Chapter 1: John Gordon — the Blame Game

On 26th March, 1530, George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly married Elizabeth Keith, sister of William, 4th Earl Marischal. She was a strong, resolute woman. She and George had nine sons and three daughters. They had the misfortune to see their eldest son, Alexander, and eldest daughter, Elizabeth, die soon after their marriages — he to the eldest daughter of the Duke of Chatelherault, and she to the neighbouring, Earl of Athol from Balvenie Castle. Now on to the story of the remaining family through the parallel biographies of four of the sons and two the surviving daughters, all chosen because of their particularly interesting lives and the light they shed on the time. They are:

John — whose activities threatened the very survival of the earldom of Huntly; George — who becomes the 5th Earl of Huntly and strove to have Mary Queen of Scots restored to her throne after her escape from Lochleven and imprisonment in England; Adam — who successfully fought for her in the north during the brief civil war; Catholic Margaret — who was divorced by the Protestant Master of Forbes, on the opposite side in that conflict, and ended up living in the Low Countries, where their only two sons had become Capuchin monks; Jean — who was divorced by the Earl of Bothwell to make way for his marriage to the Queen, then married the young Earl of Sutherland, who had been a refugee in her home of Huntly Castle, and successfully ran is estates then, finally, as a widow, married the suitor of her youth, Alexander Ogilvie of Boyne. Lastly is James Gordon the Jesuit — who, with his nephew the 6th Earl of Huntly, attempted to gain Spanish help to bring about Counter-Reformation in Scotland, or, at the very least, bring about religious toleration.

As befitted someone of such importance in the land, the 4th Earl’s castle of Huntly was being greatly extended, with added height and two new wings, during the period of their growing up. It was sumptuously furnished and was even thought to shame the royal palaces. The modern part had beds furnished with silk, velvet and gold embroidered coverings and yellow, crimson, blue, green and violet curtains. People not only slept in the bedchamber but ate and talked there too, so had tables (known as boards) covered with velvet ‘board cloths’ trimmed to match the beds. In the hall Huntly met his guests like a king on a seat surmounted by a cloth of state of crimson satin, embroidered with gold. A cloth of state is a rich textile arranged as a canopy or backdrop behind a throne or dias. For seating for others, there were many coloured velvet cushions. There were hangings on the walls, one was of gilt leather and another was a fine Flemish tapestry in five pieces, ‘maid in the figures of birdis and greit leiffis of treiss.’

The first story is about John, the third son, because it concerns events that were chronologically the earliest and he was the first to die. He was described as, ‘a bold cavalier’ and ‘the handsomest man in Scotland.’

The significant happening in John’s life concerned Alexander Ogilvie of Findlater and Deskford, his second wife, Elizabeth Gordon and his son by his first wife, James Ogilvie of Cardell. Elizabeth Gordon was related to the Gordons of Huntly: George Gordon of Beldorney was her brother. Their father, the Gordon Dean of Caithness, was the son of the 1st Earl of Huntly, their grandfather. The Ogilvies were frequent visitors to Huntly Castle, as they were ‘on terms of close amity with the Huntly family.’

Now, Elizabeth Gordon ’caused her husband to have a hostile attitude towards his son, telling him that her stepson, James Ogilvie, had ‘solicited her to dishonesty, not only with himself but also other men’ and had planned ‘to put his father in a dark house and keep him awake till he became starke madde, then to take possession of his land and house.’

It appears that Alexander Ogilvie was beholden to John’s father, the Earl of Huntly, for ‘alleged reasons of favour shown him’ and Ogilvie had developed an affection for young John, who could not have been more than about thirteen, at the most. On 20th July, 1545, a contract was drawn up between old Ogilvie and John’s father, the 4th Earl of Huntly, by which young John would, in future, bear the name and arms of Ogilvie and be granted the lands and baronies of Findlater, Deskford, Keithmore and Auchindoun, with their castles, mills, fishings and forests, belonging to him, in Banffshire and Aberdeenshire. This was on condition that, ‘in all time coming, he bore the name and arms of Ogilvie,’ but reserving his own and his wife’s life rent. John was also to ‘render certain services to him.’ It is not clear what these were. As a result, John must have henceforth taken on the name of Ogilvie, because there is a charter of Ogilvie lands for his benefit dated ten months later in which he is named as ‘John Ogilvie, formerly Gordon, laird of fee of Ogilvie of Fynlettir, 3rd son of George Earl of Huntly.’ ‘Laird of Fee’ means that he was the heir of Ogilvie of Findlater.

The charter shows the enormous extent of Alexander Ogilvie’s hostility towards his own son, because it states that if John died without issue, the title and barony would pass, not to his own or wider family of Ogilvies, but instead to several of John’s younger brothers, and not until failing them, would they pass back to other branches of the Ogilvie clan. Thus his own Ogilvie blood line through his only son and his heirs were completely cut out of the inheritance.

The question is, did the powerful and influential Earl of Huntly, manipulate old Ogilvie, who seems to have been beholden to him, perhaps financially? Did John’s father manipulate John to use his attractiveness, even at this young age, for Gordon gain? Acquiring Findlater and Auchindoun estates was to huge advantage for the Gordons because it joined up the Gordon Strathbogie and Strathavon lands, giving them vast swathes of undivided territory and more of Banffshire, including the constabulary of Cullen, so they would effectively control that county.’

John was a third son. He gained enormous personal advantage from this contract: he obtained the baronies of Deskford, Findlater, Auchindoun and Keithmore, with their castles, fishings and large estates from which to draw income, though the rents would still be in the hands of Alexander and Elizabeth.

On 10th September, 1547, Huntly was away fighting the English, in his gilt and enamelled armour, for James V, in the Battle of Pinkie. However, he was captured and imprisoned in England for more than a year as surety for his fellow prisoners. He asked for permission for his wife and children to visit him, but was told not until the war was over. However, he was brought north to Morpeth, which was only twenty-four miles from the Scottish border, with the understanding that he would go back to Scotland to further the cause of the marriage of the infant Mary to Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward. His wife and sons were to go to take his place to guarantee his return. However, he managed to dupe the guards with card playing, and escaped, with the help of George Kerr of Heton, who had brought two swift horses. He got a warm welcome from one and all when he arrived in Edinburgh on Christmas Eve, and the Regent restored him to being her Chancellor.

At first, the disinherited James Ogilvy could do nothing during his father’s lifetime but remain a passive spectator of what was happening. However, he received the full sympathy of his neighbours and clan. In 1552, the Regent, Marie of Guise, who was said to love justice, agreed that he had been ‘evill done to’ by his father and was ‘movit of zeile and pitie to his help.’ This gave James Ogilvie an opportunity to attempt to recover possession of his father’s estate. She persuaded him, John Gordon, and John’s father, the 4th Earl of Huntly, to submit the issue to the arbitration of judges. If the result was discord, the case was to be decided by her self.

This is obviously what happened, because the whole controversy was referred back to her. She ordered John to transfer all his right and title to the grieved James Ogilvie, and to assign the ward of the property to him. This was registered as a decree of the Lords of Council, and was even ratified by John ‘after his perfect age’ (twenty-one). He was commanded to fulfil the decree. However, he disobeyed. Here we have the first of his many acts of defiance against the Crown. However, was it fair of the Regent to try to reverse a contract by which a man had made his own decision on who should inherit? Was that his right? Or was it automatic that a property should go to an eldest son, whatever his father thought of him? Could we say that the Regent Marie of Guise was to blame for the eventual consequences of trying to force John to give up title and lands, freely bequeathed to him?

In 1553 John’s eldest brother, Alexander heir to the Huntly earldom and the vast areas of Gordon control, tragically died, not long after his prestigious marriage to the eldest daughter of the Duke of Chatelherault, heir presumptive to the Scottish throne. Brother George became the new heir to the Huntly earldom, followed by John.

In July, the following year, 1554, old Alexander Ogilvie died. John, who was continuing to disobey the Regent’s order, promptly married Alexander’s widow, Elizabeth. Was it a genuine marriage or a ‘pretendit marriage,’ as described by John Knox later, just to take over the lands because their rents were held by her for her life time? It looks like it, because after only a month of marriage to Elizabeth, the handsome John, ‘casteth his fantasie unto another, but could not leave her as he would lose the inheritance.’ Randolph, the English Ambassador writing later to William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Chief Secretary of State, said that John ‘could not secure from her for him all the lands he wanted, so he both discarded her as a mistress and disowned her as his wife and shut her up in a close chamber’ in the impregnable Findlater Castle on the coast, ‘where she yet remaynethe,’ said Randolph, ‘and for her deliverance there is much controversy in the country and one of the chief causes for his enterprising is his fear to be forced to put her to liberty and forego the land while she lives.’ It is ironic that the same fate had befallen Elizabeth that she had accused her stepson of threatening to do to his father. It is from Randolph in his letters to Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, that we get the most vivid accounts of the dramatic events in the life of John.

Meanwhile, a family had a brief crisis when their father was temporarily out of favour with the Regent, for failing to subdue a rebellion of Ronald Moydart in the West. He was removed from being her Chancellor and in 1555, warded in Edinburgh Castle for a while. Eventually he agreed to pay her large sums of money, renouncing all the tacks (leases of land, see below ) he had of the earldom of Moray, Rothes and Orkney to her. Conceding to this and, with the intervention of his friends, he regained his freedom and was restored to his former positions and responsibilities.

Was John part of the reception for the Queen-Regent, the following year, 1556, or was he skulking in the background, when one thousand men formed the guard of honour and she was given entertainment after entertainment, interspersed with games and other amusements. She was amazed at the castle’s opulence and the Earl’s lavish hospitality. After staying some time, she offered to leave in order to spare Huntly further strain on his resources. Did John hear his father assuring her that the display was well within his means, as fresh supplies came in from all parts of his estates every day. Did John accompany his father when he took the French ambassador, d’Oysel, on a tour of his cellars and storehouses, full of provisions of all kinds, including much grain and venison. Did he overhear the ambassador remarking to the Regent that Huntly needed his wings clipped, as his power so far exceeded that of his equals that he might become too arrogant for so small a kingdom, and thus make even a monarch apprehensive.

She had not forgotten the issue of the Ogilvie inheritance, especially as James Ogilvie was a faithful supporter of hers. In May of that year she issued a compromise decree-arbitral by which John would keep a liberal portion of the barony but would have to give up the rest to James. John again defied her. The Gordons were unwilling to lose any of it and James Ogilvie was determined to recover it all, so neither side would abide by the ruling.

Despite this defiance from a member of his family, John saw his father made Lieutenant General of the Kingdom, by the Regent, in 1557. The following year there were two important marriages in the family: his now eldest brother, George, to the third daughter of the Duke of Chatelherault; his sister, Margaret, married John, Master of Forbes.

The family had to face the unsettling religious and nationalist revolutions taking place at the time, bringing in the new Protestant reformed faith of John Calvin, and driving out the French brought to Scotland by the Regent. At first John’s father supported Mary of Guise, and was one of her negotiators with the Lords of the Congregation, who were the leaders of the Protestant Revolution. However, the evidence of French domination was an affront to national sentiment, and Huntly found himself being sidelined by the French advisers of the Regent, particularly by her vice Chancellor, de Robay. During 1560, as events favoured the reformers, he began to sit on the fence. In April that year, when the Lords of the Congregation were sure of English help and, after much hesitation, he finally signed the Band of Leith. He excused his tardiness to sign as being caused by the extreme conservatism of his people in the north. His ability to look after his own interests caused the English ambassador, Randolph, to say, ‘No man would trust him in word or deed.’ No doubt this view of him originated after the ruse he employed for his escape from Morpeth. Marie of Guise died in Edinburgh Castle on 11th June, 1560.

Meanwhile, her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, also lost her young husband, Francis II. She was no longer welcome in France, especially by her mother-in-law, the dowager, Catherine de Medici. She prepared to return to her other kingdom of Scotland. However, she had a mandate from her powerful Guise uncles that this was to be merely a stepping stone to the more desirable throne of England.

Meanwhile, Huntly and his wife turned Huntly Castle into a Catholic stronghold, a repository for church treasures from St. Machar’s Cathedral, in Old Aberdeen, brought there for safety lest they fall into the reformers’ clutches. There were gold and silver vessels, statues, candlesticks, altar cloths and vestments. The silver plate alone weighed more than 140 lbs. Among them was the silken tent which Robert the Bruce had captured from the English King, Edward III, and given to St. Machar’s.

The Lords of the Congregation thought the 4th Earl had been bought off with a share of the monastic lands but, by the end of 1560, it was said that he had reinstituted the mass in the North. He determined to be a leader in a great contest for a return to the old faith. He sent an envoy to France, the Bishop of Ross, John Leslie, to suggest that she land at Aberdeen. There Huntly and, no doubt, his sons, would meet her with a large force to begin the return of Scotland to the Catholic fold under its Catholic queen. He could re-establish the mass in three counties at the drop of a hat, he declared.

It was rumoured that he had informed her that he could easily reinstitute the mass in three counties. However, it seems that her Protestant half-brother, Lord James Stewart, may have got to hear of the Earl’s plot while he was visiting her in France. As leader of the Lords of the Congregation, the current rulers of the country, he was the obvious choice to be her principle adviser. He had the support of the reformed church, the aristocracy and the towns, as well as the trust of Queen Elizabeth, whom Mary wished, above all else, to impress if she was to be named as her heir. For Mary and her Guise relatives in France this was to be the chief aim of her reign.

Queen Mary’s arrival in Scotland

A new era began in Scotland in 1560, first with the Government (which Huntly did not attend) passing the revolutionary Treaty of Edinburgh, which ratified the reformed Confession of Faith, abolished the jurisdiction of the Pope in Scotland, and made the saying of mass and attendance a serious offence. Then, secondly, on 20th August, with the arrival of its young Catholic queen from France, refused to ratify it.

John Gordon must have been in favour with the Queen at the start of 1562, that fateful year for himself and his family, because in February she knighted him, along with nine others. His official title now was Sir John Gordon of Auchindoun, which acknowledges his hold of at least that part of the Ogilvie barony. The event was part of the celebrations for the marriage of her half-brother, James Stewart, to John’s first cousin, Agnes Keith, whom Stewart had been courting for some time. She was the daughter of William, Earl Marischal, sister of John’s mother, Elizabeth Keith, the Countess of Huntly. Like her, Moray’s new wife was a forceful and shrewd lady. The marriage was a family affair so John must have been there, along with the rest of the nobility in St. Giles, where the Protestant marriage was performed by John Knox. If the Catholics among them were offended, they must, at least, have joined in the banquet at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, attended by Queen Mary, and the general festivities which followed, probably involving jousting and horse racing, as well as ‘the sending of fire balls.’

The day before the wedding, the Queen had made a strategic blunder, where the Gordons were concerned, although it was not publicly known at that stage. As a wedding present, she secretly conferred on Lord James the title and possession of the earldom of Moray, which was held by John’s father and was extremely important to him. For the moment, he was ennobled as Earl of Mar, then vacant, till the gift of the Moray earldom could be made effectual by the actual transfer of the estates from the retentive grasp of Huntly, who was not expected to peacefully surrender them. James Stewart was already entitled Commendator of St. Andrew’s. Although he was still Chancellor, John’s father was being side-lined by the partnership of Lord James and Maitland of Lethington, who was Mary’s secretary. Mary relied on their council in all she did.

John must have been much at Court because, in April, the Duke of Chatelherault’s eldest son, the Earl of Arran, who had been a contender for the hand of Mary, collapsed and ‘went off his head’ because, it was said, of a passionate love of Mary and jealousy of John, thinking that she ‘gave him more countenance than himself.’

In May, John’s father developed a sore leg, and excused himself from the Privy Council meeting later that month. In June a papal agent, Nicholas Gouda, arrived in Scotland hoping to persuade Mary to send a representative to the reforming Council of Trent. This was part of the Catholic church’s Counter Reformation. Lord James tried to discourage Mary from meeting him on the grounds that it might result in Queen Elizabeth being suspicious of her. Nevertheless, she did meet him and assured him of her constancy in the faith. However, she did not send a representative to the Council, despite the Archbishop Beaton of Glasgow and John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, being on the Continent, and available.

That spring John was again challenged in his possession of the Ogilvie title and baronies by the still grieved, James Ogilvie. He was a master of Queen Mary’s household in France and now back in Scotland, was beginning a serious effort to regain his estates by legal means in the Court of Sessions. Two days before the case was to come to court, at the end of June, John met James Ogilvie’s cousin and clan chief, Lord James Ogilvie of Airlie, in the streets of Edinburgh. They got into a serious fight, no doubt over the issue of the wrongs done to his disinherited cousin and John’s refusal to compromise. Many blows were given and taken, ‘and many were hurt,’ according to John’s cousin, Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, writing later. During the fight John wounded Lord James Ogilvie so badly that he lost his right arm, and nearly his life. He recovered, but the incident had brought the Queen’s attention to the wrong done to James Ogilvie of Cardell by her new knight, Sir John Ogilvie of Auchindoun. John was apprehended by the magistrates in Edinburgh. Lord James Stewart, hastened from Stirling to take advantage of the situation and directed additional coercion for John while he awaited trial. Scottish prisons were notorious for their irretentiveness of prisoners of rank.’ John’s ‘volatile temper could not long endure the incarceration of prison.’ After twenty days, he escaped and fled north to the safety of his father’s domain. It was rumoured that he had escaped at his father’s instigation, as he was making preparations for the Queen coming north. John refused to surrender himself.

Mary had very much hoped that she would be able to meet up with Queen Elizabeth, despite Huntly’s opposition, who favoured Scotland’s French alliance rather than English. Maitland of Lethington had returned from England triumphant that a meeting between the two queens had been agreed. Disappointingly for Mary, Elizabeth cancelled it, due to a crisis concerning the Huguenots in France, who needed English help.

However, Mary could now fulfil her other desire, to make a northern progress. She set off from the Palace of Holyroodhouse in August, 1562. Lord James, now Earl of Mar, her secretary Maitland of Lethington, and the English Ambassador, Randolph, accompanied her, as well as the disinherited James Ogilvie as master of her household. Its main purpose was to reduce Huntly and his son to obedience and put Lord James in possession of the Earldom of Moray.

The royal party progressed north via Stirling, Coupar Angus, Perth and Glamis. While Mary was travelling north, she received a message from the Pope and her Guise uncles re-iterating that her best course of action for restoring the old religion was to ‘entertain well Huntly, as the man of greatest power in Scotland, with a fallacious hope of marriage between his son and her.’ What is more, they indicated that money would be available but, as a prelude, she should put to death those reckoned the greatest enemies of the Catholic faith, especially Lord James. Mary foolishly showed the letters to Lord James to demonstrate her good faith. She also feared that he might have heard about the contents from other sources. It would then be easy for him to work on her credulity to believe that Huntly and his son, John, entertained traitorous designs on himself and her. This was probably the main source of all that befell Huntly and his family in the days ahead. Mary exploited the situation by asking the Pope for money to ‘sustain her pomp and prodigality.’

The Queen in the North-East

Meanwhile, John received a message ordering him to appear before the Justice and his deputies in the Aberdeen Tolbooth by the last day of August, for the ‘mutilation of my lord Ogilvie.’

When Mary and her entourage arrived in Aberdeen, on 27th August, 1562, the English Ambassador, Randolph, and her Secretary, Maitland of Lethington, had to sleep in the same bed in Old Aberdeen, due to shortage of beds. She paid a visit to the university which, reported Randolph to Cecil, had one college in ‘Olde Aberdine’ with about sixteen scholars. She then held court in the Bishop’s Palace. Although Huntly was still her Chancellor, and much else besides, she refused to see him. He was definitely out of favour, noticed by Randolph who wrote frequent reports back to Cecil, in England. Huntly was under a cloud, not only because of his John’s refusal to give himself up, but, because he had opposed Queen Mary’s pro English stance and her attempts to meet with Queen Elizabeth. He had also made complaints that she had done nothing to ease the life of Catholics in the country. Randolph reported that, she ‘has had a long time to mislike Huntly and his doings in the country, his extortions being so great and disobedience, such as no longer to be borne.’

John’s redoubtable and outspoken mother, Elizabeth Keith (aunt of Lord James’s wife, Agnes Keith) arrived with a great entourage in order to beg her to overlook their son’s misdemeanours, blaming his youthfulness. The Queen replied that her authority had been impaired and, unless John submitted himself to await her judgment, he could not be reconciled with her. She also refused the pleas of the Countess that she honour them with a visit to Huntly Castle, where massive preparations had been made for receiving her.

On 31st August, John arrived in Aberdeen, but he was accompanied by one thousand followers, when only one hundred were permitted. However, he was ready to present himself before the Queen at a Court of Justice in the Tolbooth. The record refers to him as ‘Sir John Gordoun of Deskford, Knight,’ saying that ‘he compeared in the Court on the charge of contempt and disobedience, committed in breaking the Queen’s ward and leaving Edinburgh’s Tolbooth, where he was warded for the cruell onsetting of James Lord Ogilvie, and mutilating him of his rycht arme, and utheris crymes.’

He was ordered to be conveyed by the Deputy Sheriff to the Provost of Aberdeen’s lodging, and there to remain, ‘under pain of rebellion and horning, pending her instructions on where he was to be warded until she could pass judgment on him.’ To be horned meant that he would be declared an outlaw by three blows of the horn at the market crosses in the main towns of the country. On 1st September ‘ane officer of armes’ arrived with instructions from the Queen that, before a pardon could be contemplated, he must return to ward in Stirling Castle within seven days, on pain of treason, but, even then, pardon was not certain. Here he had plenty of warning of the consequences of defiance.

When Mary came within sight of Huntly Castle, she turned away, not even taking advantage of the chapel with its vestments all set out and prepared for her to hear mass but, instead, chose to go via Balvenie to Inverness. However, Maitland of Lethington and Randolph were both accommodated there. Randolph reported to Cecil that the Queen will not go to Huntly’s house, ‘though it be within three miles of her way, and the fayer best furnished of any house I have seen in this country, his cher is marvellous great.’ Interestingly, he also noted that Huntly’s mind was, ‘such as it appeared to us, as ought to be in any subject to his sovereign.’ Instead, the Queen stayed at Balquhain, home of William Leslie, one of Huntly’s friends, Rothiemay home of Lord Saltoun and then went on to Elgin, described by Randolph as, ‘a fair and famous market town.’ This was followed by two days at Kinloss Abbey. Such public snubbing of her Chancellor, and by far the most important man in the North, must have been humiliating for the whole family.

Meanwhile, John escaped for a second time, taking the risk of being accused of treason and being put to the horn. He was obviously more fearful of being incarcerated in the mighty Stirling Castle, especially as it was in the charge of Lord James’s uncle, Lord Erskine. Instead, he followed Mary’s progress north like a stalker, with, ‘certain other inobedient people,’ a thousand of them, lurking in the woods. She was enraged at his disobedience, realising what a bad example his defiance was setting. Added to that, she was also being told, ‘of the many grievous complaints of the poor people of this country, oppressed by them in the past, and fearing the like to be done in the future.’

Meanwhile, Randolph reported to Cecil that there was, ‘malicious gossip abroad as to the relations between Ogilvie’s father and his son.’ Interestingly, he declared that, ‘The true origin of the evil was the infatuation of the stepmother for John Gordon, her second husband.’ It was at this point that those with Mary became convinced that John was following the Queen with the intention of abducting her, being confident of his powers of physical attraction to bring about a marriage between the Queen and himself. There were real fears of a Catholic coup and the intention of dispatching Mary’s Protestant chief advisers, Lord James Stewart, now Earl of Mar, Maitland and the Earl of Morton. Randolph now complained that the journey was, ‘cumbersome, paynefull and mervileus longe, the wether extreame fowle and cold, victuals merveleus dere and the corne that is never like to come to rypenes.’

On 9th September Mary and her entourage arrived at Darnaway, ‘a castle of the kings, celebrated, and of great renown.’ ‘Very ruinous,’ complained Randolph, except for the hall (begun in about 1450) which he described as, ‘fair and large, able to house one thousand armed men.’ There, at last, the Queen publicly announced that Lord James had been granted the earldom of Moray, instead of Mar, which he had resigned, following complaints from his uncle, Lord Erskine, Keeper of Stirling Castle, who considered it rightfully his. This had probably only been given as an interim measure, so as to give Lord James status until his Moray earldom could be made public.

Giving the earldom of Moray to Lord James added insult to injury for Huntly, and was the real source of his resentment. He had been administering the earldom, held in feu, since 1549. It had been granted by Marie of Guise, for ‘service to Mary’s father (James V) in peace and war, for maintaining peace throughout Scotland as Regent and Lieutenant General while the King was in France and, since then for service to the Queen and Regent in defending the kingdom against the English, and as Lieutenant of the North, administering justice firmly and maintaining the royal authority there.’

It is clear how much Huntly would be losing if you read the actual words of the Grant at that time: ‘To George, Earl of Huntly, Lord Gordon and Badynauch, Chancellor and Lieutenant of the North and Knight of the order of St. Michael and his heirs, he was granted the lands and earldom of Moray with its appendices, the burgh rents and customs of Elgin and Forres, the castle of Darnaway with its forest and park and all other castles, towers and fortalices, the fishings of the Spey, Slewpule, Lossie and Findhorn, the customs of those waters, with the tenances, advocation of churches, chapels and hospitals in the shire of Elgin and Forres, the office of sheriff of said shire with its fees, the lands and lordship of Abernethy with the castle etc., advocation of the prebend and rectory of Duthell, the lands and barony of Pettye, Brachlie and Stratherne with the castle of Hallhill, the mains etc all incorporated in the free earldom and barony of Moray, caput Darnaway, to be held with privilege of free forest where there are woods.’

All this had made Huntly omnipotent in the north and, with his offices of Chancellor and Lieutenant, by far the most powerful man in the country. He had not actually been made earl of Moray, as he was Earl of Huntly, but it was a permanent grant and, what is more, it was hereditary. Marie of Guise had removed it at one point, probably part of clipping his wings as advocated by her Ambassador, but he had held it off and on. It was a very major loss for Huntly and his heirs.

Randolph said that, ‘men hope that Murray will do much good in the country. His power of men is great.’ He also added, ‘His pleasant place has been under Huntly’s government and being given away from him, he has lost great commonality and profit, making him more offended.’ This is a perceptive view of the situation and clearly reveals the source of Huntly’s antagonism towards Moray and his towering ambition.

Randolph now reported that Huntly’s aim was to cut off Moray and Maitland, ‘whose credit, he thinks, so great with her that he could not prevail in anything he aspired to, as chiefly to have been Moray, or to have had a pension of some abbey that he might be better able to attend Court and bare charges in her service.’ Huntly was obviously concerned about the loss to his finances, and the need for compensation, such as the benefice of an abbey, to help him finance appearances at Court in future.

At Darnaway, the Queen held a meeting of her Privy Council. The events concerning John Gordon were meticulously gone over, from why he was warded in Edinburgh, his wounding of Lord James Ogilvie, to how he had contemptuously disobeyed orders and therefore incurred the charge of treason; assembling other disobedient people, endangering the peace of the country. He was a bad example. He should not be allowed to resort to fortified houses or fortresses; therefore the Gordons must return the castles of Findlater and Auchindoun to the Crown.

Mary sent heralds and messengers to seek John out and ‘in her Hienes’s name and authority command and charge the said John Gordoun, Lady Finlater, his pretendit spouse, to deliver the houses and fortresses of Findlater and Auchindoun and other of them to her Grace’s officer. The executor of this charge to whom she charges the commission, to remove them, their servants and all others, so they may be visited at the Queen’s pleasure within twenty-four hours after they be charged, under pane of treason and the process of forfeiture shall be led against them according to the Acts of Parliament, law and practice of this realm.’ It is not just John who must return the castles or be forfeited. It is now ‘they.’ This was even more serious. The process of forfeiture meant that all your property, land and cash were confiscated by the Crown. In the worst cases you might also forfeit your liberty and even your life.

The Queen reached Inverness on 11th September. The royal castle was held by Alexander Gordon of Bothrom, who was officially under the command of Huntly’s eldest son, Lord Gordon, although he was not present. Despite the Queen’s herald ordering Alexander to render the castle, he refused because he had not received such an order from Lord Gordon. As a result, the Queen had the indignity of spending the night in private lodgings in Bridge Street. Next day, permission arrived from Huntly for Alexander to open the gates. He, as keeper of the castle and the whole garrison were condemned to death for treason, but, at the last minute, the men of the garrison were reprieved. However, Alexander was hanged over the battlements and his severed head exhibited on the town bridge as an example to all. He had no chance to defend himself at a trial.

The Queen and her entourage tarried five days in Inverness. All this time Huntly was excusing his own part in the behaviour of his son and ‘would have it thought that it came rather through the youth and evil behaviour of his sons than his will,’ but the Queen remained ‘highly offended by him.’ John’s elder brother, George, came to Inverness with many friends, but the friends began abandoning the Gordons ‘when they understood their purpose,’and came to Queen Mary’s side. What was their purpose?

Randolph gathered that Huntly’s whole anger was against those whose influence was so strong with the Queen, that is Moray and Lethington. It was thought that Huntly planned to waylay the Queen, he reported, because ‘he took it ill his son was commanded to prison, the captain of Inverness hanged, and others imprisoned. Rumours went round that ‘if he intends anything, it will be on her Grace passing the Spey, which she does next Sunday, 20th September.’ This crossing was to be near the Gordon Bog of Gight (now Fochabers).

Mary now sent for experienced soldiers, including the renowned Kirkcaldy of Grange, Cockburn of Ormiston, and one hundred and twenty harquebusiers, with some cannon. They were to be brought to Aberdeen from Stirling, Fife and Angus in the Mearns by 5th October, and to be ready to remain with her for twenty days. Was all this just to defend her, or was more serious action being prepared for?

Meanwhile, scouts were sent out to check the surrounding countryside. Some came back saying they had seen about a thousand men lurking in the woods, and others came back saying they had seen no one. About two thousand of ‘those they caule har Hylande men’ came to join the Queen. It was said that Huntly had committed men to his son, and it was excitedly reported that ‘there could have been a big battle in front of the Queen and her ladies.’ ‘At Aberdeen she will take advice and teach them how to welcome their prince in time to come.’

Mary obviously found the situation and all these highlanders coming to her aid very stimulating as Randolph reported he ‘never saw her merrier, never dismayed, nor never thought that stomache to be in her that I find.’ In fact, she said that she regretted she was not a man to know what it was like to lie all night in the fields, to walk upon the causeway with a jack and knapsack, a Glasgow buckler and a broad sword. She was certainly a feisty lady.

The Return Journey

On September 15th Mary and her entourage set out from Inverness, accompanied by three thousand men, to return to Aberdeen, stopping for the night at Kilvarock, again at Darnaway, and at the Bishop of Moray’s palace of Spynie, outside Elgin. She safely recrossed the Spey at Fochabers without incident. She sent a trumpeter to John Gordon’s Findlater Castle stronghold on the coast, near Cullen, to demand its surrender, but there was no response. Without cannon they could not enforce the order, so they left, proceeding on to Aberdeen via Banff Castle and Gight, home of a Gordon.

On 22nd September, Mary arrived in Aberdeen to ‘a rapturous welcome.’ The following day she made her public entry into the new town. She was presented with ‘a cup of silver in double gilt, well wrought with five hundred crowns in it. Wine, coal and wax candles were also delivered.’ She was entertained with plays and spectacles. She expressed a determination to stay at least forty days, to ‘put the country in quiet.’ She announced that Huntly must either submit himself or deliver his disobedient son, ‘in whose name all these problems have been wrought,’ claimed Randolph, ‘or she would utterly use all force against him for subverting of his line for ever.’ She also sent a message to Huntly to surrender his own cannon, kept down in the basement of Huntly Castle.

Prospects were becoming serious for John and his father. Huntly was unsure what to do. He sent his eldest son, George, south to consult with his father-in-law, the Duke of Chatelherault. John Knox maintained that George was trying to raise rebellion in the south, with the help of the notorious Earl of Bothwell, who had himself recently escaped from imprisonment in Edinburgh Castle. Earlier, he had intercepted money sent by England to the Lords of the Congregation, and had also been suspected of plotting to abduct the Queen.

The Queen’s messenger, Captain Hay, arrived at Huntly Castle to demand of Huntly that he ensure his son delivered Findlater and Auchindoun Castles, and the cannon kept in the cellar was to be dismantled and carried four miles from the Castle, to a place appointed. Huntly was effusive in his protestations of loyalty, offering not only his body, but his goods. He even offered to besiege Findlater and Auchindoun himself, if the Queen so commanded him, or to join Mary’s force, if he could bring his own men. He again insisted that he was not a party to the offences of his son. He complained that it was ‘strange to be so hardly dealt with for his son’s offence. He was never privy or could correct them.’ He said that the cannon could not be moved in time to assist the Queen. ‘These and like words, mingled with many tears and sobs, he desired to be reported to his dear mistress from her most obedient servant.’

The Countess of Huntly took Hay to see the castle chapel, ‘all ornaments and mass robes ready lying upon the altar with cross and candles standing upon it.’ She said ‘God, whom I believe in, wyll, I am sure, preserve us and lette our treue meanings arter be knowne’. She assured Hay, ‘My husband was ever obedient under her and so wyll dye her faythfull subject.’ She added, ‘Tell her, if he had forsaken the true faith, like her other ministers, he would not have been set upon in this way.’

This was reported to the Queen at length, in front of her Privy Council in Aberdeen. However, ‘Her response was that she knew their conceits and believes not a word of it.’ Mary was clearly unmoved and joked about it in front of her council. Huntly became the butt of much merriment at court. Lethington wrote a letter to Cecil, saying that Huntly will plead not guilty, and seems to charge the youth and folly of his children with what has arisen, ‘if any fault be his, it may be thought to have proceeded from too great simplicity, rather than any craft or malice, especially by so many as have had experience how playnely, sincerely and uprightly he has been allwayes accustomed to deal.’ Is this a sympathetic view of Huntly from Lethington, or is it sarcasm? The reference to, ‘too great simplicity’ rather than, ‘craft or malice,’ suggest the former.

The Countess of Huntly arrived in Aberdeen to give her profuse apologies for the behaviour of her son, but Mary refused to see her. The younger brother of Sir Thomas Kerr of Fernihurst, Huntly’s Chief Counsellor, arrived with the keys of Auchindoun and Findlater Castles, brought as a sign of Huntly’s obedience. Mary refused to receive them, ‘off a stable lad,’ as she described him. He was put in ward. He excused his master and ‘burdens John Gordon as the author of the whole event.’ Yet, he agreed that Huntly ‘is certainly in his father’s company and does nothing without his advice.’ Mary declared that she had, ‘other means of opening doors.’ She was now determined to apprehend Huntly as, ‘the chief deviser of the mischief.’ Mary clearly thinks that Huntly is manipulating his son, rather than believing his protestations that John is to blame.


Huntly was now afraid of being captured and took to sleeping every night under a different roof, but the days he spent at Strathbogie. Kirkcaldy of Grange set out from Aberdeen with twelve men to surprise him and to check if Sir John was received there or not. If there, he was to secure the house till reinforcements came. On arrival, he spoke to a gateman, and sent a horse round to prevent escape. However, a watchman in the tower spotted the approaching reinforcements under Lord John Cowdingham, almost a mile away, and alerted Huntly, who was enjoying his mid-day meal. John Gordon was not there, but it gave the earl ‘such alarome,’ that he abandoned his half eaten meal and escaped over a low wall at the back, without his boots or sword, on to a waiting horse. He escaped the pursuers because, unlike theirs, his horse was fresh. Lady Huntly welcomed the emissaries, ‘with such cher as she could.’ They found that Huntly had taken the precaution of stripping the castle bare, apart from the chapel, which was still in readiness for the Queen. He was obviously expecting an assault of some kind.

On 11th October, Captain Alexander Stewart was sent, with one hundred and twenty men, to besiege Findlater Castle. During the night John Gordon came to Cullen, where they were lodged, with a detachment of about a hundred and fifty men. He took the captain in bed and fifty-six of the harquebusiers, newly arrived in the north. During the skirmish some of the soldiers were killed and others were released.

When the Queen heard about it, she was incensed and said that all hope of reconciliation was passed. Total submission was required. Huntly was ordered to present himself with his son, John, within a week, or face being outlawed under pain of rebellion. However, Huntly refused to submit in front of those he regarded as his enemies in Aberdeen, presumably mainly Moray. Instead, he offered himself for trial by his peers in Parliament. Meanwhile, Thomas Kerr and his young brother, under torture, admitted, that they knew of a plan on three different occasions to kill Moray and Maitland. Letters were found purporting to prove John Gordon’s actions were instigated by his father’s council.

On 15th October there was a Privy Council meeting in Aberdeen, attended by the earls of Argyll, Morton and Mar, and William, Earl Marischal, Huntly’s brother-in-law. It ‘concluded and ordered by the Queen’s Majesty, with advice of the lords of her Secret Council, that if Huntly compare not before her the 16th day of October (the following day) to answer to such things as are laid to his charge, conforming to the letters, he be put to the horne for his contemptioun’ Furthermore, ‘that his houses, strengths and friends be taken from him and other gentlemen of the country.…He was to compare before the Queen’s Majesty and Council with all speed and order…for obedience to be made to the Queen’s Majesty and quietness of the country.’

As Huntly and John did not appear on the stipulated following day, they were formally put to the horn by orders of the Privy Council. Royal messengers were dispatched throughout the kingdom to denounce the renegades as rebels. The news was announced with three blasts of the horn at the market crosses of Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Stirling and Glasgow. Summons were sent to Stirling, Glasgow, Hamilton and Paisley charging John’s older brother, George, Lord Gordon, to surrender to Queen Mary in Aberdeen. A general round up of dissident Gordons was ordered.

Huntly retired to the wilds of Badenoch (the area around the Cairngorms) and strengthened himself there, ‘whither it is thought to be impossible to bring men or artillery in winter.’ He hoped the Queen would weary of the country as winter approached. However, she resolved never to depart until the matter was resolved. Randolph wrote to report the incident in Cullen. He also mentioned that George, Lord Gordon, was with the Duke of Chatelherault, his father-in-law, ‘either to persuade him to join a rebellion or to remain, as if innocent.’

Lady Huntly made her third attempt at an audience with the Queen. When she was within two miles of Aberdeen, she was met by Leslie, who had been sent by Moray. Much to her fury, he commanded that she return to Strathbogie. She was at the end of her tether, not knowing where to turn next, and believing that there was no safety in either surrender or resistance. Thus, she consulted her, ‘tame witches’ or fortune telling oracles. They told her that her husband would lie in the Tolbooth without a wound in his body. She foolishly took this as a sign that their only option was to take the initiative and attack. She persuaded her husband to return from the fastnesses of Badenoch and take positive action. If they won, they might be able to rescue the Queen from her ‘evil councillors.’ After all, de Gouda, the papal legate, had complained in a long letter to his superiors that Scotland was in a bad way, as the Queen had no Catholic advisers. Lord James was the main problem, he had said. Catholic advisers in Europe and visitors were almost unanimous that Lord James was chiefly responsible for conditions in Scotland. He was their bete noir. Get rid of him, they advised, and the old religion might be able to win out. Catholic Europe would support their action and hope they would succeed. If they did, it might be possible for John Gordon’s good looks and charm to win him the Queen’s hand in marriage, once his ‘pretendit marriage’ to Elizabeth, Countess of Findlater, was annulled.

The Battle of Corrichie

On 27th October 1562 John and his brother Adam accompanied their father, with eight hundred Gordons and followers marching towards Aberdeen ‘in warlike manner.’ Calderwood reported that Huntly’s purpose was ‘to take the Queen, hoping to appease her with flattery, officious service and marriage of his son, and fully resolved to cut off Moray.’ As a result of letters from the Earl of Sutherland and William Leslie being intercepted, Huntly’s plans were revealed to Moray. Leslie confessed and was pardoned.

The same day, an important Privy Council meeting was held in Aberdeen, attended by Moray, Errol, Athol, Morton, Mar and William, Earl Marischal, during which it was reported that Huntly was advancing towards Aberdeen, to ‘pursue’ our sovereign lady’s person. She was to resist, with ‘her true liegis’ to go to meet him. Not only was Mary’s person threatened, but so was the whole Protestant revolution, along with the lives of her chief ministers. There were precautionary arrangements made, in case any of those going on the enterprise were killed or wounded, on behalf of their families and heirs. The Council decided to call to their aid the local nobility who were at odds with Huntly, to ask their advice for resisting the conspirators. These were the Lords Errol, Forbes, Saltoun, and Leslie of Balquhain, and ‘others of the country folk.’ After deliberation, these offered to pass forward with their kin, for apprehending the earl, his young and others. They said that they were prepared to put their lives on the line. The Queen and Council ordered them to go ahead.

The Privy Council records note that the Queen committed full power to her ‘dearest brother James, Earl of Murray, with others of her Secret Council and noblemen to pass forward with kin, friends and servants to the place where Huntly shall happen to be on the following day, 28th October, and to take with them her banner, to resist and, if necessary, pursue for apprehending, to take them to the law for their treasonable coming in plane battle and other treasonable crimes committed by them before, and if resist, pursue to death; if flee to houses of strength, to lay assage to the samyn and to raise fire for taking the said houses, as if under the great seal. All this was to be recorded for ‘ad perpetuam.’ This is an interesting comment to be added at the end. It is possible that Moray had made sure, by this commission, that he would be absolved from any charge of levying war on his own behalf.

28th October, 1562 was a momentous day for John, his father, brothers and Gordon followers. Huntly led about eight hundred men, including the Gordons of Beldorney, Cairnborrow, Tillyangus, Strathdoun and Sutherland, ready to liberate the Queen from ‘her evil councillors.’ They marched via Keig and Loch Skene to the Hill of Fare, about twelve miles from Aberdeen. They were joined by Irvine of Drum and Abercrombie of Pitmedden and even a Forbes laird. The Duke of Chatelherault had sent a message to say that he would take no part. They camped a short distance west of Garlogie, in an area still called Gordon’s Moss. That night Huntly prayed a rather pathetic little prayer: that although he had been a bloodthirsty man and the cause of the death of many an innocent man, if God would grant him victory now, he would serve him all his life.

Marching eagerly out of Aberdeen, before ten o’clock in the morning, were those that had been freed of their feudal obedience to the earl, promising to fight without any help from others. They had been ordered to harass the Gordons and hinder their retreat. However, when they got near, they waited for the arrival of Moray. He had been ordered to lead the force of two thousand, but with himself merely to ‘behold the battle.’ Morton and Athol each commanded a division. They arrived in the early afternoon.

Maitland of Lethington said a prayer before the Queen’s force, ‘Judge thou, O Lord, this day betwixt us and the Earl of Huntly. If ever we have sought unjustlie his or their destruction and blood, let us fall on the edge of the sword.’ Does this suggest that perhaps Lethington was a little unsure of the rightness of their cause?

It is thought that when Huntly realised what was coming against him, he meant to pull out at break of day, but overslept until ten o’clock. It is surprising that none of his sons came to wake him. When he was being helped into his armour, he seems to have been in a state of confusion as ‘speech failed him and he could not do anything right, by reason of his corpulence.’ Perhaps he had had a small stroke in the night. Meanwhile there had been desertions from his side, ‘of whom diverse stole away two nights before,’ so his side was reduced from eight to nearer five hundred.

However, when he saw who were approaching and that most were those whom he regarded as his friends, he considered that he had a chance. He said that he feared not ‘the large company, but those on the hill,’ which were, presumably, the Queen’s force under her banner, led by Moray. However, Huntly assured his troops, ‘Our friends are honest men,’ he said, ‘Let us encounter the rest.’ ‘We are sufficient, if God be with us.’

When the local levies under Errol, Forbes and Leslie of Balquhain saw the Queen’s forces under Moray, Morton and Lethington approaching on foot, they charged towards the advancing Gordons, but, before they came within shot, they fastened heather to their steel bonnets to be a sign they were friends and scattered in all directions, casting their weapons as they ran. It is suggested that they ran deliberately into the massed ranks of Lothian pikemen coming up behind, in order to sow confusion and break up their ranks. Randolph suspected treachery and hints that this precipitate flight had been pre-arranged. ‘No doubt there is treason,’ said Lethington. ‘Let us level our spears to the foremost and let them not come among us.’

They marched forward in order, led by William Douglas, laird of Kemnay. The Gordons advanced at speed but were driven back by Lethington and his company. Musket fire from Moray’s main force, approaching up the valley from the south, forced the Gordons back towards the head of the valley. Moray’s guns raked the hillside and snipers harried higher summits with their shot. Huntly’s men were forced ever lower off the heights, by the harquebus shot, into a corner of the valley of mossy ground between the hill and marshland. It became a rout. The Gordons were finally brought to bay, floundering in a bog at the head of the Howe of Corrichie. In the space of an hour the battle was over. By four o’clock that afternoon, one hundred and twenty of Huntly’s men were dead and a similar number captured. On the royal side there were none dead, only wounded. All reports agree that the local levies fought badly, if at all. However, John Knox reported that some of Huntly’s erstwhile ‘friends’ returned, but ‘gave no strokes,’ till they saw that his men were driven back. Then they struck and ‘commit almost all the slaughter that day, to clear themselves of suspicion.’

John Gordon was captured, along with his father, his brother, Adam, and other Gordons. The humiliated Earl of Huntly was mounted on a horse to bring him to the Queen. He suddenly keeled over and fell to the ground stone dead. Legend has it that, on his defeat, Huntly had shouted out the name ‘Corrichie’ three times, as it had been foretold that one day he would die at ‘Corrichie.’ He had taken it to mean Crichie, near Inverurie which, consequently, he had always avoided. A supply horse, with a pair of fish baskets on its back, was brought and Huntly’s body was thrown ignominiously over it for the journey to the Tolbooth in Aberdeen. What a stir it must have caused, rippling through the surrounding countryside. John and Adam were also taken to the Tolbooth, along with other captured Gordons. A tailer was paid £350 for clothing, food and drink for them.

Word reached the Queen at six that evening. Moray sent a message that she should ‘convene with them to give thanks to God for such a notable deliverance.’ However, it was noted that she ‘glowmed at the messenger and would scarce speak a good word or look with a cheerful countenance to any she knew favoured Moray.’

The redoubtable Lady Forbes, wife of Lord Forbes, observed the corpse of Huntly, lying on the cold stone floor in a doublet of canvas and a pair of Scottish grey hose. She famously exclaimed, ‘What stability shall we judge to be in this world! There lyeth he, that yesterday in the morning was holden the wisest, richest and man of greatest power in Scotland!’

When the Countess of Huntly heard the terrible news of her husband’s death, she blamed her chief witch, Jonet, for saying that he would lie in the Tolbooth without a wound in his body. Jonet defended herself stoutly, affirming that she gave a true response, but not the whole truth, ‘for she knew he would be dead.’

Randolph was already writing his report to Cecil by eleven o’clock that night. Interestingly, he said that John confessed all, and ‘lays fault on his father, as he did do nothing but by his commandment.’ Did he hope to save himself by blaming his dead father, or was it true? Calderwood reported that John, ‘the author of all these troubles,’ made full confessions about the ‘many things devised by himself, his father and his brothers, and that letters were found in their pockets revealing communications between them, the Earl of Sutherland and others. The Queen was disillusioned to find that the Earl of Sutherland, whom she had had in her company and trusted, to be ‘one of the contrivers of the whole mischief.’ He was not held among the others, as he managed to escape to the Continent.

Thomas Kerr, Huntly’s Chief Counsellor, had also revealed what he knew, which was that Moray and some others, including the earls of Morton, Lethington and the Justice Clerk were to have been slain at Strathbogie and the Queen taken. Also, that he and his company would have ‘burned the Queen and as many as were in the house.’ Knox reported that the battle of Corrichie ensured the triumph of Moray and the ruin of Huntly Chalmers and other writers assert this was Moray’s chief object in inducing the Queen to undertake the journey. So was it all Moray’s doing?

What one does not know is how much these confessions were the result of torture, which would nowadays be discounted as totally ‘unsafe.’

Five of the leading Gordon accomplices were hanged. John was spared a death by hanging, because of his high rank. The Queen was compelled to witness his execution, in order to give a lie to stories that she encouraged him. She was extremely reluctant, as she had a horror of bloodshed. John Gordon was executed on 2nd November, on Heading Hill, Aberdeen. He cried out that her presence solaced him as he was about to suffer for love of her. The execution was clumsy, causing her to break down completely and she had to be carried out. She was ill for several days afterwards. Little did she know, that she would have the same horrific execution a quarter of a century later. Rumours went round that she must have ‘loved Sir John passionately.’ John’s cousin, Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, wrote later that the Queen ‘intended to marry Sir John,’ which seems unlikely. He describes John as, ‘a comely gentleman, very personable and of good expectation, whom she loved entirely.’ He goes on to say that the marriage was intended by the Cardinal of Lorraine and the rest of the Queen’s uncles, so that the Roman religion might be maintained and preserved in Scotland, by reason of the Earl of Huntly’s power and force, chiefly in the northern parts of the kingdom.’ He adds, ‘Moray did cross the marriage in all his might and slight.’ John lies buried in the crypt of St. Nicholas, the town kirk of Aberdeen.

Findlater Castle surrendered and was handed back to the Ogilvies. At the Gordon trial, the following year, the Queen granted a royal charter to James Ogilvy of Cardell. These included ‘the lands and barony of Ogilvy, the Land and barony of Auchindouwn and Keythmoir, the lands of Knokdurne in the forests of Boyne held of Huntly and forfeited to the Queen.’ The Queen commanded Ogilvie to pass the lands of Strathnairn and Cardell to Moray. This was his reward. However, it made sense, because these lands were within his new earldom of Moray. What about John’s widow, Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Findlater, arguably the cause of all the trouble, who her first husband’s will had said should hold the rents during her lifetime? She lived on until 1606 and is buried with him, Alexander Ogilvie of Deskford and Findlater, in a grandly ornate tomb in St. Mary’s Kirk of Old Cullen.


Many writers consider John Gordon the cause of his family’s conflict with Mary Queen of Scots, leading to the battle of Corrichie on 28th October, 1562, and their subsequent downfall. However, some contemporary sources and later writers blame other characters in the story, for example his father, for planning a Catholic coup and for manipulating John to bring it about, or doing so merely for Gordon gain. There is the Queen, herself. Did she come north because she wanted her most important Catholic nobleman’s destruction, in order to win favour with Queen Elizabeth and prove herself a suitable candidate to be named as her heir? Then there is Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, James Stewart, who became Earl of Moray, and might have intended to supplant John’s father as the power in the north. There are also other minor characters who could be blamed, for example, John’s lover, Elizabeth Gordon, for starting off the whole thing, her husband, Alexander Ogilvie of Deskford and Findlater, for listening to her and disinheriting his own son, James Ogilvie of Cardell, by a previous marriage. Perhaps Mary’s mother the Regent, Mary of Guise should have some blame for trying to reverse the disinheritance issue. Finally there is John’s mother, the Countess of Huntly, who persuaded her husband to confront the Queen’s forces as a result of a witch’s prophesy.

So was John Gordon to blame for the death of himself, his father and all those one hundred and twenty men killed on the field of Corrichie, leading to the downfall of his family and their principal supporters? First the other possibilities will be considered.

Elizabeth Gordon, Alexander Ogilvy’s second wife, is the one who started the whole saga by telling her husband the evil stories about her stepson, James Ogilvie of Cardell, resulting in his disinheritance, in John’s favour. If the stories were true, she is innocent, but if not, she is a liar.

Alexander Ogilvie of Deskford and Findlater: He obviously believed the evil stories about his son, so much so that his anger resulted in his disinheritance. Who could blame him? As the distinguished late sixteenth century lawyer, Thomas Craig of Riccarton said, ‘the most violent hatred of which human nature is capable occurs between brothers and sometimes even between father and son.’ This is obviously the case here, and the actions of his wife and himself set off the train of events that culminated in the downfall of the Gordons.

James Ogilvie of Cardell: He had the law of primogeniture on his side, by which inheritance would automatically go to the eldest surviving son. This was reinforced in the late sixteenth century by the practice of entailing lands. In other words, landed estates were to be settled on persons successively, so that they cannot be bequeathed at pleasure. Thus, he could argue that whatever provision was made by the parents, they had to be made around the law of primogeniture or with the heir’s consent. Therefore, he was right to try to regain his lost inheritance. In this, he was clearly supported by the Regent, Marie of Guise, as well as his friends, neighbours and clan. So he should absolved from blame.

The Regent, Marie of Guise: She was well known for her passion for justice. She obviously believed in the law of primogenitor and that James Ogilvie had been wronged. This is shown by her ruling that John should relinquish the entire inheritance and later, following his defiance, she proposed that they share it. She could be accused of not enforcing her ruling on either occasion, which would have avoided all the later trouble. However, there was no power in the land capable of enforcing an obnoxious statute against the will of someone who was supreme at home and in most of the north as was John’s father. She would be powerless unless supported by Huntly, as John’s feudal lord, especially so far from the capital, making the law a dead letter. Thus she should be exonerated.

John’s mother, the Countess of Huntly: She had tried to placate the Queen on behalf of her son several times and had managed to get the keys of Findlater and Auchindoun to her, but sadly for her, such gestures came too late. She was obviously an ardent Catholic, in that she showed her chapel to Captain Hay, the Queen’s messenger, all set out with its vestments ready for the Queen to make use of it for mass, illegal for anyone but the Queen. She must have gone along with the Pope’s idea that the current Protestant cabal led by Lord James, Lethington and Morton should be confronted and defeated for the sake of mother church. So perhaps it is the Pope and the Catholic princes who we should blame for encouraging such an action.

She can certainly take some blame for taking the word of soothsayers, encouraging her husband to collect his forces to confront those of the Queen, and by advancing threateningly on Aberdeen. This was obviously treason so, if it failed, disaster was bound to follow. For an intelligent woman, she acted very unwisely and put the lives of her loved ones at serious risk, especially as she had been warned that he would lie in the Tolboth that night, which does not suggest the success of the enterprise.

John’s father, George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly: His main defence comes from the unlikely source of Lethington. He praised Huntly’s personal loyalty to the ,Queen in letters to Cecil after staying in Huntly Castle and from Aberdeen a few days before Huntly’s death, saying his attitude could not be faulted and praising his, ‘upright dealings with all men.’ He also suggested that the whole affair might have arisen due to simple misunderstanding. John’s mother, the Countess, clearly believed that her husband was being persecuted because of his religion and that if he had been prepared to, ‘renounce Catholicism, despoil the church and act consistently with the Lords of the Congregation, his supremacy in the north would, in all probability, have been allowed to remain unquestioned.’ Huntly’s refusal to submit himself to trial by those he considered his enemies in Aberdeen obviously mainly refers to Moray. They were rivals for the Queen’s ear and Huntly had lost out, despite still being Chancellor. The biggest blow was to lose control of lands, first in the earldom of Mar and then Moray in his backyard to his enemy. Desperation may have led him to succumb to pressure from the Pope and the Catholic princes to attempt an over throw of Moray and ‘rescue’ the Queen from his influence. It is also very possible that he was, ‘worried into rebellion by Moray.’ Interestingly, his own defence was on the grounds that he could not be held responsible for his son’s actions, even offering to besiege Findlater and Auchindoun, himself on behalf of the Queen, if he could do so with his own men, and force John to surrender them.

Against all that, Huntly must stand guilty, as Chancellor and Lieutenant of the North, with all his power, of not enforcing either the Regent’s orders on his son, of not making sure that Inverness Castle opened its doors to the Queen and, above all, of advancing on Aberdeen in, ‘warlike manner,’ endangering her and her ministers. This is all made clear in his trial.

Mary, Queen of Scots: The Queen could not let John get away with his blatant disobedience and defiance towards both her mother and herself She also had good reason to act decisively after the humiliation of being refused entry to the royal castle of Inverness and then Findlater. For the former, she could blame his eldest son, George Gordon, who been had made responsible for it as a wedding gift from his father. It is not surprising that she was indignant with the defiant John: he had escaped prison in Edinburgh; he had refused her instructions to ward himself in Stirling, pending her judgment on him; he had come to Aberdeen with far more men than were allowed; he and his thousand men were stalking her progress to Inverness, alarming everyone; he had refused to give up his castles of Findlater and Auchindoun; he had killed some of soldiers and stolen their armaments and, above all the Gordons led by Huntly, came towards Aberdeen prepared to fight her royal forces. She did not need rumours of threats to herself or her ministers, though that no doubt, encouraged action. He had had plenty of opportunity to bring his son to order. She had to act strongly. Impressing Elizabeth did not need to come into it. Not to act would have resulted in anarchy. However, her reported reaction to the news of the outcome of the battle of Corrichie suggest that it gave her no joy to hear of the deaths of Huntly and so many of his Gordon followers. She was devastated by the gruesome execution of John. How ironic that she would suffer the same fate in the future.

However, she could accept some blame for the disastrous outcome of the whole affair, firstly in provoking Huntly by sidelining him in favour of her half brother Lord James and Lethington, but mostly by offering Lord James the earldom of Moray. He had no family history in, nor connections with, the area. However, it had been in the hands of a previous royal bastard. Then not taking up Huntly’s offer to siege his son’s castles with his own men and bring him to justice. A little more patience might have restored order and prevented the deaths of many. She obviously did not trust him enough to allow him to besiege his own son’s castles. However, she presided over the court in Edinburgh that saw what looked like the downfall of the House of Huntly and their followers. Were such extreme measures really necessary to restore order and avoid anarchy? Surely they had suffered enough. However, it was all in the interests of another character in the story.

Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray: The Queen had chosen to put her trust in his guidance and advice, rather than her Chancellor, Huntly. When faced with the defiance of John Gordon, his father’s failure to bring him to justice and then the Gordon refusal of the Queen’s entry to a royal castle, he must surely have had to advise strong action. This was the start of a new regime, when discipline over unruly nobles would have to be established. There was also the letter from Mary’s uncles, which she was unwise enough to show him, that revealed the possibility of Catholic plots to assassinate himself and Lethington, and bring about a marriage between herself and John Gordon. This was very helpful to him and would obviously make the Queen’s party wary on their journey in the north, exacerbated by Huntly and his son entering Aberdeen with far more men than were allowed, and John lurking in woods on their journey to Inverness. It would have been Moray’s job to ensure the Queen’s safety, so it is not surprising that they felt the need to send for more men and arms.. It is interesting that her commission to send troops out to meet Huntly, under her royal banner, led by Moray was so clearly recorded in detail, ‘for perpetuity,’ as if to ensure that he was not to be blamed for instigating it. He must have realised that all would know how much he stood to gain by the destruction of the Gordon earldom, which does give rise to suspicion that he might well have quietly encouraged the Queen to go north and to exploit the rumours. Huntly was his rival for power, both in the Privy Council and in the north-east. Although moderate in his religious views, Moray was a reformer and a leader of the Lords of the Congregation. He might well have thought that it was his religious duty was to establish a Protestant presence in the north-east, in order to spread the influence of the Reformation and counteract the conservative Catholic influence of Huntly and his followers. He may have encouraged her journey north in order to force the issue of the take over of his long coveted earldom of the Moray estates. John’s misdemeanours were a perfect pretext for taking action. With his sophistry and towering ambition, Moray may have helped enflame any prejudices a gullible Queen may have already held, particularly the idea that Huntly had traitorous designs to marry her to his son, John. The more violent the course of action the better, so more troops and arms must be sent for. He must have been delighted with the outcome of the battle. The trial merely finished off the job.

However, all this is speculation and, although Mary took the initiative to make her northern progress, we can merely surmise that it is extremely likely that Moray had a part in her decision, driving Huntly to have no other option but to rebel, leading to his downfall. It is interesting to note that, when Moray himself was side-lined by Lord Darnley, following Mary’s marriage, it was he who led a traitorous rebellion against her.

John Gordon: Finally, John as the author of his own death and the disaster for his family must be faced. It is possible that his undisciplined behaviour was the result of his father being absent for long periods of time. A modern study of father/son relationships reveals that the men in a sample who had been most disruptive, truanted or offended often had fathers who were frequently absent for long periods of time. Men want to have close relationships with their fathers, which contributes to keeping them out of trouble. It might be that John, being a third son, did not have this.

His strongest defence must be that he had gained legal charter to the Ogilvie title and lands freely given by Alexander Ogilvie. Although the feudal law of primogenitor decreed that an inheritance should go to the eldest son, in the event, whatever the law said, it was the wishes of the parents that determined what actually happened. This obviously applied to Alexander Ogilvie in 1545. However, as has already been mentioned, by the late sixteenth century, the law of primogeniture had been reinforced by the increasing practice of entailing lands so that an inheritance could not be bequeathed at pleasure. As a third son, therefore, John would have to fend for himself where entitlement to land and income were concerned. This is plainly what he was determined to do by holding on to the lands through his so called ‘pretendit’ marriage to Elizabeth Gordon. The Reformation reduced the chance of a lucrative career for younger sons in the Church, through benefices and with the disappearance of the old church went the traditional alliance with France — that haven for the Scots soldier of fortune abroad. The violence of his fight against Lord James Ogilvie of Airlie in the streets of Edinburgh might have been caused by desperation as to his future options if he let go of the inheritance.

John’s main defence when he was taken prisoner after the battle of Corrichie was that every thing he had done had been at his father’s direction. It is possible that Huntly encouraged him to hold on to the lands, as they were of such huge benefit to the Gordons. They joined up their lands of Strathbogie and Strathavon and extended them to the Banffshire coast. Huntly may well have encouraged his son to escape the clutches of Moray in Edinburgh, to return to his protection in the North. He might well have persuaded him not to risk warding himself in Stirling Castle. If Mary had accepted his invitation to stay at Huntly Castle, he could have argued his son’s case.

There is also the religious element in John’s defence. He may have seen himself as a romantic champion of the Catholic faith and of the Queen personally, whom he regarded as a helpless prisoner of the Protestant faction, as encouraged by Catholic forces abroad. It may have been a common belief of the north-east Catholics but, unlike them, he was willing to risk his neck by plotting to abduct the Queen with the aid of his Gordon kinsmen. His mind was confused further by an adolescent infatuation for the Queen, whom he apparently expected to marry, once the rescue had been achieved.

However, John is clearly guilty of acts of blatant disobedience to royal commands and putting himself in the wrong, where Mary was concerned, by defiantly escaping prison twice instead of facing justice. His arrival in Aberdeen with one thousand followers, instead of the one hundred allowed, was aggressive and provocative. Having been threatened with treason if he did not ward himself in Stirling Castle, he still escaped. Then refusing to open up Findlater Castle, when the Queen’s royal messenger ordered it, was asking for trouble. Attacking her soldiers, who were going to siege it and stealing their harquebuses shows he was spoiling for a fight. He had no respect for her or royal authority. By stalking her progress with his one thousand followers, he obviously created fear and provided a threat.

John was deluded if he thought he had the chance of being a royal spouse of someone who was used to being Queen in France and he only a third, or even a second son (after the death of Alexander). This was a ‘preposterous ambition for a younger son, already married. He was not a fitting consort for a princess at whose feet half the crowned heads of Europe were sighing.’ He was probably more than a little crazy.

We can certainly blame John for actions leading to his own and his family’s woes. His father could not control him, even if he had wanted to, leaving his family few options but to attempt a Catholic coup through confrontation and battle. The best they could hope for was a miracle. This they did not get.

It was a sad end to the story for the Gordons of Huntly, especially as they owed much of their eminence to their loyalty and service to the crown. If it had not been for the combined actions of themselves and the other characters in the story, John and his father, might have survived to be pillars of strength for Queen Mary, like his brothers, George and Adam were to be in the time of her greatest need.

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