Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sinclair, George (d.1582)

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SINCLAIR, GEORGE, fourth Earl of Caithness (d. 1582), second, but eldest surviving, son of John, third earl of Caithness, by Elizabeth, daughter of William Sutherland of Duffus, was born before 14 July 1527 [see for ancestry Sinclair, William, third Earl of Orkney and first Earl of Caithness, (1404?–1480)]. The fourth earl sat as a peer in parliament in 1542. In 1544, while the bishop of Caithness was in banishment in England, the earl took possession of his castle of Strabister, while Donald Mackay, with whom he was acting in concert, seized the palace of Skibo. After the bishop's return they at first refused to give up possession; but upon the intervention of the Earl of Huntly, lord-lieutenant of the north, an arrangement was arrived at (Gordon, Earldom of Sutherland, pp. 111–12). On 2 Oct. 1545 Caithness resigned his earldom into the hands of James V, and received a novodamus thereof, with remainder to John Sinclair, his son and heir-apparent, whom failing, to the earl himself and heirs male whatsoever (Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot. 1513–46, No. 3165). On 18 Sept. 1553 an act was passed for stanching of the slaughter between him and Mackay (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 147). During the progress of the queen regent, Mary of Guise [q. v.], in the north of Scotland in July 1555, for the purpose of holding justice-ayres, Caithness declined, or neglected, to summon his men to attend the courts, and on this account was warded, first in Inverness and ultimately in Edinburgh, not being set free until he paid a large sum of money (Lesley, History, Bannatyne Club, p. 256). On 18 Dec. 1556 he, however, obtained letters of remission for this and other offences (Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot. 1546–80, No. 1128).

Caithness joined other catholic nobles in sending Bishop Lesley to France with the proposal that Queen Mary on her return to Scotland should land at Aberdeen, when they with a strong force would accompany her to Edinburgh, and enable her to mount the throne as a catholic sovereign. Remaining a catholic, he in the parliament of 1560 opposed the ratification of the ‘Confession of Faith’ (Randolph to Cecil, 25 Aug. 1560, printed in full in Knox's Works, vi. 118–120). Knox states that during the progress of the queen in the north in 1563 Caithness was commanded to ward in the castle of Edinburgh for a murder committed on the servants of the earl marischal, but was relieved; ‘for,’ so he adds, ‘such bloodthirsty men and papists such as he is are best subjects to the Queen’ (Works, ii. 420). He was in Edinburgh at the time of the slaughter of Riccio, and, dreading the results that might follow the consequent return of the protestant lords to power, he, along with Atholl and others, left the city three days afterwards (ib. ii. 523). On 17 April 1566 he was constituted hereditary justiciar in Caithness (Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot. 1546–80, No. 1726), and the appointment was ratified to him on 14 Feb. 1566–7 (ib. No. 1767). Before his appointment he had, in February 1565–6, promised to attend mass (Illustrations of the Reign of Mary, Bannatyne Club, p. 153); while remaining true to catholicism, he also continued loyal to Mary during the troubles which lost her her throne. Though deeply implicated in the murder of Darnley, he presided at the mock trial of the Earl of Bothwell for the murder. He also subscribed the bond for the marriage of Bothwell with the queen; and in 1570 he signed the letter of ‘the rebel lords’ to Queen Elizabeth, asking her to enter into an agreement with the Queen of Scots (then a prisoner in England) ‘whereby the different claims betwixt her highness and her son may cease from henceforth’ (printed in full in Calderwood's History, ii. 547–50). After the fall of the castle in 1572 he gradually became reconciled to Morton; and Killigrew, writing to Burghley on 8 June 1574, notes that he ‘who did not the like to any regent before now,’ was ‘at Edinburgh very obsequious to the regent’ (Cal. State Papers, For. 1572–4, No. 1446).

For the most part, however, Caithness seems to have remained in the north, concerning himself chiefly with the politics of his immediate neighbourhood. If the statements of Gordon's ‘Earldom of Sutherland’ are to be believed, he lived there a life of great and even outrageous activity. The chief criminal acts charged against him are instigating his cousin, Isobel Sinclair, wife of Gilbert Gordon of Gartray, to poison the Earl and Countess of Sutherland in July 1567; the capture thereafter in the castle of Skibo of the young Earl of Sutherland, whom, though only fifteen, he got married to his daughter, Beatrix or Barbara Sinclair, a lady of thirty-two; an unprovoked attack on the Murrays in 1570, when the cathedral of Dornoch was burnt; the subsequent murder of three hostages of the Murrays; and the imprisonment of his own son (for concluding a treaty with the Murrays) in the castle of Girnigo, where he died in 1576, or was practically done to death by his gaolers, who gave him salt beef to eat, but withheld all drink. There is no doubt that a majority of these accusations are more or less founded on fact; but in interpreting their significance allowance must be made for the strong partisan prejudices of the writer. Caithness died at Edinburgh on 9 Sept. 1582, and was buried in the chapel at Roslin; but his heart was cased in lead and placed in the Sinclair aisle of the church of Wick. While this town was being spoiled by the Earl of Sutherland in 1588, one of his followers entered the church, and, finding the case of lead, opened it in the hope of finding treasure, when the dust escaped to the winds. By Lady Elizabeth Graham, daughter of William, second earl of Montrose, Caithness had three sons and five daughters: John, master of Caithness, who died while imprisoned in the castle of Girnigo in 1576, and whose son George, fifth earl, is noticed separately; William, who died without issue before his father; George, ancestor of the Sinclairs of Mey; Beatrix or Barbara, married to the young Earl of Sutherland; Elizabeth to Alexander Duffus; Margaret to William Sutherland of Duffus; Barbara to Alexander Innes of Innes; and Agnes to Andrew Hay, seventh earl of Errol.

[Knox's Works; Histories by Bishop Lesley and Calderwood; Register of the Privy Council of Scotland; Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot.; Cal. State Papers, For., during the reign of Elizabeth; Gordon's Earldom of Sutherland; Sinclair's Sinclairs in England and Caithness Events; Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), i. 296–7.]

T. F. H.