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.