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James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton

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James Douglas, 4th Earl Of Morton (ca 1525 - 1581), Scottish statesman, was the second son of Sir George Douglas of Pittendriech. Before 1543 he married Elizabeth (died 1574), daughter of James Douglas, 3rd earl of Morton, a grandson of James Douglas (died ca 1500), who was created earl of Morton in 1458. The 3rd earl's wife was Catherine, an illegitimate daughter of James IV. In 1553, James Douglas succeeded to the title and estates of his father-in-law, and in 1563 he became lord high chancellor of Scotland. He was amongst those who forced Mary, Queen of Scots to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI. He played a leading part in encouraging Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, to act against her Italian secretary, David Rizzio: and was involved in Rizzio's murder in the presence of a heavily pregnant Mary at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Morton and Mary, Queen of Scots

Morton opposed the Catholicism of Mary, but took no part in the combination of Protestant barons in 1565. However in March 1566, he headed the armed force which took possession of Holyrood Palace to effect the assassination of Rizzio, and it was there that the conspirators adjourned while a messenger was sent to obtain Mary's signature to the "bond of security." With Darnley's assistance, Mary managed to escape from this attempted coup against her without complying with this request, and Morton and the other leaders fled to England. On 15 May 1567, Mary married James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who most Scots believed had murdered Lord Darnley. and took refuge at Borthwick Castle.

Having been pardoned, Morton returned to Scotland early in 1567, and with 600 men appeared before Borthwick Castle at Carberry Hill on 15 June 1567; bringing them back to Edinburgh in custody. Nine days later, on 24 June 1567, he was among those who met Mary, then imprisoned at Lochleven Castle and offered her the choice between abdication in favour of her infant son, James VI, or death.

After Mary's escape from Lochleven Castle, Morton led the forces that defeated her at the Battle of Langside on 13 May 1568, the defeat which led to her ill-judged flight to seek support in England.


The Earl of Moray, Mary's half brother, was the first of four Regents to govern Scotland during the minority of James VI. On the death of the earl of Moray on October 28th, 1572, Morton, who had been the most powerful noble during this regency, was elected regent.

He was an energetic and capable ruler; at Perth, in February 1573, with the help of Elizabeth's envoy, he achieved a pacification with Huntly, the Hamiltons, and the Catholic nobles who supported Mary. Only Edinburgh Castle held out, and this, with the aid of English artillery, he took, after brave resistance by Kirkcaldy of Grange and Maitland of Lethington. The execution of these men ended the last chance of Mary's restoration.

But while all seemed to favour Morton, under-currents combined to bring about his fall. The Presbyterian clergy were alienated by his support for Episcopacy, and all parties in the divided Church were alienated by his seizure of its estates. Andrew Melville, who had assumed the leadership mantle of John Knox, was even more determined than Knox to oppose any departure from the Presbyterian model. The powerful earl of Argyll and Atholl, a Stuart and Roman Catholic, united with Alexander Erskine, governor of Stirling, who now had custody of the young king, and others in a league which received so much support that Morton offered to resign. He surrendered Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, and the royal treasures and retired to Lochleven, where he occupied himself in laying out gardens.

However, he could not resist one more bid for power. Aided by the young earl of Mar, he took possession of Stirling Castle and the person of the king, and civil war was avoided only by the influence of the English ambassador. A nominal reconciliation was effected, and a parliament at Stirling introduced a new government. Morton, who secured an indemnity, was president of the council, but Atholl remained a privy councillor in an enlarged council with the representatives of both parties. Soon afterwards, Atholl died of poison, or so it was said, and suspicion fell on Morton. His return to power was brief, and the only important event was the prosecution of the two Hamiltons, who still supported Mary; they saved their lives by fleeing to England.

Final fall

The final fall of Morton came from a different quarter. In September 1579, Esme Stuart, the king's cousin, came to Scotland from France, gained the favour of James, and received the lands and earldom of Lennox, the custody of Dumbarton Castle, and the office of chamberlain. One of his dependants, Captain James Stuart, brother-in-law of John Knox, accused Morton at a meeting of the council in Holyrood of complicity in the murder of Darnley, and he was immediately committed to custody. Some months later, Morton was condemned by an assize for his part in that crime, after confessing that Bothwell had revealed the plot to him, although he denied any part in its execution. On the 2nd June 1581, he was executed by the maiden - a guillotine that he had himself brought from England. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. The earldom of Morton passed at his death to a grandson of the 3rd earl, John, 7th Lord Maxwell (1553-1593), who had previously claimed the title.