At the peak of his career
We left John Maitland and his King securely in possession of their places. After the failure of the Spanish Armada attack on England James remained the most probable successor to Elizabeth, and Edinburgh was safe from the fate of Antwerp which was terrorised by Catholic rulers.
The 8th Earl of Angus died at this time without a son, so a scramble for his inheritance (the Earldoms of Angus and of Morton) ensued, with claimants which included the King himself as a descendant of the 6th Earl of Angus. William Douglas of Glenbervie, a long-time associate of Maitland, won the Earldom of Angus, and awarded Maitland the Barony of Braidwood (near Carluke, Lanarkshire) for one penny a year as a thank you present. This happy position did not last long. The new Earl died in 1591 and was succeeded by his son, who disliked Maitland. The Earldom of Morton went to Douglas of Lochleven, an inveterate opponent of the Maitlands of Lethington.
Maitland had lost an important supporter and acquired two opponents.
James, meanwhile had been attracted by Alexander Lindsay, brother of the Earl of Crawford, who was swiftly described as James’ “nightly bedfellow…”.
Another arrival at court who attracted attention was George Gordon, 6th Earl of Huntly. (Chief of the Gordons). Huntly had an unsavoury reputation. He had, for example, captured two cooks from an enemy clan, roasted them alive and decorated Strathbogie Castle with their limbs. As an exceptionally powerful magnate he resented Maitland’s plans to curb the powers of the nobility. Maitland regarded him as an example of the evils which should be rooted out of Scots society for the good of King and country.
The Huntly plot
In February 1589 a mine exploded. The English had been fairly cool after the Armada defeat of 1588 – Scotland took no part in this campaign, but at least did not attack England in a moment of crisis. Now the English Ambassador, William Ashby presented the King with a packet of letters intercepted by English agents.
Five leading Catholic lords, led by the Gordon Earl of Huntly, and their followers, including the Protestant 5th Earl of Bothwell (the 4th Earl, Mary Stuart’s husband, had died insane in a Danish prison in 1578) had written to the Duke of Parma, the Spanish Viceroy in the Low Countries to express their regret that the King of Spain had not sought to land his armies in Scotland during the Armada attack of 1588. They offered to help a Spanish force of 6,000 men to invade England if provided with some funds.
Their motives were disparate. Huntly claimed to be a secret Catholic, (his family had remained Catholic after the Reformation), the Earls of Errol, Crawford, and Arran together with Lord Maxwell were all Catholics, and the Protestant Bothwell joined the plot in the hope of securing the lands of Haddington Priory granted to John Maitland, by the Queen but signed away by the Hepburn prioress of the day.
James took little notice of these revelations. Huntly was briefly confined to Edinburgh Castle, where he entertained his friends and family and was allowed to go free, as was Errol.
James’ inaction can readily be explained. As the Armada approached the English Channel in 1588, Elizabeth’s ambassador William Ashby promised James a Dukedom and a pension of £5,000 sterling a year, plus financing of the costs of a royal bodyguard of 50 men, and a border force of 100 cavalry plus 100 infantry.
With the invasion scare over, Elizabeth, never flush with money, also suffered from a bad memory. James was equally short of money, but his memory was rather better. He awaited performance of these promises before taking action against the plotters. He sent an envoy to London in March 1589 to remind Elizabeth of her promises. Maitland now suggested to Thomas Fowler, Elizabeth’s agent in Scotland that a special embassy be sent to Edinburgh to press their case for action against the Catholic lords.
The Brig of Dee, Aberdeenshire
The plotters moved early in April 1589. James received the news from the Master of Glamis [heir to the Lord Glamis] and returned to Edinburgh from a hunting trip, routed Maitland from his bed at three in the morning, and together they summoned the Protestant magnates to defend the kingdom.
The plot failed. Huntly could not muster many Catholics in the north and Bothwell was unable to raise any forces in the Borders. Maitland propelled James into action. Fowler wrote “The chancellor keeps his watch nightly in turn, is daily in his armour, marches in the vanguard [the leading detachment of a military force] and none more forward.” Maitland kept the squabbling Protestant magnates from fighting each other in order to concentrate on the Catholic traitors.
Crawford deserted Huntly when the latter refused to kill the Master of Glamis, his prisoner. Bothwell retreated to the Borders where he simultaneously sent abject letters to James and tried to raise new rebel forces.
On the 17th April the royal forces trapped the rebels at the Brig of Dee near Aberdeen. Huntly’s forces deserted – they had been told the King was a prisoner of the Chancellor, but found him leading an army against them. Huntly fled and the King led his forces into Aberdeen.
Debate ensued on the next steps. James’ army was waiting for its pay, and was not strong enough to capture and raze the rebels’ strongholds. A compromise was needed. This came from Huntly, via the Master of Glamis. Huntly and his confederates would surrender if the penalties were not too severe. Huntly surrendered, and James installed his troops at Strathbogie (Huntly’s principal castle) and at Errols’s castle, Slains, also near Aberdeen. The rebels promised to behave. Bothwell’s men had deserted him, and he surrendered to the King in Maitland’s garden at Lethington.
Despite promises of clemency, the rebels were tried for treason and convicted. The problem was the sentence. The King did not have the political support he needed from the aristocracy to condemn them to death. They regarded making war on the king as part of the ordinary political process. So the prisoners were merely warded – i.e. subjected to house arrest.
Maitland had to settle for this. Elizabeth’s response to James’ reminders of her 1588 promises was to send £3,000 sterling as a single gift, pay no pension, finance no bodyguard or border force and she would not contemplate giving James a Dukedom.
Maitland was also under severe political pressure, disliked and distrusted by both Protestant and Catholic nobles whose power he was curbing, and who were paying higher taxes as a result of the Chancellor’s policies.
His great strength was the King’s unwavering support and appreciation of his policy objectives, even if his tactical advice was not always accepted.
The King’s marriage 1589 - 1590
We now come to the King’s marriage, which had profound effects, good and bad for Maitland’s relationship with the Court, though he retained James’ confidence at all times.
First, we must consider the nature of royal marriages. All noble marriages at this period were commercial and political negotiations, not love matches. The parents of the couple negotiated marriages. In the case of royal marriages the couple might well not meet until after the wedding. The nobility sought alliances for political purposes and to consolidate land holdings. Royal marriages were used to create national alliances, though in practice these objectives were hardly ever achieved.
Royalty normally married other royalty. Sovereigns avoided marrying members of their local nobility, preferring a foreign prince or princess. There was a sound reason for this. An alliance with a noble family in the kingdom would de-stabilise the political situation, as the new in-laws would expect and usually receive favours that would alienate all the other nobility.
Mary Stuart twice married a subject with disastrous results. Queen Elizabeth faced the problem that if she married a foreign prince he would expect to be king in fact as well as name. There was the risk that he would subordinate England’s interests to those of his mother country. There was also the risk that not only would he do this, but would also fail to secure the support of his home country to further English interests. So Elizabeth decided to avoid marriage.
James needed to marry a protestant princess to retain the confidence of his people. However, the majority of neighbouring nations were Catholic, so his options were limited. There were two viable choices, Ann, daughter of the King of Denmark, and Catherine, sister of the King of Navarre.
The Danish project had been suggested in 1582 and discussions had started in 1585. Orkney and Shetland had been pledged to James III in 1469 to secure the dowry of Margaret of Denmark, which had never been paid. The Danes were talking of paying the dowry and repossessing the islands. A Danish marriage would secure the possession of the islands, which made the alliance attractive.
The King of Navarre had no children, (and was likely to remain childless) so Catherine was expected to inherit his reputedly great wealth. However, the wars of religion in France preoccupied Navarre, who was spending his resources freely. An alliance with Navarre would pit Scotland against Spain and the dominant Guise faction in France. It would also disrupt James’ relationships with the powerful Catholic nobility in Scotland. He did not want to confront them.
Maitland had originally favoured this match, but the dowry might not materialise, the politics were unattractive, Catherine was not willing and the Danes were making generous offers. So Maitland’s interest in the project cooled, but he was still widely suspected of favouring the Navarre alliance.
When rumours spread in May 1589 that James’s ambassador had cancelled plans to visit Denmark riots broke out in Edinburgh. James and Maitland were dismayed – they had every intention of proceeding with the match, which would strengthen James’ claim to the English throne. The Scots envoy, Earl Marischal, was given instructions to seek generous terms for the wedding, almost seen as wrecking demands. Maitland proposed these as an opening position, and was willing to settle for much less. Marischal finally set off two weeks later and arrived to find the Danes busy preparing for the ceremony. James rapidly conceded all the outstanding points in the negotiations. The marriage was performed by proxy on 28 August, with Marischal representing the King, who was anxious to see his Queen.
Trip to Scandinavia
Stormy weather prevented Ann’s departure for Scotland, and finally in desperation James sailed for Scandibnavia on the 22nd October. James was short of money, so Maitland undertook that he and his friends would fit out six ships for the trip. Maitland furnished a ship of 126 tons, and half of a second ship. In part his purpose was to quash rumours that he was hostile to the marriage.
James decided to take his chancellor with him, partly for his own protection, and other leading members of his court.
A remarkable feature of James’ reign
We now come to the remarkable feature of James’ reign – his six month absence from Scotland. The term of his absence was not known in advance, but it was known that it would last several months because the seas would be too stormy for a return before the spring. Arrangements were made for administration of Scotland. The Duke of Lennox and Earl of Bothwell (both hostile to Maitland) were appointed to lead the Council. The other council members were expected to attend the council regularly, and it was divided into two groups, who were to relieve each other every fifteen days. Administration of the Border was delegated to Lord John Hamilton, assisted by a border council, and Sir Robert Melville deputised for the Chancellor. In short, James returned to find Scotland at peace and himself still king. This was a remarkable achievement in a country with Scotland’s stormy history.
Ann was in Oslo, Norway, when the Scots party set off, and there they went. James married Anne in Oslo on the 28 November. Maurice Lee, on whose work we are relying, paints an unflattering portrait of the Queen. Undistinguished and stupid, she enjoyed intrigue and bore grudges. Unfortunately Maitland was one of her targets.
The royal party spent a month in Norway, drinking and quarrelling. Lord Marischal, the Scots Ambassador to Norway claimed precedence over Maitland, who asserted that the ambassadorial commission expired when the King arrived in Oslo. Marischal also wanted to raid the Queen’s dowry for his expenses. Maitland refused, and the King supported him on both issues.
In December the royal party moved on, taking a month to travel from Oslo to Copenhagen. James enjoyed the convivial and intellectual atmosphere of Denmark and was easily persuaded to stay on several months to attend the wedding of his new sister-in-law. The party occupied a suite of rooms in Kronberg Castle at Helsingfors which are still known as the Scottish Apartments. James and Maitland both enjoyed the company of Tycho Brahe, philosopher and astronomer.
The trip was marked by squabbling over the use of Anne’s dowry of 85,000 thalers. It is hard to say what this was worth, but the rough answer is “a great deal.”
A thaler contained about 15 grams of silver, worth about £5 today, so the dowry was worth say £425,000 in today’s money. Its buying power in 1590 was considerably more. An actor earned about a shilling – 5p – a day in 1600. A run of the mill actor earns about £700 a week today – about 10,000 times as much in nominal terms.
The ambassador finally extracted 6,000 thalers to cover the expenses he had incurred on his embassy. Sir John Carmichael was given 3,000 thalers to raise a bodyguard of two hundred men, and 4,000 thalers was spent on a wedding present for Anne’s sister. In the end, after much dispute, Maitland was able to hand over 54,000 thalers to the Comptroller on their return to Scotland.
James returned home to find Scotland calm. Bothwell, who in 1589 - only a year earlier - had been plotting an armed rising against the King, and had tried (and failed) to raise a rebel force in the Borders had behaved himself in the sovereign’s absence. He reconciled himself with the kirk, and showed himself a sincere and loyal minister of the absent monarch. He suspended his vendetta with the Humes and kept his followers quiet. He refused to join groups opposed to the Chancellor, but received little thanks for his forbearance.
Maitland raised to the peerage
The King and Queen landed at Leith on the 1st of May 1590, and her coronation took place on the 17th after some disputes over the liturgy, resolved in James’ favour. The King took the opportunity to raise Maitland to the peerage as Baron Thirlestane – the only person to be so honoured.
Establishment of Royal power
Tensions continued between the new peer and his fellow aristocrats. A barony did not change Maitland’s policy of curbing the magnates’ powers. Complaints continued that the king over-ruled the ancient rights and privileges of the nobility. A major problem was that the grandees wished to exercise power, but without undertaking the administrative responsibilities required to achieve these ambitions.
Throughout Europe capable and educated men of lowly origins were increasingly employed by kings to handle the administration of their kingdoms to the detriment of the ancient nobility. This tendency was apparent in England and France as well as Scotland, but the Scots nobility took no comfort from these developments.
Maitland’s next step was to start enforcing the legislation of 1587. Under this 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.
A special committee of the chancellor and six other officials was established to enforce the acts in the borders and the highlands. None of the members were magnates. Chiefs who had released prisoners in their custody were required to explain why they should not pay a fine of two thousand pounds Scots for disobeying the King’s orders. The results are hard to assess, but English officials charged with border administration commented favourably on the improved situation.
One event concerned Maitland directly, The Council decided that the Warden of the Middle March should also be ex-officio Provost of Jedburgh. Since the elder Ker of Cesford held both appointments, no problems were foreseen.
But the Kers were feuding among themselves. William Ker of Ancrum (forebear of the Marquis of Lothian) arranged for the election of his nominee as provost. Cesford’s son Robert, Maitland’s nephew by marriage, was so infuriated by this that he killed Ancrum in Edinburgh. Border “justice” being what it was, whilst Maitland refused to let the young man off, he was able to flee to England and safety.
By 1591 order had been imposed on the borders, but the highlands remained beyond royal control – the King could not afford to deploy armed force.
Reform of the College of Justice
Steps were also taken to reform the College of Justice. The habit had developed of regarding the position of Senator of the College of Justice as a hereditable position. Maitland revived the right of the court to examine candidates on their knowledge of law. The first examination was of his brother-in-law’s son, the new laird of Whittingham. The young man was examined for three consecutive days by the ordinary lords of session (the lower courts) and then a further three days with the Lords Commissioners of Justiciary - the High Court. He acquitted himself well, and was appointed. The reform preserved the integrity of the court and prevented it going the way of the French parlements, (law courts) whose members inherited or bought their places.
Relations with England
James now enjoyed a period of peace and quiet. Maitland had established good relations with the kirk, which was welcome after the furore over the Black Acts of 1584 which gave James substantial powers to control the kirk, secure “first fruits” – a tax on all new appointments, amounting to the whole of the first year’s income from a benefice, and prohibition of assemblies without royal permission. Maitland had contrived both to keep the acts in force and to establish a peaceable relationship between the king and the kirk.
Cross border relationships were also smooth. James had no prejudices against the Catholics, who did not threaten his throne, but did not encourage their pretensions. Elizabeth arranged his election to the Order of the Garter, a matter of prestige and also paid a subsidy of three thousand pounds sterling, which was especially welcome.
Queen Anne’s dowry was invested in loans to the royal burghs at a rate of ten per cent a year, and Maitland contrived to impose a duty on wine imports. The expenditure of the royal household was curbed and the royal government enjoyed the benefits of a balanced budget - a rarity then as now!
However, Maitland had spent two thousand pounds on royal affairs – including fitting out a ship for the royal nuptials, and his creditors were pressing for payment. James made several grants – some crown lands in feu (i.e. for Maitland to enjoy the rents), wardship of an heiress (the proprietor of the wardship received the heiress’s income, but did not distribute much of it to her).
In February 1591 the King rode through the snows of Soutra (the Chief has seen snow there in August, and the road has often been blocked in winter) to visit the Chancellor at his new home of Thirlestane, to be present at the wedding of Maitland’s niece to Robert Fawside, laird of Lugton.
Too good to last
It was all too good to last. Already the subject of noble hostility because of his policy of curbing their power, he now found a more powerful enemy, and one very close to the King. The Queen joined the Chancellor’s enemies.
Maitland was totally reliant on the King’s support. The retrenchment of court expenditure, and reduction in their perquisites created new enemies, who, moreover, had the King’s ear.
Soon after the wedding a political bombshell exploded. A series of witchcraft trials had started in December 1590, involving the North Berwick kirk, where it was alleged that people had met the Devil. James, obsessed by witchcraft, presided at many of the examinations and also permitted the use of torture. One of the accused, a “wizard” called Richie Graham confessed that he had engaged in witchcraft practices against the King on the instruction of the Earl of Bothwell. It is not known if he was tortured to obtain this confession. The evidence against Bothwell was thin, but the King was determined to punish him. He was immediately imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle and denied the normal privileges due to his rank. Bothwell refused to answer questions. It soon became apparent to James that no assize of nobles would convict Bothwell on charges of witchcraft.
It was time to negotiate. Maitland was sent to propose exile in place of a trial. Bothwell responded by escaping from the castle. James revived the sentence of treason which had been imposed for his involvement in the Huntly plot of 1588 and suspended in 1589.
Royal forces descended on the Border, and the results of James’ and Maitland’s work on strengthening border administration bore fruit. Lord Hume, warden of the east march, and the laird of Buccleuch abandoned their protegé. Many border lairds signed bonds against Bothwell. Maitland’s nephew, Robert Ker of Cesford was pardoned for his crime (murder of William Ker of Ancrum) and appointed to replace Bothwell and Buccleuch in charge of Liddesdale (Bothwell’s effective fief).
James was implacable. The Master of Glamis was reported to have plotted with Bothwell against Maitland. He was promptly placed in custody, and only released after finding bondsmen for five thousand pounds to guarantee he would stay north of the River Dee in Aberdeenshire. He was dismissed from his offices, including that of Treasurer soon after.
Pressure was also exerted on leading families in the south west, including the Cunninghams, Kennedys, Montgomeries and Boyds. They were required to find guarantors of their good behaviour. Some prominent Catholics were exiled, for obstinacy, not religion. Bothwell counter-attacked in December 1591, raiding Holyrood. Maitland took refuge in a secure room and his men shot at the attackers through windows and doors. The King and Queen were also attacked, but without success, Bothwell himself assaulting her door with a hammer.
Bothwell was repelled, and escaped, but several followers were captured and hanged the next day.
In January 1592 several grandees were accused of complicity in the raid, and responded by denouncing Maitland and all his works. In February the feud between the Earl of Huntly and the Earl of Moray reached a climax as Huntly with a group of henchmen attacked and killed Moray. The murder was horrendous – Moray had taken refuge in his mother’s house. Huntly set the house on fire and when Moray emerged he was brutally killed with Huntly slashing the dying man’s face with a dagger.
James regarded Moray as a Bothwell associate and reckoned Scotland was well rid of him. No action was taken against Huntly. Bothwell stirred up opinion against James and Maitland. Neither were responsible for the killing.
Retirement to Lethington
Maitland’s noble opponents used this as a basis for a demand that he be dismissed. He also had to contend with the enmity of the Queen. Aware of his early advocacy of the Navarre match, she bore a grudge against him for this policy which he had abandoned early in the negotiations. She disliked John’s wife, Lady Jane Fleming, but she liked Bothwell and Moray, Maitland’s opponents. Her household was filled with people who disliked Maitland, and the head of her household was the Duke of Lennox who improbably asserted that Maitland was an associate of Bothwell’s in the murder of his kinsman Lord Darnley. Finally, there was the issue of the lordship of Musselburgh, given to Maitland by James in 1587. James had given Ann as a wedding present the temporalities (property) of the abbey of Dunfermline, excepting Musselburgh. Ann resented this.
James gave way to mounting pressure for Maitland’s dismissal, and on 30 March 1592 ordered him to leave the court.
However, he did not lose the King’s confidence, and was instructed to remain at Lethington until further notice, rather than Thirlestane, which was further away and less accessible. James continued to seek his advice by travelling to Lethington
We will cover this in our final instalment….
Success of Maitland’s policies
This period, though it ended badly for John Maitland, showed the success of his policies. Rebels found it increasingly difficult to raise forces against the king, who was now able to suppress risings with ease.
James IVth, who died at Flodden in 1513 had sub-contracted law and order to the clan chiefs and other landed magnates. They were given a free hand to exercise powers of life and death over their clans-folk and tenants. These powers were not well or responsibly used. Instead they were employed for fraternal strife, inter clan warfare, and for reiving, which rhymes with thieving and means the same.
The results were poverty in the clan strongholds and along the Anglo-Scots border. Here the Scots were at a disadvantage because the border ran close to the fine arable land and pasture of the Merse, but more than twenty miles over high hills from the good pastures of Northumberland. This made it difficult for Scots to steal cattle successfully, but easy for the English to do so.
The magnates regularly levied war on their king. James was captured by the magnates at the Ruthven Raid of 1582 and a coup d’etat was attempted in 1584. The Brig of Dee adventure of 1589 ended in ignominy. By 1590 this behaviour had ceased.