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The Lord Chancellors of Scotland
From the Institution of the Office to the Treaty of Union by Samuel Cowan, J. P. in two volumes (1911)


The Lord Chancellors of Scotland is a work that could not be produced without the aid of scientific research. The origin of the office is involved in great obscurity, and it has never been finally determined who the first and second Chancellors were. We are indebted to that eminent antiquarian, Mr Cosmo Innes, for much of the information we possess of that early period of Scottish history, the twelfth century. There are few records of that period in existence save charters, issued by the King and signed by the Chancellor, the Chamberlain, the Constable, and various clerical witnesses, and it is remarkable that even these are preserved, considering their great age.

According to the Scotichromcon, a work which possesses some authority, the first Chancellor of Scotland was John, Bishop of Glasgow, who was appointed on the accession of David I. in 1124, and held the office for two years, at the end of which period he resigned, as the duties of the office were not congenial to him. It is possible that the King then allowed the office to lie vacant for a few years, till he appointed as Bishop John’s successor Herbert, believed to be Herbert Maxwell, whose signature, “Herbert the Chancellor,” appears on many documents of that period. This Herbert the Chancellor was a great personality in his day, and, as noted, we find his signature on many charters, some of them of the very highest importance. He evidently held office for a period of fifteen or seventeen years. The origin of the Maxwell family we have fully explained in the second chapter of the text. It is one of the earliest of our Scottish families, and is represented today by Sir Herbert Maxwell of Monreith, Wiotown-shire, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments.

We do not guarantee the absolute accuracy of the list of Chancellors we have given in the Kalendar, on account of the difficulty of establishing facts even when the period dealt with is a relatively late one. With this qualification, however, the Kalendar may be accepted as fairly accurate.

To the student of history the want of such a work as the present has long been evident, but its production, even with our present knowledge, will in some respects be disappointing. It will be noticed, on perusal of the text, that several of the notices are very brief. This is much to be regretted, but arises from the scarcity of recorded material available for the purpose, and it is impossible, in these circumstances, to enlarge the narrative. The scheme of the work is not to give biographies of the Chancellors, but rather an outline of their official careers so far as that is possible from authentic sources.

Prior to the Reformation the history of the Chancellors is practically a history of the Catholic Church in Scotland, and it must be confessed that the progress of the Catholic Church in Scotland from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries makes fascinating reading, and is full of incidents both interesting and important, when we consider the antiquity of these events and their bearing on the political history of the country during the period. Some of the Catholic Bishops and Archbishops made very good Chancellors, but the office was really one which was outside their profession altogether, and the duties foreign to their conception of the order of things.

The influence exercised by the Pope over pre-Reformation Chancellors was sometimes highly detrimental to the interests of the nation, especially when that interminable controversy was introduced, the supremacy of Rome or Canterbury, which often caused bitterness on both sides, and sometimes resulted in the resignation of the Chancellor concerned.

The Reformation, or rather the assassination of Cardinal Beton in 1546, put an end to the appointment of Catholic prelates to the office of Chancellor, and thereafter lay peers of the realm were selected for the appointment. Under them the administration of the Chancellorship was vastly improved; its duties multiplied, became more defined, and were executed with efficiency down to the Treaty of Union, when the office was finally abolished.

Volume 1  |  Volume 2

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