How the Maitlands rose to greatness, fame and fortune

At the opening of the English Parliament in 1607 King James boasted;

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.

John Maitland of Thirlestane created the tools which enabled James to become the most successful Scots king since Robert the Bruce. How did this happen? And how did our family benefit ? An excellent biography by Maurice Lee of Rutgers College, New Jersey, explains this.

Printing – the internet of the Middle Ages

It all started with Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg. In 1450 he developed a process for printing with movable type which greatly reduced the cost of books, making them accessible to people who were prosperous, but not wealthy.

This revolutionized society. Until then, literacy was confined to the greatest nobility and the clergy who alone could afford to buy manuscript books. For practical purposes, only the clergy and legal professions were literate. There was no point in learning to read or write if books could only be found in monasteries or palaces. So, for the most part, before 1450, our forebears were illiterate.

Literacy transformed society. After 1450 printing made it possible for people to get hold of and read the bible in Latin, which was the international language of the day. Bibles were available in German from 1466, English from 1526 and French from 1530. Thus the Reformation started in Germany. Readers could make up their own minds on the meaning of the biblical texts, and challenge the interpretations of the Church so when Martin Luther denounced Catholic practice in 1517, he set off a pamphlet war, which triggered the Reformation.

As the internet has revolutionized communication in the last 20 years, so did printing in the 15th century
But religion was not the only area affected by this change. University education had been essentially for men seeking advancement in the church, but from the late 15th century laymen began to attend. This changed the structure of government. Kings had previously relied on the clergy and nobility to administer their governments, but the great nobles were unwilling to handle tedious detail and the clergy were corrupted by power.

Careers for laymen

This opened a career other than warfare or the church for ambitious young men and they took advantage of it. Thomas Cromwell in England was one of the first great secular administrators, and he was followed by many more.

What has all this to do with the Maitlands? We did have a lawyer in the family – William Mautalent, who acted in a legal capacity for the Abbey of Kelso from 1220 to 1240, and also two priests – both called Robert Mautlant who were Rectors of the parish of Ponteland near Newcastle around 1190 and also around 1243, but no other members of the family showed signs of education.

Maitlands change from warriors to lawyers

It was in 1513 that the fortunes of the family changed. William Maitland of Lethington died at the battle of Flodden, leaving Lethington and Thirlestane to his son Richard.

Sir Richard Maitland

Richard Maitland, (born 1496) had attended St. Andrews university, and made a fateful decision on taking up his inheritance – he took himself off to university again to study law in Paris.

Thus Maitlands changed from illiterate Border lairds into cultivated lawyers and administrators, leading to political leadership and a peerage by the end of the century.

We know little of his early career, except that he was employed by the Crown on administration. Around 1521 Richard married Mary Cranstoun of Corsbie (now a ruined peel tower, only five miles from Old Thirlestane), so he appears to have spent five years or more in France. We have no idea what he did in the next thirty years. Did he practice law ? Was he at Court, waiting for employment?

In 1525 he witnessed, along with Thomas Cranstoun, a royal charter in favour of Robert Lauder, in 1531 he witnessed a royal charter at Perth in favour of Lord Seton and at any rate, his presence was noticed. On 24th July 1537 he was given land at Blyth, in Lauderdale. These are all the charters mentioning his name recorded under the Great Seal between 1521 and 1549. Three is not very many in 28 years, and in each case the charters affected people close to him, Lauder, Seton and himself, so he was evidently not active at the royal court, nor, apparently as a lawyer.

However, in 1550 a change is noticed. He witnessed two charters in 1550, one in 1551 and in 1552, and then between 1554 and 1567 – 13 years, he is mentioned in 55 charters – about four times a year.
His career took off when he was appointed around 1552 when he was 58 as a member of the Commissions 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.

It cannot be a coincidence that his son William Maitland had been appointed Secretary to Mary of Guise in 1554, so it looks very much as though his career after that date was due to the influence of William who in 1558 was given the post of Secretary of State with a tenure for life (normal at that time for such positions).

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 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 continued to carry out judicial duties until 1584, when he retired from the bench aged 88, but his fees continued to be paid.

An important legal work was the Practiques of Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, a collection of decisions of the Court of Session between 1550 and 1577, but he is best known for the Maitland Manuscript, a compilation of Scots verse, and the first collection to be made. The folio manuscript was given by the Duke of Lauderdale to Samuel Pepys, a friend of the Duke and well known in his day as a collector of old books.

William Maitland of Lethington

We have studied William extensively but here summarise his career briefly. William was Secretary of State to Mary of Guise and then Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and highly regarded in England by both William Cecil and Queen Elizabeth. He remained essentially loyal to his wayward mistress, and fell out with the Regents who supplanted her.

The Regent, the Earl of Lennox took the (mistaken) view that William Maitland was involved in the murder of his son, Lord Darnley, Queen Mary’s husband and in 1570 managed to strip the family of their lands and possessions, including Lethington. William died in 1573 after defending Edinburgh Castle in the Queen’s interest.

John Maitland, the first Lord Maitland of Thirlestane.

However, our concern is with John Maitland, the first Lord Maitland of Thirlestane. His political inheritance was dreadful.
He was closely allied with his much older brother William (born about 1528 and thus about 15 years older than John, born 1543), and his fortunes rose and fell with his distinguished, but ultimately unsuccessful brother.

John Maitland’s inheritance

John Maitland after the surrender of Edinburgh Castle in 1573 was not only landless, but tainted by his dead brother’s policies and under house arrest in the custody of his cousin Lord Somerville at Cowthally Castle, near Carnwath in Lanarkshire.

His luck changed in 1578 when a coup d’etat put an end to the Regency and James, aged 12, assumed nominal royal powers. John Maitland was then freed from custody – but still landless.

Soon after, in 1579, Esmé Stewart, sieur d’Aubigny made his way from France to the Scottish court as an agent of the Dukes of Guise in France, and quickly established himself in the King’s favour, securing the abbey of Arbroath for income and the Earldom of Lennox as rewards.

Maitland arrives at Court

A royal court is the household of the monarch, with his advisors, ministers, relatives, the high nobility and cronies. It was until the late 19th century the centre of government. Any decently dressed gentleman could gain access to the buildings and often the receptions, but the real purpose of attendance was to gain a paid appointment in the King’s service.

Lennox’s objective as a Guise agent was to restore Catholic rule in Scotland, and to do this he began by recruiting to the court former followers of Queen Mary. William Maitland’s younger brother John, with a fortune to recover, looked a promising choice despite his attachment to the reformed religion.

The King rapidly came to trust Maitland, but not with the inordinate affection bestowed on the Earl of Lennox or the Duke of Buckingham. It is thought that a common interest in poetry (Richard Maitland was a noted poet, collector of Scots poetry and author of the Maitland Manuscript) together with Maitland’s steadfast loyalty to Mary attracted James’ attention.

Through attendance on James, John Maitland was able to recover in 1581 (Great Seal Vol 5 no. 156 26 March) all the lost lands except the very profitable Priory of Coldingham. In May he resumed his position as an Extraordinary Lord of Session (a judge). For the moment this was his only official position, but an analysis for the Earl of Morton that year noted that Maitland was one of the Duke of Lennox’s rulers and counsellors, and others counted him as a Papist.

Lennox secured the execution of the Earl of Morton in 1581 on flimsy charges of foreknowledge of the Darnley murder (he had refused to have anything to do with it without an order written by the Queen, which never arrived). This marked the high water mark of Guise/Lennox influence, and retribution soon followed.

The Ruthven Raid

It was just as well that John Maitland had made good use of his time and influence with James and importantly with Lennox, who had been influential in securing the restoration of the lost lands of Lethington. By the end of 1582, Lennox was history.

In August that year an event occurred which profoundly altered James’ attitudes. The Protestant lords, concerned by Catholic influence, and led by Lord Ruthven, who had just been created Earl of Gowrie, seized James and held him in captivity, first at Ruthven Castle near Perth and then at other strongholds. Lennox was encouraged to return to France where he died in 1583.

John Maitland retired from court, was unemployed but otherwise unscathed, and employed his leisure in wooing and wedding Janet Fleming, niece of Lady Mary Fleming, William Maitland’s widow. This gave his descendants, including your chief, descent from the Stuarts, and hence the Plantagenets, William the Conqueror and finally Charlemagne! It was also an important political alliance for the no longer young John Maitland aged 39.

A member of the Privy Council

The King escaped in June 1583. This episode made James determined to be master in his own house. An early action by the King on regaining his freedom was to recall Maitland to court, and then on 29 August 1583 to appoint him a member of the Privy Council.

The appointment was hard to justify in political terms – he had no influence, but the king liked him and they shared enthusiasm for poetry and hunting. Sir Richard, his father, was a noted poet. He was probably chosen for these shared tastes, but also to balance the power of the Earl of Arran, James’ current favourite and Chancellor of the Kingdom.

Maitland made the most of this opportunity, attending almost every meeting. He was ready, willing and able to handle any task, no matter how menial, and was fully apprised of all the day to day business of government. A lowly “gofer” (go fer this, go fer that) Maitland rapidly became indispensible as the assistant who would handle anything for James, who, whilst intelligent was also lazy.

John Maitland had to go canny, and whilst always courteous to Arran, allied himself with the Earl of Huntly, chief of the Gordons. It should be remembered here that the Maitlands of Schivas lived only a few miles from the Gordon stronghold at Haddo, and that there was a close relationship between the Maitlands of Lethington and their kinsfolk in Aberdeenshire.

The crises of 1584 and 1585

It was the crisis of 1584 – they came frequently in Scotland at that period, which made Maitland’s fortune. The Ruthven Raiders – staunch and extreme Protestants attempted to regain power and influence. A plot was under way in January 1584, with Walsingham (secretary to Queen Elizabeth) and the English Ambassador, Robert Bowes providing support. In March the Earl of Arran, James’ principal councillor arrested the Earl of Gowrie, whilst the other conspirators seized Stirling Castle. James and Arran advanced on Stirling with a large army, and the conspirators, who had only mustered a few hundred followers, fled to England.

Gowrie was put on trial for treason; Maitland participated in the prosecution and Gowrie was executed. The rest of Maitland’s career was to be devoted to minimizing the political damage nobles like Gowrie could wreak.

Next in line for retribution was the Kirk, which had supported the Ruthven administration. James regarded the Presbyterian kirk as a republican organisation, and had famously remarked “Nae Bishops – Nae King”. After the suppression of the second Ruthven plot, leading members of the kirk were vociferous in the support of the plotters, so James planned the “Black Acts” of 1584 to bring the kirk under royal control – as were the churches in most of Europe. Parliament was summoned in May 1584 to approve legislation on the kirk. Maitland took a leading part in drafting the legislation. Episcopacy was formally approved, no assemblies were to take place without the King’s license, no political comment was permitted by churchmen, in the pulpit or elsewhere, and the kirk was to pay for a royal bodyguard. Finally, “first fruits”, an old papal tax of the first year’s revenue from a benefice was revived, with the payment now going to the crown and an annual 20% income tax was imposed on all beneficed clergy.

Uproar followed. In November Maitland negotiated a face saving settlement. A commission was set up to regulate ministers stipends; Arran and Maitland were members. Those who co-operated with the government received better salaries. Those who did not suffered reductions in income and were also forbidden to plead in the royal courts. This pressure separated the moderates from their wilder brethren, and the majority accepted the regulations, whilst recusants departed the realm.

Ruthven lords return

During October 1585 the Ruthven lords returned to the attack, mustered a small army at Kelso, and advanced on Stirling where the King was in residence with both Arran and Maitland in attendance. As they approached the town, Arran fled and James came to terms with the rebel lords.

The new administration consisted of the Earl of Angus, the Master of Gray, the Master of Glamis and John Maitland who was the only commoner. Arran and his supporters were let off lightly by the standards of the day. No executions, not even exile, but Arran forfeited the new earldom, office of chancellor and the property he had acquired whilst in power. He retired to live in seclusion in Ayrshire.

John Maitland was rewarded with a pension of £1,000 Scots, and the de facto position of secretary to the King where he handled all the day to day administration which the nobles were too proud to do.
The new administration recognized that their weakness after the Ruthven Raid lay in their failure to win the King’s confidence (which Maitland possessed), so their new policy was to conciliate him and work with rather than against him.

James had also changed. Now 18, no longer an adolescent, he ceased to be dominated by favourites until late in his reign in England. Previous regents and favourites had ruled him by distraction, not co-operation, and had made no attempt to help him govern, but ruled over him. John Maitland was different here – clearly a subordinate, he was also a wise man who had suffered many reverses in his career, and thus was able to work with James to develop the policies to enable James to govern “by the pen” rather than by the sword and to become monarch in fact as well as in name. The success of these policies made James Scotland’s strongest and most successful king since Robert the Bruce, but also gave James in later years an unrealistic view of what could be achieved in England which after Henry VIII’s brutal reign was no longer beset by feudal magnates and had developed strong parliamentary government and traditions.

The new Administration

James needed to settle two problems – his relationship with the kirk and with England. The kirk had become radicalised since the days of John Knox, and strongly opposed bishops, which James regarded as essential for good order. Maitland had to mollify the kirk without abandoning the Black Acts of the previous year.

John Maitland negotiated a compromise – the Acts remained in force, but were subject to interpretation. It was agreed that a bishop was simply a minister with certain administrative duties, to be handled in conjunction with presbyteries and the General Assembly. The Assembly had authority and jurisdiction over spiritual matters, including heresy and frailties of the flesh. At the General Assembly of 1586 James addressed the Assembly, secured the election of a moderator of his choice and appointed a commission headed by Maitland to handle relations with the Assembly, which was allowed some authority but which did not threaten the substance of royal power.

A league with England

An alliance between England and Scotland was of great importance to both kingdoms. Mary Stuart, James’ mother, imprisoned in England, was the focus of Catholic plots to unseat Queen Elizabeth, who was also threatened by Spain as a result of English support of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. An expeditionary force had been sent out in 1585. The last thing Elizabeth needed was an alliance between Scotland and France and or Spain. The arrival in Edinburgh of a French ambassador did nothing to calm Walsingham’s fears of French influence and he arranged for an English ambassador also to be appointed – Thomas Randolph, who had been Ambassador in the 1560s. Walsingham also appointed Thomas Mills, as a special envoy to John Maitland – a mark of his importance as a trusted advisor to James.
James wanted an assurance of his accession to the English throne, with financial and political support. England had a bad habit of supporting Scots rebels so he wanted an assurance that there would be no more safe refuges for dissident nobility.

This gave the Scots a good opening position, and negotiations went smoothly with general agreement until Elizabeth blundered. She reduced the proposed pension to James by £1,000 sterling. Maitland responded by seeking extra terms to the agreement.

Walsingham tried to get Scotland to support the Dutch revolt. But too many Scots merchants were trading with Spain to warrant a break in the relationship. Negotiations stalled – James was willing to settle, Maitland wanted better terms, and Walsingham thought a bribe would settle the matter. Maitland had secured improved terms – James’ succession claim was acknowledged, and a promise was made to increase the pension in the future. In July 1586 James overrode Maitland’s objections and accepted the English proposals – reduced pension and all!

However, this was not a sign of a loss of confidence in Maitland’s judgment. James knew that Maitland spoke for many of the Scots nobility, Borderers and the merchants who favoured retaining the links with France and Spain. James wanted and needed the agreement; he had been the victim of three coups d’etat, all engineered from England or made with English connivance. Instead of the Protestant magnates - the Ruthven group - he was now the leader of the English faction in Scotland and he could now rely on Walsingham to obstruct Scots plotting against him. England was the only country which could offer a serious threat to Scotland, and England had secured Scots support against France and Spain which ended the Auld Alliance. This backing would be much needed in the coming conflict with Spain.
Maitland was rewarded by promotion to Vice Chancellor and appointment as Keeper of the Great Seal for life.

In our next chapter, we shall see how Maitland coped with two convulsions – the execution of the Queen in 1587 and the Armada crisis.