Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lady Jean Scott, the Link Between King James VI and the Queen of Scots

by Linda Root

Reiver  Raid on Gilnockie Tower,
from an original by G .Catternoll (PD Art) 

During the latter half of the 16th century, a favored means of anger management between feuding Border families was the institution of arranged marriages. There was no better example than the union of a Ker of Ferniehirst and a Scott of Buccleuch.  

But the result of the wedding of Lady Jean (Janet) Scott to Sir Thomas Ker of Ferniehirst after his first wife Janie Kirkcaldy died yielded results extending beyond arresting a half-century long border feud.  It was Lady Ferniehirst who opened the line of communication between King James VI and his imprisoned mother Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, and even that was not the only accomplishment of this influential lady. As historians begin to look  closely at prominent 16th century Scottish women, she emerges as a person who kept the Marian cause alive in Scotland, and who gave the maturing king an entirely different insight into his mother’s policies and politics. And she managed to do it during her firebrand husband's frequent periods of exile.

Under the guise of seeking his rehabilitation, she became a familiar figure at the Jacobean court, and thus gained the ear of  the king. What makes her even more exceptional, as pointed out in the excellent treatise Politicking Jacobean Women: Lady Ferniehirst, the Countess of Arran and the Countess of Huntly, c.1580~1603,  Ruth Grant,Chapter Eight, Scottish Women, 1102-1750, the scarcely known Lady Ferniehirst did it with a velvet glove and thus escaped the enmity that neutralized her more aggressive sisters such as  the Countess of Arran, who were less effectual because they stepped outside the limits of what was propitious for an aristocratic woman of the time.

As reviewers of my historical novels set in Marie Stuart’s Scotland are  anxious to announce, there are so many characters of the same or similar names in early Stuart politics that it is impossible to keep them straight. Just as there are several James Stewarts, there are several Jean/Jone Scotts. But according to most authorities on the Scottish peerage, the Jean Scott who is the heroine of this story was the child of Sir William Scott the Younger of Kirkurd and Buccleuch. Some sites say she was a daughter of his marriage to Grizel Bethune, but other sources list her separately from Sir William and Grizel's other children, inferring that she may have had a different mother.Thus, we are uncertain of her pedigree and totally unenlightened as to her birth date and the circumstances of her childhood.

What we do know is that Jean Scott’s  grandfather ‘Wicket Wat', the first Sir Walter Scott of Branxholme, third laird of Buccleuch who had been knighted on the battlefield at Flodden, was murdered on the High Street in Edinburgh in 1552 by a companion of a group of Kers of Ferniehirst. It was claimed to be an ambush in retaliation for a twenty-year-old murder of a prominent Ker by a prominent Scott, and it rekindled an old feud between the Scots on one hand and both the Cessford and Ferniehirst Kers on the other, who briefly ceased killing one another and focused on a common enemy.

At the time, the Regent James Hamilton, Earl of Arran /Duke of Chatellerault was having enough troubles of his own filling a role way beyond his capacity, and to simplify matters for himself, he chose to make an example of the miscreants. He ordered approximately four hundred Kers and their retainers deported to France and threatened to ward any potential troublemakers among the Scotts of Buccleuch in Edinburgh Castle. Seeking relief from such harsh penalties, the warring factions sat down and worked out a scheme of intermarriages designed to quell the enmity, but which for some reason never materialized—all except the one between Jean Scott and Thomas Ker, and it did not occur until much later. The tumultuous reign of Marie Stuart Queen of Scots intervened.

Although the Kers of Cessford sided with the Regency when the Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate in favor of her son in 1567, the Ferniehirst Kers and Buccleuch Scotts were steadfast Marians. They had marched with the Queen and Darnley in the Chaseabout Raids, and later with the Queen and Bothwell at Carberry where she surrendered to the rebels.  The following year they fought for Marie Stuart at Langside before she fled to England.

In retaliation for their loyalty to the Queen, their villages were raided and their castles plundered. In 1568  their leaders who had been captured at Langside were taken to Edinburgh Castle and placed  in the custody of the infant King’s most celebrated soldier, Sir William Kirkcaldy, Knight of Grange, who had become the Castle's governor.

In 1569, in retaliation for the Ferniehirst's support of the rebellion of her northern earls, Elizabeth Tudor had Ferniehirst Castle leveled. The Ferniehirst were without a Border fortress and were living in the Castle under the protection of its governor, who was Lady Ferniehirst's father.  It was restored in 1598 by Jean Scott's stepson Sir Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst, who later became Lord Jedburgh.

Walter Baxter
Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons
But then, the unpredictable Knight of Grange took umbrage of the manner in which the Queen of Scots had been betrayed and the terms of her abdication perverted and switched sides, leaving him in control of Edinburgh Castle and its environs. His erstwhile Marian prisoners thus became his allies, the castle’s new defenders. After Dumbarton Castle fell to the Regent's forces, the Castilians, as they were called, became the last Marian holdouts in Scotland.  Somewhere in this time frame, Janie Kirkcaldy died and  Lady Jean Scott and Tommie Ker of Ferniehirst formalized the new alliance between Kers of Ferniehirst and Scots of Buccleuch with a marriage.

Unfortunately the most complete analysis of Lady Ferniehirst's political career does not contain information as to her life before her marriage to Sir Thomas Ker, which historians generally characterize as a peacemaking effort, which is perhaps an over-simplification. The Scots and the Ferniehirst branch of the Kers had been mending fences from the time they joined together in the Marian cause.  

Again, we are thwarted by the lack of historical records and the shortsightedness of vindictive men like the Scottish Regent James Douglas, Earl of Morton who destroyed the family records of his enemies when Edinburgh Castle fell. Unfortunately, we do not know when the Ferniehirst wedding occurred, or even when Sir Thomas Ker's first wife Janie Kirkcaldy died. (See note#1, below).

Sir Thomas Ker was likely  taken prisoner with the other defenders of the castle when it fell and briefly detained at Blackness Castle until he was sent to France in exile, although some sources suggested that he fled to France before the castle fell when his retainers deserted. There is evidence that Ker was married to Jean Scott at about that time, and during one of his on-again off -again periods in France, she was with him in Paris and was later chastised  by the Council of the Kirk for having participated in the mass. However, she did not remain in France during his several periods of absence, but returned to Scotland to protect his interests.

 In any event, Sir Thomas  remained in exile until the meteoric rise of Esme Stuart, first cousin once removed of the  affection-starved adolescent King. However Lady Ferniehirst was back at court in Scotland before the arrival in 1579 of the man who nearly turned Scottish history upside down. Esme Stuart, son of Darnley’s uncle John Stuart, a naturalized Frenchman who had been a valued  friend of Henri II, was a a well-known French courtesan and a protege of the powerful Guises, Marie Stuart's French kinsmen, who may have instigated Esme's controversial relationship with their cousin James.

Before 1579, the Regent Morton and the young King’s harsh tutor and overseer George Buchanan had considered the correspondence between Esme and the King to be harmless, but they were wrong.  They should have intercepted and  read the letters. The King was so infatuated with the notes  he received from the sophisticated French courtesan that he offered him his dead grandfather Lennox’s earldom, and to encourage Esme to come to claim it in person, he made Esme Stuart a duke.

Buchanan and Morton were no match for flamboyant Esme. The new Duke of Lennox conspired with Captain James Stuart of Ochiltree and made quick dispatch of the Earl of Morton, who was first deprived of the Regency and later introduced to the Maiden, a primitive guillotine that he himself  has imported from Halifax.

Halifax gibbet, aka the Maiden
Russ Root (c) 2012
During the ascendancy of Esme Stuart, restrictions barring Ferniehirst’s return to Scotland were at last removed.  Jean Scott took an active part in this endeavor, and she and her husband enjoyed prominence during Esme Stuart and his henchman Captain James Stewart's virtual control of the King. Not only had she  been managing her husband’s finances during his absence, she had become a familiar face at the Stuart court, vociferously and successfully championing her husband's quest for reinstatement of his lands and titles.

However, the victory did not last long. When enemies of Esme Stuart ousted him from power, Ferniehirst was back in France again, and Lady Janet remained at home in Scotland, exercising his Power of Attorney. She was also writing to his supporters and his creditors in a capacity uncommon to a woman, even an aristocrat.
By the end  of 1583 when the King  had a firmer hold on his crown, through her machinations Thomas Ker of Ferniehirst came home for good, his itinerary and travel arrangements orchestrated by his wife who had been at Court in Falkland for months  brokering the terms of his return.

In her correspondence with her husband, she took liberties unusual for a wife.  She instructed him not to travel with Esme Stuart’s son and heir Ludovic Stuart, but to come alone and land in Glasgow, and to stay with the Earl of Huntley in the north until his affairs were sorted out.  Once he was in Scotland, she assisted him in gaining favor in the government formed by the new Earl of Arran,  Esme’s former henchman Captain Stewart, who had risen to become Chancellor. Arran was considered an upstart and even more despised than Esme had been.

Near the end of 1585, Arran was ousted  but not before the Ferniehirsts had secured a marriage between their son Sir Andrew Ker, Master of Fernieirst and  Arran's sister Lady Anne Stewart of Ochiltree, a politically advantageous move.  

Arran had barely settled into a quiet retirement before he was murdered by the Earl of Morton’s nephew, but his demise did not bring down the Fernieirsts. By then the King of Scots had come of age and was beginning to exert his own judgment, an event that brought Lady Ferniehirst’s role in history sharply into  focus.

By 1586, Jean Scott's prominence at the Stuart court was independent of that of her husband, who had managed to get himself in hot water with Elizabeth at a time when James was looking covetously at the English throne. A border incident that resulted in the death of one of Elizabeth Tudor's friends while Ferniehirst was warden of the Scottish West Marches made him the target of Elizabeth's rage at a time when the King of Scots was anxious to accommodate her. Thus, the flamboyant Marian reiver Tommy Ker of Ferniehirst spent the last year of his life under house arrest in Aberdeen.

Apparently his banishment did not extend to his wife. During his confinement, Lady Ferniehirst remained a liaison between the beleaguered Queen of Scots and her son during the last years of Marie Stuart's life. At her urging he read and answered his mother's letters. Lady Ferniehirst also opened lines of communication between Marie Stuart and the remnant of the Marian faction,  most notably with the young Earl of Huntley, George Gordon and other of the powerful northern earls who adhered to the auld religion insofar as they were able to get away with it.  She sponsored  those of the younger generation who sought to profit from the imprisoned Queen's favor and covertly sought to undermine the bias against the Queen of Scots instilled in James by men like George Buchanan, whom he had grown to loathe.

George Buchanan
by G. Brounckhhorst, PD-Art
When her husband died in March 1586 and his barony passed to his son by Janie Kirkcaldy, Sir Andrew Ker of Fernieirst ( later Lord Jedburgh), the dowager Lady Ferniehirst continued to assert herself at court, and to manage her husband's holdings for herself and to the benefit of her several children and step-children.  By then those with whom she did business were used to dealing with her and continued to do so after her husband's death. While her influence did not induce the ambitious King to intercede with Elizabeth to save his mother's life, it certainly inspired him to rehabilitate her after her death.  

Among those who rose to great power when James VI succeeded Elizabeth as James I was Lady Ferniehirst's youngest son Robert Carr, who had Anglicized the spelling of his name and became the controversial Earl of Somerset.

Much of the credit for the King’s change in attitude toward his mother and his tendency to reward the remaining Marians with positions in his government both before and after he went to London in 1603 is given to his Catholic Chancellor of Scotland Alexander Seton, Lord Fyvie. That, too, is testimony to the successful management style of Lady Ferniehirst who operated behind the scenes.  She had an uncanny ability to exert political influence devoid of any hint of  pressure likely to be viewed as inappropriate to her sex.  In male dominated Scotland she presented a public image of a loyal and long-suffering wife, a devoted mother and stepmother, and a true if sometimes misguided Scotswoman.

In summary, when Jean Scott wrote to the imprisoned Queen, she enclosed letters from those who wished to show friendship to the Queen, and she made personal recommendations as to who might deserve Marie Stuart's favor. She promoted those same people in her dealings with the King.  

After the Queen was executed, she continued to actively present to James VI  a view of his mother he had not been allowed to see when he was younger.  In essence,she was Marie Stuart’s secret agent at the court of James VI, and perhaps even more than Alexander Seton, it is she who inspired the king's new-found reverence for the Queen of Scots manifested in the tomb in Westminster that James VI commissioned  to commemorate his mother, a display which conspicuously outshines the one he erected for Elizabeth Tudor.

In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press,2014, Rosalind K. Marshal reports that there is no information as to how or where Lady Ferniehirst died and the only clue is in the only extant portrait of Jean Scott painted in 1593.  Doctor Marshal writes, “Above her head is the inscription ‘Ubi amor, ibi fides’ (‘where there is love there is faith’). Like many women of her time, she had supported her husband in both public and private life, finding genuine love and contentment in her arranged marriage….ROSALIND K. MARSHALL.

I am tempted to go one step further and suggest that Lady Ferniehirst may have been the cannier of the Ferniehirsts, and that her achievements are independent of those of her husband Sir Thomas Ker and endured long after his death.  Her friend and correspondent Henriette Stuart, Countess of Huntly, Esme’s daughter, is credited for covertly delivering Queen Anne of Denmark to Catholicism,  and that may well be true.  But in the same spirit and in employing the same subtle techniques, Lady Jean Scott of Ferniehirst made a Marian of King James I of England.  His mother would have been greatly  pleased.

Thank you for joining me in my introduction of this impressive woman.  ~LINDA ROOT

Note One:  Regarding Janie Kirkcaldy's death- Some place her death as early as 1569 (Rosalind K. Marshall, for example) and other sources, primarily English,  place it in London during the Lang Siege (1570-1573), probably in 1571 or 72. In my novels I elect the later date because it meshes with the role Lady Ferniehirst, presumably Janie Kirkcaldy,  is believed to have played in the Northern Rebellion of 1569 when Elizabeth's rebel earls took refuge in her house, and it makes more sense in light of the number and presumptive ages of Janie Kirkcaldy's several children and the fact that Jean Scott's oldest son Lord James Ker of Crailing was not born until 1577.

Note Two: When the Earl of Arran was indicted during the Gowrie  Regime  (circa 1585) his wife Elizabeth, Countess of Arran, was described as "a vile and impudent woman, over famous for her monstrous doings, not without suspicion of the devilish magical art."  No one ever advanced such a criticism of Lady Jean Scott.


  1. Goodness! What a woman! You'd be pleased to have her for a friend. And Scottish politics! So murderous and, I think, always had been.

  2. Hi,
    I write regarding your comment that Janet Kirkcaldy probably died in 1571 or 1572. I think that is wrong. She must have died before, though perhaps not long before, 1569. The National Archives of Scotland has a primary source which indicates that Thomas Ker of Fernirhirst married Janet Scott in 6th Oct 1569 – see [accessed 23Jan2015]
    I think that Rosalind Marshall is right! Lovely essay though.


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