What Happened to the Duke of Orkney (Earl of Bothwell) after Carberry Hill?

The Battle of Carberry Hill, 15th June 1567
The Battle of Carberry Hill, 15th June 1567

On 15th July 1567, the forces of Mary Queen of Scots and her third husband, the Duke of Orkney (Earl of Bothwell)*1 surrendered to the Scottish nobles at Carberry Hill. Mary was taken to Edinburgh under arrest, before being imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. She was forced to abdicate on 24 July, and this battle marked the end of her personal power in Scotland.

The Duke of Orkney was permitted to leave the field, but his movements after Carberry Hill are not generally well known. While writing my book, ‘The Challenge to the Crown‘ I researched what happened to him.

After Mary’s arrest, Orkney immediately fled with Lord Seton to Dunbar, but was unable to raise troops in the Borders. Having sailed to Linlithgow, he travelled by land to Dumbarton. This proved a more successful rallying point, with fifty men of rank joining him, including Lord John and Archbishop Hamilton and Lord Fleming, who still held Dumbarton Castle on Mary’s behalf. They realised that an immediate attack on Lochleven would risk her life, but, while they dithered, support for Orkney melted away.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell
James Hepburn
4th Earl of Bothwell

Still looking for assistance, he commandeered four men-of-war as Lord High Admiral and sailed with Seton and Fleming to Aberdeenshire. On arrival, he visited Strathbogie, but the Earl of Huntly ‘heartily wished both his sister and the Queen rid of so wicked a husband’ *2  and would not raise the North to help him. Feeling suddenly isolated, Seton and Fleming refused him further assistance. Although the Confederates had offered a reward of 1,000 crowns for Orkney’s arrest, they made no serious effort to bring him to trial. Yet they called on Dunbar Castle to surrender, and gave him three weeks’ notice, until 17 July, to come to the Tolbooth to answer for the King’s murder. When, as expected, he failed to appear, his titles and estates were forfeited. [1]

He had sailed north and by the end of July was with his kinsman the Bishop of Moray at Spynie. The Earl of Morton, now running the Government, realised that he needed to be seen to bring Orkney to book, and, on 11 August, sent William Kirkcaldy of Grange and and Sir William Murray of Tullibardine after him. Kirkcaldy was not an experienced sailor and was probably chosen to neutralise his continuing opposition to Mary’s imprisonment. He went to Dundee, where he fitted out four more men-of-war, considered the fastest in Scotland, and obtained five further ships before setting to sea on 19 August with cannon and 400 hackbutters. They had orders to seize Orkney and to execute him without trial.

Meanwhile, Orkney’s arrival at Spynie had been betrayed by the Bishop’s bastard sons, and he moved on with 200 men to Kirkwall in Orkney, planning to levy further ships to add to his existing four vessels. As Duke, he controlled Orkney Castle, but its bailiff, Gilbert Balfour, Sir James’s brother, trained the castle guns on his ships to prevent them from landing, so he headed on for Shetland. Here at last his mother’s kinsman, the pirate Olaf Sinclair, provided money and provisions. After acquiring two more ships, they sought booty by pirating English and Danish shipping in the vicinity. On 25 August, Kirkcaldy and Tullibardine caught up with Orkney’s ships anchored in Bressay Sound off Lerwick, while Orkney was on shore with most of his men. Despite facing immediate attack, Orkney managed to climb aboard his own vessel and cut the anchor. He scraped the bottom driving it over some rocks, but, when Kirkcaldy followed with his man-of-war, it was holed and sank. Orkney escaped to Unst, Shetland’s main northern island, with three ships and 140 men, but his remaining three vessels were captured with all those on board, including his henchmen from Kirk o’ Field, Cullen, Hay of Talla and Hepburn of Bolton. Kirkcaldy continued the chase with his three remaining men-of-war and, after again catching up with Orkney, fought out a battle for three hours, during which Orkney’s mainmast was shot away. Although Kirkcaldy sent a boarding party, a violent storm came to Orkney’s rescue. He transferred his remaining men, including Paris, *3 to his two remaining ships and sailed eastward before the wind to Norway, making the 250-mile crossing in record time. Although Kirkcaldy managed to follow for sixty miles, he was out-sailed and, by his own admission, was ‘no good seaman’. [2]

On arrival in Norway (then part of Denmark) Orkney hove to at Karm Island, north of Stavanger, where he was arrested for suspected piracy. On 2 September, he was taken with his two ships and 140 men to the castle at Bergen, where the Governor, Eric Rosencrantz, uncertain whether he really was the Duke of Orkney, entertained him lavishly, while awaiting instructions. Yet Orkney’s luck ran out. Anna Throndssen, his former mistress, was now living in Bergen with her mother, and immediately sued him for breach of promise to marry her, sending some of her kinsmen to arrest him with creditors from his earlier visit to Denmark. To stop their action, Orkney promised to pay Anna an annuity in Scotland and handed over the smaller of his two ships.

By now Rosencrantz had Frederick II’s instructions to arrest Orkney for use as a bargaining counter for the return to Denmark of the disputed Orkney and Shetland Islands. A box of documents was found hidden in the ballast of his remaining ship. These apparently included the letters patent creating him a duke, proclamations published in Edinburgh showing that there was a price on his head, and a letter from Mary written after Carberry Hill complaining at the lack of support for them. None of these are extant. After being brought before the Bergen magistrates, Orkney, on 23 September, was carried to Copenhagen on one of Frederick’s ships for ‘honourable confinement’ in the castle. [3] There was little sympathy for him in Denmark, particularly as he had supported Sweden against them while in government in Scotland. Yet he was permitted to write to Charles IX seeking French assistance for Mary’s release, for which he had her approval from Lochleven. Unfortunately for him, Moray had already arranged an entente with France, in which Orkney was branded as a pirate, murderer and traitor. Yet when Moray asked Charles IX to put pressure on Frederick to repatriate Orkney to Scotland, the French King does not appear to have done so, and Orkney was left as a potentially lucrative political hostage in Denmark. Although confined to his rooms, he was allowed visitors and books to read and initially was held in some comfort dressed in velvet clothes, even being escorted hunting.

On 5 January 1568, Orkney completed his memoirs, setting out a version of events aimed at procuring his release. He dictated them in French to a Danish secretary, later having them published as Les Affaires du Conte Boduel. He depicted himself as a chivalrous knight seeking to rescue Mary from the ‘seditious lords’, who ‘did all they could to oppose her’, especially Moray, who was attempting to usurp the throne. He blamed them for murdering both Riccio and the King. Having worked tirelessly to uncover the truth, his enemies had accused him to prevent him from solving the crime. Yet when they were convinced that there was no just cause of complaint against me … I was, according to the laws and customs of the realm, by the direction of the judges and with the consent of my accusers then present, declared innocent and found not guilty of all that which I had been accused … He had then been invited to marry the Queen ‘as the man most suitable to be her husband’ by those lords now demanding his extradition. Despite offering to settle their complaints by fighting Lindsay in single combat at Carberry Hill, Lindsay ‘did not however turn up’, and the Queen chose to negotiate to ‘see if matters could be resolved peaceably’. [4] Having promised her safe passage ‘without fear of treachery’, she was immediately arrested. [5] He deplicts himself as much more of a man of honour than his enemies were suggesting. He ‘named the leaders and principal of all this trouble and sedition’ as Moray, Atholl, Glencairn, Morton, Mar, Lindsay, Maitland, Bellenden, MacGill, Home, Ruthven, Balfour, Tullibardine, Sir Simon Preston and others, claiming: I have been falsely accused, detained without justification, and prevented from going about the business I have in certain kingdoms with various princes and noblemen for the freeing of my princess. [6] After making manuscript corrections, he arranged for a second copy to be sent to Frederick, but the Danish King remained unsympathetic and transferred him for greater security to Malmö Castle (now in Sweden) on the eastern side of the Sound into the Baltic. Yet he remained decently housed in a large vaulted chamber below the royal apartments.

Moray was determined to silence Orkney. Mary had been able to send him messages fairly freely from Lochleven, through his Danish page, Herman; Hepburn of Riccarton provided another communication conduit. On 13 January 1568, Mary had given Orkney authority to offer the Orkney and Shetland islands to Frederick II, if he would send Danish troops and ships to her assistance. Yet she was by then already deposed, and Moray, as Regent, would never have agreed. With Frederick hoping to recover the islands as a ransom for Orkney’s release without having to risk a military invasion, Orkney remained in captivity.

When Mary escaped from Lochleven, Moray feared that Orkney might be freed by the Danes to give evidence at an enquiry into the King’s death. Shortly before the Conference at York, he again pressed Frederick for his extradition to Scotland. He sent Captain John Clark, a Scottish mercenary serving in Denmark, to arrange for him to be extradited with Paris, but with instructions to take him ‘dead or alive’ or to allow Clark to execute him. On 30 October 1568, Clark gave their keeper, Peter Oxe, a receipt for Paris and William Murray, intending to bring them to Scotland for trial. Yet Frederick still saw Orkney as a bartering counter and again refused his extradition. Clark had come to Scotland in early 1567 with Danish money to raise mercenaries for Frederick’s army, but Orkney warned Frederick that the money had been used to fund the Confederates at Carberry Hill. This led to Clark being court-martialled and imprisoned in Dragsholm Castle on the north-west Zealand coast.

In 1571, during Lennox’s Regency, Thomas Buchanan renewed efforts for Orkney to be extradited back to Scotland. It had been discovered that Orkney was again discussing with Mary the transfer of the Orkney and Shetland Islands to Denmark in return for his freedom, which ‘was prejudicial and hurtful to both our countries and to the discontentment of the Queen’s Majesty of England’. [7] Yet again Frederick refused his release. It was not until 1573, after Elizabeth had at last recognised James as King of Scotland, that Frederick realised that he would never collect a ransom in return for freeing Orkney and moved him to join Clark at Dragsholm. Despite Morton making one further effort at extradition in June 1574, Frederick still refused.

Orkney was rumoured to have lived out his remaining days at Dragsholm in solitary confinement, chained to a post in a dungeon too small for him to stand. Yet the truth was less austere. Having resolved his differences with Clark, they drowned their sorrows in wine, resulting in Clark’s death from alcoholic excess in July 1575. Although it was reported that Orkney had died four months later, he was ‘but great swollen and not yet dead’, but suffering from liver or kidney failure. [8] He lived on for three more years in increasing insanity until 14 April 1578. He was buried there in the parish church, where it is claimed that his ghost still haunts the castle, now a hotel. Herries, who later visited Dragsholm, reported that Orkney had latterly become overgrown with hair and filth.


[1] Cited by John Guy, p. 371, and by Rosalind K. Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women, p. 135
[2] CSP Scottish; cited by Alison Weir, p. 419
[3] CSP Scottish
[4] Les Affaires du Conte de Boduel; cited by John Guy, p. 374, 377, 378
[5] Cited by Alison Weir, p. 392
[6] Cited by Alison Weir, p. 429
[7] Cited by John Guy, p. 380
[8] State Papers in the Public Record Office, cited by John Guy, p. 380, and by Alison Weir, p. 499


– John Guy, My Heart is my Own, Harper Perennial, 2004
– Alison Weir, Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, Jonathan Cape, 2003
– Rosalind K. Marshall, Queen Mary’s Women, John Donald, 2006
– CSP Scottish: Calendar of State Papers relating to Scottish Affairs, ed. J. Bain, 1898

*1 The Earl of Bothwell had been created Duke of Orkney on his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots.

*2 It was only now that his former wife Jean Gordon decided to leave Crichton Castle and to return to her mother in Aberdeenshire, wanting no more to do with her former husband. She may have realised that her mortgage was unlikely to be redeemed while the castle remained forfeited, but she continued to receive income from the estates.

*3 Paris was at last extradited from Denmark in June 1569 and, as has been seen, made two conflicting depositions after his return to Scotland. He was hung without trial, but from the scaffold shouted out, denying the content of what he had been forced to sign.