Feuding of the Scottish Nobility in the 16th Century

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Crossraguel Abbey as it would have looked in the 16th Century, before it was destroyed.

During the Sixteenth Century feuding between rival Scottish clans caused catastrophic problems between them, generally resulting in the Crown having to step in to settle matters. In researching The Challenge to the Crown and The Survival of the Crown, I followed the feud between the Kennedys of Cassillis (pronounced Cassells) and the Kennedys of Bargany. The latter were supported by the Stewarts of Ochiltree and by the Mures of Auchendrane, both of whom they were connected by marriage, but the atrocities committed by those who have gone down in history as respected members of the Scottish aristocracy were extraordinarily shocking.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

This is an example of a number of long-term feuds involving several generations in outlying areas, where a local magnate, in this case the Earl of Cassillis, held sway. Magnates wielded both military and judicial authority on behalf of the Crown as its feudal superior, allowing them to rule their own areas as a fiefdom. Disputes invariably arose over control of land granted by the Crown or the Kirk, causing rivals to gang together in feudal alliances to challenge a magnate’s authority. The Crown invariably had little option but to back the magnate, regardless of rights or wrongs, as it had no military means of doing otherwise. The bonds put together to implement the murders of Riccio and Lord Darnley need to be considered in the context of the times in which they occurred.

Crossraguel Abbey in the 16th Century

Crossraguel Abbey in the 16th Century

On 10 August 1566, Mary Queen of Scots and her King Consort Henry, Lord Darnley, were presented with a deed apparently signed by Quentin Kennedy, Abbot of both Glenluce and Crossraguel (pronounced Crossregal), who had died two years earlier, granting the Abbey of Crossraguel near Maybole in Ayrshire to his nephew, the twenty-four year old Gilbert Kennedy, 4th Earl of Cassillis. Quentin Kennedy had been a determined Catholic and, following the Scottish Reformation in 1560, was at the forefront of those in the area round Maybole continuing to celebrate Mass. In 1562, this had forced John Knox to come to Ayrshire to try to impose his brand of Calvinist doctrine. Quentin Kennedy challenged him to a debate, witnessed by forty adherents on each side, and he appears to have held his own. This left the area polarised between Catholics and Reformers.

During his visit, Knox had stayed at the home of Thomas Kennedy of Bargany, a powerful cadet branch of the Cassillis Kennedys. Thomas had married, as his second wife, Isabel, daughter of the staunchly Reformist Andrew Stewart, 2nd Lord Ochiltree, and Knox married her sister Margaret, two years later.

On Quentin Kennedy’s death in 1564, Knox saw to it that the vacancy to the Abbacy was not refilled, and it was arranged that Allan Stewart, a brother (although probably an illegitimate half-brother) of Isabel and Margaret, should be appointed as the lay Commendator of Crossraguel, allowing him to take possession of the Abbey lands. This greatly irritated Cassillis, who had wanted to be appointed Commendator himself.

James Stewart, Earl of Moray & Regent of Scotland

James Stewart, Earl of Moray & Regent of Scotland

Mary and her new husband, now known as King Henry, were anxious to curry favour with Cassillis. In the previous year, he had supported them to thwart an attempted coup by Mary’s illegitimate half-brother Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray, and, in December 1565, he took Mass with the Royal couple at Holyrood. Yet he had recently married Margaret Lyon, daughter of John 7th Lord Glamis, and by her persuasion had become a Reformer, leaving his loyalty to the Queen and King in doubt.

David Riccio (a.k.a. Rizzio, Rizzo)

David Riccio

King Henry was particularly anxious to retain Cassillis’s goodwill. Five month’s earlier he had arranged a bond to murder the Queen’s acting Secretary of State and close confidante David Riccio. This had involved a feudal bloodletting involving a number of the King’s mainly Protestant kinsmen. He had been led to believe that Riccio was usurping his natural place at the Queen’s right hand and was opposing his ambition to be granted the Crown Matrimonial, which would have assured him of the Crown in the event of the death of both Mary and any children of their marriage. His kinsmen had also hinted to him that Mary’s relationship with Riccio might be more than that of Monarch and her senior minister. The King arranged the murder, so that Riccio was stabbed to death in front of the Queen, who was five months pregnant. It was probable that this would induce her to miscarry placing her life at risk. He was hoping thereby to gain the throne.

In recent months he had been using the opportunity of ever longer hunting trips in the west of Scotland to help his cause by communicating with both the Papacy and the major European Catholic powers to promote his Catholic credentials with foreign Governments. He wanted to be recognised as the obvious Catholic claimant to both the Scottish and English thrones, and he needed Cassillis and other sympathetic members of the Scottish nobility to back a foreign invasion force.

Yet the King’s kinsmen had rather different objectives. They were concerned at the Scottish Government’s recent swing back towards Catholicism, and realised that both King Henry and Riccio were seeking to restore Papacy. Their plan was to implicate the King in Riccio’s murder and, by association, the Queen so that they could be imprisoned. This would leave the throne available for Moray, either as Regent on behalf of Mary’s child if it survived, or for himself as the eldest son of James V, albeit illegitimate. Yet their plan was foiled by Mary’s quick thinking. After Riccio’s murder, she managed to dissociate the King from the other conspirators, and together they escaped to Dunbar on horseback with the help of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and other loyal adherents. From here she raised an army to regain control. Despite being aware of her husband’s part in the murder, and even of the conspirators’ intention to take her life, she was not able to prosecute the King for treason without prejudicing the legitimacy of their unborn child. Yet she forced him to reveal the other conspirators’ names, and arranged their attainder, seizing their estates and forcing them into exile. The King was now in trouble. Not only was he being cold-shouldered by the Queen, but, if the conspirators were ever to find their way back into Scotland, they would seek revenge by murdering him. He desperately needed Cassillis as an ally.

Having received Quentin Kennedy’s written authority, the Queen and King now granted a nineteen year lease over the lands of the Abbey of Crossraguel to Cassillis without rent. As the dominant local magnate, Cassillis had already taken the law into his own hands. He was so full of his own self-importance that he was known as ‘the king of Carrick being ane particular man, and one werry greedy man, and cared not how he got land, so that he could come by the same’. Mary and King Henry were unaware that the Abbot’s authority had been forged. Cassillis had arranged for a monk to counterfeit the Abbot’s signature, and then ordered his assassination to cover the deception. As extra protection to ensure that the story did not leak, Cassilis’s uncle, Hugh Kennedy of Barquhanny accused the assassin of theft and had him hanged.

To complete the transfer of Crossraguel, Cassillis needed the four sureties of the Abbey to renounce their rights. On 29 August 1570, the new Commendator, Allan Stewart, refused to sign, unwilling to be divested of estates, over which he had been granted control entirely legally. With the help of his brother Sir Thomas Kennedy of Culzean (pronounced Killane)[1], Cassillis waylaid Stewart in the woods at Crossraguel, forcing him to go with them to their stronghold at Dunure, where he was thrown into the ‘Black Vault’. He was again asked to authorise the grant, but bravely refused. After being bound hand and foot, he was tied to a grate before the kitchen fire, where he was covered in cooking oil and roasted alive. They ‘set his bare legs to a fire and extremely burned him, that he was ever thereafter unable of his legs’. A napkin was forced into his mouth to stop his screams, but after enduring seven days of torture, he capitulated and agreed to sign, after being forced to swear on oath that he would not reveal how he had been treated.

On hearing that Allan Stewart was being held, Thomas Kennedy of Bargany sent twelve servants to Dunure in an attempt to rescue him. They were led by his former page, David Kennedy of Maxwelltown. They managed to hide in the chapel outside the walls, from where there was a door into the fortress. The next morning, as the keepers opened it, Bargany’s men rushed in and overcame the garrison. Although Cassillis and Culzean arrived to regain control, Maxwelltown repulsed their men with stones thrown from the battlements, and Cassillis was shot in the shoulder from a hackbut. Bargany quickly raised reinforcements, which relieved Maxwelltown and carried Allan Stewart to Ayr, where his scars and burns were displayed to the horrified townsfolk. With the consent of the Privy Council, Cassillis and Culzean were brought to trial. Although Cassillis refused to accept the Court’s jurisdiction, Culzean was found guilty of ‘forgery and ravishment’. Cassillis eventually came to terms with the Earl of Lennox, who was by then Regent, and, in an effort to stop the hostilities, was treated leniently. In the spring of 1571, Dunure was restored to him, but he was required to provide a surety of £2,000 to leave Allan Stewart alone and to give him an annual pension. Cassillis also agreed to purchase Crossraguel for a fair price. Yet he failed to comply, and Lennox came in person to arrange for Cassillis to be imprisoned at Dumbarton. Yet the Regency needed Cassillis as an ally and, on 12 August, the Earl of Morton, who had charge of Government, granted him a remission and made him a Privy Councillor. Cassillis was not won over to the Regency and, until his death in 1576 remained staunchly loyal to Mary, now imprisoned in England.

Cassillis’s son John, still a minor, succeeded his father as 5th Earl, and John’s uncles disputed over who act as his guardian, a position which allowed them to usurp the revenues of the Cassillis Earldom for themselves. Initially his mother’s brother, Lord Glamis, the Lord Chancellor, and a close ally of Morton, who was now Regent, was appointed, but Glamis died at Stirling on 17 March 1578, and was replaced by Culzean. Culzean was no role model, and the young Cassillis followed his family’s unprincipled ways by wooing and then jilting Jean Cunningham, the Earl of Glencairn’s eldest daughter.

Despite efforts by the Government in Edinburgh to end the feuding, the Cassillis and Bargany Kennedys remained at loggerheads. The Bargany Kennedys were also supported by their kinsmen, the Mures of Auchendrane, who were facing another long-term dispute with the Cassillis Kennedys over land. On 3 January 1597, John Mure of Auchendrane made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Culzean at a house in Maybole. To bring this feud to a close, the authorities forced Auchendrane to apologise, but he was treated leniently. In usual fashion, they called for a marriage between the two families, and Auchendrane’s son, James, married Culzean’s daughter, Helen. By 1601, Gilbert Kennedy of Bargany had inherited from his father Thomas and was married to Jean (or Anna) Stewart, daughter of Andrew, Master of Ochiltree. The headstrong Bargany was determined on revenge against the young Cassillis, whose father had so grievously tortured his wife’s uncle.

On 11 December 1601, Bargany marched through Maybole on his way to his home near Girvan accompanied by Auchendrane and a force of eighty men hired in Ayr. Cassillis quickly raised two hundred men to attack them at Ladycross. Being out-numbered, Bargany and Auchendrane were deserted by their hired men. Auchendrane was wounded and Bargany was struck in the throat by a lance and died of his wounds after returning to Ayr. James VI concluded that Bargany had provoked the attack, and treated Cassillis leniently and even thanked him for being rid of his belligerent rival. Yet, on 4 September 1602, Cassillis promised to pay his uncle, Culzean, 1,200 marks annually and to provide him with six horses, if he would kill Auchendrane, whose son had married Culzean’s daughter.

In 1602, Culzean sent a message to Auchendrane that he was travelling to Edinburgh, and would undertake any commissions for him, if requested. Auchendrane saw this as his opportunity for revenge. The message had been carried by a schoolboy named Dalrymple, who was bribed by Auchendrane to tell Culzean that he had been unable to deliver it. Auchendrane and his son James then ambushed and murdered Culzean, James’s father-in-law, at Duppil outside Ayr.  Neither Auchendrane nor his son was apprehended, but they feared that Dalrymple would realise what had happened. They confined the boy at their home and later on the island of Arran, until he was sent to the Low Countries as a mercenary. On his return after about six years, he visited his kinsman James Bannantyne, a farmer at Chapeldonnan near Girvan, who was persuaded to strangle Dalrymple on the beach at Girvan. Bannantyne was assisted by James Mure to bury Dalrymple’s body in the sand, but it was later washed up on the shore. When Bannantyne was questioned, he made a full confession, which implicated Auchendrane and his son. In 1611, they were at last brought to trial and were executed with the Maiden, an early Scottish guillotine.

James VI, always impoverished, treated Cassillis more subtly. In 1598, he appointed him as Lord High Treasurer, expecting him to bankroll his Government. Although Cassillis managed to resign, he was fined for doing so, but died in his bed in October 1615.


[1] Culzean was a somewhat unlikely ally. On an earlier occasion, he had shot at his brother, either to slay him or to make his Countess miscarry, presumably to gain the earldom for himself.
  • Margaret Skea

    Enjoyed this post, especially as I mention the feuding in my novel Turn of the Tide here’s the quote – ‘…tales of other butcherings. Boyds against Stewarts; Maxwells against Johnstones; Kennedys, who, failing another family to fight, savaged amongst themselves.’