Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stewart, John (d.1579)

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STEWART, JOHN, fourth Earl of Atholl (d. 1579), eldest son of John, third earl of Atholl [see under Stewart, John, first Earl], by Grizel, daughter of Sir John Rattray of that ilk, succeeded his father in 1542. He was one of those nobles who in 1554 supported the queen dowager in her claims to the regency (Keith, History, i. 140). In the following year he was sent to the north of Scotland to chastise a Highland chief, called by Bishop Lesley John Mudyard, and succeeded in capturing him (Lesley, History, Scottish Text Society, ii. 360; Calderwood, History, i. 318). He supported the queen regent in her contest with the lords of the congregation in 1559, and although referred to on 8 June as an enemy of Huntly, and as expected to join the lords (Cal. State Papers, For. 1560–1, No. 172), he was one of the three lords of the temporal estate who at the parliament of 17 July voted against the confession of faith and affirmed that they would believe as their forefathers believed (Calderwood, ii. 37). Nevertheless, on 8 Sept. Randolph reported to Cecil that Atholl had met with Argyll and Lord James at a tryst to bridle Huntly (Cal. State Papers, For. 1560–1, No. 501), and on 23 Sept. that he had joined with them in a perpetual league against Huntly (ib. No. 550). His support of the protestant party was further shown in his adherence to the movement in favour of Queen Elizabeth's marriage to Arran (Keith, ii. 8); but, according to Knox, while Lord James Stewart was in France, on a mission to Mary Queen of Scots, Atholl joined with Huntly and others in a scheme for the capture of Edinburgh in the interests of the papists, which was unsuccessful (Works, ii. 156).

After the return of Queen Mary to Scotland in 1561, Atholl was appointed one of her new privy council of twelve (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 157), and for a time worked in perfect harmony with Lord James Stewart (afterwards the regent Moray), whom he accompanied in 1562 in the expedition to the north against Huntly (Cal. State Papers, For. 1562, Nos. 718 and 919). But he was always on more intimate terms with Maitland of Lethington than with Moray. According to Knox, Maitland even ‘set forward’ Atholl as Moray's rival in the court, and thus it was that Moray began to ‘be defaced’ (Works, ii. 391). The true explanation is, however, that Atholl was a favourite at court not because of Maitland, but because he was a catholic, and that Moray was ‘defaced’ because he was a protestant, while Maitland, who was probably neither catholic nor protestant, wished to avoid being defaced along with Moray. The ‘setting forward’ of Atholl properly dates from the arrival of Lennox in Scotland. Lennox spent much of his time in Atholl, and, there can scarcely be a doubt, was fully apprised of all the ulterior purposes dependent on the proposed marriage of the queen to Darnley. Huntly having been forfeited, Atholl was now the leader of the Scottish catholic nobles, and the ‘singular trust’ (Randolph to Cecil, 24 Oct. 1564, in Cal. State Papers, For. 1564–5, No. 757) which Lennox placed in him was fully justified. As soon as the queen had decided on marrying Darnley, Atholl and Riccio superseded Moray and Maitland respectively as the queen's chief counsellors, and towards the close of April 1565 the queen virtually placed herself under the protection of Lennox, Atholl, and Ruthven.

Before the queen's marriage to Darnley Argyll was rumoured to have purposed the invasion of Atholl with a powerful force; but a proclamation from the queen was apparently effectual in preventing hostilities (Knox, ii. 491–2). Atholl was present with the queen in her journey from the parliament of Perth to Callander, and assisted to protect her and Darnley against the plot of Moray for their capture. On the outbreak of Moray's rebellion after the marriage, he was on 23 Aug. named lieutenant in the north (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 357), and on 10 Oct. he was appointed to lead the rearguard in the force raised for the suppression of Moray (ib. p. 379).

Knox states that after the marriage Atholl went openly to the mass in the queen's chapel (Works, ii. 514). When the queen, with Riccio, began to prepare for a catholic revolution, she bestowed on Atholl the stronghold of Tantallon, which was taken from Morton (Lord Herries, Memoirs, p. 73). Atholl had no connection with the plot against Riccio, and possibly Lennox and Darnley did not even make known to him their special grievances against the queen. On the evening of the assassination he was at supper in an apartment of the palace with Huntly, Bothwell, and other lords in attendance on the queen. Attempting to make their escape by a back way, they were intercepted and forced to return (ib. p. 77); but they afterwards got out by a window (Melville, Memoirs, p. 147), and they left Edinburgh before the queen's escape to Dunbar (Knox, ii. 523). It was with Atholl that Maitland took refuge after Riccio's assassination, and therefore Atholl, like the majority of even the catholic nobles, was probably by no means grieved that Riccio had been ‘taken away.’ Through Atholl's interposition Maitland was again permitted to come to court (Randolph to Cecil, 2 April 1566, Cal. State Papers, For. 1566–8, No. 242, and Randolph to Cecil, 20 Aug. ib. No. 677); but Atholl was undoubtedly kept in the dark as to the plot against Darnley, with whom and with Lennox he would seem to have remained on friendly terms; and, in common with other catholic nobles, he probably witnessed with dismay the increasing predominance of Bothwell. So much, indeed, was he shocked by the assassination of Darnley, and by the queen's association with the principal assassin, that he did not scruple to join the protestant lords in taking up arms against her. He was reputed to have held, not long after the murder, a private conference with Moray and Morton at Dunkeld for concerting measures for avenging it (Darnley to Cecil, February 1566–7, Cal. State Papers, For. 1566–8, No. 977); and on 8 May he also entered with other lords into the bond at Stirling for this purpose (ib. No. 1181; Knox, ii. 156; Lord Herries, Memoirs, p. 93). An attempt to capture Bothwell and the queen at Borthwick Castle failed, mainly because Atholl did not arrive in time to enable the lords to surround it; but shortly afterwards he joined them along with Lethington, and he was one of the leaders against the queen when she surrendered at Carberry Hill. In Morton's declaration regarding the discovery of the casket containing the alleged letters of Mary to Bothwell, he is mentioned as one of those present when the casket was opened and the letters were first read. He approved of her removal to Lochleven Castle, received her demission of the government (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 533), was present at the young king's coronation at Stirling (ib. p. 537), and consented to act as one of the council of regency until the return of Moray from France (ib. p. 540). Gradually, however, his sympathies veered again towards the queen, especially after her escape from Lochleven. At first he did not openly support her; but he was in secret communication with Maitland, and privy to the designs for her restoration. With a view to this he in 1569 voted in support of her divorce from Bothwell (ib. ii. 8).

After the assassination of the regent Moray, Atholl, ‘inspired,’ according to Calderwood, ‘by the secretary,’ advised that the council should delay taking active measures against those concerned in it ‘until there were a fuller assembly of the nobility’ (History, ii. 527). Shortly afterwards he, with Huntly, Lethington, and others, openly joined the Hamiltons in a league against the king's party. On 4 March the heads of both parties held a convention in Edinburgh to consult on their common affairs, but were unable to arrive at an agreement as to the arrangements for the government (ib. pp. 544–5); and about the end of March 1570 Atholl and others sent a letter to Elizabeth asking her to enter ‘in conditions with the queen of Scotland, whereat the different claims betwixt her highness and her son may cease from henceforth’ (ib. p. 549). On 13 April they came to Edinburgh, but were unable to persuade the magistrates to deliver up the keys of the town and ports (ib. p. 554). Atholl then attempted to induce the lords of the opposite party to attend a convention at Edinburgh, but they declined to come to Edinburgh before 1 May, the day fixed for the meeting of parliament (ib. p. 557); and on 20 April he and others left Edinburgh for Linlithgow, where they held an opposition convention to that held by the king's lords at Edinburgh (ib. p. 560). The election of Lennox as regent in the protestant interest was entirely displeasing to Atholl, his former confidant; and at a great council of the nobility held at Atholl in August it was definitely resolved to combine in support of the cause of the queen (ib. iii. 11).

Atholl sought to prevent the election of Morton to the regency on 24 Nov. 1572 by sending, along with Lord Gray, ‘a bill to desire the election to be stayed for the present’ (ib. p. 243), but seems to have refrained from active opposition either to Morton's predecessors or to himself. In 1574 proceedings were taken against him as a papist; and for not executing the sentence of excommunication against him and his lady James Paton [q. v.], bishop of Dunkeld, was, at an assembly of the kirk held at Edinburgh on 6 March, ordained to confess his fault in his own cathedral kirk, and to undertake to execute the sentence within forty days thereafter (ib. p. 331). Notwithstanding this and other injunctions, Paton still refrained from taking action, and, being finally asked to explain his remissness to the assembly, stated that the earl desired a conference with the ministers for the resolution of his doubts. This was granted, and it was reported that as yet he was ‘not fully resolved upon sundry heads of religion;’ whereupon the assembly gave him until midsummer to be resolved (ib. p. 341), with apparently satisfactory results.

In the spring of 1577–8 Atholl joined with Argyll in a coalition for ousting Morton from the regency. The scheme succeeded, a council of regency being appointed, of which Atholl was one, and Atholl was also, on 29 March, appointed chancellor (Reg. P. C. Scotl. ii. 679). When Morton shortly afterwards obtained entrance into Stirling Castle, and resumed his custody of the young king, Argyll and Atholl took up arms against him, and marched towards Stirling with seven thousand men. But before the two parties came to blows they were pacified through the intervention of Bowes, the English ambassador, Atholl and Argyll being added to the new council, which was to assist Morton in the government. After attending a banquet given by Morton at Stirling to celebrate the reconciliation, Atholl, on his way home, was seized with a sudden illness, of which he died on 24 or 25 April 1579 at Kincardine Castle, a stronghold of Montrose near Auchterarder. At once the rumour spread that he had been poisoned; and, according to Calderwood, after a post-mortem examination, all the doctors affirmed so except Dr. Preston, who having, in token of his confidence in his own opinion, rashly touched with his tongue a portion of the contents of the stomach, ‘almost had died, and was after, so long as he lived, sickly’ (History, iii. 443). At a convention of the friends of Atholl held at Dunkeld on 3 May it was resolved to bring the matter before the king (Tytler, History, ed. 1868, vol. iv. app. No. iv.); but nothing was done. The suspicion, of course, was that Morton was the instigator of the supposed crime; but even the evidence of poisoning is vague, and probably it was with perfect sincerity that Morton, in his ‘confession,’ expressed his detestation of such a method of revenge. Atholl was buried on 4 July in the cathedral church of St. Giles, Edinburgh.

By his first wife, Elizabeth Gordon, daughter of George, fourth earl of Huntly, he had two daughters: Elizabeth—whose third husband was James Stewart, earl of Arran [q. v.] —and Margaret, married to George, seventh lord Abernethy of Saltoun. By his second wife, Margaret, widow of Thomas Erskine, and daughter of Malcolm Fleming, third lord Fleming, he had a son, John, fifth earl of Atholl, on whose death in 1595 the earldom reverted to the crown. By his second wife Atholl also had three daughters—Grizel, married to David, tenth earl of Crawford; Jean, to Duncan Campbell of Glenurchy; and Anne, to Francis, ninth earl of Errol. The second wife of Atholl was reputed to possess magical powers; and, when Queen Mary was confined with the child afterwards James VI, she was said to have cast the pains of childbirth on Lady Rires. [Knox's Works; Histories by Buchanan Calderwood, Keith, and Leslie; Diurnal of Occurrents, Melville's Memoirs, Moysie's Memoirs, and Hist. of James the Sext (Bannatyne Club); Herries's Memoirs (Abbotsford Club); Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vols. i–iii.; Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot. 1546–80; Cal. State Papers, Foreign, Elizabeth; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), ii. 141–2.]

T. F. H.