Note: The numbering of the Earls of Mar causes confusion. There were two titles, the ancient earldom of Mar, which passed through the female line, and a title originally created for Lord James Stewart on his marriage. When Lord James became Earl of Moray, the new Mar Earldom was granted to John Lord Erskine (this John’s father) but it passed only through the male line. To gain restoration of the original title, this John’s father claimed descent through five Lords Erskine who were deemed to be de jure Earls of Mar, although they were never known by that title. Burke’s Peerage 1936 numbers these five de jure Earls, making this Earl of Mar the 23rd in line. Wikipedia does not, so this John becomes the 18th Earl. I prefer to follow Burke’s peerage, which is also followed by Stirnet.com (the principal source of all my genealogical data) .]
John Erskine, 2nd and 23rd Earl of Mar, was the son of the 1st Earl and Annabella Murray. He succeeded from his father in 1574. Although seven years older than James VI, for whom his parents acted as guardians, he was educated as a Reformer in a similar regime under George Buchanan, and they remained confidantes. James referred to him familiarly as Jocky o’ Sclaittis (Slates), and they hunted and practiced archery together.
When the Earl of Morton stepped down in 1578 after six years as Regent, he suddenly found that he was in personal danger. He needed to retain control over James, and turned to the young Mar, to achieve this for him. As soon as he came of age, Morton persuaded Mar to claim the Governorship of Stirling Castle, as was his hereditary right, by supplanting his uncle, Sir Alexander Erskine of Gogar, who opposed Morton. On 26 April 1578, Mar arrived there on the pretence of going hunting and called for the keys. When Gogar brought them, hannee was unceremoniously seized by Mar’s supporters and pushed out of the gates, leaving Mar in control of the King. Morton then galloped with a small force from Edinburgh to provide a garrison. Although members of the Council arrived soon afterwards, Mar only gave them access to the Castle one at a time. A compromise had to be reached and Mar was left as the King’s guardian but his twelve-year-old charge was sent back to the school room.
In April 1579, Mar arranged a banquet at Stirling in an effort to restore support for Morton, but the Earl of Atholl, who had replaced Morton as Lord Chancellor, became violently ill on his return home and died. There were strong suspicions of poison, with the finger pointing at Morton. Argyll, not Morton, was chosen to succeed him, making Morton increasingly desperate. Morton now attempted to gain control of the King during a hunting expedition at Dalkeith, but James escaped to rejoin Mar.
Soon after this, the King’s cousin, Esmé Stuart, arrived from France with a secret plan to escort James back to the Continent and to implement a Counter-Reformation in Scotland. He quickly ingratiated himself with James, making sure that Morton remained side-lined (and eventually arranging his execution). Mar stationed troops to stop Esmé from taking James to Dumbarton, but was later exonerated by the King for seemingly having held him against his will. With James continuing to be in Esmé’s thrall, Mar found himself as Esmé’s principal opponent. In August 1582, there were rumours that Esmé was planning to arrest and execute Mar and other Protestant nobles. Although Mar sought military help from Elizabeth I, she prevaricated, and he had insufficient support to challenge Esmé.
On 15 August 1582, Mar was one of a group of Protestant nobles led by the Earl of Gowrie, which abducted the King on a hunting trip in Atholl. In what became known as the Raid of Ruthven, they took him to Ruthven Castle and surrounded it with one thousand of their supporters to prevent Esmé from reaching him. James now branded Gowrie as his jailer. Esmé was forced into exile, but Captain James Stewart, now Earl of Arran, continued to challenge Gowrie and Mar. Mar played his part in stopping attempts to free the King, but, on 20 May 1583, James was set free while being escorted by Mar round his palaces. Mar was now forced into exile in Ireland from where he came to England.
By the spring of 1584, Mar had amassed sufficient backing to cross back into Scotland. On 17 April with assistance from Lord John and Lord Claud Hamilton, he captured Stirling. Gowrie moved secretly to Dundee to muster troops, but Arran had anticipated this, and, had his house surrounded, forcing him to surrender. Back in Edinburgh, Gowrie was found guilty of treason and executed. Without Gowrie as a crucial ally, Mar could no longer hold Stirling and, when the King advanced from Edinburgh with more than 12,000 men, he was forced to leave the castle he had so recently captured and he slipped back into England at Berwick.
In early October, Elizabeth encouraged the exiled Protestant lords led by Mar to travel to Scotland. As soon as they crossed the border, they gained support on all sides and, on 31 October, arrived at St. Ninian’s Chapel outside Stirling with 10,000 men. This show of force was enough; Arran fled in disguise, but the postern gate was locked to stop the King from following him. James showed the good sense to restore Mar to his estates and honours. He regained the governorship of Stirling Castle and joined the Privy Council.
On 14 July 1587, Mar was appointed to the committee to purge the Scots of Papists. As the pendulum swung in favour of the Protestants, Sir Richard Maitland of Thirlestane became Lord Chancellor. After showing support for him, Mar and other Protestants were returned to senior positions in Government. Elizabeth was delighted to have them back in power. Mar now became the Grand Master of the Household and gained major influence. His first wife, Anne (or Agnes) Drummond, the mother of his son John, died on 23 December 1587. Five years later, James showed him signal respect by arranging for him to remarry Esmé’s daughter, Lady Mary Stuart, by whom he had a further twelve children.
Following James’s marriage to Anne of Denmark and the birth of Prince Henry, Mar, with his elderly mother Annabella, was given charge of the Prince’s upbringing. Anne was furious that her eldest son should be taken from her and persuaded Thirlestane to arrange for Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch to replace Mar as the Prince’s guardian. Buccleuch’s lawless background hardly commended him, and the King considered that the Queen for meddling. He accused Thirlestane of interfering in domestic matters that were not his concern and moved him out of favour.
With Thirlestane removed from of authority, James tried to bring the Kirk to heal by appointing bishops to bring it in line with the Church of England. They would provide him with the means of maintaining control. He was also showing sympathy for a group of Catholic Earls in northern Scotland, who were seeking to promote a Counter-Reformation with assistance from Spain. These factors caused riots at the Tolbooth in Edinburgh, where Mar had to provide the King with protection.
Mar was now one of a close circle of nobles surrounding the King and, in 1600, accompanied him back to Ruthven Castle in what became known as the Gowrie conspiracy. The King, who provided the only evidence of what happened, told an implausible story that the 3rd Earl of Gowrie and his brother the Master of Ruthven had attempted to assassinate him. During the fracas, both Gowrie and Ruthven were killed. It is much more likely that it was the King who used the visit to assassinate them to save him having to repay an enormous debt due by the Treasury, dating back to their father’s period as Lord Chancellor during the time of the Raid of Ruthven. None of the King’s supporters ever admitted what had happened, and all received large benefits for keeping their mouths shut. Mar was made a Knight of the Garter in 1603 and was created Lord Cardross in 1606.
Mar became the principal negotiator to ensure that James would inherit the English throne. Initially, he went to London to offer covert support for a rebellion by the Earl of Essex who tried to overturn Elizabeth I’s Government. By the time of his arrival, Essex had been executed, and James’s proposed support was never revealed. Elizabeth saw Mar as ‘a courtly and well advised gentleman’. He was then approached by Robert Cecil, who warned him not to become embroiled in English politics. He was told that James would succeed Elizabeth, but she would never confirm his position in advance. When Elizabeth at last died, James was welcomed by the English with open arms.
Mar accompanied James to England, but his mother had instructions to retain Prince Henry under her control. The Queen, who remained in Scotland as she was pregnant, was so incensed that she suffered a miscarriage. Although James sent Mar back from York to escort Prince Henry and the Queen to join him, she refused to go with him, and the King had to send the Duke of Lennox to bring them south. Although she travelled with Lennox, she wanted reparation from Mar. With the Erskines having acted in accordance with his wishes, James arranged for the Queen to be reconciled to Mar, who was honoured with a grant of English lands in addition to an appointment to the English Privy Council. In 1615, he returned to Scotland as Lord High Treasurer until 1630, spending much time regaining estates previously forming part of the Mar Earldom restored to his father. He died on 14 December 1634 at Stirling.