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Old World Scotland
Chapter XVII. Assassination


No tenet nor practice, no influence nor power nor principality in the Scotland of the past has outvied assassination in ascendency or in moment. Not theoretically, indeed, but practically, it occupied for centuries a distinct, almost a supreme, place in her political constitutionówas, in fact, the understood if not recognised expedient always in reserve should other milder or more hallowed methods fail of accomplishing the desired political or, it might be, religious consummation. To trace its rise from opprobrium to honour, or fully to account for its predominance in Scottish politics were perhaps a somewhat arduous task. Yet is it easy to discern some of the principal causes of its influence. The turn for it is in the Celtic blood, of which there was a strong infusion even in the Lowland Scot; while there can be little doubt that the limited nature of the king's prerogative, combined with the rivalries between the almost monarchical nobles, secured it a certain immunity from punishment, and also prepared a soil specially fitted for its development. The respect for law and order was of very slow growth. For centuries such justice as was exercised was haphazard and rude, and practically there was no law but the will of the stronger. Few, if any, of the great families but had their special feud; and feuds once originated survived for ages: to forget them would have been treason treason to the dead, and wild purposes of revenge were handed down from generation to generation as a sacred legacy. To take an enemy at a disadvantage was not deemed mean and contemptible, butó

"Of all the arts in which the wise excel
Nature's chief masterpiece."

To do it boldly and adroitly was to win a peculiar halo of renown; and thus assassination ceased to be the weapon of the avowed desperado, and came to be wielded unblushingly not only by so-called "men of honour," but by the so-called religious as well. A noble did not scruple to use it against his king, and the king himself felt no dishonour in resorting to it against a dangerous noble. James I. was hacked to death in the night by Sir Robert Graham; and James II. rid himself of the imperious and intriguing Douglas by suddenly stabbing him while within his own royal palace under protection of a safe conduct.

The leaders of the Reformation discerned in assassination (that of their enemies) the special "work and judgment of God." The martyr Wishart, described by Knox as "of such graces as before him were never heard within this realm," and by his pupil, Tylney, as "lowly, lowly," was more probably than his cousin the Wishart who (in 1544) was an intermediary between Henry VIII. and certain Scots conspirators in a plot against the life of Cardinal Beaton; and when the assassination did take place in 1546, all the savage details of it were set down by Knox with unbridled gusto "These things we wreat mearlie," is his own ingenuous comment on his his performance. The burden of George Buchanan's "De Jure Regni apud Scotos' 'is the lawfulness or righteousness of the removalóby assassination or any other fitting or convenient means - of incompetent kings, whether heinously wicked and tyrannical or merely unwise and weak of purpose; and he cites, as a case in point and an "example in time coming," the murder of James III., which, if it were only on account of the assassin's hideous travesty of the last offices of the Church, would deserve to be held in unique and everlasting detestation.

The bands or covenants of the nobles to support each other in all their enterprises (for their own aggrandisement) generally implied a sanction of assassination if all else should fall; and a place once gained for it even by implication, it not infrequently assumed the place of honour, till bands were formed avowedly for the bare and sole purpose of assassination, when its position as an influential factor in Scottish politics was assured. The sanction or arrangement of any particular murder by a nobles' league was a very sure guarantee of safety for the assassin; and, as matter of fact, in the great political assassinations of Scotland immunity from capital punishment has been the rule. Also they became so numerous that in all probability the national destiny has been more powerfully and permanently affected by them than by battles: always excepting, of course, the battles of the early tunes and of the struggle for independence. At least this was so in the sixteenth century, which, after all, is by far the most pregnant in Scots history. Would the reformation in Scotland have come when it did, or would it have come at all, or when it did come would its form have been so radical and extreme had not the purposes and schemes of Cardinal Beaton been brought to nought by his removal? The most striking circumstance of the murder of Riccio was the contrast between the Italian's physical contemptibility and crouching terror and the abounding energy and tumultuous wrath of his assailants; but politically considered, its far-reaching results can scarce be exaggerated. It saved the lives or fortunes of the most powerful of the Protestant nobles; it broke the power of the queen; it prevented the establishment of Catholicism and it was the prelude of one of the strangest dramas in history, for its direct and almost inevitable consequence was the tragedy at Kirk-o'-Field. Darnley was disqualified, intellectually and morally, from being aught but a political shuttlecock; but the effects of his assassination sealed the destiny both of Catholicism in Scotland and of Queen Mary. Excepting Knox, the next victim, the Regent Moray, was perhaps in Scotland the most powerfull personality of his time. His removal failed of the direct and special consequences anticipated, but there can be little doubt that it greatly affected the tenor of events. It came at a critical period of his career; a few years longer and the final aims of his ambition, good or bad, wise or unwise, must have declared themselves; and his character, with its strangely contrasting features, would have been less of an enigma than it is.

These four murders have a peerless preeminence; but the old influence may he traced in Scottish history to a much later period. The haunting terror of assassination was largely responsible for many of the eccentricities, moral and political, of the "Scottish Solomon"; and not till the union of the crowns did the practice begin to show decided symptoms of being on the wane. No trace its indirect results is of course impossible; but among them may he reckoned the solemn leagues and covenants, which might never have been thought of but for the old assassination bands.


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