Sir John Douglas, Field Marshall of Venice

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In October 1630, the Stella was sunk in a storm off Goodwin Sands. The ship was carrying nearly 300 Scottish and English soldiers from the Dutch Republic to the Republic of Venice for use in the War of the Mantuan Succession. All of the soldiers, including their commander, Colonel Sir John Swinton, drowned. This was the 'second fleet', the first having carried John Douglas and his men to Venice.

Sir John Swinton was a Scottish officer who found various employment on the Continent during the Thirty Years War. On 5 May 1630, the Venetian Ambassador in the Netherlands wrote that Swinton was "trained to war in [the Netherlands]... and has commanded companies in Bohemia and Denmark" (CSPV, 1629-1632, p. 333). This is true: Swinton had served as a captain and then as a lieutenant-colonel under Christian of Brunswick sometime before 1623. Around 4 December of that year, Swinton made a request to the States-General of the Dutch Republic, perhaps for a commission in the Dutch army. Whatever the request, it was at first denied, as Swinton had been captured by the enemy while serving as a captain under Christian (RSG, 1623-June 1624, p. 374). Nonetheless, by 19 February 1625, Swinton was commissioned as a sergeant-major in the regiment of the Earl of Essex in the Anglo-Dutch Brigade (HSL, Vol. III, p. 182).

In March 1627, Swinton entered Danish service as a colonel under Sir Charles Morgan [SSNE 89] and alongside Colonels Sir James Livingston [SSNE 8050] and Sir John Borlase. Swinton was chosen in place of the Earl of Essex, as Essex did not want to serve under Morgan in Germany, and Essex's lieutenant-colonel, Sir Charles Rich, was on a different assignment (HSL, Vol. IV, pp. 15-16). Each of the four officers who joined Denmark from the Dutch Republic commanded regiments of 12 companies with 1,240 men, totaling around 4-5,000 men. However, by the time that they arrived in Denmark, nearly half the men had deserted and they were left only with a strength of around 2,500 men (Akkerman, Vol. I, pp. 629, 707; Beller, p. 540; NA, SP 84/133 f. 98, Apr. 2, 1627). The expedition ended with the fall of Stade in April 1628, and by the end of May, Swinton was one of "1,820 men temporarily garrisoned in Zwolle, awaiting further instructions," (Akkerman, Vol. I, p. 707). Swinton may have intended to reinforce Christian IV at Glückstadt, but by 1630 he was back in the Dutch Republic.

Between 1628-1631, Venice was involved in the War of Mantuan Succession on the anti-Habsburg side. In early 1630, the Venetians were negotiating in the Dutch Republic for a levy to be raised and led by Colonel Sir George Hay [SSNE 5056], but by 5 May these negotiations had broken down. Swinton was contracted to levy a regiment for the Republic of Venice on recommendation by the Prince of Orange and Colonel Hauterive (CSPV, 1629-1632, p. 333). Swinton promised "to take 2,090 good veteran infantry to serve Venice, all to be taken from Holland," and to embark at once. Swinton was allowed to leave Dutch service by the States-General (if he was even still employed at this time), but they refused the enlistment of any soldiers actually in their service, and so Swinton went to London to levy (CSPV, 1629-1632, p. 365). On 24 July, 1,029 soldiers embarked on the first fleet for Venice, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Douglas (CSPV, p. 380). Over the next few weeks, Swinton prepared the second fleet and continued to fill up his companies. It would not be until mid-October that the second fleet would actually embark, carrying around 528 troops under the command of Swinton and Colonel Vanharten (CSPV, pp. 423, 427-428). Of the two ships that embarked, the Stella and the Cicogna, Colonel Swinton chose to sail on the Stella: "one of the finest and most powerful ships in all Holland, well supplied with all necessaries." 291 men joined Swinton the Stella, 145 of which were his own men, many of whom were his officers and "persons of the best quality and far better... than those sent in the first fleets," (CSPV, p. 428).

However, Swinton and the second fleet would never make it to Venice. It was reported by the Venetian Ambassador that upon leaving the Texel on the eighth of October [1630], the Stella was driven onto Goodwin Sands by a vicious storm and sank. All of the soldiers on board, including Swinton, were reported to have drowned (CSPV, p. 429-430). Two conflicting reports detail the fate of the second ship. The Venetian Ambassador in the Netherlands reported that the Cicogna had managed to pick up some of the survivors from the Stella, before being sunk the following day, with only 33 survivors (CSPV, p. 429). The Venetian Ambassador in England, on the other hand, reported that the second ship had managed to reach Margate, but that upon reaching England, 250 of the remaining soldiers deserted (CSPV, p. 430). The first fleet had indeed made it to Venice as, by 5 March 1631, John Douglas had been appointed colonel of the levy upon Swinton's untimely death.

The Texel, the 24th July, 1630.
Thank God, the first fleet of four powerful ships left the Texel to-day, with your Serenity's troops. They are only waiting for a favourable wind to set sail. One thousand and twenty-nine soldiers in all have embarked. Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas will command the first fleet with only one captain, as Colonel Suynton wished to keep back the rest to fill up their companies.

March 5, 1631
Senato, Terra. Venetian Archives. 618.
In execution of the decision of this Council of the 22nd ult. to assign to Colonel John Douglas the stipend of Suynton(1), drowned some months ago, that 150 ducats a month of current value be assigned to him so long as he serves his Serenity, beginning from the aforesaid date, when he was appointed colonel.

It seem that he was later a Field Marshall to the state of Venice(3).

John Douglas was married, possibly in Venice where his daughter and possibly only child, Anne was born in about 1630. She married a William Gough of the St. Briavels, Gloucestershire family.

Sir John was killed at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

An inscription on a tomb in the churchyard of St Briavels Church, in the Royal Forest of Dean, in west Gloucestershire, England:




Jan. 4, 1669.




Ob. Oct. 18, 1673.

Superstis CATHARINE,


Willsbury, Gent

Obit Dec. 27, 1773, æt. 82


He is probably the John Douglas, a Scottish officer in the Danish-Norwegian army, who was a major in Lord Spynie's regiment from 1627-8.
Spynie was one of the Scottish lords who attended the funeral of James VI and I in Westminster Abbey in 1625. On 2 June 1626 he was made commander-in-chief in Scotland for life. Having raised a regiment of three thousand foot for King Christian IV of Denmark-Norway, he served with distinction in both Denmark and Germany. Spynie, whose mother had previously married two Douglas husbands, married first, Joanna Douglas, and secondly, Lady Margaret Hay, only daughter of George Hay, 1st Earl of Kinnoull. By his first wife he had no issue, but by his second he had two sons—Alexander, master of Kinnoul, and George, who succeeded him as third lord—and two daughters: Margaret, married to William Fullarton of Fullarton, and Anne, who died unmarried.

1.  Alternate spelling for Swinton
2.  Superstis = Survivor; Nepotis = grandson; Filia = daughter; Militis = soldier; Uxor = wife
3.  Office: Field Marshall to the state of Venice. (Bradney, History of Monmouthshire, vol. 4 pt. 1 p. 126) Comment:  What is the connection with Monmouthshire?
4.  This war brought an unexpected consequence - the plague arrived in Venice, with recorded casualties of 46,000 out of a population of 140,000. Some historians believe that the drastic loss of life, and its impact on commerce, ultimately resulted in the downfall of Venice as a major commercial and political power.



Sources for this article include:

  • Calendar of State Papers Venetian (CSPV), 1629-1632

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