Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Keith, George (1553?-1623)

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937133Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 30 — Keith, George (1553?-1623)1892Thomas Finlayson Henderson

KEITH, GEORGE, fifth Earl Marischal (1553?–1623), founder of Marischal College, Aberdeen, eldest son of William, lord Keith, by Lady Elizabeth Hay, daughter of the sixth earl of Errol, was born about 1553. He was educated at King's College, Aberdeen, where at the age of eighteen he had made great progress in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and in the study of history, antiquities, and literature (Oratio Funebris, p. 10). He afterwards resided at Geneva with Theodore Beza, who specially instructed him in divinity, history, and the art of speaking. Beza formed a very high opinion of his character and talents (Preface to Beza's Icones Virorum Doctrina et Pietate illustrium). After the death of his brother William, during an excursion into the country near Geneva, Keith broke off his studies, and visited the principal courts of Europe, producing a very favourable impression on various dignitaries. He succeeded to the earldom on the death of his grandfather, William Keith, fourth earl [q. v.], on 7 Oct. 1581. Like him he took an active part in kirk affairs, and by the general assembly which met at St. Andrews on 24 April 1582 he was appointed one of a commission to visit the north of Scotland and deal with persons ‘suspected of papistrie’ (Calderwood, iii. 599). He was one of the noblemen who on 18 Oct. of this year assembled, after the raid of Ruthven, in convention in Holyrood Palace (Moysie, Memoirs, p. 40). On the 26th he was nominated a privy councillor (Reg. P. C. Scotl. iii. 522). In the following year he accompanied the king on his progress (Calderwood, iii. 713), and, after the king's escape on 27 June from Falkland to St. Andrews, was nominated one of the privy council to wait on him there (Reg. P. C. Scotl. iii. 576), but was afterwards charged to pass home (ib.) On 8 June 1585 he obtained a remission under the great seal for having been art and part in the slaughter of his kinsman William Keith, heir-apparent of Ludquhairn. When the banished lords in 1586 approached Stirling to recover their authority over the king, the defence of the West Port was committed to the Earl Marischal, who prudently ‘stayed there and invaded no man’ (Calderwood, iv. 390). He was present at the banquet of reconciliation held by the king on the 14th of the following May in the castle of Edinburgh (ib. p. 614), and henceforth he occupied a place of considerable influence in the king's counsels. The king's favour to his neighbour the catholic Huntly necessarily ruffled their relations. On 6 March 1588–9 the Earl Marischal found it necessary to give sureties in ten thousand marks to abide by the decision of the king in regard to the ‘actions, feuds, and debates’ between him and Huntly (Reg. P. C. Scotl. iv. 364). The Earl Marischal was a staunch protestant, and was in January 1588–9 nominated one of the commissioners for the purpose of putting into more effectual execution the laws against the papists (Calderwood, v. 3). One of the most noticeable results of this commission was the conviction in the following year of Huntly of treason.

In June 1589 the Earl Marischal, partly at the suggestion of Sir James Melville, who himself desired to decline the honour (Melville, Memoirs, p. 367), was chosen ambassador extraordinary to Denmark to complete the match between the young Princess Anne of Denmark and the Scottish king, and to escort the bride to Scotland (Reg. P. C. Scotl. iv. 391). He was selected on account of his knowledge of foreign languages, his high personal character, and especially his great wealth. The Earl Marischal himself undertook to defray the expenses, and arrangements having been completed on a scale of great magnificence, the embassy set out on the 18th of the month. The marriage was celebrated by proxy at the Danish court on 20 Aug., and in the following September the Scottish ambassador with the queen and all her train set sail for Scotland. The ships were driven back by contrary winds, and compelled to winter in Norway. The king himself set out for Norway, where he was married to the queen on 24 Nov. No blame for the delay attached to the Earl Marischal, and on the following day an act of ‘exoneration and grateful approbation’ was passed in favour of the Earl Marischal and his companions for all their proceedings in the embassy to Denmark (ib. iv. 438). In recompense the earl also obtained the abbacy of Deer, ‘in perpetual monument of the said service, to him and his for ever’ (ib. p. 440).

On 29 July 1591 he was committed for a short time to the castle of Edinburgh for having had communications with the Earl of Bothwell (Calderwood, v. 138; Moysie, p. 86). On 9 March 1592–3 he was appointed the king's commissioner within the shires of Aberdeen, Banff, and Kincardine, with special power to apprehend George, earl of Huntly, and other papists and rebellious persons (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 49). In connection with the king's expedition to the north in the autumn of 1592 he signed the bond at Aberdeen for the maintenance and defence of the liberty of the true religion (Calderwood, v. 235).

The Earl Marischal, as one of the few thoroughly cultured Scottish noblemen of his time, was anxious to support a wider system of education. In 1593 he therefore founded Marischal College, Aberdeen, for the maintenance of which he granted the properties formerly belonging to the Grey, the Black, and the White friars of Aberdeen, and to the chaplainries of Bervie and Cowie. The foundation originally consisted of a principal, three teachers, a regent, and a cook. Minute regulations were laid down for its government and administration, and the appointments to professorships were reserved to him and his heirs (Charter in Fasti Mariscellanæ Aberdonensis, New Spalding Club, i. 39–60), but after the attainder of the earldom in 1716 they were vested in the crown.

On 31 Oct. 1593 the Earl Marischal was appointed one of a commission for the trial of the catholic lords (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 103), and he was one of the five lords of the articles who in 1594 did not agree to their forfeiture (Calderwood, v. 332). On 7 Nov. he was named one of the councillors to the lieutenant of the north, and was at the same time, along with others who assisted him, declared to have merited his majesty's ‘favour and remembrance’ by demolishing the fortalice of Newton and other houses of the northern rebels (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 189). He was one of the privy councillors chosen under the new act for the reconstitution of the council passed 14 Dec. 1598. By that act absence from the council without leave for four consecutive days, or remaining at the horn for forty days, incurred deprivation of office; and after the Earl Marischal's absence had on 19 Dec. been excused for a month (ib. p. 503), and again on 8 May 1599 for forty days (ib. p. 539), he was on 22 May 1599, for absence on four consecutive days after expiry of his leave of absence, deprived of all place and vote in the council (ib. p. 557). The earl evidently preferred literary retirement to party politics. Subsequently he was, however, again chosen a member of the privy council, and was present at a meeting on 24 Feb. 1601 (ib. vi. 214). He was also one of the commission appointed by the parliament of Perth in 1604 to co-operate with the English commissioners regarding a union with England. About 1606 a dispute arose between the Earls Marischal and Errol in regard to the functions of their respective offices of marischal and constable. Both claimed the privilege of keeping the keys of the houses of parliament, but on 2 July it was declared that the guarding of the outer bar ‘appertains to the lord constable,’ and that ‘the keeping and guarding of the inner bar appertains to the marischal’ (Reg. P. C. Scotl. vii. 221). On a complaint by the Earl of Errol in July 1607 it was further declared that the guarding of the inner bar, and of all within the gates and bars, belongs to the marischal (ib. p. 424).

On 21 Jan. following the earl and his son William, lord Keith, were charged under pain of rebellion to appear before the council on the 26th, on account of certain cartels and challenges written by Lord Keith's footman at their command, and sent to Francis, son of the Earl of Caithness (ib. viii. 38), but the matter appears ultimately to have been arranged satisfactorily. On 14 March 1609 the earl was nominated one of the assessors for the trial of Lord Balmerino (ib. p. 257). He was also chosen on 6 June of the same year the king's commissioner to the Scottish parliament, in room of the deceased Earl of Montrose. On the reconstruction of the Scottish privy council in February 1610 the Earl Marischal was one of the nominated members (ib. p. 815), and he was also about the same time chosen a member of the new court of ecclesiastical commission for the diocese of St. Andrews (Calderwood, vii. 58). When the courts were formed into one in 1615 he became a member of the new court (ib. p. 205), and he was continued a member when the commission was renewed in ampler form on 29 June 1619. In his later years he retired, like his grandfather, to his castle of Dunnottar, where he died on 2 April 1623. He kept himself honourably aloof from political intrigues, and his liberality in founding Marischal College, Aberdeen, proves his patriotism. He was buried in St. Bride's Church, now called Dunnottar. On 30 June a very eulogistic funeral oration was pronounced on him in Marischal College, Aberdeen, by William Ogston, professor of moral philosophy in the college. The earl was twice married. By his first wife, Margaret, daughter of Alexander, fifth lord Home, he had one son, William, sixth earl Marischal [q. v.], and two daughters (1) Anne married to William, second earl of Morton, (2) Margaret, to Sir Robert Arbuthnott of Arbuthnott. By his second wife, Margaret, daughter of James, sixth lord Ogilvy of Airly, he had two sons, James and John.

The earl's portrait, by Jamesone, is in the university of Aberdeen.

[Oratio Funebris, 1623; Lachrimæ Academiæ Marischallanæ, 1623; Fasti Mariscallanæ (New Spalding Club); Calderwood's History of the Church of Scotland; Moysie's Memoirs (Bannatyne Club); Sir James Melville's Memoirs (Bannatyne Club); Hist. of James the Sext (Bannatyne Club); Reg. P. C. Scotl. iii–viii.; P. Buchan's Ancient and Noble Family of Keith; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), ii. 193–4.]

T. F. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.171
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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316 ii 87 Keith, George, 5th Earl Marischal: for 9 Oct. read 7 Oct.