Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 12 : The Fall of Huntly

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing between two of Mary’s other nobles. The oldest son of the Earl of Huntly, Lord John Gordon, had become involved in a feud with Lord Ogilvie. During a street-fight in Edinburgh, Gordon wounded Ogilvie. He was arrested and imprisoned, but escaped and fled to his father’s vast territories in the Highlands.

Despite Huntly being the most powerful Catholic earl in Scotland, as well as her cousin, Mary had declined to take advantage of his offers of restoring the Mass – partly because he had flagrantly disobeyed Marie of Guise, and partly because he had a reputation for being untrustworthy and unreliable. More pertinently to Lord James, Huntly had been holding the earldom of Moray, which Mary had vested in Lord James as his wedding present, although the grant had not yet been made public.

Provoked by John Gordon, and encouraged by Lord James, Mary marched north in a combined hunting progress and show of royal authority, to take hold of John Gordon. She must show that not even the Earl of Huntly and his sons were above the law. It was in Huntly’s hands to show obedience to the queen, and be left in peace, or to protect his son and provoke royal wrath.

The Countess of Huntly pleaded for her son’s pardon. Mary responded that she could make no decision on that whilst the miscreant was still wandering free. He gave himself up, and returned to prison, but almost immediately broke out again, and raised a fighting force, in hope of abducting the queen.

Mary, to show her displeasure, and avoid Huntly territory, declined an invitation to visit the Huntly seat at Strathbogie, instead passing into Moray, where, at Darnaway Castle, she announced the vesting of the earldom of Moray in Lord James.  On her return south, Alexander, another of the Gordon sons, refused the queen admittance to her own castle at Inverness. Huntly, realising that he would have no support from his fellow Highlanders against the queen, sent him orders to surrender the castle. Alexander and his men were promptly hanged.

The queen enjoyed her stay in the Highlands, and was much feted by the other nobles based there, although Lord John Gordon was still harassing her train, with guerrilla attacks. Mary called for a force of soldiers and demanded that Huntly surrender his cannon. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the matter ended in armed confrontation at the Battle of Corrichie. Mary’s forces won the day. Huntly dropped dead of a heart attack, and many of his clan were killed.

Huntly’s embalmed corpse was tried in front of Mary and Parliament in May 1563 and found guilty of treason. Lord John was executed, badly, in front of Mary herself, who was so traumatised by the sight that she took to her bed. Two of Huntly’s other sons were spared, and eventually restored in blood, but the great earldom was largely broken up, to the benefit of Moray. In the long-term, this made Mary’s reliance on her half-brother too great – if their interests ceased to coincide, only trouble could result.

On her return to Edinburgh, Mary was again plagued by a man who fancied himself in love with her. A young French nobleman, Pierre de Châtelard, secreted himself in her bedchamber. The first time, he was discovered and thrown out before the queen entered the room, but the second time he burst in on her. Her shouts led to Moray racing to her rescue. The foolish young man was tried and executed. It was rumoured that, far from being the actions of a deranged stalker, Châtelard was part of a plot to discredit the queen, but there is no proof either way.