On 2nd May 1568, Mary Queen of Scots escaped from Lochleven Castle, where she had been imprisoned for ten months after being arrested and deposed from the Crown by members of the Scottish nobility. With Mary determined to reclaim her crown, her escape was a huge crisis for the Scottish Government headed by Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray as Regent. Both Mary and Moray quickly gathered supporters, and on 13 May 1568 their opposing forces clashed outside Glasgow at Langside, in what was a critical conflict for each of them. Although Mary’s forces were numerically superior, Moray was surrounded by Scotland’s most able generals and his well-organised army overwhelmed her troops.
In researching my two volume history of Mary Queen of Scots, The Challenge to the Crown and The Survival of the Crown, I came across a map of the battlefield in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. This helps to show how the Regent’s strategy enabled him to achieve such a decisive victory, completely out-manoeuvring Mary’s forces.
The preamble to the battle
Moray learned of Mary’s escape from Lochleven while in Glasgow, and in the words of the Diurnal of Occurents was ‘sore amazed’. He took immediate steps to counter the threat that she posed. By remaining in Glasgow, he made it difficult for Mary, in Hamilton, to communicate with Dumbarton, which would provide a bridgehead for the delivery of supplies and overseas support. He sent William 4th Lord Ruthven with troops to blockade the passes on the Tay to prevent George Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly, who had raised 2,600 men, from joining her. He told Alexander 5th Lord Home to defend Dunbar Castle against the Hepburns.
Despite backing from James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton and most of the other Presbyterian nobles, Moray could muster only 4,500 men, but, most importantly, they included the most experienced generals in Scotland. Although outnumbered, he took the gamble to remain in Glasgow to prevent Mary’s supporters in western Scotland from linking up. Mary’s principal backing came from the Hamiltons, who opposed Moray’s Regency, which they believed rightfully should be theirs as heirs to the throne after Mary and her infant son. Mary also had backing from Archibald Campbell, 4th Earl of Argyll controlling the northwest, and from Sir John Maxwell, 4th Lord Herries dominating the south-west with both his own estates and those of his nephew and ward, the fifteen-year-old John, 8th Lord Maxwell. Although Herries was a Reformer, most of the west of Scotland remained Catholic.
After forcing Huntly back, Ruthven rejoined Moray from Perth with his 1,000 horse. Home easily saw off the Hepburns at Dunbar and arrived in Glasgow with six hundred spearmen. Most importantly, William Kirkcaldy of Grange arrived from Edinburgh Castle. With his formidable reputation as a general gained on the Continent, Moray could rely on him to act as he saw fit, within the framework of his military plan.
When Mary arrived at the Hamilton stronghold at Cadzow, Archbishop Hamilton assisted her in drafting a strongly worded proclamation repudiating her abdication. She condemned the ‘ungrateful, unthankful and detestable tyrants and treasonable traitors‘, by whom she had been imprisoned and deposed, and ‘whom no prince, for their perpetrated murders, could pardon or spare‘. She sent instructions to Moray to resign as Regent and, when he refused, she concentrated on gathering support to fight him. On 5 and 6 May, the Archbishop drafted a series of letters to Mary’s friends in her name. Although she approved them despite their strongly Hamilton bias, it is not certain that they were sent, but they referred to Moray as a ‘spurious bastard‘ and a ‘bestial traitor‘, and condemned his other supporters. The head of the Hamilton clan, James, Duke of Châtelherault, had become her ‘father adoptive‘ and was confirmed with his heirs as Regents and tutors to James ‘in the event of her absence in foreign countries‘. The Hamiltons were now reconfirmed after Mary and James as heirs to the Crown.
Despite failing to link up with Huntly’s adherents from the north, Mary and the Hamiltons were hopeful of additional troops to underline their numerical superiority. Mary ‘was not minded to fight, or hazard battle‘, but planned to link up with John 5th Lord Fleming’s troops at Dumbarton. Yet the Hamiltons, wanting to take early advantage of their superior numbers, marched towards Glasgow. They skirted the city in the hope of drawing Moray’s forces out to a place where they could overwhelm them. Moray was too experienced to fall for this, and the Hamiltons marched on towards Dumbarton, which they intended to make their headquarters. Moray realised that there was only one place to block them, and gathered his troops on a ridge at Burgh Muir beyond Langside, a T-shaped village south-east of Glasgow with a long narrow main street, Long Loan, running from south-east to north-west.
With Morton in command of his main force, Moray appointed Kirkcaldy to have ‘special care as an experimented captain to oversee every danger‘. Kirkcaldy took two hundred hagbutters forward to occupy cottages on each side of Long Loan, where garden walls offered protection from cannon fire, and he reserved two hundred pikemen and cavalry on the west side of the village. Realising the danger, Mary sent Maitland to treat with Moray, but the Hamiltons were spoiling for a fight and jumped the gun. Kirkcaldy rode from wing to wing to supervise the defences, while the twenty-five-year-old Lord Claud Hamilton advanced with Mary’s van of 2,000 men, supported by Herries’s and George, 5th Lord Seton’s cavalry. They stormed into Long Loan, where Kirkcaldy picked them off easily with his hagbutters backed by Ker of Cessford and Home, on foot with pike in hand, leading his six hundred spearmen. Mary’s troops fought their way forward bravely despite the cost, and almost turned Moray’s right flank, but Kirkcaldy, ever vigilant, saw the danger. He called up the rearguard led by Sir William Douglas and Lindsay as reinforcement.
Kirkcaldy had orders from Moray to minimise bloodshed, and his forces struck the enemy on their flanks and faces, throwing them into confusion. Mary’s van needed support from the main body of her troops under Argyll, but it is said that at this critical moment he fainted, possibly with an epileptic fit, and the leaderless Argylls refused to budge without him. According to the romantic Pierre de Bourdeille, Sieur de Brantôme, who was not there, Mary rode forward from a nearby hill to lead them into battle herself, but the Argylls continued to quarrel among themselves and would not listen to her ‘eloquence’. Yet it is more probable that she made good her escape .
Kirkcaldy now moved forward, sending Home’s pikemen against the Hamiltons, but obeying Moray’s instruction to avoid loss of life and to capture as many as he could. Mary’s troops were routed, and the Argylls broke away, fleeing back to the Highlands. Argyll, the unwitting cause of Mary’s disaster, escaped to Dunoon, and would not submit to Moray. Only a hundred of Mary’s men were slain but three hundred, including Seton, James, 4th Lord Ross, and Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, were taken prisoner. Robert Melville, who had not been involved in the fighting, was also captured, but, with Kirkcaldy as his brother-in-law and two brothers supporting Moray, he was soon freed. The Regency lost just one man, although Ochiltree was wounded by Herries, and Home also suffered injuries. The whole skirmish that sealed Mary’s fate, and it was little more than this, took three-quarters of an hour.
One interesting aside is the map’s depiction of Glasgow at this period. Despite its cathedral and university, it was little more than a village surrounding its castle.