Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sempill, Robert (d.1572)

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SEMPHILL or SEMPLE, ROBERT, third Lord Sempill (d. 1572), commonly called the great Lord Sempill, was the elder son of William, second lord Sempill, by his first wife, Lady Margaret Montgomery, eldest daughter of Hugh, first earl of Eglinton. The family from the thirteenth century were heritable bailiffs of the regality of Paisley, and sheriffs of Renfrewshire, under the lord high steward of Scotland. They frequently distinguished themselves in the English wars, and were employed in important duties of state. Sir Thomas Sempill, father of John, first lord Sempill, was killed at the battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June 1488, fighting in support of James III, and the first lord (created by James IV about 1489), fell at Flodden on 9 Sept. 1513.

The third lord, while master of Sempill, obtained, on 20 Oct. 1533, a charter of the office of governor and constable of the king's castle of Douglas. He succeeded his father in 1548. Being a steadfast supporter of the queen regent against the lords of the congregation, he is described by Knox as ‘a man sold under sin, an enemy to God and to all godliness’ (Works, i. p. 339). On account of an attack he had made on Arran, the lords of the west resolved to take his house of Castle Semple, and laid siege to it in December 1559 (Cal. State Papers, For. 1559–60, No. 395). Leaving his son at Castle Semple, he took refuge in the stronghold of Dunbar, then under the command of a French captain, M. Sarlabois. The latter was in August 1560 asked to give him up (ib. 1560–1, No. 428), but declined to do so until he received the command of the king and queen (ib. No. 538). Randolph shortly afterwards reported that Sempill had conveyed himself secretly out (ib. No. 550), then that he had retired to his own castle with twenty arquebusiers lent him by Sarlabois (ib. No. 571), and, finally, that he had gone to France (ib. No. 661); but when his castle was taken in November (ib. No. 717), he was still at Dunbar. He was ‘relaxed from the horn’ in March 1561 (ib. 1561–2, No. 15).

Sempill was one of the ‘nobles and barons of the west country’ who on 5 Sept. signed a band in support of Mary and Darnley, in opposition to the Earl of Moray and other rebels (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 363), and in the army raised against them held a command in the vanguard of the battle (ib. p. 379); but though a catholic, he, after the murder of Darnley, joined the association for the ‘defences of the young prince’ in opposition to Bothwell and the queen. At Carberry Hill on 14 June 1567 he commanded in the vanguard of the army which opposed the queen; and he was also one of those who signed the documents authorising William Douglas of Lochleven to take the queen under his charge in his fortalice of Lochleven. In Morton's declaration regarding the discovery and custody of the ‘casket letters,’ he is mentioned as having been present at the opening of the casket. After the queen's escape from Lochleven he assembled his dependents against her at Langside on 13 May 1568; and on the 19th he was, with the Earl of Glencairn, appointed lieutenant of the western parts, with special instructions to watch the castle of Dumbarton, and prevent the entrance into it of provisions or reinforcements or fugitives (ib. i. 614–15). For his special services he obtained a gift of the abbey of Paisley. Notwithstanding the utmost efforts of Glencairn and Sempill, the castle of Dumbarton continued to hold out, until, on 1 April 1571, its rock was scaled by Thomas Crawford [q. v.] of Jordanhill. Previous to this Sempill, while returning one evening in May 1570 from the army which had demolished the castle of the Hamiltons, was seized by some of the Hamiltons' dependents, and carried a prisoner to Draffen, whence he was shortly afterwards removed to Argyle (Cal. State Papers, For. 1569–71, No. 962; Calderwood, History, ii. 565). Calderwood states that he remained in Argyle for twelve months, but he was probably set at liberty in February 1570; for when the house of Paisley surrendered to the regent at that time, the lives of those within it were granted on this condition (Cal. State Papers, For. 1569–71, No. 1570).

On 12 June 1572 he had a charter of the lands of Glassford, and he appears to have died in the autumn of the same year. By his first wife, Isabel, daughter of Sir William Hamilton of Sanquhar, he had, with four daughters, two sons—Robert, who predeceased him, leaving a son Robert, fourth lord Sempill, and Andrew, ancestor of the Sempills of Burchell. By his second wife, Elizabeth Carlyle, of the house of Thorthorwald, he had a son John, ancestor of the Sempills of Beltrees [see under Sempill, Sir James]. The fourth lord Sempill was in 1607 excommunicated by the kirk as ‘a confirmed and obstinate papist,’ and appears to have died in 1611.

Neither the third lord Sempill nor his son Robert, master of Sempill, nor the fourth lord Sempill could have been (as Sibbald, Motherwell, and others maintain) the Robert Sempill who was author of the ‘Sempill Ballads’ [see Sempill, Robert, (1530?–1595)]; the fourth lord was born too late, while in the case of the first two the early date of their death precludes the supposition.

[Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. reign of Elizabeth, and also Scot. Ser. Reg. P. C. Scotl. vols. i.–ii.; Histories of Knox and Calderwood; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), ii. 493–4; Collections for the County of Renfrew, vol. ii. 1890.]

T. F. H.