Douglas, Archibald (1449?-1514) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 15
Douglas, Archibald (1449?-1514)

by Aeneas James George Mackay
The ODNB gives the date of death as 1513.

DOUGLAS, ARCHIBALD, fifth Earl of Angus, ‘the Great Earl’ (Bell-the-cat) (1449?–1514), was eldest son of George, fourth earl [q. v.], and Isabel, daughter of Sir John Sibbald of Balgony in Fifeshire. When a boy he had been betrothed to Lady Katherine Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntly, but this marriage did not take place, and early in the reign of James III, before May 1465, he married Elizabeth, daughter of Robert, lord Boyd, chancellor of Scotland. This connection, probably one of ambition, did not fulfil its promise, for it was soon followed by the fall of the Boyds from the power they had suddenly acquired at the commencement of the new reign. Perhaps their fall may account for the fact that the Earl of Angus, notwithstanding his own high rank and abilities, was slow in reaching any prominent position either at the court or in the country. He was present in parliament, however, in 1469, 1471, 1478, and 1481, and served in the latter years on the committee of the articles. In 1479, when he was absent from parliament, he was engaged in a raid upon Northumberland, during which Bamborough was burnt. In April 1481 he was appointed warden of the east marches, and succeeded in holding Berwick with a small garrison against the English. When James III was estranged from his brothers by the influence of his favourite Cochrane, Albany entered into an alliance with Edward IV; Angus and his father-in-law, Huntly, as well as many other nobles, took part in it. The English, under the Duke of Gloucester, the king's brother, accompanied by Albany and the Earl of Douglas, besieged Berwick, and James III, having collected a large force, marched to oppose them. While at Lauder, the Scottish nobles, incensed at the insolence of Cochrane [q. v.], who had assumed the title of Mar, and governed the king, mutinied in the camp. According to the well-known story, Lord Gray told the fable of the mice, who strung a bell round the neck of their enemy the cat, to warn them of its approach, and when the question was raised ‘Who will bell the cat?’ Angus declared that he would, from which ‘Bell-the-Cat’ became his by-name. The nobles had met in the church of Lauder, and Cochrane having tried to break in, Sir Robert Douglas of Lochleven, who kept the door, asked who it was that knocked so rudely, and being answered ‘The Earl of Mar,’ Angus, who with others came to the door, pulled the gold chain from Cochrane's neck, saying, ‘a tow [i.e. a rope] would suit him better.’ Douglas of Lochleven then seized his hunting-horn, which was topped with gold and had a beryl on the point, and said ‘he had been a hunter of mischief over long;’ Cochrane exclaimed in alarm, ‘My lords, is it mows [a jest] or earnest?’ to which they replied, ‘It is good earnest, and so thou shalt find.’ Their acts corresponded to their words. Cochrane and his chief associates were hung over the bridge of Lauder in sight of the king; Cochrane, in derision, with a rope of hemp, a little higher than the rest, ‘that he might be an example,’ says Hume of Godscroft, ‘to all simple mean persons not to climb so high and intend to great things at court as he did.’ The king was taken as a prisoner to Edinburgh, and treated with apparent courtesy, but all real power remained in the hands of the nobles. James procured his deliverance by making terms with Albany, and it would seem with Angus, who joined the party of Albany after he came to Edinburgh, and was present at the parliament in December 1482, over which Albany presided. In January 1483 Albany sent Angus on one of his commissions to the English court. They negotiated a treaty with Edward IV, by which the surrender of Berwick to England was sanctioned.

Albany was to obtain the Scottish crown by English aid, and Angus on his part undertook to keep the peace in the east and middle marches, and to fulfil the provisions of a separate agreement between him and the Earl of Douglas, by which Douglas was to be restored on certain terms to his Scottish estates.

The events which follow are difficult to trace in regard to Angus, but it seems probable that he continued to act in concert with Albany. On 19 March 1483, Albany, whose intrigues with England had been discovered, entered into an agreement with the king, by the terms of which he and Angus renounced their unlawful league with Edward IV, in return for a pardon of their treason, and Albany promised to secure peace between the two countries and the hand of the Princess Cecilia for James, the heir-apparent of Scotland. His principal adherents were to give up their offices, and among them Angus is named, who was to resign that of justiciary south of the Forth, of steward of Kirkcudbright, sheriff of Lanark, and keeper of Thrieve. Albany was himself to give up the post of lieutenant-general of the kingdom, but was to remain warden of the marches.

Instead of fulfilling his part of the agreement, Albany fortified Dunbar against the king, and went back to England, where he renewed his treasonable communications with Edward IV, and after his death, with Richard III. For these and other offences he was forfeited by the parliament which met in February 1484. Soon after, on St. Magdalen's day, 22 July, he and the Earl of Douglas made an unsuccessful raid on Lochmaben, where Douglas was captured, but Albany escaped to France. How far Angus had been privy to these later acts of Albany is not known, but as he did not go to England or incur the forfeiture which befell Albany, it appears not unlikely that he may now have separated himself from the councils of Albany. This is confirmed by his presence in the Scottish parliaments of 1483, 1484, and 1487. But in the last of these years he took part in the conspiracy of which the Humes and Hepburns, Lords Gray, Lyle, and Drummond were the leaders against the king, in name of the heir-apparent, afterwards James IV, which, after an attempted pacification at Blackness, ended by the king's defeat and death at Sauchieburn on 11 June 1488. The ostensible occasions of this conspiracy were the favours shown by James to Ramsay, one of his old minions, and his annexation of the revenues of Coldingham Priory to found the Chapel Royal at Stirling, which especially alienated the Humes. Angus had undoubtedly personal reason to fear that the king, who was supported by the Earl of Crawford (created Duke of Montrose) and other northern lords, would use the first opportunity to punish him for his share in the English intrigues of Albany.

After the accession of James IV Angus retained for a short time the wardenship of the eastern marches, and was appointed guardian of the king's person, but the chief offices of state were monopolised by the Humes and Hepburns. Next year his office of warden was transferred to Alexander, chief of the Humes and great chamberlain. In 1491 Angus, probably offended at the overweening influence of the Humes, returned to his old tactics of English intrigue with the new king, Henry VII, and there are indications in the treasurer's accounts that he fortified his castle of Tantallon, which was besieged in the name of the young king. To reduce his power the king, or those who were then carrying on the government in his name, forced Angus to surrender or exchange his Liddesdale estates and the castle of the Hermitage to the Earl of Bothwell, one of the Hepburns, for Kilmarnock, and that lordship in turn for the lordship of Bothwell. In 1493, perhaps on account of these concessions, Angus was again received into royal favour and made chancellor, an office he appears to have ably occupied for five years. During this period he was much in personal contact with the young king, and several entries occur in the treasurer's records of their playing together at cards and dice.

In 1496 Angus received a grant of the lands of Crawford Lyndsay, whose name was changed to Crawford Douglas, in Lanarkshire, and the following year of those of Braidwood in the same county. In 1498 he resigned the chancellorship, and the Earl of Huntly succeeded to it; but what caused this change is not known. From this time till the year of Flodden (1513) Angus disappears from history. He attended the great muster on the Borough Muir and went with James to England, but on the eve of the battle did his utmost to dissuade the king from engaging with Surrey at a manifest disadvantage. When he failed in his remonstrances he quitted the field, saying he was too old to fight, but would leave his two sons to sustain the honour of his house. Both sons and two hundred gentlemen of the name of Douglas fell on that fatal day. The old earl himself did not long survive the disaster. He died in the beginning of 1514, at the priory of Whithorn in Wigtownshire, whither he had gone to discharge his duties as justiciar. The tradition that he became a monk is disproved by the records.

George, master of Douglas, having been killed at Flodden, he was succeeded by his grandson, Archibald [q. v.], as sixth earl. Besides the master and Sir William Douglas of Glenbervie, who also fell at Flodden, he had by his first wife, Elizabeth Boyd, Gavin Douglas [q. v.], the famous bishop of Dunkeld, and translator of Virgil, and several daughters. He had married, after her death, Lady Jane Kennedy, a discarded mistress of James IV, and, as his third wife, Catherine Stirling, daughter of Sir William Stirling of Kilspindie, by whom he had a daughter and son, Sir Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie, the 'Greysteel' of James IV. Both these marriages have been doubted, but appear to be established on fair documentary evidence. The character of Angus was the traditionary character of the chiefs of his house, indeed of most Scottish nobles, only it was pursued with more persistence and success by the long line of the Douglases. Their family, its possessions and influence, were the first objects in their view, for which they seldom hesitated to sacrifice their country. The power of the Douglases on the border of the two kingdoms naturally made their support of much importance to the sovereigns of England as well as Scotland. The virtues of the founder of the house, and frequent alliance in marriage with members of the royal family, gave them an additional prestige, and encouraged exorbitant pretensions. What was personal in ‘Bell-the-Cat’ appears to have been a shrewdness in speech and action which enabled him to yield to circumstances, and seizing the best opportunity for changing sides to preserve his own life and the fortunes of his house in the troubled times during which he lived.

[Acts Parl. of Scotland; Exchequer Rolls and Treasurer's Accounts in the Lord Clerk Register's series of Record Publications; Pitscottie's History of Scotland; the family histories of Hume of Godscroft and Sir W. Fraser.]

Æ. M.