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The Scottish Catholic Earls

Early in 1589 Elizabeth became mistress of some letters which proved that the Catholic earls, Huntly and Errol, were intriguing with Spain. The offence was lightly passed over, but when the earls, with Crawford and Montrose, drew to a head in the north, James, with much more than his usual spirit, headed the army which advanced against them: they fled from him near Aberdeen, surrendered, and were for a brief time imprisoned. As nobody knows how Fortune’s wheel may turn, and as James, hard pressed by the preachers, could neglect no chance of support, he would never gratify the Kirk by crushing the Catholic earls, by temperament he was no persecutor. His calculated leniency caused him years of trouble.

Meanwhile James, after issuing a grotesque proclamation about the causes of his spirited resolve, sailed in October to woo a sea-king’s daughter over the foam, the Princess Anne of Denmark. After happy months passed, he wrote, “in drinking and driving ower,” he returned with his bride in May 1590.

The General Assembly then ordered prayers for the Puritans oppressed in England; none the less Elizabeth, the oppressor, continued to patronise the plots of the Puritans of Scotland. They now lent their approval to the foe of James’s minister, Maitland, namely, the wild Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, a sister’s son of Mary’s Bothwell. This young man had the engaging quality of gay and absolute recklessness; he was dear to ladies and the wild young gentry of Lothian and the Borders; he broke prisons, released friends, dealt with wizards, aided by Lady Gowrie stole into Holyrood, his ruling ambition being to capture the king. The preachers prayed for “sanctified plagues” against James, and regarded Bothwell favourably as a sanctified plague.

A strange conspiracy within Clan Campbell, in which Huntly and Maitland were implicated, now led to the murder, among others, of the bonny Earl of Murray by Huntly in partnership with Maitland (February 1592).

James was accused of having instigated this crime, from suspicion of Murray as a partner in the wild enterprises of Bothwell, and was so hard pressed by sermons that, in the early summer of 1592, he allowed the Black Acts to be abrogated, and “the Charter of the liberties of the Kirk” to be passed. One of these liberties was to persecute Catholics in accordance with the penal Acts of 1560. The Kirk was almost an imperium in imperio, but was still prohibited from appointing the time and place of its own General Assemblies without Royal assent. This weak point in their defences enabled James to vanquish them, but, in June, Bothwell attacked him in the Palace of Falkland and put him in considerable peril.

The end of 1592 and the opening of 1593 were remarkable for the discovery of “The Spanish Blanks,” papers addressed to Philip of Spain, signed by Huntly, the new Earl of Angus, and Errol, to be filled up with an oral message requesting military aid for Scottish Catholics. Such proceedings make our historians hold up obtesting hands against the perfidy of idolaters. But clearly, if Knox and the congregation were acting rightly when they besought the aid of England against Mary of Guise, then Errol and Huntly are not to blame for inviting Spain to free them from persecution. Some inkling of the scheme had reached James, and a paper in which he weighed the pros and cons is in existence. His suspected understanding with the Catholic earls, whom he merely did not wish to estrange hopelessly, was punished by a sanctified plague. On July 24, 1593, by aid of the late Earl Gowrie’s daughter, Bothwell entered Holyrood, seized the king, extorted his own terms, went and amazed the Dean of Durham by his narrative of the adventure, and seemed to have the connivance of Elizabeth. But in September James found himself in a position to repudiate his forced engagement. Bothwell now allied himself with the Catholic earls, and, as a Catholic, had no longer the prayers of the preachers. James ordered levies to attack the earls, while Argyll led his clan and the Macleans against Huntly, only to be defeated by the Gordon horse at the battle of Glenrinnes (October 3). Huntly and his allies, however, dared not encounter King James and Andrew Melville, who marched together against them, and they were obliged to fly to the Continent. Bothwell, with his retainer, Colville, continued, with Cecil’s connivance, to make desperate plots for seizing James; indeed, Cecil was intriguing with them and other desperadoes even after 1600. Throughout all the Tudor period, from Henry VII. to 1601, England was engaged in a series of conspiracies against the persons of the princes of Scotland. The Catholics of the south of Scotland now lost Lord Maxwell, slain by a “Lockerby Lick” in a great clan battle with the Johnstones at Dryfe Sands.

In 1595, James’s minister, John Maitland, brother of Lethington, died, and early in 1596 an organisation called “the Octavians” was made to regulate the distracted finance of the country. On April 13, 1596, Walter Scott of Buccleuch made himself an everlasting name by the bloodless rescue of Kinmont Willie, an Armstrong reiver, from the Castle of Carlisle, where he was illegally held by Lord Scrope. The period was notable for the endless raids by the clans on both sides of the Border, celebrated in ballads.

James had determined to recall the exiled Catholic earls, undeterred by the eloquence of “the last of all our sincere Assemblies,” held with deep emotion in March 1596. The earls came home; in September at Falkland Palace Andrew Melville seized James by the sleeve, called him “God’s silly vassal,” and warned him that Christ and his Kirk were the king’s overlords. Soon afterwards Mr David Black of St Andrews spoke against Elizabeth in a sermon which caused diplomatic remonstrances. Black would be tried, in the first instance, only by a Spiritual Court of his brethren. There was a long struggle, the ministers appointed a kind of standing Committee of Safety; James issued a proclamation dissolving it, and, on December 17, inflammatory sermons led a deputation to try to visit James, who was with the Lords of Session in the Tolbooth. Whether under an alarm of a Popish plot or not, the crowd became so fierce and menacing that the great Lachlan Maclean of Duart rode to Stirling to bring up Argyll in the king’s defence with such forces as he could muster. The king retired to Linlithgow; the Rev. Mr Bruce, a famous preacher credited with powers of prophecy, in vain appealed to the Duke of Hamilton to lead the godly. By threatening to withdraw the Court and Courts of Justice from Edinburgh James brought the citizens to their knees, and was able to take order with the preachers.

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