Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Melville, Robert (1527-1621)

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MELVILLE, ROBERT, first Lord Melville (1527–1621), the second son of Sir John Melville of Raith [q. v.] and Helen Napier, was born in 1527. In his youth he entered the service of Mary of Guise, queen-dowager of Scotland, and was afterwards at the French court in the service of Henry II, on whose death in 1559 he returned to Scotland. Throwing in his lot with the lords of the congregation, who were then in conflict with the queen-regent, Melville was sent by them, along with Maitland of Lethington, to beg the assistance of Queen Elizabeth of England. Later he was employed in other diplomatic missions to England, one of which had for its object the marriage of Elizabeth and the Earl of Arran. He joined the opposition to Mary's marriage with Darnley, and for a time took refuge in England, but Mary granted him an early pardon, and sent him as her resident to the English court, the projects of which he faithfully reported. He was instrumental in making peace between Mary and the Earl of Moray, but the murder of Darnley disgusted him, and he withdrew from politics.

Mary, however, after marrying Bothwell, sent him again to Queen Elizabeth to make the most plausible representation of her actions. But Melville, who thoroughly disliked Bothwell, acted more in the interests of the Scottish nobles who were opposing Mary than in those of the queen. About this time she made him keeper of her palace of Linlithgow, and he held this office till 1587. When Melville returned to Scotland, Mary was a captive in Lochleven Castle, but he was permitted to visit her there, and he used all his persuasive energy to induce her to renounce Bothwell, and so save herself and the country. Mary was obdurate, and the nobles, resolving to force her to abdicate, selected Melville to intimate to her their intention. He declined the mission, but seeing their determination he visited Mary privately, and advised her to acquiesce.

When in the following year, 1568, Queen Mary effected her escape, Melville joined her at Hamilton, and was present when she publicly revoked her deed of abdication. At the battle of Langside, Mary's last stand, he was taken prisoner by the regent Moray, but being a non-combatant, and having many friends in the regent's party, he was speedily released and employed in further diplomatic negotiations with Elizabeth. While Mary was a prisoner in England, Melville, who maintained his attachment to her to the end, and was trusted by her, laboured to bring about a reconciliation of all parties. His efforts failed, and hostilities breaking out between her supporters and the friends of the young king, James VI, Melville joined with Kirkcaldy of Grange in his attempt to re-establish the authority of the queen. During the siege of Edinburgh Castle he was declared a traitor and forfeited, and when the castle surrendered in 1573 he fell into the hands of the regent Morton, who would have put him to death with other prominent prisoners had not Elizabeth interposed in his favour. After a year's captivity, spent partly in Holyrood and partly at Lethington, near Haddington, he was liberated, and lived in retirement during the remainder of Morton's government.

In 1580 the influence of Esmé Stuart, duke of Lennox, became paramount at court, and Melville was recalled, his forfeiture rescinded, and in the following year (20 Oct.) the honour of knighthood conferred upon him. At the same time Lord Ruthven, who was created Earl of Gowrie, was lord high treasurer of Scotland, and a few months later Melville was appointed his clerk and treasurer depute. In the Ruthven raid (August 1582) Melville did not participate, but he assisted James to make his escape from the Earl of Gowrie, who shortly afterwards was executed. A year later Melville was appointed a privy councillor. When Queen Mary was lying under sentence of death, he was sent by James, along with the Master of Gray, to entreat Elizabeth to spare Mary's life, and he discharged his mission so fearlessly that Elizabeth threatened his own life, and but for the Master of Gray would have deprived him of his liberty. On his return Melville was commended, and received from James, as a reward, the gift of a wardship worth 1,000l.

On the departure of James for Denmark in October 1589 to bring home his bride, Melville was deputed to act as chancellor. He was afterwards sent to pacify disorderly districts in the north and on the borders. In 1593 he again went to England to negotiate with Elizabeth about the relations of the two kingdoms with Spain. In the following year he was admitted as an extraordinary lord of session by the title of Lord Murdocairnie, the name of his seat in Fife. The same year he accompanied King James to the north against Huntly, and remained there for some time with Lennox to restore order. On the appointment in 1586 of the Octavians, who undertook to manage the national finance, Melville ceased to be treasurer depute, but before the expiry of a year the Octavians petitioned for assistance, and Melville, with some others, was directed to help them. When he quitted the office of treasurer Melville was so much out of pocket that he could not meet his own creditors, and had to be protected from them by a special act of parliament, while the court of session was forbidden to entertain any action at law against him.

But old age was now telling upon Melville, and in 1600 he resigned both his offices of privy councillor and lord of session in favour of his son; from time to time he still attended the council meetings, notwithstanding a special dispensation from the king in February 1604, because of ‘his age, sickness, and infirmities.’ He accompanied James to London in 1603, and when steps were being taken in 1605 for uniting the kingdoms, the Scottish parliament appointed him one of their commissioners. A draft treaty of union was prepared, which Melville signed, but it was not then carried into effect.

Melville's long services were recognised by his creation, on 1 April 1616, as a baron of parliament, with the title of Lord Melville of Monimail, a title derived from his estate of Monimail (now Melville) in Fife, an old residence of Cardinal Beaton. He died in December 1621, aged 94. He was thrice married, first to Katherine, daughter of William Adamson of Craigcrook, a burgess of Edinburgh; secondly, before 1593, to Lady Mary Leslie, daughter of Andrew, earl of Rothes, who died in 1605; and thirdly to Lady Jean Stewart, daughter of Robert, earl of Orkney (who was a natural son of King James V), and widow of Patrick Leslie, first lord Lindores, who survived him. But he had issue only by his first wife, a son Robert, who succeeded him as second baron Melville.

[Sir W. Fraser's Melvilles of Melville and Leslies of Leven, i. 82–124; Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Hallhill, passim; and State Papers, For. and Dom. Ser. 1547–1623, passim.]

H. P.