History | Culture | Ancestry
In matters of convention, fashion, language and manners, it was often from royalty that trends were set. When James VI travelled south of the border in 1603 to add the English crown to that of his Scottish crown, he unwittingly began a trend that would characterise the Scottish nobility to the present day, that of the absentee landlord.
Charles I continued his father’s newly established tradition and became Scotland’s first truly absentee king, waiting an astonishing 8 years before he even bothered to come north of the border to accept his Scottish crown after his father died in 1625.
One such pioneering and self-serving member of the ‘Scottish’ nobility operating under the trendsetting guise of the royal family was John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and later known as John of the Battles. Although born as an heir to one of Scotland’s most powerful Gaelic clans, he was born in Surrey, served in an English Royal Army, died in Greater London and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
By the time of John Campbell’s birth in 1678, Clan Campbell had survived its wobble of the 1640s and was continuing its rise in fortunes. Through carefully arranged marriages, a dependency on the pen rather than the sword and carefully timed alliances, the Campbells had become major contributors to national politics. The Clan’s historic rivals in the highlands, the MacDonalds, could still count themselves a major military power in the late 17th century, but its strength was beginning to wane. Islay and Kintyre had been lost to the Campbells, the fragmentation of the former Lordship of the Isles continued unabated and by 1688 the ironic loyalty of Clan Donald to the House of Stuart pushed the MacDonalds even further to the fringe of national authority.
However despite being one of the leading figures of the most powerful families in Argyll, John had little involvement in the politics of the Gaelic world, pursuing a successful career in the military through various overseas postings and playing an active part in the upheavals on the European continent. In 1703 he succeeded to Dukedom of Clan Campbell, ultimately leading to a decision to shamefully forsake his country’s independence for the sake of personal self advancement.
In 1703, the continued independence of Scotland was becoming a major problem for Queen Anne’s personal rule over Scotland and England. The Scottish Parliament had become frustrated with an absentee London-based monarchy that often pursued policies contrary to Scotland’s national interest. This irritation was significantly magnified when the English Parliament chose childless Queen Anne’s successor without consulting the Scottish Parliament. Concerns had been raised in Scotland over the English Parliament’s choice of the House of Hanover as the successors to the throne, as it was feared Scotland would be unnecessarily dragged into German and continental wars. The Scottish Parliament was keen to ensure that it was Scotland, and not a London based monarch that had the direct control over whether or not Scottish troops could go into battle.
The Scottish Parliament subsequently introduced The Act of Security (1704) and the Act boldly asserted that unless England’s choice of a royal successor met with various economic, political and religious criteria then Scotland would choose an alternative monarch.
The Scottish Parliament went even further, and outlined that unless the legislation received royal assent, it would refuse to raise taxes for the crown and would withdraw all Scottish soldiers from the Duke of Marlborough’s army fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession.
John Campbell was in fact serving under the Duke of Marlborough at this time and by 1706 he was leading a Scottish brigade in Dutch Service. However, while Campbell was fighting at the Battle of Ramillies, the diplomatic retaliation that followed Scotland’s Act of Security had meant Scotland and England themselves were on the brink of war. Queen Anne was by this time determined to ensure a union between the Scottish and English parliaments and negotiations had begun between the two parliaments to try and reach a compromise.
Campbell became a staunch supporter of the union at a time of mass public protest against any moves to forsake Scotland’s independence. Between October 1706 and November 1707, 80 petitions from towns, parishes and burghs were sent to the Scottish Parliament opposing the union. A further 20,000 people signed a petition against the Union, a move which prompted Queen Anne to send troops to the border, all the while English negotiators openly mooted war as a possibility should the Scots refuse to sign up.
Campbell remained a resolute supporter despite the overwhelming popular opposition. The union was in fact so unpopular, it was joked that for once it was possible to find a Kirk Minister, a Catholic Priest and Episcopal Prelate all in agreement.
Inevitably, after quietly bribing enough members of the Scottish Parliament, Queen Anne managed to secure the union. For his loyalty to Anne’s project, John Campbell was given the English titles of Baron Chatham and Earl of Greenwich. Campbell had backed a winner, and his family fortunes were rewarded accordingly.
The signing of the union however led to mass rioting across Scotland and troops were needed to quell the unrest. Various attempts at an armed uprising came to nothing and the bells of St Giles Cathedral played ‘Why am I so sad on my wedding day?’ Violent discontent was suppressed, but never totally eliminated and resentment towards the union helped fuel the Jacobite uprisings that were to follow.
History did however afford John Campbell the opportunity to redeem his name. In 1713, when the London Government imposed the hated malt tax on Scotland, he became one of the most marked supporters of the motion to dissolve the union. The motion itself failed by a mere four votes. However, Campbell’s motivations were not those entirely sympathetic to Clan Campbell’s ancient homeland. He was in fact primarily motivated by the belief that dissolution of the union would be in England’s national interest as much as Scotland’s.
It is important to note that Campbell certainly still continued to think of himself as Scottish at this point in time. Following the failure of the motion to dissolve the union, the Anglo-Irish Lord, Jonathan Swift, wrote a blistering attack on the contemptuous Scots. The Scottish parliamentarians, including Campbell, were so outraged at being spoken about in such language they protested directly to the crown. Swift and Campbell had previously enjoyed warm relations, but their friendship was permanently sundered by these events. Swift dismissed Campbell as an ‘ambitious, covetous, cunning Scot with no principles but his own self interest and greatness.’ This entire episode is evidence enough that Campbell never renounced his ‘Scottishness’ in thought, even if he was to do so in action.
With Queen Anne’s death in 1714, Campbell’s unexpected appearance at the Privy Council helped to ensure the exclusion of the Jacobites and secured the smooth ascension to power of the House of Hannover. Again, for his loyalty, he secured promotion as a general and commander in chief of George I’s forces in Scotland. He subsequently checked the 1715 Jacobite uprising at the Battle of Sheriffmuir and by 1719 was again rewarded for his loyalty to the government by being made the Duke of Greenwich. He continued to enjoy promotions throughout the rest of his life and shortly before his death he had risen to be Commander in Chief of the British Army.
John Campbell was able to cultivate a successful and rewarding career at Scotland’s expense. Despite massive public opposition, he had helped to abolish Scotland’s national parliament, he played a pivotal role in securing the English Parliament’s chosen successor to the throne and Campbell had all but ignored his Gaelic heritage to become an anglicised absentee landlord.
It is perhaps fitting that on the Duke of Argyll’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, a figure of liberty is reaching out, clutching a copy of the Magna Carta, the most striking symbol of English liberty. A more fitting epitaph may have come from the words of Campbell’s contemporary Joseph Addison, who is buried alongside Campbell in Westminster Abbey,
“Is there not some chosen curse,
Some hidden thunder in the stores of heaven,
Red with uncommon wrath, to blast the man,
Who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin?”