152. Montrose and Argyil

Here is a poem based in an era when having the wrong religious belief would get you killed very quickly and very cruelly.

The English Civil War was fought while America was being born, between fierce sects of Protestant Christians, over points of doctrine so small that no one remembers them but historians. It was a time of multiple and conflicting loyalties, when opportunists and men of conscience alike changed sides, then repented and changed back again. Much of the freedom of religion we cherish in America today came as a reaction to the excesses visited on the people when armies decided what God had intended.

It was not unlike Shia and Sunni today. I understand them both, and fear them both when they march, because I remember how recently our Christian ancestors were killing each other for the same kinds of reasons.

To explain the obscure points in this poem, it takes place in Scotland which was under English rule. The tolbooth is Edinburgh city hall and the heads of executed prisoners were hung there. Corbies are crows in the Scots language. Montrose and Argyll were sometime enemies, depending on shifting fortunes. Both fought long and eventually lost – then lost their heads. I have bent history enough to put them on the spikes at the same time, so they could have a final conversation.

Montrose and Argyll

There is a spike by the Tolbooth side
Where famous heads are hung to dry;
There came the Marquise of Argyil,
Bereft of body, to reside.

In sun and rain, by weeks and days,
‘Til bare of flesh, by corbies pared,
Above the commons in the street
Who gibed and jeered, and milled and stared.

Montrose later joined him there,
Come newly from the scaffold head,
With fresh and bloody countenance,
Unwelcome, save that he was dead.

Then Montrose said to Argyil’s skull,
Staring eyeless at his side,
“A martyr’s death ye sought and found;
I see your flesh is mortified.”

The skull spoke back, “My Lord Montrose,
Ascent has brought you to my side;
And yet the rose upon your cheek
Comes newly leaking from your eye.”

They bickered harshly through the day
Of who was right when King Charles fell,
And who the Lord most dearly loved,
And who would spend his days in hell.

Then said the Marquise of Argyil,
“That ye died was no one’s fault but yours.
Ye had the chance to do the right,
But ye woudna’ heed the Lord.”

Replied the Marquise of Montrose,
“Full many died, whose deaths are yours.
Ye had the chance to let them live,
But ye woudna’ heed the Lord.”

They both paused, their voices spent,
Reflecting on the weary years,
The twists, the turns, the changing sides,
Betrayals, deaths, and bitter tears.

To overthrow an upstart King,
Then, repentant, bring him back again.
For Scotland, God, or Covenant
‘Til Cromwell’s axe cut short his reign.

Now all is done; the King is dead,
The Scottish church no stronger stands;
Both Marquises have lost their heads,
And Cromwell strides upon the land.

  * * *

          Myself, I am a sinful man,
          My kindness an indifferent sort.
          Temptation is my truest friend,
          And prayer remains a last resort.

          Yet when I stood beneath those spikes
          To hear the dead and mighty speak
          With undiminished passion still,
          Though hung in shame before the weak.

          I wondered then, as I ask now,
          What further deeds they might begin,
          In Jesus’ name, on Jesus’ flock,
          If they were not such Christian men.

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