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The Great Historic Families of Scotland
The Leslies of Rothes


THE Leslies of Rothes obtained higher rank and greater prominence in the history of Scotland than the main stem of the family. The first Leslie who bore the name of Rothes was Sir George, who is described as Dominus de Rothes, in a contract of marriage, dated 26th April, 1392, but whether he acquired the barony by succession, marriage, or purchase, cannot now be ascertained.

It remained in the possession of the family for nearly four hundred years, was sold by John, ninth Earl of Rothes, in 1711, to John Grant, of Elchies, and now forms part of the extensive possessions of the Earl of Seafield. This fertile and beautiful barony lies on the western bank of the broad and rapid river Spey, and is both well wooded and ‘well watered everywhere,’ and diversified by hills in the background, and glens with their tributary brooks. The old castle of the Leslies, which stood on a green mount, surrounded by a fosse, is now in ruins. When the Earl sold the estate he ‘reserved to himself the castle tower, with the castle bank and the green under the walls thereof,’ the only remnant of the vast estates which the Rothes family at one time possessed in Morayshire.

As we have seen, on the death of David de Leslie (the last Baron of the original stock) his daughter Margaret inherited the barony of Leslie, in the Garioch, but the other estates of the family went to Sir George Leslie, the head of the Rothes branch. Sir George seems to have been a man of great influence in his day, and to have been held in high esteem, both by his sovereign, Robert III., and by his brother nobles. He obtained in 1398, a grant of the barony of Fythkill, now called Leslie, in Fife, which had been resigned into the hands of the King by his kinsman, Alexander Leslie, Earl of Ross, and which Sir George was to hold of the sovereign for the annual payment of a pair of gloves. Two years later the King confirmed a charter granted by the Earl, of no fewer than eight distinct estates, in the shire of the Mearns, in return for the good service which Sir George had rendered to the Earl by advancing him ‘in his great necessity, the sum of 200 merks to relieve the lands and earldom of Ross, then in the hands of the King, the superior thereof.’

GEORGE LESLIE, the grandson of this powerful baron, was the first Earl of Rothes, and through his father and mother (Christian Seton) was descended from both the royal families of Bruce and Stewart. He was three times married. After he had lived nearly twenty years in wedlock with his second wife, a daughter of Lord Halyburton of Dirleton, he grew tired of her, and raised an action before the Consistory Court of St. Andrews, for the dissolution of the marriage on the convenient and common plea at that time, that he and his wife were related within the forbidden degrees of kindred, and that consequently their marriage was null and void from the first. A divorce could be obtained on this ground at that period with the utmost facility, and was a matter of every-day occurrence. But a formidable difficulty presented itself in regard to the position of the children born under the marriage, who would be declared illegitimate if it should be dissolved. As the Earl’s eldest son, Andrew, had married into the powerful family of St. Clair, it was not to be expected that they would patiently acquiesce in a decision which deprived him and his children of their rights. It was ultimately decided by the arbiter to whom the case was referred by mutual consent, that the Earl should obtain a divorce, but that the legitimacy of his offspring should be preserved by his judicial deposition that he did not know of the relationship between him and his wife, till after the birth of all their children.

The Earl was succeeded by his grandson GEORGE, his eldest son having predeceased him. George, the second Earl, appears to have been a ‘ne’er-do-weel.’ Having failed to appear to answer a charge against him of being art and part in the murder of George Leslie in 1498, he was ‘put to the horn,’ or outlawed, and his goods escheated to the King. He seems in various ways to have dilapidated the family estates, for in 1506, William Leslie, his brother and heir, represented to the King, ‘that the said Earl of Rothes, for default of good governance, tynes his old brentage in disinheriting of his righteus heir, and contrar to the laws of God.’ The King (James IV.) declared ‘the said William’s desires to be just and consonant to reason; and not willing that so noble and famous a house as the Earldom of Rothes be destroyed, but rather be kept in honour and nobility as the said Earl’s predecessors keeped the same in times by-gone,’ he granted authority to a council of the family to assist in the ‘government of the person, lordship, lands, and goods’ of the spendthrift peer, ‘so that he be not misguided and his lands wasted.’ Various similar cases occurred in the ancient history of our country, and it would be well for the honour and the interest of some noble families in our own day, if legal authority could be obtained to save a man from himself, and to take the management of the patrimonial inheritance of a great house out of the hands of an incompetent or profligate heir. It appears that in addition to his other acts of misconduct, this ‘misguided’ nobleman had incurred heavy penalties by his neglect of certain feudal ceremonies and forms of law, so that several valuable estates had lapsed into the hands of the King. Owing to these irregularities, his brother and successor—

WILLIAM, third Earl, had considerable trouble in making good his title to the family inheritance; and before his difficulties with the Crown were removed he was killed, along with the King and the flower of the Scottish nobility, on the fatal field of Flodden, 9th of September, 1513. His son GEORGE, fourth Earl, inherited not only the titles and estates of the family, along with their ability and courage, but also some other qualities which appear to have ‘run in the blood’ of the Rothes Leslies. He filled various high offices of State, among others that of ambassador to Denmark, in 1550, and was one of eight Commissioners elected by the Estates to represent the Scottish nation at the marriage of Queen Mary to the Dauphin, at Paris, April 24, 1558. On their way home the Earls of Rothes and Cassillis, and Bishop Reid, President of the Court of Session, died at Dieppe all in one night, and Lord Fleming died about the same time at Paris. It was universally believed at the time that the Commissioners had been poisoned because they had firmly refused to settle on the Dauphin the crown matrimonial of Scotland, or to promise that on their return to their own country they would endeavour to eflect that object. Earl George was five times married. His first wife, Margaret Crichton, was a niece of James IV., who inherited the passions and misfortunes of her lineage. During her husband’s absence as ambassador at the Court of Denmark, she had an intrigue with Patrick Panter, Abbot of Cambuskenneth, Secretary of State, one of the most learned men of his age, and bore to him a son, who ultimately became Bishop of Ross. On the 27th of December, 1580, the Earl obtained a divorce in the Consistory Court, not, however, on the ground of his wife’s unfaithfulness to him, but the marriage was declared null and void from the first, on the plea that the Earl confessed to having illicit intercourse before his marriage with Matilda Striveling, who was related to Margaret Crichton in the second and third degree of consanguinity, thus making the Earl and Margaret related to each other in the same degrees of affinity, and rendering their marriage incestuous and illegal according to existing law. This remarkable proceeding, connected as it is with ‘one of the strangest and darkest stories to be found in Scottish family history,’ throws a flood of light on the state of morals at that period among the upper classes in Scotland through the operation of the law of marriage and divorce instituted by the Papal Court.

The fourth Earl of Rothes was succeeded by his eldest son by his second wife, Agnes Somerville. His eldest son, Norman, and his second son, William, by Margaret Crichton, were passed over, both having incurred forfeit as traitors on account of their connection with the murder of the celebrated Cardinal Beaton. There can be no doubt that apart from the desire to avenge on the Cardinal the martyrdom of Wishart, Norman Leslie was actuated by personal enmity in the part which he took in the murder of Beaton; and his uncle, John Leslie, a prominent actor in the scene, shared his feelings. After the surrender of the Castle of St. Andrews to the French in the June following, Norman Leslie was carried with the other prisoners to France. He subsequently entered the service of the French King, and obtained great celebrity for his brilliant exploits in the wars between France and Germany. His gallantry at the battle of Cambray (1554), in which he was mortally wounded, drew forth the admiration both of friends and foes, and led Prince Louis of Conde to remark that ‘Hector of Troy had not behaved more valiantly than Norman Leslie.’

EARL ANDREW, fifth Earl of Rothes, took a prominent part in public affairs during the ‘troublous times’ of Mary of Guise and her daughter, Queen Mary. He was at first a staunch supporter of the Lords of the Congregation, but afterwards changed sides, and fought for Mary at Langside.

He was succeeded by his grandson, JOHN, sixth Earl, who was a zealous Covenanter, and gave great offence to Charles I. by his courageous resistance to his Majesty’s ecclesiastical projects. He was nominated chief of the Scottish Commissioners sent to London in 1640 to treat with the King. His intercourse with the Court had the effect of considerably moderating his zeal in behalf of the Parliament, and it appears that hopes were entertained that he might even be induced to join the Royalist party. Clarendon says, ‘Certain it is that he had not been long in England, before he liked both the King and the Court so well, that he was not willing to part with either. He was of a pleasant and jovial humour, without any of those constraints which the formality of that time made that party subject themselves to.’ A pension 10,000 Scots (1883 6s. 8d. sterling) was settled on him. He was to have been appointed one of the Lords of the Bedchamber and a Privy Councillor, and a marriage had been arranged between him and Lady Devonshire, who possessed 4,000 sterling a year, when he died at Richmond, after a short illness, in the forty-first year of his age. His death was considered a great blow to the hopes which were cherished at that time that an amicable treaty would be arranged between Charles and the Scottish Covenanters.

His son JOHN, seventh Earl of Rothes, was a staunch Royalist in the Great Civil War, and was taken prisoner at the Battle of Worcester. At the restoration of Charles II. he was rewarded for his services with a pension, and his nomination to the office of President of the Privy Council of Scotland. He was subsequently appointed Lord Treasurer for life, and Lord High Commissioner, and in 1680 was created Duke of Rothes. His talents were of a high order, but he was notorious for his ignorance and profligacy. Lord Fountainhall says the Duke gave himself ‘great libertie in all sorts of pleasures and debaucheries, and by his bad example infected many of the nobility and gentry.’ He is said to have excused his licentious conduct by alleging that, as he held the office of Royal Commissioner to Charles II., it was fitting that he should represent the royal character and conduct. Bishop Burnet, in a passage which was suppressed in the earlier editions of his history, says Rothes ‘was, unhappily, mad for drunkenness; for, as he drank, all his friends died, and he was able to subdue two or three sets of drunkards, one after another, so it scarce ever appeared that he was disordered; and after the greatest excesses, an hour or two of sleep carried them all off so entirely that no sign of them remained. He would go about his business without any uneasiness, or discovering any heat either in body or mind. This had a terrible conclusion, for, after he had killed all his friends, he fell at last under such a weakness of stomach that he had perpetual cholics, when he was not hot within and full of strong licquor, of which he was presently seized; so that he was always either sick or drunk.’ The Duke has left behind him an evil reputation as one of the persecutors of the Covenanters, and he was no doubt deeply implicated in the cruel and oppressive proceedings of his times. He seems, however, to have been personally a good-tempered and kind-hearted man. His Duchess, who was a daughter of the Earl of Crawford, was a staunch friend and protector of the persecuted clergy, and the Duke was wont to give her a hint, when a warrant from the Privy Council compelled him to institute a search after the preachers who were in hiding among the woods of Leslie. ‘My lady,’ he used to say, ‘my hawks maun be abroad the morn; ye had better look after your blackbirds.’ On his deathbed he sent for some of the Covenanting ministers, and entreated them to pray for him. The dukedom expired at his death in 1661, but the ancient family titles descended to his daughter, and since that time they have four several times fallen upon female heirs, who have not always been fortunate in their marriages. The present representative of the family is the Countess Henrietta, who was born in 1832, and married in 1861 the Hon. George Waldegrave, third son of the eighth Earl of Waldegrave. The Rothes estates, according to the ‘Doomsday Book,’ consist of 3,562 acres, of the gross annual value of 7,343 5s.


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