James Stewart, the ‘Good Regent’ and 1st Earl of Moray, was assassinated on the 23rd of January, 1570.
Like many a prominent Stewart, James Stewart was illegitimate. He had a good pedigree, of course, as he was the illegitimate son of James V and his favourite mistress Lady Margaret Douglas, wife of Sir Robert Douglas of Lochleven and daughter of John Erskine, 5th Lord Erskine. He was thus the half brother of Mary I, Queen of Scots. Illegitimacy was never a barrier to success for sons of Kings as the likes of Stewart were often granted positions of privilege. In such a fashion, James Stewart was made Prior of St. Andrews in his youth, but he was never intended for a career in the Church, you understand. Initially, it was a device that enabled James V to take the Abbey’s income into his own hands; income that later fell to James Stewart. Prior to 1562, Stewart was known as Lord James, but this notable quasi-Royal rose to become the 1st Earl of Moray (second creation), the Earl of Mar (briefly) and Regent of Scotland.
Unsurprisingly, religion played a big part in the life of James Stewart. Like many another, he came under the influence of the ideas of Protestant reformers such as George Wishart and John Knox. Like many another, he also abandoned the Catholic faith and joined the Protestant Lords of the Congregation and is regarded as one of the founding figures of the Scottish Church. His change of faith wasn’t the only switch he made in his career, which gets, largely speaking, a good press. Switching religion led James Stewart to rebel against his legitimate Queen, Marie de Guise, in 1559-60, but despite that switch, in 1561, he helped negotiate the return of his half sister, when she found herself surplus to requirements in France. With masterful political poise, he reverted to being a supporter of the Crown and became Chief Adviser to Mary I, Queen of Scots, managing to moderate some of the more extreme Calvinists, which helped the Catholic Mary survive in a Scotland in the throes of a Protestant Reformation. He was rewarded with the Earldom of Moray on the 30th of January, 1562, and made it his business to pursue a policy of amity with England.
However, he switched sides yet again when Mary married Henry Stewart (distant relation) in 1565. Moray’s political policies and religious adherence meant he had no choice but to oppose the marriage, which pushed him into a rebellion known as the ‘Chaseabout Raid’ and subsequent exile in England. Whilst in England, he conspired from a distance with the murderers of ‘Fiddler Davie’ Rizzio, but Mary was oblivious to his involvement and he was able to return to Scotland after she gave him a pardon. So, notionally at least, he was back on her side and, at the time of Darnley’s assassination, Moray contrived to be in France, which is where he remained whilst the Bothwell affair panned out. But, when Mary abdicated at Loch Leven in July of 1567, in favour of her son, the infant King James VI, Moray was appointed Regent of Scotland and returned to the opposing side once more. It seems that he may well have “reaped the fruits of the conspiracies” surrounding the murders of Rizzio and Darnley. After Mary escaped from Loch Leven on the 2nd of May, Moray was instrumental in her defeat at the Battle of Langside on the 13th of May, 1568, which forced her to exile and doom in England.
That makes five changes of side, but doesn’t stop posterity praising his time as Regent for having secured both civil and ecclesiastical peace, and the title of ‘The Good Regent’. Interestingly, an entry for Moray in the reference standard 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica concludes that James Stewart “…pursued his sister with a calculated animosity, which would not have spared her life had this been necessary to his end or been favoured by Elizabeth.” Perhaps Moray’s most important legacy was that his actions ensured James VI was raised a Protestant, which led to the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when Shaughling Jamie Saxt succeeded Elizabeth I.
James Stewart was born around the year 1531 and was educated at St. Andrews University. He was appointed Prior of St. Andrews Abbey and later, to a similar position at Pittenweem. James surely didn’t appear to have any notion of a monastic vocation, but he did demonstrate an enthusiasm for matters military. In September, 1549, he routed an English force on the Fife coast and, some years later, on the 5th of August, 1557, together with Lord Hume and his half-brother Lord Robert Stewart, Lord James led a raiding party down to Ford Castle in Northumbria. His tactical nous was well developed by then as he saw fit to retreat at the approach of Lord Henry Percy. Later, in 1562, shortly after becoming Earl of Moray and relinquishing the Earldom of Mar in favour of his uncle, the 6th Lord Erskine, Moray brutally put down a rebellion by the Catholic, George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly. Gordon might have thought he was entitled to Moray, but he lost the Battle of Corrichie, near Aberdeen, on the 28th of October, 1562, during which he was killed. Afterwards, many of the Gordon’s family and supporters were executed.
Moray was less successful in 1565, during the aforementioned ‘Chaseabout Raid’, in which he was joined by the 5th Earl of Argyll against Mary I. In fact, he was unsuccessful, but not because he lost a battle. On the 26th of August, 1565, Mary led an army out of Edinburgh and, throughout September, pursued the rebels over much of southern Scotland without bringing them to battle, hence the name. Interestingly, Mary led the campaign, dressed in a helmet and carrying pistols, but the rebels never faced her in combat and were eventually chased across the border.
Uniquely, Moray has the dubious distinction of being the victim of the World’s first ever recorded assassination by a firearm. That occurred on the 23rd of January, 1570, when Moray was the ‘mark’ in a professional ‘hit’ perpetrated by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, a staunch and disgruntled supporter of Mary. Hamilton shot from his ‘lie’ behind a window at his uncle’s house in Linlithgow and fatally wounded Moray as he was passing in a cavalcade in the main street below. Hamilton, like a true sniper, escaped to obscurity, but Moray’s death elevated him to the status of a Scottish Protestant martyr. His funeral in Edinburgh’s St. Giles’ Cathedral on the 14th of February was an occasion of much public mourning, graced by the presence of the less than graceful John Knox, who preached the sermon, and George Buchanan, who read the epitaph. James Stewart was buried in St. Anthony’s aisle in St. Giles’.