Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gordon, George (1562-1636)

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GORDON, GEORGE, sixth Earl and first Marquis of Huntly (1562–1636), only son of George, fifth earl [q. v.], by his wife, Lady Anne, daughter of James Hamilton, earl of Arran, duke of Chatelherault, was born in 1562. On the death of his father in May 1576 he was placed under the care of his uncle, Sir Adam Gordon, who sent him for his education to France. As a catholic Huntly was closely associated in the schemes of the Duke of Lennox against Morton, and at the first parliament after Morton's execution, held in October 1581, he bore the sceptre (Calderwood, iii. 592). He was one of the chief leaders of the counter-revolution by which, 27 June 1583, the king, after his withdrawal from Falkland to St. Andrews, was delivered from the custody of the nobles who had overthrown the power of the Duke of Lennox by the raid of Ruthven (Bowes to Walsingham, 3 July 1583, in Bowes, Correspondence, pp. 477-83; Sir James Melville, Memoirs, p. 283; Calderwood, iii. 715). After the banishment of the Master of Gray in May 1587, the abbacy of Dunfermline, which the master had held, was bestowed on Huntly (Melville, p. 361; Calderwood, iv. 613), a proceeding which led the assembly of the kirk to express to the king their ‘greefe that sindrie papists of great calling are promoted to offices and benefices’ (ib. p. 632). From this time Huntly, who throughout his life was secretly regarded by the catholics as their chief political leader, was exposed to a constant persecution by the kirk, from the results of which he was only saved by the interposition of the king, and by frequent subscriptions of the confession of faith, which were violated almost as soon as made.

On 21 July 1588 Huntly was married within the chapel of Holyrood by the Bishop of St. Andrews to Lady Henrietta Stuart, eldest daughter of Esme, duke of Lennox, five thousand marks having been voted him by the council to bring her from France (Reg. Priv. Counc. Scotl. iv. 103). For celebrating the marriage before Huntly had subscribed the confession, the bishop was summoned before the presbytery of Edinburgh (Calderwood. iv. 686). Shortly afterwards Huntly signed the confession, but, as he ingenuously explained to the Duke of Parma, he did so ‘entirely against his wish’ (Letter, Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser. i. 554), and was all the while carrying on correspondence with the Spaniards for an invasion of Scotland on behalf of the catholic cause [see under Hamilton, Claud, Lord Paisley]. On 28 Nov. 1588 Huntly succeeded Lord Glamis as captain of the guard, after which he stayed all the winter with the king in Holyrood Abbey (Calderwood, iv. 696). While there a letter of his to the king of Spain and other incriminating communications were discovered (ib. v. 14-36), and having been brought before the council he was warded in the castle. The king showed his confidence in Huntly by dining with him in the castle, and on 7 March 1589 he was set at liberty (Asheby to Walsingham, Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser. i. 555). Driven from Edinburgh by the hostile attitude of the citizens, he went to the north, and along with the Earls of Erroll and Crawford raised the standard of rebellion. He gave out that he had a commission from the king to levy forces, but the king marched northwards against him, and threatened to demolish his castle unless he gave himself up (Calderwood, v. 55). Having submitted unconditionally to the king, he was not put to an assize, and after some months' captivity in Borthwick Castle he secured his liberty. He now retired for a time to the north, where he erected a castle at Ruthven in Badenoch, in the neighbourhood of his hunting forests. This the Mackintoshes resented as dangerous to their independence, and when Huntly became involved in a dispute with the Grants, and captured the house of Grant of Ballindalloch for alleged outrages committed by him, the two clans united against him, and called to their aid the Earls of Atholl and Moray. Huntly, having received intelligence of their designs, advanced against them while they were holding a consultation at Forres, and compelled the principal leaders to take refuge in Tarnaway Castle. The castle was too strongly fortified to be carried by assault, and on account of the approach of winter he disbanded his forces and returned home. The following year Huntly obtained letters of fire and sword against Bothwell for an attack on Holyrood Palace, and as Bothwell escaped him he, it is said at the instigation of Maitland (History of James the Sext, p. 248), resolved to make use of the writ to take private vengeance on Moray, on the plea that he had sheltered Bothwell for a time in his castle of Donibristle in Fife. On the night of 8 Feb. 1591-2 he surrounded the castle, and having collected some sheaves from the neighbouring barnyard, piled them against the walls and set fire to the building. The sheriff of Moray was burned to death within; but the Earl of Moray, traditionally styled the ‘Bonnie Earl,’ a man of great strength, rushed out of the flames, and, striking down those who attempted to capture or slay him, made his escape to a neighbouring cave (Calderwood, v. 144; Moysie, Memoirs, p. 89). Unfortunately, the flames had set on fire the silken plume of his helmet, and thus enabled his pursuers to trace him in the darkness to his hiding-place, where he was stabbed to death. Huntly struck him the last blow in the face with his dagger, whereupon Moray upbraided him with having spoilt a better face than his own (Ashton to Bowes, 8 Feb. 1591-2). The incident of Moray's murder is the theme of the old ballad, ‘The Bonnie Earl of Moray.’ The outrage provoked such an outburst of indignation that Huntly deemed it advisable to retire to his own dominions, but, having received a private assurance from the king (Letter printed in Calderwood, v. 146-7), he had an interview with the king at Linlithgow, and on the understanding that he would incur no danger agreed to go into ward in Blackness Castle. This he did on 10 March, and on giving surety that he would appear to take his trial when called on he received his liberty on the 21st. Meantime the Earls of Argyll and Atholl with the Grants and Mackintoshes had taken vengeance on Huntly by ravaging his lands, and the king therefore appointed the Earl of Angus, lieutenant in the north, to bring matters into order. In December of the same year George Kerr, of the Newbottle family, when about to set out to the continent, was captured on the west coast with eight blank papers in his possession, afterwards known as the Spanish Blanks, to two of which Huntly's signature was attached. This led to a renewal against Huntly of the accusation of having entered into a treasonable correspondence with Spain, and he was summoned to appear at St. Andrews on 5 Feb. 1592-3. Instead of doing so he remained in his own dominions, and was therefore proclaimed a rebel. On 10 Feb. the king set out against him, and as soon as the king reached Aberdeen, Huntly retreated with a few followers to Caithness. The king's advance was made chiefly for the sake of appearances, and when the Countesses of Huntly and Erroll appeared before him he granted to them the keeping of ‘their own special houses and rents’ (History of James the Sext, p. 268). On 19 March Huntly was relaxed from the horn, and summoned to appear before parliament on 2 June. At a convention of the nobility held on 8 May the king sought ‘a whinger to throw at William Murray for comparing Huntly to Bothwell in wickedness’ (Calderwood, v. 249). On 25 Sept. Huntly was excommunicated by the synod of Fife (ib. p. 263), but on 2 Nov. a royal proclamation was made that as he and others had craved trial, no one should ‘invade, trouble, or pursue them’ during the time of their trial (ib. p. 280). On the 26th they were declared free of the crime of trafficking with Spain, but were required to show their acceptance of the benefit of the edict by either, before 1 Feb. 1593-4, submitting to the church and renouncing popery, or leaving the kingdom (ib. p. 288). To this announcement no answer was returned by them, and at a parliament held in May 1594 they were attainted and their arms riven at the cross of Edinburgh (History of James the Sext, p. 330). These earls were subsequently joined in a conspiracy against the government by Bothwell, who had been expelled by Elizabeth from England. Huntly succeeded in gathering a large force in the north, commanded for the most part by officers who had gained their experience in the continental wars, while Bothwell undertook to make a diversion in the south, and if the opportunity offered to imprison the king and seize the young prince (heads of the band printed in Calderwood, v. 360-1). At the special request of the presbyterian clergy, Argyll [see Campbell, Archibald, seventh earl] undertook to lead his followers against those of Huntly, and with an army of six thousand men marched towards Strathbogie. Huntly and Erroll waited for him with a force numbering only about one-third of his, but much better disciplined and officered. Huntly was an experienced commander, and Argyll was a raw youth of about eighteen. Campbell of Lochnell, who commanded a division of Argyll's army, was also in secret communication with Huntly. The two armies met on 4 Oct. 1594. Lochnell's retreat at a critical moment destroyed Argyll's chance of victory. Huntly displayed remarkable daring and energy, especially in the final charget but the victory won for him no substantial advantage. (Huntly is celebrated as the hero of the battle in a Latin poem, ‘Surgendo,’ printed from a folio manuscript in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, with introduction by C. K, Sharpe, 1837.) On learning that the king was advancing against him, Huntly in a letter to Angus playfully alluded to the king's crusade as likely to turn out a ‘gowk's [cuckoo's] storm.’ Unhappily the letter fell into the hands of the king, who resolved to teach Huntly a lesson. As before, Huntly had left his castle and fled further north. The king, at the instigation of Andrew Melville, blew up the castle of Strathbogie with gunpowder (Bowes to Cecil, 29 Oct. 1594). The castles of several other leaders of the rebellion shared the same fate. The Duke of Lennox was then appointed king's lieutenant in the north. The king offered a full pardon to Huntly if he would deliver up Bothwell, but this Huntly refused (Calderwood,v. 361). Nevertheless when Argyll, on discovering a conspiracy of Huntly against him, threatened to renew the conflict, he was warded by the king in the castle of Edinburgh. Huntly and Erroll lingered for a time in hope of assistance from Spain, but, having given caution to the Duke of Lennox to leave the kingdom during his majesty's pleasure, Huntly finally set sail from Aberdeen on 19 March 1595 (Bothwell to Douglas 17 June 1595). On 19 Oct. 1596 the Countess of Huntly presented certain offers to the general assembly on his behalf (printed in Calderwood, v. 441-3). Some time previous to this Huntly had secretly returned, and was reported to have been seen at his wife's residence in the Bog of Gight (Bowes to Burghley, 20 Oct. 1596). As the assembly had heard of this and were greatly scandalised at the connivance of the king in permitting the return of ‘idolaters,’ they ordained a ‘public humiliation’ to be kept, throughout the country on the first Sunday of December, and threatened the summary censures of the kirk against all who should hold intercourse with them. After the ‘No Popery’ riot in Edinburgh the king came to terms with the kirk, and wrote a peremptory letter to Huntly commanding him either to embrace the protestant faith or leave the country for ever. A committee was appointed by the general assembly to confer with the catholic earls and instruct them in the truth (‘Articles for Trying the Earl of Huntly,’ in Calderwood, v. 616-18),and they having expressed their willingness to ‘satisfye in all humble manner’ (‘The Earl of Huntly's Answers to the Articles,’ ib. pp.633-5), a commission was appointed to absolve them on certain conditions (ib. pp. 639-40), one of these in the case of the Earl of Huntly being that he should ask God's mercy for the Earl of Moray's slaughter. Having consented even to this stipulation, he was formally and with great ceremony received into the bosom of the kirk at Aberdeen on Sunday, 26 June 1597. In the following August the penitent earls were relaxed from the horn by sound of the trumpet at the cross of Edinburgh (ib. p. 655), and at a parliament held on 16 Dec. they were restored to their estates.

On the occasion of the baptism of the Princess Margaret, Huntly was, 7 April 1599, created marquis, and on 9 July he was, along with the Duke of Lennox, constituted lieutenant and justice of the north, with special charge of the project for the colonisation of the island of Lewis (Reg. Privy Council Scotl. vi. 8). The king could now without check exhibit his friendship for Huntly, who it was rumoured passed much of his time with him ‘drinking and wauchting’ (Calderwood, vi. 100). But as doubts again of his sincerity spread, a commission was appointed in 1602 by the general assembly to deal with him and the other earls (ib. vi. 166-7). Meanwhile the king on 23 Feb. 1602-3 reconciled Huntly with Moray and Argyll after the long feud on account of Huntly's murder of Moray's father (ib. p. 205). After various conferences with Huntly, followed by citations and threats, he was, at a convention held at Linlithgow 10 Dec. 1606, ordained to confine himself with his wife and children in Aberdeen (ib. p. 606). He was summoned to appear before the privy council, 19 March 1606-1607, to answer for his religion (Reg. Privy Council Scotl. vii. 516), but avoided the summons by going to England and appealing to the king. The king was then negotiating with him for the subjugation of the North Isles, and commanded the council to desist in their action pending the result of the negotiations (ib. p. 517). On their failure he was ordered, 16 June 1607, to confine himself within the burgh of Elgin, with an obligation every other Sunday to attend church and hear sermon. In November he was allowed to visit Aberdeen (ib. viii. 487), and afterwards attended various meetings of the council in Edinburgh; but at an assembly of the kirk held at Linlithgow in July 1608 sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him (Calderwood, vi. 751-8). The king gave the sentence his approval, and on 11 Oct. he was charged to enter himself in ward in Stirling Castle (Reg. Privy Council Scotl. viii. 175), where he remained till 10 Dec. 1610, when on his engaging to subscribe the confession of faith he was liberated. Being not unjustly suspected of harbouring catholic emissaries, and of carrying on intrigues for the restoration of the papacy, he was summoned to appear on 12 June 1616 before the commission of the kirk, and subscribe the confession (Calderwood, vii. 212). Declining to do so, he was again warded within the castle of Edinburgh, but by warrant of the king was relieved on the 18th from confinement, and went up to the court in London. While there he was, with the consent of the Bishop of Caithness, absolved from the sentence of excommunication by the Archbishop of Canterbury, after which he received the communion. This seeming interference with their ecclesiastical authority caused a great sensation among the ministers of the kirk; but their indignation was abated by a letter of the archbishop, explaining that he had absolved Huntly ‘of brotherly affection, and not as claiming any superiority over the kirk of Scotland’ (ib. vii. 226, where the ‘reasons moving the Bishop of Canterbury’ are given). It was therefore resolved to confirm the absolution, provided Huntly again subscribed the confession of faith, and promised to give obedience to the ordinances of the kirk in all time coming, and communicate as occasion should be offered. This he accordingly did at Aberdeen on 16 Aug., and was solemnly ‘relaxed from excommunication’ by the Bishop of Glasgow (ib. p. 233).

Though the reconciliation between Huntly and Moray had been cemented by the marriage in 1601 of Moray to Huntly's daughter, the old jealousy between the rival families was at once aroused into activity when Moray in 1624, in order to subjugate the clan Chattan, received from the king a lieutenandry in the north (Spalding, History of the Troubles, i. 5). Shortly afterwards King James died, and when the lieutenandry was renewed by King Charles, Huntly complained that Moray was abusing his trust. But with the death of James, Huntly found his position at court entirely changed. The government had all along been jealous of the almost independent rule of Huntly in the northern regions, and welcomed every opportunity to weaken his influence. At the instance of Moray, Huntly was deprived in 1630 of a jurisdiction which had been in his family for 160 years, a precept for 5,000l. upon the treasury of Scotland being granted him as a consolation (ib. p. 10). Additional opportunity to undermine his authority was not long afterwards found in connection with his dealings with the Crichtons, who held the lordship of Frendraught, in the heart of Huntly's territory. In 1630 a dispute arose between the Crichtons and William Gordon of Rothiemay in regard to the rights of salmon fishing, which led to manslaughters and a blood feud. Upon Huntly's interposition, Frendraught [see Crichton, James, d. 1650] submitted to pay a fine for killing Gordon of Rothiemay. Another affray followed, in which Frendraught declared that he was not concerned. Huntly sent his second son John, lord Melgum, with a party to escort Frendraught to his house. They were hospitably received and lodged in the square tower. It was fired in the night, when Melgum and other Gordons were burnt. The Crichtons affirmed that the fire was accidental; but Huntly and the Gordons asserted that Frendraught and his lady looked on without the smallest attempt to succour the victims. The actual incendiary was found to have been a person named Meldrum, formerly a servant with Frendraught, against whom Frendraught's apologisers said he had a private grudge (extended quotations from the accounts of the trial in the records of the privy council of Scotland and of the court of lusticiary are published in Appendix to Spalding's ‘Memorials,’ i. 381-410). The event powerfully excited the popular imagination, and, though Meldrum was executed, the public feeling throughout the highlands remained strong against the Crichtons. Their name became a byword; they were outside the pale of protection, and their territory became the common prey of the robber hordes throughout the highlands. The privy council, holding Huntly responsible for the ravages committed against the Crichtons, summoned him to appear before them in 1635, and compelled him to find caution for the Gordons within his bounds that they would keep the peace. He also engaged that the pillagers should be sent to Edinburgh, or be compelled to leave the country. One of them, Adam Gordon, son of Sir Adam Gordon of Park, asserted in self-defence that Huntly had instigated the depredators, and he was therefore in December again summoned before the council. Although he defended himself with great plausibility, he was ‘on presumption’ warded in the castle of Edinburgh, not obtaining his liberty till the following June. The imprisonment completely broke his health. For a short time after his release he resided in the Canongate, but finding himself becoming daily weaker, he expressed a strong desire to reach his castle of Strathbogie. He began his journey northwards in a ‘wand bed within his chariot,’ but was not able to proceed further than Dundee, and died there on 13 June, professing himself a Roman catholic. On the 25th his body was removed from Dundee, and brought to the chapel of Strathbogie, and on the night of 31 Aug. it was buried in the family vault in Elgin Cathedral, there being ‘above three hundred licht torches at the lifting’ (Spalding, Memorials, i. 74). ‘This michtie marques,’ says Spalding, in a rather too partial eulogy, ‘wes of ane gryte spirit, for in time of trubles he wes of invincibill curage, and boldlie bure down all his enemeis trivmphautlie. He wes neuer inclynit to warr nor trubbill him self, bot by the pryde and insolencie of his kin wes diuerss tymes drawin trubbill, quhilk he boor throw valiantlie. He lovit not to be in the lawis, contending against any man, but lovit rest and quyetness with all his hairt, and in tyme of peace he leivit moderatlie and temperatlie in his dyet, and fullie set to building and planting of all curiouss devysis. A weill set nichtbour in his merchis, disposit rather to give nor tak one foot of ground wrangouslie. He wes hard say he neuer drew suord in his awin querrell. In his youth a prodigall spender; in his elder aige moir wyss and worldlie, yit neuer comptit for cost in materis of credet and honour’ (ib. p. 73). The Marchioness of Huntly (who was obliged to leave Scotland in 1641 on account of her religion) died in France 2 Sept. 1642, and was buried in her mother's grave at Lyons (ib.ii. 185). She had five sons and four daughters. The sons were George, lord Gordon, and earl of Enzie, second marquis [q.v.]; John, lord Aboyne, created by Charles I in 1627 Viscount Melgum, burnt to death in the castle of Frendraught 18 Oct. 1630; Lord Francis, who died in Germany in 1620; Lord Laurence, and Lord Adam of Auchindoun. The daughters were Anne, married to James Stuart, fourth earl of Moray; Elizabeth, married to Alexander, second earl of Linlithgow; Mary, married to William, first marquis of Douglas; and Jeane, married to Claud, lord Strathbane.

[Reg. Privy Council, Scotland; Calderwood's Hist. of the Church of Scotland; Hist. of James Sext (Bannatyne Club); Sir James Melville's Memoirs (ib.); James Melville's Diary (ib.); Moysie's Memoirs (Abbotsford Club); Spalding's Memorials of the Troubles; Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser.; Gordon Letters, Spalding Club Miscellany, vol. iii., and Gordon Papers in the same Miscellany, vol. iv.; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), i. 650-1; William Gordon's Hist. of the Family of Gordon, ii. 1-163; Robert Gordon's Earldom of Sutherland, ii. 171-479; Histories of Scotland by Tytler and Hill Burton; Gardiner's Hist. of England; Donald Gregory's Hist. of the Western Highlands; Mackenzie's Hist. of the Camerons.]

T. F. H.