William Maitland of Lethington was a man of great wit and learning from a well-connected, but not noble, Scottish family. He had been educated at St. Andrews and the French Court. His loyalties were not based on any strong religious conviction, but Knox converted him to be a Reformer in 1556. Although his brilliance as a negotiator occasionally led him to follow unrealistic objectives, he remained an archetypal civil servant, motivated to support the Government in power. This sometimes required him to be pragmatic, and it was not always possible to follow his personal intentions from his actions, leading him to be mistrusted.
In 1554, he had been employed by Mary of Guise as her Secretary. Yet he began to fear her growing military power, not in terms of protecting the Kingdom for her daughter, but in subjugating Scotland to French and Catholic domination. His concerns may also have been coloured by his desire to protect his own position as Secretary at a time when she was appointing so many French advisers to guide her. He now started to persuade other members of the nobility to share his concerns and, in 1559, resigned, leaving himself free to oppose her. He now became closely allied with Lord James Stewart and they shared their concerns with William Cecil, the English Secretary of State, who found them well-educated, astute, discreet, and arguably the most able men in Scotland. Maitland arranged for the Scottish nobles opposing Mary of Guise to negotiate a military alliance with England. In February 1560, he accompanied Lord James to agree terms for the provision of English military support to protect the Scots in their old freedoms and liberties, for so long as Mary Queen of Scots remained in France. In July 1560, he became Speaker of the Scottish Parliament and travelled to London on an embassy seeking English help in the event of a French invasion. The possibility of Elizabeth marrying Arran with a view to deposing Mary from the Scottish throne was also discussed, although Maitland was personally lukewarm.
By the time of Mary’s return to Scotland after the death of Francis II, Maitland was already established as Scotland’s most able politician and diplomat. Although Mary was to be permitted to practice her Catholic religion in private, she would have to accept Presbyterianism as a fait accompli. Maitland’s plan was to secure for her a Protestant marriage to underscore her dynastic claim to the English throne. Yet Cecil wanted this taken on trust, until she demonstrated her Protestant affiliation.
On Mary’s return to Scotland, Maitland was nervous of his position after his previous scheming against her. He wrote to her in France offering her ‘faithful service’, and on 29 June 1561, she replied, making very clear that she knew exactly what he had been doing, but confirming that he had no reason for concern, so long as he now remained loyal. She told him that as the ‘principal instrument’ of the ‘practices’ attempted against her, she advised him to curtail his ‘intelligence’ with Cecil. On Mary’s return, Maitland was embarrassed at Knox’s critical outbursts. He wrote to Cecil that she doth ‘declare a wisdom far exceeding her age’. They were now close allies and he stayed at his house when in London, sharing their admiration for classical literature. Lord James and Maitland soon had complete control of Scottish government; while Lord James treated Mary in a bluff, dominating manner, Maitland was more obsequious, remaining a chameleon-like character, who sought to regain her trust by using his charm and persuasive powers to establish her as Elizabeth’s heir. He set out for London thirteen days after Mary’s return from France, but failed to realise that so long as Mary remained Catholic, neither Cecil nor the English Parliament would countenance her claim. There would never be a meeting of the minds and Maitland failed in all attempts to arrange for the two monarchs to meet.
Maitland joined Lord James (now Earl of Moray) and Mary on their expedition to the north to bring the Earl of Huntly and the Gordons to heel after they threatened a Catholic revolt. On their return south, Mary started to lean on Maitland for political advice finding him less dogmatic than Lord James, who was temporarily side-lined. Yet Maitland lacked Moray’s ability to control the senior nobles and Moray soon re-established himself. With Mary’s hopes of being recognised as Elizabeth’s heir grinding to a halt, Maitland now took charge of negotiations to find her a husband. Yet the choice was limited and a foreign prince was unacceptable to the English. Moray and Maitland pinned their hopes on Elizabeth’s choice of Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but Sir Robert was unenthusiastic and Elizabeth would not agree an outcome, which would confirm Mary as her heir. Initially Maitland favoured Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, given his close bloodline to both the English and Scottish thrones, but he came to share Moray’s concerns at his arrogant and boorish personality. When he became King, Moray and Maitland found themselves side-lined and replaced by Catholic advisers.
Following Moray’s rebellion in ‘the Chaseabout Raid’, Mary was also suspicious of Maitland’s loyalty and replaced him with her French Secretary David Riccio, who now controlled access to her. Maitland retired to Lethington, but Mary’s new ministers lacked Moray’s and Maitland’s experience. Maitland hinted to Darnley, who was often away from Court, that Riccio was spending more time with Mary than was proper. He played on Darnley’s ambition, by persuading him that, if he approved Riccio’s murder, the nobles would grant him the Crown Matrimonial. If Mary, who was six months pregnant, should suffer a miscarriage from the shock of the murder taking place in her presence, she was likely to die and he would become King. Maitland had no such intention, but by implicating Darnley in the murder, he hoped to associate the Queen. This would allow Moray to return as head of Government. When the murder was committed in Mary’s presence, she did not suffer a miscarriage and managed to escape with Darnley to Dunbar, but she knew what he had intended. The remaining conspirators were exiled, and, although there was no evidence of Maitland’s involvement, he was attainted and forced to retire from Court.
Over the period of the birth of Mary’s son James, Maitland made great efforts to gain his restoration to office, despite the objections of Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell, who had received Maitland’s attainted estates. Mary had no real evidence against him and, in August 1566, he was restored as Secretary. He joined Mary on a trip for a judicial assize at Jedburgh, during which she suffered an abdominal haemorrhage, which threatened her life. As she recuperated, she approach Maitland to find a way to obtain a divorce from the wayward Darnley. On reaching Craigmillar on their return, he approached a group of her nobles to find a means of being rid of her husband. Although Mary wanted a divorce, the nobles were not averse to having him murdered, particularly when it was realised that a Catholic annulment would prejudice the legitimacy of Mary’s son, James. Maitland now enticed Bothwell to arrange Darnley’s murder.
On 6 January 1567, Maitland married Mary Fleming, one of Mary’s ‘Four Maries’, after a two year courtship. With Mary Fleming remaining close to the Queen, it is unlikely that Maitland was the planner of a more devious scheme to persuade Mary, once she was widowed, to marry Bothwell. The objective was to implicate her in Darnley’s murder by feeding rumours of her involvement with Bothwell in a crime of passion. Whether or Maitland was part of the initial planning, he was so much implicated in the plan for Darnley’s murder, that he was blackmailed into involvement. He concocting the Casket Letters to provide the fraudulent evidence of Mary’s approval of the murder plan, although she had played no part in it. Once the murder at Kirk o’ Field had taken place, he used all his persuasion to encourage Mary to marry Bothwell (which was the only way that a crime of passion story would stick), even though he knew that the marriage would destroy her and would lose for her any remaining prospect of being accepted as Elizabeth’s heir. As much as anyone, he caused her downfall and, as soon as Mary and Bothwell were committed, he supported the nobles who took up arms against her, leading to her imprisonment at Lochleven and her deposition from the throne.
Despite Mary’s escape from Lochleven, her defeat at the Battle of Langside, and her decision to go to England, Maitland remained supportive of the Scottish nobility against her. Yet there are signs that he was sympathetic with her plight, and, as soon as he could, he sided with her supporters, becoming their spokesman. He encouraged Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, England’s senior peer, to consider marrying her in the hope of gaining her restoration, and, despite suffering from a wasting disease, he joined Kirkcaldy in the defence of Edinburgh Castle. When it eventually fell in 1573, he took poison to kill himself.