Saturday, 14 January 2017

A Scottish Disaster In Estonia: The Siege of Wesenberg

The castle of Wesenberg in Livonia

As a particularly adventurous race, the Scots have had more than their fair share of misfortunes and disasters, even though these have been more than balanced out by their successes around the World.

Disasters often occur when people overstretch themselves or try something outside their experience. This raises the stakes, so when things do go wrong it's a long way down. Embarking on an adventurous course always carries with it the seeds of disaster, and the greater the adventure, the greater the potential for disaster.  In 1574 something went terribly wrong for a large number of Scots far from home—a group of several thousand mercenaries in the service of the king of Sweden in what is now the country of Estonia.

During this period, it should be remembered that Scotland was a poor, overpopulated land, with limited access to the outside world. Its nearest neighbour England was a largely hostile power. Due to the Scottish Reformation, the country was even more isolated than it had previously been in the medieval period. At that time, thanks to the international network of the Catholic Church, many talented Scots had been able to find chances to distinguish themselves overseas, but the break with the Catholic Church ended those opportunities. 

Furthermore, the unification and growing strength of the kingdom of France had closed off another avenue of escape for intrepid Scots. During France’s period of weakness against the English in the Hundred Years War, the fighting abilities of the Scots had been particularly welcome to bolster the more effete French. 

Of course, opportunities for Scots were to improve greatly following the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603 and the parliaments of the two countries 100 years later, but in the late 16th century Scotland was going through perhaps its most isolated period in centuries. For Scots dissatisfied with the scant opportunities at home, there were limited opportunities abroad, but the risks were always high.

The most common resort for any brave souls was to become mercenaries. This could also lead to other opportunities later on. For this reason, Scottish mercenaries played an important part in European history for hundreds of years.

In particular, they played a significant role in the victorious armies of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, who effectively changed the course of the Thirty Years War, the biggest conflict in European history until the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Without Scottish soldiers to form the backbone of his battle-hardened armies, Gustavus's successes would not have been possible.

Scottish soldiers in the 16th century.
However, the first large deployment of Scottish mercenaries did not go so well. In 1572 the Swedish King John III commissioned Archibold Ruthven, a younger son of Lord Ruthven, to recruit mercenaries in Scotland for the war that was then being fought against the Russians in Livonia, a contested territory that then included Latvia and Estonia. The Poles and Lithuanians were also involved in the war.

Finally Ruthven raised around 4000 men, but there was trouble from the start. In Stockholm the troops complained about not being paid, with some of the Scottish officers being accused of embezzling the funds. Finally, one of the officers, Hugh Cahun, who had been five years in the service of John III, was held responsible and executed. But he may have been a mere scapegoat as the King gave his widow a generous pension.

The Scottish contingent was then shipped across the Baltic in 1574 to join the main Swedish force, which was attacking the Russian-held fortress of Wesenberg in Livonia (now called Rakvere). The Swedish army, led by the French nobleman Pontus de la Gardie, tried three times to storm the town, suffering heavy losses.

It appears that this led to divisions in the army, which also included many Germans. Relations between the Scottish infantry and the German cavalry became particularly bad. On the 15th of March 1575, fighting broke out between them, with the German cavalry attacking the Scottish soldiers. 

Ruthven, De la Gardie, and other officers tried to intervene, but were in danger of their lives. Ruthven was badly wounded. To their credit, some of the Scottish cavalry joined their countrymen, but it ended badly for the Scots, who seem to have been taken by surprise. Several hundreds were cut down, with a number of them fleeing to join the besieged Russians in Wesenberg and thereafter entering Russian service. 

Once again the matter was resolved by the use of scapegoats. At a trial that was held in Stockholm the chief blame was placed on the Scots, and Ruthven was sent to the dungeons to die, amidst rumours of involvement in a plot to assassinate the king and restore his imprisoned brother Eric XIV to the throne.

The disparity in the casualty figures between the Germans and Scots at Wesenberg is highly indicative of an act of treachery by the Germans. If so, their countrymen were to be made to pay the debt by future armies of Scots in the Swedish service, as they marched up and down Germany, ravaging and despoiling the land and its people during the Thirty Years War.

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