John, Master of Forbes, was executed at Edinburgh Castle on the 17th of July, 1537.
Forbes is a surname that is found, principally, in Aberdeenshire, where the family were once rivals of the mighty Gordons. The origins of the name are are territorial, although there are claims for it stemming from a Scotti-Celtic heritage, with the usual run of wondrous stories concerning amazing feats of valour and the consequent awarding of appropriate appellations; in this case killing a ferocious bear, hence 'Forbear'. Most of those kinds of stories are made up in later centuries when it became fashionable to construct an origin story; a bit like Genesis in microcosm. The name must derive from Forbois, a Latin-French derivation that signifies 'a wild wood country' – where bears once abounded, mind you. Skene, in his treatise De Verborum Significatione, mentions a Duncan Forbois getting a charter of the lands and heritage of Forbois, in Aberdeenshire, from King Alexander (he doesn't say which Alexander; I, II or III). Forbes is pronounced
in two syllables – For-bis – although in English, it gets only one syllable; cheapskates!
Like a lot of medieval nobles, the Forbeses blew hot and cold when it came to supporting various kings and in between the reigns of James III and James V, they swapped sides a few times. Back in the day of James III, Alexander, Lord Forbes, the fourth of that Ilk, was an adherent of that king. After that unfortunate monarch's assassination at Sauchieburn in 1488, Alexander Forbes reputedly fled from the battlefield with a torn and bloodstained shirt suspended from the end of his spear; allegedly that of his murdered king. Alexander rode back to Aberdeenshire and sought to rouse the people to arms, to avenge the King's death.
W. Anderson, in 'The Scottish nation', published in 1862, likens Alexander Forbes to Mark Antony with the mantle of “dead Ceasar,” which wouldn’t too wide of the mark if you believe the story about the sark. In any event, the nascent insurrection in the north, led by Alexander Lord Forbes and including Huntly, Erroll and Marischal, achieved nothing as they, along with the Earl of Lennox, were defeated at the battle of Tillymoss (Touch Moss) in 1489. After that, Alexander Forbes saw sense in submitting to the youngster, James IV.
Maintaining faith with the next king, James IV, the Forbeses appeared at the battle of Flodden (Branxton Edge) in 1513, led by John, sixth Lord Forbes, and his son James, Master of Forbes. The latter was killed, but the father and most of his 'clansmen' survived as they were in Huntly’s wing, which escaped the general slaughter. In 1522, when Albany led an invading, largely French, army into England, John Forbes was the spokesman for the Anglophile Lords who refused to follow Albany – effectively the Forbeses had changed sides again. Afterwards, the Forbeses were allied with the Douglas Earl of Angus, the step-father of James V, then a minor. Angus was the man who controlled the realm of Scotland in 1525.
John, sixth Lord Forbes, had two sons by his second marriage, a namesake and a William. The former was John, Master of Forbes and the latter became the seventh Lord. In the 1530s, the Forbeses deadly feud with the Gordons was at a peak and at least twice in that decade, the three Forbeses were cautioned to appear at the Court of Justiciary in Aberdeen. On the first occasion, on the 29th of July, 1533, it was for having “treasonably” set fire to wooden sheep pens belonging to the earl of Huntly. Even earlier, on the 10th of October, 1530, the Master had been indicted at the Court of Justiciary in Dundee, for the slaughter of Alexander Seton of Meldrum, but got a remission under the Great Seal. Young John's career as a bit of a nuisance to Huntly was well and truly under way.
So, on the 12th of June 1536, the Master was accused, by the Earl of Huntly, of treasonable conspiracy against the King's life, and also of plotting the destruction of the King's army at Jedburgh. According to 'Ancient criminal trials in Scotland; compiled from the original records and MSS., with historical illustrations, &c., Vol. I.' by Robert Pitcairn, Esq., in 1833, the charges were laid out in court as follows: “In presens of Þe KINGIS grace and LORDIS OF HIS COUNSALE ...ane nobill and michty lord GEORGE, ERLL OF HUNTLIE, &c., ...delatit Þe said MAISTER (OF) FORBES ...Þis cryme of Treſoune and Leſe-majeſtie ...That is to ſay, Ye said MAISTER OF FORBESE had imagynit and conſpirit HIS HIENES dede and Slauchter be ane ſchot of ane ſmall gwne or culuering within Þe burgh of Abirdene.”
The principal evidence against Forbes came from one of his own servants, a man called Strachene, who “ be Þe perfuafione of the Earle of Huntlie” was seduced into revealing “a Conspirasie intendit by his Maister” to aid the restoration of Douglas power. The Master protested his innocence and “offerit him to defend Þe ſamyn with his body” i.e., challenge his accuser to “Singular Combat,” a duel often allowed by feudal kings, exclaiming “God defend the richt!” Pitcairn notes that the council denied Forbes that judicial combat substitute for justice.
In relation to Forbes' trial, which began on the 14th of July, 1537, Pitcairn, the editor, notes that it was known “[that] the greateſt pairt of the Aſſiſe war corupted be the Earle of Huntlie” and records that it could not be proven “sufficientlie and clearlie, aither by Wittneſs or other evedences, that ever [Forbes] had ſuch a purpose.” Nevertheless, Forbes was found guilty and “For Þe quhilk treſſonabill crimes ...[Forbes] hes forfaltit to our ſouerane lord his life, landis, and gudis, movable and vnmovable; And ſall be harlyt and drawin trow Þe caſſay of Edinbur and HANGIT on Þe gallouſe to Þe deid, and quarterit and demanyt as ane traytour.”
Notwithstanding his sentence and according to Leslie, Forbes was “heidit and quarterit at Edinburgh, and his heid and quarteris affixt apoun the Portis,” no doubt to spare his relatives the ignominy of a hanging, which concession was reputedly down to the “mediatioun of some frindis.” On the 17th of July, 1537, as Pitscottie writes, John, the Master of Forbes, “swore upoun the scaffold that he was innocent of these crymes of Treasoun quhairof he was convict; but he knew weill it was the innocent Slauchter of the Laird of Meldrum quhilk had brocht him to that poynt.”