Differences between the Ogilvys and the Gordons

Sir John Gordon’s attempt to claim the estates of Ogilvy of Cardell

In researching my book ‘The Challenge to the Crown’, I came across the story of Sir John Gordon’s brawl in Edinburgh with Sir Alexander Ogilvy of Deskford in June 1562. Having studied the genealogy of the named participants it became clear that their respective ages made the story completely implausible. This is an attempt to come to a more plausible explanation of what may have happened, which would explain the irritation felt by Mary Queen of Scots towards Sir John Gordon, which led to her expedition to the north in 1562.

When, in 1562, Mary travelled north with Lord James Stewart to deal with the ‘overweaning power’ of the Gordons, she had her own good reasons for wanting them brought to heal.  Together with other Catholics, Huntly had opposed Mary’s efforts to conciliate with Elizabeth.  Furthermore the twenty-six-year-old Sir John Gordon, Huntly’s third son seemed to consider himself above the law, despite cutting a dashing figure at Court.  He had an eye for Mary, and was described by Buchanan as a man ‘in the very flower of youth’.  Yet he was untrustworthy and in 1562 had become involved in a brawl in Edinburgh.

The recorded story of Sir John’s brawl with Sir Alexander Ogilvy of Deskford found in a number of sources is completely absurd, and seems to be a Gordon inspired attempt to mitigate Sir John’s shortcomings.  It suggests that Deskford, furious at Sir John having run off with his wife, had attacked him in an Edinburgh street.  Yet genealogical tables show that Deskford died in July 1544.  Even if the tables are at fault he would have been aged sixty-six at the time, and is unlikely to have risked a confrontation with a twenty-six year-old in ‘the very flower of youth’.  The story claims that his second wife, Elizabeth Gordon complained to her husband that her stepson, the apparently upright James Ogilvy of Cardell, at least six years her junior, had made sexual advances to her. She had apparently persuaded Deskford to disinherit him in favour of his kinsman Sir John Gordon and then ran off with the dashing young man at least twenty-six years younger than herself.  It is even suggested that they married, but in 1562 Sir John appears to have been free to pursue a suit with Mary. All this seems most unlikely. Although Sir John was Deskford’s kinsman, their relationship was remote.  Deskford’s mother Agnes Gordon was the illegitimate daughter of the 2nd Earl of Huntly, making Sir John his half first cousin twice removed.  Deskford had several closer Ogilvy kinsmen including Cardell’s son, his grandson, is he wanted to disinherit Cardell.  It is also difficult to explain, if Deskford took part in the brawl, why Findlater Castle was passed to Sir John during Deskford’s apparent lifetime.

A more plausible explanation for the brawl has to be based on the known age of the participants.  There is no doubt that Sir John somehow managed to gain control of Findlater Castle usurping the inheritance of Cardell, who was the Master of Mary’s Household in Edinburgh. There is no reason to doubt that Deskford, who was born in 1495, had died in July 1544, although his widow, Elizabeth Gordon, continued living at Findlater.  She was the daughter of Adam Gordon, Dean of Caithness, who had died in 1528 at the age of seventy-four, and she had married Deskford in 1535.  There is confusion on her date of birth, but it is unlikely to have been later than that shown in genealogical records of “about 1509” when her father was fifty-five. This would have made her at least fifty-two at the time of the brawl.  By then she was being held at Findlater Castle in a ‘close chamber’ as Sir John’s prisoner, while he occupied the Castle for himself.  Cardell was probably born in about 1515 and was now aged forty-six.  In 1535, he had married Janet Gordon of the Lochinvar family, but in 1558 remarried Mary Livingston’s sister Marion.  It was probably Cardell (not his father as reported), who met Sir John Gordon, twenty years his junior, in an Edinburgh street, crossing swords over Sir John’s occupation of Findlater.  It was thus Cardell, who was badly wounded, leaving Sir John still in occupation, with no practical means for Cardell to oust him and to free his step-mother.  The young Queen was incensed and arbitrated to ensure Cardell’s reinstatement.  Although Sir John was arrested and taken to Stirling, he promptly escaped and returned to Findlater.

After arriving in the north, Mary turned down an invitation to visit Huntly at Strathbogie, where she was in fear of being incarcerated. With the Royal party being dogged by Sir John, she travelled on to Spynie to visit Patrick Hepburn, the Catholic Bishop of Moray.  On reaching Findlater, they called out for Sir John to surrender, but there was no reply and they lacked cannon with which to force an entry.  Sir John was now further north making a plan to separate Mary from Moray as they crossed the Spey, where he had 1,000 troops hidden in the woods.  Mary had been warned of this and, with her escort of 3,000 men, forced him to retire.  Randolph reported that he had never ‘seen her merrier, never dismayed, nor never thought that stomache to be in her that I find’, and, on 22 September, she returned to Aberdeen to a great welcome, having again seen Gordon troops at Cullen. She was determined to destroy Sir John. He was captured at Corrichie (where Huntly died after a seizure before the battle). On the following day, he was executed in Aberdeen with Mary in attendance.  Moray (Lord James Stewart) had encouraged her to attend to remove any suggestion that she reciprocated his infatuation for her.  Yet she became distraught when he announced from the block that he had hoped to marry her.  When the executioner made a clumsy job, she fainted, remaining in her chamber for the whole of the next day. At last Cardell was restored to Findlater and his step-mother was freed.


Since writing this in April 2013, it has been suggested that it was more likely to have been Cardell’s son, another Alexander Ogilvy who faced up to Sir John Gordon in the Edinburgh Streets in June 1562. Alexander was Cardell’s son by his first wife, Janet Gordon of Lochinvar, who married Cardell before 16 2 1535. This suggests that that he was born in c. 1536 making him 26 at the time of the brawl, the same age as Sir John Gordon. It is known that Sir John’s assailant was badly wounded and may have lost an arm. According to genealogical tables, Alexander died before 27 June 1562, so this was presumably as a result of his wounds, wheras his father, Cardell lived on until c. 1574. This still points to an Ogilvy attempt to recover control of Findlater, which had been usurped by Sir John Gordon.  Presumably Elizabeth Gordon was being held there against her will, and this was an attempt to free her. As she was at least twice the age of Sir John Gordon, any amorous intention on his part seems far-fetched.