Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cochrane, Robert

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COCHRANE, ROBERT, Earl of Mar (d. 1482), Scottish architect and courtier, is known only by his sudden elevation and tragic end. His name is excluded, perhaps erased, from the statute book, as is his title from the peerage books, and Scottish history, more than usually meagre in the reign of James III as of James II, gives only a few glimpses of Cochrane, though probably enough to mark his character. A mason, as was said by his enemies, more probably an architect by profession, Cochrane first attracted the notice of James III by his courage in a single combat, a common amusement of that age, but scarcely so among the lower orders, so that this story told by Buchanan, if true, appears to contradict the view that he was not by birth a gentleman. His name also is not that of a person of low birth. But it was by his skill in his own craft that, according to all accounts, he obtained a hold on the king's favour. This he is reputed to have acquired, but on no certain authority, in Italy. James III was a monarch of the type which repeats itself in all countries in the middle ages, and is not unknown in modern times, in whom a taste for the fine arts carried to excess led to a neglect of the graver studies and pursuits proper for a king. He gave his confidence to those who could gratify his pleasures, rather than the sterner advisers whom he might have chosen from the nobles and clergy. At what precise date is uncertain, but probably before 1476, Cochrane became his chief favourite. The building of the great hall or Parliament House and the Chapel Royal (afterwards rebuilt by James VI) at Stirling, the favourite residence of the king, was probably his work. Supported originally, it appears, by a faction of the nobles, especially the Homes and Hepburns, he succeeded in alienating James from his brothers, the Duke of Albany and Earl of Mar, by raising the suspicion that they aimed at deposing him. Unlike the king in personal character, and distinguished for their love of martial exercises, these young princes were favourites of the people and the greater part of the nobility. Already in the parliament of 1476 the barons had shown their distrust of James by obtaining the appointment, at its dissolution, of a committee to whom its whole powers were entrusted, at the head of which Albany and Mar were placed. Cochrane is said to have brought to the ear of the king one of those prophecies which passed so readily from mouth to mouth before printing, that a lion in Scotland should be devoured by its whelps, or that he should be slain by one of his own kindred, a version into which it would be easily translated. It was an age of superstition, and Mar was alleged to have used magic, which James himself dabbled in, against his brother's life. Whatever basis there may have been for these stories, Mar, the younger of the two brothers, was seized in 1479, sent to Craigmillar, and soon after transferred to an obscure lodging in the Canongate (a curious parallel to Darnley's fate), where he died, it was said, by a vein opened while he was in a warm bath. The first execution of witches in Scotland is said to have followed, being connected with the death of Mar, who was charged with seeking their counsel. Albany was about the same time committed to Edinburgh Castle, from which he escaped by the aid of a servant to Dunbar, and afterwards fled to France. Cochrane now became all powerful, and the gift of the earldom of Mar, or its revenues, confirmed the suspicion that he was an associate in a secret of guilt. His elevation disgusted the nobles, whose pride was roused by an adventurer receiving one of the oldest titles. A depreciation of the coinage under his advice, by the issue of black money, an alloy of the standard silver, irritated the whole nation. When told that his new coinage would certainly be recalled, 'That day I shall be hanged,' was his arrogant answer, regarded as a presage of the death which awaited him.

Albany had now come to England and entered into a treaty with Edward IV, by which he surrendered a considerable part of Scotland for the empty title of king and the promise of his assistance. Having laid siege to Berwick in 1482, James mustered the Scotch feudal army and advanced to meet him. At Lauder the barons in secret council, led by Angus, Huntly, and Crawford, but really with one consent—Evandale the chancellor, Lord Home, the former ally of Cochrane, and several of the bishops being specially mentioned as taking their side—mutinied and determined to get rid of the obnoxious favourite, who had been given the command of the artillery. According to the well-known parable, Lord Gray asked which of the mice would bell the cat, and Angus, who replied 'I shall,' received the nickname of 'Bell the Cat.' Cochrane, whose sumptuous extravagance is specially noted—a gold chain on his neck, his horse adorned with precious stones, and his helmet overlaid with gold—came from his tent, whose cords were made of silk, attended by a large retinue in splendid livery, to the church where the barons were assembled. Sir Robert Douglas having asked his name, Cochrane answered 'It is the Earl of Mar.' The answer obtained his admittance, but a reception very different from his expectation. Angus pulled his gold chain off, saying 'A rope will become thee better.' Douglas seized his horse, exclaiming he had been too long a hunter of mischief. 'Is this jest or earnest?' asked Cochrane, a needless question, to which no reply was vouchsafed. The unfortunate favourite was dragged to the Bridge of Lauder, over which, in sight of the king, he was hung, like a thief, with a rope, his petition for the use of the silk cords of his tent being rejected with contempt. Roger, an English musician; Torphichen, a fencing-master; Leonard, a smith; two lowborn associates of the king; and Proctor, a gentleman of the court, met the same fate. John Ramsay of Balmain, another courtier, was spared at the king's personal intercession; and although James I himself was conveyed to Edinburgh Castle and kept for some time in custody, the nobles were satisfied by the removal of his favourite, and a reconciliation between him and his brother was soon after effected by Archbishop Schives. Albany received the titles of Mar and March in addition to his dukedom. This circumstance renders it probable, though it has been doubted, that Cochrane had been really created earl, and that the record of his creation was afterwards destroyed.

[Ferrerius, Appendix to Boece's History; Lindsay of Pitscottie's Chronicle; Lesley and Buchanan's Histories; and Pinkerton's History, in which there is the fullest account of Cochrane.]

Æ. M.