James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton

James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton

James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton (c. 1516 2 June 1581, aged 65) was the last of the four regents of Scotland during the minority of King James VI. He was in some ways the most successful of the four, since he won the civil war that had been dragging on with the supporters of the exiled Mary, Queen of Scots. However, he came to an unfortunate end, executed by means of the Maiden, a predecessor of the guillotine, which he himself was said to have introduced to Scotland.


Early career

James Douglas was the second son of Sir George Douglas of Pittendreich, Master of Angus, and Elizabeth Douglas, daughter David Douglas of Pittendreich. He wrote that he was over 61 years old in March 1578, so was probably born around 1516.[1] Before 1543 he married Elizabeth, daughter of James Douglas, 3rd Earl of Morton. In 1553 James Douglas succeeded to the title and estates of his father-in-law, including Dalkeith House in Midlothian, and Aberdour Castle in Fife. Elizabeth Douglas and her two elder sisters, who were married to Regent Arran and Lord Maxwell, suffered from mental ill-health.[2] Their children either did not survive to adulthood, or in the case of three daughters were declared legally incompetent in 1581. James also had five illegitimate children[3]

At the start of war of the Rough Wooing, James and his brother David communicated with Henry VIII of England on the possibility of their surrendering Tantallon Castle to the English army that burnt Edinburgh in 1544. However, four years later he defended Dalkeith Palace against the English and was captured in June 1548, "sore hurt on the thigh [in those times often a euphemism for the male genitalia]" and taken as a hostage to England. After the Treaty of Boulogne brought peace, in 1550 James returned from captivity in England and was exchanged for the English soldier John Luttrell, and began to use his title of "Earl of Morton."

In 1559 James's political activities and allegiances during the Scottish Reformation were at first equivocal, but in February 1560 he signed the Treaty of Berwick which invited an English army into Scotland to expel the Catholic regime of Mary of Guise.[4] He took part in the unsuccessful embassy to England in November 1560 to treat for the marriage of Elizabeth I of England to James Hamilton, 3rd Earl of Arran.[5]

Morton's town house[6] in Edinburgh is now a backpackers' hostel

In 1563 he became Lord Chancellor of Scotland. Though his sympathies were with the reformers, he took no part in the combination of Protestant reformers in 1565, but he headed the armed force which took possession of Holyrood palace in March 1566 to effect the assassination of David Rizzio, and the leading conspirators adjourned to Morton's house while a messenger was sent to obtain Queen Mary's signature to the "bond of security".

The Queen, before complying with the request, escaped to Dunbar, and Morton and the other leaders fled to England. Having been pardoned, Morton returned to Scotland early in 1567, and with 600 men appeared before Borthwick Castle, where the Queen had taken refuge after her marriage to Bothwell. Morton attended the remarkable stand-off at the battle of Carberry Hill in June 1567, Mary's new husband, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell offered to settle the matter by single combat. When Patrick, Lord Lindsay took up the challenge, Morton gave Lindsay the sword of his ancestor, Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus. Mary vetoed a fight, and surrendered.[7] Morton took an active part in obtaining the consent of the queen, while she was imprisoned at Lochleven Castle, to her abdication in July 1567. When Mary escaped from Lochleven, he led the vanguard of the army which defeated her forces at the Battle of Langside in 1568, and he was the most valued privy counsellor of the Earl of Moray during the latter's brief term of office as Regent of Scotland.

Regent of Scotland

Scotland was now ruled by Regents on behalf of Mary's infant son, James VI of Scotland, who faced a civil war. James Stewart, Regent Moray, Mary's half-brother, was assassinated in Linlithgow and then Matthew Stewart, Regent Lennox died from a gunshot wound after a struggle on the streets of Stirling. On 18 November 1571, the new Regent, John Erskine, Earl of Mar, sent Morton with Robert Pitcairn, Commendator of Dunfermline and James MacGill of Nether Rankeillour to negotiate with Elizabeth's representative Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, Governor of Berwick upon Tweed. Mar wanted English help to capture Edinburgh Castle from Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange who held it for Mary, Queen of Scots. Regent Mar hoped that Morton could arrange for 12 cannons, 3000 foot soldiers, and wages for the 800 Scottish foot soldiers and 200 horsemen already in the field. Morton was instructed to offer six hostages to England from the sons of the nobility who supported James VI. He also discussed returning the Earl of Northumberland to England who was a fugitive after the failed Rising of the North.

A week later Morton wrote to Hunsdon with the same request, urging an attack in winter because the Castle was vulnerable when the Nor' Loch was frozen. Hunsdon replied that Elizabeth still hoped for a peaceful settlement, but he would send an estimate of the expedition's cost to Elizabeth. Morton received a token payment. The English rebels were handed over. The treaty for military aid was still not finalised when Mar died at Stirling in October 1572.[8]

On 24 November 1572, a month after the death of Regent Mar, Morton, who had been the most powerful noble during Mar and Lennox's rule, at last reached the object of his ambition by being elected regent. As Regent of Scotland, Morton expected the support of England and Elizabeth, and a week after his election, he wrote to William Cecil, Lord Burghley following his discussions with the English ambassador Henry Killigrew;

The knowledge of her Majesty's meaning has chiefly moved me to accept the charge (the Regency), resting in assured hope of her favourable protection and maintenance, especially for the present payment of our men-of-war their bypast wages, "without the quhilk I salbe drevin in mony great inconvenientis."[9]

In many respects Morton was an energetic and capable ruler. His first achievement was the conclusion of the civil war in Scotland against the supporters of the exiled Mary, Queen of Scots. In February 1573 he effected a pacification with George Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly, the Hamiltons, and other Catholic nobles who supported Mary at Perth, with the aid of Elizabeth's envoy, Henry Killigrew.[10] Edinburgh Castle still held out for Mary under the command of William Kirkcaldy of Grange and William Maitland of Lethington, and after a long siege the castle was taken on 27 May 1573, aided by English artillery and soldiers which finally arrived under William Drury.

The ensuing execution of the leaders of the Castle garrison men put an end to the last chance of Mary's restoration by native support. But while all seemed to favour Morton, under-currents combined to procure his fall. The Presbyterian clergy were alienated by his leaning to Episcopacy, and all parties in the divided Church disliked his seizure of its estates. Andrew Melville, who had taken over as leader of the Kirk from John Knox, was firmly against any departure from the Presbyterian model, and refused to be won by a place in Morton's household. Morton rigorously pursued the collection of a third of the income from every Church benefice, a revenue that had been allocated to finance the King's household. Morton had discretion to exempt persons and institutions from paying these thirds, and the historian George Hewitt found no striking evidence of bias in Morton's exemptions.[11]

As well as the pressure from the Presbyterians, opposition grew led by the Earl of Argyll and the Earl of Atholl, both leading Roman Catholics and members of the Queen's party, in league with Alexander Erskine of Gogar, governor of Stirling Castle and custodian of the young James VI. Morton was forced to resign as Regent in March 1578, but retained much of his power. He surrendered Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, the Great Seal and the jewels and Honours of Scotland, retiring for a while to Lochleven Castle, where he busied himself in laying out gardens. On 10 March, James VI issued a proclamation recognising that many in Scotland 'misliked' the regiment of Morton, who had now resigned, and James would now accept the burden of the administration. The King was eleven years old.[12]

Queen Elizabeth wrote to her agents in Scotland expressing her astonishment and displeasure, because, as she was convinced her influence had brought Morton to the regency, so his forced resignation reflected badly on her. If Morton was now to be accused of bad government, she instructed her diplomats Thomas Randolph and Robert Bowes to defend him by saying that his accusers should have first appealed to England to pressure Morton to reform his administration.[13]

President of the Privy Council and arrest

On 27 April 1578, by the action of John Erskine (son of Regent Mar) and his brothers, the Commendators of Cambuskenneth and Dryburgh, Morton gained possession of Stirling Castle and the person of the king, regaining his ascendancy. On 12 August 1578, the forces of his opponents faced his army at Falkirk, but a truce was negotiated by two Edinburgh ministers, James Lawson and David Lindsay, and the English resident Robert Bowes. A nominal reconciliation was effected, and a parliament at Stirling introduced a new government. Morton, who secured an indemnity, was president of the council, but Atholl remained a privy councillor in an enlarged council with the representatives of both parties. Shortly afterwards Atholl died (allegedly of poison) and suspicion pointed to Morton. His return to power was brief, and the only important event was the prosecution of the two Hamiltons who still supported Mary. In the spring of 1579, the Scottish government's forces moved to crush the power of the Hamilton family in the west, and Claude Hamilton and his brother John Hamilton fled to England. Morton would later deny that this was his initiative.[14] The final fall of Morton came from an opposite quarter.

In May 1579, at St Andrews, an eccentric called Skipper Lindsay publicly declared to Morton in the King's presence during the performance of a play that his day of judgement was at hand. In September, Esmé Stewart, Sieur d'Aubigny, the king's cousin, came to Scotland from France, gained the favour of James by his courtly manners, and received the lands and earldom of Lennox, the custody of Dumbarton Castle, and the office of chamberlain. The young James VI was declared to have reached his majority and formally began his personal rule with some ceremony in Edinburgh in September 1579, and the period of the Regents was concluded.

On 31 December 1580, an associate of Lennox, James Stuart, Earl of Arran, son of Lord Ochiltree and brother-in-law of John Knox, had the daring to accuse Morton at a meeting of the council in Holyrood of complicity in the murder of Darnley, and he was at once committed to custody in Holyroodhouse and taken to Dumbarton Castle in the Lennox heartland.[15] Some months later Morton was condemned by an assize for having taken part in Darnley's murder, and the verdict was justified by his confession that the Earl of Bothwell had revealed to him the design, although he denied participation, "art and part", in its execution.


The 'Maiden' in the National Museum of Scotland
Stone marker in Greyfriars Kirkyard

He was executed on 2 June 1581. The method of his execution was the "Maiden"—an early form of guillotine modelled on the Halifax gibbet, which he was said to have brought personally from England, having been "impressed by its clean work".[16] (It was in fact ordered to be made by Edinburgh's Town Council in 1564.)[17] His corpse remained on the scaffold for the following day, until it was taken for burial in an unmarked grave at Greyfriars Kirkyard. His head, however, remained on "the prick on the highest stone",[18] (a spike) on the north gable of the ancient Tolbooth of Edinburgh (outside St Giles Cathedral), for eighteen months until it was ordered to be reunited with his body in December 1582.[16] Morton's final resting place is reputedly[19] marked by a small sandstone post incised with the initials "J.E.M." for James Earl of Morton. The post is more probably a Victorian marker for a lairage. In the very unlikely event that a marker were permitted for an executed criminal, the inscribed initials would have been "J.D." and, secondly, it would have been cleared away in 1595 when all stones were removed from Greyfriars.

Widow, daughters, and the Morton title

After the execution of her husband, Morton's wife, Dame Elizabeth Douglas was found by an inquest to be incapable of managing her affairs, as she was "idiot and prodigal" in the language of the time. King James VI signed a warrant to appoint a legal guardian called an "administrator and tutor" to supervise and protect her property.[20]

The title of Earl of Morton passed by charter to the son of Dame Elizabeth Douglas's sister Beatrix, John Maxwell, 8th Lord Maxwell. Maxwell had been in dispute with Regent Morton over the title, and while the former Regent was in prison, Maxwell had made a contract with the Duke of Lennox on 29 April 1581. Lennox would work to give Maxwell rights over the Morton earldom, and make him the legal guardian of James Douglas and Dame Elizabeth's three daughters. The three sisters, like their mother would be declared incapable by a "brieve of idiotry". In 1586, however, the title was given to Archibald Douglas, 8th Earl of Angus, a nephew and legal heir of Regent Morton. Maxwell was still able to use the title, though it did not descend to his heirs.[21]

Drochil Castle and other buildings

Drochil Castle, basement corridor, the Castle is notable for its planning with central corridors on three levels

James Douglas started building Drochil Castle in 1578, for his own use three years before his death. It was no more than half built and never finished. The ruins of the castle overlook Peebles and the valleys of the Tarth Water, Lyne Water and River Tweed. At Aberdour Castle in Fife, Morton's lodging survives with its terrace overlooking the Firth of Forth. Morton also extended his residence at Dalkeith Palace, but these works have long since been demolished.

Morton commissioned extensive reconstruction at Edinburgh Castle after the siege, including the Portcullis Gate where his heraldic insignia of a heart can still be seen, and the iconic half-moon battery which fronts the castle and conceals the remains of buildings destroyed in 1573. On his orders, galleries, stables, and other new buildings were constructed at Stirling Castle and Holyroodhouse, and rooms refurbished and furnished for the use of the King.[22] During his resignation in March 1578, Morton pointed out to the officers of the Scottish exchequer that the royal houses were "now in better case than they were at the beginning of his regiment."[23]


  1. Hewitt, George R., Scotland under Morton, John Donald (1982), p.1
  2. Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.1 (1898), p.615
  3. Hewitt (1982), 207.
  4. Hewitt, (1982), p.1-3, citing for Tantallon,Letters & Papers Henry VIII, vol. 19 part 1 p.213, and Maitland Miscellany, vol.4. pp. 94-5, 98-9.
  5. Adams, Simon ed., Household Accounts of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Camden 5th Series vol. 6, RHS/CUP, (1995), 146 note: Hewitt (1982), p.4
  6. History of High Street Hostel and the Building at High Street Hostel,Edinburgh. Accessed 6 February 2012
  7. Hewitt (1982), 10, citing Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, (1843), pp.363-4.
  8. Cameron, Annie, I., Warrender Papers, vol.1, SHS (1931), pp.104-11,115: Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.4 (1905), pp.47-8, 52-4.
  9. Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.4 (1905) p.441 no.488, part modernised in the Calendar
  10. Hewitt (1982), p.25
  11. Hewitt, (1982), pp.82-91.
  12. Calendar of State Papers Scotland, vol.5 (1907), pp.275-279.
  13. Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.5 (1907), p.279 no.320.
  14. Hewitt, (1982), 64-71.
  15. Hewitt (1982), pp.76-7, 188-9.
  16. 1 2 Maxwell, History of the House of Douglas, Vol. I, pp.283-5
  17. Maxwell, H Edinburgh, A Historical Study, Williams and Norgate (1916), p.299 -- David Hume of Godscroft appears to have initiated the Morton legend in his History of the House of Douglas (1644)
  18. Grant's Old and New Edinburgh, p.124
  19. James Morton grave monument details at gravestonephotos.com
  20. Fraser, William, eds., Lennox Muniments, vol.2 (1874), 321-322, (the name of the tutor is left blank in the original)
  21. Fraser, William, ed., Carlaverock Book, vol.1 (1873) pp.252-3, 271
  22. Accounts of the Treasurer of Scotland, vol.13, Edinburgh, HMSO (1978), pp.21-2, 26-7, 149, 150-1, 166.
  23. Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol.5 (1907), p.277 no.315.

See also


Government offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Mar
Regent of Scotland
Succeeded by
Military offices
Preceded by
Lord High Admiral of Scotland
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by
The 4th Earl of Huntly
Lord Chancellor of Scotland
Succeeded by
The 5th Earl of Huntly
Preceded by
The 5th Earl of Huntly
Lord Chancellor of Scotland
Succeeded by
The 5th Earl of Argyll
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
James Douglas
Earl of Morton
1553 1581
Succeeded by
Archibald Douglas
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