In researching my history of Mary Queen of Scots in The Challenge to the Crown, I became confused that the Earl of Rothes, who was a loyal adherent of Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray, seemed suddenly to change sides and to support Mary. I then discovered that I was dealing with two different people. The story is quite complicated.
Norman, Master of Rothes, was the eldest son of George Leslie, 4th Earl of Rothes, born in about 1517, the child of Margaret, daughter of William, 3rd Lord Crichton, who Rothes had married shortly beforehand. On 27 December 1520, the 4th Earl obtained an annulment on the convoluted and probably doubtful grounds of their consanguinity, which had the effect of making both Norman and his younger brother, William illegitimate. Despite this, Norman continued to be known as Master of Rothes and was described by George Buchanan as a young man of such accomplishments that he has not his equal in all Scotland, although Buchanan was notoriously biased in his praise for fellow Reformers. After the annulment, George married Elizabeth, daughter of Andrew, 2nd Lord Gray, but there were no children of this marriage. He then married Agnes, daughter of Sir John Somerville, the mother of Andrew Leslie and two other children. Margaret seems to have remained as his mistress during his second and third marriages and, after the death of Agnes Somerville, he remarried her and they had three further children (including Agnes, who married Sir William Douglas of Lochleven). Yet Norman and William seem to have remained illegitimate in their father’s eyes, and the Rothes title was eventually entailed to Andrew, under his father’s will.
After Norman had been killed in heroic circumstances fighting as a mercenary for Henry II if France at the battle of Renti in 1554, William claimed to be his father’s heir and, on the 4th Earl’s death in 1558, he adopted his title as 5th Earl of Rothes. William had become a Calvinist and was an early member of the Lords of the Congregation. He was thus a close supporter of Lord James Stewart, later Earl of Moray. Andrew also claimed the title and , on 15 January 1566 during the Chaseabout Raid, Mary was asked to arbitrate. Not unnaturally, she declared in favour of Andrew, who was supporting her against Moray. This explains why “Rothes” appears to have changed his allegiance. Having been a staunch supporter of Moray, his brother became a loyal ally of Mary.
It has been suggested that William was passed over in his father’s will because of the part he had played in the murder of Cardinal Bethune. This seems highly unlikely, as it is clear that George tacitly approved of the action, and William obtained a remission for his part in it in 1548. William claimed the title on the grounds that his mother had subsequently remarried his father, overcoming their earlier annulment, but this was not upheld by Mary, who wanted to end the Rothes support for Moray.