A poetic account of the Marian Civil War: Hercules Rollock's 'On the Wretched State of Scotland' ('De Miseru Statu Scotiae') c. 1572-1573

Steven Reid, Principal Investigator

The known facts of Hercules Rollock's early life are few. Born around 1546 in Dundee to George Rollock, a burgess of the town, 1 he attended St Salvator's College at the University of St Andrews between 1564 and 1568, graduating MA. 2 His first publication was a prefatory epigram appended to Alexander Hepburn's Grammaticae artis prima rudimenta (Antwerp, 1568). 3 Rollock's first professional position after graduation was the post of regent at King's College Aberdeen, where a purge of the recusant Catholic teaching staff had recently been carried out by the Regent Moray. Along with the new principal Alexander Arbuthnott and subprincipal James Lawson, Rollock was hand-picked by the kirk's General Assembly in 1569 to ensure that King's was transformed into a fully protestant college, suggesting that he was sufficiently committed to the reformed cause to be deemed suitable for such a task. 4

Sadly, the only mention of Rollock in the university record is his subscription in the college register inidicating his position as regent on 19 April 1572. However, his first long extant poem, 'On the wretched state of Scotland, on account of internal war, contempt for God, and the pernicious tarrying of Papists in her', was penned during his time there between December 1572 and March 1573. 5 Like Patrick Adamson, who had been appointed as a visitor to the north-east by the general assembly in December 1563 and wrote a poem attacking the widespread Catholic recusancy that he witnessed there, 6 Rollock also found Catholicism alive and well and was prompted to write an attack upon it. The first half of this 217-line poem condemns the complete destruction of society as a result of the Marian Civil War (1567-73), and frequently echoes the imagery and tropes of De Bello Civili, Lucan's great epic on the Roman Civil War (49-45BC) between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. The second half is a diatribe against the specific situation of Catholic recusancy in Scotland and the pope's repeated attempts to win nations across the world to his faith through cunning, witchcraft and the agents (both foreign monarchs and Catholic priests) he keeps in his thrall. While the poem itself is over-long and repetitive, Rollock's handling of these stock themes is vivid and, on occasion, powerful.

The poem opens with a brief recitation of the story of the arrival of the Scottish people, as the descendants of Gathelus and Scota, in the British Isles. Rollock picks up on many of the key tropes of this story seen in other contemporary poetic accounts, particularly their flight from Egypt. 7 Rollock uses the story to underscore the fact that the Scots have seen off every external enemy they have faced since antiquity, including the Picts:

Heu quo fata ruunt? Sic stant decreta Tonantis,
Scotorum toties servata evertere regna?
Siccine jam tandem delebit Numinis ira?
Quem Nilus populum septenis fudit ab oris,
quassatum terræ variis pelagique procellis?
Quæque diu incertis erravit sedibus exul:
donec post varios casus tandem aspera fata
indulgent requiem, monstratque Britannia sedes,
quas valida tenuere manu bis mille per annos,
non domiti ducibus Latiis, et Caesaris armis,
Pictorumque odiis, et saevi fraudibus Angli. (l. 1-8)

[Alas, fates, where do you run off to? Do the decrees of the Thunderer stand thus, to overturn so many times the kingdoms of the Scots, formerly kept safe? Is this the people whom the Nile poured forth from seven shores, thrown violently upon sea and shore by various tempests? And the exile who had wandered for a long time among unfixed abodes: until the unkind fates at last, after a variety of misfortunes, allowed a respite, and Britain revealed her thrones, which have been held by a strong hand through two thousand years, uncowed by Latin leaders, or Caesar's arms, or the animosity of the Picts, or the deceits of the savage English.]

Rollock returns repeatedly throughout the first half of the poem to the idea that Scotland's own citizens are now swiftly bringing about the destruction its enemies never could. In lines 20-28, Rollock lays out starkly his disgust at the internecine battles between the supporters of the infant James VI on the one hand and those loyal to the deposed Queen Mary on the other, which has left wives bereaved of their spouses, children orphaned, and youth dead before their time:

Nulla fides uteri sociis: non sanguinis ordo,
non prodest genialis Hymen: fert obvia proli
tela parens: rerumque inverso foedere natus
it contra, patrioque intingit sanguine ferrum.
Talibus, heu! cecidere odiis, grassante furore
indomitique duces, audaxque ad vulnere miles:
et regni proceres, et inops sine nomine vulgus,
millia quot nunquam peregrinis obruta telis
hostilique manu. (l. 20-28)

[No faith is entertained among friends: no rank of blood, or pleasant wedding does any good: parents throw missiles in the way of their offspring: and with the covenant of things turned upside down their children go against them, and stain their sword with their father's blood. Woe to such circumstances! With madness raging, that unbridled leaders and the bold soldier have fallen to wounding in hatred: and the nobles of the kingdom, and the needy mob without title, with hostile hand throw so many thousands of missiles which never rushed down from foreigners.]

Comment on contemporary events here also allows us to securely date the poem to late 1572 or early 1573. At lines 44-54 Rollock references the deaths of the first three regents of the young James VI (the earls Moray, Lennox and Mar) and the accession of James Douglas, the fourth Earl of Morton as regent:

Iamque suum cecidisse genus, stirpemque recisam,
seque sua obsessum indignatur gente teneri
ille Caledoniae faelici sydere gentis
rex, tribus heu annis totidem tutoribus orbus.
Proditione duo, vi morbi tertius aeger
occubuit, superum fato testante furorem.
Insoliti novitate mali furit acrior hostis,
iam subitis procerum sibi cuncta infanda ruinis
indulgens: rursum ergo feris concurritur armis:
moliturque novus turbam expugnare rebellem
prorex: isque armis regalia sceptra tuetur. (l.44-54)

[And now that his race has fallen, and the stock has been pruned back, the king himself of the Caledonian race, under a fortunate star, (alas, bereft over three years of as many guardians), condemns the fact that he is held, besieged, by his own race. With two betrayed, the unhappy third will succumb to the violence of sickness, with fate witnessing the rage of the Gods. A more bitter enemy rages with the unaccustomed novelty of evil, now allowing everything unspeakable, with the ruins of the nobles entering beneath it. and thus rushes backwards with savage arms: and a new regent attempts to expel the rebel mob: and he defends the royal sceptre with arms.]

Moray and Lennox - the 'two betrayed' - were assassinated and killed in a military skirmish in January 1570 and September 1571 respectively, while Mar died suddenly in October 1572 (a contemporary rumour suggested he was poisoned). The 'stock' ('stirpem') could be a reference to his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who although not dead had been forced to abdicate in favour of James in July 1567. James' accession is 'fortunate' ('faelici') as a young protestant boy-king has replaced the Catholic queen.

The poem also mentions the recent death of John Knox, who at lines 80-82 'has returned to the shores of the heaven-dwellers' ('remeavit ad oras Caelicolum') and 'rejoices in the deserved stars' ('meritis ... gaudeat astris'), and so does not have to see the shameful and ignominious state that the Scottish church has fallen into as a result of the civil war. Morton's appointment and the death of Knox both took place on Monday 24 November 1572. However, the poem makes no mention of the Pacification of Perth which ended the civil war in March 1573, 8 and so it seems reasonable to conclude that this poem was completed before Rollock left for France at some point in 1573.

In the second half of the poem (l. 95-217) Rollock launches into a blistering anti-Catholic diatribe, showing how strong his commitment to the reformed church was. Rollock argues that the continued depredations on the kingdom have left it open to attack from the forces of Catholic Europe, and that the pope, as antichrist, desires nothing less than the souls of men as his due sacrifice. Rollock portrays the pope as 'the minister of Erebus' ('Erebique minister') and a 'wretch' ('miser') whose quest for dominance over the world stems from his desire as an Italian 9 to see the former glories of the ancient Latin race restored from the state of decline into which they have fallen. As an agent of Satan he is able to use 'abominable' ('infandum') arts of magic to charm the monarchs of Europe and turn them against one another. As Rollock notes at lines 131-138, because he is too cowardly to venture out into the world himself, he sends his priestly acolytes ('mystae') to do his bidding:

Illa olim armatas quae effudit Roma cohortes,
insignesque ducum peperit virtute triumphos,
nunc tibi divini nutrit sub imagine cultus
cum monachis, miseros fucorum examina mystas,
et pictis varie pannis insignia monstra.
Tales Papa fovet famulos, perque omnia regna
ire jubet, toti ut spargant diplomata mundo,
et populis diri propinent pocula succus. (l. 131-138)

[He is that Rome which once poured forth armed cohorts, and which birthed famous triumphs for the courage of their leaders. Now he nourishes you beneath an imitation of divine worship, with monks, wretched mystae, swarms of bees, and monsters decorated in a variety of ways with painted rags. The pope fosters such slaves, and commands that they go out through every kingdom, so that they spread dictates through the whole world, and give goblets of dire sap to the people to drink.]

The poem ends on a bleak note, with the Scots so lost in internecine slaughter that they do not notice Catholic Europe gearing up to conquer them, or the impending wrath of God that is coming to wipe the nation from the face of the earth for their atrocities. Rollock ends (l. 216-217) with an appeal to God to bring the people back under His protection, and to 'turn the rebel to the Lord, and hostile fury against its own limbs' ('Dominoque rebellem,/ inque suos artus hostilem verte furorem').

Contempt for religious warfare and the disturbance of the natural order of civil society through rebellion was thus the first major issue that Rollock explored at length in his poetry, and 'De Miseru Statu Scotiae' is fascinating for the poetic perspective it provides on the Marian Civil War. The theme of destruction and despair caused by religious civil war was one that Rollock would also return to, this time in the context of the French Wars of Religion, during his extended period of study in France in the latter half of the 1570s. This will be addressed in a future feature.


1: Despite claims in several sources, Rollock was not the brother of the Edinburgh University Principal Robert Rollock.

2: James Maitland Anderson, Early Records of the University of St Andrews 1413-1579 (Scottish History Society, Edinburgh, 1926), pp. 162, 271.

3: I am grateful to Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter for this information.

4: P. J. Anderson, Officers and Graduates of University and King's College, Aberdeen (New Spalding Club, Aberdeen (1893), p. 52; David Stevenson, King's College, Aberdeen, 1560-1641: From Protestant Reformation to Covenanting Revolution (Aberdeen, 1995), pp. 25-30.

5: 'De misero Statu Scotiæ, propter intestina bella, verbi Dei fastidium, et perniciosam Papistarum in ea commorationem'; DPS, vol. 2, pp. 352-358.

6: Patrick Adamson, De Papistarum Ineptiis Superstitionibus, seu: Ad Papistas Aberdonenses (Edinburgh, 1564).

7: See, for example, Andrew Melville's version in 'Gathelus', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 67-71.

8: see Jane Dawson, Scotland Re-formed 1488-1587 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp. 264-282, 353-4; George R. Hewitt, Scotland Under Morton 1572-80 (Edinburgh, 1982), pp. 15, 19.

9: Every pope since Adrian VI (1522-23) had been Italian.