When King Charles had been a prisoner for about two years, the English condemned him to death, and cut off his head. Then they said they would have no more kings, and they made a soldier called Cromwell, ruler, giving him the title of Lord Protector. When Montrose heard that his King was dead, he was filled with grief and anger. Being a poet as well as a soldier, he drew his sword, and with the point of it he wrote a poem full of sorrow and defiance.
"I'll sing thine obsequies with trumpet sounds,
And write thine epitaph in blood and wounds."
Not only Montrose, but every loyal Scot, was filled with grief and anger. Even the Covenanters, who had fought against the King, had never meant that he should be killed; they had hoped to force him to rule better. So now they proclaimed as King his son Charles, and messengers were sent to Holland, where he had taken refuge, to ask him to come to Scotland to be crowned. These messengers made it plain to Charles, however, that they would only accept him as King if he promised to rule according to the law, and if he promised to sign the Covenant, and to leave them free in matters of religion.
These conditions did not please Charles. He wanted to be a despot, like his father, and to do exactly as he pleased. He thought that if he could conquer the land, there would be no need to yield to these conditions. So he said neither "yes" nor "no" to the messengers of the Covenant, but hesitated and delayed.
He hesitated and delayed, because gallant Montrose, with his poet's sword in his hand, was sailing back to Scotland. He was going to write his King's epitaph, as he had said, in blood and wounds, and to set his son upon the throne.
Montrose landed in Orkney, and then crossed to the mainland. But the people did not flock to his standard as they had done before. A few men of Orkney, a few foreign soldiers whom he had brought with him, one or two loyalist gentlemen, that was his whole army. It was not enough with which to re-conquer a kingdom, and when this little company met the Covenanting army, the Orkney fishermen fled without striking a blow; the foreign soldiers fought for a while, but they too gave in, leaving Montrose and his few friends to fight alone.
Many were killed, others taken prisoners, but Montrose himself escaped. Changing clothes with a peasant, he wandered about for several days, suffering much from hunger, cold, and weariness. At last, utterly worn out, he was discovered by his enemies and betrayed, it has been said, to the Covenanters by a false friend, for the price of a few bags of meal.
The Covenanters hated Montrose, and now that they had him in their power, they were very cruel to him. They mounted him upon a rough Highland pony, with straw for a saddle, and a rope for a bridle, and with his legs tied together, led him from town to town, dressed still in the ragged, dirty clothes in which he had been captured. Insults were heaped upon him. In every town and village the women and children came out to hoot and yell, and to curse at him as he passed. But through it all, the Marquis rode with calm dignity, showing neither shame nor anger.
At last they came to Edinburgh. The whole city was ablaze with excitement because this great enemy of the Covenant had been taken. Bells were rung, bonfires were lit, and the streets were crowded from end to end as Montrose passed through them. Tied to a cart, which was driven by the common hangman, he was led to prison. But so splendid and noble did he look, that those who had come to jeer and laugh were silent; many were so touched with pity that they sobbed aloud.
There was not even the mockery of a trial. Montrose had been condemned before he reached Edinburgh, but he was taken before the Parliament in order to hear his sentence. There he defended himself nobly. "I did engage in the Covenant, and was faithful to it," he said. "When I saw some, under pretence of religion, intended to take the authority from the King, and seize on it for themselves, I judged it my duty to oppose it to the uttermost. As to my coming at this time, it was by his Majesty's just commands. Be not too rash, let me be judged by the laws of God, and the laws of this land."
But nothing that Montrose could plead was of any use. He was condemned to die.
Next morning the Marquis was awakened by the sound of drums and trumpets. It was the soldiers being marshalled to guard the streets, in case any one should try to rescue him on his way to death. "What," he said, "is it possible that I, who was such a terror to these good men when alive and prosperous, continue still to frighten them when I am bound for death?"
The Marquis looked so handsome, grand, and grave that everyone was full of sad astonishment.
He rose, and dressed himself carefully, combing out his long hair. As he was doing this, one of the men who hated him most came into his prison cell. "Why is James Graham so careful of his locks?" he sneered.
"My head is yet mine own," replied the Marquis calmly. "I will arrange it as I please. To-night, when it will be yours, you may do with it what you like."
Once again, for the last time, he marched through the crowded streets. He was no longer dressed in his shabby old clothes, but in a beautiful suit of velvet, which his friends had been allowed to give him. Every window, every balcony, from the Tolbooth to the Grassmarket, where he was to die, was thronged with people. Many had come to scoff, yet none scoffed. He stepped along the street with so great state, he looked so handsome, grand, and grave, that every one was full of sad astonishment. Once only, the silence was broken by the shrill laughter of a woman's voice. Even his enemies shed tears, and owned him to be the bravest subject in the world. He looked more like a king than a felon condemned to shameful death.
The Marquis was not allowed to speak to the people, lest even at the last they should rise and rescue him. But to those around him he spoke, ending with the words, "I leave my soul to God, my service to my Prince, my goodwill to my friends, my love and charity to you all."
When the last moment came, the hangman burst into tears, and a quivering sob broke from the crowd.
Montrose was only thirty-eight when he died. To the last he was a poet, and the night before he died he wrote his own
"Scatter my ashes, strew them in the air.
Lord! since Thou knowest where all these atoms are,
I'm hopeful Thou'lt recover once my dust,
And confident Thou'lt raise me with the just."