Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Bonnie Earl o' Moray

I suppose that most of you are acquainted with this ballad. It is worth a look not only because it is a lovely ballad, a very old one at that, but also because it is based on a fascinating historical event.

For anyone who does not recall this song, here is my favorite performance by Old Blind Dogs.




The bonnie Earl o' Moray (yes, it is pronounced like Murray but is not the same thing 😜) was James Stewart, Lord of Doune and 2nd Earl of Moray in that creation, a direct descendant of King Robert the Bruce and distant cousin of the current King of Scots, James VI. As was so often the case in the midst of the Reformation, politics were complicated and too very often bloody. They were when another Stewart, the illegitimate son of King James V and a fervent Protestant and former regent for James VI, was assassinated in 1570 in the street by a carbine shot from a window - possibly the first political assassination by gunfire.

King James gifted young James with wardship of the deceased earl's two daughters and the right to marry one of them. (Are you getting confused by all the Jameses? Have pity on a poor author who has to deal with all the men in a historical novel having the same first name.) This set off some criticism because that the Lords of Doune were much lower in status than the earls of Moray. It certainly indicates that he was on good terms, possibly even close, to his monarch.

James decided to marry the older daughter and thus became Earl of Moray jure uxuris. The two married on 31 January 1581 in Fife with much of the nobility of Scotland in attendance, including King James. Afterwards was a huge celebration that included jousting. No doubt James rode at the ring as is mentioned in the song, a form of jousting that takes considerable skill. A jouster gallops full tilt and must put the tip of his lance through small rings. You can easily image this was not an easy thing to do on a galloping horse.

Moray then moved elaborate celebration to Leith where he set up a large water pageant on the water of the Leith. It culminated with a mock attack on a recreation he had built of a papal castle. Showing one's anti-Catholic feelings was important in the Scottish court of the very Protestant King James. 

Things seemed to be going along swimmingly for the bonnie and quite ambitious young earl. In 1588, he was appointed a commissioner for executing the act against the Spanish armada, and in 1590, was commissioned to execute the acts against the Jesuits. He was at odds with a powerful neighbor, George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, but his favor with the king seemed strong.

So how did it soon go so wrong? The song mentions that 'he was the Queen's true love'. Anne of Denmark and King James were married in 1589 when she was 14 years old. She did acquire a reputation, whether deserved or not, as being flighty and frivolous, but that a 14-year-old queen was given enough freedom to have an affair is highly unlikely. Nonetheless it is possible she showed some preference for him short of an affair. Possible. Would that be enough to explain later events? I am a bit skeptical, especially since the bonnie earl's own actions might explain it.

Enter stage left, France Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, one of his wife's cousins, scion of another illegitimate branch of the royal Stewarts. He had spent considerable time studying in Catholic nations of Europe and was openly a partisan of the recently executed Mary Queen of Scots. It is possible in my opinion that he was always a secret Catholic. A quarrelsome man, he was involved in a number of fights and duels, at least one resulting in death.

It would take an entire lengthy blog post to set out his career, but to give the most relevant point, in 1591 Bothwell was accused of practicing witchcraft to call up storms to keep the Anne of Denmark from reaching Scotland, which he of course denied. The king, who certainly believed in witchcraft was furious, so Bothwell was soon an outlaw in hiding. Bothwell led a raid on Holyroodhouse trying to reach the king, probably to plead his cause but several of the king's men were killed. The king and his supporters believed it was an attempted assassination. The king himself led the pursuit of Bothwell which ended with the king being thrown from his horse and having to be rescued. 

So this seems like is a very odd time for the Moray to make an alliance with the outlaw nobleman, Francis Bothwell. However, Moray's disagreement with Huntley had degenerated into open warfare when Huntley besieged the home of John Grant of Freuchie, one of Moray's allies. Along with the Earl of Atholl, Moray attacked Huntley, broke the siege, and forced Huntley to retreat to Edinburgh. 

Huntley had the ear of the king and when the king learned of an apparent alliance between Bothwell and Moray, he gave Huntley a commission to pursue them. Moray was tricked by an associate of Huntley's to start for Edinburgh to plead for a pardon from King James. Believing that he would momentarily receive a summons from the king, Moray stopped at Donibristle, one of his very formidable mother's estates. 

At night, Huntley, who was lurking nearby with a force of his men, attacked the house. He set it afire. Moray did not immediately flee, but eventually he was forced to fight his way through the cordon of Huntley's men. He ran for the rocky shoreline hoping to hide, but the glow of the burning decorations on his helmet gave him away. Huntley pursued him and cut him down. 

The next day Moray's mother, Margaret Campbell of Argyll, retrieved her 27-year-old son's body and that of the Sheriff of Moray who had also been killed in the attack. She took them to Edinburgh and confronted King James. He declared that he had not authorised the killings, but took no action against Huntley, so she had her son's hacked body put on display in the Church of St. Giles. The famous vendetta portrait she commissioned displays his many wounds. 

Vendetta portrait of the Bonnie Earl of Moray

Popular opinion, as shown in the ballad, was very much against Huntley who fled to the north, and the king left for Glasgow. Only one of Huntley's followers, a Captain Gordon, was tried and executed. It was no doubt lucky for Huntley that Margaret Campbell died soon after. She would not have been satisfied with the tap on the wrist, not even a slap, that Huntley received which was a week's stay in Blackness Castle until he agreed to give himself up if the king ever had the murder brought to trial. 

King James never did.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

William the Rough and the Lion of Scotland

King William I is no doubt best known for adopting Scotland's royal Lion Rampant banner, hence his sobriquet 'the Lion'. He was not called that during his lifetime, however, but rather Garbh, 'the Rough'. His reign definitely had its ups and downs, and whether 'the Lion' is appropriate or not is open to question.

There is no clear evidence when William first used the lion rampant as a banner, but it was in used before his son Alexander inherited the throne. It was Alexander who added the fleur de lis border. 

The royal Lion Rampant Banner

Born in 1142, he was the younger grandson of King David I. His father,  Henry, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumbria. Those earldoms were attached to the Scottish crown at the time, gifts from King David's brother-in-Law, England's King Henry I. Earl Henry died when William was ten years old. William inherited the earldoms, a very rich prize indeed, leaving his religious and sickly older brother, Malcolm as heir to the throne of Scotland.

Malcolm inherited from their grandfather in 1153, but soon died in 1165 at the age of 24. Now young William was both King of Scots and Earl of the profitable earldoms of Huntingdon and Northumbria. He granted the earldoms to his younger brother, David (the direct ancestor through his daughter of King Robert the Bruce). William had a perfectly legitimate claim to the earldoms but it so infuriated Henry that even the slightest mention of him threw Henry into one of his infamous furies. William attempted to meet with Henry in 1170 to patch up their badly deteriorated relationship, but Henry refused.

In 1173, three of Henry's sons, Henry (called the Young King), Richard, and Geoffrey along with their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, rebelled against the king in Normandy which soon spread to England. Since the two kings were on such bad terms, it is not surprising William and his brother decided to join them, leading an army into England, and laying siege to Prudhoe Castle. 

Now we come to the 'he may not deserve the sobriquet' part.

King Henry was in Normandy, fighting when the rebellion broke out in England, but he quickly returned. While Henry was in York doing penance for the murder of Thomas Becket quite some time previously, a force of some of Henry's supporters surprised William at night in camp, protected by only a small group of bodyguards. His army was spread out with the siege. William and his men quickly mounted and met the attackers. There is story that King William shouted, "Now we will see who is the better knight!" as he charged impetuously into the fray. Since Henry was not there for him to shout at and it was a surprise attack, I suggest taking the story with a whapping large grain of salt. At any rate, they took him prisoner. 

In the aftermath, Henry readily defeated the English rebellion, dragging William about with him and then back to Normandy where he pretty quickly convinced his three sons to surrender and return to his service. In the meantime, he had William in chains in the imposing fortress of Chateau de Falaise. His sons and wife taken care of, Henry sent his army to occupy the southern part of Scotland including its five strongest castles, to which, its king imprisoned and far from his kingdom, Scots put up very little resistance. 

Chateau de Falaise, Normandy

Totally at King Henry's mercy, a man who had no fondness for him at all, after about six months of imprisonment, William agreed to the terms of the Treaty of Falaise. It is hard to say what was the worst part of the treaty. He accepted the English king as Scotland's overlord, agreed for the English to hold the castles they had seized, had to get Henry's permission to put down local rebellions, declared the church in Scotland under the authority of the English, gave up his claim to English earldoms, was forced to agree to send his son to England when he had one, and even had to agree for Henry to choose his own bride. It is difficult to imagine the extent and depth of the humiliation. The personal nature of some of it, such as choosing William's bride, seems to indicate personal hatred on the part of King Henry.

As you can well imagine this caused a lot of problems for William in Scotland and causes later generations to question whether he deserved the nickname of 'the Lion'. 

However, now we come to the part where he may deserve the name.

Galloway, Moray and Ross all almost immediately saw uprisings. William and his brother David personally led the response to the rebellion in Easter Ross. The rebellion in the north was put down, started up again and was once more put down. With the aim of enforcing the peace, they built a castle on the Black Isle and another and another at Dunkeath. In the meantime, he had a castle built at Dundee to contain the Galloway rebellion. He was also appealing to the pope to overturn the English control of the church in Scotland. He finally achieved a papal bull overturning that part of the treaty by the pope issuing a bull in 1184.

In July 1189, King Henry II died to be succeeded by his son Richard, later referred to as the Lionheart. And unlike the very hostile King Henry, Richard and William had a good relationship thanks to William having sided with him in the Rebellion of 1173. Richard was also in serious need of money and money was something that William had. (The belief that Scotland was always an indigent nation is false which I will discuss another time)

Richard was eager to leave on his planned crusade, so he was happy to agree to nullify the Treaty of Falaise, including the Scotland's subservience to the English king, for a payment of 10,000 marks. The main issue that remained was the Northumbria earldom that William believed still belonged to Scotland by right, but because William wanted the castles as well as the lands and title, Richard refused to sell it back.

William then led several campaign to Caithness and Southerland in the far north of Scotland, bringing them under the Scottish crown for the first time. He achieved finally putting down rebellion in Galloway and Easter Ross. His other achievements were substantial as well. He increased Scotland's growing trade, largely with the Hanseatic League, clarified Scottish laws, and increased the number of burghs. By the time of his death, had there been made a map of Scotland, it would have been near to the Scotland we see on the map today for the first time in history, not a minor achievement.

William the Lion, whether a lion or not, in my view was a successful king - even with the pretty substantial 'down' part of his reign.