“Twenty thousand Cromwell’s men”

What’s “Cromwell” doing in a song about a battle in 1690?

It was Tom Lehrer, taking on the voice of a protest folk-singer, who sang of the Spanish Civil War:

They may have won all the battles,
but we had all the good songs!

The same might be said of the Jacobite cause, which deserved to lose (at least in England and Scotland), and which did lose, disastrously, again and again, from the Boyne to Culodden, but which attached itself to what must have been half of the great folk-tunes of Scotland and Ireland as well as some of Carolan’s finest compositions: The White Cockade, Wha Whadna Fecht for Charlie, Twa Bonnie Maidens, Charlie is My Darlin’, The Skye Boat Song, Donald McGillivray, and the overwhelming Mo Ghile Mear. (The only thing that detracts from the glory of Mo Ghile Mear is that – like most of the rest of the surviving Jacobite corpus – it was written in praise of that world-class fool, scoundrel, and coward, Charles Edward Stuart.)

Musically speaking, aside from “Lillubellero,” the Whig/Williamite/Hanoverian side of the quarrel had nuthin’.

One of the finer Jacobite tunes is “The Haughs o’ Cromdale,” commemorating a pair of battles in the Highlands in 1690, with Montrose converting a morning defeat for the Jacobites into a crushing victory in the afternoon.

Now, I can’t pass for an expert on Scottish history, but it didn’t take much to figure out that there was something strange about the poetically wonderful final stanza:

Of twenty thousand Cromwell’s men,
five hundred fled tae Aberdeen,
the rest of them lie on the plain,
upon the Haughs o’ Cromdale.

Cromwell? Cromwell? What’s he got to do with a battle in 1690?

Now, this may seem as trivial a question to you as it is in reality, but it bothered me enough to resort to The Google. Turns out that “Cromwell” isn’t the only anachronism in the song: James Graham, “the Great Montrose,” first Marquis of Montrose, was also a figure of the Cavalier/Roundhead war of 1640-50 rather than of the Jacobite/Williamite contest of 1689-90. And the Jacobite victory celebrated in the song is entirely fictitious: the Highlanders got clobbered at Cromdale, and they stayed clobbered, putting an effective end to the struggle between James’s supporters and William’s in Scotland.

Apparently the original song, by James Hogg, was about the defeat; the rest was added later, borrowed from an account of Montrose’s rout of a Covenanter army (independent of Cromwell, but aligned with him on the anti-Royalist side) at Auldearn, in 1645.

… just in case you thought the practice of Just Making Sh!t Up had been invented by Rupert Murdoch.

Update Ooops! Left out Johnny Cope, with what may be the rudest two stanzas in the history of satiric verse:

When Johnny Cope to Dunbar cam’,
they speired at him “There’s a’ your men?”
“The De’il confound me, I dinna ken!
I left them a’ this morning.”

Why Johnny Cope, you were no p’lite,
tae leave your men in sic a strait
and come with the news o’ your ain defeat,
so early in the morning.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

9 thoughts on ““Twenty thousand Cromwell’s men””

  1. “Ye Jacobites By Name” is anti-Jacobite song, and as good as anything you mention, I think (except for Mo Ghile Mear).

  2. There’s a case for giving The Skye Boat Song to the Hanoverians. “Our glorious leader ran away. He had enough loyal followers left to fit in an open boat.”

  3. Dominic, I’ve never managed to parse “Ye Jacobites by Name.” Are “Jacobites by name” simply Jacobites, or those who (falsely) call themselves Jacobites? If you’d care to venture an explication de texte, please do.

  4. Mark, Pretty much my favorite RBC post ever. I just printed it out and put it on a shelf, where I’ll enjoy finding it again months from now.

  5. Add Loch Lomond to the Jacobite list. (The “low road” is a coffin, taking back the corpse of a Jacobite awaiting hanging in Carlisle).

    The problem may lie in Lowland Scots and English Protetantism, which frowned on popular music. Real reactionaries have no problem coming up with good songs; cf. the Nazis. American (white) folk music comes from the anarchic Appalachians, not ordered and godly New England

  6. Absolutely wonderful post. “Mo Ghile Mear” sung by Mary Black brought a tear to my eye – pity it is about that ould bollix Bonnie Prince Charlie. His grandfather was known in Irish history as Seamus a Cach, or James the Shit, for running away from the Battle of the Boyne. Why such romance arose over the grandson in Ireland as well as Scotland always baffled me. Republican separatism, as historian have shown, grew from Protestant Whig politics of the later 18th century.

    You could compare the 17th century ballads with a lot of the 18th century Irish ballads about the 1798 rebellion – “Boolavogue”, “The Rising of the Moon”, “The Croppy Boy”, “Kelly the Boy from Killane”, and “The Boys of Wexford”, which was a favourite of JFK.

    Here are a few:




  7. There are two versions of Ye Jacobites. The first is obviously anti-45er and anti-catholic, so it means “You people called Jacobites” and the term is pretty clearly pejorative. The later Burns version is better known, and more ambiguous. It’s usually read as an attack on the desire for military glory, I think, but still, it reads like an anti-Jacobite text to me.

Comments are closed.