James Stewart, a 2nd Earl of Moray, was murdered by George Gordon, the 6th Earl of Huntly, on the 7th of February, 1592.
Two Earls went a fighting; a fighting they did go. Well, the nobility have been fighting each other for centuries. However, calling them noble could be akin to an oxymoron. According to Tom Johnston’s 1909 “book that rocked the nobles” seventy-five percent of the Scottish aristocracy was descended from “foreign freebooters” post 1066. That’s not much of a distinction as the same could be said of the Norman-English, but Johnston’s “excoriating polemic” went on to show that most ‘Scots’ were “descended from border thieves and land pirates.” A key premise of ‘Our Scots Noble Families’ was that the blood of those rogues had, over the centuries and aided by “a process of snobbery”, become ‘blue blood’. Johnston also wrote that the title deeds of our noblemen were forged by “Court harlotry” and rapine, murder and massacre. That makes for a pretty good summary of the feud between the Gordons and the Morays.
In fact, name any two so-called noble families and they were probably at each other’s throats. As example, James Stewart, the 2nd Earl of Moray, only gained that title, which he assumed ‘jure uxoris’ (in right of his wife), after marrying the daughter of the 1st Earl on the 23rd of January, 1581. But Elizabeth Stewart had inherited the title, 2nd Countess of Moray, ‘suo jure’ (in her own right), as heir to another James Stewart, ‘The Good Regent’ Moray, when that man was assassinated in Linlithgow on the 23rd of January, 1570, by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh. The new 2nd Earl was the son of James Stewart, the 1st Lord Doune, and grandson of yet another James Stewart, that one of Doune who was made Commendator of Inchcolm Abbey around 1540. As blue blood goes, the 2nd Earl was also a direct male-line descendent of Robert II, the grandson of ‘The Bruce’, through the 1st Duke of Albany, the 2nd son of that 2nd Robert.
The killing of James Stewart is remembered in the ballad ‘The Bonny Earl o’ Moray’ with that epithet being significant on two counts. The Stewart Earl was reputed to be quite handsome and deserving of the appellation, but he was also romantically linked with the Queen, Anne of Denmark, the wife of James VI, as this bit verse signifies:
“He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the glove;
And the bonny Earl o’ Murray,
Oh he was the Queen’s love!”
A funny thing about this tale of two Earls is that at one point, the Earl of Huntly was also the Earl of Moray. When James Stewart, illegitimate son of James IV and the 4th created 1st Earl of Moray died childless, the title became extinct. It was later given to the Gordon 4th Earl of Huntly, who held the 5th creation of the Moray title until 1460, when he fell out of favour. That Gordon died in 1462 and the title forfeited. Then the 6th creation made ‘The Good Regent’ and illegitimate son of James V into the 6th 1st Earl of Moray. When he died as you’ve read, his daughter became Countess and, when she married, her bonny husband became the 2nd ever 2nd Earl.
The feud betwixt the Gordons and Morays began with the 4th Huntly and the 4th 1st Moray back in the days of the 1st Mary. At one point, the two were erstwhile allies, having been in joint command of an army against the English, in 1542. But they couldn’t agree on tactics and Moray rode home in a sulk. While Moray brooded over his former ally turned unfriend, the Scottish army was defeated. The petulant Moray died in 1544, but the mutual dislike continued between the families until 1562, when the future 6th 1st Moray drove north towards Banchory and Gordon territory. There at Corrichie, on the 28th of October, the Protestant Regent Moray, on behalf of his Catholic Queen, entered battle with the Catholic former 5th 1st Moray, the ancient 4th Huntly, known as “the wylest lad that lyved.” Laughably, the Gordon was too old for such capers; he fell off his horse and died. The feud then simmered on through the 5th Huntly and ‘The Good Regent’ and ultimately, to the 6th Huntly and the Regent’s son-in-law.
By that time, James VI was King and married to his Dane who took a liking to the bonny Moray, which wouldn’t have pleased the King overmuch, but not for obvious reasons. It would’ve had more to do with not wanting anything to come between him and the English throne. The 6th Huntly was both a supporter of and schemer against his King. According to Francis James Child of ‘Child Ballad’ fame, Huntly was keen to prove that Moray was plotting rebellion with Francis Stewart, the Earl of Bothwell, against the King. No doubt as a smokescreen for his own double dealings in cahoots with the Spanish, Huntly got his King’s permission to bring Moray to trial. But instead of simply apprehending Moray, Huntly rampaged through his northern territory, causing death and destruction. On the 6th of February, when Moray was on route to Edinburgh of his own volition, Huntly cornered him at Donibristle House in Fife.
Late that evening, approaching midnight, Huntly’s men fired the house. Early in the morning of the 7th, Moray made a dash for the rocks on the seashore, but his headpiece had caught alight and betrayed his attempt at escape through the trees. He was cut down by Huntly’s men and slashed across the face by George Gordon’s own sword. Bonny Moray’s last words as he lay dying were, “Man, ye hae spoilt a better face than yer ain.” Moray’s mother sought revenge for her son, but despite ghoulishly exhibiting the corpse for several months in its coffin, Huntly wasn’t punished by the King, beyond a week long house arrest. In truth, Huntly was always one of the King’s close favourites, but he spent his entire life falling into and out of favour with his monarch. A painting of Moray’s body, gruesomely showing off his multiple wounds, was paraded through Edinburgh in an attempt at propaganda. It can be seen today in the Great Hall at Darnaway.
Significantly, Huntly, who was later charged with treason over the matter of the ‘Spanish Blanks’; excommunicated; absolved; victor over the King’s army at Glenlivet in October, 1594; tolerated by James VI; and who periodically abjured Romanism; was created the 1st Marquess of Huntly on the 7th of April, 1599. Later, he was again excommunicated; imprisoned several times; signed one Reformist confession and refused another; accused of intrigue; set free on the King’s order; joined James’ Court in London; absolved again; and involved in a feud with the Crichtons. Released by Charles I in 1636, Huntly died in Dundee on the 13th of June, after declaring his Catholic faith.
The son of the murdered 2nd Earl of Moray became the 3rd Earl and Lieutenant of the North. He later married Huntly’s daughter and put an end, once and for all, to the Moray/Gordon feud.