A Scottish view of the Siege of La Rochelle: Hercules Rollock's 'Hospes ad Repellam obsidione solutam' and other French poems, 1573-1574

Steven Reid, Principal Investigator

Hercules Rollock's poetry allows us for the first time to reconstruct a near-exact timeline of his movements between his resignation from the office of regent at King's College in 1572/73 and his short-lived appointment as the commissary court judge of Dundee in September 1580. Rollock's 'A visitor to La Rochelle, freed from siege' ('Hospes ad Repellam obsidione solutam'), 1 a 'journalistic' poem, reveals that Rollock visited this Huguenot stronghold at some point shortly after the siege against the city, led by the Duc d'Anjou (and future Henri III), between 11 February and 6 July 1573. The poem begins with a vivid description of the famed walled defences of the city and its teeming commerce as a bustling sea-port:

Circum fremenis fota Neptuni sinu,
urbs undique orbis hospita,
Rupella, clarum rupe quae nomen trahis:
et masculi omen roboris:
hinc inde fossis, et fali aestuariis,
caeloque concertantibus
munita vallis: molium objectu freta
quae frangis insultantia,
et, triste si quid, objice arces Nereo,
tellus noverca parturit:
quam pecore Thetis almo squammigero beat,
mactatque merce exotica:
spumante cujus praela Bromio tument,
et Cerere turgent horrea:
quae liquida ponti stagna subigis surgere
in salsae acervos grandinis:
Aere redimendos hinc et inde convenis
ex orbe toto classibus:
utrinque dives, ipsa quae tecum ambigis
solo an salo beatior:
alumna coeli, ocelle mundi, Europae honos,
flos Christiani climatis,
regina ponti, qua beatas alluit
Oceanus ingens Gallias. (l. 1-24)

[Clinging to the warmed lap of roaring Neptune is a town hostess to every part of the world, La Rochelle, you who draw your famous name from 'rock': and the sign of manly strength: fortified on every side with ditches, and sea inlets, and palisades competing with heaven: and you dash the seas as they splash over your sea walls: and whatever else is grim, you keep at a distance in the sea with your barrier. You whom stepmother earth labours to bring forth cattle for, whom Thetis blesses with nourishing fish, and sacrifices for foreign commerce: whose presses burst for foaming Bacchus, and granaries swell for Ceres: you who forces the watery expanse of the sea to rise up in a heap of salted hail: you bring together on every side goods to be redeemed for coin out of fleets from across the whole world: and wealth everywhere, which itself is more blessed than the salt alone which you gird yourself with: nurseling of heaven, darling of the world, honour of Europe: Flower of the Christian territory, Queen of the sea, through whom the remarkable Ocean bathes the blessed French.]

This image of strength and prosperity is sharply juxtaposed with the destruction caused by the bombarding of the town with cannonballs, which have so ruined it that a visitor now sees only 'ruins, fissures and cracks/spread far and wide, and piles of rocks' where once proud buildings stood ('ut nisi ruinas, rudera, et rimas procul/ stratasque saxorum strues/ cernat viator', l. 37-39). Casting La Rochelle as the Roman matron Lucretia, whose rape led to the overthrow of the Etruscan kings and the foundation of the Roman republic, Rollock condemns Anjou as an 'adulterer' ('moechus') and the 'patron, chief, author [and] father' ('patronum, principem, auctorem, patrem') of the siege. However, Rollock cleverly inverts this comparison in the final third of the poem (l. 50-76) where he celebrates the fact that Anjou has completely failed to ravish the city, and that she has been left whole and intact thanks to the providence of God:

Sed euge! Festucariam
vim modo paravit, nec tibi solidam intulit:
te collige, angi define.
Vix ima vela, vixque talarem attigit
adulter audax simbriam.
Pectore pudico, corpore illaeso viges,
sola laboras chlamyde...
Vive ergo rupes, cui Tonantis militant
missae phalanges aethere:
tecumque grato volve sospes pectore,
quantum potenti debeas
rerum architecto, qui voracis Cerebi
te vindicavit faucibus: (l. 50-56, 63-68)

[But well done! He has only prepared a purely political force, and has not raised a more solid [i.e. violent] force against you: pull yourself together, and stop being suffocated! The bold adulterer barely touched your ankle hem, or your covered inner parts. You flourish with your bashful breast, with your body unharmed, You worry for your cloak alone...Thus live, rock, for whom the phalanxes of the Thunderer, sent from the heavens, perform military service: and safely ponder in your grateful breast how much you owe to the powerful maker of things, who liberated you from the ravenous throats of Cerberus.]

This poem in itself is not enough to confirm that Rollock had arrived in France in late 1573, but two other poems provide corroborative evidence. Like a host of Huguenot propagandists, 2 Rollock also indulged in writing epigrams against Catherine de Medici and the Valois family, particularly attacking their culpability for the St Bartholomew's Day Massacres of 22-24 August 1572. In the first of two poems, 3 Rollock compares Charles IX, Henri III, and François Duc d'Alençon to the three titans of Greek myth - Zeus, Neptune and Pluto - who narrowly escape being eaten by their father Cronos and go on to rule over the earth, sea and underworld. While Charles IX has 'made the sceptres secure with the blood of his race' ('sceptra suae gentis sanguine tuta facit', l. 16) through the atrocities of the St Bartholomew's Day massacres, Henri has gone on to dominate the lands 'over the Scythian Bridge' ('Scythico contermina ponto/ Regna tenet', l. 17-18) a reference to Henri III's brief election to the crown of Poland between May 1573 and May 1575, 4 and Alençon travels around canvassing support for himself from the 'confederate kingdoms of Jupiter in hell' ('inferno socialia Regulus ambit...Regna Iovi', l. 19-20), presumably a reference to the fact that Alençon and his brother-in-law Henri of Navarre had been briefly imprisoned in early 1574 for conspiring to seize the throne. 5 Yet all three, Rollock argues, are in thrall to Rome, and he asks in his final two lines 'whether...Dis [Satan] himself will give over his position of office' for them ('vel...fasces Dis dabit ipse suos', l. 25-26). Thus internal evdience in this poem suggests that it was written in early 1574, as Charles IX died in May 1574 and Henri III was only physically present as ruler of Poland between January and June 1574.

Finally, Rollock's epitaph for Charles de Guise (1524-1574), Cardinal of Lorraine from 1550 and a major persecutor of French Huguenots in the early Wars of Religion, further suggests that Rollock was firmly entrenched in France by early 1574. 6 This epigram is a vicious and cutting inversion of a standard memorial epitaph - in place of a celebration of Lorraine's achievements, Rollock imagines the inscription on his tomb serving as a warning to passersby to take precautions to ensure that this particular demon does not rise from the dead:

Lapis hic sepultam continet belli facem,
qualem cruentae non gerunt Erynnies.
Novam dolosus ne excitet flammam cinis,
sparge viator sparge lustrales aquas.

[This stone covers the buried face of war, of the sort the bloody Kindly Ones did not bear. Lest the cunning man raises up a new flame from the ashes, sprinkle holy water on it, traveller - sprinkle it!]

Collectively, these three poems confirm that Rollock had arrived in France no later than early 1574 and most likely by late summer 1573, and thus arrived on the Continent much earlier than previous biographical studies of him have suggested. 7 Until now the only confirmed evidence of his whereabouts in this period was the fact that he studied in Poitiers from 1576 to early 1579, evidenced by his publication of poems in the city in 1576 and 1577 celebrating the accession of Anjou as Henri III and his entry into the city. 8 However, he had obviously moved around France, definitely to La Rochelle and perhaps even to Paris as the royal centre, prior to this. As a young Scottish protestant, the St Bartholomew's Day Massacres and their fallout had also clearly affected him, and he felt compelled to voice his anger in poetic form. But Rollock's experience in France was not an entirely horrific or negative one; quite the opposite. In Poitiers he found minor fame as a poet who wrote for civic occasions and created an impressive social circle for himself, as we shall see in our next feature.


1: DPS, vol. 2, pp. 378-380.

2: See Robert M. Kingdon, Myths about the St Bartholomew's Day Massacres 1572-1576 (Cambridge, MA/London, 1988).

3: The second was written in 1577.

4: The Scythian bridge originally crossed the Danube river, and is used by Rollock to symbolically stand as the river between France and Poland.

5: On Anjou's career, see Mack P. Holt, The Duke of Anjou and the Politique Struggle during the Wars of Religion, (Cambridge, 1986).

6: On Guise, see Stuart Carroll, Martyrs and Murderers: the Guise Family and the Making of Europe (Oxford, 2009).

7: William Steven, The History of the High School of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, 1849), pp. 15-29; Stuart Handley, 'Rollock, Hercules (c.1546-1599)', ODNB.

8: See his Panegyris de pace in Gallia constituenda (Poitiers, 1576), and the now lost Galliae et Poloniae regis Henrici III, Pictavium ingredientis pompa (Poitiers, 1577)