James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton

James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton
  • Alias: Lord Chancellor of Scotland
    Regent of Scotland
  • Born: c. 1516
  • Died: 2 June 1581
  • Cause of Death: Execution by “The Maiden” (an early form of guillotine)
  • Religion: Presbyterian
  • Parents: Sir George Douglas of Pittendreich, Master of Angus
    Elizabeth Douglas
  • Spouse(s): Dame Elizabeth Douglas
  • Children: 3 daughters

David and James Douglas were a bit lucky. They were the sons of Sir George Douglas of Pittendreich, the younger brother of Archibald, 6th Earl of Angus. Sir George had been a loyal supporter of Angus, his brother, fighting on behalf of the English party in Scottish politics. Angus had married Princess Margaret Tudor, by whom he had an only daughter, Margaret Douglas, who married the 4th Earl of Lennox. When Lennox continued to support Henry VIII, during punitive expeditions into Scotland (‘the Rough Wooings’), Angus cut his daughter, Margaret out of her inheritance by limiting the entail of the Earldom to heirs male, so that David became 7th Earl of Angus in 1557. Unfortunately, he only lived a few months longer than his uncle, so that his infant son, Archibald, inherited as the 8th Earl.

David’s younger brother, James, was not brought up with any great expectation of greatness. He was seen as a man ‘of most boorish calibre’, being illiterate and lacking formal education. He inherited Pittendreich and became guardian for his nephew, which entitled him to the income of the Angus estates during his nephew’s minority. In 1543, he had married Elizabeth, the third daughter of the 3rd Earl of Morton. At this time James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, the Regent of Scotland, was anxious to reach a truce with the English party, led by the Douglases of Angus. As he was married to Margaret, who was Morton’s eldest daughter, he persuaded him to change the entail of his will so that the title should pass to Elizabeth, the third daughter and hence to her husband James. In 1553, James was duly recognised as 4th Earl of Morton[1] and now controlled the vast Angus and Morton estates. Very sadly Elizabeth Douglas had inherited a strain of insanity, which passed down through all the 3rd Earl’s daughters, to the particular distress of the Hamiltons. She became deluded in about 1559 and there were no surviving children of the marriage.

Morton always remained loyal to the English despite being captured and imprisoned by them during the Rough Wooings[2]. He became a Reformer while in England and, in 1557, signed the original bond of the Lords of the Congregation. He was Lord James Stewart (later Earl of Moray)’s most able lieutenant and he maintained control of the Scottish nobility in his absence, proving an outstanding administrator, even if he had a propensity for feathering his own nest. He was a Commissioner at the Treaty of Upsettlington in 1559, under which the French dropped their claim that Mary Queen of Scots was the rightful Queen of England. In 1560, he joined of an embassy to London, proposing that Elizabeth should marry the Earl of Arran (the former Regent’s son) to claim the Scottish throne in place of the Catholic Mary. Elizabeth turned down this offer out of hand. Yet after Mary’s return to Scotland, he supported Lord James’s plan that Mary should be permitted to worship as a Catholic in private. In 1562, Morton joined Lord James (now Earl of Moray) on an expedition to the north against George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly, and was largely responsible for his defeat at Corrichie. He now replaced Huntly as Lord Chancellor.

In 1565, (perhaps surprisingly) Morton backed Henry, Lord Darnley, his cousin, in his suit to marry Mary. This was after Darnley’s mother had ceded her disputed claim to the Earldom of Angus to his nephew. Yet he soon reverted to supporting Moray, who had been forced into exile after opposing the marriage. Morton was at the heart of the conspiracy to murder David Riccio, who as acting Secretary of State controlled access to Mary on behalf of her Catholic Government. Once Darnley had been persuaded that Riccio’s relationship with Mary was more than that of Queen and Secretary, Morton agreed to arrange his murder. The hidden objective was to implicate Darnley and, by association, Mary, with the intention of deposing them and placing Moray (who was still in exile) as head of Government.  Although Riccio was murdered, Mary managed to escape with Darnley to Dunbar and Morton was forced to escape into exile in England. This resulted in his attainder, and Moray, who had returned to authority, was left to work for his restoration.

After the birth of Mary’s son James in 1566, Mary decided that she could put up was the wayward Darnley no longer and sought a divorce. A group of nobles, including Moray, undertook to provide this if she would repatriate Morton and his fellow conspirators. Although Mary agreed to this, it became clear to the nobles that a Catholic annulment would prejudice James’s legitimacy. Without telling Mary, they reverted to a plan to have him murdered. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell was given charge of arranging it, but hoped to involve Morton as he returned from exile. Morton was warned off from taking part (as the nobles wanted it to look as if Bothwell, who they hated, had acted alone) and Morton would have had difficulty in providing assistance, as he was not permitted within ten miles of Court. Yet he encouraged Bothwell in the murder plan and probably sent some of his henchmen to assist. Moray conveniently went to England to avoid being implicated.

As soon as the murder at Kirk o’ Field had taken place, Morton encouraged Bothwell to marry the Queen. If she could be persuaded, the nobles planned to sow rumours of her involvement in a long running affair with him, to imply her involvement with him in a crime of passion. Morton supported Bothwell to ensure that his trial for the murder was arranged as a whitewash and signed a bond with the other nobles at Ainslie’s Tavern to encourage the marriage. Yet as soon as Mary agreed to it and married Bothwell, the nobles led by Morton took up arms against them. When Mary was forced to capitulate, Morton arranged her arrest and imprisonment at Lochleven, This resulted in her deposition, with Moray returning to Scotland to take control of Government as Regent for the infant James. Morton was again appointed Lord Chancellor.

When Mary managed to escape from Lochleven, Morton led Moray’s troops in 1568, which defeated her supporters at Langside, after which Mary escaped to England. It was now necessary to hold an investigation into Mary’s part in the murder of her husband and Morton provided the fraudulent Casket letters as evidence. In early 1570 Moray was assassinated by some of Mary’s supporters. Although Morton did not immediately replace him as Regent he was effectively in control of Scottish Government with clandestine English backing and, in 1572, was at last appointed Regent. He set about mopping up any remaining resistance from Mary’s supporters, and reorganised the Government and Church on English lines to smooth the transition of Government for James, when he should inherit the English throne.

Morton now became all powerful and greedy, and this made him unpopular. At last in 1578 Esmé Stuart arrived in Scotland from France and ingratiated himself with James, who was his cousin through the Lennox Stuart family. As Esmé gained in authority, he gathered support against Morton, accusing him of involvement in Darnley’s murder. Although Morton struggled to retain power, he was executed in 1581, by which time he had amassed a huge fortune.

[1] This arrangement suited everyone except Beatrix, the 3rd Earl of Morton’s 2nd daughter. She had married Robert, 6th Lord Maxwell, and her Maxwell descendants believed that they had a better claim to the Morton title than James Douglas. They were to lay claim to it when Morton became Regent of Scotland.
[2] The Rough Wooings were a series of punitive strikes into Scotland made by Henry VIII, in an effort to coerce the Scots into agreeing a marriage between the young Mary Queen of Scots and his son, Prince Edward.