We come to the last years of William Maitland’s career and seek some answers to big questions. Maitland changed his political stance and short term loyalties several times. To recapitulate:

  1. In 1554 Maitland was appointed Secretary to Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, but in 1559 deserted her to join the Lords of the Congregation, Scots nobility pressing for the Reformation of the Church in Scotland and the return of their Queen.
  2. He was appointed Secretary of State by Queen Mary in 1560, and, together with her half brother, James Stuart, Earl of Moray was her principal advisor until 1565 when she fell under the influence of the Italian diplomat Rizzio, and married the Earl of Darnley. Her son James was born in June 1566. In February 1567 Darnley was killed in a plot organised by the Earl of Bothwell. Maitland, Bothwell’s principal political opponent, was blamed by Mary for involvement. Maitland’s lands were confiscated and he was dismissed from the court, but reinstated a few months later.
  3. After Mary married the Earl of Bothwell in May 1567, Maitland left her Court and joined the Confederate Lords opposed to Bothwell’s rule. He had a brief interview with Mary in Edinburgh after her capture after the battle of Carberry and before her incarceration in Lochleven. The Earl of Moray was elected Regent of Scotland to rule during James’ minority
  4. 1568 – Mary escaped from Lochleven and Maitland was present with the Confederate Lords at the Battle of Langside where Mary’s forces were defeated and she fled to England.
  5. Autumn 1568  - Maitland attended the Conference of York at the request of the Regent, the Earl of Moray, and also briefed Mary on the Casket Letters.  Began to act again for Mary’s interests.
  6. 1569 – arrested on Regent Moray’s orders as an accessory to Darnley’s murder.
  7. 1570 - Moray was assassinated and Maitland acquitted on murder charges because no one was willing to accuse him.   From then on he was an active opponent of the Regency.
  8. 1571 – Maitland joined Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange in Edinburgh Castle which they jointly held for the Queen’s interest.  1573 – surrendered to the Regent and died soon after in captivity.

With a record like that, Maitland’s defenders have a case to answer. Was he a chancer, always looking for short term advantage or a man of principle? Maitland  always asserted his principles drove his policies. Regarded by his English interlocutors (Queen Elizabeth and William Cecil, later Lord Burleigh) as the wisest man in Scotland, though tainted by his loyalty to Mary Stuart, we should pay attention to his own claims.

In 1559 Mary of Guise was taking active steps to turn Scotland into a French province, to the extent that they were told the France would represent Scotland at the negotiations for the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis. The Scots nobility resisted this, and Maitland joined them to secure the return of Mary Stuart.

Despite his lack of loyalty to her mother, Mary appointed William as her Secretary of State. He retained her confidence until the ascendancy of Rizzio and then Bothwell. It should be noted that up to this point in 1565, Mary’s reign was successful, and that it was only after the dismissal and retirement of her first two advisors that she ran into trouble. Maitland left her court in 1567 after imprisonment by Bothwell. He remained in opposition to Mary until she escaped to England and Bothwell left Scotland.

From 1568 until his death in 1573, Maitland advised Mary and did his best to secure her restoration.  However, her reputation was irretrievably tainted following Darnley’s assassination and her marriage to his killer, the Earl of Bothwell.  Her support for a series of plots against Queen Elizabeth’s life further damaged her reputation. This meant that his campaign was doomed from the start.

Maitland argued regularly that his opposition to the Queen in 1567/1568 was due to her obsession with Bothwell, and the damage that he would do to Scotland.  Once the link with Bothwell was broken, he returned to her party. His critics argue that he was so out of favour with the Regency in Scotland that he could only hope to restore his political career by supporting the Queen.  Since changes of allegiance were not unknown in 16th century Scotland, it is probable that he could have returned to the governing circle without undue difficulty if he had chosen to do so.         

So what happened?

Mary, formerly an observant Catholic, married Bothwell, Darnley’s murderer, at St Giles in Edinburgh on the 15th May 1567, using the Protestant rite. On the 6th June Maitland left her court to take refuge with the Earl of Athole at Dunkeld.

On the 14th June, Maitland and Athole returned to Edinburgh and the next day Mary and Bothwell’s forces met those of the Confederate Lords at Carberry, near Musselburgh. The royal forces dispersed without a battle, Bothwell escaped and Mary became a captive of the Confederate Lords. She was taken to Edinburgh, where she saw Maitland passing in the street the next day (16th). She reproached him for his disloyalty, to which he replied that Bothwell had never actually divorced his wife Jean, had written to Jean to confirm his commitment to her and that Mary was well rid of Bothwell.

The Lords concluded that if Mary was at liberty she would only stir up further strife and sent her that day to Lochleven. Several of the signatories of the warrant were Catholic lords.

A few days later, the 19th when Maitland was dining with the Earl of Morton they received news that a Bothwell agent was seeking some documents. He was seized and the next day and Morton secured the Casket Letters – correspondence from Mary to Bothwell.  They were held to be highly incriminating and to demonstrate Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s murder. Maitland, as Mary’s Secretary of State, was familiar with her hand and writing style and appears to have had no doubt that they were in her hand.  Regrettably, the originals have disappeared, the translations from the French are fragmentary, and none of the extracts are either addressed or signed. Thereis a well argued case which asserts that substantial portions are forgeries, and that the translations from French into Scots and finally into English are of very poor quality. However, contemporary opinion held them to be both incriminating and authentic. In the event, apart from damaging Mary’s reputation, they had no real impact on political decisions.

The Confederate Lords decided to dethrone Mary, crown her infant son James and appoint a Regent in her place.  Mary was presented with abdication documents and signed them under threat. Maitland’s advice to her, supported by others, was to sign, and then if in a position to do so, repudiate the document as invalid on the grounds that her signature was extracted by force.

Moray was elected Regent, but despite their earlier alliance in support of Mary, no long trusted Maitland. Maitland’s own views appear to have been that the murder of Darnley and the marriage to Bothwell could both be regarded as follies of youth and that Mary would grow up – she was 25, and still very impetuous. He was anxious to promote harmony, which included re-instatement of Mary as Queen. He still aimed for the Stuart succession to the English throne and for political union of Britain. Equally, he sought a respectable marriage for Mary – one child was not considered enough to secure the succession. Furthermore, as long as Knox and Morton were in control, he would be out of power. His own allies were nearly all in opposition to the Regency, though not in armed conflict.  Throckmorton, Elizabeth’s envoy commented

"In this country everyone thinks that Lethington is a man of great wisdom and counsel and very worthy to manage the affairs of a kingdom, by which it appears to me that the Regent does himself great wrong in suffering the absence of such a man from his company.  And on the other hand, I know that Lethington has such an opinion of his own sufficiency that he thinks that his counsel should be followed in all things….which is the cause of the division"

Russell p 359

Despite these divisions, Maitland was appointed Speaker of the Scots parliament when it met in December 1567 to approve all the actions of the Regent and his appointment. Maitland made the opening speech in which he commented on Scotland’s good fortune in peaceably implementing the Reformation without bloodshed – unlike most neighbouring countries – and commended the Regent to them.

Bothwell and his henchmen were forfeited of their estates, and the principal henchmen executed in January 1568. Punishment was limited to those actively involved in the crime. Others, like Maitland, who had foreknowledge had also been under pressure from their sovereign to acquiesce, and the legal position was by no means clear, so evidence implicating them was suppressed by the court.

Mary escaped from Lochleven in May 1568, and Maitland was with the Regent in Glasgow when the news arrived. His letters to Cecil in May and June show him working closely with Regent Moray, and he was present, though not actively engaged at the Battle of Langside (now in the southern suburbs of Glasgow) where Sir William Grange commanded the Regent’s army. Mary’s forces were defeated, and she fled, via Dundrennan in Kirkcudbright to England, where she was imprisoned.

Now followed a prolonged series of hearings of mutual complaints by Mary and the Regent heard in English tribunals, first in York and then in Westminster. Maitland had opposed the hearings first on the grounds that Elizabeth was reviving English claims to overlordship and had no right to question decisions of the Scots Parliament and secondly because the hearings and evidence produced to the Commissioners would irretrievably destroy any chance of reconciliation. Mary’s reinstatement would become impossible and with it any chance of a return to office.  Maitland thus had two reasons for his policy – Mary’s benefit and his own.

Maitland sent Mary copies of the Casket Letters before the hearings, and requested her instructions.

The hearings in York and Westminster were long and tedious, and ended indecisively in December 1568. Mary remained in custody, but Elizabeth had achieved her object of demonstrating Mary’s unfitness to inherit the English throne.

Maitland meanwhile continued with his plan to secure a marriage between Mary and the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, and her reinstatement in Scotland.  This is seriously compromised by a simultaneous Spanish plot to encourage Norfolk to start a rebellion, marry Mary and assume the English throne. Catholic powers, France and Spain now saw Mary as an instrument to destabilise England, and decided to overlook  the Darnley murder.

Maitland was increasingly seen as an opponent of Moray’s Regency, and in August 1568 was arrested whilst attending the Privy council at Perth and held a prisoner at Edinburgh Castle. In October his strategy was further upset by the arrest and detention of the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk’s allies tried to rescue Mary from Tutbury Castle, but the scheme failed because she had been moved to Coventry.

In November Maitland was brought to court to face charges of complicity in the Darnley murder, but he managed to get his numerous allies to assemble in Edinburgh with their retainers to over awe the court. The tactics succeeded and the trial was postponed.

In January 1570 Moray was assassinated by a gunman using Archbishop Hamilton’s house in Linthgow. Three weeks later Maitland was again brought to trial, but he had made his peace with the Earl of Morton, and no one was willing to accuse him, so he was unanimously acquitted.

Was Maitland guilty ?  If tried under 20th century law, he would have been found guilty, and your editor in the 1970 and 1980s handled many transactions which were legal then, but which cost banks and individuals today heavy fines and imprisonment.

Maitland was not only aware of the plans to kill Darnley, he had as Secretary of State been instructed by his Sovereign in council to facilitate them, and under legal practice of the day could plead the Sovereign’s lawful instructions. Henry Tudor had no compunction in ordering executions, even of Queens, and his ministers had no difficulty on carrying out these commands with impunity.

Darnley posed a problem because he had been styled, but not crowned King when he married Mary. Killing a king was much more serious than arranging a judicial or physical assassination and exposed the perpetrator to potential treason charges if the political climate changed. For this reason it was difficult to secure assistance in the plot. The Earl of Morton, jointly approached by Bothwell and Maitland responded that until he had the Queen’s instructions written in her own hand, he would have nothing to do with it.

The search for plotters involved many of the Scots nobility, so they were as guilty or innocent as Maitland, and therefore preferred not to press the point. Maitland himself was a political opponent of Bothwell, who did not trust him at all, and for that reason, did not seek Maitland’s active participation in the plot.

 During March 1570, the Queen’s Lords regularly met at Maitland’s house in the Meal Market just off the Cowgate in Edinburgh. Maitland was by now seriously infirm and travelled by litter. Attempts to secure agreement to secure the Queen’s release failed.

In April the English invaded Scotland, harrying the Borders, so Maitland took refuge in Edinburgh Castle where Sir William Kirkaldy of Grange was the commander. Grange had commanded Moray’s troops against Mary’s army at Langside before her flight into England, but had now changed his stance because he had personally guaranteed Mary’s treatment at Carberry before her imprisonment, and was now upset by the subsequent action by the King’s Lords against Mary.

In May Maitland was replaced as Secretary. English forces entered Edinburgh and their commander, Sir William Drury negotiated with Grange and Maitland in the Castle. At the end of May Maitland left Edinburgh for Blair Athole, and in June the French government protested to Elizabeth over the invasion of Scotland, threatened French military support for Scotland and urged Mary’s release. Elizabeth agreed to new negotiations. Mary’s envoy called on Maitland at Blair Atholl,  and Sussex, the senior English commander was compelled to negotiate with Maitland. The correspondence achieved nothing, but Elizabeth complimented Sussex on the success of his discussions with “the flower of the wits of Scotland”

In July the Earl of Lennox was elected Regent, and Grange, holding Edinburgh Castle refused to recognise his authority.  Meanwhile in France Catherine de Medici made peace with the protestants, which took pressure off Elizabeth. In September Cecil met Mary at Chatsworth to discuss terms for her release, but the Scots Parliament rejected the proposals outright. The Parliament also formally deprived Maitland of his position as Secretary of State.

At the Parliament in May 1571 Maitland and his brothers were stripped of all their assets, the Queen’s party began to fall apart as the French withdrew support to seek a rapprochement with England.  Maitland was in Edinburgh Castle.

The prolonged siege of the Castle now began, which ended two years later in May 1573 with Maitland and Grange’s surrender. Seventeen offers of favourable surrender terms were offered to them during the year, which were all rejected unless the Queen was re-instated. This was the one thing which the Scots Parliament and the Regent were not prepared to concede, but they offered freedom and restoration of lands with a full pardon.  There is little to be gained by a full analysis of the many offers made to them and it is difficult for us to understand their intransigence. Many of their colleagues accepted these terms and departed free.

Finally in May 1573 siege guns were used on the Castle, which ran out of supplies, including water, which was poisoned, and on 28th May 1573 Maitland and Grange surrendered. Both were imprisoned. Maitland died a few days later in his bed, and Grange was executed later that year. If he had survived, Maitland would have suffered the same fate. 

There are suggestions that Maitland killed himself, but poison was a common explanation in those days for a sudden death. Maitland had been ill at the beginning of the siege two years before, was now 45, which was not particularly old, but his health had been bad for three years since 1570, and the strain of the siege cannot have helped.

His body was left unburied – we do not know why. Mary Fleming, his wife, asked Cecil, now Lord Burghley to secure decent burial, and Elizabeth wrote to the Regent to this effect. where he was buried we do not know, but the floor of the Lauderdale Aisle is the probable location.