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Significant Scots
James Stuart


James Stuart STUART, JAMES, Earl of Murray, celebrated in Scottish history by the title of the "Good Regent," was an illegitimate son of James V., by Margaret Erskine daughter of John, fourth lord Erskine. The precise year of his birth, is not certainly known; but there is good reason for believing that this event took place in 1533. Agreeably to the policy which James V. pursued with regard to all his sons,—that of providing them with benefices in the church, while they were yet in infancy, that he might appropriate their revenues during their nonage,—the priory of St Andrews was assigned to the subject of this memoir, when he was only in his third year.

Of the earlier years of his life, we have no particulars; neither have we any information on the subject of his education. The first remarkable notice of him occurs in 1548, when Scotland was invaded by the lords Grey de Wilton and Clinton, the one by land, and the other by sea. The latter having made a descent on the coast of Fife, the young prior, who then lived at St Andrews, placed himself at the head of a determined little band of patriots, waylaid the invaders, and drove them back to their boats with great slaughter. Shortly after this, he accompanied his unfortunate sister, queen Mary, then a child, to France, whither a party of the Scottish nobles sent her, at once for safety, and for the benefits of the superior education which that country afforded.

The prior, however, did not remain long in France on this occasion; but he seems to have been in the practice of repairing thither, from time to time, during several years after. At this period he does not appear to have taken any remarkable interest in national affairs, and none whatever in those of the church, to which he had always a decided aversion as a profession. He, however, did not object to the good things in its gift. In addition to the priory of St Andrews, he acquired that of Pittenweem, and did not hesitate, besides, to accept that of Mascon in France, in commendam, with a dispensation to hold three benefices. For these favours of the French court, he took an oath of fealty to pope Paul III. in 1544.

From the year 1548, when the prior, as he was usually called, defeated the English troops under Clinton, till 1557, there occurs nothing in his history, with the exception of the circumstance of his accompanying Mary to France, worthy of any particular notice. In the latter year, accompanied by his brother, lord Robert Stuart, abbot of Holyrood, he made an incursion into England at the head of a small force, but without effecting any very important service, or doing much injury to the enemy. In the same year, he proceeded to Paris, to witness the ceremony of marriage between the young queen of Scotland and the dauphin of France, having been appointed one of the commissioners on the part of the former kingdom for that occasion. Soon after the celebration of the marriage, the prior solicited from Mary the earldom of Murray; but this request, by the advice of her mother, the queen regent, she refused; and, although she qualified the refusal by an offer of a bishopric, either in France or England, instead, it is said that from this circumstance proceeded, in a great measure, his subsequent hostility to the regent’s government.

During the struggles between the queen regent and the lords of the congregation, the prior, who had at first taken part with the former, how sincerely may be questioned, but latterly with the lords, gradually acquired, by his judicious conduct and general abilities, a very high degree of consideration in the kingdom. He was by many degrees the most potent instrument, after John Knox, in establishing the reformed religion.

Having now abandoned all appearance of the clerical character, he was, soon after the death of the queen regent, which happened on the 11th of June, 1560, appointed one of the lords of the Articles; and in the following year, he was commissioned by a council of the nobility to proceed to France, to invite Mary, whose husband was now dead, to return to Scotland. This commission he executed with much judgment, and with much tenderness towards his ill-fated relative; having, much against the inclination of those by whom he was deputed, insisted on the young queen’s being permitted the free exercise of her own religion, after she should have ascended the throne of her ancestors.

On Mary’s assuming the reins of government in her native land, the prior took his place beside her throne, as her confidant, prime minister, and adviser; and, by his able and judicious conduct, carried her safely and triumphantly through the first act of her stormy reign. He swept the borders of the numerous bands of freebooters with which they were infested. He kept the enemies of Mary’s dynasty in abeyance, strengthened the attachment of her friends, and by his vigilance, promptitude, and resolution, made those who did not love her government, learn to fear its resentment. For these important services, Mary, whose implicit confidence he enjoyed, first created him lieutenant of the borders, and afterwards earl of Mar. Soon after his creation, the earl married the lady Agnes Keith, daughter of the earl Marischal. The ceremony was publicly performed in the church of St Giles, Edinburgh, with a pomp which greatly offended the reformers, who were highly scandalized by the profanities which were practised on the occasion. The earldom, which the prior had just obtained from the gratitude of the queen, having been claimed by lord Erskine as his peculiar right, the claim was admitted, and the prior resigned both the title and the property attached to it; but was soon after gratified by the earldom of Murray, which had long been the favourite object of his ambition. Immediately after his promotion to this dignity, the earl of Huntly, a disappointed competitor for the power and popularity which Murray had obtained, and for the favour and confidence of the queen, having been proclaimed a rebel for various overt acts of insubordination, originating in his hostility to the earl; the latter, equally prompt, vigorous, and efficient in the field as at the council board, led a small army, hastily summoned for the occasion, against Huntly, whom he encountered at the head of his adherents, at a place called Corrichie. A battle ensued, and the earl of Murray was victorious. In this engagement he displayed singular prudence, skill, and intrepidity, and a military genius, which proved him to be as able a soldier, as he was a statesman. On the removal of Huntly,—for this powerful enemy died suddenly and immediately after the battle, although he had received no wound, and his eldest son perished on the scaffold at Aberdeen,--Murray remained in undisputed possession of the chief authority in the kingdom, next to that of the sovereign; and the history of Scotland does not present an instance, where a similar authority was more wisely or more judiciously employed. The confidence, however, amounting even to affection, which had hitherto subsisted between Murray and his sovereign, was now about to be interrupted, and finally annihilated. The first step towards this unhappy change of sentiment, was occasioned by the queen’s marriage with Darnley. To this marriage, Murray was not at first averse; nay, he rather promoted it: but some personal insults, which the vanity and weakness of Darnley induced him to offer to Murray, together with an offensive behaviour on the part of his father, the earl of Lennox, produced in the haughty statesman that hostility to the connexion, which not only destroyed the good understanding between him and the queen, but converted him into an open and undisguised enemy. His irritation on this occasion was further increased by Mary’s imprudently evincing, in several instances, a disposition to favour some of his most inveterate enemies; and amongst these, the notorious earl of Bothwell, who had some time before conspired against his life. In this frame of mind, Murray not only obstinately refused his consent to the proposed marriage of Mary to Darnley, but ultimately had recourse to arms to oppose it. In this attempt, however, to establish himself by force, he was unsuccessful. After raising an army, and being pursued from place to place by Mary in person, at the head of a superior force, he fled into England, together with a number of his followers and adherents, and remained there for several months. During his expatriation, however, a total change of affairs took place at the court of Holyrood. The vain and weak Darnley, wrought upon by the friends of Murray, became jealous, not of the virtue, but of the power of the queen, and impatiently sought for uncontrolled authority. In this spirit he was prevailed upon, by the enemies of his consort, to league himself with Murray and the banished lords who were with him. The first step of the conspirators was the murder of Rizzio, the queen’s secretary; the next, the recall, on their own responsibility, sanctioned by Darnley, of the expatriated nobleman, who arrived in Edinburgh on the 9th of March, 1566, twenty-four hours after the assassination of the unfortunate Italian.

Although Murray’s return had taken place without the queen’s consent, she was yet very soon, not only reconciled to that event, but was induced to receive him, again apparently into entire favour. Whatever sincerity, however, there was in this seeming reconciliation on the part of the queen, there appears to be good reason for believing that there was but little of that feeling on the side of Murray; for, from this period he may be distinctly traced, notwithstanding of occasional instances of apparent attachment to the interests of the queen, as the prime mover, sometimes secretly, and sometimes openly, of a faction opposed to the government of Mary; and whose object evidently was to overthrow her power, and to establish their own in its stead. To this end, indeed, the aim of Murray and his confederates would seem to have been long steadily directed; and the unguarded and imprudent, if not criminal, conduct of the queen, enabled them speedily to attain their object. The murder of Darnley, and the subsequent marriage of Mary to Bothwell, had the twofold effect of adding to the number of her enemies, and of increasing the hostility of those who already entertained unfriendly sentiments towards her. The result was, that she was finally dethroned, and confined a prisoner in Lochleven castle, and the earl of Murray was appointed regent of Scotland. With this dignity he was invested on the 22nd of August, 1567; but whatever objection may be urged against his conduct previous and relative to his elevation, or the line of policy he pursued when seeking the attainment of this object of his ambition, there can be none urged against the system of government he adopted and acted upon, when placed in power. He procured the enactment of many wise and salutary laws, dispensed justice with a fearless and equal hand, kept down the turbulent and factious, restored internal tranquillity and personal safety to the people and, in every public act of his authority, discovered a sincere desire for the welfare of his country. Still the regent was yet more feared and respected, than loved. He had many and powerful enemies; while the queen, though a captive, had still many and powerful friends. These, having succeeded in effecting her liberation from Lochleven, mustered in arms, and took the field in great force, with the view of restoring her to her throne. With his usual presence of mind, fortitude, and energy, the regent calmly, but promptly, prepared to meet the coming storm; and, in place of demitting the regency, as he had been required to do by the queen, he determined on repelling force by force. Having mustered an army of three thousand men, he encountered the forces of the queen, which consisted of double that number, at Langside, and totally routed them; his cool, calculating judgment, calm intrepidity, and high military talents, being more than a match for their numerical superiority. This victory the regent instantly followed up by the most decisive measures. He attacked and destroyed all the castles and strongholds of the noble and gentlemen who had joined the queen; and infused a yet stronger, and more determined spirit into the administration of the laws: and thus he eventually established his authority on a firmer basis than that on which it had rested before.

After the queen’s flight to England, the regent, with some others, was summoned to York, by Elizabeth, to bear witness against her, in a trial which had been instituted by the latter, to ascertain Mary’s guilt or innnocence of the crime of Darnley’s murder. The regent obeyed the summons, and did not hesitate to give the most unqualified testimony against his unhappy sister. Having performed this ungenerous part, he left the unfortunate queen in the hands of her enemies, and returned to the administration of the affairs of that kingdom, of which he was now uncontrolled master. The proud career, however, of this wily, but able politician, this stern, but just ruler, was now soon to be darkly and suddenly closed. While passing on horseback through the streets of Linlithgow, on the 23rd of January, 1570, he was fired at, from a window, by James Hamilton, of Bothwelhaugh, nephew to the archbishop of St Andrews. The ball passed through his body, but did not instantly prove fatal. Having recovered from the first shock of the wound, he walked to his lodgings, but expired a little before midnight, being at the period of his death in the thirty-eighth year of his age. Hamilton’s hostility to the regent, proceeded from some severities with which the latter had visited him, for having fought under the queen at Langside. The assassin escaped to France, where he died a few years afterwards, deeply regretting the crime he had committed.


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