Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 33

I dare say you are wondering all this time what became of Queen Mary.

We left her, you know, in the hands of Queen Elizabeth, who had refused to decide any thing on the question of her guilt or innocence. This was in 1568 — 9, and undoubtedly, by every rule of law or justice, Mary ought then to have been set at liberty. She had been accused of matters which Elizabeth herself had admitted were not brought home to her by proof, and of which, even if they had been prove, the Queen of England had no right to take cognizance. Nevertheless, Elizabeth continued to treat Mary as guilty, though she declined to pronounce her so, and to use her as her subject, though she was an independent sovereign, who had chosen England for a retreat, in the hope of experiencing that hospitable protection which would have been given to the meanest Scottish subject, who, flying from the laws of his own country, sought refuge in the sister kingdom. When you read English history, you will see that Elizabeth was a great and glorious Queen and well deserved the title of the Mother of her country; but her conduct towards Queen Mary casts a deep shade over her virtues, and leads us to reflect what poor frail creatures even the wisest of mortals are, and of what imperfect materials that which we call human virtue is found to consist.

Always demanding her liberty, and always having her demand evaded or refused, Mary was transported from castle to castle, and placed under the charge of various keepers, who incurred Elizabeth’s most severe resentment, when they manifested any of that attention to soften the rigours of the poor Queen’s captivity, which mere courtesy, and compassion for fallen greatness, sometimes prompted.

The very furniture and accommodations of her apartments were miserably neglected, and the expenses of her household were supplied as grudgingly as if she had been an unwelcome guest, who could depart at pleasure, and whom, therefore, the entertainer endeavours to get rid of by the coldness and discomfort of the reception afforded. It was, upon on occasion, with difficulty that the Queen Dowager of France, and actual Queen of Scotland, obtained the accommodation of a down bed, which a complaint in her limbs, the consequence of damp and confinement, rendered a matter of needful accommodation rather than of luxury. When she was permitted to take exercise, she was always strongly guarded, as if she had been a criminal; and if any one offered her a compliment, or token of respect, or any word of comfort, Queen Elizabeth, who had her spies everywhere, was sure to reproach those who were Mary’s guardians for the time, with great neglect of their duty, in permitting such intercourse.

During this severe captivity on the one part, and the greatest anxiety, doubt, and jealousy, on the other, the two Queens still kept up a sort of correspondence. In the commencement of this intercourse, Mary endeavoured, by the force of argument, by the seductions of flattery, and by appeals to the feelings of humanity, to soften towards her the heart of Elizabeth. She tried also to bribe her rival into a more humane conduct towards her, by offering to surrender her Crown and reside abroad, if she could but be restored to her personal freedom.

But Elizabeth had injured the Queen of Scotland too deeply to venture the consequences of her resentment, and thought herself, perhaps, compelled to continue the course she had commenced, from the fear, that, once at liberty, Mary might have pursued measures of revenge and that she herself would find it impossible to devise any mode of binding the Scottish Queen to perform, when at large, such articles as she might consent to when in bondage.

Despairing at length of making any favourable impression upon Elizabeth, Mary, with more wit than prudence, used her means of communicating with the Queen of England, to irritate and provoke her; yielding to the not unnatural, though certainly the rash and impolitic purpose, of retaliating some part of the pain to which she was herself subjected, upon the person whom she justly considered as the authoress of her calamities.

Being for a long time under the charge of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who lady was a woman of a shrewish disposition, Mary used to report to Elizabeth, that the countess had called her old and ugly; and said she was grown as crooked in her temper as in her body, with many other scandalous and abusive expressions, which must have given exquisite pain to any woman, and more especially to a Queen so proud as Elizabeth, and desirous, even in old age, of being still esteemed beautiful. Unquestionably, these reproaches added poignancy to the hatred with which the English Sovereign regarded Queen Mary.

But besides these female reasons for detesting her prisoner, Elizabeth had cause to regard the Queen of Scots with fear as well as envy and hatred. The Catholic party in England were still very strong, and they considered the claim of Mary to the throne of England as descended from the Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, to be preferable to that of the existing Queen, who was, in their judgment, illegitimate, as being the heir of an illegal marriage betwixt Henry VIII and Anne Bullen. The Popes also, by whom Elizabeth was justly regarded as the great prop of the Reformed religion, endeavoured to excite against her such of her subjects as still owned obedience to the See of Rome. At length, in 1570–71, Pius V, then the reigning Pope, published a bull, or sentence of excommunication, by which he deprived Queen Elizabeth (as far as his sentence could) of her hopes of heaven, and of her kingdom upon earth, excluded her from the privileges of Christians, and delivered her over as a criminal to whomsoever should step forth to vindicate the Church, by putting to death its greatest enemy. The zeal of the English Catholics was kindled by this warrant from the Head of their Church. One of them [named Felton] was found bold enough to fix a copy of the sentence of excommunication upon the door of the Bishop of London, and various plots were entered into among the Papists for dethroning Elizabeth, and transferring the kingdom of England to Mary, a sovereign of their own religion, and in their eyes the lawful successor to the crown. As fast as one these conspiracies was discovered, another seemed to form itself; and as the Catholics were promised powerful assistance from the King of Spain, and were urged forward by the impulse of enthusiasm, the danger appeared every day more and more imminent. It cannot be doubted that several of these plots were communicated to Mary in her imprisonment; and, considering what grounds she had to complain of Elizabeth, it would have been wonderful if she had betrayed to her jailer the schemes which were formed to set her at liberty. But these conspiracies coming so closely the one after the other, produced one of the most extraordinary laws that was ever passed in England; declaring, that if any rebellion, or any attempt against Queen Elizabeth’s person, should be meditated by, or for, any person pretending a right to the crown, the Queen might grant a commission to twenty-five persons, who should have power to examine into, and pass sentence upon, such offences; and after judgment given, a proclamation was to be issued, depriving the persons in whose behalf the plots or rebellion had been made, of all right to the throne; and it was enacted, that they might be prosecuted to the death. The hardship of this enactment consisted in its rendering Mary, against whom it was levelled, responsible for the deeds of others, as well as for her own actions; so that if the Catholic arose in rebellion, although without warrant from Mary, or even against her inclination, she was nevertheless rendered liable to lose her right of succession to the crown, and indeed to forfeit her life. Nothing short of the zeal of the English Government for the Reformed religion, and for the personal safety of Elizabeth, could have induced them to consent to a law so unjust and so oppressive.

This act was passed in 1585, and in the following year, a pretext was found for making it the ground of proceedings against Mary. Anthony Babington, a young gentleman of fortune and of talent, but a zealous Catholic, and a fanatical enthusiast for the cause of the Scottish Queen, had associated with himself five resolute friends and adherents, all men of condition, in the desperate enterprise of assassinating Queen Elizabeth, and setting Mary at liberty. But their schemes were secretly betrayed to Walsingham, the celebrated minister of the Queen of England. They were suffered to proceed as far as was thought safe, then seized, tried and executed.

It was next resolved upon, that Mary should be brought to trial for her life, under pretence of her having encouraged Babington and his companions in their desperate purpose. She was removed to the castle of Fotheringay, and placed under two keepers, Sir Amias Paulet and Sir Drew Drury, whose well-known hatred of the Catholic religion was supposed to render them inclined to treat their unfortunate captive with the utmost rigour. Her private cabinet was broken open and stripped of its contents, her most secret papers were seized upon and examined, her principal domestics were removed from her person, her money and her jewels were taken from her. Queen Elizabeth then proceeded to name Commissioners, in terms of the Act of Parliament which I have told you of. They were forty in number, of the most distinguished of her statesmen and nobility, and were directed to proceed to the trial of Mary for her alleged accession to Babington’s conspiracy.

On the 14th October, 1586, these Commissioners held their court in the great hall of Fotheringay castle. Mary, left to herself, and having counsel of no friend, advocate, or lawyer, made, nevertheless, a defence becoming her high birth and distinguished talents. She refused to plead before a court composed of person who were of a degree inferior to her own; and when at length she agreed to hear and answer the accusation brought against her, she made her protest that shi did so, not as owning the authority of the court, but purely in vindication of her own character. The attorney and solicitor for Queen Elizabeth stated the conspiracy of Babington, as it unquestionably existed, and produced copies of letters which Mary was alleged to have written, approving the insurrection, and even the assassination of Elizabeth. The declarations of Naue and Curle, two of Mary’s secretaries, went to confirm the fact of her having had correspondence with Babington, by intervention of a priest called Ballard. The confessions of Babington and his associates were then read, avowing Mary’s share in their criminal undertaking.

To these charges Mary answered, by denying that she ever had any correspondence with Ballard, or that she had ever written such letters as those produced against her. She insisted that she could only be affected by such writings as bore her own hand and seal, and not by copies. She urged that the declarations of her secretaries were given in private, and probably under the influence of fear of torture, or hope of reward, of which, indeed, there is every probability. Lastly, she pleaded that the confessions of the conspirators could not affect her, since they were infamous persons, dying for an infamous crime. It their evidence was designed to be used, they ought to have been pardoned, and brought forward in person, to bear witness against her. Mary admitted that, having for many years despaired of relief or favour from Queen Elizabeth, she had, in her distress, applied to other sovereigns, and that she had also endeavoured to procure some favour for the persecuted Catholics of England; but she denied that she had endeavoured to purchase liberty for herself, or advantage for the Catholics, at the expense of shedding the blood of any one; and declared, that if she had given consent in word, or even in thought, to the murder of Elizabeth, she was willing, not only to submit to the doom of men, but even to renounce the mercy of God.

The evidence which was brought to convict the Queen of Scotland was such as would not now affect the life of the meanest criminal; yet the Commission had the cruelty and meanness to declare Mary guilty of having been accessary to Babington’s conspiracy, and of having contrived and endeavoured the death of Queen Elizabeth, contrary to the statute made for security of the Queen’s life. And the Parliament of England approved of and ratified this iniquitous sentence. It was not perhaps to be expected that James VI should have had much natural affection for his mother, whom he had never seen since his infancy, and who had, doubtless, been represented to him as a very bad woman, and one desirous, if she could have obtained her liberty, of dispossessing him of the crown which he wore, and resuming it herself. He had, therefore, seen Mary’s captivity with little of the sympathy which a child ought to feel for a parent. But, upon learning these proceedings against her life, he must have been destitute of the most ordinary feelings of human nature, and would have made himself a reproach and scandal throughout all Europe, if he had not interfered in her behalf. He therefore sent ambassadors, first, Sir William Keith, and after him the Master of Gray, to intercede with Queen Elizabeth, and to use both persuasion and threats to preserve the life of his mother. The friendship of Scotland was at this moment of much greater importance to England than at any previous period of her history. The King of Spain was in the act of assembling a vast navy and army (boastingly called the Invincible Armada), by which he proposed to invade and conquer England; and if James VI had been disposed to open the ports and harbours of Scotland to the Spanish fleets and armies, he might have greatly facilitated this formidable invasion, by diminishing the risk which the Armada might incur from the English fleet. It therefore seems probable, that had James himself been very serious in his interposition, or had his ambassador been disposed to urge the interference committed to his charge with due firmness and vigour, it could scarce have failed in being successful, at least for a time. But the Master of Gray, as is now admitted, privately encouraged Elizabeth and her ministers to proceed in the cruel path they had chosen, and treacherously gave them reason to believe, that though, for the sake of decency, James found it necessary to interfere in his mother’s behalf, yet, in his secret mind, he would not be very sorry that Mary, who, in the eyes of a part of his subjects, was still regarded as sovereign of Scotland, should be quietly removed out of the way. From the intrigues of this treacherous ambassador, Elizabeth was led to trust that the resentment of the King for his mother’s death would neither be long nor violent; and, knowing her own influence with a great part of the Scottish nobility, and the zeal of the Scots in general for the Reformed religion, she concluded that the motives arising out of these circumstances would prevent James from making common cause against England with the King of Spain.

At any other period in the English history, it is probable that a sovereign attempting such an action as Elizabeth meditated, might have been interrupted by the generous and manly sense of justice and humanity peculiar to a free and high-minded people, like those of England. But the despotic reign of Henry VIII had too much familiarized the English with the sight of the blood of great persons, and even of Queens, poured forth by the blow of the executioner, upon the slightest pretexts; and the idea that Elizabeth’s life could not be in safety while Mary existed, was, in the deep sentiment of loyalty and affection which they entertained for their Queen (and which the general tenour of her reign well deserved), strong enough to render them blind to the gross injustice exercised upon a stranger and a Catholic.

Yet with all the prejudices of her subjects in her own favour, Elizabeth would fain have had Mary’s death take place in such a way as that she herself should not appear to have any hand in it. Her ministers were employed to write letters to Mary’s keepers, insinuating what a good service they would do to Elizabeth and the Protestant religion, if Mary could be privately assassinated. But these stern guardians, though strict and severe in their conduct towards the Queen, would not listen to such persuasions; and well was it for them that they did not, for Elizabeth would certainly have thrown the whole blame of the deed upon their shoulders, and left them to answer it with their lives and fortunes. She was angry with them, nevertheless, for their refusal, and called Paulet a precise fellow, loud in boasting of his fidelity, but slack in giving proof of it. As, however, it was necessary, from the scruples of Paulet and Drury, to proceed in all form, Elizabeth signed a warrant for the execution of the sentence pronounced on Queen Mary, and gave it to Davison, her secretary of state, commanding that it should be sealed with the great seal of England. Davison laid the warrant, signed by Elizabeth, before the Privy Council, and next day the great seal was placed upon it. Elizabeth, upon hearing this, affected some displeasure that the warrant had been so speedily prepared, and told the secretary that it was the opinion of wise men that some other course might be taken with Queen Mary. Davison, in this pretended change of mind, saw some danger that his mistress might throw the fault of the execution upon him after it had taken place. He therefore informed the Keeper of the Seals what the Queen had said, protesting he would not venture farther in the matter. The Privy Council, having met together, and conceiving themselves certain what were the Queen’s real wishes, determined to save her the pain of expressing them more broadly, and resolving that the blame, if any might arise, should common to them all, sent off the warrant for execution with their clerk Beale. The Earls of Kent and Shrewsbury, with the High Sheriff of the county, were empowered and commanded to see the fatal mandate carried into effect without delay. Mary received the melancholy intelligence with the utmost firmness. “The soul,” she said, “was undeserving of the joys of Heaven, which would shrink from the blow of an executioner. She had not,” she added, “expected that her kinswoman would have consented to her death, but submitted not the less willingly to her fate.” She earnestly requested the assistance of a priest; but this favour, which is granted to the worst criminals, and upon which Catholics lay particular weight, was cruelly refused. The Queen then wrote her last will, and short and affectionate letters of farewell to her relations in France. She distributed among her attendants such valuables as had been left her, and desired them to keep them for her sake. This occupied the evening before the day appointed for the fatal execution.

On the 8th February, 1587, the Queen, still maintaining the same calm and undisturbed appearance which she had displayed at her pretended trial, was brought down to the great hall of the castle, where a scaffold was erected, on which were placed a block and a chair, the whole being covered with black cloth. The Master of her Household, Sir Andrew Melville, was permitted to take a last leave of the mistress whom he had served long and faithfully. He burst into loud lamentations, bewailing her fate, and deploring his own in being destined to carry such news to Scotland. “Weep not, my good Melville,” said the Queen, “but rather rejoice; for thou shalt this day see Mary Stewart relieved from all her sorrows.” She obtained permission, with some difficulty, that her maids should be allowed to attend her on the scaffold. It was objected to, that the extravagance of their grief might disturb the proceedings; she engaged for them that they would be silent. When the Queen was seated in the fatal chair, she heard the death warrant read by Beale, the clerk to the Privy Council, with an appearance of indifference; nor did she seem more attentive to the devotional exercises of the Dean of Peterborough, in which, as a Catholic, she could not conscientiously join. She implored the mercy of Heaven, after the form prescribed by her own church. She then prepared herself for execution, taking off such parts of her dress as might interfere with the deadly blow. The executioners offered their assistance, but she modestly refused it, saying, she had neither been accustomed to undress before so many spectators, not to be served by such grooms of the chamber. She quietly chid her maids, who were unable to withhold their cries of lamentation, and reminded them that she had engaged for their silence. Last of all, Mary laid her head on the block, which the executioner severed from her body with two strokes of his axe. The headsman held it up in his hand, and the Dean of Peterborough cried out, “So perish all Queen Elizabeth’s enemies!” No voice, save that of the Earl Kent, could answer Amen: the rest were choked with sobs and tears.

Thus died Queen Mary, aged a little above forty-four years. She was eminent for beauty, for talents, and accomplishments, nor is there reason to doubt her natural goodness of heart, and courageous manliness of disposition. Yet she was, in every sense, one of he most unhappy Princesses that ever lived, from the moment when she came into the world, in an hour of defeat and danger, to that in which a bloody and violent death closed a weary captivity of eighteen years.

Queen Elizabeth, in the same spirit of hypocrisy which had characterised all her proceedings towards Mary, no sooner knew that the deed was done, than she hastened to deny her own share in it. She pretended, that Davison had acted positively against her command in laying the warrant before the Privy Council; and that she might seem the more serious in her charge, she caused him to be fined in a large sum of money, and deprived him of his office, and of her favour for ever. She sent a special ambassador to King James, to apologize for “this unhappy accident,” as she chose to term the execution of Queen Mary.

James at first testified high indignation, with which the Scottish nation was well disposed to sympathize. He refused to admit the English envoy to his presence, and uttered menaces of revenge. When a general mourning was ordered for the departed Queen, the Earl of Argyle appeared at the court in armour, as if that were the proper way of showing the national sense of the treatment which Mary had received. But James’s hopes and fears were now fixed upon the succession to the English crown, which would have been forfeited by engaging in a war with Elizabeth. Most of his ancestors, indeed, would have set that objection at defiance, and have broken into the English frontier at the head of as large an army as Scotland could raise; but James was by nature timorous and unwarlike. He was conscious, that the poor and divided country of Scotland was not fit, in its own strength, to encounter a kingdom so wealthy and so unanimous as England. On the other hand, if James formed an alliance with the Spanish monarch, he considered that he would probably have been deserted by the Reformed part of his subjects; and, besides, he was aware the Philip of Spain himself laid claim to the Crown of England; so that to assist that prince in his meditated invasion, would have been to rear up and important obstacle to the accomplishment of his own hopes of the English succession. James, therefore, gradually softening towards Queen Elizabeth, affected to believe the excuses which she offered; and in a short time, they were upon as friendly a footing as they had been before the death of the unfortunate Mary.

James was now in full possession of the Scottish kingdom, and showed himself to as much, or greater advantage, than at any subsequent period of his life. After the removal of the vile James Stewart from his counsels, he acted chiefly by the advice of Sir John Maitland, the Chancellor, a brother of that Maitland of Lethington whom we have so often mentioned. He was a prudent and good minister; and as it was James’s nature, in which there was a strange mixture of wisdom and of weakness, to act with sagacity, or otherwise, according to the counsels which he received, there now arose in Britain, and even in Europe, a more general respect for his character, than was afterwards entertained when it became better known. Besides, James’s reign in Scotland was marked with so many circumstances of difficulty, and even of danger, that he was placed upon his guard, and compelled to conduct himself with the strictest attention to the rules of prudence; for he had little chance of overawing his turbulent nobility, but by maintaining the dignity of the royal character. If the King had possessed the ability of distributing largesses among his powerful subjects, his influence would have been greater; but this was so far from being the case, that his means of supporting his royal state, excepting an annuity allowed to him by Elizabeth of five thousand pounds yearly, were in the last degree precarious. This was owing in a great measure to the plundering of the revenue of the crown during the civil wars of his minority, and the Regency of the Earl of Morton. The king was so dependent, that he could not even give an entertainment without begging poultry and venison from some of his more wealthy subjects; and his wardrobe was so ill furnished, that he was obliged to request the loan of a pair of silk hose from the Earl of Mar, that he might be suitably appareled to receive the Spanish ambassador. There were also peculiarities in James’s situation which rendered it embarrassing. He had extreme difficulty in his necessary intercourse with the Scottish clergy, who possessed a strong influence over the minds of the people, and sometimes used it in interference with publish affairs. Although they had not, like the bishops of England and other countries, a seat in Parliament, yet they did not the less intermeddle with politics, and often preached from the pulpit against the king and his measures. They used this freedom the more boldly, because they asserted that they were not answerable to any civil court for what they might say in their sermons, but only to the spiritual courts, as they were called; that is, the Synods and General Assemblies of the Church, composed chiefly of clergymen like themselves, and who, therefore, were not likely to put a check upon the freedom of speech used by their brethren. Upon one occasion, which occurred 17th December, 1596, disputes of this kind between of the King and the Church came to such a height, that the rabble of the city, inflamed by the violence of some of the sermons which they heard, broke out into tumult, and besieged the door of the Tolbooth, where James was sitting in the administration of justice, and threatened to break it open. The King was saved by the intervention of the better disposed part of the inhabitants, who rose in arms for his protection. Nevertheless he left Edinburgh the next day in great anger, and prepared to take away the privileges of the city, as a punishment for the insolence of the rioters. He was appeased with much difficulty, and, as it seemed, was by no means entirely satisfied; for he caused the High Street to be occupied by a great number of the Border and Highland clans. The citizens, terrified by the appearance of these formidable and lawless men, concluded that the town was to be plundered, and the alarm was very great. But the King, who only desired to frighten them, made the magistrates a long harangue upon the excesses of which he complained, and admitted them to pardon upon their submission.

Another great plague of James the Sixth’s reign, was the repeated insurrections of a turbulent nobleman, called Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, — a different person, of course, from James Hepburn, who bore that title in the reign of Queen Mary. This second Earl of Bothwell was a relation of the King’s, and made several violent attempts to get possession of his person, with the purpose of governing the state, as the Douglasses of old, by keeping the King prisoner. But although he nearly succeeded on one or two occasions, yet James was always rescued from his hands, and was finally powerful enough to banish Bothwell altogether from the country. He died in contempt and exile.

But by far the greatest pest of Scotland at that time, was the deadly feuds among the nobility and gentry, which eventually led to the most bloody consequences, and were perpetuated from father to son; while the King’s good-nature, which rendered him very ready to grant pardons to those who had committed such inhuman outrages, made the evil still more frequent. The following is a remarkable instance:— The Earl of Huntly, head of the powerful family of Gordon, and the man of greatest consequence in the North of Scotland, had chanced to have some feudal differences with the Earl of Murray, son-in-law of the Regent-earl of the same name, in the course of which, John Gordon, a brother of Gordon of Cluny, was killed by a shot from Murray’s castle of Darnoway. This was enough to make the two families irreconcilable enemies, even if they had been otherwise on friendly terms. Murray was so handsome and personable a man, that he was generally known by the name of the Bonnie Earl of Murray. About 1561–2, an accusation was brought against Murray, for having given some countenance or assistance to Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, in a recent treasonable exploit. James, without recollecting, perhaps, the hostility between the two earls, sent Huntly with a commission to bring the Earl of Murray to his presence. Huntly probably rejoiced in the errand, as giving him an opportunity of avenging himself on his feudal enemy. He beset the house of Dunnibirsel, on the northern side of the Forth, and summoned Murray to surrender. In reply, a gun was fired, which mortally wounded one of the Gordons. The assailants proceeded to set fire to the house; when Dunbar, Sheriff of the county of Moray, said to the earl, “Let us not stay to be burned in the flaming house; I will go out foremost, and the Gordons, taking me for your lordship, will kill me, while you escape in the confusion.” They rushed out among their enemies accordingly, and Dunbar was slain. But his death did not save his friend, as he had generously intended. Murray indeed escaped for the moment, but as he fled towards the rocks by the sea-shore, he was traced by the silken tassels attached to his headpiece, which had taken fore as he broke out from among the flames. By this means the pursuers followed him down amongst the cliffs near the sea, and Gordon of Buckie, who is said to have been the first that overtook him, wounded him mortally. As Murray was gasping in the last agony, Huntly came up; and it is alleged by tradition, that Gordon pointed his dirk against the person of his chief, saying, “By Heaven, my lord, you shall be as deep in as I,” and so compelled him to wound Murray whilst he was dying. Huntly, with a wavering hand, struck the expiring earl on the face. Thinking of his superior beauty, even in that moment of parting life, Murray stammered out the dying words, “You have spoiled a better face than your own.” After this deed of violence, Huntly did not choose to return to Edinburgh, but departed for the North. He took refuge for the moment in the castle of Ravenscraig, belonging to the Lord Sinclair, who told him, with a mixture of Scottish caution and Scottish hospitality, that he was welcome to come in, but would have been twice as welcome to have passed by. Gordon of Buckie, when a long period had elapsed, avowed his contrition for the guilt he had incurred.

Soon afterwards, three lords, the Earls of Huntly and Errol, who had always professed the Catholic religion, and the young Earl of Angus, who had become a convert to that faith, were accused of corresponding with the King of Spain, and of designing to introduce Spanish troops into Scotland for the restoration of the Catholic religion. The story which was told of this conspiracy does not seem very probable. However, the King ordered the Earl of Argyle to march against the Popish lords, with the northern forces of Lord Forbes and others, who were chiefly Protestants, and entered into the war with the religious emulation which divided the Reformers from the Catholics. Argyle likewise levied great bands of the Western Highlanders, who cared but little about religion, but were extremely desirous of plunder. The army of Argyle, about ten thousand strong, encountered the forces of Huntly and Errol at Glenlivat, on the 3d of October, 1594. The shock was very smart. But the Gordons and Hays, though far inferior in numbers, were gentlemen, well mounted, and completely armed, and the followers of Argyle had only their plaids and bonnets. Besides, the two earls had two or three pieces of cannon, of which the Highlanders, unaccustomed to any thing of the kind, were very apprehensive. The consequence of the encounter was, that though the cavalry had to charge up a hill, encumbered with rocks and stones, and although the Highlanders fought with great courage, the small body of Huntly and Errol, not amounting to above fifteen hundred horse, broke, and dispersed with great loss, the numerous host opposed to them. On the side of Argyle there was some treachery; the Grants, it is said, near neighbours, and some of them dependents, of the Gordons, joined their old friends in the midst of the fray. The Chief of MacLean and his followers defended themselves with great courage, but were at length completely routed. This was one of the occasions on which the Highland irregular infantry were found inferior to the compact charge of the cavaliers of the Lowland counties, with their long lances, who beat them down, and scattered them in every direction. Upon learning Argyle’s defeat, the King himself advanced into the north with a small army, and restored tranquillity by punishing the insurgent earls.

We have before mentioned, that in those wild days the very children had their deadly feuds, carried weapons, and followed the bloody example of their fathers. The following instance of their early ferocity occurred in September, 1595. The scholars of the High School of Edinburgh, having a dispute with their masters about the length of their holidays, resolved to stand out for a longer vacation. Accordingly, they took possession of the school in that sort of mutinous manner, which in England is called Barring-out, and resisted the admission of the masters. Such foolish things have often occurred in public schools elsewhere; but what was peculiar to the High School boys of Edinburgh was, that they defended the school with sword and pistol, and when Bailie MacMorran, one of the magistrates, gave directions to force the entrance, three of the boys fired, and killed him on the spot. There were none of them punished, because it was alleged that it could not be known which of them did the deed; but rather because two of them were gentlemen’s sons. So you see the bloodthirsty spirit of the times descended even to children.

To do justice to James VI, he adopted every measure in his power to put an end to these fatal scenes of strife and bloodshed. Wise laws were made for preventing the outrages which had been so general; and in order to compose the feuds amongst the nobles, James invited the principal lords, who had quarrels, to a great banquet, where he endeavoured to make them agree together, and caused them to take each other’s hands and become friends on the spot. They obeyed him; and proceeding himself at their head, he made them walk in procession to the Cross of Edinburgh, still hand in hand, in token of perfect reconciliation, whilst the provost and magistrates danced before them for joy, to see such a prospect of peace and concord. Perhaps this reconciliation was too hasty to last long in every instance; but upon the whole, the authority of the law gradually gained strength, and the passions of men grew less fierce as it became more unsafe to indulge them.

I must now fulfil my promise, and in this place, tell you of another exploit on the Borderers, the last that was performed there, but certainly not the least remarkable for valour and conduct.

The English and Scottish Wardens, or their deputies, had held a day of truce for settling Border disputes, and, having parted friends, both, with their followers, were returning home. At every such meeting it was the general rule on the Borders that there should be an absolute truce for twenty-four hours, and that all men who attended the Warden on either side to the field should have permission to ride home again undisturbed. Now, there had come to the meeting, with other Border men, a notorious depredator, called William Armstrong, but more commonly known by the name of Kinmont Willie. This man was riding home on the north or Scottish side of the Liddell, where the stream divides England and Scotland, when some of the English who had enmity against him, or had suffered by his incursions, were unable to resist the temptation to attack him. They accordingly dashed across the river, pursued Kinmont Willie more than a mile within Scotland, made him prisoner, and brought him to Carlisle castle.

As the man talked boldly and resolutely about the breach of truce in his person, and demanded peremptorily to be set at liberty, Lord Scrope told him, scoffingly, that before he left the castle he should bid him “farewell,” meaning, that he should not go without his leave. The prisoner boldly answered, “that he would not go without bidding him good-night.”

The Lord of Buccleuch, who was Warden, or Keeper, of Liddesdale, demanded the restoration of Kinmont Willie to liberty, and complained of his being taken and imprisoned as a breach of the Border-laws, and an insult done to himself. Lord Scrope refused, or at least evaded, giving up his prisoner. Buccleuch then sent him a challenge, which Lord Scrope declined to accept, on the ground of his employment in the public service. The Scottish chief, therefore, resolved to redress by force the insult which his country, as well as himself, had sustained on the occasion. He collected about three hundred of his best men, and made a sight march to Carlisle castle. A small party of chosen men dismounted, while the rest remained on horseback, to repel any attack from the town. The night being misty and rainy, the party to whom that duty was committed approached the foot of the walls, and tried to scale them by means of ladders which they had brought with them for the purpose. But the ladders were found too short. They then, with mining instruments which they had provided, burst open a postern, or wicket-door, and entered the castle. Their chief had given them strict orders to do no harm save to those who opposed them, so that the few guards, whom the alarm brought together, were driven back without much injuring. Being masters of the castle, the trumpets of the Scottish Warden were then blown, to the no small terror of the inhabitants of Carlisle, surprised out of their quiet sleep by the sounds of invasion at so early an hour. The bells of the castle rang out; those of the Cathedral and Moot-hall answered; drums beat to arms; and beacons were lighted, to alarm the warlike country around. In the meanwhile, the Scottish party had done the errand they came for. They had freed Kinmont Willie from his dungeon. The first thing Armstrong did was to shout a good-night to Lord Scrope, asking him, at the same time, if he had any news for Scotland. The Borderers strictly obeyed the commands of their chief, in forbearing to take any booty. They returned from the castle, bringing with them their rescued countryman, and a gentleman named Spenser, an attendant on the constable of the castle. Buccleuch dismissed him with his commendations to Salkeld the constable, whom he esteemed, he said, a better gentleman than Lord Scrope, bidding him say it was the Warden of Liddesdale who had done the exploit, and praying the constable, if he desired the name of a man of honour, to issue forth and seek a revenge. Buccleuch then ordered the retreat, which he performed with great leisure, and reentered Scotland at sunrise in honour and safety. “There had never been a more gallant deed of vassalage done in Scotland,” says an old historian, “no, not in Wallace’s days.” Queen Elizabeth, as you may imagine, was dreadfully angry at this insult, and demanded that Buccleuch should be delivered up to the English, as he had committed so great an aggression upon their frontier during the time of peace. The matter was laid before the Scottish Parliament. King James himself pleaded the question on the part of Elizabeth, willing, it may be supposed, to recommend himself to that Princess by his tameness and docility. The Secretary of State replied in defence of Buccleuch; and the Scottish Parliament finally voted that they would refer the question to commissioners, to be chosen for both nations, and would abide by their decision. But concerning the proposed surrender of Buccleuch to England, the President declared, with a loud voice, that it would be time enough for Buccleuch to go to England when the King should pass there in person. Buccleuch finally ended the discussion by going to England at the King’s personal request, and on the understanding that no evil was to be done to him. Queen Elizabeth desired to see him personally, and demanded of him how he dared commit such aggression on her territory. He answered undauntedly, that he knew not that thing which a man dared not do. Elizabeth admired the answer, and treated this powerful Border chief with distinction during the time he remained in England, which was not long.

But the strangest adventure of James’s reign was the event called the Gowrie Conspiracy, over which there hangs a sort of mystery, which time has not even yet completely dispelled. You must recollect that there was an Earl of Gowrie condemned and executed, when James was but a boy. This nobleman left two sons, bearing the family name of Ruthven, who were well educated abroad, and accounted hopeful young men. The King restored to the eldest the title and estate of Gowrie, and favoured them both very much. Now, it chanced in the month of August, 1600, that Alexander Ruthven, the younger of the two brothers, came early one morning to the King, who was then hunting in the Park of Falkland, and told him a story of his having seized a suspicious-looking man, a Jesuit, as he supposed, with a large pot of gold under his cloak. This man Ruthven said he had detained prisoner at his brother’s house, in Perth, till the King should examine him, and take possession of the treasure. With this story he decoyed James from the hunting-field, and persuaded him to ride with him to Perth, without any other company than a few noblemen and attendants, who followed the King without orders. When they arrived at Perth, they entered Gowrie-house, the mansion of the Earl, a large massive building, having gardens which stretched down to the river Tay. The Earl of Gowrie was, or seemed surprised, to see the King arrive so unexpectedly, and caused some entertainment to be hastily prepared for his Majesty’s refreshment. After the King had dined, Alexander Ruthven pressed him to come with him to see the prisoner in private; and James, curious by nature, and sufficiently indigent to be inquisitive after money, followed him from one apartment to another, until Ruthven led him into a little turret, where there stood — not a prisoner with a pot of gold — but an armed man, prepared, as it seemed, for some violent enterprise.

The King started back, but Ruthven snatched the dagger which the man wore, and pointing it to James’s breast, reminded him of his father the Earl of Gowrie’s death, and commanded him, upon pain of death, to submit to his pleasure. The King replied that he was but a boy when the Earl of Gowrie suffered, and upbraided Ruthven with ingratitude. The conspirator, moved by remorse or some other reason, assured the King that his life should be safe, and left him in the turret with the armed man, who, not very well selected to aid in a purpose so desperate, stood shaking in his armour, without assisting either his master or the King.

Let us now see what was passing below, during this strange scene betwixt the King and Ruthven. The attendants of James had begun to wonder at his absence, when they were suddenly informed by a servant of the Earl of Gowrie, that the King had mounted his horse, and had set out on his return to Falkland. The noblemen and attendants rushed into the courtyard of the mansion, and called for their horses, the Earl of Gowrie at the same time hurrying them away. Here the porter interfered, and said the King could not have left the house, since he had not passed the gate, of which he had the keys. Gowrie, on the other hand, called the man a liar, and insisted that the King had departed. While the attendants of James knew not what to think, a half smothered, yet terrified voice, was heard to scream from the window of a turret above their heads, — “Help! Treason! Help! my Lord of Mar!” They looked upwards, and beheld James’s face in great agitation pushed through the window, while a hand was seen grasping his throat, as if some one behind endeavoured by violence to draw him back.

The explanation was as follows:— The King, when left alone with the armed man, had, it seems, prevailed upon him to open the lattice window. This was just done when Alexander Ruthven again entered the turret, and, swearing that there was no remedy, but the King must needs die, he seized on him, and endeavoured by main force to tie his hands with a garter. James resisted, in the extremity of despair, and dragging Ruthven to the window, now open, called out to his attendants in the manner was have described. His retinue hastened to his assistance. The greater part ran to the principal staircase, of which they found the doors shut, and immediately endeavoured to force them open. Mean time a page of the King’s, called Sir John Ramsay, discovered a back stair which led him to the turret, where Ruthven and the King were still struggling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven twice with his dagger, James calling to him to strike light, as he had a doublet of proof on him. Ramsay then thrust Ruthven, now mortally wounded, towards the private staircase, where he was met by Sir Thomas Erskine and Sir Hugh Herries, two of the royal attendants, who despatched him with their swords. His last words were, — “Alas! I am not to blame for this action.” This danger was scarcely over, when the Earl of Gowrie entered the outer chamber, with a drawn sword in each hand, followed by seven attendants, demanding vengeance for the death of his brother. The King’s followers, only four in number, thrust James, for the safety of his person, back into the turret-closet, and shut the door; and then engaged in a conflict, which was the more desperate, that they fought four to eight, and Herries was a lame and disabled man. But Sir John Ramsay having run the Earl of Gowrie through the heart, he dropped dead without speaking a word, and his servants fled. The doors of the great staircase were now opened to the nobles, who were endeavouring to force their way to the King’s assistance.

In the mean time a new peril threatened the King and his few attendants. The slain Earl of Gowrie was provost of the town of Perth, and much beloved by the citizens. On hearing what had happened, they ran to arms, and surrounded the mansion house, where this tragedy had been acted, threatening, that if their provost were not delivered to them safe and sound, the King’s green coat should pay for it. Their violence was at last quieted by the magistrates of the town, and the mob were prevailed on to disperse.

The object of this strange conspiracy is one of the darkest in history, and what made it stranger, the armed man who was stationed in the turret could throw no light upon it. He proved to be one Henderson, steward to the Earl of Gowrie, who had been ordered to arm himself for the purpose of taking a Highland thief, and was posted in the turret by Alexander Ruthven, without any intimation what he was to do; so that the whole scene came upon him by surprise. The mystery seemed to impenetrable, and so much of the narrative rested upon James’s own testimony, that many persons of that period, and even some historians of our own day, have thought that it was not a conspiracy of the brothers against the King, but of the King against the brothers; and that James, having taken a dislike to them, had contrived the bloody scene, and then thrown the blame on the Ruthvens, who suffered in it. But, besides the placability and gentleness of James’s disposition, and besides the consideration that no adequate motive can be assigned, or even conjectured, for his perpetrating such an inhospitable murder, it ought to be remembered that the King was naturally timorous, and could not even look at a drawn sword without shuddering; so that it is contrary to all reason and probability to suppose that he could be the deviser of a scheme, in which his life was repeatedly exposed to the most imminent danger. However, many of the clergy refused to obey James’s order to keep a day of solemn thanksgiving for the King’s deliverance, intimating, without hesitation, that they greatly doubted the truth of his story. One of them being pressed by the King very hard, said —— “That doubtless he must believe it, since his majesty said he had seen it; but that, had he seen it himself, he would not have believed his own eyes.” James was much vexed with this incredulity, for it was hard not to obtain credit after having been in so much danger.

Nine years after the affair, some light was thrown upon the transaction by one Sprot, a notary-public, who, out of mere curiosity, had possessed himself of certain letters, said to have been written to the Earl of Gowrie by Robert Logan of Restalrig, a scheming, turbulent, and profligate man. In these papers, allusion was repeatedly made to the death of Gowrie’s father, to the revenge which was meditated, and to the execution of some great and perilous enterprise. Lastly, there was intimation that the Ruthvens were to bring a prisoner by sea to Logan’s fortress of Fastcastle, a very strong and inaccessible tower, overhanging the sea, on the coast of Berwickshire. This place he recommends as suitable for keeping some important prisoner in safety and concealment, and adds, he had kept Bothwell there in his utmost distresses, let the King and his council say what they would.

All these expressions seem to point at a plot, not affecting the King’s life, but his personal liberty, and make it probable, that when Alexander Ruthven had frightened the King into silence and compliance, the brothers intended to carry him through the gardens, and put him on board of a boat, and so conveying him down the frith of Tay, might, after making a private signal, which Logan alludes to, place their royal prisoner in security at Fastcastle. The seizing upon the person of the King was a common enterprise among the Scottish nobles, and the father of the Ruthvens had lost his life for such an attempt. Adopting this as their intention, it is probable that Queen Elizabeth was privy to the attempt; and perhaps having found so much conveniency from detaining the person of Mary in captivity, she might have formed some similar plan for obtaining the custody of her son. I must not conclude this story without observing, that Logan’s bones were brought into a court of justice, for the purpose of being tried after death, and that he was declared guilty, and a sentence of forfeiture pronounced against him. But it has not been noticed that Logan, a dissolute and extravagant man, was deprived of great part of his estate before his death, and that the King, therefore, could have no lucrative object in following out this ancient and barbarous form of process. The fate of Sprot, the notary, was singular enough. He was condemned to be hanged for keeping these treasonable letters in his possession, without communicating them to the government; and he suffered death accordingly, asserting to the last that the letters were genuine, and that he had only preserved them from curiosity. This fact he testified even in the agonies of death; for, being desired to give a sign of the truth and sincerity of his confession, after he was thrown off from the ladder, he is said to have clapped his hands three times. Yet some persons continued to think, that what Sprot told was untrue, and that the letters were forgeries; but it seems great incredulity to doubt the truth of a confession, which brought to the gallows the who made it; and, of late years, the letters produced by Sprot are regarded as genuine by the best judges of these matters. When so admitted, they render it evident that the purpose of the Gowrie conspiracy was to make King James a prisoner in the remote and inaccessible tower of Fastcastle, and perhaps ultimately to deliver him up to Queen Elizabeth.

We now approach the end of this collection of Tales. King James VI of Scotland married the daughter of the King of Denmark, called Anne of Denmark. They had a family, which recommended them very much to the English people, who were tired of seeing their crown pass from one female to another, without any prospect of male succession. They began, therefore, to turn their eyes towards James as the nearest heir of King Henry VIII, and the rightful successor, when Queen Elizabeth should fail. She was now old, her health broken, and her feelings painfully agitated by the death of Essex, her principal favourite. After his execution, she could scarcely be said ever to enjoy either health or reason. She sat on a pile of cushions, with her finger in her mouth, attending, as it seemed, to nothing, saving to the prayers which were from time to time read in her chamber. While the Queen of England was thus struggling out the last moments of life, her subjects were making interest with her successor, James, with whom even Cecil himself, the Prime Minister of England, had long kept up a secret correspondence. The breath had no sooner left Elizabeth’s body, than the near relation and godson of the late Queen, Sir Robert Carey, got on horseback, and, travelling with a rapidity which almost equalled that of the modern mail-coach, carried to the Palace of Holyrood the news, that James was King of England, France, and Ireland, as well as of his native dominions of Scotland. James arrived in London on the 7th of May, 1603, and took possession of his new realms without the slightest opposition; and thus the island of Great Britain, so long divided into the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland, became subject to the same prince. Here, therefore, must end the Tales of your Grandfather, so far as they relate to the History of Scotland, considered as a distinct and separate kingdom.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00