Publication Spotlight: Alexander Leslie and the Scottish Generals of the Thirty Years War’ 1618-1648
August 13, 2015 Leave a comment
Professor Steve Murdoch’s new book, co-authored with our own Dr Alexia Grosjean, Alexander Leslie and the Scottish Generals of the Thirty Years War’ 1618-1648, explores why Alexander Leslie and fellow Scottish officers fought in the Thirty Year’s War, bringing a new professionalism to the battlefields of Europe.
The work focuses on Field Marshal Alexander Leslie (1582 – 1661). Leslie was the highest ranking commander from the British Isles to serve in any army during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and was one of eighteen men to serve at the rank of major general or above in the conflict. Leslie was the illegitimate and illiterate son of a Perthshire soldier; but this did not make him unique. Only two of the Scottish senior officers who fought in the Thirty Years’ War had their origins in the higher strata of Scottish society. Eventually Leslie rose to become one of Europe’s most respected infantry generals of whom an English observer commented: ‘Leslie enjoys the prompt obedience not only of the soldiers but of the higher officers as well, to such an extent that he could not wish for more if he had been born their natural sovereign’.
But how can we explain this transformation? By looking to the various societies within Scotland that produced these field commanders, the book challenges long held assumptions relating to the martial capabilities of the nation. Particular areas of Scotland produced soldiers of differing skills; while all areas had infantry traditions, regions such as the North East and the Borders were rich in cavalry heritage.
Furthermore, Steve also re-examines the motivations Leslie and the ‘Scottish Generals’ had for joining up. Moving the Scottish soldier away from simple mercenary, he reveals a host of motivations including dynastic loyalty, religious conviction, the pursuit of personal valour, coercion, exile and/or the aggrandisement of particular kin groups. In addition to these, it seems clear that foreign service in the name of the Stuart Crown, and in particular to Elisabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (daughter of James VI & I) was seen as a way to regain prestige in Scotland.
An especially interesting feature of the book is its exploration of the connections between Scots fighting overseas. An understanding the rich kith and kin connections the soldiering diaspora maintained with each other reveals how on numerous occasions Scottish commanders in one army were able to second endangered comrades in others – with or without the consent of those who employed them. Thus, as Robert Monro poignantly observed, when Leslie (in Swedish service), orchestrated a relief force for the City of Stralsund (garrisoned by Scots in Danish service) his men ‘voluntarily did come to succour and help our Nation’ not, the Danish garrison as such. Similarly, John Hepburn in French service linked up with Patrick Ruthven in Swedish service to relive a third Scottish general, James Ramsay, during the siege of Hanau in 1634. The book details these episodes and Leslie’s other spectacular successes on behalf of Sweden culminating with Wittstock in 1636.
Alexander Leslie may have died in 1661, but he is able to live again in the twenty first century. In 2011, Steve laid down a keg of whisky in Sweden to coincide with the expected publication date of the book. After he chose and filled the keg, it was officially named “Field Marshal Alexander Leslie”. The whisky matured and was bottled last year, in 2014. The publishers were so amused that they gave a 25% discount on the book until the end of January using the Swedish excise code for the keg: MG-1046. Unsurprisingly, sales of the book and whisky increased in this period!