He was a fascinating and complex man, with many contradictions and also a series of changes of allegiance and policy.

What made him tick? What were his religious views ?  Why did he change sides so often?

Did he change his allegiances?

Yes  – and No.   Maitland changed his allegiance to his immediate master or mistress several times, but he remained loyal to his concept of Scotland’s true needs.

Change 1              Mary of Guise

William was Secretary of State, but was this to Mary of Guise or to Scotland? As the reformation took hold in Scotland 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. But bishops continued to enforce heresy laws. This dispute culminated in a rising, the War of the Congregation, which ended with Mary of Guise the Regent, besieged in Leith, supported by French forces. Maitland, who had been in England on a diplomatic mission for Mary, now abandoned her in October 1559 to join the Lords of the Congregation and then acted as their spokesman to the dying Mary to secure a settlement.

He certainly changed sides, but Mary of Guise was using French troops to preserve her authority and that of the Catholic church in Scotland. Disloyal to Mary, certainly, but was his duty to her, or to Scotland ?

Change 2 -           The Reformation Parliament of 1560

The Lords of the Congregation sent William to London to negotiate a treaty of alliance with England, finally confirmed in the Treaty of Berwick in 1560.   Mary Stuart, a widow at the age of 18 following the death of her first husband, Francois II, the King of France, now decided to return to the Scotland she had left at the age of five. Whilst in France, on the advice of her French uncles, she appointed Maitland as Secretary.

Hastily, before Mary could return to Scotland, the Reformation Parliament abolished Catholic practice in Scotland (though many Catholics in Aberdeen, Galloway and the western Highlands and Islands ignored the legislation, which was never rigorously enforced). The Catholic Earl of Huntly (Chief of the Gordons) feigned illness and refused to preside over the Parliament, so Maitland was elected  in his place.

Knowing Mary’s upbringing and preferences for the catholic faith, was this a betrayal of her interests or simply a recognition of the settled intentions of the Scottish nation?

Change 3       Murders of Rizzio and Darnley

William Maitland was aware of the plots to kill both Rizzio (the Queen’s de facto foreign secretary) and Darnley, but was definitely not an active participant in either. Maitland had no reason to like Rizzio, who had taken over many of his duties, but as a landless commoner was not regarded as noble or of sufficient quality to be engaged in the affairs of the nobility, and thus was not involved in the planning or execution of the murder. In the case of Darnley, the Queen had made clear in Council her desire to be freed from her marriage but had firmly excluded any form of divorce or annulment which would have the effect of excluding her son James from the line of succession. There seemed few options left, apart from assassination, judicial or otherwise. 

In this case the arrangements were made by the Earl of Bothwell, who detested Maitland, and would not include him in any planning – though they did at Mary’s command go jointly to sound out the Earl of Morton, who roundly replied that he would consider nothing without the Queen’s instructions in her own hand. They were not forthcoming.

However, Maitland was well informed, and was certainly aware of the intentions, if not the detail of the plots.  Accused in 1568 of complicity in the Darnley murder, he was acquitted in 1570 for lack of evidence after the death of his accuser and former ally, the Earl of Moray.

It should be remembered that at this period, Henry VIII had secured the execution of many of his nobility by mere accusation and a trial at which the accused had no counsel and only heard the charges on arrival in court,  or where the case was weak, by use of an Act of Attainder, where no evidence was needed. 

Maitland was undoubtedly devious, but owed nothing to Rizzio, and by turning a blind eye to the Darnley plot was carrying out his Sovereign’s intentions.

Change 4       Agreeing to Mary’s incarceration on Loch Leven

In April 1567 Mary went to Stirling to visit her baby son James and on her return to Edinburgh was met by Bothwell with a force of 800 men, and taken to Dunbar on the pretext that Edinburgh was unsafe for her. This was presented as a forcible abduction by Bothwell of the Queen, but those close to the events took the view that the Queen was a willing participant. Maitland, however, was not and accompanied the Queen to Dunbar Castle as a prisoner.

Maitland left the Court in June and joined the Confederate Lords who were opposed to Bothwell. They considered he had abducted and raped Mary before marrying her. Mary was infatuated with Bothwell, who was loathed by the majority of the Scots nobility.

Two weeks later Bothwell’s forces faced those of the Lords at Carberry Hill, near Musselburgh. Bothwell’s followers melted away and he fled to Dunbar whilst Mary was taken to Edinburgh where she was confined in the Provost’s house on the High Street.

The next day, hysterical, she summoned Maitland who was passing in the street below. He went to see her, where she reproached him for his lack of support. Maitland replied that he was looking after her interests, that Bothwell had recently written to Jean Gordon his former wife to say that he still regarded Jean as his wife and Mary as his concubine.

He explained his policy to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, who reported in turn to  Sir William Cecil “The Scots had not forgot the manifold benefits they had received from their Queen and meant her no harm. But she was at present like a sick person with a burning fever whose appetites ought not to be followed. ”When they see a moderation of her passion, she shall have nothing but good at their hands”

Maitland took a fairly relaxed view of Darnley’s murder – the kingdom was well rid of him – and anxious to reinstate the Queen as soon as she was willing to rule reasonably – that is with the advice of her nobles in general, not of one favourite, be he Rizzio, Bothwell or another.

Was this disloyalty to Mary or loyalty to Scotland ?  Maitland was by this time no longer the close colleague of the Regent, Mary’s half brother, the Earl of Moray. However, he continued to act as Secretary, representing Scotland to the English. Shortly after that he was appointed again Speaker of the Parliament, making the opening address, acting as a neutral (and trusted) official.

When Mary escaped from Loch Leven and raised a new army, Maitland accompanied the army of the Confederate Lords to the final clash at Langside (now in Glasgow two miles south of the Clyde).

Change 5 – The Hearings at York and Westminster

Mary’s forces were defeated at Langside, and she fled, via 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 on the grounds that Elizabeth was reviving English claims to overlordship and had no right to question decisions of the Scots Parliament and that the evidence produced to the Commissioners would irretrievably destroy any chance of reconciliation. Mary’s reinstatement would become impossible and with it any chance of his 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.

None were received. There is no record of Maitland challenging the authenticity of the writings ascribed to Mary, but equally, there is no evidence that he was asked to authenticate them. As her secretary he must have been best placed of all people to do this, so the absence of his authentication must raise considerable suspicion about their value as evidence. 

In the event, the letters had no influence on the hearings which were indecisive. Mary remained a prisoner because she posed a threat as a Catholic heir to the English throne and centre for plots against Elizabeth.

Here, he appears again as one of Mary’s supporters, a position he retained for the rest of his life. There is a real possibility that he was sounded out on the authenticity of the casket letters and refused to authenticate them, thus strengthening Mary’s position. 

This was Maitland’s last change of policy and allegiance. In practice, it achieved little, as Mary remained a prisoner in England until her death. Was this final policy a considered view of the best for Scotland, or a simply what he thought was best for Maitland of Lethington ?   

Maitland’s education and religious views.

We can see from the present conflict between Muslim sects how religion can create division. The situation in Christendom was little better in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

William Maitland was highly educated and well read, especially in the Bible and the classical authors. He probably attended the Grammar School at Haddington where John Knox had also been a pupil and then studied at St. Andrews before going to continental universities. We do not know where he studied, but his conversation and correspondence contain ample evidence of his education. He was very well versed in the Bible, and regularly debated issues with John Knox, where he held his own and could match quotation for quotation. His command of Latin and French were a necessity for a statesman, but he was unusual in his additional deep knowledge of Greek authors and their language, as well as the main Italian writers. Greek was not taught in Scotland until 1545 – i.e. after he had left for the continent.  His correspondence is peppered with references to Latin and Greek texts.  He appears to have spent a considerable period in his further studies – born in 1528, he would have graduated from St Andrews by 1545, and is not recorded in Scotland until his first marriage in 1553, aged 25, so he may well have spent seven or eight years in his further studies.  He was certainly learned beyond the usual standard of Scots politicians and clerics.

Lethington was averse to violence, and whilst he would occasionally remind the English of Scots willingness to resist aggression, he knew  that English armies could overwhelm the Scots forces. 

In matters of religion, he was a protestant, but not dogmatic about it. In particular, he had no objection to Mary Stuart’s practice of her own faith. He also had no hesitation in challenging Knox’s extreme interpretations of the scriptures, or in debating these matters with Knox himself, who until 1543 at least was a Catholic priest, and became a convert to the new faith in 1545 – about the time that Maitland departed for his studies on the continent.   In January 1546 Knox visited Sir Richard Maitland at Lethington, but made little headway, commenting “the Laird …. was ever civil, albeit not persuaded in religion”. The Pepysian library in Cambridge possesses a fine 15th century manuscript missal which belonged to Sir Richard. 

Blake comments that Maitland was very widely read and had little patience with hysterical piety or intemperate zeal, but believed that religion was a necessary part of the “mens sana in corpore sano”  -  a sound mind in a healthy body, but that it was not the only standard by which matters should be judged.  However, the level of corruption in the Scottish Church where Bishops were frequently unlearned laymen, often barons, where laymen were given charge of monasteries, and the Church held one third of the land, was enough to create a desire for reform.

At the General Assembly of 1564 Lethington countered Knox’s demands for extreme measures with quotations from the first five books of the Bible – Genesis to Deuteronomy, the books of Kings and Chronicles, several of the Prophets – Isaiah and Jeremiah, Apocrypha and Baruch, plus the Gospels and the Epistle to the Romans. Modern writers were not forgotten in this debate as Lethington also cited Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer and Calvin. Knox’s response was disparaged by Lethington who scoffed at the obscure and relatively unknown authorities chosen by Knox to support his position.  Despite this wide knowledge, there is no evidence of a passionate interest in theology, but rather of a tolerant attitude towards a wide range of views and practices.  He carried the day on this occasion.

In this we see the politician concerned to keep the peace, rather than the zealot.

The Diplomat

Maitland was an outstanding diplomat, employed from the beginning of his career by the Regent Mary of Guise on delicate missions to England and France and subsequently as Mary Stuart’s interlocutor with William Cecil and Queen Elizabeth.

Within two weeks of Mary's arrival in Scotland he was on his way to London. Elizabeth had a high regard and liking for Maitland so he had several meetings with her, as well as with her secretary, William Cecil, later Lord Burghley. But all Maitland’s charm and skill could not make up for the weakness of the Scots position.

The English Ambassador Sir Nicholas Throckmorton wrote an appreciation of Maitland:

In this country [England] everyone thinks Lethington a man of great wisdom and counsel, very capable and very worthy to manage the affairs of a kingdom by which it appears to me that the Regent does himself a 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 his sole counsel should be followed in all things.

Whilst he represented a sensible and prudent monarch, Maitland’s talents were effective, but as Mary grew wayward and irrational, and in particular disregarded the advice of her half brother the Earl of Moray, and of her secretary, Maitland’s influence – and that of Scotland -  waned and he lost the respect of the English government. Mary’s refusal to heed the counsel of the two men most devoted to her interests because their own careers were dependant on her success was the source of her own downfall.


William Maitland was unlucky to be born at a time of such conflict and to serve such difficult mistresses. In another era he would have received the worldly recognition he deserved -   a knighthood at least, probably a peerage and the wealth to go with it. But he backed the loser.

Was he devious ?  As Scotland’s representative, he was able to follow a consistent line and was regarded as able and trustworthy as long as his Queen was held in similar regard. Within Scotland’s complex political system he had to duck and weave though for the most part he appears to have taken the interest of Scotland as a whole as his guideline.  He certainly used his influence to seek unity and reduce conflict for most of his career, though the last years of his life defending the Queen’s interests against all odds and beyond the call of sense or duty do spoil this record.