Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sinclair, William (1404?-1480)

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SINCLAIR, Sir WILLIAM, third Earl of Orkney and first Earl of Caithness (1404?–1480), chancellor of Scotland, born about 1404, was the only son of Henry Sinclair, second earl of Orkney [q. v.], by his wife Egidia or Giles Douglas, daughter of Sir William Douglas of Nithsdale, and of the Princess Egidia, a daughter of Robert II.

Earl William succeeded about 1418, his father being then dead (Andrew Stuart, History of the Stewarts, p. 449). In 1421 the earl was named as a hostage for James I (then a prisoner in England), who desired to visit Scotland, and on the king's release in 1424 Sinclair met him at Berwick. He was one of the assize who condemned Murdac Stewart, second duke of Albany [q. v.], and his sons to death in 1425, when he was doubtless of age. He appears also about this time to have made claim to the earldom of Orkney, a Norwegian fief which was held by his fathers. In 1420 Eric, king of Norway, had committed the earldom after the death of Earl William's father, during the young earl's minority, to Thomas Tulloch, bishop of Orkney, as a trust to be delivered up to the king when required. Later, the trust was conferred on David Meyner or Menzies of Weem, who between 1423 and 1426 was charged with many acts of oppression, among others his detention of the Earl William's rents, and his refusal to set the public seal to a testimony of the earl's right. The earl apparently visited Eric's court, but did not receive formal investiture of the earldom of Orkney until 1434. The terms of his tenure were similar to those required of his grandfather, Henry Sinclair, first earl of Orkney [q. v.], and he acknowledged the jurisdiction of the Norwegian king, promising to hold for him the castle of Kirkwall (Torfæus, Orcades, &c., 1715, pp. 178–83; cf. Oppressions in Orkney and Zetland, Maitland Club, App. i.).

The earl was high admiral of Scotland in 1436, and commanded the fleet which bore the Princess Margaret of Scotland to France to be married to the Dauphin (Fordun, Scotichronicon, ed. Goodall, ii. 485). According to Father Hay, the earl was gloriously apparelled and magnificently attended, and received the order of St. Michael from the French king. He was summoned to Bergen on 24 June 1446 to take the oath of allegiance for the Orkneys to Christopher, king of Norway, and it seems probable that to this date belongs the well-known diploma, attested by Thomas Tulloch, bishop of Orkney, setting forth the earl's pedigree. The instrument was drawn up by the bishop and his canons, with the lawman, nobles, and people of Orkney, assembled in the church of St. Magnus, in presence of the earl, in May or on 1 June of a year hitherto uncertain, but held by some to be 1446, a date corroborated by the summons referred to (cf. Miscellany of the Bannatyne Club, iii. 65–85). In this year also (Chalmers, Caledonia, ii. 764) he began the foundation of the collegiate church of Roslin, for the residence of a provost, six prebendaries, and two singing boys. The chapel of this church still remains to attest the wealth and taste of the founder, and, though not completed as originally designed, it forms one of the most beautiful examples of church architecture in Scotland.

In 1448 the earl joined with the earls of Douglas, Ormonde, and others, in repelling an English invasion, and was created Lord Sinclair apparently in the following year (Fœdera, xi. 253). In 1454 he was appointed chancellor of Scotland in succession to William, lord Crichton [q. v.] When the king in 1455 resolved to put down the power of the Douglases, the chancellor took an active part, and personally superintended the transportation of a ‘great bombard’ from Edinburgh to Threave Castle in Galloway. In the same year he received the earldom of Caithness in exchange for his lordship of Nithsdale, and in 1456 his town of Roslin, probably formed by the masons who worked on the college and chapel, was erected into a burgh of barony with the usual privileges.

In the latter part of 1456 Sinclair ceased to be chancellor, and thenceforth seems to have taken little part in public affairs, though he is occasionally referred to in safe-conducts to England and documents relating to truces between the realms. He was in 1460 summoned to tender his allegiance to the new king of Norway, Christiern I, but his presence was required in Orkney, where John, earl of Ross, lord of the Isles, was committing violent depredations; and he was still unable to leave Scotland in the following year, as he had been appointed one of the regents after the death of James II. He was also in that year named as an ambassador to England (Fœdera, xi. 476, 477). But he was opposed to the party of the Boyds, then rising into power, and he chiefly figures in connection with his earldom of Orkney, where in 1467 one of his sons, perhaps William ‘the Waster,’ had seized and imprisoned William Tulloch, bishop of Orkney (cousin of the former bishop, Thomas), as to which, and the oppressive conduct of the earl himself, King Christiern I made a special appeal to the Scottish king (Torfæus, Orcades, &c., p. 187).

In 1468 and 1469 the earl again appeared in the Scottish parliament, and in 1471, after the Orkneys were ceded to Scotland, he resigned all his rights in them to the crown, in exchange for the castle and lands of Ravensheugh and Dysart in Fife and a pension of four hundred merks yearly (Registrum Magni Sigilli Scot. ii. Nos. 996–1002). During the next two years he is named as an envoy to England, and in 1476 he made a disposition of his great estates. He resigned his earldom of Caithness in favour of William, apparently the elder son of his second marriage, and granted to Sir Oliver, apparently the younger son of the same marriage, the lands of Roslin and others, forming a considerable territory (Father Hay, Genealogie, &c., pp. 82–90; Registrum Magni Sigilli Scot. ii. Nos. 1267, 1270, &c.).

The earl died apparently in the early part of 1480, when his pension ceased to be paid (Exchequer Rolls, ix. 78). He was twice married: first, before 1437, to Margaret, eldest daughter of Archibald, fourth earl of Douglas, and widow of John Stewart, earl of Buchan [q. v.], and also of Thomas, master of Mar. By her he had a daughter Catharine, who married Alexander Stewart, duke of Albany [q. v.], and one son, William Sinclair of Newburgh, styled ‘William the Waster’ from his spendthrift habits, and who on that account was passed over by the earl in disposing of his estates, though he and his half-brother, Sir Oliver Sinclair, afterwards entered into a compromise as to their lands. The title of Baron Sinclair was first conferred, 26 Jan. 1488–9, on Henry, son of William Sinclair of Newburgh. This Lord Sinclair, at whose request Gavin Douglas translated the Æneid into Scots, was slain at Flodden on 9 Sept. 1513. His grandson Henry, third lord Sinclair, was a strenuous supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, signed the bond for her against Moray on 12 Sept. 1565, and joined the association in her support at Hamilton after her escape from Lochleven in 1568 [see for descendants Sinclair, John, seventh Lord Sinclair].

The second wife of Earl William was Marjorie Sutherland, daughter of Alexander Sutherland of Dunbeath, and by her he had, with four daughters, four sons—William, Oliver, David, and John.

The eldest son, William, second earl of Caithness, was killed at Flodden in 1513, leaving two sons, of whom the eldest, John, succeeded as third Earl of Caithness; along with Lord Sinclair, the third earl in 1529 invaded Orkney to endeavour to make good his professed claims to the earldom of Orkney, but was defeated and slain by the Orcadians under James Sinclair, governor of Kirkwall Castle, at Bigswell in Stenness on 18 May. His son George, fourth earl, is noticed separately.

The second son, Sir Oliver Sinclair of Roslin, was father of Oliver Sinclair [q. v.], of Henry Sinclair [q. v.], bishop of Ross, and of John Sinclair [q. v.], bishop of Brechin.

The third son, Sir David Sinclair of Svenburgh or Sumburgh, was sometime captain of the castle of Bergen and governor of Shetland; and the fourth son, John, was bishop of Caithness.

[Barry's Hist. of the Orkney Islands, 1805; Orkneyinga Saga, ed. 1873, Introduction, pp. lxviii–lxxi; Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, vols. v–viii.; Antiquities of Aberdeen and Banff (Spalding Club), vols. iii. and iv.; Father Hay's Genealogie of the Sainte Claires of Rosslyn, ed. 1835.]

J. A-n.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.250
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
310 i 11-10 f.e. Sinclair, Sir William, 3rd Earl of Orkney: for Elizabeth Douglas read Margaret, eldest daughter of Archibald, fourth earl of Douglas,
8 f.e. after he had insert a daughter Catharine, who married Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany [q. v.], and