Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gordon, George (d.1576)
GORDON, GEORGE, fifth Earl of Huntly (d. 1576), lord high chancellor of Scotland under Queen Mary, was the second son of George, fourth earl of Huntly [q. v.], by his wife, Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Robert, lord Keith. He was carefully educated with the view of his entering the church, but became prospective heir of the earldom on the death without issue of his elder brother, Alexander, lord Gordon, 7 Aug. 1553. The elder brother had been married to Margaret Hamilton, second daughter of the Duke of Chatelherault, and to continue the advantages of this alliance, George, lord Gordon, was now married to Anne, the third daughter. On 7 Aug. 1556 he was appointed sheriff of the county of Inverness and keeper of Inverness Castle. After the battle of Corrichie in 1562, at which he does not seem to have been present, he fled for protection to his father-in-law, who, having been warned to deliver him up, brought him to Edinburgh on 26 Nov. (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 74; Knox, Works. ii. 360). On Saturday the 28th he was committed to the castle of Edinburgh, where he remained till 8 Feb., when, without any indictment until the day he was brought to the bar, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to be executed, drawn, and quartered, ‘at our soverains plesor.’ Queen Mary exercised her prerogative in deferring the execution, and on 11 Feb. 1562-3 he was transferred to Dunbar. Knox states that Moray ‘laboured at the quenis hand for the saiftye of his lyeff which hardly was granted’ (ib.), and the fact that when in Edinburgh the Duke of Chatelherault supped with Knox on a Sunday, and ‘promised to be a professor of Chrystes word’ (ib. vi. 145), would seem to indicate that the duke wished Knox to use his influence with Moray on his son-in-law's behalf. On the other hand, Crawfurd (Officers of State, p. 91) states, on the authority of Gordon of Straloch, that while Huntly was in prison at Dunbar an attempt was made to have him executed on a false warrant, which, however, the governor, much to Queen Mary's satisfaction, refused to carry out. When the body of the fourth Earl of Huntly was on 28 May 1563 brought to the bar of parliament, the son was also made to attend, and as the sentence of forfeiture embraced him, he was ‘decernit to pass to Dunbar again’ (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 76). There he remained till the marriage of Mary with Darnley, 29 July 1565, and the consequent rebellion of Moray, when to ‘strengthen her faction she took him out of prison’ (Herries, Memoirs, p. 69). On 3 Aug. cautioners were accepted for his entering into ward; on the 28th he was restored by proclamation at the market cross of Edinburgh to the lordship of Gordon (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 81), and on 8 Oct. he was restored by similar proclamation to the earldom of Huntly and all the lands and dignities that formerly belonged to his father (ib. p. 84; Knox, ii. 512). So far, however, as possession of his lands was concerned, his restoration was merely nominal until the wishes of the queen should be ratified by parliament. Though Huntly was now high in favour with the queen, he professed the reformed faith, and declined to attend mass in her chapel (Knox, ii. 514). In this he probably followed the advice of Bothwell, with whom he at this time cemented an alliance against their common enemy Moray, by the marriage with Bothwell of his sister. Lady Jane Gordon.
On the night of Rizzio's murder, 9 March 1566, Huntly and Bothwell had apartments in the palace of Holyrood, and came suddenly into the inner court with the view of making a rescue, but Morton ‘commanded them to pass to their chamber or else they should do worse’(Knox, ii. 521; Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 90). They immediately obeyed, but escaped by a back window, and, fearing to enter Edinburgh, travelled on foot to Edmonstone, and thence went to Bothwell's castle at Crichton. From this time Huntly became Bothwell's closest associate and counsellor. The two had planned that Mary should make her escape from Holyrood ‘over the walls in the night upon towes and chairs which they had in readiness to that effect’ (letter of Mary in Keith, History, ii. 420, and Labanoff, Lettres de Marie Stuart, i. 346), but Mary did not find it necessary to avail herself of their help. After her midnight ride with Darnley from Holyrood, Huntly and Bothwell joined her at Dunbar, and on the attainder of Morton for the murder of Rizzio, Huntly succeeded to the office of lord high chancellor, which his father had previously held. About the end of April a reconciliation took place between the lords with the queen and the Earls of Moray and Argyll (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 99), the event being celebrated by a feast in the castle. It marked the beginning of a close league in the queen's interest between Huntly and Argyll, but so far as Huntly and Moray were concerned the arrangement was privately regarded on both sides as a mere temporary truce. As it was to Moray that Huntly owed the death of his father and the ruin of his house, both revenge and worldly interest impelled him to do his utmost against Moray. According to Sir James Melville, Huntly, a little before the birth of the prince, seconded Bothwell in endeavouring to persuade the queen to imprison Moray until she was delivered, on the plea that he might during her illness usurp her authority and bring in the banished lords (Memoirs, p. 154); and afterwards with Bothwell he contrived a plot for the murder of Moray while he was with the queen at Jedburgh (ib. p. 173). The narrative given by Huntly and Argyll of the conference at Craigmillar in December, when a scheme was proposed for ridding Mary of Darnley ‘without prejudice to her son’ (printed in Keith, History, app. No. xvi.), cannot, on account of the peculiar relation of Huntly to Moray, as well as the criminal character of the whole proceedings, be regarded as trustworthy in all its details; but in it Huntly does not scruple to state that he was induced to take part in the scheme by the promise of restoration to his estates, it being stipulated on the other side that Morton and the other banished lords should be recalled. As a matter of course Huntly signed the subsequent bond at Craigmillar for Darnley's murder, although he represents the confederates as demanding nothing more of him than of the Earl of Moray: that he should ‘behald the matter and not be offendit thairat.’ As before Huntly continued in close company with Bothwell. The two are said to have accompanied the queen to Callendar House, when she set out for Glasgow to visit Darnley ('Diary' handed in by Moray at Westminster, printed in Anderson, Collections, ii. 271). On the evening previous to the murder they with Mary paid a visit to Darnley; and shortly after the explosion at Kirk o'Field, Huntly called on Bothwell in his apartments, whence they went in the morning together to inform the queen of the occurrence (Deposition of Walter Powrie in Anderson, Collections, ii. 170, and of John Hepburn, ib. p. 187). The secrets of that interview, whatever they may have been, were therefore known to Huntly. He was also frequently seen in the company of Mary and Bothwell at Seton, whither soon after the funeral of Darnley she had gone for a change of air. According to a statement of Drury, Mary and Bothwell shot at the butts against Huntly and Seton for a dinner at Tranent, which the latter had to pay (Drury to Cecil, 28 Feb. 1566-7). In the next step towards the attainment of his high hopes Bothwell was completely dependent on Huntly's assistance. Their alliance had been cemented by the marriage of Bothwell to Huntly's sister, but he now was asked by Bothwell to aid him in escaping from these bonds of wedlock. The condition was restoration to his estates, and Huntly did not scruple. He not only allowed, but requested and urged, his sister, Lady Jane Gordon, to present a petition for divorce from Bothwell on account of his adultery (De Silva to Philip II, quoted in Froude, History, cab. ed. viii. 112). The scheme was in progress even before Bothwell's trial. Huntly, though Bothwell's constant companion, was one of the commissioners for the trial; and after his acquittal an act of parliament was passed on 19 April 1567 restoring Huntly to his estates. The second contract for marriage between Mary and Bothwell, dated Seton, 5 April (one of the ‘Casket’ documents, and asserted by the defenders of Mary to be a forgery), was stated to be in Huntly's handwriting, and bore his signature as a witness. Being written in Scotch, it was probably the document shown (if any was shown) to the lords in Ainslie's tavern to induce them to sign the band for the marriage. The divorce between Huntly's sister and Bothwell was not then completed, but this mattered as little to Huntly as to the other lords, and he signed the band. In the further stages of Bothwell's wooing, Huntly appears as his principal confidant and associate. He was in attendance on the queen in her journeys to and from Stirling when she went to visit the prince, and, there cannot be any doubt (whatever may have been the case with Mary), was fully aware of Bothwell's intention to carry her off, and arranged with Bothwell the details. The ‘Casket’ letters represent him as having, however, great doubts of the success of the project, and therefore at first advising Bothwell against it. With Maitland of Lethington and Sir James Melville he was taken in custody by Bothwell when the queen was captured, and was brought to Dunbar (Sir James Melville, Memoirs, p. 177). After they reached Dunbar, Huntly and Bothwell turned in fury upon Maitland for having previously spoken disrespectfully of Bothwell's aspirations to the queen's hand, and he was only saved from instant death by the queen thrusting herself between him and their sword-points, and swearing that if ‘a hair of Lethington's head did perish’ she would make Huntly both forfeit his estates and lose his life (Drury to Cecil, 6 May, according'to information given him by Maitland). Huntly and Melville were released next morning, but Maitland was retained a prisoner. Huntly accompanied Bothwell and Mary on their entrance into Edinburgh from Dunbar on 6 May 1567, three days after sentence of divorce had been pronounced between Bothwell and Lady Jane Gordon on the ground of Bothwell's adultery (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 110). Until the marriage he was frequently in Bothwell's company (see curious description of a scene at supper on the night previous to the ceremony in Sir James Melville, Memoirs, p. 178), was one of the few noblemen present at the ceremony on 16 May, and signed his name as a witness.
The scandal caused by the marriage may possibly have led Huntly to enter immediately afterwards into communication with Morton and the confederate lords (Drury to Cecil, 20 May 1567), if he did open up communication with them. In any case his communications had no practical result. When the confederate lords were approaching Edinburgh, after the flight of the queen and Bothwell from Borthwick to Dunbar, Huntly and others offered to assist the citizens in defence of the town, but, finding that the citizens would not avail themselves of the offer, they took refuge in the castle under the protection of Sir James Balfour (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 113; Herries, Memoirs, p. 92). Balfour was himself already in correspondence with the confederate lords, and as soon as conditions were arranged he let Huntly and the ‘rest of the queen's friends that were within out at the postern gate safe’ (Herries, ib.) Huntly hastened north to collect his followers, and it was because they did not arrive in time that Mary entered into parley with the confederates at Carberry Hill. After Mary was sent to Lochleven, Huntly joined the party of nobles who met on 29 June at Dumbarton to plan measures for her deliverance. Shortly afterwards he proclaimed a commission of lieutenandry in the north, commanding all persons to place themselves under arms in readiness to meet him, but on the day succeeding the king's coronation at Stirling the commission was in the king's name declared discharged. After Moray accepted the regency Huntly, through his uncle the Bishop of Galloway, asked the intercession of Atholl and Maitland with Moray, and promised to ‘desist from making any trouble’ if he only had ‘the Earl of Moray his assured friend’ (Throckmorton to Elizabeth, 20 Aug. 1567, in Keith, History, ii. 741). An agreement having been come to with Moray in the beginning of September, Huntly bore the sceptre at the opemng of parliament in December, and was chosen one of the lords of the articles. Nevertheless he entered into the conspiracy for the deliverance of Mary from Lochleven, and after her escape (2 May 1568) assembled with other lords at Hamilton to concert measures for her restoration to the throne. He then hastened north to muster a force on her behalf, but was again unable to render any service, for on his arrival near Perth with 2,600 men he found all the passes along the Tay strongly guarded, and had to return home (Herries, p. 105). On the flight of Mary to England Huntly, with other lords, held a convention on 28 July at Largs, Ayrshire, at which, besides resolving to let loose the borderers on England, they wrote to the Duke of Alva earnestly beseeching assistance (Drury to Cecil, 3 Aug. 1568). Huntly and Argyll held possession of the whole north and west of Scotland, and not improbably, with the help of the Hamiltons and the borderers, they would have crushed Moray before he had assembled a parliament had they not on their march southward been met by an order from Mary commanding them to disperse their followers, on the ground that Elizabeth had sent a similar request to Moray. Moray had either not received such an order or else disobeyed it, and the time he gained by the disbanding of the queen's forces was fatal to the queen's cause. On Moray's return from the Westminster conference a commission was appointed at Stirling 10 Feb. 1568-9 for Huntly's pursuit (Reg. Privy Council Scotl. i. 645), and though for a time he adopted a defiant attitude and refused to attend the conference at Edinburgh on 10 April, he ultimately, on 18 May, gave in his submission to the regent (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 144). Huntly had no connection with the plot for the murder of Moray in January 1569-70. Along with Atholl and others he came to the convention at Edinburgh in the following March to confer with Morton and Mar on the condition of affairs, but left the city next morning on finding that no encouragement was given to their proposals for the queen's recall (Calderwood, ii. 544; Bannatyne, Memorials, p. 20). Towards the end of the month they sent a letter to Elizabeth urging her to come to an agreement with the Queen of Scots (letter in Calderwood, ii. 547-50). On the advance of the Duke of Sussex to the assistance of the king's lords, Huntly, who had been appointed by Queen Mary lieutenant-governor (Sussex to Cecil, 15 July 1568), concentrated his forces at Aberdeen, and in August marched southwards to the relief of Brechin, but did not arrive in time to prevent the castle falling into the hands of the regent Lennox (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 183). Huntly arrived at Edinburgh, but without any followers, about the beginning of April, and, gaining admission to the castle, took part in various raids against the regent's forces. He presided at the parliaments held in the queen's name at which acts of forfeiture were passed against the rival lords. It was he who commanded the expedition to Stirling, when the regent Lennox was captured and afterwards mortally wounded. Morton, on being chosen regent, made use of Argyll to enter into communication with Huntly and the Hamiltons for a reconciliation, on the understanding that no further inquiry should be made into the murder of the late king, and that pardon should be extended to all persons accessory to the murder of the regent Lennox. At a convention held at Perth, where Huntly and the Lord of Arbroath acted as the representatives of those with whom the treaty was made, articles of pacification were finally agreed upon on 3 Feb. 1572 (Treaty of Perth, in Reg. Privy Council Scotl. ii. 193-200). The secession of Huntly and the Hamiltons from the queen's cause led to the surrender of the castle of Edinburgh, and virtually ended the civil war. From this time Huntly lived chiefly in his own dominions, scarcely taking any further part in public affairs. He died very suddenly in May 1576, while apparently in the enjoyment of vigorous health. The historian of the ‘House of Gordon’ ascribes the death to apoplexy, but Bannatyne recites details to convey the impression that it was a special judgment for Darnley's murder. He states that in the morning he had been out hunting and had killed three hares and a fox. In the afternoon he went to play football, and after he had given the ball a second kick turned suddenly faint. Subsequently he vomited a large quantity of blood, ‘black like soot,’ and died at six or seven the same evening (the manner of the Earl of Huntly's death in Bannatyne, Memorials, pp. 333-8). By his wife, the daughter of the Duke of Chatelherault, he left one son, George, sixth earl of Huntly [q. v.], and a daughter Lady Jean, countess of Caithness.[Crawfurd's Officers of State, pp. 89-94; William Gordon's House of Gordon, i. 242-380; Sir Robert Gordon's Earldom of Sutherland, pp. 141-71; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), i. 649-50; Gordon Papers in Spalding Club Miscellany, vol. iv.; Reg. Privy Council Scotl. vols. i. ii.; Acta Parl. Scott. vols. ii. iii.; Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser.; Cal. State Papers, For. Ser., during the reign of Elizabeth; Herries's Memoirs of the Reign of Mary (Abbotsford Club); History of James the Sext (Bannatyne Club); Bannatyne's Memorials (Bannatyne Club); Sir James Melville's Memoirs (Bannatyne Club); Diurnal of Occurrents (Bannatyne Club); Histories of Knox, Buchanan, Calderwood, Spotiswood, Keith, Tytler, Burton, and Froude]