Chapter 11 : The Overthrow of Huntly
Meanwhile, Huntly, who was at Inverness nursing a sore leg (if not wounded pride over the Earldom of Moray) was pleased to hear that his son, Lord John Gordon, had escaped from prison. Lord John was being held after wounding James, 5th Lord Ogilvy in a duel. This event may have contributed to Mary’s desire to show her northern earl that the Crown was in charge, and must be obeyed. She decided to make a progress to the north of the country.
Mary, accompanied by James, Maitland, and the English Ambassador, Randolph, reached Aberdeen in mid-August, where they met Huntly and his countess (who was the aunt of James’ wife and reputed to indulge in witchcraft). Mary demanded that they return Lord John to imprisonment at Stirling, but Huntly dragged his feet whilst John, with a force of 1,000 horse, harried the Queen’s train, and made no secret of the fact that he intended to abduct her.
The Queen showed her displeasure (and perhaps caution in the face of the threat of abduction) by refusing to visit Huntly at his main castle of Strathbogie.She was within four miles of the place when she turned back. This was a very severe mark of displeasure in a society where the sovereign’s presence conferred power and prestige on her host. Instead, she headed for Darnaway Castle (once the home of James IV’s mistress, Lady Janet Kennedy) and publicly announced the grant of the Earldom of Moray to James. James then resigned the Earldom of Mar to his cousin, Lord Erskine, who had a very good claim to it.
Moving on to Inverness, which was a royal castle, Mary’s party was refused entry by the keeper, Lord Alexander Gordon, another Huntly’s other sons. Despite Huntly’s position as almost-king in the north, not all of his clan were prepared to support open treason, and he hurriedly sent a message to Lord Alexander to admit the Queen. In a show of authority, Mary had Alexander hanged from the castle battlements but John Gordon was still at large and threatening the Queen.
Mary, conferring with Moray (as we will now refer to James) decided to send for troops and commanded Huntly to prove his loyalty by surrendering the cannon he kept at Strathbogie.
Huntly was now in a cleft stick – he could give in and lose his power in the north, or he could rebel.He offered to help Mary track down his son John, provided he could bring his own troops, but the Queen was too cautious to believe that that would end well.
Egged on by Lady Huntly, the Earl finally marched towards the Queen with a force of around 1,000 men. He was confronted and vanquished by the royal army of some 2,000, led by Moray, together with the Earls of Atholl and Morton at the Battle of Corrichie on 25th October 1562.Huntly himself fell dead from his saddle, presumably of a stroke – he was a heavy, unhealthy man, although only in his late forties.In a ritual that makes modern stomachs turn, the Earl’s embalmed body was sent south and, propped up in a chair, he was found guilty in Parliament of treason, in the presence of the Queen, and all his lands and titles were forfeited.Lord John was captured and hanged, also in front of the Queen, who was physically traumatised by the spectacle.
Moray came out of the affair very profitably – he received Huntly’s sherriffdoms in Elgin, Inverness and Forres, and had dispatched one of the greatest threats to increased Protestant domination of Scotland.
By 1563, Mary was feeling confident in her rule. She had shown that she would not tolerate treason, by Catholics or Protestants, and she had kept her promise to accept the religious settlement of 1560.She had worked well with Moray and Maitland and won golden opinions from most people who met her.Moray himself could feel confident that his half-sister would continue to follow his advice, and that his path to increased riches and power would carry on smoothly.Alas for him, it became apparent over the following two years that Mary was only willing to accept Moray as her chief adviser so long as their interests aligned. Once her plans deviated from his, she would strike her own path, and would no more tolerate his disobedience, than she would that of Huntly.