by Anna BelfragePreviously this week, author Barbara Kyle wrote an excellent post on this blog about Mary Queen of Scots and her first “trial” on English soil. This post was already well in the making by then and deals with the other suspect in the alleged murder of Mary’s second husband, namely her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell.
|Malmöhus Castle. The Renaissance palace in the centre|
James Hepburn was born in 1534 to Patrick Hepburn and Agnes Sinclair. James’ father deserves a post all of his own what with his exciting life, including such ingredients as switching allegiances between England and Scotland (several times) and aspirations to marry into the royalty. It is difficult to gauge how his father’s behaviour affected little James – except in one matter, namely that of his parents’ divorce. The divorce was a consequence of Patrick’s hopes to marry well above his own position, which came to nothing. All in all, one can but conclude that Patrick Hepburn, for all that he was known as the “Fair Earl” was not much of a role model.
Early on, James displayed an adventurous streak, something that came in handy when he inherited not only his father’s titles and lands but also his office as Lord High Admiral of Scotland in 1556. James took to the seas, travelling across Europe in this capacity, and in 1559 he arrived in Copenhagen, where he met Anna Tronds, a Norwegian noblewoman. Not that he knew it at the time, but the events that followed would ultimately lead to the horrors of his last years.
|James Hepburn in his prime. He was said to be tall and well made.|
James, however, had other things on his mind, first and foremost how to navigate the turbulent political waters of Scotland, with the regent Marie de Guise on one side and the Protestant Lords –and the formidable John Knox – on the other. It is interesting to note that James remained loyal to the regent until she was deposed by the Scottish nobility, despite the substantial private loss this caused him.
By now, James had met Mary, Queen of France and Scotland, on a couple of occasions. Upon Mary’s royal French husband’s death, she returned to Scotland, there to become reigning Queen. And in his role as High Admiral, James had a hand in the travelling arrangements.
Whether it was love at first sight between those two is difficult to judge. Was it love at all? Some say no, insisting that the Earl did in fact force the Queen into their future marriage. I am prone to believe there was affection and love - maybe even passion; Mary seems to have liked and trusted James from the start, and she was, by all accounts, quite the femme fatale when she wanted to be.
|Mary Queen of Scots|
Instead, James married Lady Jean Gordon (whom he would divorce a year later on account of his adultery) and Mary married Lord Darnley. Suffice it to say that what began auspiciously quickly turned into a marital battlefield with Darnley wanting more, more, more and Mary saying no, no, no.
In the summer of 1566, James was seriously wounded during an altercation with a John Elliot. It is said that upon hearing this the queen galloped madly across the country to be at James’ side.
This, however, is not correct. The Queen did not visit James until almost a week after his injuries, and Antonia Fraser points out that the Queen was anyway already on her way to meet with James to discuss matters of state. Therefore, in the absence of a mad ride to be at her man’s side, there is no conclusive proof Mary and James were lovers at the time. (I would argue that even a hell for leather ride cannot be construed as proof of an amorous relationship anyway.)
Being an incorrigible romantic, I hope Mary and James were having an affair already in 1566 – if nothing else because their time together would be so short, and the aftermath so very long and trying. But we will never know, will we?
|Kirk o' Field after the explosion. Note Darnley and his servant lying in the orchard. Sketch comissioned by William Cecil.|
It was a very brief marriage. The queen’s marriage to one of the suspects in her husband’s death tore the kingdom asunder, and after a month of marital bliss (well, assuming there is some bliss to be found when the country takes up arms against you) the loving couple separated on the battlefield. One last embrace, one long lingering kiss and James Hepburn took off, promising his wife and queen that he’d be back soon – with reinforcements.
He never came back. James was, one could say, detained. An alternative description would be to say his history caught up with him. It began with a storm that blew his ships off course.
James’ intended destination was Denmark, but instead he ended up in Bergen, and who might be sitting in Bergen, still nursing a broken heart? Anna Tronds, of course, and in Bergen she had the upper hand, being related to the powers that were. No wrath like a woman scorned, one might say… James was thrown in prison while Anna’s case was heard, but after some wheeling and dealing he got himself out of that mess.
|The Rosencrantz Tower in Bergen, first of Bothwell's three Scandinavian prisons|
In the event, Elizabeth cannot have shown much interest. But Fredrik held out hope – or maybe he took a dislike to his prisoner. James Hepburn spent five long years in confinement in Malmö, years spent trying to get someone to take an interest in his plight and help him regain his freedom. His wife was not in a position to aid him – she was imprisoned in England.
The last five years of his life, James Hepburn spent in horrible conditions in Dragsholms Castle in Denmark. In comparison, the years in Malmö were as mild as a summer breeze. It is said James lost his mind in there, shackled like an animal in a minuscule cell. It is also said his soul prowls the castle to this day, as restless in death as he seems to have been in life.His mummified remains were on show at a nearby church for centuries. As can be seen below, even in death he retained a certain (if macabre) handsomeness.
|Bothwell, study of his mummified head by O Bache 1861|
James Hepburn was 44 when he died. The last ten years he had spent as a prisoner in Denmark, not due to any criminal acts committed there but because a Danish king wanted to make an impression on the English Queen. It seems to me he paid a very high price for what little joy he found in his life.
Was he a self-seeking cad who left jilted women along the way while he set off in pursuit of the next? Maybe. But he was also a loyal subject to the regent and his queen – it is said that Elizabeth feared him because he was the only Scottish noble she couldn’t buy – he was brave and determined and seems to have cared deeply for his royal wife.
Mary Stuart was also 44 when she died, executed for her purported participation in the Babington plot. By then, she had spent almost half her life as Elizabeth’s prisoner, the last nine of them as a widow who would weep upon hearing her husband’s name.
Two larger than life personalities, two tragic ends. Did James, in a rare moment of lucidity, cry out for her as he died? Did she think of him as she placed her head on the block? We don’t know. We never will.
Anna Belfrage is the author of two published books, A Rip in the Veil and Like Chaff in the Wind, both of which are set in the seventeenth century. The third book in The Graham Saga, The Prodigal Son, will be published in the summer of 2013.