William Maitland lived through an exceptionally turbulent period in Scottish politics, the departure of Mary of Guise, the Reformation and Mary Stuart’s difficult reign.  His father Sir Richard Maitland was the first of our family to move away from the rough life of a border laird, whose only skills were those of arms. He ensured that William received a good education. William Maitland acquired a reputation for political skills, so much so that he was nicknamed the Scottish Machiavelli, after the Florentine civil servant and diplomat who wrote the devastating exposé of political life in renaissance Italy. Despite a reputation for devious behaviour, he is also credited with exercising a moderating influence over the course of the Scottish Reformation, and presided over the Reformation Parliament of 1560. He died having held Edinburgh Castle for his Queen against her opponents.

There is now a fairly substantial literature on Lethington, with some recent research, but before dissecting his career and activities in detail, we will review his life in broad terms over several Newsletters. This summary is based on the biography by Russell in 1910.

Before looking at the detail of William’s career, it is important to understand the place of religion in 16th century Europe. The invention of printing, combined with the availability of translations into the vernacular – whether in English, French or German had made the sacred texts available to a much wider audience than those learned in Latin and Greek. This, combined with a widespread sense that the church, which owned a third of all the land in Europe, and half the land in Scotland, was not fulfilling the tasks laid down by Christ, opened the way for its activities to be questioned. In turn, these challenges led to the Reformation, and the overthrow of the established religious order throughout much of northern Europe.

Secondly, there was a general perception that the health and safety of the realm and of the imperial, royal and ducal governments demanded that the subjects of all governments should conform to the religious regulations laid down by the rulers. This applied to protestant and catholic governed states alike.

As today, Islamic fundamentalists will fight and die for their view of the correct interpretation of religion, so did Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries. The nearest we come in secular Britain to this narrow and committed view of the world may be seen in the dogma of global warming – it is heresy to challenge the received view that CO2 emission rather than fluctuations in solar output have the prime influence on our climate.

William Maitland was at the heart of the Reformation in Scotland, and was a convinced reformer himself, but served a Catholic Regent and a Catholic Queen. This created many tensions in a world where religious conformity was regarded by all as an essential part of the political structure. William managed this conflict well, and died a loyal servant of his Queen despite the differences in their opinions and practices.

There are no records of William’s early years.  He was born about 1528 and with the family based at Lethington (now Lennoxlove) near Haddington, he was probably educated at the Haddington Grammar School before going on to St Andrews University. Ambitious Scotsmen at that period then studied on the continent, and the evidence of his letters shows that he was exceptionally well educated and had probably spent some years abroad. He was well read in French and Italian literature, and with Demosthenes in Greek, as well as having a fine command of the Bible, demonstrated in his debates with John Knox (also from Haddington!).

Scots at that time usually studied in Paris and sometimes in Germany and Italy, but we have no evidence of his studies apart from his learning. He re-appears in the record in 1553 when he married his first wife, Janet daughter of John Menteith of Kerse and that year received a charter from his father in law of the lands of Neyer Mongall in Stirlingshire (Mag Sig L xxxii no 14 and Peerage of Scotland 2nd ed 1813). This marriage does not appear in our earlier genealogies!

The next year, 1554, he entered the service of Mary of Guise, then Regent of Scotland.   The background to this appointment is interesting. Mary of Guise, Queen Dowager after James V’s death relied heavily on her French connections with the Guise family, the most powerful in France at that time but she also depended on the reforming party in Scotland to maintain her rule, and they secured Maitland’s appointment to her administration.

Mary wanted a French secretary, to assist and succeed Panter, Bishop of Ross whose health was failing arguing that no suitable Scotsman was available. However, the Scots nobility resisted this. Lord James Stewart and the Earl of Cassilis remonstrated, proposed Maitland for the post and he was duly appointed. In 1558 the Bishop died and Maitland was given his post of Secretary of State with a tenure for life (normal at that time for such positions).

Mary was able to keep the peace in Scotland on behalf of her daughter Mary by reliance on French military support and also on the reforming party in Scotland. The Catholic church was still legally supreme, but Mary of Guise kept away from the persecutions and allowed the Protestants a great measure of freedom and toleration. With Mary Tudor restoring the authority of Rome in England, the reformers regarded this as the best they could achieve in Scotland.

Although Maitland would have attended the Privy Council, the minutes for the period 1554 to 1560 are lost, so the next report of his activities comes from John Knox, also a Haddington man, but some years older, born in 1510. Knox was ordained a Catholic priest in St Mary’s Haddington, and later travelled on the continent, especially Geneva, where he fell under Calvin’s influence. During the reign of Edward VI in England he was a minister of the Church of England. With the return of Catholic rule in England, he returned to Scotland and although agreeably surprised by the toleration extended to the reformed religion was shocked by the practice of many protestants in attending the Mass at their parish churches from time to time.   Maitland defended the temporisers as Knox called them. This was not easy, but Maitland made his name in a debate with Knox at a meeting called to resolve the issue. If Knox’s central premise, that the Mass was idolatrous, was accepted, then the conclusion followed, that attendance for any reason was also idolatrous. Maitland could not win this argument, but defended the practice with tenacity for the sake of civil peace.

For much of this period, Maitland was engaged in handling diplomatic tasks for the Regent. Relations with France and England were the key to all issues, with the French treating Scotland as a province and to follow instructions from Paris, to the extent, for example that at the negotiations for the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis in 1558/9, (one of the major diplomatic events in Europe at this period) Scotland was represented by French diplomats, acting on the orders of Mary Stuart and her husband Francois II of France. Under French influence Mary incorporated the arms of England into her own arms which caused great offence to Queen Elizabeth. Scotland was reluctantly drawn into French wars with England, and Maitland, together with the Scots lords did their best to minimise Scots activity on behalf of French interests.

Mary Tudor’s death in 1558 closely followed by those of Francois II of France and Mary of Guise in 1560 changed the complexion of Europe, and with it Scotland’s foreign policy. England was no longer hostile to Scotland’s reformers, Mary Stuart was no longer Queen of France, Mary of Guise no longer in Scotland to further the objectives of the most powerful family in France. The Scots, who had originally valued the Auld Alliance established in 1295 during the Wars of Independence, found in this period that they were treated as a French possession, and realised that they would prefer alliance with England, support for reformation, and Maitland himself (as well as in due course his younger brother John, Baron Maitland) worked ceaselessly to secure peace with England and sought the succession of the English crown for the Stuarts, an aim which was ultimately successful .

Three developments followed; the move to an English alliance, Reformation of the Church and finally Mary Stuart’s return. They were inter-related. The end of French influence opened the way to reform the church and an alliance with England, increasingly important since England and Scotland were adjoining protestant powers threatened by Catholic neighbours in France and Spain. Although the various events took place at the same time, and overlapped each other, we will for the sake of clarity treat each separately.

The reduction in French influence and Mary Tudor’s death opened the way for the Reformation of the Church in Scotland. The movement for reform had started much earlier with scholars who studied at the continental universities. Patrick Hamilton, born about 1504 was at the age of 13 appointed Abbot of Fearn Abbey in Ross-shire – the year that Martin Luther defied the Papacy. Using the income from the abbey, he studied in Paris and later in Leuven with Erasmus. Returning to Scotland the young abbot, now ordained a catholic priest, preached at St Andrews, but fled to Germany when the church attempted to try him for heresy. Returning in 1527, he was quickly arrested, and slowly burned, the execution taking six hours.

The church in Scotland was probably more corrupt than in pre reformation England, and held a higher proportion of Scottish land – a half, compared with about a third in the rest of Europe. Roughly 10% of ecclesiastical  revenues were sent to Rome. The Scottish nobility had noted the fortunes gained by English courtiers as Henry VIII looted the church, so financial and religious feeling marched together.  The nobility already controlled some valuable ecclesiastical properties – the Gordon Earl of Huntly had two bishoprics in his family – Aberdeen and Galloway, whilst the Duke of Hamilton had the bishoprics of St. Andrews and Argyle and also the abbeys of Arbroath, Paisley and Kilwinning. However, although their tenure was exercised, it was not legally certain.

Apart from the land issue, many church offices were in the hands of protestant laymen, who held abbacies and priories despite their lack of learning and ordination, and their aversion to Catholicism. Lord James Stewart, for example, had become Commendator of the Priory of St. Andrews at the age of 7 (with Papal sanction) and later attended as a student the university of which he was prior! Most of the bishops were feudal nobles, entirely secular in their lives and education and doing no clerical work.

An Act of Parliament of 1543 authorised reading the Bible in English, and provided some legal cover for protestant tendencies. The death of Cardinal Beaton in 1546 removed  from the scene the most enthusiastic persecutor of the reformers.

From then on the reformation took hold as barons and burgh magistrates with authority to present clergy to livings increasingly appointed reformers. In 1557/1558, the First Covenant and the Resolutions sought to introduce the prayer book of King Edward VIth of England into the churches controlled by reforming lords and burghs in Scotland. Bishops continued to enforce heresy laws. The dissent culminated in a rising, the War of the Congregation, which ended with Mary of Guise besieged in Leith. Maitland, who had been in England on a diplomatic mission for Mary of Guise, the Regent, now acted as spokesman of the Lords of the Congregation to the dying Mary to secure a settlement. She died soon after, leaving the way open for an alliance with England and the reformation in Scotland.

This was the first of Maitland’s many changes in position during his career. Did he betray Mary of Guise?   Was his prime loyalty to the Lords of the Congregation?  

He was Secretary of State, but was this to Mary of Guise or to Scotland?  In those days, loyalties were hard to define – Mary of Guise was Regent, but the Lords of the Congregation represented  Scotland. Maitland was called the Machiavelli of Scotland, but our judgement will have to await the conclusion of these studies.

Our concern here is with the Reformation. The alliance with England will be addressed in our next Newsletter. Mary of Guise’s death left a vacuum. The regent was dead, and the Queen of Scotland was in France.  The Scots nobility took the opportunity of the departure of the French to call a Parliament, probably in order to set the Scots reformation in place before  the Catholic Queen could upset the settlement.   

A parliament was summoned and met in August 1560.  John Knox preached daily at St Giles, and argued for what we would see today as an Islamic view of the state – that religion should dominate. This philosophy did not prevail.

Knox had the backing of any lesser barons and the burgesses, and could thus meet Maitland and the nobility on something like equal terms. Edinburgh was buzzing with excitement, and crowds gathered  to hear Knox, always a compelling preacher. His policy was to establish the power of the church and enforce obedience, to develop education for all and the relief of poverty, for which he proposed to use the patrimony of the church, amounting to about half the property of the kingdom. He took for granted that the reformed church would possess all the church lands.

The nobility had other views. Most of the land belonging to the church had been given to it by the nobility, much of it to endow foundations to pray for the souls of the departed and to hold requiem masses. Knox denied the validity of the mass in any form, denouncing it as idolatrous, and was especially scathing about masses for the dead which he asserted were useless. The nobility felt they had been persuaded to part with ancestral lands under false pretences, and were determined to recover them in one form or another.

The example of the English reformation was a great precedent. Church lands had been seized by the Crown and sold at bargain prices to favoured courtiers. In the general confusion of massive land sales, men with money could and did make fortunes. Merchants became great landowners, and the new wave of courtiers. Better still, under Mary Tudor, a Catholic Queen, no attempt had been made to recover church property, and the Pope had counselled her against such a course of action. Thus, the nobility, who often had control of church land already, had a great interest to see their position legalised. Maitland appears to have been sympathetic to this view, and was in any event concerned to secure a settlement which would endure. 

There was another advantage for the Kirk in allowing the nobility to seize church land and to retain control of the land they had already appropriated. The land owners would then be complicit in the reformation whatever their religious views, and would uphold the settlement for fear that a counter reformation might also reverse their property seizures.  Whilst we have seen no documentation to support this thesis, it does explain why the Kirk made so little effort to retain church property.

Procedurally, the fact that Mary Stuart’s commission to hold a parliament was lacking would appear to invalidate the proceedings. However, this was solved by placing the Honours of Scotland (Crown, Sword and Sceptre) on the royal seat. The catholic Gordon, Earl of Huntly, as Lord Chancellor, should have presided, but “had a sore leg” and so Maitland was elected to take the chair. 

Scots parliaments at that period consisted of Lords, Barons and Burgesses. The parliament did not meet to discuss policy, but only to approve the measures proposed by the Lords of the Articles. The parliament had no right to amend the legislation.  The real issue therefore was the selection of the Lords of the Articles. Maitland and Lord James Stuart, who had engineered the departure of the French, dominated the proceedings.

The election of the lay Lords Temporal of the Articles was in the hands of the church, but most of the clerical electors were laymen, barons who had acquired ecclesiastical posts despite their lack of education or commitment. They elected reformers.  The Lords Temporal then elected the Lords Spiritual. They elected a committee which was almost entirely Protestant – 10 prelates (none Catholic) ten lords, six barons and ten burgesses. Three Catholic bishops were present at the election, but were not elected.

The first business was to approve a new Confession of Faith drafted by John Knox and others to establish church doctrine. This was given to Maitland and to John Wynram, a former monk to review, both seen as moderating influences. Submitted to the parliament it was debated. The three catholic bishops excused themselves from commenting on the grounds thay had not been able to consider the matter – one which had convulsed the church for nearly 40 years!  The bishops had an excuse – they were feudal nobles with interests only in the income they drew from the church property under their control. The document was approved.

The next sessions dealt with the possibility of the Earl of Arran’s marriage to Elizabeth Tudor, and ratification of the Treaty of Berwick (the Anglo Scottish alliance against France), and appointment of the Council of State, which included Maitland, who was also made an ambassador to England.  The main work was the ecclesiastical legislation.  Three Acts were passed, one to abolish papal jurisdiction, the second to annul the old heresy laws, and the third prohibited saying or hearing mass. All three closely followed the English Act of Supremacy of the previous year.

Finally, the Parliament turned to the patrimony of the church. All present holders of tithes should continue to collect them, and the church courts were abolished.

Thus, in a few days, the Catholic church in Scotland was dismantled. Was this a top-down imposition of a change in faith, or did it have the whole hearted support of the Scottish people?   Unlike England, where the religious changes were driven by the sovereign or his Protector, those in Scotland stemmed from the changes wanted and in many cases implemented by the burgesses and the nobility as they presented reformers  to vacant livings.

What did the Maitlands get of the patrimony of the Church?   A search of the Thirlestane muniments shows that in 1559 the Prioress of the Abbey and Convent of Haddington was given powers to handle land transactions:

25th May 1559

Instrument narrating that Elizabeth Hepburne, prioress of abbey and convent of Hadyngtoun, 'consideryng the great apperand trowbill and rwyne approcheyng upoun the religiouse men and wemen and thair placis and landis within this realme of Scotland for distruction and doune castyng puttyng to rwyne thair abbais, Yardis and policy', was granted by convent full power to set feus and long tacks of lands and teinds pertaining to said abbey by reason of patrimony.

In 1563 we find she exercises them in favour of William Maitland:

6th December 1563

Charter by Elizabeth, prioress of monastery of Hadingtoun, and covent thereof, to William Maitland of Lethingtoun, younger, Secretary, and specified heirs, of demesne lands of monastery of Hadingtoun and others.

A few days later, the family takes possession of the abbey lands as Willam’s father Richard and his younger brother John are given control of the abbey and all its emoluments.

26th December  1563 

Privy seal letters making Sir Richard Maitland of Lethingtoun, kt, and John Maitland, his son, factors and chamberlains of abbey of Hadingtoun and all its emoluments, vacant by decease of Elizabeth, last prioress thereof.

There are many bundles of papers relating to the property of the abbey, so we must assume that the Maitlands secured  the abbey in 1563 and took over the relevant property files.

In this first part of our review of William Maitland’s complex career, we have seen him progress from assistant secretary  to Secretary of State with tenure for life. He negotiated a treaty of alliance with England to replace French influence, and presided over the parliament which implemented the reformation in Scotland. This was a good start to a career. William was now 32.

The English alliance and Mary Stuart’s early years as Queen will form the subject of the next section of the review of the life and career of William Maitland of Lethington, Secretary Maitland.