Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gordon, George (1514-1562)
GORDON, GEORGE, fourth Earl of Huntly (1514–1562), was the eldest son of John, master of Huntly (second son of Alexander, third earl of Huntly [q. v.]), by his wife Margaret, natural daughter of James IV and Margaret Drummond. He lost his father in his fourth year, and succeeded to the earldom on the death of his grandfather in 1524. From childhood he was, under the guardianship of the Earl of Angus, brought up alongwith James V, who was nearly of the same age. On the fall of Angus in 1528, Huntly, by the king's desire, was placed under the direction of the ablest masters. In 1535 be was sworn a member of the privy council. When the king in the following year left suddenly for France, Huntly was one of those whom he informed of the destination and purpose of his journey, and whom he appointed a council of regency until his return with his bride, the Princess Madeline, in May 1537. In the following July the Master of Forbes was, on the accusation of Huntly, condemned and executed for conspiring some years previously to shoot the king as he passed through Aberdeen. Buchanan asserts that the charge was concocted by Huntly, and the jury corrupted by him, but there is no extant evidence bearing on the subject. About this time Huntly received the important appointment of lieutenant of the north, and in 1540 he accompanied the king in his journey to the western isles. In 1542 he was appointed captain-general of a force raised to oppose Sir Robert Bowes [q. v.], captain of Norham, who with a force of three thousand, including the Earl of Angus and other Scottish rebels, had penetrated into Teviotdale. With the assistance of Lord Home, Huntly totally defeated the English force at Hadden Rig on 24 Aug., taking Bowes and other persons of note prisoners. When the Duke of Norfolk, with an army of thirty thousand, advanced to revenge the defeat, Huntly with less than ten thousand kept him at bay, not permitting him to advance more than two miles on the Scottish side of the Tweed. Being thus occupied, he was not present at the disaster of Solway Moss, the news of which had a fatal effect on the king. Huntly was one of the four persons named as regents in the king's will produced by Cardinal Beaton (Knox, i. 93; Keith, i. 64), but asserted by the Earl of Arran to have been forged. When the cardinal was arrested, 20 Jan. 1542-3, Huntly with others offered themselves as his surety, and demanded that he should be set at liberty. Huntly also held a meeting at Perth to concert measures for this purpose (Angus to Lord Lisle, 16 March 1542-3), but finding resistance to the regent vain, he was one of the first of the discontented nobles to give in his adherence. After the escape of Beaton, he organised with him the conspiracy by which the infant queen and her mother were seized at Linlithgow and carried to Stirling. On a reconciliation taking place between Arran and Beaton, Huntly attended the coronation of the infant princess at Stirling on 9 Sept. He was also appointed lieutenant-general of the north and of Orkney and Shetland, of which position he took advantage so as greatly to increase the power and wealth of his house. In 1544 he raised a large force, with which he crushed an insurrection of the Camerons and Macdonalds of Clanranald; and after the bloody conflict at Loch Lochy, in which the clan Fraser were nearly annihilated by the Macdonalds, he advanced into Lochaber, and inflicted severe punishment on the Macdonalds and other unruly clans.
After the murder of Cardinal Beaton, Huntly was, on 5 June 1546, chosen to succeed him as lord high chancellor (Reg. Privy Council, i. 24), and was also appointed a privy councillor. On the invasion of England by the Duke of Somerset in September 1547, he was one of the chief commanders of the forces raised to oppose him. To ‘avoid the effusion of christian blood,’ he offered to ‘encounter him twenty to twenty, ten to ten, or even man to man,’ but Somerset declined the challenge. In the battle of Pinkie which followed, Huntly was in the command of the rear, who, according to Herries, ‘fled at the first charge, and were the occasion of the ruin of the whole army’ (Memoirs, p. 20). Huntly was one of those taken prisoner, and was conveyed to London, but in 1548 returned to Scotland. Knox alludes to a current rumour that he obtained his freedom by ‘using policy with England’ (Works, i. 213), and in this instance rumour was correct. He obtained license from the Duke of Somerset to depart to Scotland, on promising to return in two and a half months (Covenant between the Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Huntly in ‘Gordon Papers,’ Spalding Club Miscellany, iv. 144-6); but the license was merely to cover his proceedings in furthering the views of England, and he was not bound to return (Indenture, 6 Dec. 1547-8,ib. pp. 146-8). He did not, however, long persist in supporting the English policy, and at the parliament held in the abbey of Haddington on 1 July 1548 (Acta Par1. Scot. ii. 481) voted for the marriage of the Princess Mary with the dauphin of France. Shortly afterwards he was made a knight of the Cockle (order of St. Michael) by the French king. Previous to this he had, on 13 Feb. 1548-9, received a grant of the earldom of Moray, and on 26 May a charter of hereditary baliary of all the lands in the bishopric of Aberdeen. He was present at the trial of Adam Wallace at Edinburgh for heresy in 1550, and is represented by Knox (Works, i. 238-40) as taking a prominent part in the proceedings. In September of the same year he accompanied the queen dowager on a visit to her daughter in France (ib. p. 241). Shortly after the queen dowager assumed the regency, in 1554, he fell into disgrace, ostensibly for remissness in quelling a rebellion of the Clanranalds. After suffering imprisonment in the castle of Edinburgh from October to March, he was forced to pay a heavy fine, was deprived of the governorship of Orkney, and, though allowed to retain the office of chancellor, had to deliver up the seal to De Roubay, a Frenchman, who was appointed to act as vice-chancellor. The severity of the punishment inflicted on him can only be accounted for by jealousy of the extraordinary power wielded by him in the north. His rule there was much more formidable than that of Argyll in the west, for it embraced a rich tract of lowland territory, including the city of Aberdeen, from which he obtained a large revenue; and he appears to have made special efforts to render himself within his own territory practically independent of the crown.
As a special friend of James V and of Cardinal Beaton, Huntly was naturally biassed towards catholicism; but the severity of the queen regent induced him to abandon it for a short period at the very moment when its fate in Scotland was trembling in the balance. He kept always a watchful eye on the queen regent's attempts to render herself independent of the nobles, and build up a monarchical power on the model of that of France. When she proposed to levy a yearly taxation for the maintenance of a standing army, he persuaded the nobility to resent it, as tending to diminish their authority and ‘drawe the whole government of the realm to the French.’ In the conflict with the lords of the congregation he therefore did not take so prominent a part as, from his catholic sympathies, he would otherwise have done. When the lords in June 1559 were preparing to besiege the city of Perth, he headed a deputation to induce them to delay the assault; but, as his remonstrances were unheeded, he left the city before the assault took place. Subsequently he headed a deputation from the queen regent to confer with the lords at Prestonpans. When the lords on 24 July signed the articles agreeing to vacate Edinburgh on certain conditions, Huntly and James Hamilton, duke of Chatelherault, agreed to undertake to join the lords if the queen regent ‘broke any one joyt of the appointment then made’ (ib. p. 379). While the queen regent's party held Edinburgh, he endeavoured to persuade the reformers to permit mass to be said before and after their sermons, but, finding that they would not agree, promised that they should be in no way molested (ib. p. 391). Ultimately the reformers appear to have worked successfully on his jealousy of the queen regent's ambition; for in January 1559-60 he sent the Earl of Sutherland to promise them in his name all assistance (Sadler, State Papers, i. 685), and on the ground that the introduction of French soldiers by her was dangerous to the independence of Scotland, he with the Duke of Chatelherault subscribed the treaty of Berwick between the lords and Queen Elizabeth (Knox, ii. 53). On 25 April 1560 he joined the camp of the congregation at Leith (Randolph to Norfolk, 25 April, Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser. i. 144), and on the 27th signed a bond for the defence of the reformed doctrines and the expulsion of the French. He had, however, taken good care to stipulate that he should be continued in supreme authority in the north as heretofore, and that none of the escheated ecclesiastical lands within the shires of Aberdeen, Banff, Moray, Nairn, and Inverness should be disposed of without his consent and advice (‘The Requests of the Earl of Huntly to the Lords,’ printed in Tytler's History). The defection of Huntly broke the power of the queen regent, and inflicted a blow on the catholic cause from which it never recovered. The queen regent, at her deathbed interview with Argyll and others, asserted that but for Huntly she would have come sooner to an agreement with the lords; but such a statement is opposed to all other evidence, and only indicates how deeply she was offended at Huntly's desertion.
Huntly's support of the reformers was merely a temporary expedient to secure his independent authority in the north of Scotland. Throckmorton, writing to Cecil 4 May 1561, refers to his ‘doubleness and covetousness;’ and while seeming to ‘approve’ of the mission of Lord James Stuart to the north for the destruction of the ‘monuments of idolatry’ (Knox, Works, ii. 168), it was afterwards proved that he had preserved at his mansionhouse at Strathbogie the utensils of Aberdeen Cathedral, that they might be restored when catholicism was again established. On the death of Francis II of France, Mary's husband, Huntly sent Leslie, afterwards bishop of Ross, to France, to induce Mary on her return to Scotland to land at Aberdeen, where he promised to have twenty thousand men at her disposal to convey her to Edinburgh (Leslie, p. 294; Calderwood, ii. 121). During the absence of Lord James Stuart in France Huntly also formed a plot for the seizure of the castle of Edinburgh; but news of his intentions reaching the protestants, it was prevented (Knox, ii. 156). On the arrival of Mary he was chosen a lord of the privy council (Reg. Privy Council Scotl. i. 157), but whatever encouragement he may have privately received from Mary and the Guises, no special marks of favour were publicly bestowed on him. Apparently Mary had meanwhile resolved to place herself so entirely under the guidance of her brother, Lord James Stuart, as to demonstrate that the schemes of Huntly would receive from her no countenance. When the question in regard to the public celebration of the mass in Holyrood was before the council, Huntly expressed his willingness, if the queen said the word, to set up the mass in three shires (Randolph to Cecil, 24 Sept. 1561, in Keith, ii. 86); but so far from encouraging his proposal, she agreed that in future the services in her chapel at Holyrood should be private. In addition to this a blow was struck at the power of Huntly, when, on Lord Erskine objecting to Lord James Stuart being created Earl of Mar, the earldom of Moray, which Huntly had for some time held informally under the crown, was secretly bestowed on Lord James. The motives which actuated Mary in her policy towards Huntly have been the subject of much dispute, the question being as to how far she was merely acting a part, and as to how far Huntly was aware that she was doing so. There can be no doubt that the Guises, whether to punish him or not, had been playing on Huntly's ambition, and had encouraged him to oppose Moray and the reformers, in the hope that a match might be made between Mary and his son, Sir John Gordon. The infatuation which characterised the son's conduct he himself attributed to the madness of his love, but there is no evidence to show whether or not Mary had given him direct personal encouragement. In June 1562 Sir John had been imprisoned for severely wounding Lord Ogilvy in the streets of Edinburgh, but had made his escape and fled to the north. Mary, accompanied by Lord James Stuart, set out on her northern progress in the following August. Though Lord James had previously to setting out received a patent of the earldom of Moray, he did not assume it till he was in Huntly's dominions. Beyond entering on possession of the earldom of Moray, there is no proof that he desired further to interfere with Huntly. At Aberdeen Mary was met by the Countess of Huntly, who exerted her utmost skill to win Mary's favour, and begged her to pardon her son's indiscretion in making his escape from prison; but Mary was peremptory in insisting that before this could be granted he must show his contrition by returning to ward in Stirling. Sir John allowed himself to be placed under arrest, but shortly afterwards, making his escape from his guards, gathered a force of one thousand horse, with which he hovered on the track of Mary, with the purpose, as he afterwards admitted, of carrying her off, should the opportunity present itself. On account of Sir John's flagrant defiance of her authority, Mary declined the invitation of the Earl of Huntly to visit him at Strathbogie, and passed onwards to Inverness. It was afterwards stated—and there is no reason to doubt the truth of the story—that Huntly intended to have cut off Moray, Maitland, and Morton at Strathbogie, had his invitation been accepted. The light in which the royal progress was regarded by Huntly's followers was also evidenced by the fact that Alexander Gordon, the keeper of the castle of Inverness, refused to permit the queen to enter it until he next day received the special command of the Earl of Huntly to do so. For his contumacy he was by Moray's orders hanged over the battlements. On the return journey from Inverness an attempt was made to surprise some of the queen's followers at Cullen. Huntly was therefore summoned to appear before the council within six days, and failing to do so was denounced a rebel. When the queen approached Aberdeen, Huntly marched towards it with about eight hundred men. His forces were much inferior to those with which Moray marched to meet him, but Huntly had reason to suppose that the bulk of Moray's forces would prove treacherous. Without the least hesitation he therefore made a stand at the hill of Corrichie, about fifteen miles from the city. The skirmish on 5 Nov. which followed can scarcely be termed a battle, for Huntly's followers, hopelessly outnumbered, were at once overpowered. Huntly was either crushed to death, or died suddenly from excitement. According to Herries, ‘being a corpulent man, he died upon horseback in the throng’ (Memoirs, p. 66); but Randolph, who accompanied the expedition, states that ‘without blow or stroke, being set on horseback before him that was his taker, he suddenly fell from his horse stark dead’ (Randolph to Cecil, 28 Oct. 1562). His son, Sir John, was taken prisoner, and executed in Aberdeen next day. Mary, on the advice of Moray, and to silence the rumours that she had countenanced Sir John in his folly, attended the execution. Sir John stated that her presence was a solace to him, as he was about to suffer for loving her, and Mary, on witnessing the execution, fainted, and had to be carried in utter prostration to her bedchamber. While Knox admits his ignorance as to whether there had been ‘any secret faction and confederacy between the queen and the Earl of Huntly’ (Works, ii. 346), he states that when the Earl of Moray sent her word of the victory at Corrichie, she ‘glowmed’ at the messenger, and for many days ‘she bore no better countenance’ (ib. p. 358). Sir Robert Gordon also asserts that the true occasion of the conflict at Corrichie, and of the troubles which happened to the Gordons, ‘was the sincere and loyal affection that they had to the queen's preservation; and it is most certain that the Earl of Huntly gathered these forces, at her majesty's own desire, to free her from the Earl of Moray's power’ (Earldom of Sutherland, p. 142). Knox states that the body of Huntly, ‘becaus it was laitt,’ was ‘cassen overthorte a pair of crealles, and so was caryed to Abirdene, and was laid in the Tolbuyth’ (Works, ii. 357). According to the same authority, this was in fulfilment of a prophecy of the earl's wife's witches, ‘whay all affirmed that that same nycht should he be in the Tolbuyth of Abirdene, without any wound upoun his body’ (ib.) When, therefore, the countess blamed her principal witch, called Janet, for having deceived her, ‘sche stoutly defended hir self (as the devill can ever do), and affirmed that sche geve a trew answer, albeit sche spack nott all the treuth; for sche knew that he should be thair dead’ (ib.) The body of the earl, after being disembowelled at Aberdeen and filled with spices by physicians (account of expense, manuscript in Register House, quoted in preface to Inventaires de la Royne Descosse, Bannatyne Club, 1863, p. xxii), was sent to Edinburgh by a ship which in company with another carried the furniture taken by Mary from his castle of Strathbogie (for list, see ib. pp. 49-56). The body was kept at Holyrood till the meeting of parliament on 28 May 1563, when, after it had been brought to the bar, an act of forfeiture and attainder was passed, declaring his ‘dignity, name, and memory to be extinct,’ and his posterity ‘unable to enjoy any office, honour, or rank within the realm’ (quoted in Crawfurd, Officers of State, pp. 87-8, but not elsewhere preserved). The body, after being deposited in a vault of the chapel royal, Holyrood, was removed to the Blackfriars Monastery, Edinburgh, where it lay unburied till April 1566, when it was permitted to be carried north to the tomb of the Gordons in Elgin Cathedral (Acta Par1. Scot. ii. 572-6). By his wife, Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Robert, lord Keith, son and heir apparent of William, third earl Marischal, he had nine sons and three daughters. The sons were: Alexander, lord Gordon, who married Lady Margaret Hamilton, second daughter of the Duke of Chatelherault, but died without issue about 1553; George, fifth earl [q. v.]; Sir John, executed, as above stated; William, who was educated for the church, and died in the college of Bons Enfans, Paris, before 1567; James [q. v.], a Jesuit, who died at Paris in 1620; Sir Adam of Auchindoun, who was taken prisoner at Corrichie, but was pardoned on account of his youth, burnt down the old castle of the Forbesus at Corgarff in 1551 or 1571 (as described in the old ballad ‘Edom O'Gordon’), took up arms in the queen's cause after her imprisonment at Lochleven, and died in 1580; Sir Patrick of Auchindoun and Gartly, killed at the battle of Glenlivet in 1594; Robert and Thomas. The daughters were: Elizabeth, married to John Stewart, earl of Atholl; Jean or Jane, who married (1) on 22 Feb. 1566 James, fourth earl of Bothwell (who got the marriage annulled to enable him to marry Queen Mary), (2) Alexander Gordon, eleventh or twelfth earl of Sutherland [see under (Gordon, John, 1526 ?-1567], and (3) Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne; and Margaret, married to John, eighth lord Forbes.[Crawfurd's Officers of State, pp. 82-9 ; William Gordon's House of Gordon, i. 126-241; Gordon's Earldom of Sutherland, 98-241; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), i. 647-8; Gordon Papers, Spalding Club Miscellany, vol. iv.; Reg. Privy Council Scotland, vol. i.; Acta Parl. Scot. vol. ii.; Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser. vol. i. : Cal. State Papers. For. Ser., Edward VI and Elizabeth: Sadler State Papers; Lord Herrics's Memoirs of the Reign of Mary (Abbotsford Club) Diurnal of Occurrents in Scotland (Bannatyne Club); Histories of Knox, Buchanan, Leslie, Calderwood, Spotiswood, Keith, Tytler, Burton, and Froude.]