Lord James Stewart was the illegitimate son of King James V of Scotland and his favourite mistress, Margaret Erskine, wife of Sir Robert Douglas of Lochleven. At one time King James contemplated marrying Margaret, which would have legitimised James, but he was unable to obtain a papal dispensation.
Notwithstanding his illegitimacy, which does not seem to have been a problem in Scotland in this period, certainly for the sons of kings, Lord James was brought up at his father’s expense together with a number of other illegitimate half siblings and apparently on good terms with his step-mother, Marie of Guise.
King James died following the Battle of Solway Moss, in December 1542, when James was about 11. The new monarch was James’ week old sister, Mary.
In 1548, when Mary was five, James accompanied her to France, where she was being sent to protect her from English plans to kidnap her and forcibly marry her to King Edward VI of England. James stayed in France for a short period, possibly attending the University of Paris.
In 1550, he again visited France, this time in the retinue of his stepmother Marie of Guise, who was visiting her daughter and her French relatives. On the return journey, James spent some time at the court of Edward VI in London. It is probably at this time that he first met some of Edward’s courtiers who were later to play an important part of his life – Sir William Cecil, secretary to Edward’s Privy Council, being the most influential.
The other person he probably met at Edward’s court who was to change his life profoundly, was the Scottish preacher, John Knox. Knox had been banished from Scotland following the murder of Cardinal Beaton and spent 18 months in French galleys. Now a chaplain to the English King, he was preaching a radical form of Protestantism. Lord James did not become an immediate convert but his actions over the next few years show that he was impressed.
In the mid-1550s, Protestantism was beginning to gain a hold in Scotland and Lord James and others listened to Knox preach in 1556 at Calder. By this time, James’ stepmother was Regent of Scotland, having replaced James Hamilton, Duke of Chatelherault. James appears to have had good relationship with Marie at this stage, but as time went on religious differences drove them apart.
Whereas in the 1540s, the majority of the Scots nobles had preferred the traditional alliance with France to one with England, this was changing as more of them were converting to the Protestant faith. The death of Mary I of England, to be succeeded by her Protestant-leaning sister, Elizabeth, was a catalyst for the reforming Scottish Lords. They sought at least religious toleration, if not the conversion of Marie of Guise and a wholesale Reformation. These peers, who became known as the Lords of the Congregation, eventually took up arms against the Regent. After some hesitation, Lord James joined them, and civil war was a real possibility. Marie sent for troops from France, whilst the Lords of the Congregation requested help from Elizabeth of England, which, eventually, she gave, although not without some misgivings about encouraging rebels against lawful authority.
One of the promoters of English support was none other than Sir William Cecil, whom James had met in England, not only in 1551, but also when he returned from the wedding of his sister Mary to the Dauphin of France in 1558. There was some suspicion in England that Lord James was less interested in religious reform and more interested in the possibility of taking the throne for himself, but that would not necessarily have been an unattractive prospect to the English.
June 1560, the apparent deadlock in Scotland was broken when Marie died, with Lord
James at her side, reconciled personally, although not politically. The Lords of
the Congregation now took control of the Scottish government, whilst still paying
lip service to the Queen, who was still in France where she was now Queen Consort.
In 1560 the Reformation Parliament, as it is known in Scotland, outlawed the Catholic faith and instituted a Protestant Confession of Faith which outlined the Christian religion as it was to be practised in Scotland thenceforward.
In December 1560 François II of France, husband of Queen Mary, died. This changed the political situation considerably as rather than ruling from afar, with a Regent, probably Moray, on the ground, Mary was soon contemplating returning home. She was visited by a messenger from George Gordon, 2nd Earl of Huntly, a prominent Catholic Lord, who assured her that should she choose to land in his territories he could furnish with an army and reimpose the Catholic faith. He followed this up with a warning that Lord James had his eyes on her throne.
A second visitor was Lord James himself, sent by the Protestant Scottish government to sound her out, or, as they put it ‘grope her mind’ about her intentions. Whilst James and Mary seemed to get on well, her initially good impression was somewhat damaged by the fact that he immediately reported the entire substance of their conversation to the English government en route back to Scotland. Nevertheless, Mary determined to return to Scotland, and accepted Lord James’ advice that she should do so on the understanding that no attempt would be made to overturn the Acts in regard to religion, that had been passed by the Reformation Parliament.
Mary returned home in June 1561, and appointed Lord James and some of his closest associates, including Sir William Maitland of Lethington, another Protestant, to the Council. For over three years Mary and James were on good terms. She granted him the earldom of Moray and approved his choice of wife. She also appointed him as her Lieutenant in the borders, with authority to settle the incessant border warfare. In late 1562 they travelled north together, partly as a show of royal strength in the face of disobedience by the Earl of Huntly. Huntly was provoked into acts which could be seen as open rebellion and Moray led the Queen’s forces against him, overcoming the Gordons at the Battle of Corrichie. There has been some speculation amongst historians that Moray deliberately provoked the situation in order to have one of the most important Catholic earls, and a personal rival, destroyed.
By 1564, Mary was seeking to remarry. Moray’s chief political ambition was to retain and, if possible, improve, relationships with Protestant England. Mary and Elizabeth, although exchanging friendly letters, were prevented from a full understanding by disagreements over the English succession. In Catholic eyes, Elizabeth was not the legitimate Queen of England (although most of her Catholic subjects seemed perfectly happy with the situation). In accordance with this view, in 1558, Mary, only 16, had been persuaded to claim the English throne. This made her forever suspect in the eyes of Elizabeth and Sir William Cecil. Mary had backed down on the point, but she wished to be acknowledged as Elizabeth’s successor. Elizabeth was absolutely adamant that she would not name a successor, although she was prepared to say that she knew of no one with a better right than Mary.
She suggested that if Mary conformed to her wishes in every possible way, including marrying at her direction, she might name her as her heir. Moray wrote a number of letters to both Elizabeth and Cecil urging them to acknowledge Mary’s rights explicitly and confirming that, if Elizabeth would do so, Mary would show herself most obliging. The English vetoed a couple of Mary’s potential choices of husband – Don Carlos of Spain and Archduke Charles of Austria. Mary then asked who Elizabeth would like her to marry. Elizabeth dropped the bombshell that her preferred choice was her own close (according to scandal, extremely close) courtier and Councillor, Lord Robert Dudley, whom she promoted to be Earl of Leicester to make more palatable to her fellow Queen.
Moray informed Cecil that he would be prepared to persuade Mary to the step, although the marriage would be rather a comedown for a Queen-Regnant of Scotland and Queen Dowager of France, but only if Mary were definitely named as heir to the throne of England.
Elizabeth would not go that far and in the meantime Mary was considering another possibility – Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Darnley was the son of Matthew Stuart, 4 th Earl of Lennox, who had been exiled from Scotland in the 1540s and become a client of King Henry VIII, marrying his niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, who was also Queen Mary’s aunt. Lord Darnley, a couple of years younger than Mary was, on paper, an ideal candidate. He had a strong claim to the English throne, he also had some claim to a place in the line of succession in Scotland. Although brought up as a Catholic he did not appear to be averse to Protestantism. Elizabeth was persuaded (or always intended, guessing how matters would turn out) to allow Lennox to return to Scotland and be reconciled to Queen Mary and shortly afterwards to allow Darnley to travel to Scotland too.
Although Mary did not seem initially to be interested in marrying Darnley, in April 1565, she became infatuated with him. Moray strongly disapproved of the match although, according to Mary, he told her that if she would allow him to arrange everything, then he would accept it. It’s likely that Mary was already chafing at his controlling attitude and she certainly wasn’t going to allow Moray to completely dominate her. She determined to go her own way
Mary and Darnley were married in July 1565, and Moray, together with the Earl of Argyll and the Earl of Glencairn, began a rather futile rebellion. Mary and Darnley (now known as Henry, King of Scots, and always referred to by that title in Scotland) raised an army to bring the rebels to heel. This became known as the Chaseabout Raid as Mary never caught up with Moray. After some weeks Moray requested asylum in England, which was granted.
Mary declared Moray and the others rebels traitors and forfeited their lands. A forfeiture was generally thought to require Parliamentary approval, and so Parliament was called for March 1566. In England Moray was called in front of Queen Elizabeth and given a public rebuke, although we can infer that Elizabeth was not that sorry to see Mary in difficulties.
Meanwhile the marriage between Mary and Darnley quickly proved to be a disaster. Darnley was young, arrogant, self-willed, and utterly unable to accept that he had responsibilities as well as rights in his new position. There were reports of frequent quarrels between the Queen and her husband. One of the bones of contention was Mary’s secretary, David Riccio. Darnley was not the only man to dislike the Italian secretary whom the Scottish Lords felt spent far too much time with the Queen and had far too much influence over her.
The scheme was hatched to remove Riccio which would have the pleasing by-product of putting Darnley in the power of the Lords and, in return, he would prevent the planned forfeitures of their lands. A bond was drawn up in which was agreed that Riccio would be removed. The means of removal were not specified, so, in theory, this could have meant exile or some other way of lessening his influence. Nevertheless it seems likely that all of the signatories to the Bond (of whom Moray was one) knew that assassination was the real intent.
A group of the nobles, headed by Darnley, burst into Mary’s apartments, dragged the screaming secretary out and stabbed him to death within earshot of the heavily pregnant Queen. Darnley’s dagger was left in the body, although he was actually occupied restraining Mary.
Within a day, Moray had returned from England, and Mary, not knowing that he had been involved, welcomed him with open arms. Nevertheless, she was determined to escape, and persuaded Darnley to abandon his co-conspirators and flee from Edinburgh Castle in the middle of the night, heading for safety at Dunbar.
Following this new outrage, Moray and the other rebels of the Chaseabout Raid were received back into favour, and matters seemed to settle down until July 1566 when Mary’s child, another James, was born. Moray refused to attend the actual baptism, as it was a Catholic service, but he attended the other festivities. During the autumn and early winter of 1566 – 1567, Moray was again at Mary’s side, travelling with her to Jedburgh to administer justice.
It was not far from Jedburgh that another bond was entered into, known as the Craigmillar Bond. So far as can be pieced together from the conflicting accounts (the Bond itself has never been found) Mary and her nobles, including Huntly, Argyll, Maitland and Bothwell agreed that Darnley was a liability and that she would be better off without him. Divorce was the most obvious solution, but Mary was concerned that it might impugn the legitimacy of her child. The Lords told her that they would find a way out of the problem that would be acceptable to Queen and to Parliament and she told them that provided it would not damage her honour or her conscience she would wish to be rid of Darnley. Moray denied that he was ever party to this conversation although other reports place him at the scene.
In early 1567, Darnley was ill, probably an outbreak of syphilis. He and Mary seemed to be coming towards a reconciliation when the house in which he was staying to recuperate was blown up by gunpowder. Mary and the rest of the court were absent at a wedding that evening. Darnley’s body was not destroyed by the explosion but found in the garden with the appearance of having attempt to escape from the upstairs window by means of a chair and a rope of sheets. It was assumed that he had been suffocated.
Within a couple of weeks, Moray left for France, probably with Mary’s permission. That they were still on good terms is shown by the fact that he requested her to act as guardian for his daughters in the event of any mishap. During Moray’s absence, Mary was abducted, probably against her will, by the Earl of Bothwell and married to him. This was unacceptable to the vast majority of her nobles and some of her subjects.
Mary confronted her Lords at Carberry Hill, but in order to prevent a battle she agreed to leave Bothwell and return to Edinburgh with the Lords. Presumably Mary believed that, once separated from Bothwell, she and her Lords would come to an accommodation but they saw it differently and imprisoned her at Lochleven in the castle of Moray’s own uterine half brother, Sir William Douglas. Lord James’ mother was still alive and living with her son and it’s hard to imagine that she was particularly sympathetic towards Mary.
During July, Mary suffered a miscarriage and was persuaded at knifepoint to abdicate in favour of her son, with Moray as Regent. Urgent messages were sent to Moray to return to Scotland and take up the Regency as soon as possible. He returned in August, but was not immediately permitted to see his sister by the other Lords. Eventually he did gain access to her but the two quarrelled beyond forgiveness.
Moray took up the Regency on 22nd August 1567 and for the next six months administered the country effectively, although he lost the support of his old friend, the Earl of Argyll, and his actions in taking Mary’s jewels and giving some to his wife ‘colded’ the stomachs of the Hamiltons, who began agitating for Mary’s release. They were particularly concerned that their place in the succession, immediately after the baby James, was being undermined by Moray. In May 1568, Mary escaped from Lochleven and raised an army. Moray and the other members of the King’s Party (as they were now known, in contradistinction to the Queen’s Party) marched out to meet her. She was defeated at the Battle of Langside, following which she fled into England.
Elizabeth I, appealed to by Mary to provide her with means to regain her crown, prevaricated. A Commission was set up in York, to be attended by Moray, which Elizabeth told Mary would investigate the behaviour of her Lords but which was explained to Moray as an investigation into Mary’s involvement, if any, in the murder of Darnley. This accusation had first been levelled at Mary in the Parliament that Moray called in December 1567, in which evidence of the complicity was talked of but not produced and Mary was not permitted to attend to speak in her own defence.
Moray travelled to York to the Commission, which was later adjourned to London, but never reached any meaningful conclusion, presumably on Elizabeth’s orders. Moray was permitted to return to Scotland in January 1569 and given tacit support from the English government to continue in his Regency. He did not have unanimous support. In particular, the Flemings and Hamiltons were holding Dumbarton Castle, an important strategic location on the River Clyde, for the Queen. In January 1570, Moray led a foray to try to capture the Castle but that proved impossible. He returned to Linlithgow, where he was assassinated by one of the Hamilton clan. He was shot in the abdomen and died the same day.
Three weeks later, Moray was buried in the High Kirk of St Giles. The funeral sermon was read by John Knox who praised him extravagantly as ‘ the good Regent’ and characterised his assassination as punishment for a sinful people. Moray left a widow and was succeeded in his earldom by his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Stewart.