Portrait of the Earl of Bothwell

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (c.1536-1578)

JAMES HEPBURN, 4TH EARL OF BOTHWELL, Duke of Orkney and Shetland, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, son of Patrick, 3rd Earl of Bothwell, and of Agnes, daughter of Henry, Lord Sinclair, was born about 1536. His father, Patrick, the 3rd earl (c. 1512-1556), was the only son of Adam, the 2nd Earl, who was killed at Flodden, and the grandson of Patrick (d. c. 1508), 3rd Lord Hailes and 1st Earl of Bothwell. It was this Patrick who laid the foundation of the family fortunes. Having fought against King James III at the battle of Sauchieburn in 1488, he was rewarded by the new king, James IV, with the Earldom of Bothwell, the office of Lord High Admiral and other dignities. He also received many grants of land, including the lordship of Bothwell, which had been taken from John Ramsay, Lord Bothwell (d. 1513), the favourite of James III.

James Hepburn succeeded in 1556 to his father's titles, lands and hereditary offices, including that of Lord High Admiral of Scotland. Though a Protestant, he supported the government of Mary of Guise, showed himself violently anti-English, and led a raid into England, subsequently in 1559 meeting the English commissioners and signing articles for peace on the border. The same year he seized boon secretly sent by Elizabeth to the lords of the congregation. In retaliation Arran occupied and stripped his castle at Crichton, whereupon Bothwell in November sent Arran a challenge, which the latter declined. In December he was sent by the Queen Dowager to secure Stirling, and in 1560 was despatched on a mission to France, visiting Denmark on the way, where he either married or seduced Anne, daughter of Christopher Thorssen, whom he afterwards deserted, and who came to Scotland in 1563 to obtain redress.

He joined Mary at Paris in September, and in 1561 was sent by her as a commissioner to summon the parliament; in February he arrived in Edinburgh and was chosen a privy councillor on the 6th of September. He now entered into obligations to keep the peace with his various rivals, but was soon implicated in riots and partisan disorders, and was ordered in December to leave the city. In March 1562, having made up his quarrel with Arran, he was accused of having proposed to the latter a project for seizing the queen, and in May he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, whence he succeeded in escaping on the 28th of August. On the 23rd of September he submitted to the Queen. Murray's influence, however, being now supreme, he embarked in December for France, but was driven by storms on to Holy Island, where he was detained, and was subsequently, on the 18th of January 1564, seized at Berwick and sent by Elizabeth to the Tower, whence he was soon liberated and proceeded to France.

After these adventures he returned to Scotland in March 1565, but withdrew once more before the superior strength of his opponents to France. The same year, however, he was recalled by Mary to aid in the suppression of Murray's rebellion, successfully eluding the ships of Elizabeth sent to capture him. As Lieutenant of the Marches he was employed in settling disputes on the border, but used his power to instigate thieving and disorders, and is described by Cecil's correspondents as "as naughty a man as liveth and much given to the most detestable vices," "as false as a devil," "one that the godly of this whole nation hath a cause to curse for ever."1  In February 1566 Bothwell, in spite of his previous matrimonial engagements — and he had also been united by "handfasting" to Janet Betoun of Cranstoun Riddell — married Jane, daughter of George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly.

Notwithstanding his insulting language concerning Mary and the fact that he was the "stoutest" in refusing mass, he became one of her chief advisers, but his complete ascendancy over her mind and affections dates from the murder of Rizzio on the 9th of March 1566. The Queen required a protector, whom she found, not in the feeble Darnley, nor in any of the leaders of the factions, but in the strong, determined Earl who had ever been a stanch supporter of the throne against the Protestant party and English influence. In Bothwell also, "the glorious, rash and hazardous young man," romantic, handsome, charming even in his guilt, Mary gained what she lacked in her husband, a lover. He now stood forth as her champion; Mary took refuge with him at Dunbar, presented him, among other estates, with the castle there and the chief lands of the Earldom of March, and made him the most powerful noble in the south of Scotland.

Her partiality for him increased as her contempt and hatred of Darnley became more confirmed. On the 7th of October he was dangerously wounded, and the Queen showed her anxiety for his safety by riding 40 miles to visit him, incurring a severe illness. In November she visited him at Dunbar, and in December took place the conference at Craigmillar at which both were present, and at which the disposal of Darnley was arranged, Bothwell with some others subsequently signing the bond to accomplish his murder. He himself superintended all the preparations, visiting Darnley with Mary on the night of the crime, Sunday, 9th of February 1567, attending the Queen on her return to Holyrood for the ball, and riding back to Kirk o' Field to carry out the crime. After the explosion he hurried back to Holyrood and feigned surprise at the receipt of the news half an hour later, ascribing the catastrophe to "the strangest accident that ever chancit, to wit, the fouder (lightning) came out of the luft (sky) and had burnt the king's house."2

Bothwell's power was now greater, and the Queen's affection for him more ardent than ever. She was reported to have said that she cared not to lose France, England and her own country for him, and would go with him to the world's end in a white petticoat ere she left him.3 He was gratified with further rewards, and his success was clouded by no stings of conscience or remorse. According to Melville he had designs on the life of the young prince. On the demand of Lennox, Darnley's father, Bothwell was put upon his trial, in April, but Lennox, having been forbidden to enter the city with more than six attendants, refused to attend, and Bothwell was declared not guilty.

The Queen's intention to marry Bothwell, which had been kept a strict secret before the issue of the trial, was now made public. On the 19th of April he obtained the consent and support of the Protestant lords, who signed a bond in his favour. On the 24th he seized Mary's willing person near Edinburgh, and carried her to his castle at Dunbar. On the 3rd of May, Bothwell's divorce from his wife was decreed by the civil court, on the ground of his adultery with a maidservant, and on the 7th by the Roman Catholic court on the ground of consanguinity. Archbishop Hamilton, however, who now granted the decree, had himself obtained a papal dispensation for the marriage,4 and in consequence it is extremely doubtful whether according to the Roman Catholic law Bothwell and Mary were ever husband and wife. On the 12th Bothwell was created Duke of Orkney and Shetland and the marriage took place on the 15th according to the Protestant usage, the Roman Catholic rite being performed, according to some accounts, afterwards in addition.5

Bothwell's triumph, however, was shortlived. The nobles, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, now immediately united to effect his destruction. In June Mary and Bothwell fled from Holyrood to Borthwick Castle, whence Bothwell, on the place being surrounded by Morton and his followers, escaped to Dunbar, Mary subsequently joining him. Thence they marched with a strong force towards Edinburgh, meeting the lords on the 15th of June at Carberry Hill. Bothwell invited any one of the nobles to single combat, but Mary forbade the acceptance of the challenge. Meanwhile, during the negotiations, the queen's troops had been deserting; a surrender became inevitable, and Bothwell returned to Dunbar, parting from Mary for ever. Subsequently Bothwell left Dunbar for the north, visited Orkney and Shetland, and in July placed himself at the head of a band of pirates, and after eluding all attempts to capture him, arrived at Karm Sound in Norway. Here he was confronted by his first wife or victim, Anne Thorssen, whose claims he satisfied by the gift of a ship and promises of an annuity, and on his identity becoming known he was sent by the authorities to Copenhagen, where he arrived on the 30th of September.

He wrote Les Affaires du comte de Boduel, exhibiting himself as the victim of the malice of his enemies, and gained King Frederick II's goodwill by an offer to restore the Orkneys and Shetlands to Denmark. In consequence the King allowed him to remain at Copenhagen, and refused all requests for his surrender. In January 1568 he was removed to Malmoe in Sweden. He corresponded frequently with Mary, but there being no hopes whatever of his restoration, and a new suitor being found in the Duke of Norfolk, Mary demanded a divorce, on pleas which recall those of Henry VIII in the matter of Catherine of Aragon. The divorce was finally granted by the pope in September 1570 on the ground of her prenuptial ravishment by Bothwell,6 and met with no opposition from the latter. After the downfall of Mary, Bothwell's good treatment came to an end, and on the 16th of June 1573 he was removed to the castle of Dragsholm or Adelersborg in Zealand. Here the close and solitary confinement, and the dreary and hopeless inactivity to which he was condemned, proved a terrible punishment for the full-blooded, energetic and masterful Bothwell. He sank into insanity, and died on the 14th of April 1578. He was buried at the church of Faareveille, where a coffin, doubtfully supposed to be his, was opened in 1858. A portrait was taken of the head of the body found therein, now in the museum of the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland. His so-called deathbed confession is not genuine.



1 Cal. of State Papers, Scottish, i. 679.
2 Sir James Melville's Mem. 374.
3 Cal. of State Pap., Foreign, 1566-1568, p. 212.
4 Hist. MSS. Comm. Rep. ii. p. 177.
5 Cal. of State Pap., Scottish, ii. 333.
6 Cal. of State Pap., Foreign, 1569-1571 , p. 372.





      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol IV.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 304-5.




Books for further study:

Ap Evans, Humphrey. The Queen's man: James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell and Duke of Orkney
            Frewin Press, 1975.

Gore-Browne, Robert. Lord Bothwell and Mary, Queen of Scots
            Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937.




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