Hamilton, Thomas (1563-1637) (DNB00)

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HAMILTON, THOMAS, Earl of Melrose and afterwards first Earl of Haddington (1563–1637), was descended from a younger branch of the noble family of Hamilton, the link of connection being John de Hamilton, a younger son of the Walter Hamilton or Walter Fitzgilbert who received the barony of Cadzow from Robert the Bruce. The earl was the son of Thomas Hamilton of Priestfield, created a lord of session by the title of Lord Priestfield in 1607. His mother was Elizabeth, daughter of James Heriot of Trabroun. He was born in 1563, and, after attending the high school of Edinburgh, went to Paris, where his studies were superintended by his uncle, John Hamilton (fl. 1568-1609) [q. v.] who was rector of the university. He was admitted advocate at the Scottish bar on 1 Nov. 1587, and as early as 9 Nov. 1592 appointed ordinary lord of session under the title of Lord Drumcairne. The same year he was appointed, along with Sir John Skene [q. v.], a member of the law commission. From an early period he had secured the confidence and friendship of James VI, who, in allusion to the street in which he resided, familiarly designated him 'Tarn o' the Cowgate.' While the king found his administrative talents of the highest value, Hamilton showed remarkable tact in furthering the pet aims of the king. It was possibly he who suggested the establishment of a commission of the exchequer consisting of eight persons, afterwards known as Octavians, to administer the public finance (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 254). Through his connection with this commission, which was appointed 9 Jan. 1595-6, Hamilton gradually acquired a supreme position in the administration of Scotland. The commission had the rank in council and parliament of officers of state, and virtually the whole office of government was committed to them. They received no salary, but 'simply professed they had only regard to the king's estate and revenues' (Calderwood, v. 393). Spotiswood asserts that 'never were the rents of the crown so thrifty and so rightly used as in the short time of their employment,' but their duties rendered them unpopular with many persons of influence. They especially gave offence to those noblemen called the 'cubicular courtiers' who, finding their interests prejudiced, 'sought by all means to kindle a fire betwixt them and the kirk playing with both hands' (ib. p. 510). During the anti-popish riot in Edinburgh in September 1597, caused by the sentence of the council against David Black, the fury of the mob was specially directed against Thomas Hamilton and other supposed prominent papists in the commission, who barely escaped with their lives (ib. p. 513); and the four commissioners sent by the kirk to the king specially requested that he should 'remove from his company' Thomas Hamilton and others as the 'chief authors of all the troubles of the kirk' (ib. p. 514). In the anonymous letter mysteriously delivered to the king's porter on the evening- of 10 Jan. 1596-7, one of the persons specially denounced was 'Mr. Thomas Hamilton, brought up in Paris with that apostate Mr. John Hamilton, and men say the dregs of stinking Roman profession stick fast to his ribs' (ib. p. 549). Shortly afterwards the king accepted the resignation of the Octavians, hoping by this concession to reconcile the nation to innovations in the constitution of the church. Meanwhile Hamilton had taken advantage of his prerogatives as an Octavian to secure for himself, on 31 Jan. 1596, the office of king's advocate. Previous to this the duties of the office had been discharged by two persons, but Hamilton was appointed sole advocate for life, Hart, who was previously in office, continuing to act as joint advocate till his appointment as justice-depute in 1597. He was the first king's advocate styled lord advocate in the records of the court of session, though the title appears earlier in the records of parliament. On 22 Feb. 1597 an act of sederunt was passed by the court of session, stating that people murmured at Hamilton sitting as judge in the cases in which he was pursuer for the king's interest, and declaring that in such cases he was not to be considered as a party. Shortly after the accession of James to the English throne Hamilton was knighted. In the absence of James in England Hamilton had greater responsibilities, and tried to make himself indispensable by studying to gratify the whims of his master's Scottish policy. In 1604 he was named by the Scottish parliament one of the commissioners for the union with England, and on 28 Aug. the king wrote to him stating that he intended before the Scottish commissioners arrived to hold a meeting of the privy council for th purpose of establishing a uniform coinage in the two countries, and requested Hamilton's presence at Hampton Court (Melrose Papers, i. 5). The following year a dispute occurred between the general assembly of the kirk and the king regarding the power of the assembly to meet without the king's appointment Hamilton was ordered to prosecute some ministers who had assembled in spite of the king's prohibition. He informed the king that for this particular trial Lord Dunbar had been compelled to form a jury chiefly of hi own particular and private kinsmen and friends (ib. p. 12). While the ministers were awaiting their trial, Hamilton was again sum moned to London. On his advice probably James invited eight of the ministers of the Scottish kirk to a conference, and at one of the meetings Andrew Melville taunted Hamilton with 'having favoured trafficking priests an screened from punishment his uncle, John Hamilton who had been banished from France and branded as an incendiary by the parliament of that kingdom' (M'Crie, Life of Andrew Melville, 2nd edit. ii. 146-7 ; Calderwood, History, vi. 576-8). For this and similar ebullitions Melville was sent to the Tower. Hamilton then returned to Scotland, and soon after, with great shrewdness, nstituted the inquiries regarding the conlection of George Sprot or Spot with the Gowrie conspiracy, which led to Sprot's condction and execution.

On 4 April 1607 Hamilton received a charter of the office of master of the metals, with a lease of all the metals and minerals of Scotland, upon payment of one-tenth of the produce to the king. This grant was said to have been obtained by him on his discovery of a silver mine within his lands near Linlithgow. At first, according to Calderwood, it was represented that the discovery was of little consequence, but it gradually oozed out that the mine was of considerable value, 'whereupon the Advocate was sent for and renounced, as was reported, his infeftment of the said mineral (vi. 689). After further trials the person employed by the king to manage the mines vacated the works again to Hamilton on account of their small return (Balfour, Annals, ii. 23). Hamilton was one of the new Octavians appointed by the king in 1611. On 15 May 1612 he secured the appointment of lord clerk register. Sir John Skene sent his son with his resignation of the office in the expectation that the son would be appointed to succeed him, but Hamilton induced the son to accept instead an appointment as judge, whereupon Hamilton immediately received the vacated office, and shortly afterwards exchanged it with Sir Alexander Hay for that of secretary of state. In 1613 he was raised to the peerage by the title of Lord Binning and Byres, and on the death of John Preston of Fentonbarns was, 12 June 1616, appointed president of the court of session. He was one of the three commissioners chosen by the king to represent him at the assembly held at Perth when the six articles were passed for the enforcing of episcopal observances, and on him devolved the chief responsibility of obtaining a majority in their favour (see Calderwood, vii. 304-32). On 20 March 1619 he was created Earl of Melrose, the lands of the abbacy being already in his possession. The dignity was bestowed 'no doubt,' says Calderwood, 'for the good service he had done in advancing the estate of the bishops and course of conformity' (ib. p. 360). In 1621 Melrose, as president of the court of session, requested the lords of session, about to go to the country for the Good Friday and Easter holidays, to remain for religious services in the old kirk (ib. p. 457). In August of this year the articles of Perth were confirmed by parliament. The opposition to the episcopal forms gradually, however, increased, especially in Edinburgh, and on 16 April 1623 Melrose, in giving an account to the king of the order observed at Easter, reported that the number of communicants was small, and ventured to suggest that 'time and convenience shall prevail more to reduce them to conformity than sudden or vehement instance' (Melrose Papers, ii. 632). On account of the remissness of the authorities of Edinburgh in repelling the attack on a Dunkirk ship, and their plain speaking to Melrose, who endeavoured to concuss them to interference (Calderwood, vii. 573-4), he advised the king that he might raise money enough to keep a standing force and be independent of the people (Melrose Papers, ii. 572). Melrose was one of the Scottish nobility who attended the funeral of King James to Westminster, 20 May 1625. It having been intimated after the accession of Charles I that no nobleman or officer of state should in future have a seat on the bench of the court of session, Melrose on 15 Feb. 1626 resigned the office of lord president. Soon afterwards he also resigned that of secretary of state and was appointed lord privy seal. After the death of Sir John Ramsay, viscount Haddington, Melrose, deeming it a greater honour to take his style from a county than from an abbey, received on 27 Aug. 1626 a patent changing his title to Earl of Haddington. He died 29 May 1637.

The Earl of Haddington was thrice married. By his first wife, Margaret, daughter of James Borthwick of Newbyres, he had two daughters: Christian, married first to Robert, tenth lord Lindsay of Byres, and secondly to Robert, sixth lord Boyd; and Isabel, married to James, first earl of Airlie. By his second wife, Margaret, daughter of James Foulis of Colinton, he had three sons: Thomas, second earl [q. v.], Sir James Hamilton of Priestfield, and Sir John Hamilton of Trabroun; and four daughters: Margaret, married first to David, lord Carnegie, and secondly to James, first earl of Hartfell; Helen, died young; Jean, married to John, sixth earl of Cassilis; and Anne, died unmarried. By his third wife, widow of Sir Patrick Hume of Polwarth, he had a son, the Hon. Robert Hamilton of Wester Binning, killed at the blowing up of Dunglass Castle in 1640 [see under Hamilton, Thomas, second Earl of Haddington]. Three portraits of the first earl are at Tynninghame.

The first two lines of a curious epitaph on Haddington among Sir James Balfour's MSS. in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, give with sufficient conciseness, but with exactness and justice, a summary of his character and career:

Heir layes a lord quho quhill he stood
Had matchless beene had he beene ——

He was undoubtedly the most successful Scotchman of his time, and more remarkable for versatility than particular ability. He was believed to be in possession of the philosopher's stone, but he modestly, if not quite ingenuously, explained his success by attributing it to the fact that he never put off till to-morrow what could be done to-day, and never trusted another to do what he could do himself. As a lawyer he was famed both as advocate and judge for his remarkable shrewdness, for his almost instinctive perception of fraud, and for his skill in dragging the truth from a recalcitrant or hostile witness. He was at the same time a skilful administrator, though often lending his abilities to a questionable policy. He probably carried out the disastrous ecclesiastical policy of James unwillingly. Haddington was a student and a man of varied culture. Men of letters were numbered among his friends, and, as is evident from the notes and observations he left behind him, and the marginal references on his books, he was widely read not only in civil law but in history, especially the history of his country. His extensive collection of papers, including a variety of Scottish historical records, is preserved in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. His 'Decisions' are well known, and are contained in three manuscript volumes reporting upwards of three thousand cases decided between 1592 and 1624. A selection of his state papers, including his correspondence with King James, was published under the title 'State Papers of Thomas, Earl of Melrose,' by the Abbotsford Club, 1837. His transcripts of the Exchequer Rolls include the earliest known of these documents. Two manuscript volumes once belonging to him, containing excerpts made under his direction from the register of the privy council, include a portion of the register now missing, and to help to supply the hiatus these excerpts have been incorporated in vol. v. of the published register, 1599-1604. 'Notes of the Charters, &c., by the Right Honourable the Earl of Melrose/ also appeared at Edinburgh in 1830.

Melrose Papers ut supra; Letters of James VI (Bannatyne Club); Register of the Privy Council of Scotland; Calderwood's Hist, of the Church of Scotland; Spotiswood's Hist, of the Church of Scotland; Burton's Hist, of Scotland; Gardiner's Hist. of England; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), i. 677-80; Haigand Brunton's Senators of Coll. of Justice, pp. 221-5; Omond's Lord Advocates of Scotland, i. 69-86; Sir William Fraser's Earls of Haddington, 1889.]

T. F. H.