Seton, Alexander (d.1555?-1622) (DNB00)

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SETON, Sir ALEXANDER, first Earl of Dunfermline (1555?–1622), born about 1555, was fourth son of George, fifth lord Seton [q. v.], by Isabel, daughter of Sir William Hamilton of Sanquhar. Sir John Seton (d. 1594) [q. v.] was his brother. Being intended for the church, he went to Rome, where he studied at the College of Jesuits. It was probably before this that (on 17 Sept. 1565) he received from Queen Mary a grant of the priory of Pluscardine, of which his father had been economus and commissioner since 17 April 1561. In his sixteenth year he delivered with great applause an oration, ‘De Ascensione Domini,’ in the pope's chapel of the Vatican before Gregory XIII and the cardinals. This was probably in December 1571; for mention is made of his having about this time been presented to the pope, who commanded him to be treated as his own son (Cal. State Papers, For. 1569–71, No. 2166). According to Lord Kingston (Continuation of the History of the House of Seton), he was ‘a great humanist in prose and verse, Greek and Latin, and well versed in the mathematics and great skill in architecture.’ He is supposed to have taken holy orders, and it is also customary to state that the occurrence of the Reformation caused him either to give up thoughts of entering the church or to abandon the holy vocation; but the definite notice of his presentation to the pope in 1571 shows that he had not even entered on his studies when the Reformation took place. But whatever his original intentions, and whatever the cause of his abandoning them, if he did abandon them, he ultimately began the study of law, and, after attending various lectures in France, returned to Scotland, where he at length passed advocate. At some unknown period, but probably on the fall of Mary Stuart, he was deprived of the priory of Pluscardine which was held successively by Alexander Dunbar and James Douglas, natural sons of James, earl of Morton; but after the fall of Morton Douglas was denounced a traitor, and in April 1581 the priory was restored to Seton.

Although he became nominally a protestant, Seton appears to have remained on good terms with his catholic instructors; and on an English jesuit apprehended on 1 March 1583 a letter was found from him to the master of the seminary at Rome (Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, iii. 702). Thereupon the general assembly of the kirk sent a deputation to the king and council to cause him to undergo trial for the offence (ib. p. 706). The king promised that he should be sent for and confronted with the jesuit (ib. p. 707). The result is not stated, but it seems to have been satisfactory to the king, if not to the kirk, for the same year the prior accompanied his father, Lord Seton, on an embassy to France.

After the fall of Arran, in 1585, Seton was chosen one of the king's new privy councillors, under the act passed on 10 Dec. On 27 Jan. 1586 he was chosen an extraordinary lord of session, when he took his seat as prior of Pluscardine; and on 16 Feb. he was appointed an ordinary lord, as Baron Urquhart, the lands of Urquhart and Pluscardine having been united into a barony and granted to him. As the genuineness of his protestantism was suspected, the kirk succeeded in insisting that before he undertook office as ordinary lord he should partake of the communion at the time appointed by the ministers of Edinburgh (‘Book of Sederunt,’ quoted in Brunton and Haig, Senators of the College of Justice, p. 199). On 4 April 1588 he was named a commissioner for assessing the taxation of 10,000l. to defray expenses in connection with the king's approaching marriage (Reg. P. C. Scotl. iv. 269). On 28 May 1593 he was appointed lord president of the court of session, and from this time may be ranked as one of the principal political advisers of the king. On 9 Jan. 1596 he was named one of the eight auditors of the exchequer known as the Octavians (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 255), of whom he was regarded as the chief. Shortly afterwards he gave indications of his catholic sympathies by a speech at the meeting of the convention of estates, in which he urged the recall of the banished catholic earls, on the ground that it was safer they should return than remain abroad to plot against the state (Calderwood, v. 438). It was scarce to be expected that the kirk authorities would coincide with this view of the matter, and its commissioners ordained that, on 2 Nov., he should appear before the synod of Lothian for dealing in favour of the Earl of Huntly (ib. p. 448). Of this, says Calderwood, he ‘purged himself very largely’ (ib.) But the kirk remained unsatisfied in regard to this and other matters; and the feeling against him found special expression in the tumult in Edinburgh in the following December, one of the requests made by the four commissioners of the kirk sent to the king immediately afterwards being that he should ‘remove from his company’ Lord-president Seton and others ‘thought to be authors of the chief troubles of the kirk,’ and known to be representatives of the ‘excommunicated earls’ (Calderwood, v. 513–514; ‘Narrative of the King’ in Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 362–3). Not long afterwards the king accepted the resignation of the Octavians. Nevertheless the kirk, by its violence, obtained no substantial benefit, but the opposite; and the triumph of the king over the unruly city was completed by the appointment of Lord Urquhart as its lord provost, an office which he held for nine years in succession.

On 4 March 1597–8 Seton obtained a letter under the great seal erecting the barony of Fyvie into a free lordship, with the title of a lord of parliament; and shortly afterwards he was intrusted with the guardianship of the king's second son, Prince Charles, afterwards Charles I. In December he was also chosen one of the king's new privy councillors, on the limitation of the number to thirty-one (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 500). But though closely identified with the general policy of the king, he on two remarkable occasions displayed an independence which says much for his integrity and honour. When the king by a personal appeal—which virtually amounted to a demand—attempted to reverse a decision of the court of session passed in favour of Robert Bruce, whom the king had deprived of his stipend, Seton rose and told him that this was a question of law, in which they were sworn to do justice according to their consciences and the statutes of the realm; that of course the king could command them to the contrary, but that in that case he and every honest man on the bench would either vote according to his conscience, or resign and not vote at all (Nicolson to Cecil, 16 March 1598–9, quoted in Tytler, History of Scotland, ed. 1864, iv. 270). Still more creditable to his honour and manliness—for here he was not placed in any official dilemma—was his opposition at the convention at Perth, in June 1600, to the king's foolish demand for money to maintain a standing army, that he might be able, on the death of the queen of England, to make good his rights to the succession (ib. p. 282). On the accession of James to the throne, Prince Charles—afterwards Charles I—who was not deemed strong enough to be removed south, remained in Seton's charge; and after the queen's removal to England Seton was appointed a commissioner for the management of her property in Scotland (ib. p. 537). On 12 Jan. 1604 he was named vice-chancellor, to represent the king in parliament in the absence of the chancellor (Reg. P. C. Scotl. vi. 596), and by the parliament which met at Perth in July he was appointed one of the commissioners for the union with England. Here his masterly knowledge of all legal details, combined with a strongly independent judgment, was of invaluable service to the Scottish commissioners in the arrangements as to trading privileges and interests. It was therefore found advisable that he should be made chancellor instead of Montrose, who accepted the nominal dignity of commissioner for his majesty for life. He resigned the presidentship of the court of session on being made chancellor, and he was also (6 March 1606) created Earl of Dunfermline. So highly was the nation gratified with the result of his services on the commission that on his return to Edinburgh he was ‘convoyed with many people of all ranks’ after a manner ‘no subject was seen before to come accompanied to Edinburgh’ (Calderwood, vi. 274).

Although the ecclesiastical leanings of Dunfermline were apparently catholic, he was not supposed to be specially favourable to the establishment of an episcopacy. The mild measures adopted by him against the Aberdeen assembly of July 1605 may, however, have been due mainly to inadvertence; and the supposition that he had in any sense connived at its deliberations, as the episcopalians insinuated, is extremely improbable. Nevertheless, the king ordered that the charge against him should be strictly investigated; but a dignified letter from the chancellor, in which he forcibly represented the absurdity of the charge, sufficed to defeat the purpose of his enemies. The king, with the shrewd common-sense which, however uncertain in its operation, usually stood him in good stead in important emergencies, and with the unblushing disregard of legality in which he took special delight, affirmed that he ‘would not have him convicted,’ nor would he put him out of office although ‘the matter were proven’ (see especially the summary of the evidence by Professor Masson in footnote to Reg. P. C. Scotl. vii. 493–496). Probably the king was moved by the desire for, or promise of, Dunfermline's co-operation in the Red parliament, which met at Perth shortly afterwards, when, mainly through the management of Dunfermline and Dunbar, acts were passed ‘anent the king's majesty's prerogative’ and ‘anent the restitution of bishops.’

On account, it would seem, of Dunfermline's supposed sympathies with Lord Balmerino [see Elphinstone, James, first Lord Balmerino], the king in 1608 wrote to the town council requesting that, instead of re-electing Dunfermline as provost, they should elect one of their own neighbours. The council disregarded this advice; but, learning that the king was deeply offended, they with Dumfermline's consent, and probably at his suggestion, permitted him to resign, and elected Sir John Arnot in his stead (Calderwood, vi. 819). In October of the following year he paid a visit to the king in England, when he was chosen a member of the English privy council. On the death of Dunbar, in January 1611, Dunfermline and others of the council, says Calderwood, took journey to London, ‘fearing alteration, and every man seeking his own particular’ (ib. vii. 154). In the purpose of their journey they were successful. Dunfermline inherited Dunbar's place of authority and influence in the king's counsels, and when in London obtained the custody of the palace and park of Holyrood, and was named one of the new Octavians (ib. p. 158). In October of the following year he acted as the king's commissioner at the parliament of Edinburgh, in which the act of 1592, establishing presbyterianism, was rescinded. He died at his seat of Pinkie House, near Musselburgh, on 16 June 1622, in the sixty-seventh year of his age.

Dunfermline was thrice married. By his first wife, Lilias, second daughter of Patrick, third lord Drummond, and sister of James, first earl of Perth, he had five daughters: Anne, married to Alexander, viscount Fenton, only son of Thomas, first earl of Kellie; Isabel, married to John, first earl of Lauderdale; Margaret, died in infancy; another Margaret, married to Colin, first earl of Seaforth; and Sophia, married to David, first Lord Lindsay of Balcarres. By his second wife, Grizel Leslie, fourth daughter of James, master of Rothes, he had a son Charles, who died young, and two daughters—Lilias, unmarried, and Jean, married to John, eighth lord Yester. By his third wife, Margaret Hay, sister of John, first earl of Tweeddale, he had a son, Charles, second earl of Dunfermline [q. v.], and two daughters—Grizel, unmarried, and Mary, died young.

The best testimony to Dunfermline's character is found in the fact that Spotiswood, who did everything possible to work his overthrow, admits that he ‘exercised his place with great moderation, and to the contentment of all honest men;’ and that, although ‘inclining to the Roman faith,’ he was ‘very observant of good order, and one that hated lying and dissimulation, and above all things studied to maintain peace and quietness.’ Calderwood expresses virtually the same opinion: ‘He was a good justicier, courteous and humane, both to strangers and to his own country people, but no good friend to the bishops.’

Dunfermline is supposed to have been the architect of his own mansions. He in great part rebuilt Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, in which he introduced the French arch. He also built the principal part of Pinkie House. Dempster assigns to Dunfermline the authorship of ‘Orationes Solemnibus aliquot Festis coram Pontifice;’ but this is a mere magnification of the statement that, while a youth, he delivered one single oration before the pope. Two of his Latin epigrams are prefixed to Bishop Lesley's ‘History of Scotland.’ He also addressed an epigram to Sir John Skene [q. v.] on the publication of his treatise ‘Regiam Majestatem.’ A Latin epitaph by him in commemoration of his parents is in Seton church.

A half-length portrait of Dunfermline, by Zucchero, is at York, and he is included in the group of the Seton family by Sir Anthony Mor or More [q. v.]

[Reg. P. C. Scotl.; Histories of Spotiswood and Calderwood; Cal. State Papers, Scotland, For. Ser. during the reign of Elizabeth, and Dom. Ser. during the reign of James I; Brunton and Haig's Senators of the College of Justice; Sir Richard Maitland's History of the House of Seton in the Bannatyne Club; George Seton's Memoir of Alexander Seton, Earl of Dunfermline, 1882; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), i. 480–1.]

T. F. H.