Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Politics of the Kirkyard ~ James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton

By Linda Root

Photo by the author, 07/03/2016-Greyfriars 

History has not been kind to James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. Nowhere is his indictment more apparent than at Greyfriars Kirkyard. Other controversial characters in the Scottish Reformation are revered there and at nearby Saint Giles, but not James Douglas, who ruled Scotland from 1572 until 1580, first as de facto regent, then as Regent, and later as the power presiding over the Privy Council. None of it came easily. He withstood challenges from the Presbyterian Council of the Kirk, from Scotland's great northern Catholic Houses, and eventually from an increasingly rebellious adolescent king. However, in the final analysis, Morton was usurped by the young king’s colorful favorite Esme Stuart, who stole the sovereign's heart while Morton was busy running the country. Morton should have seen it coming, but he had encouraged the correspondence between his sovereign and the French aristocrat. It kept young James Charles Stuart out of his hair.

On the other end of the spectrum, Queen Marie Stuart’s erstwhile friend and later, relentless critic, George Buchanan, is honored twice at competing gravesites within the kirkyard, each claiming to be the site where the scholar was buried when his original headstone sank into the mire. He is lauded in the interior of the beautiful Greyfriars Church with its well-known tryptic Buchanan stained glass window said to be the first art glass to be approved for installation in a post- Reformation Scottish church. Construction of the present building began in the early years of the 17th century at the site of an old Franciscan monastery, on land allegedly rededicated to the Kirk by the Queen of Scots. The cemetery thus predates the present church. 

George Buchanan: Wikimedia Commons
In spite of his harsh treatment of his royal pupil, James VI, and his betrayal of the queen who had considered him a trusted adviser, Buchanan is rehabilitated in mixed media splendor, but not his cohort Morton. Perhaps the difference is Morton's liberal hypothecation of clerical assets, diverted to finance the king's household, and his efforts to Anglicize the Scottish Kirk. Buchanan, on the other hand, resisted any move toward an English style episcopacy. He also attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to bend the young king to his philosophy that the ultimate power to rule was in the hands of the people, a position he expressed in writings banned during the politically volatile latter 17th Century. His treatise on the topic of the source of royal power was the star attraction at an Oxford Book Burning.

The principal difference in the legacies left by the two men who controlled the character development of King James VI and I is the public perception of Buchanan as an Erasmine intellectual and Morton’s as an overreaching politician. Neither of them, however, enjoy the popularity of Greyfriars best-known resident, the small black dog known to the world far outside Scotland as Greyfriar’s Bobby, who has become an international icon of love and loyalty, virtues not shared by either of the men who shared his burial grounds. A comparison of the little dog’s grave marker with that of the Earl of Morton illustrates the point.

Photo by the author
For those who are not Marian scholars, after the abdication of the Queen of Scots in 1567 following an armed but bloodless confrontation with the Lords of the Congregation at Carberry Hill and her imprisonment at the Douglas enclave at Lock Leven, the government of Scotland fell into the hands of a series of regents for the infant king, the first being the Queen’s half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Murray (Moray). He was assassinated by a member of the Catholic House of Hamilton in 1570 and succeeded by the king's paternal grandfather, Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox, a charming but ineffectual Anglophile, married to the Tudor princess, Lady Margaret Douglas. During Lennox’s Regency and the brief term of the Earl of Mar, the day to day management of government fell to the highly capable Morton, who finally achieved the title upon the death of Mar.

Forward-looking Morton’s policy centered on whatever pleased the English Queen. At the time, there was still a formidable Marian presence in Scotland, comprised of the Northern Catholic lairds, the Queen’s loyal but moderate followers like Lords Livingston and Herres, and Lord James Fleming, who held Dumbarton Castle, in addition to the great statesman Maitland of Lethington and the warrior knight, Kirkcaldy of Grange, who held Edinburgh Castle for the Queen. They were not an insignificant force, and the outcome of the power struggle called the Douglas Wars was by no means a foregone conclusion. Morton’s best chance to prevail against the Marians required support from the sovereign to the South. For example, when he accepted the Scottish Regency after the death of the king’s grandfather Lennox and the quick demise of the Earl of Mar, he wrote to Elizabeth’s minister Burleigh:
The knowledge of her Majesty's meaning has chiefly moved me to accept the charge (the Regency), resting in assured hope of her favourable protection and maintenance, especially for the present payment of our men-of-war their bypass wages. (Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.4 (1905) p.441 no.488, some parts modernised in the Calendar, Wikipedia).
Morton was not so much an Anglophile as he was a pragmatic Scot Kirkcaldy and his faction, including the Maxwells and the Kers of Ferniehirst, were running effective raids from the safety of Edinburgh Castle. The artillery there allowed them to control the city of Edinburgh and keep the King’s Army off balance. They rode as reivers against Morton’s estate at Dalkeith and stole his sheep. Kirkcaldy fired the mighty cannon Mons Meg into the city, and shells almost reached the Regent’s headquarters in a house in The Canongate.

The Old City is still within the range of Mons Meg.
In seeking an alliance with Elizabeth, Morton was not far off the mark. His wooing of the English Queen did more that open her tightly-held purse, but resulted in her sending her siege guns to Edinburgh to bombard the Castle, and thus end the Marian Civil War. The fall of the Castle spelled the end of a Marian force in Scotland.

One would have thought Morton’s achievements would have been applauded, but his seizure of church revenues and his knocking heads with the leaders of the Scottish Kirk also made enemies. In 1577, he was ousted as Regent by eleven-year-old James VI, who in his newly proclaimed majority was being guided by men who had had enough of Morton’s iron-fisted rule. But Morton was a competent manipulator and a military tactician. Within a year he had seized Stirling Castle and reacquired custody of the king. He assumed a principal role in a coalition government. His greatest rival the Earl of Athol mysteriously died after a dinner party at which Morton was suspected of pouring the wine.

However, Morton’s new ascendancy did not last long. The sometimes morose adolescent king had been encouraged to correspond with his French cousin Esme Stuart, son of his father Lord Darnley’s naturalized French uncle. In 1579, the King invited Esme to Scotland to claim his uncle Matthew’s earldom and soon James was entirely in his thrall. What Morton might have thought a clever way to keep the king occupied and out of his hair was a fatal mistake. Esme Stuart was more than just a charming courtier. Even before he met the king, he arrived in Edinburgh and charmed the burgesses with money he had likely carried from France at the behest of the Guise uncles of the imprisoned Queen of Scots. By the time he and James VI first met, Esme already had a faction. By 1580, he had the accomplices and the power to challenge Morton.

In late 1580, through a strawman, Captain John Stewart of Ochiltree, Morton was publicly accused of being part and parcel of the king’s father Lord Darnley’s murder at Kirk o' Field in 1567. While he denied complicity, he admitted knowledge of the conspiracy. Under other circumstances, it might not have been enough, but the tides had turned against him. On June 2, 1581, the mighty Earl of Morton was beheaded by a prototype of the guillotine called the Maiden, a device he is said to have acquired during one of his visits to Elizabeth.

The Maiden 
His body was dumped in a common grave at Greyfriars, but his head was mounted on a spike at the Edinburgh Tollbooth, near the site where his enemy Kirkcaldy had been executed at his insistence. Thereafter, the king ordered the knight Sir William Kirkcaldy’s body exhumed from another Greyfriars gravesite and reinterred in Kinghorn, ostensibly so the Knight of Grange, who had championed his mother, would not have his remains co-mingled with those of Morton, who had engineered his father's death.

Whether the inauspicious stump that is said to mark Morton’s grave is an actual marker or just a post to which animals on their way to the Flesh Market could be tied, is a subject of debate. Yet, whether his grave is marked with the plain stump or not at all seems irrelevant. When compared with the memorials to George Buchanan, the elegant tomb of James Stewart, Earl of Murry, known as The Good Regent, or that of Greyfriars Bobby or his owner the Constable John Gray, James Douglas, Earl of Morton does not fare well. The statue of the Skye Terrier near Greyfriars is an international tourist attraction. People cluster around to pet it, for luck. The city consistently expends funds resurfacing Bobby's nose. No one labors over how much of the story is fact and how much, fiction.

As for the stump which may or may not mark the burial place of the Earl of Morton, no one even bothers to kick it.  They walk on by.

Media Attributions:

George Buchanan: By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Maiden (old style Scottish Guillotine): By David Monniaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Linda Fetterly Root is an American writer of historical fiction set in Marie Stuart’s Scotland and during the reign of her son James VI and I. She is a retired major crimes prosecutor living in the high desert above Palm Springs. She is presently working on the fifth offering in her Legacy of the Queen of Scots series. Her debut novel in 2011, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, features some of the characters in this post. Morton is the villain in First Marie and in the novel The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, being rewritten as a trilogy.

Her books are available on Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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