Imposition of Royal Authority and the Armada crisis - 1587 and 1588

When John Maitland accepted the office of Secretary of State to James VI of Scotland in 1584, he accepted the challenge of three of the most extraordinary and persistent threats to the power of the crown that a king's principal advisor ever faced: the Scottish aristocracy, the Kirk, and Queen Elizabeth of England.

By the time of his death eleven years later, Maitland had succeeded in helping his king break the power of the nobility, secure the support of both the Kirk and Elizabeth, and prepare the way for an absolutism of the Stewart kings of Scotland that was not finally destroyed until the Revolution of 1688.

We left John Maitland in 1587, newly appointed Chancellor of Scotland – the first who was neither a bishop nor a nobleman.

His appointment as Chancellor had some unfortunate side effects. His principal ally – and rival for the post was the Master of Glamis (son of Lord Glamis). Once Glamis became aware that Maitland was likely to be appointed, his support cooled, and he also married a daughter of Douglas of Lochleven – a family hostile to the Maitlands. The Earl of Angus also married a Douglas lady.

Maitland was now opposed by two major families, formerly allies, whilst his main alliance, with the Hamilton family, was of little use as the Hamiltons were quarreling amongst themselves and also indifferent to politics.

However, for the moment, Maitland enjoyed the King’s full support as they developed a plan to weaken the upper aristocracy and thus strengthen the royal authority.

Mary Stuart’s execution

He had been at the King’s side when James decided to acquiesce in his mother’s execution in England. James had never known his mother, and Sir Francis Walsingham had 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.

Another factor in James’s decision to make the minimal protest was that nothing less than military action by Scotland would influence Queen Elizabeth’s ministers and Scotland simply did not have the resources to mount a convincing attack larger than a raid into Northumberland. France and Spain, which were in principle willing to attack England were not willing to do this to defend a Queen deemed guilty of arranging the assassination of her husband, followed by marriage to the assassin.

James wished to protect his position as heir to the English throne, and together with his Chancellor had plans which depended on peace with England to rein in the powers of the nobility.

In the circumstances where James had made a rather ignominious retreat, he and his Chancellor were determined to extract the maximum benefit from the King’s decision by securing English support and peace on the border.

Establishment of Royal Authority

The plan was to keep the peace on the border to enable the King and his Chancellor to concentrate on the main objective and achievement of James’ reign – establishment of royal authority over the nobility.
James had observed that the swollen power of the aristocracy had arisen from forty years of government by women, little children and avaricious regents.

Peace with England brought to an end English subsidies to rebellious nobles, and the alliance of 1586 (see YB 2016) meant that any English funds went to the King, thus starving the nobility of one of their major sources of revenue.

Parliament of 1587

The next stage in Maitland’s reforms was to increase the efficiency and authority of the central government.

Letter of Horning

This was a document (i.e., a letter) issued by civil authorities that publicly denounced a person as a rebel. The document was issued against persons who had not paid their debts. It was argued that failure to pay a debt as directed by a court order was an act of rebellion.

Historically, the documents would be announced by three blasts of a horn, and the documents themselves came to be known as "letters of horning". A person who was denounced in these documents was described as having been "put to the horn".

A major weakness in the administration was the granting of letters of relaxation from horning. Debtors had been able to persuade the King by favour or fraud to suspend the letters. This practice did not stop entirely, because the King was still apt to indulge his favourites, but it was greatly reduced.

Meetings of the Auditors of the exchequer were regularized to ensure they met throughout July and August annually, to enforce punctual payment of dues and taxes. Collectors of the royal revenue had to provide surety from the merchants of Edinburgh that they would settle their accounts by the third week of September.

Hereditable Jurisdictions

These obstructed criminal justice. The aristocracy, holders of the hereditable jurisdictions, had a basic contempt for the law.

Proceedings were routinely obstructed by violence. In 1584 the Earl of Bothwell arranged a mob of retainers to overawe the court when he was accused of the murder of Lord Darnley, and on another occasion when charged with the murder of David Hume. Bothwell was by no means unique. Even the Chancellor’s elder brother, William Maitland of Lethington had in 1568 arranged with the Earl of Home to disrupt his trial for complicity in Darnley’s assassination, and he was acquitted for lack of evidence. (It is almost certain that Maitland had nothing to do with the killing – apart from anything else, he was an opponent of Bothwell, who arranged the murder, and as a commoner was too lowly to be involved with an aristocratic plot)

But not only were trials disrupted by violence, but worse still holders of the hereditable jurisdictions would refuse to proceed against malefactors where they were associates of the holder, allowing a reign of terror to prevail under the authority of the local chief magistrate.

Maitland’s partial solution to the latter problem was to give authority to the treasurer and the advocate to “pursue slaughter and other crimes although the parties be silent or would otherwise privily agree”. The criminal could otherwise frighten plaintiffs or complainants into abandoning their cases. Now the king’s advocate became in effect a public prosecutor.

The definition of treason was extended to include theft and assistance to thieves by a landholder. This was aimed at highland and border magnates. When enforced, it made a large contribution to suppression to lawlessness in the wilder parts of the kingdom.

The system of justice eyres (assizes in English terms) was re-activated after years of disuse. Scotland was divided into four districts for this purpose, each of which was to be visited by two justices in April and September.

Responsibility for enforcement was firmly placed on the feudal superiors of the land. This was a legal principle of ancient standing. In 1590 they were required to “ to keep and cause to be kept good rule within our lands” and to produce in court any tenant accused of a crime, with the threat of seizure of their own property if they failed to honour their obligations. Landowners who would have preferred to avoid trouble, now had to enforce the law.

Origins of Powers of Clan Chiefs

The highlands and borders were another problem. A hundred years earlier King James IV (who died at Flodden) effectively sub-contracted law and order to the great chiefs – notably the Earls of Argyll (Campbell) and Huntly (Gordon) were given wide authority over their clansfolk. Although not codified or specified at the time, subsequent legislation, in 1746, the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746 removed their powers and in doing so, specified them. They included the inherited regalities which gave chiefs the authority to judge both civil and criminal cases among their dependants and to inflict appropriate punishments, which in that period included fines and the death penalty. Chiefs also lost their traditional rights to call men to arms, usually for inter-clan feuding, but also for rebellion against the crown. Imprisonment was not generally used as a punishment at this period – it was too expensive, so fines, exile, mutilation or death were generally used.

The borders were a different problem. The chiefs had less power, but Humes of Coldstream were normally Wardens of the east march (eastern border), Kers of Jedburgh Wardens of the middle march, Johnstons of Annandale or Maxwells of Nithsdale Wardens of the west march. The Earl of Bothwell was Hereditary Keeper of Liddesdale, the wildest, most desolate and lawless region of all.


Chiefs and landlords were required to provide sureties and hostages, (whose lives might be forfeit) to present malefactors for trial on demand. Clans which did not provide the required security were outlawed.
None of this enhanced the magnates’ love of the chancellor – Maitland – who they both detested and feared.


The revenue of the crown was nominal – the crown lands brought in 50,000 pounds Scots – or £5,000 sterling, and taxation was regarded as an emergency measure. The Scots kings did not enjoy the benefits of “tunnage and poundage” excise duties on wine and also on all merchandise imported or exported which the kings of England relied on for much of their day to day revenue, and the parliamentary system in England by which monarchs secured approval from taxpayers to levy taxes did not exist in Scotland. Tariffs on imports were only introduced in 1597, after Maitland’s death.
The church became a major source of revenue – Henry VIII had set the example in England – so the Crown annexed the assets of the Church. This was justified on the grounds that past kings had given so much to the church that they had impoverished the kingdom. Occupiers of church lands were to pay taxes and rents. Tithes were in future due to the Crown.

Owners and occupiers were not dispossessed – they could convert their tenancies into temporal lordships for a fee. Effectively they could secure the freehold, but would then be subject to normal taxation on this.

Introduction of Lairds into Parliament

A laird is simply a man who owns a substantial estate, but is not noble. The Act of 1587 required a baron in each shire to arrange the election of landowners to Parliament. The number of lairds chosen was to be equal to the number of burgh representatives, or burgesses. This annoyed the magnates, but did not greatly please the lairds who were apathetic about their new privileges. Over the course of the next century the lairds did take advantage of their new status, but there was no immediate effect.

Maitlands’ Perks

The parliament passed a number of measures to benefit individuals – ratifying ownership of property holdings of several magnates and lesser men, needed to confirm gifts made by the King during his minority. Not entirely surprisingly, Maitland also benefitted - his Lordship of Thirlestane was ratified, with privileges of regality (a lord of regality had a civil jurisdiction equal to that of the King's sheriff) the lordship of Musselburgh, and confirmation of his position as hereditary baillie of Lauderdale, followed soon after by the gift of the lordship of Dunbar and the barony of Stobo near Peebles.

Judicial Reforms

The enactments of the 1587 Parliament only enhanced the distrust of the nobility for the commoner Maitland’s legal activity, and inspired an attempt on his life. We have no details, but Lord Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain wrote on 25 November 1587 “if the Chancellor had not been secretly warned the 13th of this month Bothwell had slain him in the court”.

He now secured the Kirk as an ally, and his reputation and that of the King began to rise amongst the godly. On Maitland’s advice, James overlooked the illegal summoning ( i.e. without his approval) of a General Assembly of the Kirk.

The plan to implement eyres (local court hearings by travelling justices) had not been implemented for lack of funds, but the system of compelling landowners to present persons accused of crimes for trial was beginning to work. This did not prevent a border raid by two thousand Scots led by Buccleuch, Johnstone (both notorious reivers) and the laird of Cesford (of the Ker family of Jedburgh). Maitland was considerably embarrassed by the fact that Cesford was engaged to marry his niece! Buccleuch was warded and had to find a surety of £10,000 that he would behave in future before obtaining his release. Cesford seems to have got off with a caution.

Bothwell was called to account for behaviour of his followers in Liddesdale, and action was taken against the Maxwells in Dumfries. A loan of artillery and men from Lord Scrope, the English warden in Carlisle enabled the King to capture a Maxwell castle. Maitland’s associate the laird of Carmichael replaced Maxwell as warden of the west march and steward of Annandale. Although Carmichael was replaced by a Maxwell after Maitland left office, the days when a Maxwell or Johnstone could defy the central government with impunity had ended.

Maitland – Maxwell Marriage

Around this time, James Maitland of Lethington, John’s nephew, married Agnes Maxwell. Both families were furious. The Maitlands, firm Presbyterians, were upset by his marriage to a catholic and from a rebel family at that, and the Maxwells were enraged by her marriage to the enemy and son of a mere commoner! James had to leave Scotland in a hurry and his uncle John bought Lethington from him for a derisory sum.

England’s Problems – the Armada Crisis

The ordnance needed to reduce the Maxwells was provided because England needed Scots support against a Spanish threat – the Armada!

After James’ ignominious, but unavoidable acquiescence in his mother’s execution, both he and his chancellor were determined to get their money’s worth for this concession.

James had flirted diplomatically with Spain, but this did not influence English policy. He secured English aid to restore order in the south west - Nithsdale and Annandale.

But the Spanish threat to England was serious and both James and Elizabeth knew that a Spanish victory over England would spell disaster for protestant Scotland.

Elizabeth had been the target of many catholic plots, some of which enjoyed Spanish support. The English government responded by support of the Dutch protestant rebellion against Spanish rule and by licensing privateers to attack Spanish shipping. Spain decided to retaliate by an invasion to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Drake’s expedition to Cadiz in early 1587 destroyed much of the Spanish fleet prepared for this purpose.

Matters came to a head with Mary Stuart’s execution in 1587 following discovery of her written support for the Babington Plot.

James still showed favour to catholic nobles – the Earl of Huntly (Aberdeenshire) turned protestant in order to marry the sister of the Duke of Lennox. and the convention of estates called to coincide with Huntly’s wedding not only put off Maxwell’s trial for reiving, but also declared a policy of armed neutrality with regard to Spain as proposed by Maitland. The Scots government made it clear that some inducements were required before more solid support would be offered.

They were finally provided in the form of the offer of an English Dukedom (with no cash value, and which did little to add to the dignity of a King), a pension of five thousand pounds sterling a year, and funding for a royal bodyguard of fifty men, plus a border force of a hundred horsemen and a hundred infantry.
James closed with the offer, and responded the next day, pledging full support and issued a proclamation declaring Scots solidarity with England. A Spanish agent was flung into prison. A year of diplomatic struggle had been a success.

In August the whole scheme collapsed as much of the fleet was wrecked on the Hebrides and Irish coasts following a combination of disasters involving navigational errors as the fleet which had passed north of Scotland turned south much closer to the Scottish and Irish coasts than planned, and was run aground by storms.

Elizabeth promptly revoked her promises, claimed her ambassador had exceeded his instructions, and refused the dukedom and finance for the troops. The ambassador was neither recalled nor reproved.
Maitland was neither surprised nor incensed but pointed out to Elizabeth’s special envoy he was a friend to England but he would probably be assassinated and the anglophile policy changed if James did not get some reward. Spain was already making substantial offers to Scotland of military assistance, and a second assassination attempt on Maitland was foiled on the 23rd August 1588

Policy Revised

Despite the overt threats, Maitland wrote friendly letters to Sir Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth’s head of security) and to William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Lord High Treasurer). The English ministers realized that James would accept any affront in order to retain his unofficial position as Elizabeth’s heir.

If she would not formalize this in the face of a Spanish invasion, when she really needed Scots help, then she never would. On the other hand, she and her government had few options for the succession, and James’ own record of establishing his authority over an unruly nobility indicated his fitness to select good ministers and to rule. Providing there was no overt hostility, she would not oppose the Stuart succession, and wrote to James “if, by leaving them [the Spanish] unhelped, you may increase the English hearts unto you, you shall not do the worst deed for your behalf” James could wait – he was twenty two years old, she fifty five – a great age in those days.

James changed his policy yet again, softer towards the Catholics, who after the Armada’s destruction could not harm him. This meant concessions to the lawless magnates like Maxwell and Huntly, but gave James an insight into Spanish intentions. Maitland did not like this, but he still guided the King – the English agent Roger Ashton wrote on 8 November 1588 “The chancellor guides all”. James and his chancellor agreed on objectives, merely had different views on priorities.

The Armada failure ensured that James remained the most probable successor to Elizabeth, and Edinburgh was safe from the fate of Antwerp – there would be no Inquisition in Scotland.
This tranquility was about to be disrupted by a Catholic plot against King and Chancellor and by the negotiations for the King’ marriage.

Await the next Yearbook…