The story so far…

John started his political career in 1573 under house arrest following the unsuccessful defence of Edinburgh Castle by his elder brother William, Secretary Maitland of Lethington. William escaped execution by dying a few days after the surrender – some said by his own hand, but others noted the great deterioration in his health and the strain of the siege. His body remained unburied until his widow secured Queen Elizabeth’s intervention in the matter.

John escaped execution, was taken prisoner, and held by the Regent James Douglas, Earl of Morton, first at his house in Edinburgh and then at the castle of Tantallon on the North Sea coast. A few month later,, in 1574, he was released into the custody of his cousin Lord Somerville, at Cowthally, in the Pentland hills near Edinburgh, subject to a surety of ten thousand pounds Scots. He got on well with his cousin, but remained under house arrest until 1578. The Earls of Argyll and of Athol deposed the Regent, and Maitland became a free man – but landless, as Lethington, forfeited in 1572 was till in the hands of Moprtons’ henchmen.

Two years later, in 1580, Esmé Stewart, sieur d’Aubigny, a favourite of King James introduced John to the King hoping for John’s support, as a firm Stuart loyalist, to re-introduce Catholic practice to Scotland.  This was a forlorn hope, as the family were now staunchly Presbyterian, but James took a liking to John and they became personal friends – perhaps through a shared interest in poetry, and also in recognition of the Maitlands’ support of Queen Mary.

Now read on…

Benefits from attendance at court came swiftly – in February 1581 and confirmed by charter dated 26th March, Maitland recovered Lethington and most of the other lands taken from the family in 1572. Restoration of his former position as a Senator of the College of Justice followed soon after.

Robert Bowes, the English ambassador, noted John’s advancement and reported “Maitland and Sir James Balfour live yet in some darkness, and are not very openly seen in court, yet their advices and counsels do most prevail” This overstated Maitland’s position, but was a straw in the wind.

Esmé Stewart, promoted to Earl and then Duke of Lennox did not secure Maitland’s support for his schemes, but Maitland himself was associated with Lennox and accounted a papist by Lennox’ numerous opponents.

The Ruthven Raid

This was a turning point in James’ reign and a humiliation which he did not forget. Briefly, James was seized in August 1582 by a group of Protestant lords led by the Earl of Gowrie while hunting near the castle of Ruthven (now Huntingtower) in Perthshire and imprisoned for almost a year.

Meanwhile, Maitland, out of favour, laid low, but did not waste his time. He courted Janet Fleming, only child of James, Lord Fleming. Janet’s aunt was Lady Mary Fleming, widow of John’s brother William. Mary Fleming’s mother was a sister of Lord John Hamilton, a man with a fair claim to the throne of Scotland if the main Stuart line failed.

The Flemings and the Hamiltons were important political allies. It is through this marriage that the Earls of Lauderdale are descended from the Stuart kings of Scotland, the Plantagenet kings of England, and through William the Conqueror’s wife Matilda from Charlemagne himself who died in 814.

The Ruthven regime was thoroughly disliked.  James was able to escape in July 1583 and re-establish his rule. Many of the plotters lost their estates and were forced into exile, but James was merciful and there were no executions.

Maitland was an immediate beneficiary of James’ release.  Ambassador Bowes reported on 17 August that Maitland was “lately called to court as an especial servant of the king’s mother.” Two weeks later on 29 August Maitland was appointed a member of the privy council.

It was hard to see what Maitland had to offer, apart from being a counterweight to the Earl of Arran and a friend of the King in the privy council. He had no influence nor any following, but allied himself with the Gordon Earl of Huntly of Aberdeenshire.

Maitland made the most of his good fortune. He had his eye on the office of Secretary to the council. As a start, he attended almost every meeting of the Council and also attended meetings of the Auditors of the Exchequer with equal regularity. He undertook the most mundane tasks, and quickly became an indispensible administrator. It must be remembered that the great nobles regarded administration as being beneath their dignity and thus created opportunities for humbler folk to take control.  By September, the post of Secretary seemed within his grasp – Bowes reported on 19 September that “John Maitland has obtained the king’s signature for the office of secretary.”   But four days later Bowes wrote that the grant of this office was ‘stayed.’ We do not know why.

Crisis of 1584

Maitland’s opportunity came six months later. The Ruthven Raiders attempted a second coup d’etat, in April 1584, but their security was poor. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Secretary in England was aware of it by January that year and encouraged the plotters.

James was prepared in March, and the Earl of Gowrie was arrested. The conspirators seized Stirling Castle, but could not hold it. James led an army to retake the castle. Gowrie was captured and executed in May for the second offence. Maitland participated in Gowrie’s interrogation at the trial.

Maitland was rewarded with a knighthood and recovery of Lethington for his father.

The Kirk was now in line for retribution. It had supported the Ruthven Raiders in 1582 and 1584. James took the view that a Christian king should be the chief governor of the kirk, with bishops to keep order.  James took the opportunity to reduce the kirk to obedience. Too many of its members had sympathized with the Ruthven Raiders. In May 1584 Parliament was asked to pass the so-called Black Acts. The session lasted only four days, and no notice was given of the planned legislation.

Scottish parliaments were not representative assemblies. Membership was more akin to the House of Lords, and there were few, if any borough representatives. Proceedings were arbitrary. At the beginning of the session Parliament would elect (or the King might appoint) a few of their number to be Lords of the Articles. These Lords would prepare the legislation and at the end of the session parliament would reconvene to approve or reject all the proposed legislation in a single vote. No legislation could be amended by the parliament.

So it was with the Black Acts, drafted in part by John Maitland. They provided that

King and Privy Council had jurisdiction over all cases and all persons.

To deny this authority was treason

Episcopacy was formally approved in place of Presbyterian government

All assemblies must be authorized by King or Parliament

No preacher was to meddle in the affairs of the king or his council


The kirk was to pay for the King’s bodyguard

The government was to receive the “first fruits” of each vacant benefice (i.e.

the first year’s income of the living or bishopric)

As might be expected, the proposals created uproar.  Attempts by James to force acceptance failed. Maitland was called in to negotiate a settlement. In November 1584 he met the ministers of southern Scotland in Edinburgh and in February 1585 secured agreement. The kirk accepted royal supremacy, agreed to stop preaching against the King, and accepted a crown commission consisting of members of the Privy Council to “adjust” ministers’ stipends. The crown had to abandon some of its more ambitious claims, but in return secured a measure of obedience and a mechanism to reward or sanction ministers for following or deviating from the party line.

In May 1585 Maitland was appointed to a commission to reform the college of senators (justices) – in practice removal of dissidents. Among those removed was Maitland’s father, Sir Richard Maitland, who was both blind and 89 years old – probably overdue for retirement. He died the following year. Sir Richard was succeeded in his appointment by a close Maitland ally.

The next step was the division of spoils – the rebels’ estates had been forfeited,  and the winners took all.  Maitland’s real reward was appointment as Secretary. He also got the lands of the rebel minister of Haddington, close to Lethington.

Treaty with England

The English now sought a treaty of alliance of offence and defense with Scotland and sent a draft in June 1585. James’ main interest here was to secure acknowledgement of his claim to succeed Elizabeth (now 52, she lived another 18 years). James agreed to take Elizabeth’s advice on his marriage. Both parties were to refrain from making international treaties without consent from the other.

Maitland had reservations. It was one sided, as war between England and Spain looked increasingly probable, so Scotland might be committed to war, and better terms would be offered if the Scots delayed approval. England needed Scots support or neutrality.

Whilst these negotiations were proceeding a complex palace revolution occurred, in which Maitland was a spectator rather than participant. The final outcome was the dismissal of the Earl of Arran, who also lost his earldom and replacement by a group of four – the Earl of Angus, the Master of Gray, the Master of Glamis and Maitland. John Maitland was rewarded with a pension of S£1,000 a year, and continued to handle all the administration. Other magnates supported the new regime, but Maitland was thought to have the greatest share of the King’s confidence.

Whereas Arran had treated James as a child, the new regime needed royal support and set out to ensure that they secured it.

James, now aged 18, was a strange mixture. Highly intelligent, he was also timid, lazy and uncouth, with poor judgement of character and apt to be ruled by favourites such as Lennox, Arran and much later Buckingham.

Maitland was never a favourite – his modest promotion to Baron and lack of enrichment is a mark of that when others received Earldoms, Dukedoms and land. He gave James his political education and developed the policies which enabled James to become Scotland’s strongest king since Robert the Bruce. 

The first task of the new regime was to develop a working relationship with the kirk. The king and his secretary were in agreement that the kirk must be subordinate to the crown. The general assembly of the Kirk was given authority over the bishops, but its legal jurisdiction was limited to spiritual matters and the frailty of the flesh. Political issues and national government were strictly outside clerical authority. The Black Acts of 1584 remained in force, but subject to “interpretation” rather than strict enforcement. James nevertheless contrived to secure the election of the Moderator of his choice to preside over the general assembly, which was given its head over minor administrative matters which did not threaten the royal prerogative. Maitland still feared the power of the kirk, but found means to turn this to the king’s advantage.

Treaty with England

The terms of the proposed English alliance had yet to be settled. England and France both desired to influence the Scots government, and both appointed resident  ambassadors, Thomas Randolph who had twenty five years experience of Anglo-Scots relations and  M. Courcelles from France, the first for nearly twenty years.

Maitland felt that the terms proposed were unduly favourable to England and sought a series of improvements – formal acknowledgement of James’  succession, and a trade agreement. Elizabeth then reduced the amount of the promised pension to James by a thousand pounds sterling (twelve thousand pounds Scots).

James was keen to secure the agreement, because he had suffered three coups d’etat by the nobility, all fomented by England and wanted an alliance to put a stop to this interference in Scots affairs. He over-ruled Maitland and the treaty was signed in June 1586.  By removing a source of instability it greatly strengthened the crown.

Despite disregarding Maitland’s objections to the treaty terms, James understood his concerns, knew he represented the views of many of the Scots nobility, borderers and merchants,  and respected them. His approval took tangible form in promoting Maitland to Vice-chancellor and Keeper of the Great Seal.

Mary and the Babington plot

In August 1586 a diplomatic bomb exploded. The English government revealed the details of the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart’s involvement in it. How would James react? To support his mother or abandon her?

First – what was the Babington Plot?

This was an entrapment by Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State who was responsible for security. He was aware that Queen Mary, in captivity was regularly corresponding by secret methods, and he suspected she was encouraging plots against Queen Elizabeth.

He therefore created a means of correspondence which he could monitor. Gilbert Gifford was arrested whilst carrying correspondence to Mary, and would have been executed but was released on condition of showing Mary’s correspondence to Walsingham. Walsingham then created an apparently secure means of correspondence which Gifford persuaded Mary to use.

Within a short time Walsingham was in possession of incriminating  letters from Mary to Anthony Babington in which she approved of a plot to overthrow Elizabeth and to kill her.

The conspirators were executed, and plans made for Mary’s trial. In the Tudor period a treason trial was not intended to determine guilt or innocence, but was a show trial to demonstrate guilt, with the verdict decided beforehand. “If you were not guilty, you would not be on trial” was the state’s approach.

James dithers

The initial reaction was to hope for the best. Maitland kept as clear from this issue as possible. He reckoned that the only way of halting proceedings was to threaten to abrogate the recently concluded treaty, but also considered that James’ principal concern was the succession to the English throne. In these circumstances he concluded that James would give way rather than defend his mother’s life and he did not wish to be involved in such a fruitless and discreditable negotiation.

The rest of the King’s council took a similar view and there was some competition to avoid the responsibility for failure. The Master of Gray had taken the lead in negotiations of the English alliance, and in conceding terms which Maitland considered unsatisfactory. He also boasted that he was the Scotsman with most influence on Elizabeth. Maitland, meanwhile was indispensible at home to conduct the daily affairs of the realm, so Gray was sent to London.

Maitland drafted his instructions but the king would not allow his envoy to threaten any sanctions, let alone abrogation of the treaty in the event of Mary’s execution. Walsingham fed James’ indifference by sending him extracts of Mary’s intercepted correspondence including a letter in which she discussed a plan to disinherit her son and send him to Spain as a prisoner. 

James behaviour shocked his nobles, but it can be explained – he never knew his mother or received any love or affection from her. Children at that period were brought up by a wet nurse, and then by a governor or governess and hardly saw their parents until they were ten years old or more. This apparently callous behaviour was due to the very high infant mortality of the period, and parents avoided an emotional commitment until their offspring were likely to survive.

So James chose the English succession over the mother he hardly knew, and who had recently planned his deposition and captivity. It must also be noted that there was no chance of successful military action against England without French or Spanish assistance. Neither was likely to help.

A further consideration moved Maitland. He was planning moves to weaken the power of the aristocracy, which required English neutrality. For the sake of the Scots monarchy he reckoned that the English alliance was vital. However, he also wanted to extract the maximum price from England for James acquiescence in his mother’s execution.

James did secure one benefit from his craven yet practical policy on his mother’s execution – the approval of the kirk, which did not regret Mary’s death.

Consequently the General Assembly of 1587, at which Maitland and Sir Lewis Bellenden represented the King, in the manner of today’s Lord High Commissioners, gave the King little trouble and cooperated with the government.

To celebrate his 21st birthday the King gave a great party in Edinburgh and soon after promoted Maitland once again, to Chancellor.

This was  a remarkable appointment because he was the first chancellor who was neither a bishop, nor a territorial magnate, nor even a peer. Bishops, and indeed popes, were not always of noble origin because the church was the great career open to talent, but they had the strength, revenues and connections of the church behind them. John Maitland was the son of a minor laird, a nobody in the eyes of the nobility. The magnates resented him for this reason and were to dislike him still more as he helped the King to establish his authority. His biographer, Maurice Lee, comments that acceptance of this appointment was a political mistake of the highest order because it did nothing to enhance his authority, which came from royal support but by taking precedence over all other state officials infuriated his social superiors.

In our next article we shall see how Maitland established the royal authority which enabled James to boastThis 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 editor must acknowledge his reliance on the excellent biography of John Maitland by Maurice Lee of Rutgers College, New Jersey.