Graham was the only son of the six children of John Graham, fourth earl of Montrose (1573-1626) and his wife Margaret Ruthven (d.1619), daughter of the Earl of Gowrie. James inherited the earldom of Montrose when his father died in 1626. Aged only 14, he was was placed under the guardianship of his uncle Lord Archibald Napier.
In 1627, Montrose enrolled as a student at the University of St. Andrews where he first became inspired by the classical ideal of military glory, as well as enjoying a wide range of sporting pursuits, including hawking, golf, chess and archery. In November 1629, Montrose married Magdalene Carnegie, daughter of Lord Carnegie of Kinnaird. After the birth of his first two sons, Montrose went to France and Italy to complete his education, which included a period at the French military academy at Angers.
Montrose and the Covenanters
Montrose returned to Scotland in 1637 and became active in the revolt against the imposition of Archbishop Laud's prayer book on the Scottish Kirk. He was among the first to sign the Scottish National Covenant at Greyfriars, Edinburgh, in February 1638. The following July, Montrose went with covenanting lairds and clergymen to Aberdeen, where they tried unsuccessfully to persuade the "Aberdeen Doctors" of the university to sign the Covenant. In November 1638, Montrose attended the Glasgow Assembly, which defied King Charles by abolishing Episcopacy and establishing Presbyterian church government in Scotland.
Montrose gained his first military experience leading Covenanter troops against Scottish Royalists in the First Bishops' War. He drove the Marquis of Huntly out of Aberdeen in March 1639 and campaigned against Huntly's clan the Gordons. In June, Huntly's younger son Viscount Aboyne sailed into Aberdeen harbour in one of the King's warships and occupied the town. Montrose returned with artillery and bombarded the Royalists at Brig of Dee, forcing Aboyne and the Gordons to flee.
After the signing of the Pacification of Berwick, Montrose came into conflict with Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, whom he suspected of trying to usurp the power of the King in Scotland for his own ends. He also distrusted the Marquis of Hamilton, who appeared to be in league with Argyll. Montrose drew up a secret agreement with like-minded Covenanters known as the Cumbernauld Bond. Adherents undertook to defend the true principles of the Covenant against the machinations of Argyll and his supporters. Some suspected that Montrose had become a Royalist sympathiser, but he was granted the honour of leading the first regiment of Covenanters across the River Tweed when the Scots invaded England in the Second Bishops' War (August 1640).
When the war was over, Montrose's criticisms of Argyll and his intercepted correspondence with King Charles resulted in his arrest on charges of conspiracy against the ruling Committee of Estates. In June 1641, he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. When King Charles visited Scotland to finalise the treaty with England, Montrose demanded an open trial. Anxious to maintain their new alliance, neither the King nor the Estates would agree to this, but Montrose was released on bail in November 1641. He then retired from public life until the outbreak of the English Civil War when he attempted to rally Scottish support for the King. Montrose opposed the Solemn League and Covenant, which secured an alliance between Scotland and the English Parliamentarians, and joined King Charles at Oxford in 1643. His loyalty to the King and the Royalist cause was passionate and unwavering throughout the rest of his career.
Early in 1645, Montrose and MacColla mounted a guerrilla campaign against the Campbells and their chief, the Marquis of Argyll. They struck deep into Campbell territory and inflicted a grievous defeat on the clan at the battle of Inverlochy in February 1645, breaking their power in the western Highlands. According to plan, Covenanter regiments were withdrawn from Lord Leven's army in England and returned to Scotland to counter Montrose. The Covenanter army in England was effectively immobilised and Scottish political credibility in London was undermined. After plundering Dundee in April 1645, Montrose was pursued back into the Highlands by Major-General Baillie. Constantly outwitting the Covenanters, he defeated Colonel Hurry at Auldearn in May 1645 and Baillie at Alford in June. In August 1645, Montrose achieved his greatest victory when he defeated Baillie and the Covenanter Committee of War headed by Argyll at the battle of Kilsyth, which left him for a short time master of Scotland.
Montrose's victories in Scotland kept up the morale of the Royalists in England. The King's main strategic objective after the defeat at Naseby was to join forces with him. When Montrose moved into the Lowlands, however, his troops began to desert. He was defeated by superior Covenanter forces under Major-General David Leslie at Philliphaugh in September 1645 and his followers were massacred. Montrose remained in Scotland for another year but he was unable to pose a serious threat to the Covenanters again. In July 1646, King Charles, having surrendered himself to the Covenanters, ordered Montrose to cease hostilities. Montrose sailed into exile on 3 September 1646.
Defeat and Betrayal
An account of his victories, written in Latin by George Wishart, made Montrose a hero throughout Europe. He was offered an appointment as lieutenant-general in the French army; the Emperor Ferdinand III awarded him the rank of field marshall, but Montrose remained devoted to the service of King Charles. He swore vengeance after the King's execution in January 1649 and immediately transferred his loyalty to Charles II, who was proclaimed King of Scots in February 1649. Charles appointed Montrose his captain-general in Scotland and authorised him to negotiate for military aid with European powers. Montrose travelled through Germany, Poland and Scandinavia attempting to raise forces for the King.
...He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all...From Montrose's poem: My Dear and Only Love
To Montrose's dismay, Charles also entered into negotiations with the Covenanters. When talks broke down in May 1649, Charles attempted to coerce the Covenanters by ordering Montrose to take control of Scotland by military force. Montrose sent a small force of German and Danish mercenaries as an advance guard to occupy the Orkneys in September 1649 and joined them with reinforcements in March 1650. By the time Montrose landed on the Scottish mainland, Charles had re-opened negotiations with the Covenanters. Charles wrote to Montrose ordering him to disarm, but the orders never reached him. The Covenanters moved swiftly against him and Montrose was defeated at the battle of Carbisdale by Colonel Strachan in April 1650. A few days later, Charles disavowed Montrose under the terms of the Treaty of Breda.
Montrose escaped into the mountains after Carbisdale. He fled to Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt where he was betrayed to the Covenanters by Neil MacLeod, laird of Assynt. Montrose was taken to Edinburgh and led through the streets in a cart driven by the hangman. Already under sentence of death for his campaign of 1644-5, Montrose was hanged at the Mercat Cross on 21 May 1650, protesting to the last that he was a true Covenanter as well as a loyal subject.
Montrose's head was fixed on a spike at the Tolbooth in Edinburgh, his legs and arms were fixed to the gates of Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen. His dismembered body was buried in Edinburgh, but Lady Jean Napier had it secretly disinterred. The heart was removed, embalmed, placed in a casket, and sent to Montrose's exiled son as a symbol of loyalty and martyrdom. After the Restoration, Montrose's embalmed heart and bones were buried at the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh in an elaborate ceremony with fourteen noblemen bearing the coffin (11 May 1661). Montrose's son James was confirmed in the inheritance of the Montrose titles. The marquisate became a dukedom in 1707.