Wednesday, November 19, 2014

After the Castle Fell: The Second Life of Marie Flemying: 1573-1598

by Linda Root

Marie Flemying, from a drawing by the  author

I did not set out to stumble upon a grand love affair
when I began to write The First Marie and the Queen of Scots.  I selected Marie Flemying as my protagonist because she was Marie Stuart’s cousin and was the chief of the queen’s celebrated Four Maries, the little girls who accompanied the queen to France in 1548.

Because of their shared heritage and life experiences, I felt there was potential in a book written from her point of view.  I knew nothing about the petite little blond when I began. But Marie Flemyng was a usurper. Almost by accident, the First Marie became more her story than the queen’s.  But this post is not about the great romance between the queen’s flamboyant cousin or the man Elizabeth called "the flower of the wit of Scotland." It concerns what happened when he died.

But first, the love story...

William Maitland of Lethington was Marie Stuart’s foreign secretary and a frequent visitor to the Tudor Court.  He had similarly served her mother Marie de Guise when she was the Scottish Regent. The Regent had sent him to France to conclude negotiations of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in which Scotland was a minor player.  Almost half of the original group of Scottish representatives to Marie Stuart’s wedding to the Dauphin, Francois, including Marie Flemyng’s older brother Lord Flemyng, Chancellor of Scotland died  on the eve of their return to Scotland the year before.  Maitland and Lord Fleming were part of the same group of religious moderates who often dined together. Also, the family of the Earl of Casillas who also died had secretly retained Maitland to investigate the deaths while he was in France. Maitland almost certainly met Marie Flemying during his visit.

From The First Marie, character sketches by Linda Root

When the Queen of Scots, consort of the frail French King Francois II, found herself a widow two years later, her Four Maries including Marie Flemying accompanied her to the homeland they had not seen in thirteen years.  By 1564, recent widower Maitland and the much younger chief of The Four Maries were already an item. The Scottish knight Calvinist Sir William Kirkcaldy remarked to one of his English friends Maitland was as likely a suitor for Marie Flemying as Kirkcaldy was to be Pope. Their May-September romance was put on hold due to Maitland’s opposition to the Darnley marriage and the queen’s suspicions he had been involved in the murder of her Italian favorite, her correspondence secretary David Rizzio, but by early fall of 1566, Maitland and the Queen had reconciled.

The month after the christening of Prince Charles James Stuart, best known to history as James VI and I, Maitland and the pretty blonde granddaughter of James IV were married on January 5, 1567 at Stirling as a part of the Twelfth Night celebrations. Their honeymoon was short.

The following month the Queen’s husband Darnley was murdered, and the Queen was suspected of having had a part in it.  Almost certainly Maitland had been involved.  But when the Queen fell under the thrall of Maitland’s personal enemy, Scotland’s notorious bad boy James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the halcyon days abruptly ended.

By the following summer, Maitland was in league with the rebels who marched against the Queen.  What strain his defection put on his marriage is a matter of speculation.  In any event, the middle-aged bridegroom fought under the banner of the newly crowned infant King James VI at Langside on the eve of Marie Stuart’s ill-conceived flight to England, and he went to York as a part of the Scottish contingent appearing at the tribunal Elizabeth Tudor convened to determine the equities surrounding her cousin's forced abdication while imprisoned at Loch Leven during 1567-68. By the time the tribunal met, Maitland was acting as a double agent, informing the incarcerated Queen’s counsel of the evidence against her and secretly meeting with the Duke of Norfolk in hopes of negotiating a marriage that would result in Marie Stuart's  restoration to the Scottish throne with Norfolk as her consort.

At the time of Maitland’s trip to England, he was already showing signs of a debilitating degenerative disease that soon left him crippled. During his absence, his wife gave birth to their second child.

Soon after his return, Maitland of Lethington  joined a cabal of increasingly powerful aristocratic Scots who regretted their betrayal of the Queen of Scots, and by the end of the decade he had joined Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange in open protest of her treatment.  During the ensuing Douglas Wars, he and his lady  joined the Castilian faction which championed the cause of the Queen of Scots and held Edinburgh Castle in her name.  Then in 1573, the Regent James Douglas, Earl of Morton, talked Elizabeth Tudor into sending her siege guns to Scotland to level it.

Wikimedia Commons, ((PD-Art))

In early summer the castle fell to an English army. While Maitland was still in English custody pending his release to the bloodthirsty Scottish Regent James Douglas, Earl of Morton, the great Maitland died in the prison infirmary at the Tollbooth in Leith, many said in the manner of Socrates. Rumor mongers including his brother John Maitland, Prior of Coldingham (later, Lord Thirlstane) hinted that poison had been administered by his wife.

In The First Marie the poison vial 
was sent to Lady Lethington by 
Elizabeth  to spare her friend 
Maitland a traitor's death.
Some historical references suggest the Lethington marriage was an unhappy one, but I have not found a single piece of credible evidence to support it. The last widely reported reference to Marie Flemying in the popular histories presents a contrary view. In a letter she wrote to Elizabeth’s Minister William Cecil to protest Morton’s plan to try Maitland’s corpse for treason, she makes an impassioned plea for the release of his remains, which had been left under guard  and infested by vermin, rotting at their house in the Meal Market.  Elizabeth sided with the widow and in no uncertain terms informed Morton that her old friend died while unconvicted of any crime, and besides, in England, they reserved hanging and dismemberment for the living.

In the same timeframe, Lady Lethington wrote to her sister-in-law Isabel complaining of Coldingham’s slanders and neglect of her and her children. If one were to succumb to casual historical research, Marie Flemyng’s story would end with the second letter, for at this point she disappears from popular histories. Some go so far as to declare she never remarried and raised her children in relative poverty.

The Second Life of the First Marie (1573 – circa 1599)

Marie Flemying’s appearances in the historical records of the Scottish courts do not end with Maitland’s death. What followed thereafter may have lacked the luster and romance of her love affair with Maitland, but her story does not end for approximately another twenty-five years. Although her date of death is uncertain, she  out-lived her mortal enemy Morton who was executed in 1583 by close to fifteen years and her brother-in-law John Maitland, Lord Thirlestane, for three.

Morton's execution by the device known as the
Maiden, a precursor of the guillotine. 
There is no mention of the fate of the First Marie until ten years after Maitland’s death when the imprisoned Queen of Scots requested her ambassador in France to seek passports from Elizabeth allowing Lady Lethington and one of the Setons to travel to England for a visit which the Queen of Scots thought might be beneficial to her declining health.

There is no record that the passports were issued, and if so, whether either of them came. Records of the Queen’s expenditures suggest they did not. If Marie Flemying made the trip, she did not stay long. There is a compelling explanation as to why. She was about to remarry.

A fictional last visit between Marie Suart
and her cousin Marie Flemyng
By 1584, Marie Flemyng was Lady Fyvie, the wife of George Meldrum whose family owned one of the most impressive castles in Aberdeenshire. Unfortunately what at first blush seems to be a reversal of her fall from grace did not long endure.  Notations in the public records always treated  her with respect, but her bridegroom was not so fortunate.

There is no reason the Meldrum marriage should be so frequently overlooked by popular historians. Both parties were well known.  Secretary Maitland’s widow was a legendary beauty, and for many Scots the Queen of Scots and her Four Maries had become  the personifications of happier times. The Meldrums were important Aberdeenshire aristocrats with strong ties to the English aristocracy, although the politics of the Sixteenth Century had not always treated them kindly.

Marie Flemyng and her new suitor shared one thing in common—both of their ancestors had spent time at the Tudor Court during the reign of Henry VIII.  The earlier George Meldrum was present at Henry Tudor’s Death Watch. In the political  climate of 1584 when the independent and maturing King James VI was beginning to look south to his future, his cousin Marie Flemyng should have been a welcome visitor at the Stuart Court, although there is no mention of her.  The reason was likely financial. She may not have had the money to maintain a proper court appearance.  It was not Marie Flemying who brought her family to the brink of bankruptcy. It was her aristocratic new husband George.

The allegedly haunted Castle Fyvie (Wikimedia Commons)

Researching the relationship between Marie Fleming and George Meldrum awakens caution in anyone using genealogical sites for historical references.  Some of them show Meldrum as Marie Fleming’s first husband, an inexcusable error considering the high visibility of her life in France and the rumors surrounding her romance with Maitland. It vexes that so many novices are presenting charts and family trees of famous people from the past without a modicum of independent research or employment of their common sense.  The George Meldrum mentioned in these sites as having married Marie Flemying was at Henry Tudor’s deathbed when Marie was on a ship to France with her cousin when the two girls were barely six. The George Meldrum she married was his grandson.

While there is some confusion as to whether the George in our story inherited the title from his father or an older brother; apparently one of the intervening barons of Fyvie suffered from mental illness that required expensive care. He  also made some financially disastrous moves before his  potential heirs realized he was going mad. Marie Flemyng’s new bridegroom acquired the title and estates in a much beleaguered state and seemingly lacked the financial acumen to remedy the decline.

It is primarily through civil actions brought by her  husband's creditors to collect debts incurred by his predecessor that we trace the later years of Marie Fleming. One has to dig deeply to find anything further about the Meldrums after George was forced to transfer the title of his barony to one of his kinsman who within months sold it to the Setons.

By the end of 1596, Alexander Seton was in possession of Fyvie Castle and soon thereafter title to the barony was conferred upon him by his friend the King. At the time, Marie Flemying was apparently ill and likely close to death. At about the same time as Seton acquired Fyvie, his friend John Maitland, now Lord Thirlestane,  snared  title to the barony of Lethington from Marie Flemyngs son, James Maitland, on terms Marie Flemying described as "on the cheap." She was not the only one to protest. There is evidence  many Scots were outraged byThirlestane's overreaching. Thus, at the sunset of the 16th century, both Marie Flemyng’s son and her husband had lost their titles to greedy associates to whom they went for help.

None of this is particularly dynamic  when compared to the spectacle of the Queen’s petite cousin’s early life. She is best remembered as she appeared at Holyrood as Queen of the Beane in 1563 when she was compared to the Goddesses Venus, Juno and Minerva. However, the vagaries concerning her later history raises an important point.  Apparently historians of times past were at least as guilty as modern television script writers and producers in playing to an audience. On the world stage, Marian history was overlooked for decades. 

Thus, Marie Flemying died divested of her title and estates not because of anything her Machiavellian husband Maitland of Lethington did, but because she married into a dysfunctional debt-ridden family the second time around.  Nevertheless she outlived two of the other Four Maries, Livingston and Beaton, and survived her royal cousin by a decade.  She was the perfect subject for my novel.

A final word on the topic of historical accuracy in fiction:  Since I wrote The First Marie and the Queen of Scots in 2010-2011, nearly all of the sources I found in my Google searches for records of Marie Flemyng's life after Maitland died have vanished from the web. For example, there were at least four records of separate court proceedings in Aberdeen involving claims against the Fyvie holdings and the corresponding countersuits, as well as notations on official records of subpoenas and summonses issued to Hon. Marie Flemyng both before and after she became  Lady Fyvie. These are of special interest to me because she sought to have the last of them quashed due to failing health. Webpages dealing with the history of the Meldrums of Fyvie and the earlier George Meldum’s relationship with Henry VIII are also missing. My caveat to both historians and historical novelists is to look closely at those little bits of information which  pop out of Pandora’s jar, and if they seem at odds with common sense, try digging deeper and keep records of your discoveries.

I mention this with trepidation, because it appears the internet is being culled, or perhaps search engines have changed their criteria as to what should or should not be kept accessible. My own observations suggests a general dumbing down of what is presented as ‘scholarly’ while at the same time the cost of accessing a genuine research paper is rising when it should be the other way around.  I fear future researchers seeking to write a historically accurate book about the Queen of Scots will be encouraged to believe the names of the Four Maries were Greer, Kenna, Aylee and Lola, and that her Aunt Margaret murdered the King of Portugal, because these are the tidbits of misinformation most likely to survive because they get the greater number of clicks.

Cheers, and remember as the holidays approach, no one has too many books. ~ Linda Root


Linda Root is a writer of historical fiction and a former major crimes prosecutor who lives in the California high desert with her husband Chris and her two Alaskan malamutes. She also writes paranormal Scottish  fantasy under the name J.D. Root. The  First Marie and the Queen of Scots is her debut novel, published in May 2011 and in an edited second edition in 2013. Her  blog Linda Root-Indie Wrtier can be found at Books in  the Queen of Scots Suite and in the Legacy of the Queen of Scots series are on Amazon and Kindle at

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