THE only Scot ever to become a Marshal of France and feted in London as the best soldier in Christendom, Sir John Hepburn, is the subject of a new biography set to generate much interest in the Borders among former members of The Royal Scots regiment.
In the book The Best Soldier, retired Edinburgh GP Dr Elizabeth Scott, recounts the fascinating tale of how the farm lad from Athelstaneford in East Lothian rose to become one of the most outstanding military commanders of his or any other generation.
Born in 1598, Hepburn is a Scottish hero to remember. After a bursary allowed him to attend St Andrew’s University, he travelled to France and trained as a soldier.
He returned to Scotland to join the army being recruited by Sir Andrew Gray to fight for the Winter Queen, the daughter of James VI and I whose husband, Frederick of the Palatinate, was under attack from the Hapsburg Imperialists.
Although defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain, Hepburn’s regiment fought on, gradually being pushed north. He was mentioned in despatches for his bravery in breaking the siege of Bergen op Zoom in 1622.
In a twist of fate, 400 years later, The Royal Scots – often still known as Hepburn’s Regiment – liberated the same area from Nazi rule.
Abandoned by Gray, Hepburn refused to leave his men and led them to Sweden to join the banner of King Gustavus Adolphus who was raising an army to fight, first the Poles, and then the encroaching Imperialists.
Captain Hepburn so impressed the Swedish monarch that he entrusted the young Scottish officer with training the thousands of young Scots surging to his banner in the hope of fame and booty.
Unfazed, Hepburn took on the task and when he paraded three regiments of well-trained Scottish troops before him, Gustavus promoted him to colonel.
Hepburn gave his men green sashes to differentiate them from their Swedish compatriots and called them his Green Brigade. They fought for the king all the way to Munich and back, winning battles time and time again.
Gustavus knighted Hepburn for his prowess.
But becoming fed up with the Swedish king’s constant teasing about his love of fine armour and his insistence on remaining a Catholic in a largely Protestant army, Hepburn left the Swedish military.
Returning to London he found himself a hero, regarded as ‘the best soldier in Christendom and therefore the world’. Britain’s Charles I confirmed his knighthood and gave him a warrant to raise a regiment of Scots.
Returning to the Borders, Hepburn raised his banner and recruited experienced soldiers from all over Scotland. Charles I lent this effective force to Louis XIII of France and The Royal Scots, as Hepburn named them, won Lorraine for France and stabilised its borders against the encroaching Spaniards.
Hepburn found himself feted by kings and cardinals, with the infamous Richelieu even called him “my Golden Knight” and the cardinal made him Scotland’s only Marshal of France.
When Hepburn was killed at the Siege of Saverne in 1636, Louis XIII erected a huge mausoleum to him in Toul Cathedral where he was buried. Though the monument was destroyed in the French Revolution, a description of it was discovered by Dr Scott and is in The Best Soldier.
Her book was printed by the Hawick company of Murray Richardson, and Dr Scott has decided that The Royal Scots – now amalgamated with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers as The Royal Scots Borderers in the Royal Regiment of Scotland – will share the profits from the sales of the book.
“Sir John would have liked that,” said Dr Scott. “I should like to keep the memory of The Royal Scots and their sister regiment the King’s Own Scottish Borderers alive.
“This is the true story of a Border hero who founded and led a great regiment and became the only Marshal of France Scotland has ever had. I wrote it to make an exciting read for anyone who has a connection with the Scottish lowland regiments.”
It took Dr Scott – herself a Hepburn from Smeaton in East Lothian – four years to finish the book.
Part of the research saw Dr Scott’s brother unearthing the only know painting of Hepburn, which now adorns the book’s cover.
“The Royal Scots were absolutely delighted with that discovery and had a copy made for their mess,” added Dr Scott.
There was further family involvement in the project with Dr Scott’s husband translating letters written in German by Hepburn and stored at The Royal Scots museum at Edinburgh Castle.
Dr Scott said the more she discovered about Hepburn, the more of an inspiration he became.
“He was a great man,” she told TheSouthern. “He was just a lad off a farm in East Lothian, but he raised himself up by his own bootstraps to become Scotland’s only Marshal of France and a hero of his generation. I have great admiration for such people who make something of themselves by their own hard work.”
Dr Scott is hoping sales of the book will see £1,000 donated to The Royal Scots in time for Christmas.
“I’ve already sold 150, so only 350 copies still to sell. Hepburn’s tale is a cracking good story and I’ve written it like a historical novel, so it could appeal to all ages.
“I would love it if young boys read it and felt they could do the same as Hepburn and know they could really make something of themselves by sticking in and working hard at whatever they chose to do.”
The Best Soldier is available from the Royal Scots website, www.theroyalscots.co.uk , (click on Shop then Publications) and from Mason’s Book shop in Melrose or Kesley’s Bookshop in Haddington.
z On Remembrance Sunday, the 8th Battalion, The Royal Scots, had their colours relocated into the Chambers Institute in Peebles – a town which has already honoured the regiment with the Freedom of the Burgh – where they will be readily accessible to the public.
Disbanded in 1946, there are still members of the 8th Battalion alive who were in Peebles to see their colours moved as well as a representative group from their successors in the 52nd Lowland Division – the 6th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, and many other ex-Royal Scots.