William Maitland of Lethington – the two assassinations The story so far…

In 1554 William Maitland was appointed secretary to Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Stuart and Regent of Scotland. As resistance developed in 1559 amongst the Protestant lords of Scotland to the Regency he joined the opposition Lords of the Congregation. Mary of Guise died in that year, leaving Scotland under the nominal and remote rule of Queen Mary who was married to the King of France. The Scots took advantage of the Queen's absence to establish the protestant reformation during the reformation parliament of 1560 which was presided over by Maitland because the Catholic Earl of Huntly (a Gordon) excused himself from that duty. Mary's husband died in December 1560 and she returned to Scotland in August 1561. She appointed Maitland as her secretary and relied on her half brother James Stuart for political advice. In 1562 she led an expedition to the Highlands to reduce the Earl of Huntly to obedience and having confiscated large parts of his estates gave them to James Stuart who was elevated to the Earldom of Moray. For the full background, visit the clan web site – clanmaitland.org.uk/history, where under William Maitland of Lethington you’ll find a series of articles about his career.

We now come to a series of disasters in Mary Stuart's reign which start with her appointment of David Rizzio (or Riccio in many texts) as her secretary in 1563 and her infatuation with Henry, Lord Darnley.

Rizzio had come to Scotland in December 1561 on the staff of the Ambassador from Savoy. Well educated and handsome, his task was to provide support and intelligence for the envoy, but had to sleep in a corridor. When the mission was complete, Rizzio learned that there was a vacancy for a bass singer in the chapel royal, and secured the post. He rapidly came to the Queen’s attention – a fine bass voice makes a marked addition to a small choir, and before long was organising court masques and entertainments. By December 1562, he had received a fine set of tapestries to furnish his rooms in the palace. He had come a long way in a short time, and within another two years was being paid £80 a year as a varlet de chamber. His influence can be attributed to his all-round education, his command of French and Italian and his background coming from one of the elegant and powerful courts of Italy. William Maitland of Lethington had been educated on the continent and was one of Scotland's most civilised men, but one suspects that he did not match the elegance of Rizzio. The Scottish nobility did not aspire to this level of culture. By 1563, Rizzio was acting as the Queen’s advisor mainly engaged in handling the foreign correspondence alongside Maitland.

Mary needed to marry in order to have an heir, and it was generally agreed at court that this was necessary. Queen Elizabeth in England came under similar pressure, but having seen at first hand the problems created for her sister Mary Tudor in her marriage with the King of Spain, was determined to avoid marriage and crafty enough to resist pressure from her advisors.

Mary Stuart, was however a widow and determined to re-marry. This was a political rather than an emotional decision. Determined only to marry a Catholic, she appeared at first sight to have a wide range of choices throughout Europe. However, it was not that simple. She needed a husband who could bring something to the marriage in the form of military and diplomatic support, but equally needed to avoid subjection of Scottish to foreign interests. The period of her marriage to King François of France showed that Scotland might easily be treated as a province of a larger empire. Secondly, it was desirable that England should be happy with the choice as Scotland's major Protestant ally.

Here the difficulties arose. Don Carlos of Spain, the heir to the Spanish throne was mentally deficient and physically unattractive, though of an appropriate age. Spain could certainly provide the military and diplomatic support which Scotland needed, but at the price of violently antagonising the English and threatening the reformation in Scotland. England, surrounded by Catholic powers to the south found the prospect of a Spanish ally to the north a serious threat to its own reformation and after the experience of Mary Tudor's reign was not willing to contemplate such a risk. The other promising candidate was the Archduke of Austria, but as a younger son could not promise Habsburg support for Scottish policies or protect Scotland against England. Mary was thus compelled to consider an English candidate.

Elizabeth first proposed Robert Dudley, but Mary considered he was of insufficient status and his father the Earl of Northumberland had been executed for treason. Furthermore it was widely believed that he was Queen Elizabeth's lover, though no evidence has been found to support that view. Maitland declined the offer on Mary's instruction, adding rather cheekily that neither he nor his Queen would wish to deprive Elizabeth of a man she so much valued .

Henry, Lord Darnley was Catholic, the son of the Earl of Lennox,a Stewart and had a dynastic claim to the English throne which would be of great value to Mary Stuart and was not only tall (Mary herself was unusually tall for a woman of that era) but also handsome and personable. Elizabeth gave permission for him to go to Scotland. In the light of Elizabeth's subsequent fury at the marriage, it is not clear what her motives were, though destabilising Scotland was probably a major factor.

Darnley's arrival in Scotland coincided with a material change in Mary's behaviour. She began to sideline Maitland, as she had already dispensed with the advice of the Earl of Moray, her half brother, and appointed a number of foreigners (and also Catholics) as her personal advisors. Amongst these was David Rizzio. Regrettably, he knew nothing of Scotland or Scottish politics and his advice proved useless and was seen as a threat to the Reformation in Scotland.

Darnley arrived in Edinburgh in February 1565. Mary quickly became infatuated with Darnley and despite very strong advice to the contrary from all her Scottish nobility, and Queen Elizabeth's similar counsel, determined to marry him This impetuous decision aroused the fury of the Scottish nobility. The Earl of Hamilton was particularly upset as senior claimant to the Stuart line to find Mary proposing to marry a man with strong hereditary credentials to the throne because their offspring would have materially better claims to the Scots crown than his own immediate family. Others were equally upset, fearing that a marriage with Darnley would threaten the reformation settlement. Mary had completely ignored her nobility who claimed the right to advise their sovereign and to be consulted by her. Queen Elizabeth was also furious and sent Darnley's mother, Lady Lennox to the Tower. Elizabeth was irrational here, for she had encouraged Darnley to go to Scotland, but her schemes had miscarried.

Mary created Darnley Duke of Albany and married him on 29 July 1565. She still awaited Papal dispensation for the marriage within the prohibited degrees so technically the marriage was invalid, but this issue has never been raised as an objection to the Stuart inheritance. French and Spanish ambassadors urged Elizabeth to recognise the wedding, and with some reluctance she did so.

The Protestant lords raised a small army to resist the Queen, but she faced them down and returned triumphant to Edinburgh. The government rested in the hands of her foreign advisors. Lethington was reduced to administrative duties with no advisory functions. He was no longer employed as an envoy to the English and other foreign courts. He appeared to be distrusted and was subjected to some harassment by the Queen. On one occasion she instructed him to go to Berwick to see the English governor, Lord Bedford. She then remarked on Maitland's keenness to see Bedford. Maitland hearing this gibe, though already booted for the journey, refused to go.

There is some debate regarding the Queen's intentions at this stage. A Catholic marriage was to be expected but was the Queen planning to reverse the Reformation in Scotland? Despite subsequent glosses, and strong parliamentary support for the Reformation, it was by no means firmly established. The Highlands and the North of Scotland were still largely Catholic, the Earl of Huntly who controlled Aberdeenshire was firmly catholic and with foreign support she might be able to overturn the Reformation, and - this was a real worry - reverse the seizures of church land by the nobility. Whatever the suspicions, the fact remains that she took no substantial steps to implement such a policy. However there was great mistrust of her intentions, especially in the light of her reliance on foreign advisors and refusal to consult with the Scottish magnates.

By early 1566 the Queen was pregnant and expecting her first child in June, but her marriage was already in trouble. Darnley proved to be arrogant, stupid and idle. The Queen no longer sought or welcomed his company. The King as Darnley was now known would not attend to administrative business nor participate in policy making, but demanded the gift of the Crown Matrimonial which would enhance his status and make him King of Scotland should Mary die - a real possibility in view of her pregnancy.

The Protestant Lords now exploited the weaknesses in the King's character. Playing on his resentment at Mary's treatment of him and his jealousy of Rizzio they plotted Rizzio's destruction. Remember that in 16th century Scotland there were no constitutional means to influence the monarch or to seek a change in the administration. Assassination and force of arms were the only resort once simple requests had failed.

In February 1566 Maitland reopened contacts with Cecil in England in response to a letter from Cecil, who appears to have realised that the Darnley experiment, devised by Cecil and Elizabeth had turned out badly for both kingdoms. In response, Maitland assured Cecil of his desire “to do all that may tend to quiet the realms and unite the Queens." He then went on to comment “Marry, I see no certain way unless we chop at the very root - you know where it lieth - and so far as my judgment can reach, the sooner all things be packed up, the less danger there is of any inconvenience." The meaning was clear to Maitland and presumably clear to Cecil, but we cannot be certain of it ourselves. One obvious interpretation alludes to the assassination of Rizzio, but Maitland may merely be referring to the return of the Earl of Moray and other Protestant lords to Mary's councils. It is worth noting that Maitland had attended the General Assembly of the Kirk in December 1565. It was around this time that Maitland suggested that Rizzio, who had no legal standing in Scotland be appointed Lord Chancellor, naturalised and given a Scots title. He was certainly playing a devious game.

Shortly after the reopening of the Maitland Cecil correspondence envoys arrived in Edinburgh from France who urged her to join the League of the Catholic Powers. She was suspected of signing a document in support of this, but it has never been found.

The King, jealous of Rizzio’s relationship with the Queen, now took the fatal step of organising a band of supporters to kill Rizzio. He  needed the support of the Protestant lords and approached Lord Ruthven who in response demanded that the King recall the exiled Protestant lords. Unbelievably, the parties then drew up a formal, written agreement. The King was to pardon the lords, and confirm the reformation settlement of 1561 and they in turn would secure for him the Matrimonial Crown in the next Parliament. This was sent to Moray and the lords at Newcastle for signature, and Ruthven then demanded a Band of Assurance signed by the King in his presence to indemnify the plotters against all legal action.

Where was  Maitland in all this? He was close to Ruthven and the others, but not a lord and whilst influential, essentially a senior official. However, his advice was valued and he normally influenced decisions at any meeting in which he participated. Randolph, Elizabeth's envoy on the 6th March wrote to Cecil to list the names of those privy to the plot, Argyle, Morton, Boyd, Ruthven and Lethington in Scotland and Moray, Rothes, Grange together with Randolph himself and Bedford, Governor of Berwick.

On the 9 March, Ruthven, in full armour, accompanied by the King and a body of armed men invaded the Queen's supper room and dragged Rizzio into the next room where he was killed. Maitland was in another part of the Palace, with Huntly and Bothwell. Hearing the commotion they arrived quickly and later arranged Mary’s escape from the palace.

The next day Mary went to Dunbar, returning to Edinburgh with a force of 3,000 men. On 20 March the King arranged a proclamation at the Market Cross of Edinburgh disclaiming all knowledge of the plot. The Privy Council summoned many of the plotters, but Maitland was not amongst them - he had been careful not to sign any documents, and was in any case a minor player in this tragedy. Nevertheless, the Queen deprived him of the lands of the Abbey of Haddington, given to him two years before and handed them to Bothwell, almost equally guilty. Maitland stayed out of the way with Lord Atholl at Dunkeld. In the Scottish state papers there is a strange document endorsed to suggest that Lethington had drafted it. It argues that the plot against Rizzio and his murder were not aimed against the persons of the Queen or the King.

The Queen was approaching her confinement and made her will. James VI was born on 19 June 1566. Mary made a good recovery and became reconciled with Moray. Under his influence the plotters were gradually forgiven and Maitland restored to his post as secretary, biographers commenting that Mary realised she would have need of his services. In the teeth of Bothwell's opposition, and after a violent quarrel in the Queen's presence, Moray persuaded Mary to restore to Maitland the Haddington estates which had been for six months in Bothwell's hands. Maitland immediately formally reopened correspondence with Cecil and took steps to curtail a raid by the Earl of Argyll into Northern Ireland.

During the autumn Mary went to Jedburgh to conduct an assize and stayed in the property now known as the Queen's House, a museum which is easy to visit. Hearing that Bothwell had been wounded in an affray, she rode to his castle at Hermitage, returning the same day, a round trip of 60 miles. Taken ill on her return, her life was despaired of, but she recovered. Maitland was a member of this party. He wrote “the occasion of the Queen's sickness, so far as I understand, is caused by thought and displeasure and I trow, by what I could wring further of her own declaration to me, the root of it is the King. For she has done him so great honour, without the advice of her friends, and contrary to the advice of her subjects; and he on the other part has recompensed her with such ingratitude, and misuses himself so far towards her that it is an heartbreak for her to think that he should be her husband; and how to be free of him she sees no outgait. At least I am assured that it has been her mind this good while, and yet is, as I write. How soon, or in what manner, it may change, God knows." (Russell p. 266). The French ambassador wrote in similar terms regarding Mary's state of mind.

Late in November the Queen was at Craigmillar near Edinburgh where a meeting known as the Craigmillar Conference took place to discuss the possibility of a divorce. Her leading advisors, Moray, Argyle, Huntly, Bothwell and Lethington were present. A few days later, a further meeting was held at which it seems that she encouraged her ministers to consider a more violent solution.

This raised serious problems. Divorce was one thing, assassination of the King, another. Statesman of the period were willing to “Look through their fingers" at the crimes of others when they were unwilling to participate themselves. In the General Assembly of 1564 Maitland had said “for if the Queen would command me to slay John Knox, I would not obey her. But if she would command others to do it, or yet by a colour of justice take his life from him, I cannot tell if I be bound to defend him against the Queen, and against her officers." Knox responded that if Lethington was persuaded he was innocent, he would be guilty of Knox's blood in standing by. Maitland responded “Prove that and win the plea." At that period, the nobility could and did get away with murder.

In this context, the Earl of Morton, who was aware of the plot that refused to be involved, and Lethington who was both aware of and assented to it both considered themselves innocent on the grounds that they neither planned nor executed the attack.

Despite this attitude, the Queen found it difficult to find her assassins. None of the nobility liked Darnley, apart from his family and associates, but they were unwilling to attack a crowned King. Bothwell secured the assistance of Sir James Balfour to draw up a Band providing for Darnley's arrest on a charge of treason.  By securing noble assent to this Bothwell hoped to secure legal cover for his action.   There would always be the possibility that Darnley might be killed whilst resisting arrest.   It was said that Argyle, Huntly, Bothwell and Lethington signed this, but it has not survived. Never fully signed, Bothwell seems to have retained it for his own protection, and possibly blackmail.

In December the infant James was baptised with great ceremony at Stirling. This was a Catholic ceremony which the Protestant lords did not attend. Darnley was not present, fearing public slights from the Queen and went to Glasgow, the area dominated by the Lennox Stewarts. There he fell ill. Meanwhile, the Queen pardoned the Rizzio conspirators, including the Earl of Morton who Bothwell planned to involve in the plot. If Morton assassinated Darnley, this could be treated as a simple act of revenge, excusable under Scots practice at that time.

Over Christmastide the Queen and Bothwell were inseparable, visiting friends and returned to Stirling where William Maitland married Mary Fleming (one of the Queen's Four Maries or ladies in waiting) on 6 January 1567. The Earl of Morton met Bothwell and Maitland. In a statement made before his execution in 1581 Morton wrote that Bothwell “proposed to me the King's murder." Morton refused to get involved unless the Queen gave him a warrant in her own hand, "and then I should give him an answer." Morton had no reason to love Darnley, and reckoned that Bothwell would do the deed in any event.

Maitland was thus fully aware of the plans to kill Darnley, but avoided personal engagement. He appears to have decided to take no active part, but his loyalty to the Queen and his plans to secure for her the succession to the English throne kept him by her side. Maitland was no friend of Bothwell's - they had been in conflict over the lands at Haddington, but he was the Queen's secretary and as such was obliged to work with those she chose to trust.

Darnley returned to Edinburgh in February, still suffering from a disease widely attributed to syphilis and rather than stay at Holyrood, was accommodated in an agreeable house, the Kirk o’Field, only a little smaller than the state apartments at Holyrood, which was furnished at short notice with furniture and hangings from the Palace. The Queen visited him regularly there and occasionally stayed the night in a separate bedroom. On 9 February, the last Sunday before Lent she visited him and passed a convivial evening before returning to Hollywood to attend the celebrations of her valet's wedding. At about two o'clock the following morning an explosion destroyed the building and shortly after Darnley's strangled body was found in the garden. The suspicion is that he saw Bothwell's henchmen surrounding the house and fled in his nightgown, only to be caught and killed.

Bothwell and the Queen sought to spread the blame on others. They were met with frank, open disbelief. Letters were sent to foreign courts, proclamations made and an enquiry instituted. The Privy Council met and offered a reward of £2000 and a free pardon for the discovery of the murderers. Placards in Edinburgh accused the guilty and claimed the reward, but since they named Bothwell's henchmen they were ignored. Bothwell was widely regarded as guilty. The main response was to try to prevent publication of placards. A charge of treason was made against James Murray who authored a placard implicating the Queen as well as Bothwell. Moray secured a passport to leave the country and in London freely accused the Queen, saying he could not stay in a country where such a crime was left unpunished.

The nobility were meeting to discuss the issue and the Queen feared new plots. In March Bothwell was given control of Edinburgh Castle. A trial of the accused was arranged, but the Earl of Lennox, Darnley's father, rather than the Crown was to prosecute. However he had no power to compel witnesses to attend and the presence of 4,000 of Bothwell's followers in Edinburgh were sufficient to deter their attendance. Bothwell was acquitted for lack of evidence.

William Maitland played a subsidiary and to our eyes, a dishonourable part in these proceedings. Always close to the seat of power, and always in a subsidiary position - he was neither noble nor even had a knighthood - he was persuasive in his arguments and usually influential. In the two assassinations he was fully aware of the plans, but such a minor player as to have no influence. Even Rizzio was aware of threats to his life, though Darnley appeared to have little suspicion of his fate. Maitland certainly had no power to change the course of events - when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled - and in company with many in Scotland at that period simply “looked between his fingers."