James Melville: Links in a Chain

The word ‘networking’ in the modern sense of expanding your influence by building relationships with a range of people who can support you, was not used in the sixteenth century. The concept, however, was at the heart of all political and family life.

No matter what stratum of society you were born into, the links of kinship and mutual obligation were cherished and reinforced, where possible, by marriage. It was expected that you would do a good turn for a family member, or someone recommended to you, and the recipient of your help, would, in turn, help you, or your family.

Similarly, if you quarrelled with someone, your ‘affinity’ would be expected to quarrel too, leading to feuds lasting for generations.

In a small society, such as that of the Scottish Court, repeated intermarriages created a web of complex familial and patronage links. Without understanding these kinships, it can be very difficult to understand why certain factions coalesced or fought. Matters became even more complex in the mid-sixteenth century with the advent of the Reformation, which added a layer of religious agreement or dissent over old connections.

James Melville was no exception to the rule, and he was linked to many of the central players involved in the politics of the English and Scottish courts.

Starting with his family of birth, Melville had five brothers who survived to adulthood: John, Robert, David, William and Andrew, as well as three sisters. All six of the brothers had royal appointments. Robert and Andrew were both Masters of the Household to Queen Mary and James VI, William, served the Prince of Orange, and Robert was also a long-serving ambassador at the English court. Andrew’s first wife, Lady Jane Kennedy, was drowned in the storms that prevented the arrival of Anne of Denmark, and gave rise to the witchcraft trial of North Berwick. Lady Jane was probably the same Lady Jane Kennedy who attended Mary, Queen of Scots to her execution.

Both Robert and Andrew remained faithful to Queen Mary. Robert was besieged with other members of the Queen’s Party in Edinburgh Castle, as Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange held out against the Regents Moray, Lennox, Mar and Morton. It is likely that Kirkcaldy was, in fact the Melvilles’ brother-in-law, married to their sister Janet.

It seems straightforward, therefore, to assume that the Melvilles all supported the Queen’s Party, but there were complications. Another sister, Margaret, was married to Lord Elphinstone, and he was a supporter of the Earl of Morton. When Morton was banished, following the murder of David Rizzio, in which he played a prominent part, Margaret asked Melville to plead for him.

More difficult to define were the relationships that Melville had with members of the English court.During his youth in France, a cohort of young, Protestant, Englishmen was also there, having gone into voluntary exile when Mary I came to the throne. Henri II of France, although quite as Catholic as Mary I, could not resist the opportunity to undermine the Queen of England by harbouring her enemies.

Amongst these young men who became friends of Melville were Nicholas Throckmorton of Coughton, and Henry Killigrew of Arwenack. Both Melville and his brother Robert became very close to Killigrew, and it is possible that Melville was married to one of his sisters. Killigrew himself was married to Katherine Cooke, whose sister, Mildred, was the wife of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Melville therefore had close contact, if not a family connection, with Queen Mary’s most implacable enemy. Killigrew was so close to Cecil and Elizabeth, that he was the only one entrusted with their plan to hand Mary back to her Lords with a view to her being tried (and almost certainly executed) in Scotland.

Nicholas Throckmorton, senior to Killigrew in France, also played a role in Scottish politics. A cousin of Queen Katherine Parr, he was a strong adherent of the Reformed faith, yet he favoured Mary, Queen of Scots' right to succeed Elizabeth. Perhaps changing his mind, when Mary was deposed, he recommended Elizabeth support the rebel lords, but was later implicated in the Duke of Norfolk’s plan to marry Mary.

Thomas Randolph was another friend of Melville’s from the time Melville spent on the continent – they probably met in Germany, when Melville was in the service of the Elector Palatine, and Randolph was an English envoy. Randolph was trusted by the Protestant party in Scotland and had good relations with the Queen’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, who, although relied on by the Queen initially was certainly plotting behind her back, involved in both the murder of Rizzio, and the planning behind the death of Darnley. Melville and Randolph quarrelled when it appeared that Randolph was threatening to burn Melville’s mother’s land, in retaliation for attacks on the Regent Morton.

Another layer of obfuscation about motives and connections is added when the relationships between the various Regents of Scotland are considered. James Hamilton, Duke of Chatelherault (formerly the Earl of Arran) was considered to be the Queen’s heir before the birth of her son. He was hated by his distant cousin, Lennox, who considered he had a greater right to the throne. When Lennox’ son, Darnley, married the Queen, the Lennox star appeared to be rising.

On Darnley’s death, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, who was formerly brother-in-law to George Gordon, Earl of Huntly. Huntly and Moray were at daggers drawn, even though Huntly’s wife was the aunt of Moray’s wife.

Moray was half-brother to Morton’s wife, who was Chatelherault’s sister-in-law. Moray was also nephew to John Erskine, Earl of Mar, who successeded Lennox as Regent. Lennox’ wife, Lady Margaret Douglas, hated Morton, her first cousin, because her father’s earldom of Angus had been bequeathed to his branch of the family…

These entangled relationships are just the tip of the iceberg – but it is quite impossible to understand what was going on in the politics of England and Scotland without knowing about these convoluted links. There were as well, all the usual human factors of affection, dislike, distrust and greed to mystify matters further.