James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 14 : Treason & Murder

During the 1590s, James had to deal with several nobles who were fomenting rebellion, treason, and assassination as well as witchcraft. The ringleaders of the various plots were the Earl of Huntly and the Earl of Bothwell.

Following James’ forgiveness of Huntly mentioned above, he, together with his confederate, Errol, had continued to correspond with Spain. Not content with this, he arranged the murder of the Earl of Moray (son-in-law of the Regent Moray). Moray was a Protestant and extremely popular – ‘the bonny Earl of Moray ’ - although not with James, who disliked him. There were also rumours that Queen Anne was fonder of Moray than she ought to have been, which, in the first flush of marriage, James might have resented.

Huntly and Moray had been feuding for years (no doubt in part because of the history of their fathers covered in the Life Story of the Regent Moray). James decided that he would try to reconcile the two and Moray was invited to Dunbirsle Castle in Fife. Before any attempt at reconciliation could be made (if that were James’ real intention), Huntly had left the King’s hunting party, on the excuse that he was searching for associates of the outlawed Earl of Bothwell. He then set fire to Dunbirsle with Moray and his men inside. With the flames raging all around him, Moray ran out of the castle to the shore, where he was butchered by Huntly and his men. It was widely believed that James had been party to the plot.

Huntly gave himself up, amidst cries for vengeance from Moray’s mother, the Kirk and the Protestant party. James again showed a level of leniency that was wholly out of keeping with his duty as a monarch and brought down rebukes from Queen Elizabeth, who pointed out that no good could come of petting Catholics.

Meanwhile, Bothwell was at large, and as a Protestant, he was championed by the Kirk, although his association with witchcraft and his general propensity to lawlessness gave him the character of ‘a sanctified plague’ in the words of one minister, sent to keep James on the path of Protestantism.

The murder of Moray, who was Bothwell’s cousin, did not discourage Bothwell from treasonable acts. He made an attack on Falkland Palace where James and Anne were staying and was only beaten off after a seven hour siege. The next time, James was not so lucky. On 24 th July 1593, Bothwell broke into the royal bedchamber. Fearing for his life, James agreed to pardon all Bothwell’s crimes, including the charges of witchcraft, for which he had been condemned. For the next few months, James had the humiliation of being surrounded by Bothwell’s men (the Earl himself agreed to withdraw from court) whilst he pretended that all was well.

In due course however, James managed, yet again, to persuade the moderate nobles to support him, and he escaped from Bothwell’s clutches. Bothwell continued to make trouble, but when an assault on Edinburgh was defeated, his support from England ceased. James appeared to have the upper hand, until Bothwell, in a surprising volte-face that lost him the support of the Kirk, joined forces with Huntly, who together with Errol, Angus and Sir Patrick Gordon, were currently under investigation for what became known as the ‘treason of the Spanish blanks.’ A series of blank sheets of paper with the signatures of the said earls were found in the possession of a messenger heading for Spain. The inference was that they were giving consent to some plot requiring Spanish support.

James again failed to take immediate decisive action, but by late 1594 the disobedience of the Catholic Earls and Bothwell had risen to such a pitch that he had no alternative but to raise troops and seek to crush them once and for all. The northern fortresses of Huntly, Errol and other Catholics in the Highlands were destroyed and the Earls driven into exile. Bothwell died in 1612 in Naples, but Huntly and Errol were permitted to return on condition that they signed the Protestant Confession of Faith and entered the Kirk. They did so, but it was only lip service – in 1636, Huntly died a Catholic.

Nevertheless, James was now back in control of affairs so far as rebellious nobles were concerned. He also sought to strengthen his standing with the Kirk. Government by Presbyteries within the Kirk had finally been conceded, and the 1584 Act which enshrined the position of Bishops, was repealed. James also gave some succour to English Puritans who had been fleeing persecution south of the border. This put his relationship with Elizabeth at some risk, but she did not want to drive him too far into the waiting arms of Spain - which his willingness to overlook the Spanish blanks made possible – so she did no more than fume at him.

James VI & I

James VI & I

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