Monday, January 5, 2015

The Treaty of Haddington 1548

by Marie Macpherson

Treaties notoriously are not always worth the parchment they are written on. This was certainly the case with the Treaty of Greenwich concocted by Henry VIII in 1543 to marry his son Edward to Mary, Queen of Scots. When the carnaptious Scots cocked a snoot at his cunning scheme to conquer Scotland by the back door, Henry was furious. To browbeat the rebellious Scots into submission, he sent Edward Seymour (then Earl of Hertford) north with an invading army to ‘put all to fire and sword’ and turn every building upside down, ‘sparing no creature alive within the same’. Edinburgh was set alight, Holyrood Abbey burned down and countless homes destroyed.

On the death of Henry VIII, Seymour, now Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of his nephew, King Edward VI, ratcheted up this campaign of uncourtly courtship, or as George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, famously called it ‘the rough wooing.’

We liked not the manner of the wooing, and we 
could not stoop to being bullied into love.

In September 1547, despite a resounding success at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh at Musselburgh, the English under Somerset’s command failed to gain their prize and the five-year-old Queen Mary was spirited away to Inchmahome Priory in the middle of Lake of Menteith for safekeeping.

Marie of Guise
With lowland Scotland under occupation by the Auld Enemy, Mary of Guise turned to the Auld Alliance for help, dangling the carrot of her daughter’s hand for the French Dauphin, Francis, as a reward. On 7 July 1548, the Scottish parliament and the French ambassadors met at the besieged town of Haddington, fifteen miles from Edinburgh, to sign the treaty.

St. Mary's Kirk, Haddington
Kim Traynor - Wikimedia

In the 16th century, Haddington was a prosperous royal burgh on the River Tyne but, being situated in the direct line of march between Berwick and Edinburgh, it was put to the sword and torch so often it was nicknamed Scotland’s Wall. Dominating the town is the Gothic kirk of St Mary’s, a collegiate church larger than St Giles in Edinburgh, where it is often supposed the Treaty of Haddington was signed.

Nungate Bridge and Doo'cot, Haddington
James Denham, Wikimedia
That honour, however, goes to St Mary’s Abbey, the Cistercian monastery that lay further along the banks of the Tyne. Unfortunately, the abbey was abandoned during the Reformation and the only traces of its existence are the Abbey and Nungate Bridges. St Mary’s Abbey had many historic associations over the years. In 1503, Princess Margaret Tudor spent the night there on her way to marry James IV and, in 1548, the French army set up its headquarters there.

Hailes Castle
Supergolden, Wikimedia
A large part of the history of the nunnery throughout the sixteenth century may be summed up in one phrase – the House of Hepburn. If not exactly hereditary, the headship of many a Scottish religious house was passed from one member of a noble family to another to ensure ready access to its wealth and finances. The Hepburns of Hailes, earls of Bothwell, were no exception and made sure that the prioress was always a Hepburn.

Around 1521, when Prioress Janet Hepburn died, the nuns made use of the Cistercian rule to elect their prioress. They chose Sister Mariota Hay, a woman of about 40, mild in disposition, zealous for concord, pious, sweet-tempered, born of lawful bed and of good family. But clearly these virtues and qualifications were not good enough for John Hepburn, Prior of St Andrews, who bullied the Archbishop of St Andrews into appointing his twenty-four-year-old niece instead. Despite her illegitimate birth and defect of age, Elisabeth Hepburn became prioress.

Nevertheless, this feisty nun did not bend the knee and settle down to a life of quiet contemplation in the cloister. Elisabeth was a true Hepburn – a free spirit, who regularly rode to the hunt with James V’s court, conjuring up images of this unorthodox bride of Christ flying across dykes on horseback with her nun’s veil streaming out behind her.

Not that she neglected her duties at the abbey. As prioress, Elisabeth proved to be a hardheaded business woman, haggling with army quartermasters over bread, beef, ale and corn and declining to pay the wappinschaw tax they demanded. For years she fought legal battles with her neighbour, Lord John Hay of Yester, (nephew of the sainted Sister Maryoth and descendant of the Wizard ogf Gobliin Ha’) disputing land rights. Even military duties fell to the prioress. When the Lothians were under threat from the English, she was ordered to garrison the peel tower of Nunraw deep in the Lammermuir Hills and, if unable to defend it, destroy it.

In 1541, an entry in the Haddington Protocol Books reveals an attempt to slander the 45 year-old prioress’s reputation. Elisabeth was accused of ‘carnal dalliance’ with one Harry Cockburn and, while he had to purge himself in the stocks it is not clear what punishment – if any – the prioress endured.

John Knox
Kim Traynor - Wikimedia
About the same time, John Knox first appears in the public records, serving as a notary apostolic – an ecclesiastical lawyer – for St Mary’s Collegiate Church. He must have known about this scandal – in fact, would he have been asked to clear it up? Did the unholy prioress’s (alleged) immoral behaviour spark disillusionment with the corrupt Catholic Church in the young priest? A year or two later Knox dropped his ecclesiastical briefs to follow George Wishart the charismatic Reformist preacher who, he claimed, ‘pulled from the puddle of papistry’.

In 1546 he returned to St Mary’s Church, standing at the foot of the pulpit with a two-handed sword at the ready to defend Wishart. To no avail. Patrick Hepburn, 3rd Earl of Bothwell, turned in the heretic to Cardinal David Beaton who burnt Wishart at the stake in St Andrews. A few months later Beaton was murdered in revenge. His bloody corpse was slung over the side of the castle for all to witness before being salted in a tub of brine like a side of beef and left to steep in the dungeon. Knox, meanwhile, slunk off into hiding.

St. Andrews Castle

In 1547 he surfaced again in St Andrews Castle as chaplain to the Castilians, the clutch of reformers and murderers of Beaton who had taken refuge there. They sought aid from Protestant England and when galleys were spotted sailing up the coast, they rejoiced that the English had answered their prayers. It was not the English, however, but the French, responding to Mary of Guise’s cri de coeur. After a short siege, the Castilians surrendered and were herded onto the galleys bound for France.

A year later, a fleet of French galleys again set sail for Scotland, this time with the captive John Knox chained to the oars. While some of the ships sailed around the north coast and down to Dumbarton to pick up Mary, Queen of Scots and her entourage, others stayed in the Firth of Forth to besiege the English who had seized Haddington.

Was it possible that, by some eerie quirk of fate, the five-year-old Queen Mary was ferried to France in a galley rowed by her nemesis, John Knox?

Young Mary Stuart

Main Sources:
Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists’ Society, Vol. 5
Roderick Graham, John Knox: Democrat
W. Forbes Gray and James H Jamieson, A Short History of Haddington
Rosalind K Marshall, John Knox
Pamela E Ritchie, Mary of Guise in Scotland


The intriguing historical facts and figures outlined above inspired my fictional work, The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first of a trilogy on the life of the Scottish Reformer John Knox, published by Knox Robinson Publishing in 2012.

Amazon US
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Book 2 of the trilogy, The Second Blast of the Trumpet, is due for release in September 2015.

Marie Macpherson gained a PhD on the work of the Russian writer Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer. After a career teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she retired to a small village 15 miles from Edinburgh where she now indulges her passion for writing Scottish historical fiction. The rich history of her native East Lothian provides the inspiration for her work.

Marie Macpherson 2014


  1. Very interesting post, Marie. The area around here - along the Tay - suffered during the Rough Wooing. But surely Inchmahome is in the Lake of Menteith, not Loch Leven?

  2. !ops you're right Ann! Must have had Loch Leven on the brain! That was where Mary was imprisoned from 1567-68! sorry about that!

  3. Scottish history and politics makes English look tame.

  4. I find it exciting and enthralling Sue - especially this period,


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