Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray & Regent of Scotland

James Stewart, Earl of Moray & Regent of Scotland
  • Alias: Lord Abernethy
    Regent of Scotland
  • Born: c. 1531 Scotland
  • Died: 23 January 1570
    Linlithgow, Scotland
  • Cause of Death: Assassination by Firearm
  • Religion: Church of Scotland
  • Parents: King James V of Scotland
    Lady Margaret Erskine
  • Spouse(s): Agnes Keith
  • Children: Elizabeth Stewart, 2nd Countess of Moray
    Annabel Stewart
    Margaret Stewart

Lord James Stewart, born in 1531, was the son of James V by his mistress Margaret Erskine, daughter of the Earl of Mar. She later claimed to have been secretly married to the King to promote his legitimacy, but this might have proved more plausible if she had not been married to Sir Robert Douglas of Lochleven prior to her liaison with the King.

Lord James was brought up for the church and was appointed Commendator[1] of St Andrews at a young age, which provided him with the income St. Andrews church lands. At his mother’s bidding, he also became betrothed to Christina Stewart, Countess of Buchan in her own right, sixteen years his junior. This gave him temporary control of the income of the Buchan estates.

In 1548, when seventeen, Lord James accompanied his half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots, to France after her betrothal to the Dauphin, Francis. He remain in France for about a year for his education, building up his considerable intellect. On his return to Scotland, he became an ardent Presbyterian and disciple of Knox, developing a conviction that conveniently matched his political ambitions. In May 1559, he became military commander of a group Presbyterian nobles, the Lords of the Congregation. Up to then, he had backed the Queen Regent, Marie of Guise, to establish himself as her deputy. Yet his new position offered more certain hope of advancement. With his regal manner and royal blood, his ambitions extended to the throne. This was encouraged by William Cecil, the English Secretary of State, looking for secure Protestant government on England’s northern border. Despite behaving as a man of principle, his methods were cool, calculating and insidiously self-promoting.

By now, Lord James had a group of powerful supporters, most particularly James Douglas, Earl of Morton. As a leading Reformer, he adopted a religious façade, which cloaked his personal plan to oust the Queen Regent. He wanted Mary kept safely in France and wrote carefully to Cecil to hint at her being deposed to create a united Protestant Britain. Although he had ambitions to gain the Crown, he failed to gain support from his colleagues. Deposing Mary only opened the door for the discredited Duke of Châtelherault, her dynastic heir.

To defeat the Queen Regent, the Reformers needed English military support, but despite Cecil’s persuasive efforts, Elizabeth was reluctant to back a coup against an anointed Queen. Yet during the negotiations, Cecil developed a close affinity with Lord James and the other Scottish negotiator, William Maitland of Lethington. When at last Elizabeth offered military backing, it was insuficient to defeat the dogged French. It was the death of the Queen Regent, followed shortly after by that of Mary’s husband, the sickly Francis II, which was to result in her return from France as Scotland’s charismatic Catholic Queen. Before her return, Lord James visited her there and, with Cecil’s blessing, persuaded her that, if she returned unmarried and accepted Scotland’s Presbyterian status, she could practice Catholicism in private and promote her dynastic claim to the English throne. It was dynastic ambition that motivated her return and Knox was well positioned to oppose any attempt at a counter-Reformation.

On Mary’s return, Lord James took control of her Government and guided her in dealing with any Presbyterian hostility. With help from Maitland he negotiated to gain Elizabeth’s acceptance as her heir, but failed to appreciate that she needed to become Protestant to gain Cecil’s agreement. He also had to deal with pockets of hostility to his Government among the Scottish nobility. He used the excuse of a brawl in Edinburgh to imprison the maverick Earl of Bothwell, and persuaded Mary to take up arms against a Catholic rebellion in the north led by the Earl of Huntly.  After defeating Huntly, Huntly died on the battlefield. Shortly before this Lord James broke off his betrothal to the Countess of Buchan, and in 1562 married Agnes Keith, daughter of the Earl Marischal. In contemplation of this marriage, Mary granted him the earldom of Moray, whose estates had previously been administered by Huntly.

With Mary also seeking a suitable marriage, Moray favoured the English Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester was not enthusiastic and Mary fell for Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Moray was not impressed by him and, after their marriage, led a coup, the Chaseabout Raid, to promote himself to the Scottish Crown in their place. Yet he lacked support and was forced into exile in England, where he continued to plot with Cecil to bring the couple down. After Darnley had organised the murder of Mary’s French Secretary, David Riccio, Moray return to Scotland. Although he attempted to arrange the couple’s detention, Mary managed to organise their escape to Dunbar and forced his fellow murder conspirators into exile. Mary was unable also to accuse Darnley, as it might prejudice her unborn child’s legitimacy.

When Mary later wanted to divorce Darnley, the nobles agreed a plot to be rid of both of them and to appoint Moray as Regent. After persuading Bothwell to arrange Darnley’s murder, they encouraged him to marry Mary, so that they could plant a story of her involvement with him in a crime of passion. After taking up arms against the couple, the nobles forced Mary to abdicate while she was in custody at Lochleven and Moray became Regent. Although she escaped to England, Moray provided fraudulent evidence against her and his smear campaign was sufficient to allow the English to retain her under house arrest.

There was soon a backlash of support for Mary in both England and Scotland, resulting in Moray being assassinated in 1571.


[1] The role of Commendator was a lay position often offered to younger or illegitimate sons of members of the nobility as a means of providing them with income from Catholic Church estates. The Commendator became a Lord of Parliament.