Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Douglas, William (1425?-1452)

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DOUGLAS, WILLIAM, eighth Earl of Douglas (1425?–1452), was son of James ‘the Gross,’ seventh earl, to whom he succeeded in 1443, and Beatrix Sinclair, daughter of Henry, earl of Orkney. He early gained the favour of his young sovereign, James II, who regarded him as more his equal in age and rank than Sir William Crichton, the chancellor, who wished to govern both the king and kingdom. On 25 Aug. 1443 Douglas by the king's command, the king's council and household being with him, took Barnton, near Edinburgh, a castle held for Crichton by his cousin, Andrew Crichton. In November, at a general council in Stirling, Sir William Crichton, his brother, and their chief followers were forfeited, and Crichton deposed from his office. In revenge they harried the lands of Douglas, burnt his castles of Abercorn, Strabrook, and Blackness, and took five other of his strongholds. A papal dispensation in the following year, 24 July 1444, allowed Douglas to marry his cousin, the Fair Maid of Galloway, and so to unite the two principal estates of the family. In 1445 the castle of Edinburgh, still held by Sir William Crichton, after a stout defence of eleven weeks, capitulated to Douglas on terms which permitted Crichton to recover or retain the office of chancellor. But Douglas, who exercised the power, and perhaps received the title of lieutenant-general of the kingdom, maintained his ascendency in the royal councils. In 1448 he retaliated on the English, who had burnt Dunbar and Dumfries, by a raid, along with the Earls of Orkney, Angus, and his brother Hugh, earl of Ormonde, in which Alnwick was burnt on 3 June, and on 18 July, when he renewed the war with a force of forty thousand men, Warkworth shared the same fate. In 1449 the marriage of the king to Mary of Gueldres, which had been negotiated by Crichton and the Bishop of Dunkeld, who brought the bride to Scotland, was celebrated. This marriage led to the king assuming a large personal share in the government, and its first effect was the downfall of the powerful family of the Livingstones, whose chief members were separately arrested and forfeited in the parliament held by James in person at Edinburgh on 19 Jan. 1449. Their head, Sir Alexander Livingstone, lord Callendar, escaped with his life, but his son and heir, James, and his cousin Robin of Linlithgow the controller, were beheaded. Archibald of Dundas, one of their adherents, held out in the tower of Dundas, but after a siege of three months surrendered, when it was demolished, and the spoil divided between the king, the Earl of Douglas, and Sir William and Sir George Crichton. This division proves that Douglas and Crichton still retained their power and acted together in the overthrow of the Livingstones. The earl also received a considerable part of the forfeited estates of the Livingstones; the fine payable to the king on the marriage of his wife was remitted; Strathavon erected into a burgh of barony in his favour, and other rewards given him. A new charter was issued in the parliament of 1449 of the Douglas estates to him and his heirs male, whom failing, his heirs general.

In November 1450 Douglas, who had procured a safe-conduct for three years from the English king, went to Rome, attended by a great retinue. Of these are specially mentioned by Pitscottie the ‘Lords of Hamilton, Graham, Saltoun, Seaton, and Oliphant, and of meaner estate, such as Calder, Urquhart, Campbell, Forrester, Lauder, also knights and gentlemen.’ So large and dignified a company and the lavish expenditure of Douglas attracted the admiration and envy of his countrymen, and the unwonted spectacle of a rich Scottish noble made even some little stir in Rome. The celebration of the jubilee was the ostensible object of his journey, but the time to which his safe-conduct extended gives countenance to the opinion that the relations between him and the king had already become strained. Boece, followed by Pitscottie and other historians, expressly accuses Douglas of great oppression, and the neglect to restrain the thefts and robberies of his Annandale vassals. In the border-country he was more like a prince than a subject, so that the people doubted whether they should call themselves the king's or Douglas's men.

Douglas, who was accompanied to Rome by his brother and heir, James, left as his procurator or representative in Scotland his youngest brother John, lord Balveny. He was well received on the continent, where the name of Douglas was celebrated through the services of his predecessors, the Dukes of Touraine, in the French wars. On his return to England in February 1451 he was met by Garter king-at-arms, who attended him during his stay. His absence gave an opportunity to the king, moved by the Crichtons and other nobles hostile to the Douglases, and an attempt was made to curb their power. The Earl of Orkney was sent to Galloway and Clydesdale to collect the king's rents and repress the disorders of these turbulent parts of the kingdom. Lord Balveny was specially ordered to answer the complaints made against himself. The king's commands being treated with contempt, he went in person to Galloway, and according to Pitscottie garrisoned Lochmaben with royal troops, and cast down the castle of Douglas; but the more trustworthy manuscript of Law restricts the king's action to the overthrow of the minor stronghold of Douglas Crag in Ettrick Forest shortly after the earl's return in April. The castle of Douglas was certainly not destroyed, for it was still standing in 1452. Soon after his return he made his submission to the king, and being again received with favour was named as warden of the marches, one of the commissioners to treat with English commissioners regarding violations of the truce. A series of charters granted during or shortly after the parliament which met in Edinburgh on 25 June 1451, when the earl was present, restored to him his estates, and remitted all penalties or forfeitures under which he lay; but the earldom of Wigton, including the lands west of the water of Cre, were excepted. ‘All gud Scottis men,’ says the chronicle of James's reign, ‘war rycht blyth of this accordance.’ Four months later, in October, at a parliament held in Stirling, the earldoms of Wigton and Stewarton, Ayrshire, also excepted from the former charters, were restored. But the peace between the sovereign and his too powerful subject was hollow.

The earl and Crichton, if we can credit Pitscottie's rambling narrative, plotted against each other's lives, and though both escaped their enmity was deadly. Douglas's brother James had gone to England in connection with a treasonable intrigue. A still more formidable bond was made or renewed between him and the great earls of the north, Crawford, Ross, and his brother Moray, for mutual defence against all enemies, not excepting the king. The occasions for the final rupture between Douglas and James are detailed by more than one historian. The lands of Sir John Herries were ravaged and Sir John hanged by the earl in defiance of the king. McLellan, the tutor of Bomby, one of the earl's Galloway vassals, having taken the king's side, was imprisoned, and when his kinsman, Sir Patrick Gray, was sent to demand his release the earl, while entertaining Sir Patrick at dinner, caused McLellan to be beheaded, and then showing the corpse told Sir Patrick, ‘You are come a little too late; yonder is your sister's son lying, but he wants his head. Take his body and do with it what you will,’ on which Sir Patrick rode off, vowing vengeance, saving his own life only by his horse's speed. Such brutal incidents were common at this time. They stain the record of the Douglases more frequently than that of other families, because they were so long the most conspicuous nobles, and by turns the actors or the victims of such tragedies. Few things are more astonishing than the suddenness of the alternations. It is due in part to the fragmentary character of the Scottish annals, which often leaves causes unexplained, and also to the rapid revolution of the wheel of fortune in Scotland at this period. Douglas, within a few months after the murder of McLellan, came with a few attendants, under a safe-conduct signed by James, and all the lords with him, to the castle of Stirling on the Monday before Fastern's Eve, 21 Feb. 1452. He was received with apparent hospitality and bidden to dine and sup with the king on the following day. After supper, ‘at seven hours,’ the king, being in the inner chamber of the castle lodgings, charged the earl to break the bond he had made with the Earl of Crawford. On his refusal James, according to the graphic narrative of the chronicle, said: ‘“Fals traitor, sen you will nocht I sall,” and start sodanly till him with ane knyfe and strake him at the colar and down in the body, and thai sayd that Patrick Gray strak out his harness and syn the gentilmen that war with the king strak him ilk ane a strak or twa with knyffis. And thai ar the names that war with the king that strak him, for he had xxvi woundis. In the first Schir Alexander Boyd, the Lord Dundee, Schir William of Crichton, Schir Symond of Glendonwyn, and Lord Gray, etc.’ A month after, on St. Patrick's day in Lent, his brother, James Douglas, Lord Ormonde, Lord Hamilton, and a small band of followers, came to Stirling and denounced the king for the foul slaughter of the earl, dragging the letter of safeguard through the streets. The king had by this time passed to Perth in pursuit of the Earl of Crawford.

A subsequent act of the three estates, who, it is specially noted, met in separate houses without the presence of the king, solemnly declared that no safe-conduct had been given. But the concurrence of the chronicles of the time to the contrary, combined with the improbability that without it Douglas would have put himself in the king's hands, outweighs this declaration, and place it to the long list of state documents which are lying instruments vainly devised to falsify history. Even with a safe-conduct it is difficult to understand how Douglas, conscious of the murders and other lawless acts for which he might be summoned to give account, and the treasonable practices to which he was a party, ventured to meet the king at Stirling. We are tempted to conjecture that his coming was not altogether a voluntary act, but it is represented as such by the only authorities we have. Apart from the treachery and violence of his death and the degradation of a king acting as his own executioner, modern writers concur in thinking that the destruction of the Douglas power was necessary to the safety of the Stuart dynasty and the good order of the realm, and that it could scarcely have been accomplished without the sacrifice of its representative. Hume of Godscroft, the family historian, attributes the death of the earl to Sir William Crichton—

By Crichton and my king too soon I die,
He gave the blow Crichton the plot did lay.

The earl was only twenty-seven at the date of his death and the king five years younger. The friendship of their boyhood adds to the horror of the tragedy. The character of Douglas, according to Hume of Godscroft, ‘resembled more his grandfather and cousins put to death in Edinburgh Castle than his father's, for he endeavoured by all means to augment the grandeur of his house by bonds, friendships, and dependencies, retaining, renewing, and increasing them.’ This fatal ambition caused his untimely end, and again pursued by his brother and successor brought about the ruin of the house of Douglas.

[Besides the family historians, Hume of Godscroft and Sir W. Fraser, the Short Chronicle of the Reign of James II, called the Asloam or Auchinleck MS., and the Law MS. in the library of the university of Edinburgh are the best contemporary sources. Boece or his continuators, Major and Pitscottie, are the chief authorities of a little later date, and always hostile to the Douglases. Of modern writers Pinkerton and Tytler are the fullest. Burnett's prefaces to the Exchequer Rolls are also valuable.]

Æ. M.