Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Memoirs and Adventures of Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange
Chapter VII. Mont Saint Michel Captivity and Escape

On the 15th of August 1547, Leon Strozzio, with his numerous prisoners, sailed for France, where they were condemned to captivity under circumstances of the greatest misery and humiliation,—being regarded by their captors as wretches excommunicated, and polluted with murder and sacrilege of the deepest dye. After their departure, the following distich became common in Scotland, and was chanted openly in the streets by the children in the day-time, and by bacchanalians in the night,—

“Ye priests content ye noo,
Ye priests content ye noo,
For Norman and his companie
Have filled your galleys fou.”

No doubt the regent was very glad to be rid, on any terms, of those troublesome spirits who for fifteen months had disturbed his government, and maintained a civil war in the very heart of the most peaceful province in the kingdom. He had next to prepare for a storm from the south, where the mustering lances of the Duke of Somerset betokened inevitable war.

Leon Strozzio must have cruised off the Scottish or the English coast for some time, as it was not until the month of November that his galleys sailed down the English Channel, arrived on the French shores, and anchored off Fecamp, which then consisted of little more than an ancient castle, a great old abbey, (the burial-place of the Norman dukes) and a straggling street of humble cottages. Passing Havre-de-Grace, which had been recently fortified by Henry II., the fleet entered the broad mouth of the noble Seine, and, sailing up thirty-five miles, came to anchor off Rouen, the capital of Normandy. The city was then commanded by a fine old castle, perched on the hill of St Katherine, and had a stately bridge of thirteen arches, both of which have long since passed away.

By order of the French government, (to whose mercy the regent of Scotland had completely abandoned them) all the prisoners of inferior rank were forthwith condemned to the galleys as slaves; and those gentlemen, their leaders, who had expected to be released, were immediately immured in separate fortresses and dungeons.

William Kirkaldy, Norman Leslie, John Leslie of Parkhill, and Peter Carmichael of Kilmadie, were imprisoned in the castle of Mont St Michel, where they remained a considerable time in hopeless captivity, which probably David and James Kirkaldy would have shared, had they not been left behind in the hands of the regent.

James Melville of Cambee was sent to Bretagne, and confined in the stately old tower of Brest—now a well known seaport, but then an insignificant village, where the young Queen of Scotland landed a short time after Melville’s immurement in that gloomy prison, where u he departed this life in great misery.”

John Knox, with young Balfour of Monkquhanny and others, were chained to oars in the galleys on the Loire, where they remained during the ensuing winter. Knox was nearly two years in the degrading situation of a slave; and it is not probable that the lash of the taskmaster increased his goodwill towards Popery, as it failed to inspire him with that spirit of charity, forgiveness, and peace, which ought to be the chief characteristics of a Christian. The style in which he wrote of the transactions of his time, and the manner in which he treated the unhappy Mary, are strong proofs of his inflexible sternness and revengeful spirit. In the days of his degradation, the French galleys, in addition to being a receptacle for all that was revolting in crime and miserable in fortune, were, by an ordinance of Henry II., made a place of useful durance for all the able-bodied vagrants the authorities could lay hands on.

Balneaves of Halhill was confined in the castle of Rouen, where he solaced the solitary hours of his captivity by composing a treatise on “Justification by Faith, without works”—a book which was afterwards revised and published by Knox, but under another title.

Sir James Kirkaldy of Grange and Monipenny of Pit-milly were kept prisoners in the castle of Cherbourg, then enclosed by strong fortifications, which were demolished about the close of the sixteenth century. Great efforts were made to compel these two, who were deemed the most obstinate heretics, to attend mass, but without effect. The Laird of Grange stoutly told the chevalier who was captain of Cherbourg, that "though he might control their bodies, he had no power over their consciences.”

“I have the power to command here,” replied the Frenchman haughtily, “ and can compel ye to go where I go! ”

"To go to any lawful place with you,” replied the prisoners, “we will not refuse; but that which offendeth our consciences we will neither do for you nor Henry, your king.”

"Will ye go to the mass?” passionately demanded the chatelain, who, no doubt, remembered that compassing the death of a cardinal had not troubled their consciences. "Will ye go to the mass?”

"Ho!” replied Kirkaldy bluntly; "and if you compel us to attend, those that are there shall see by our behaviour how much we despise it.”

William Kirkaldy’s prison of Mont Saint Michel was the strong fortress which defends a large city in the bishopric of Avranches. Rising up abruptly on all sides, the detached rock of Saint Michel, which is said to have derived its name from a recluse who dwelt on it, is separated from the mainland by a bank of sand a league in length, passable only when the tide is quite out, but covered at high water. Henrico Catrino Davila, an Italian who wrote in those days, describes it as a "wonderfully strong place upon the sea-shore, to which one cannot go by land, except for the space of two short hours by day and night when the tide is low.” Near the city stood a famous old Benedictine monastery, built by a bishop of Avranches in the eighth century, by special desire (say the legendaries) of St Michel the archangel, and richly endowed by the Dukes of Normandy. The little peninsula was, in those days, famous for a medicinal fountain, to which the superstitious daily made solemn pilgrimages, and from thence brought away a peculiar description of shells as a remembrance of their piety. Near it, on a mass of wave-beaten rock, stood another Norman stronghold, which has long since crumbled into ruin and disappeared.

In the great castle of Saint Michel, secured by lofty towers, iron gates, by steep rocks, by watchful sentinels, and, worse than all, by the waves of the girdling sea, the four Scottish captives endured a monotonous, painful, and ignominious imprisonment.

Like the captain of Cherbourg, the commander of Mont Saint Michel used every means to procure their peaceable attendance at mass with the garrison, but without success; and he is said to have received even sharper retorts than the other chatelain from his refractory charges.

“We will not only go to the mass,” Kirkaldy and his companions were wont to reply in a bantering tone, “but we will even help to perform it,—provided you will let us slay the priest; for else, sir, we will not.”

Upon this, the chatelain ceased to urge them further.

Notwithstanding the strictness with which they were kept, William Kirkaldy and his three fellow-prisoners contrived to communicate with John Knox, who was tugging an oar in a galley on the Loire, fully a hundred miles distant. From this it may be inferred that there was some friendly Protestant among the garrison, who pitied their dreary captivity. They sent a message to Knox, asking the rather superfluous question, a if they might not, with a good conscience, break their prison and escape?” The idea of those wild spirits entertaining any scruples or doubts about the matter appears rather an anomaly. Knox returned an answer in the affirmative, with the proviso that they were not morally entitled to shed any man’s blood in the attempt. Sir James of the Grange, with whom they had also communicated, opposed the idea entirely, and warned them of the difficulty and danger of an enterprise which, if successful, would only cause those Scottish gentlemen who were imprisoned in other castles, to be kept with greater strictness and seventy.1 Meanwhile Knox, the great Reformer, was enduring many miseries and humiliations, under which his strong mind was never bent, or his indomitable spirit humbled for a moment; and he was only indebted for his release, ultimately, to the personal interposition of the English king with Henry of France.

Long prior to this, the four bold cavaliers at Mont Saint Michel effected their escape with a daring and decision peculiarly characteristic of their natures. It would have been a strong castle indeed that could have held captive for life two such gallant spirits as William Kirkaldy and Norman Leslie, the hero of Ancrum Muir. They had engaged in their service a boy or page belonging to the castle—probably the same kind Mercury who had borne their letters to Cherbourg and the galleys on the Loire.

Embracing the opportunity of a festal night, (the eve of King Henry’s birthday,) when the French soldiers who composed that isolated garrison were quite intoxicated, Kirkaldy, Leslie, Parkhill, Carmichael, and the page, rushed upon them, disarmed and hound them all successively ; after which they placed them in the strong grated chambers of the fortress, and, locking the doors, had the famous rock of Saint Michel completely at their command. Adhering strictly (it is said) to the humane injunctions of Knox, they shed no blood in the dangerous scuffle ; hut the solitary chatelain was next to he disposed of. He was speedily deprived of the keys, and made prisoner. Locking the strong outer gates and harriers behind them, to prevent immediate pursuit, the five successful fugitives descended the rock, and with all expedition left the isle behind them. Luckily the tide was out, and the long dreary sand-bank dry: they reached the mainland in safety, and immediately took separate roads through Avranches, to avoid recognition and recapture. Norman the Master of Rothes, and his uncle John of Parkhill, reached Rohan, a large and open city on the Ouste in Lower Brittany; Porte Louis is only fifteen miles distant, and they speedily escaped.

William Kirkaldy and Peter Carmichael, accompanied by the French page, reached Conquet, a small seaport town near the Bay of Brest, and in these days called by the natives “the world’s end,” as no land lay between it and America. From thence they would probably have escaped by sea, but for the roguery of their French friend, who robbed them of their little stock of money and absconded, leaving them to the double annoyance of poverty in a strange country, and dread of his betraying them to the exasperated authorities. A strict search was made after them; but, by assuming mean and frequent disguises, they completely evaded it.

Less fortunate than their friends the Leslies, (who had then reached Scottish ground,) they wandered about France for three months, continually in the disguise of mendicants, and nearly so in reality. The page having nearly emptied their little exchequer, it is recorded that want of money caused them to undergo severe and innumerable hardships. In addition to these, there hung over them the terrors, if recaptured, of the most severe imprisonment the dreadful vaults of Loches, or some such bastille, could have afforded: perhaps a public and disgraceful death, for having assaulted the soldiers of the king, and broken ward from the royal castle. As foreigners and Protestants, fear of communicating, under their circumstances, with the inhabitants of a Catholic country, together with an utter ignorance of the localities, increased their hourly annoyances.

At last, after thirteen weeks’ wandering, they contrived to embark, as poor Scottish mariners, on board a French ship, which, to their joy, landed them on the western coast of their native country.

From thence, without delay, they hent their steps towards England; Arran, now Duke of Chatelherault, being still regent of Scotland, and Beatoun’s death yet fresh in the minds of the people. They joined Norman Leslie. As already related, that cavalier had before found his way to Scotland; hut, understanding that the regent fined and imprisoned all who received or sheltered him, he was obliged to retire to Denmark. He found no refuge there; and, after wandering over many countries, came to London, where Edward VI. received him and his companions in misfortune with courtesy and kindness, assigning to them pensions out of the treasury for their maintenance. Their party was afterwards increased by the arrival of John Knox and Sir James Kirkaldy of Grange.

Having been solemnly forfeited by the parliament of 1546, the ex-treasurer, after his release from Cherbourg, resided in England and beyond seas until 1550, when, by the mediation of the queen-dowager, he made his peace with the Scottish government, and had his numerous estates restored to him. From that time until his death, (which happened six years afterwards,) his name does not appear in any public record.

Since the castle of St Andrews had fallen beneath the cannon of Strozzio, great political changes had taken place in Scotland.

To compel the Scots to accept the proposed alliance, by the marriage of their sovereign to Edward VI., the Duke of Somerset—after a fleet of sixty ships had laid Edinburgh and the towns of the coast in ashes — invaded Scotland at the head of eighteen thousand men, aided by many mercenary bands from the Spanish and Italian wars. Pinkie had been fought and lost, and the Scots were more averse to the English match than ever. Ten thousand brave men were slain between Pinkie Burn and the walls of Edinburgh; and all hopes of the southern alliance had vanished, and for ever. The young queen had been immediately sent to France by her mother the queen-dowager, and offered in marriage to the dauphin —an offer which was instantly accepted. Mary was only six years of age when she arrived at the court of Paris, where she afterwards acquired every accomplishment that could enhance those great natural charms and graces of mind and person, which were soon (with her misfortunes) to render her the most celebrated sovereign in Europe. Ere she knew the meaning of the word, she was betrothed to Francis, the boyish and sickly dauphin: this was the first of Mary’s long catalogue of calamities.

Soon afterwards, six thousand brave veterans, under d’Essd, landed in Scotland, to overawe the growing sect of Reformers. Those disciplined troops were the sacred heroes of the long wars of Francis I., and in their Scottish campaigns they did not impair their former well-earned fame. In the wandering life led by William Kirkaldy, during those years of exile, several blanks necessarily occur, and these a biographer or historian cannot supply. After the death of Edward VI., when the English privy council cut off the pension which that king had assigned him, giving as their reason that “no Catholic power should pay or maintain the murderers of a Catholic cardinal,” he immediately returned to France, with the intention of taking military service, and a considerable portion of the ensuing period of his life was spent in the wars between the French king and the Emperor Charles V. In these campaigns, by his bravery and conduct, he soon attained that eminent distinction and reputation, as a skilful and gallant soldier, which ceased only with his life.

The accomplished and courtly Henry II., the idol of his people, then filled the throne of France. Though married to Catherine de Medici, he had given his whole affections to the winning but artful Diana of Poictiers, the widowed Duchess of Valentinois, who presided over all those brilliant festivities and gay carousals in which the splendid and voluptuous court was immersed, while the proud but neglected Catherine submitted to be present in a subordinate capacity.2 In that age of courage and chivalry, the diversions of the great and brave were well calculated to display that spirit of emulation, prowess, and dexterity, which may now, perhaps, be numbered with the things which were.

At the court of France, the Scots were always valued highly for their courage and learning. The kings of that country constantly maintained a body of them near their persons—the famous Scottish Guard, the memory of whose valour and fidelity is even yet cherished in France. The presence of their youthful queen brought an unusual number of young cavaliers, of the best families, to the gay court of the Toumelles; and in the splendid tournaments of the Duchess of Valentinois, they maintained the old Scottish reputation for valour, as bravely as in the field against the Imperialists. Under the eyes of their beautiful Mary, we may easily imagine the glow of ardour and chivalry which must have animated those brave knights, when, with the old cry of "Vive Marie, tre noble Reyn d'Ecoss!” they rushed to encounter the plate-clad chevaliers of France.

In these tournaments and fetes champetres, William Kirkaldy approved himself a good and true knight. By Henry’s desire he always tilted by his side at the harriers, and often they contended together in the less dangerous amusement of shooting with the arblast and bow. Kirkaldy’s prepossessing exterior, his youth and gallantry, won him all the favour and admiration the most ambitious cavalier could have desired. With others, he must often have had opportunities of performing feats of chivalry before the brightest and fairest spectators in Europe— the court of Catherine de Medici, the young Queen of Scotland with her four Marys, and the noble and beautiful demoiselles of an aristocracy then the proudest and most polished on the Continent.

On entering the regular military service of King Henry, a handsome pension was immediately assigned to Kirkaldy, which he never drew after he left the army, though he earned it well by his sword in the campaigns against the Emperor.

About this time his grandfather, the aged Sir John Melville of Kaith, was brought to the scaffold at Stirling.3 He was suspected, though it is said unjustly, of corresponding with the English, the enemies of his country; and, having been a leading Reformer, was consequently very obnoxious to the Catholic clergy. A letter sent him by one of his sons, who was then in England, had fallen into the hands of the Scottish government. Sir John was forthwith arrested, and committed to the castle of Stirling, where he was brought to trial. The letter was produced in evidence against him, and was deemed sufficient by the court, which sentenced him to be beheaded—a severe decree, which was instantly carried into effect. By his lady, Helen Napier of Merchiston, he left six sons (some of whom will he frequently mentioned in these pages) and two daughters—Margaret, married to Johnstone of Elphinstone, and Janet, the mother of Sir William Kirkaldy.

Archbishop Hamilton and the Duries, an ancient family in Fifeshire, were very instrumental in bringing the gray hairs of the Laird of Raith to the block, on the fatal mound of Stirling—a catastrophe for which Kirkaldy never forgave them: it left a deep impression upon his mind, and in succeeding years cost blood in the streets of Leith and Dunfermline, and involved him in a serious quarrel with John Knox, which will he related in its place.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus