William Maitland was regarded by Queen Elizabeth’s government as the most able Scots statesman of his time. Amiable, charming, intelligent, crafty and with foresight, he contrived to charm his interlocutors and masters and to handle complex situations with mastery. The Spanish ambassador in London remarked that Maitland was reported to rule Mary of Guise “body and soul.” Mary of Guise employed him on a series of diplomatic missions, mainly to England, where most of her problems lay. His missions began in 1555, only a year after he was first appointed as her Assistant Secretary.

The Auld Alliance

This is an article of faith with many Scots, but most French people have never heard of it. The first alliance with France was concluded in 1295 as the Scots sought French aid against English aggression which was ended with the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. 

It cannot be said that the French provided material aid to Scotland at any stage. By the 16th century, especially after the disasters of Neville's Cross and Flodden, the Scots were unhappy about the one sided nature of the alliance, which almost invariably meant that Scots were asked to invade England to support French policies, but the French never protected Scotland against English attacks. With Mary of Guise (a member of a leading French family) as Regent and later with Queen Mary married to the King of France, the French behaved as though Scotland was a province of France. 

The impact of the Reformation made both England and Scotland protestant powers who feared Catholic influence from France and Spain, and as a result Scotland decided to end the French alliance and seek an English one. William Maitland was not the sole author of this policy, but the diplomat who negotiated it.

This was a major change in Scottish policy which led to the union of the crowns under James VI in 1603 and the Act of Union of 1707. Maitland was at the centre of this momentous change. 

To help follow the sequence of events a few dates provide guideposts:

1450 Printing comes to Europe: biblical texts become accessible
1513 Battle of Flodden
1517 Luther’s 95 Theses – beginning of the Reformation
1533 England breaks with Rome
1536 - 41 Dissolution of monasteries in England enriches English nobility
1544 Mary of Guise becomes Regent of Scotland
1544 - 51 Rough Wooing – Haddington burned.
Mary Stuart sent to France for safety
1555 Maitland appointed Assistant Secretary to Mary of Guise
1557 Scotland asked by France to invade England, refuses
1558 Mary Tudor dies, Elizabeth becomes Queen, England turns Protestant
Henri II of France dies, Mary Stuart becomes Queen of France
Maitland appointed for life as Secretary
1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis ends a prolonged European war
Negotiations for Anglo Scottish alliance
John Knox in Scotland
1560 Treaty of Berwick between England and Scotland
Mary of Guise dies
French troops leave Scotland
Reformation Parliament converts Scotland to a Protestant country

In the 2008 Newsletter we reviewed his participation in the Scottish Reformation. The introduction of printing to Europe around 1450, and the greater availability of the Bible in translation from Latin set the intellectual revolution under way. However, the real impetus came  from Martin Luther who challenged conventional thinking with his publication of 95 Theses in 1517 which denounced many practices of the Church. The reformed religion took its time to come to Scotland, though many burghs and nobles were presenting reformers to parishes years before the arrival of John Knox in May1559. Within sixteen months the Catholic church had been abolished in Scotland and regular observance of the Mass was potentially punishable by death. Maitland was deeply involved in the negotiations and presided over the Reformation Parliament of August 1560. For a detailed description of this momentous period, see the 2008 Newsletter.

However, the reformation was not Maitland’s only preoccupation at this period. French influence in Scotland was increasingly resented, and for many reasons the Scots nobility felt the need to shift their allegiance  to England, thus ending the Auld Alliance.

Disenchantment probably began after the disaster of Flodden, a battle to support the French in 1513 to distract the English forces following Henry VIII’s invasion of France.  After the death of James V in 1542, his widow Mary of Guise took over the Regency of the kingdom in 1544, and as a member of the most powerful family in France at that time enjoyed French military support, and took advice from French counsellors. Maitland had, indeed, been appointed her Secretary at the insistence of the Scots nobility to reduce French influence at her court. Her daughter Mary lived at the French court to protect her from English attacks.

In 1557 England, under Spanish influence (Mary Tudor was married to the King of Spain) attacked France to relieve pressure on the Habsburg empire, and the French invoked the Auld Alliance to demand a Scots invasion of England. Scots lords opposed this, seeing the attack as being of no possible benefit to Scotland. Despite this Mary of Guise’s French advisor, D’Oysel provoked  an English attack on Scotland at Berwick, and borderers rejoiced in several years of intermittent low level warfare.

In the course of the campaign England lost Calais to the Duke of Guise, but more important were the convulsions which followed in 1558 as both Mary Tudor and Henri II of France died. This dramatically changed the political situation. England under Elizabeth reverted to protestant rule. Mary Stuart became Queen of France, and to Elizabeth’s fury incorporated the English arms in her coat of arms.

The reformers in Scotland no longer feared England, and now saw their neighbour as a potential protector of their interests.  At the same time the parties in the European war – France, Spain and the Empire wearied of the conflict and began to negotiate the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis (a place near Lille). Scotland was treated by France as a province, which could be used to put pressure on England and Mary of Guise supported this policy which was bitterly resented by the Scots. The Scots were informed by King Francis and Queen Mary’s government that their interests (minimal in practice) in the treaty negotiations would be represented by the French commissioners, so there was no need to send an envoy.

The French attitude to England also changed English perceptions. Mary’s assumption of the arms of England under French influence challenged Elizabeth’s legitimacy, and implied that Mary was the rightful Queen of England as well as of France. England had turned protestant, and was no longer a possible ally, but a threat. Just as the Scots wearied of French influence in their affairs, the English began to see the value of a Scots alliance.  At that point England and Scotland, the low countries and northern parts of what is now Germany, together with Switzerland were the only Protestant powers and felt beleaguered.

In parallel with the Cateau-Cambresis negotiations, an armistice was arranged on the border, with Maitland as the chief Scots negotiator, assisted by Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange meeting Sir Henry Percy, brother of the Earl of Northumberland. Percy very quickly came to the real point of the meeting, to propose an Anglo Scottish alliance and sound the possibility of Elizabeth’s marriage to the Duke of Arran, who was also present at the negotiations. This part of the discussions was to be a secret opened only to Elizabeth and Cecil.

Maitland was sent to London with the support of the Scots reformers, and with Mary of Guise’s authority, despite the fact that he was representing primarily the interests of the Scots lords. Mary of Guise was by this time very ill, and not expected to live long, so the deviousness of this activity was partly justified by the national interest of Scotland. He demanded a safe conduct signed by Elizabeth herself before he would depart.

On arrival in London, in March 1559, he was at once seen by Cecil and Elizabeth. The meetings had a dramatic effect on English policy as seen in the instructions sent to the English negotiators at Cateau-Cambresis, who were at once informed of the secret discussions and Elizabeth’s approval. Maitland went on to France, and returned with the treaty ratified by Francis and Mary. Passing through London, he reached Scotland in May 1559 a few days after Knox landed there and began his campaign of church destruction and conversion of Scotland to Calvinism.  

As Mary of Guise tried to reconcile reformers and the Church, (which was still burning heretics) and relied increasingly on French troops, a group of Scots lords styled themselves the Lords of the Congregation  in opposition to Mary, with tacit support from Queen Elizabeth in England.  Maitland remained as Mary’s secretary, and a low level campaign of civil disorder followed which culminated with the sick Mary beseiged in Leith whilst the Lords established a provisional government in Edinburgh. In October 1559 Maitland abandoned Mary and aligned himself with the Lords of the Congregation.

Had he betrayed Mary of Guise?  He had been appointed as her Secretary to provide a Scotsman as her administrative assistant in place of a Frenchman, and his prime loyalty was to Scotland. Mary was Regent of Scotland, but with her daughter Mary Stuart now Queen of France she was increasingly subject to French influence both from her own family  - the Guise, who dominated France and the French King, and from her daughter who had the right to give instructions.   For the last few months he had been working with both sides, but finally supported the Scots Lords of the Congregation. The Lords of the Congregation were also receiving foreign support – from England, and now with Maitland as their envoy aimed to develop this alliance.

Maitland reached London in December 1559 to find the Tudor council divided over the merits of aiding Scotland, now turning to Protestantism.  Elizabeth had only been Queen for a little more than a year, half her subjects challenged both her legitimacy and her religion. A Scots alliance risked war with both France and Spain, so the issue was delicate. Her ambassador from France showed that the French were keen to establish control over Scotland as a preliminary to invasion of England to give Mary Stuart (the Queen of France) the throne of England which she claimed.

Maitland and Cecil convinced the English council that aid to Scotland was in England’s interest. Maitland circulated a letter setting out the case for an Anglo Scottish alliance

  • In the past English kings had sought to subdue Scotland which turned to France for                   
  • France was now abusing Scotland’s trust
  • England and Scotland were both in danger from French plans
  • Both countries were united on religion
  • It would be much easier for England to help the Scots to expel the currently small French forces in Scotland than to resist an invasion of French forces which used Scotland as a base for an attack on England.

These points made both by Maitland and by Elizabeth’s own councillors won the day and in February 1560 Maitland left London with the Treaty of Berwick in his luggage to be concluded by representatives of both nations.

The Treaty, signed on the 27th February 1560 provided English support to Scotland as long as Mary Stuart was the wife of the King of France, and for a year longer. The Scots provided an assurance of loyalty to their Queen. Maitland returned to London to get the treaty confirmed under the great seal of England.

A month later, at the end of March 1560 an English force of 8,000 left Berwick to expel the French. The Guise party had meanwhile been undermined by events in France, and could do little to support Mary of Guise, now in Edinburgh Castle. French envoys put pressure on Elizabeth, who dithered.  Both Maitland and the Duke of Norfolk feared that Elizabeth might stop funding the expedition – Maitland because his credibility would be shattered and Norfolk because he feared the France might secure a Scottish base to attack England. Mary of Guise rejected  all compromise, demanded total obedience from the Scots, but died in June 1560. By July all French troops had been withdrawn and plans were well in hand for the reformation Parliament.

The Scots were anxious to proceed before their Queen, a Catholic, could come to Scotland to  interfere in their religious settlement.

Thus we now bring together the complex threads of Maitland’s diplomacy which at the behest of the Scots Lords of the Congregation overthrew the Auld Alliance with France and  negotiated a new one with England at the same time as he grappled with the religious revolution and tempered the  extreme Calvinist policies of John Knox.

Although some today would decry this change of allegiances, it was decisive, led to the succession of the Stuart kings to the English throne and ultimately opened the resources of the British Empire in the 18th century to Scotland and provided the basis of the Enlightenment and Scotland’s economic growth and wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries. The economic benefits of the alliance have never been challenged, and opened careers and opportunities for Scotsmen on an unparalleled scale.

In our next review of Maitland’s career  we shall see how he fared in the tumults  and intricacies of Mary Stuart’s reign.