On 21 May 1650 the royalist hero James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, was publicly executed by hanging on a scaffold at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh, and his body dismembered. A remarkable account of expenses held by National Records of Scotland throws light on how, a decade later, Montrose’s remains were reassembled with pomp and ceremony, ready for his elaborate funeral. The revealing account is one a small group of papers in the miscellaneous series (National Records of Scotland, RH9/1/38).
The former Scottish covenanting commander was captured in 1650 by his enemies and condemned to death for his treachery to the covenanting cause and his military action against them during the 1640s. Rather than facing honourable execution by beheading, the Marquess was hanged like a common criminal. He went to his death defiantly, maintaining his adherence to the Covenant. He also went stylishly, dressed in a black suit, a scarlet coat with silver trimmings, and a beaver hat. In an exceptional move designed to inspire fear and awe in the populace, his head was placed on a spike on the Edinburgh Tolbooth next to the High Kirk (St Giles), his limbs distributed to other Scottish burghs, and his torso buried near the Burghmuir loch, at the east end of the modern Meadows.
For royalists, Montrose became a symbol of loyalty and a martyr for their cause. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, they took revenge on their enemies in various ways, including the trial and execution of the Marquis of Argyll in May 1661. Meanwhile, a grisly piece of theatre was carefully stage-managed to emphasise the king’s power and authority, and the undoing of the covenanting regime’s acts – what Professor David Stevenson has called ‘the most potent ceremonial celebration’ of the king’s restoration in Scotland (‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’).
In January 1661, six ‘grave makers’ were paid £18 Scots for ‘raising’ the corpse. There were actually two bodies, for the remains of Sir William Hay of Dalgety, executed along with Montrose, were retrieved at the same time. Robert Johnstone was paid £3 for showing the burial place, where the exhumation took place by torchlight. Surgeons washed the bones, wrapped them in cloth, and placed them in coffins. The coffins were covered with ‘two best velvet mortcloths’, for which John Kniblo, a local merchant, was paid £24, including ‘drink money’, a customary additional payment for work.
Montrose’s heart was missing, having been removed by sympathisers in 1650, embalmed and kept safe. (Much later, the heart went missing and was lost.) The accounts also show that 100 planks (‘daills’) were made into scaffolding and a stage ‘for the trumpeters for the down taking of my lord Marques head’ from the spike on the Tolbooth. After the coffin containing Montrose’s remains lay in state at Holyrood Abbey for eight weeks, a magnificent funeral took place on 11 May 1661. His remains were buried in St Giles. They were disturbed by later alterations, but after Queen Victoria expressed astonishment in 1886 on seeing a simple slab inscribed ‘Montrose 1661’, the place was marked more formally.
This account of Robert Rae’s expenses, and other documents, were printed and described in an article by J C Robbie, ‘The Embalming of Montrose’, in ‘Book of Old Edinburgh Club’, vol 1 (1908), 31-46, available online at the Online Archive.
Dr Tristram Clarke, Head of Outreach, National Records of Scotland