Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange was the son of Sir James Kirkcaldy, Lord High Treasurer under James V. His mother was Janet Melville sister of the five Melville brother who played such a prominent part as civil servants and diplomats during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. He first came to notice in 1546 during the conspiracy against Cardinal David Bethune, when a group of Fife lairds entered the castle at St Andrews bent on killing him. This was in retaliation to the Cardinal’s proposal to attaint the reformers among the nobility. The Kirkcaldys were early converts and Sir William was a prominent member of the conspiracy, gaining access to the castle by letting down its drawbridge while Norman, Master of Rothes, held the porter in conversation. He also blocked the Cardinal’s escape route at the privy postern gate. Yet all the conspirators’ estates were forfeited.
During the subsequent siege of St. Andrews, Kirkcaldy played an active part in its defence and was sent to France after its surrender in July 1547. He was imprisoned in Mont St-Michel for eighteen months until he escaped to England, where he was granted a pension by Edward VI. In February 1551, the English sent him as their secret agent to Blois, but, on Mary Tudor’s accession, his activities were curtailed, and he joined the French service as a Captain of one hundred light horse. He distinguished himself against Charles V, ‘both in valour in battle and skill in knightly pursuits’, being described by Henry II as ‘one of the most valiant men of our time’. Yet he became nervous of growing French influence in Scotland, and, on 30 November 1556, offered to become Mary Tudor’s agent against both France and Scotland, but she again refused his offer. Yet, under Elizabeth I, he resumed his English employment.
In 1557, his forfeiture having been rescinded thanks to the heroics of the Master of Rothes at Renti, Kirkcaldy returned to Scotland, where he was married, but the name of his wife is not known. With his unrivalled reputation as a military commander, he was welcomed by the Reformist Lords of the Congregation. When his cousin, John Kirkcaldy, was severely treated by the English after a Border skirmish, Sir William challenged the English commander, Lord Evers, to a duel. As they were not of equal rank, Lord Evers refused, but his brother, Sir Ralph, a man of some repute, accepted the fight in full armour with sharp spears before the assembled English and Scottish troops outside Berwick. When their horses met with a furious shock, Kirkcaldy unhorsed Evers by running him through the shoulder, and was declared the victor.
In 1559, Kirkcaldy was at Perth when the Lords of the Congregation ransacked Scone and its abbey, forcing the Queen Regent’s French garrison to come to terms. By 19 July, they were running out of steam and sent an urgent letter to the English for military support. Kirkcaldy was involved in some successful skirmishes. When the French under Captain le Battu with one hundred men burned Grange to the ground, Kirkcaldy, with help from the Master of Lindsay killed fifty of their men and captured the remainder. Lindsay then killed le Battu in single combat. In August, Kirkcaldy was sent to London to negotiate with William Cecil, but returned to slow the French retreat from Fife by destroying the bridge over the River Devon at Tullibody. The resourceful French rebuilt it with the roof timbers from the church. He was present at the siege of Leith where Lord James Stewart at last received English help, to defeat the Queen Regent. She used her remaining French troops to good effect. On 6 November, when Lord James sent a force from Edinburgh to protect a convoy of provisions stuck in the marshes between Holyrood and Restalrig, the French sallied out from Leith, pushing them back into Edinburgh. Although they lost of more than one thousand men, Kirkcaldy chased the French back to Leith, preventing a worse outcome.
From now on Lord James Stewart, later Earl of Moray, always turned to Kirkcaldy for military assistance. In 1562, when he set out with Mary to tackle the intransigent George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly, Kirkcaldy was given command. His very presence put fear into the Gordons. When they attempted to capture the Gordon stronghold of Strathbogie, Mary ordered up one hundred and twenty arquebussiers and cannon. Kirkcaldy arrived with twelve men to try to surprise Huntly and hold the entrance until reinforcements arrived. Timing was of the essence, and while he was still negotiating entry with the gatekeeper, his back-up force appeared, giving the game away and Huntly escaped. Kirkcaldy was gived joint command, with the Master of Lindsay, of Mary’s troops at Corrichie, where Huntly’s troops were defeated and Huntly fell dead after a seizure.
During all this time Kirkcaldy acted as an English spy, providing regular reports to the Earl of Bedford on Scottish government policy. He was also friendly with Randolph, having been at university with him in Paris. He reported on the arrival of the Earl of Lennox in Scotland, saying that Mary’s ‘meaning [in restoring him to his estates] is not known, but some suspect she shall at length be persuaded to favour his son [Lord Darnley]’. When William Maitland was courting the much younger Mary Fleming, one of Mary’s Maries, Kirkcaldy considered her about as suitable for him ‘as I am to be pope’!
Kirkcaldy was shocked at the rapid return to Catholicism being encouraged by Darnley, and was horrified at Mary marrying him. On 18 July 1565, he joined Moray to meet those opposing the marriage, when a plea was sent to Elizabeth for military support. Mary reacted by attainting Moray, and by 14 August, the estates of Moray, Rothes and Kirkcaldy had been seized. On the following day Kirkcaldy left Edinburgh to join Moray in arms at Ayr, but, with Mary being popular, they did not receive the support that he had hoped. They could not risk facing Mary’s much larger army in what became known as the Chaseabout Raid. On 6 October, Moray and Kirkcaldy crossed into England at Carlisle. At this time, Mary could rely on Sir Thomas Kerr of Ferniehirst, who had married Kirkcaldy’s daughter and heir Janet.
Despite being in England, Kirkcaldy supported the plan to murder David Riccio, but he did not sign the bond sent to the exiles at Newcastle. Shortly beforehand, he returned to Edinburgh with Moray, but could only watch when Mary escaped to Dunbar with the Earl of Bothwell’s help. He reported that Bothwell ‘hath now of all men greatest access and familiarity with the Queen, so that nothing of importance is done without him’. He saw Bothwell as ‘the most hated man among the noblemen of this realm, and it is said that his insolence is such that David was never more abhorred than he is now’ disliked by Catholics, Protestants and English alike.
Kirkcaldy was not involved in Darnley’s murder and did not attend the meeting at Craigmillar. He was also kept unaware of the plan to encourage Mary to marry Bothwell, and refused to attend the dinner at Ainslie’s Tavern, where many of the nobles signed a bond to support it. There is no doubting that he opposed it. He was obsessed with honour, and had always hated Bothwell. Immediately after the dinner he wrote to Bedford that if Mary ‘will pursue revenge for the murder, she will win the hearts of all honest Scotsmen again’, claiming that the guests signed in ‘fear of their lives and against honour and conscience’. Later he was completely taken in by the propaganda of her involvement with Bothwell in the murder as a crime of passion, and. He considered her ‘so far past all shame’ if she married him and reported:
She cares not to lose France, England and her own country for him, and will go with him to the world’s end in a white petticoat before she leaves him . . . Whatever is unhonest reigns presently in our court.
His bulletins to Bedford mention the rumours that Bothwell was planning to kidnap Mary as she returned from seeing Prince James at Stirling. On 22 April, he wrote:
I doubt not but you have heard Bothwell had gathered many of his friends, some say to ride in Liddesdale, but I believe it not, for he is minded to meet the Queen this day, Thursday, and to take her by the way and bring her to Dunbar. Judge you if it be with her will or no.
He concluded that ‘the Queen was minded to cause Bothwell to ravish [seize] her’, so that they could speed up their marriage, ‘which she has promised before she caused murder her husband’. Given his later loyalty to Mary, he must have come to realise that this was not true. On 26 April, two days after the abduction, he again wrote to Bedford:
Many would revenge it but they fear your mistress [Elizabeth]. I am so suited for to enterprise the revenge that I must either take it in hand or leave the country, which I am determined to do, if I get licence: but Bothwell minds to cut me off ere I obtain it. I pray you let me know what your mistress will do, for if we seek France, we may find favour; but I would rather persuade to lean to England. No honest man is safe in Scotland under the rule of a murderer and a murderess.
He remained in Scotland sending Bedford increasingly vitriolic messages. On 8 May, he reported that the dissident lords intended to overthrow Bothwell but needed Elizabeth’s help to prevent the marriage. He claimed that du Croc, the French ambassador, had offered them French assistance. Despite his, Elizabeth refused to become involved. When Kirkcaldy claimed that ‘the barbarous tyrant’ Bothwell had tried to poison Prince James, she claimed to be incensed at his ‘vile’ letters. While writing to Bedford, he enclosed correspondence to be forwarded to Moray, who was keeping out of the way in France, advising him to come to Normandy to await the call from the Scottish nobles to return to take the Regency.
On 6 May, Kirkcaldy attended a meeting of the dissident nobles at Stirling when they agreed to overthrow Bothwell. By now, nothing was going to stop the marriage, which took place at Holyrood nine days later. Kirkcaldy’s vitriol was reserved for Bothwell, not Mary, and it is probable that, if she could have been separated from him, he would have supported Maitland in wanting to maintain her on the throne. Yet this required Bothwell to be apprehended and Moray to be placed back as head Government. It was also essential to keep Prince James under the Earl of Mar’s control at Stirling. To achieve this, Kirkcaldy was rumoured to be planning a coup to capture Bothwell and Mary at Holyrood, but they were warned by the Earl of Argyll and nothing came of it.
When Bothwell realised the strength of the opposition facing him, he took Mary from Edinburgh to Borthwick, where he left her while he sought support. Although Kirkcaldy reached Borthwick, the nobles’ forces were insufficient to prevent Mary from escaping. She rejoined Bothwell at Dunbar, where he had gathered a limited force. They then marched towards Edinburgh hoping to gain sufficient support to recover the Castle with its munitions. They were met by the dissident nobles’ forces at Carberry Hill, where Kirkcaldy positioned a small body of horse to stop them from retreating. She was hopelessly outnumbered and, after a day spent in negotiation, her forces dwindled away, leaving the odds stacked against her. When she tried to leave, Kirkcaldy was blocking way. She knew that he was an ally at heart and needed to seek terms.
Kirkcaldy assured Mary that if she went with him, Bothwell would be permitted to escape. Bothwell begged her not to agree, but, in Kirkcaldy’s hearing, she told him
she owed a duty to the late King her husband, a duty which she would not neglect. Most willingly therefore would she authorise everyone to exercise the fullest liberty of inquiry into the circumstances of his death. She intended to do so herself, and to punish with all severity such as should be convicted thereof.
Always chivalrous, Kirkcaldy assured her that
he had been sent, at the unanimous consent of the rebels, for the sole purpose of offering to the Queen, as their rightful superior, their true allegiance, and to give her a guaranteed safe conduct to come amongst them. Furthermore, that each single one of them wanted no more than to accord her all honour and obedience in whatever way she wished to command them.
Mary soon learned that this was far from their intention, and Kirkcaldy considered her subsequent treatment and imprisonment at Lochleven to be a breach of his honour. When he led her on horseback to where the other lords were waiting, they ignored his undertaking and took her into Edinburgh under arrest.
The dissident nobles must have doubted Kirkcaldy’s continuing loyalty as the Earl of Morton silenced him by sending him after Bothwell. Having arrived at Dundee, four men-of- war, considered the fastest in Scotland, were fitted out and they obtained five further ships. They set sail on 19 August with cannon and four hundred musketeers with orders to seize Bothwell and execute him without trial.
Bothwell had made his way to Shetland where he was trying to raise money by pillaging shipping in the area with his cousin, the pirate, Olaf Sinclair. On 25 August, Kirkcaldy caught up with his ships anchored in Bressay Sound near Lerwick. With Bothwell on shore with most of his men, Kirkcaldy attacked, but Bothwell managed to climb back on board. After cutting his anchor, he drove his ship over some rocks, scraping the bottom. When Kirkcaldy followed, his man-of-war was holed and sank. Bothwell escaped with three ships and one hundred and forty men to Unst, the most northern of the Shetland Islands, leaving another three ships to be captured with those on board at Lerwick. Kirkcaldy continued his chase with his three remaining men-of-war and, after again catching them, fought out a battle lasting three hours, during which Bothwell’s mainmast was shot away. When Kirkcaldy sent a boarding party, a violent storm blew up, allowing Bothwell’s superior seamanship to come to his rescue. After transferring his men to his two remaining ships, he sailed south-east before the wind, crossing to Norway in record time. Although Kirkcaldy followed for sixty miles, he was out-sailed and, by own admission, was ‘no good seaman’.
When Kirkcaldy returned Edinburgh, Moray was Regent, and Kirkcaldy gave him his full support. Yet he disapproved of Mary’s imprisonment and believed that her abdication under duress could be called into question. Moray made him Governor of Edinburgh Castle and, on 4 December, he attended a secret meeting of Moray’s main adherents, where Mary was formally accused of complicity in the King’s death and intent to murder her son, but no evidence was submitted.
After Mary’s escape from Lochleven, Moray moved fast to gather forces to prevent her allies from joining up. He was strategically placed in Glasgow to prevent Mary from reaching Dumbarton, where she receive support from the Continent. Kirkcaldy arrived from Edinburgh Castle to support Moray, refuting later reports from Sir James Melville that he had by then changed sides. With his formidable reputation, Moray could rely on him to act as he saw fit, within the framework of their military plan.
Moray realised that he had an opportunity to challenge Mary’s numerically superior forces as they approached from the Hamilton stronghold of Cadzow, and he positioned his men at Langside, south-east of Glasgow. This was a T-shaped village with a long narrow main street, Long Loan, running from south-east to north-west. With Morton commanding his main force, he appointed Kirkcaldy to have ‘special care as an experimented captain to oversee every danger’. Kirkcaldy took two hundred hagbutters forward to occupy cottages on each side of Long Loan, where their garden walls offered protection from cannon fire, and he reserved two hundred pikemen and cavalry on the west side of the village. As Lord Claud Hamilton advanced with 2,000 men supported by cavalry, Kirkcaldy rode from wing to wing to supervise the defences. As they stormed into Long Loan, Kirkcaldy’s hagbutters picked them off easily backed by Ker of Cessford and Home, on foot with pike in hand, leading his six hundred spearmen. Mary’s troops fought their way forward bravely, and almost turned Moray’s right flank, but, ever vigilant, Kirkcaldy saw the danger. He called up the rear guard led by Sir William Douglas and Lindsay. With orders from Moray to minimise bloodshed, his forces struck the enemy on their flanks and faces, throwing them into confusion. Mary’s van needed support from the main body of her troops under Argyll, but, at this critical moment he fainted, possibly with an epileptic fit, and the leaderless Argylls refused to budge without him. Mary made good her escape and eventually crossed the Solway Firth to England to seek Elizabeth’s help. Kirkcaldy’s men moved forward, but still obeyed instructions to avoid loss of life and to capture as many as they could. Mary’s troops were routed, but only a hundred were slain, although three hundred were taken prisoner. The Regency lost just one man, although several were wounded. The whole skirmish that sealed Mary’s fate took three-quarters of an hour.
With Mary now in England, Kirkcaldy was one of only a small group of Scottish nobles, who placed loyalty to their anointed Queen above their disaffection with her political shortcomings. He became close to Maitland and Lord Herries in their view that, without Bothwell, she should be restored to the throne. They kept their understanding secret, and although Kirkcaldy had confirmed to the Provost of Edinburgh on 8 May 1568 that he held Edinburgh Castle for James, there is no doubt that it was already being held for Mary by the time she was at Bolton. He had the support of his son-in-law, Kerr of Ferniehirst, and of Ker of Cessford, but on 10 April 1569, they were forced to submit to Moray. Although Herries was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, with Kirkcaldy as his jailor he was soon freed and joined Mary’s commissioners at the Conferences at York and at Westminster. Maitland was also arrested and placed in Edinburgh Castle. Yet he was not brought to trial as it is clear that he knew too much. After Maitland met up with Kirkcaldy at Kelso in October, he wrote secretly to Mary that she could rely on Kirkcaldy’s support.
On 21 January 1570, Moray was assassinated at Linlithgow. Despite being secretly allied to Mary, Kirkcaldy, as Governor of Edinburgh Castle, bore the standard before the body. Yet he continued to hold Edinburgh Castle on Mary’s behalf and was receiving financial support from the Continent. Morton, who was in effective control of Government arranged an amnesty with the Mary’s supporters, so that Châtelherault and Herries were released from imprisonment. With Maitland being ‘purged of the privitie to the murder of the king or regent’, he felt sufficiently secure to leave Edinburgh. He was now acknowledged as the spokesman for Mary’s supporters, but had begun to suffer from a wasting disease and could no longer walk. Ferniehirst was able to join Kirkcaldy with seventy spearmen at the Castle. Knox told Kirkcaldy that his continued defence of the Castle was ‘an offence against God’. With his dying words, he sent a second message that ‘unless he was brought to repentance he should be disgracefully dragged from his nest to punishment and hung on a gallows in the face of the sun’.
With Kirkcaldy acknowledged to be the military strategist of his time, the Castle was well fortified. He had repulsed all attacks with the approaches being reinforced with cannon placed on the steeple of St. Giles Kirk. His tactic had been to send out skirmishing parties to attack any Regency forces in the vicinity, thus deflecting attention from the Castle itself. This approach had allowed him to retain control for three years. When Maitland’s creeping paralysis worsened, he recognised that his days were numbered, but was determined to provide moral support at the Castle, in what had become a cause célèbre. On 1 April 1571, he arrived from Blair Atholl on a litter, with his legs paralysed, his body weak, and his head needing support. After reaching Leith by ship, he was carried to the Castle. When Dumbarton fell, Fleming also managed to elude capture and joined Kirkcaldy and Maitland, his brother-in-law. On 19 April 1571, Kirkcaldy joined a group of Mary’s supporters in an attempt to gain control of James at Stirling. Lennox, who was now Regent, had come to protect his grandson, but was captured in an attack led by Kirkcaldy. While being held as a prisoner, he was shot by one of Lord Claud Hamilton’s men, an action that Kirkcaldy deeply regretted and vowed to avenge. When Morton’s men counter-attacked, Kirkcaldy and the Hamiltons were driven out.
When the Earl of Mar became Regent, his first test was to deal with Kirkcaldy’s son-in-law, Ferniehirst, who, in October 1571, captured Jedburgh, Lord Ruthven arrived and defeated Ferniehirst, who was forced to go abroad. Kirkcaldy had now lost his son-in-law as an ally in protecting Edinburgh Castle. Hay of Yester, Ferniehirst’s brother-in-law, now realised that Kirkcaldy’s cause was hopeless and stopped his active support.
Following Mar’s death, Morton became Regent and sent Sir James Melville and Boyd to come to terms with Kirkcaldy, but when the Hamiltons and other of Mary’s supporters were not included in the proposed amnesty, Kirkcaldy felt, in all honour, that he could not accept. On 5 July 1572, Fleming was accidently shot in the knee by a French soldier discharging his firing piece on the pavement, so that the bullet ricocheted. For a time, he remained at the Castle, but later went on a litter to Biggar, where, on 6 September, he died. Enfeebled in body, but still mentally alert, Maitland realised that the game was up and sought a compromise, but Morton was no longer in a mood to negotiate. When Rothes approached Kirkcaldy on Morton’s behalf to persuade him to give up his great struggle, it was to no avail.
At last Morton called for Drury to bring in his 1,500 English troops. On 17 May 1573, Drury started a devastating cannonade, lasting four days. Maitland had to be carried to the vaults below St. David’s chapel, as his frame ‘could not abide the shot’. Although Lord Home was in support, Kirkcaldy’s troops were dwindling, and the eastern front of the Castle was destroyed. On 28 May, the attackers stormed the spur of the Castle, providing its water supply. Without water and short of provisions, Kirkcaldy realised that he was lost. On the following day, with Maitland at his side, he surrendered with his garrison of one hundred and sixty-four men, thirty-four women and ten boys. Drury accepted the surrender, treating them with great courtesy. Kirkcaldy had hoped for leniency from Elizabeth, but she insisted on him being handed over to Morton.
Mary’s supporters offered Morton substantial financial inducement to save Kirkcaldy’s life, but he wanted to stamp out any lingering opposition and saw Kirkcaldy’s sacrifice as essential for the Regency’s continuance in power. David Lindsay, a Reformist minister, tried to intercede for him, and remained with him at the scaffold. On 3 August, he was taken to the gibbet at the Market Cross to be executed ‘as a stern necessity as he had exasperated public feeling’. Maitland, who was imprisoned at Leith, took poison on 9 July to kill himself ‘after the old Roman fashion’.
It is difficult to understand Kirkcaldy, Maitland and Home in their determination to hold out to the end. With Maitland dying, he may have want to make a last gesture to gain the sympathy of a Queen, who he had served to greater or lesser benefit. Kirkcaldy’s political judgement had always been irrational, and he rejected ample opportunities for an honourable surrender, but wanted protection for his colleagues. He seems to have relished the military challenge of defending the Castle against all odds. No one can doubt his achievement, or his constancy. He was in the forefront of the military commanders of his age. Sir James Melville described him as ‘humble, gentle, meek, like a lamb in the house, and like a lion in the field, a lusty, stark and well-proportioned personage, hardy and of magnanimous courage’.