Thursday, May 2, 2013

Damned if he did, damned if he didn't

by Anna Belfrage

Previously 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
In Malmö we have a castle – not in any way a glamorous building, even if the renaissance rooms have a certain flair. For most of its existence, the castle has been a prison and its most (in)famous prisoner was James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. So how did this flower of Scottish nobility end up kicking his heels in a small, uncomfortable room in Malmö Castle? Well, it all began, as most things do, several years before.

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 handfasted with Anna – a ceremony that carried as much weight as a regular marriage in Denmark, evidenced by the fact that Anna’s family had no objection. But the initial infatuation quickly wore off – at least for James – and poor Anna would return to her family some years later, humiliated by how James had treated her.

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
There followed a number of tempestuous years. The young Queen had problems ruling this country of hers, a country of which she knew little having spent most of her life in France. While the Queen remained Catholic, her country did not, and in Scotland the reformation was in full bloom, with John Knox as its foremost – and vociferous – representative. Mary was also busy negotiating a new marriage, and while the list of potential bridegrooms varied, it does not seem to have included James.

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.
In 1567 Lord Darnley was murdered. Someone had placed kegs of gunpowder under his room and blown Darnley sky-high, but this does not seem to have been the cause of death – rather it was said he’d been strangled. Whatever the case, he was dead and three months later, in May of 1567, the Queen married James Hepburn, this after an alleged abduction and rape. (Seeing as Mary miscarried twins in July, it’s a safe bet to assume she was already pregnant when this little episode played out.)

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
Just as he was about to be released from the Rosencrantz tower in Bergen, the Danish king, Fredrik II ordered him to be taken prisoner – again. James must have protested, he must have yelled and demanded his rights, but to no avail. Fredrik wanted to make an impression on Elizabeth of England, and what better gift could he offer than the potential murderer of Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Darnley?

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.


  1. Fascinating post, Anna. I've always been enthralled by Bothwell and his family who feature in my novel. His father the 'Fair Earl' was a slippery character indeed. A post on him would be good. He arrested George Wishart who was tried as a heretic and then burnt at the stake by Cardinal Beaton. Hoping to follow Bothwell's career in Book 2!

  2. A marvelous recap of the relationship. Tonight I was dealing with the topic in my WIP. The truth is not for us to know, but I have my theory, like everyone else. It bothers me that the handfasting has always been downplayed by British historians, who I suppose do not want to raise issues of bigamy that would cast a shadow on James VI, and while she may not have been a Marie Stuart, my sympathies are with Anna. And yes, I believe that Marie truly did remark that she would follow Bothwell to the edge of the earth in a white petticoat, or something similar.

  3. Sorry if this seems like self-promotion, but some time ago I found evidence establishing that the body at Dragsholm commonly thought to be Bothwell's is not of him at all. In fact, no one has any idea where he might be. His fate is really quite a mystery. I did a post about the whole matter a while back:

  4. Maybe you should write about Patrick, Marie?
    Linda, it's interesting that the handfasting issue has been so downplayed.
    Yes, there is definitely some controversy re the remains in Denmark - even if it's not in Dragsholm Castle but in a nearby church. There has also been some noise along the line that his remains should be brought back to the land of his birth - although I think dear James is beyond caring.

  5. So tragic! I am very familiar with Mary, but not so much with James. Thank you for posting this. It was fascinating.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.