Scotland and the Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648. History of Warfare Series, vol. 6. Leiden: Brill, 2001. xvi + 311 pp. Tables, notes, index. $106.00 (cloth), ISBN 90-04-12086-6.

Reviewed by Barbara Donagan, Huntington Library, San Marino.
Published by H-Albion (March, 2003)

Despite the recent turn to a British history that attempts to integrate the stories of the component British parts, little attention has been paid to the changed focus in foreign affairs that this entails. The history of diplomacy has still centered on the axis of Paris-Vienna-Madrid, with secondary attention to The Hague, Venice, and lesser German princely capitals; military history has concentrated on the Low Countries and on central Europe or "Germany" (in its extensive seventeenth-century sense). This useful but uneven collection insists that once Scotland is taken into the equation it is evident that attention must also shift further north to Scandinavia and further east to Poland and Russia. In the first half of the seventeenth century, an independent and distinctively Scottish familiarity with this large area combined with policies emanating from London to create a recognizably British role in Europe.

Scotland and the Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648 has three parts. After the editor's introduction, the first section offers three chapters on diplomacy and politics. The second and major section contains six on Scotland's military contribution to a mixed bag of European armies. Finally, two chapters address Scottish knowledge of the wars in Europe and European reaction to Scottish soldiers.

Steve Murdoch's introduction sets out general themes and problems, but also grapples with a question central to the whole project, namely, that of the number of Scots actually involved in the Thirty Years' War. Although no precise or final answer is possible, an approximate one is required if we are to assess seriously the importance, both at home and abroad, of Scotland's engagement in the war. Although Murdoch's quantitative analysis raises some questions (see below) his conclusion that one hundred thousand British soldiers served in anti-Habsburg armies, of whom about fifty thousand were Scots, brings home the scale of British and Scottish engagement with continental war.

In the section devoted to "Diplomacy and Politics," Murdoch turns to the role of Scottish ambassadors in British diplomacy. He reveals Stuart dependence on Scottish diplomats in their northern European policies, the ambassadors' linguistic and political skills, their professionalism when compared with their English counterparts, and their bipolar commitment to British and Scandinavian causes. He also discusses their difficulties in promoting the activist policies espoused by Charles I when his promises of financial support to potential allies proved "intangible" and hence unbelievable (pp. 32, 43-44). This account of the unrealistic foreign policy that Charles I's realistic professionals did their best to advance is persuasively damning. David Worthington's complementary chapter discusses the unofficial diplomacy of Scottish expatriates who endeavored to advance a British pro-Habsburg policy, and also looks at Scottish careers in Habsburg armies. In "The Scottish parliament and European Diplomacy, 1641-1647," John R. Young links the increased power of the Scottish Estates in the 1640s and their development of an effective committee system to policies that, while generally intended to extend the reach of the Covenant and Presbyterian church government, were perforce amended in response to rapidly changing circumstances at home and abroad. Young is a surefooted guide to these complex events.

The section on "The Military Contribution" ranges widely over a variety of European conflicts. It begins with a somewhat episodic overview by J. V. Polisensky, a master of the field to whose memory the volume is dedicated, of "Scottish Soldiers in the Bohemian War, 1619-1622." It continues with Matthew Glozier's study of "Scots in French and Dutch Armies" and Alexia Grosjean's of Scotland's contributions of men and military expertise to Sweden's war. Paul Dukes and Robert L. Frost move to less familiar ground. Dukes discusses the longstanding relations between Scotland and Muscovite Russia and the efforts of the Muscovy Company to influence policy. Through the career of Sir Alexander Leslie of Auchintoul he explores the role of Scottish soldiers in the Smolensk War of 1632-1634 and in the modernization of the Muscovite army. His account of the "russifying Leslies" (p. 187) exemplifies a transfer of affiliation and allegiance from the country of birth to that of military service that, among those who managed to survive, was not uncommon: Glozier, for instance, examines patterns of marriage and family formation among Scottish soldiers in Dutch service, and reports that 64 percent of his sample married "non-Scots" (p. 135). Frost's survey of relations between Scotland and Poland-Lithuania also notes the integration of Scots into Polish society, revealing a history that stretches before and after the Thirty Years' War and comprises peddlers and traders as well as soldiers. He points out the attractions of Polish service for "impoverished soldiers of fortune" (p. 211), especially Catholics, in campaigns against enemies who ranged from Russians and Turks to Gustav II Adolf and his Swedes. In the last essay in this section William S. Brockington examines the life and work of Robert Monro, professional soldier and "devout ... Presbyterian" (p. 216), whose career encompassed service in Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and England (where he spent five years in the Tower). He defends both the accuracy of the record in Monro, His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment (1637), the fullest and most famous account of a Briton's service in the Thirty Years' War, and Monro's integrity in a career "determined ... by military necessity and by his belief in the justness of the Covenanter cause" (p. 223)--although he admits that his hero "was perhaps remiss in preventing his men from engaging in atrocities" (p. 222).

Finally, a section on "Lasting Impressions" turns to the classic questions, what did they know? how did they know it? and what did they make of it? Dauvit Horsbroch surveys the sources and networks that kept Scotland informed: letters, books, sermons, travellers' tales, even popular songs, familiarized the home public with war in Europe. If the major themes--the methods of collection and dissemination of news and the nature of contemporary representation of war, politics, and religion--are by now well-worn, the Scottish examples are fresh. Hartmut Ruffer and Kathrin Zickerman discuss German reactions to the presence of Scots and find that responses, once Scots ceased to be seen as merely exotic and barbaric, were inconsistent and changeable. Their account of German views of Elizabeth of Bohemia, who refused to learn German or adapt to Bohemian manners, offers a refreshing counterweight to the sanctified Winter Queen of British protestant mythology, and suggests that she shared her brother's talent for tactless intransigence. Some Scottish officers, on the other hand, sought to acquire a knowledge of German language and culture. Germans recognized Scottish courage and discipline in battle and admired particular commanders, but the authors regretfully note a Scottish weakness for alcohol; they appear to see a direct line of descent from Scottish soldiers of the seventeenth century to football hooligans of the late twentieth and to assume that Germans of the earlier period shared modern dismay. The insistence on a northern perspective is invaluable, and these studies offer much that is both fresh and illuminating. A balanced assessment of the relative importance of the Scottish or English camp remains elusive, however. As in most such recoveries of neglected (at least by outsiders) aspects of national pasts, there is a tendency to tunnel vision and to see, for example, only the Scots in a crowd. At times, too, the claims for the "Scottishness" of the agents is debatable, as in the case of the Earl of Carlisle in his role of diplomat: by the 1620s he was surely primarily identifiable as a successful English courtier and only secondarily as a "Scotsman" (pp. 12, 28, 48).

These studies are chiefly concerned with Scots abroad. Their range is consciously limited, so that there is only glancing mention of such issues as the social, intellectual, economic, or demographic consequences of Scotland's participation in European wars. Within its chosen range the approach of the volume is traditional. It is largely concerned with questions of which Scots were where and when in continental Europe, and the contributors find the answers in detailed micro-histories of diplomatic missions and military expeditions as well as in mini-biographies. This is valuable in a field that has long been underexplored, but it leads to an overall impression of, on the one hand, detail without context and of, on the other, the absence of topics that seem to demand attention. The dynastic element in Stuart concern with the affairs of the Palatinate receives ample notice, and religion lurks steadily in the background, but the larger context of British involvement in Europe gets little sustained notice after the pithy, enlightening, but brief pages of Alan Macinnes's preface. It is surprising to find so little on the actual practice of war--on the techniques and discipline, for example, that attracted foreigners to the service of Gustav II Adolf, or on those aspects of relations between soldiers and civilians that so horrified observers. Considerable attention is paid to the rather unprofitable question of whether the Scottish soldiers were mercenaries and soldiers of fortune (a condition, the authors seem to fear, that must entail moral censure). Passing references deplore the horrors of war and the misconduct of soldiers but these are largely conventional and superficial. In a war seen by contemporaries as exceptionally brutal, one in which troops of many nationalities engaged in and committed many appalling actions, how did the conduct of the Scots compare with their peers? It is admitted that they were better than everyone's bugbear, the "Croats," and better disciplined than "soldiers of many other nationalities" (p. 290), but one would like to know how they differed and why.

One of the collection's major contributions is the welcome and important attempt, notably by Murdoch and Grosjean, to bring some quantitative discipline to assessment of the Scottish role in the Thirty Years' War and to relate it to the overall British contribution. However their calculations, although useful and enlightening, require some clarification. Murdoch provides a table estimating numbers of British soldiers raised between 1618 and 1648 for service against the Habsburgs in the various European theatres of war and notes the number of Scots in each group. His total (fifty thousand Scots out of one hundred thousand Britons, as noted above) is impressive but the figure would be more illuminating if it were more specifically linked to estimates of the total Scottish population, and if variant estimates by other historians were discussed. In addition, conclusions based on disparate categories of evidence are problematic. Murdoch's comment that the fifty thousand Scottish soldiers in anti-Habsburg armies represented 20 percent of the adult male Scottish population (extrapolated from a calculation by E. M. Furgol) needs explanation, for it appears to be based on a cumulative total of all soldiers over thirty years set against a population figure that applies to a much shorter period. Furgol speaks of a "nation of a million souls," and he estimates that twenty-five thousand troops represented 10 percent of the adult male population over a seven-year period, 1625-32.[1] But over thirty years there were more than one million "Scottish souls," so that doubling the base number of troops does not automatically double the percentage. Another complication, as Murdoch points out, is that these figures provide an incomplete survey of Scottish military activity, for they do not include the smaller numbers of Scots who fought in pro-Habsburg armies, notably in the Netherlands, or in other conflicts on the Baltic or Turkish fronts.

Alexia Grosjean's study of the enlistment of Scottish officers in Swedish armies between the mid-1620s and 1648 draws on a data base for Scotland, Scandinavia, and Northern Europe, 1580-1707 (SSNE, compiled by Grosjean and Murdoch). It usefully confirms the value of Scottish officers to the Swedish war effort and Swedish reliance on foreign troops. But the presentation is unnecessarily confusing. Three of her four figures showing comparative annual enlistments by Scottish and English officers are labelled "Scottish and English officers in the Swedish Army" (my italics), although they appear from the text to represent new enlistments, not the total number in the army. In addition, the last two figures are drawn to different scales from the first two, so that the visual message is initially misleading (pp. 147-151). There are also some puzzling fluctuations in numbers. In 1621, for example, we are told that 85 percent of the soldiers in the Swedish army were indigenous, but by 1631 only 28 percent were indigenous. In 1635, however, "only" 23,000 of 26,000 (or 88 percent) were "Swedish or Finnish," whereas in 1636 "only 1/3 of the army of circa 15,000 men comprised Swedes and Finns" (pp. 143, 161, 162). Part of the answer to the puzzling fluctuation may lie in different army groupings or different campaign needs or the status attributed to the Finns, but the reader needs more help.

Despite caveats and incompleteness, the figures and conclusions offered in the essays by Murdoch and Grosjean, which are based on formidable research in Swedish archives as well as other disparate and often piecemeal sources, provide a valuable basis for further research into the importance of the European wars to Scotland and of the extent of Scottish involvement in Europe. They will doubtless be refined in the future.

As the comments above suggest, the collection as a whole would have benefited from more vigilant editing and proofreading. Too much of the prose is awkward and occasionally it is impenetrable. An alert eye would have prevented the Germanicization of Sir Ralph Winwood into Sir Ralph Einwood and provided an explanation of the sudden appearance of a mysterious "Stargard circle" (pp. 273, 155). The perspective often appears insular rather than innovative and some of the essays still bear the marks of student papers. The book also has a somewhat incestuous air. Generosity to peers and colleagues is admirable, but some of the "new" findings credited to theses and articles cited are confirmations of or variations on common-places of the field rather than discoveries. Historians must be grateful for a collection that offers new horizons, impressive and intensive research, and much new information, but it is not a kindness to writers or readers to publish interesting work marred by easily remediable faults.


[1]. Edward M. Furgol, "Scotland Turned Sweden: The Scottish Covenanters and the Military Revolution, 1638-1651," in The Scottish National Covenant in Its British Context, ed. John Morrill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990), p. 142; also see p. 140.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 05/03/04 05:42:43
S D Stein

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