The family rises to power

During the 16th century the status of the Maitlands changed from border lairds living in a peel tower to peers living in a grand castle in Lauderdale, owners of all the land in sight.  This began as Richard Maitland of Lethington became the first of his family to seek and receive a formal education, with attendance at two universities, St Andrews and Paris, where he studied law and made a successful career as lawyer, retiring as Senator of the College of Justice. 

In this enterprise he was typical of the self made men who became royal officials. Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, came from humble backgrounds but became educated men and, for a time, prospered in England before their fall, disgrace, and in Cromwell's case, execution. Richard remained a lawyer but he fathered three brilliant sons, two of whom achieved high office, and the third, highly regarded, died young.

Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington

Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington (1496 - 1586) changed our family from illiterate Border lairds into cultivated lawyers and administrators, leading to political leadership and a peerage by the end of the century. He attended St. Andrews university, the first of our family to receive a formal education  and attend university.  He made a fateful decision on taking up his inheritance in 1513 after his father died at Flodden – he took himself off to university again to study law in Paris. 

 We know little of his early career, except that we think he was employed by the Crown on administration. Around 1521 Richard married Mary Cranstoun of Corsbie (Corsbie is now a ruined peel tower, only five miles from Old Thirlestane),  so he appears to have spent five years or more in France. 

His career took off when he was appointed around 1552 when he was 58 as a member of the Commission for Pacification of the Border with England. In May that year he is described as “consilario” – the Queen’s councillor

He was knighted on completion of that mission, and appointed an Extraordinary Lord of Session in 1553 – a judge, but without salary or specific commitment to sit on the Court of Session, the supreme court in Scotland.

He was sent in 1559 on a mission to England to resolve border issues and then described by his English interlocutor, Sir Ralph Sadler as ‘the wisest man amongst them’.

Afflicted by blindness in 1561, Richard was nevertheless appointed an Ordinary Lord of Session (paid and full time) on 12th November that year, when his son William Maitland was made an Extraordinary Lord of Session. Sir Richard Maitland was also appointed  a Privy Councillor in 1561 and in 1562 Keeper of the Great Seal. 

He was made Senator of the College of Justice in 1561, and Lord Privy Seal from 1562 to 1567. He continued to carry out judicial duties until 1584, when he retired from the bench aged 88, but his fees continued to be paid.  As a historian he is known for the history of his maternal family, the House of Seton. He wrote a learned work on Scots law, Maitland's Practiques 1550 - 1577 in which he commented on significant cases.  The Folio Manuscript of poetry is his great memorial.

The Maitland Folio Manuscript

Sir Richard was a collector of Scots poetry and a noted poet himself. In later years, when afflicted by blindness, he sat at the window in the Great Hall of Lethington Tower dictating his verses to his devoted daughter Mary. The Manuscript, the earliest collection of Scots verse, is now the prized possession of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Sir Richard died on the 20th of March 1586 at the age of ninety. He was one of the best and most honourable men of his time. He had three sons and four daughters.


William Maitland of Lethington, Secretary Maitland

Sir Richard’s eldest son was William Maitland of Lethington. He was Principal Secretary of State to Mary, Queen of Scots. 

William Maitland of Lethington
William Maitland of Lethington

A subtle diplomat anxious to bring his own country and England closer together, William was nicknamed "Michael Wily" a corruption of Machiavelli. He is a much maligned and misunderstood statesman, and however we interpret his political activities, there can be no question as to his loyalty and devotion to the Throne of Scotland. While Mary Stuart followed his advice and that of her half brother, Lord James Stuart, Earl of Moray, her reign was reasonably successful. However, she abandoned them in favour of others, and disaster followed.  

He was highly respected by Queen Elizabeth and by William Cecil her Secretary of State. He changed his allegiances several times, asserting that his loyalty was to Scotland, not to wayward rulers. He sought to advise Mary after her flight to England. He opposed the Regency which deposed her, and held Edinburgh Castle for her interests in 1572 - 1573. 

He married Mary Fleming in 1567. She was the daughter of Malcolm, 3rd Lord Fleming and was one of the Queen’s four Maries or ladies in waiting. Mary Fleming accompanied her Queen to the French court, and was brought up amidst the Renaissance splendours of that court. William and Mary had one son, James (see below) and a daughter. William died in 1573, after defending Edinburgh Castle in the Queen's interest.

John Maitland, 1st Baron Thirlestane, Chancellor Maitland 1543 - 1595

Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Thirlestane
Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Thirlestane

Sir John Maitland, 1st Lord Thirlestane, was William’s younger brother. John was born in 1543, and for many years lived in the shadow of his distinguished elder brother William, as a loyal ally who shared his downfall in 1573. Following William's surrender of Edinburgh Castle and his death, John was placed in the custody of a kinsman.

In 1580 he was released from house arrest, attended court, and rapidly rose to favour, joining the Privy Council in 1583, and becoming Secretary of State in 1584.


John recovered Lethington for his father in 1584. Sir Richard died in 1586 and James Maitland inherited the property as heir to his father William, Sir Richard's eldest son.   James Maitland of Lethington became a Catholic, married Agnes Maxwell against the wishes of both families and was forced to flee Scotland because of his Catholic religion and lack of support from both families. John Maitland, his uncle, bought Lethington from him, probably at a very low price, but, we think, assisted his flight. 

John rapidly increased his influence at court, becoming King James' Chancellor and the King's principal advisor in 1584. He was closely involved in advising James on policy when James' mother Mary Stuart was put on trial in England, accused of treason and subsequently executed in 1587.  James decided to accept the verdict in order to secure his position as the most probable heir to Queen Elizabeth.  John developed policies to curb the power of the nobility and the Kirk, leading James to boast later

This I may say for Scotland, and may truly vaunt it; here I sit and govern it with my pen; I write and it is done, and by a Clerk of the Council I govern Scotland now, which others could not do with the sword.”

The actions of this period are too complex to summarise here - see the longer article on John's career for more information.

Having filled the high offices of the Lord Privy Seal, Judge of the Court of Session, Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor of Scotland he was created Lord Thirlestane in 1590 when the King married Anne of Denmark and created a number of peers to celebrate the occasion.

His coat-of-arms and those of his wife Janet Fleming (the niece of his brothers wife), can be seen on a stone panel above the door in the old banqueting hall of the Lethington Tower. By marrying Janet, daughter of Lady Barbara Hamilton and James, IV Lord Fleming, he allied the line of his descendants with royal blood. Janet was descended from King James II of Scotland. John died in 1595. Through this marriage his offspring were descended from the Stuart and Plantagenet kings, and hence from William the Conqueror’s wife Matilda, herself a descendant of Charlemagne the Great.