James Hepburn was most likely born in 1535. This date is fixed by the facts that he needed to be over twenty-one when he succeeded to his father’s title in Autumn 1556, and he was ‘twenty-four or about’ when he gave evidence against the Earl of Arran in February 1560. He was the son of Patrick Hepburn, third Earl of Bothwell (the ‘Fair Earl’), and Agnes Sinclair. He had a sister, Janet.
The life of his father couldn’t help but have a large bearing on James Hepburn, and the times his father lived through set the stage for James’ entrance into public life. Patrick Hepburn was the son of Adam Hepburn and Agnes Stewart and was born in 1512. A year later, Adam Hepburn was killed at Flodden. Agnes Stewart went on to marry three further husbands.
Patrick’s ‘ Fair Earl’ nickname was earned by his looks rather than by his character. He was described in his youth by Lindsay of Pitscottie as ‘fair and white and something hanging-shouldered and went somewhat forward with a gentle and humane countenance’.
His first public appearance was on 15th May 1529, when he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle for protecting robbers in Liddesdale. When he was released two years later he sought his revenge by beginning a treasonable correspondence with England which continued throughout his life. During the next ten years he paid for this with a further prison sentence and three periods in exile in Venice and England.
He married Agnes Sinclair before he was twenty one in one of his periods in Scotland. After his second period of imprisonment, his son James was born.
When James V died after the battle of Solway Moss, Patrick was in England. He signed a pact that would commit the infant Mary Queen of Scots into the keeping of Henry VIII of England, and promised to serve and aid him. He then returned to Scotland.
Once there, his actions did nothing to commend him to the new Scottish regime, or to satisfy his English sponsors. Traditionally, imprisonment and banishment had been the only means available to cope with the Earl’s disaffection, but Mary of Guise, the infant queen’s mother, had other plans. She granted Patrick a yearly pension of a thousand pounds in return for his fidelity. Patrick had sworn his loyalty to Henry VIII only months previously, but Mary was convinced she could keep him loyal by dangling the prospect of a royal marriage before him. His courtship would also provoke the jealousy of other wavering nobles, especially the Earl of Lennox, who had dangerous claims to the Stewart succession.
The two men were constantly at Mary’s court in Stirling, and Patrick Hepburn was so confident of success that in 1543 he divorced his wife on the grounds of consanguinity, as Agnes was also a Hepburn. But the political situation was changing around him. The vacillating Protestant Earl of Arran finally turned his back on England after Henry VIII arrested some Scottish merchant ships sailing for France. Mary of Guise also dangled the prospect of a marriage between the infant queen and Arran’s son in front of him. On 8th September 1543, Arran did penance for his apostasy and received the Catholic sacrament – the Earl of Bothwell holding the towel over his head. A day later, Mary Stuart was crowned in Stirling Castle chapel, aged nine months. Mary of Guise now had no further use for the Fair Earl, and dismissed his suit.
Henry VIII was enraged to hear of Arran’s treachery, and he decided that if he could not take Scotland by peaceful means, he would take it by force. He styled his campaign a holy war as a result of the broken promises of the Scots. He instructed his invading force to ‘put all to fire and sword’, to burn Edinburgh, sack Holyrood, the Castle and Leith, and destroy St Andrews and all the villages in Fife – sparing no-one, not even women and children. The ‘Rough Wooing’ of Mary Queen of Scots had begun.
The appalling acts that followed did nothing to dissuade Patrick Hepburn from re-commencing his correspondence with England.
He carried out another abortive love-affair, this time with Lady Isobel Borthwick, his neighbour. She lured him to a midnight tryst, and he was then taken and temporarily imprisoned by the men of Borthwick castle.
On 15th January 1545, George Wishart came to Haddington to preach. The congregation was so small that it was suspected that the Earl of Bothwell had given orders forbidding attendance.
The next night Wishart stayed at the house of John Cockburn of Ormiston. By midnight Patrick Hepburn had the house surrounded and took Wishart away with him to Hailes Castle, guaranteeing his safety. Mary of Guise requested that Wishart be handed over to her, and eventually, despite his promises, the Earl took him to Edinburgh Castle. Wishart was thrown into the smaller of the pit-prisons in the castle.
George Wishart stood trial at St Andrews in February 1545. He was found unsurprisingly guilty and horrifically burned to death.
Before the end of 1545 the English had again crossed the Scottish border. England’s Scottish sympathisers were suspect, and the Fair Earl was once again exiled and imprisoned. Hailes Castle was given to Isobel Borthwick’s husband, but in any case soon fell into English hands.
The Scottish defeat at Pinkie meant that Patrick was freed, and he almost immediately sent his nephew to the English, with the proposal that the Fair Earl be given either the Princess Mary or the Princess Elizabeth as his wife, in exchange for Hermitage Castle. This proposal was coolly received.
Meanwhile, the Scots had treatied with France, and six thousand troops landed at Leith, forcing the Earl to flee to London. About this time he publicly claimed that Mary of Guise had twice promised to marry him. Mary’s only option was to accuse him of treason.
In the late summer of 1548 Patrick formally renounced his allegiance to the Scottish crown and became a pensioner of England to the tune of 3000 crowns. He passed five more years in exile.
In 1554, Mary of Guise forgave him, appointing him Lieutenant of the Borders and he returned to Edinburgh.
In July 1556, he betrothed his daughter Janet to Robert Lauder of the Bass. By September he lay dangerously ill in Dumfries and Janet’s engagement had been called off, indicating that her father’s illness had allowed her to exert her choice. Patrick died shortly afterwards and his titles passed to his son, James Hepburn.
With a father constantly on he move and sometimes imprisoned, James’ early life was likely to have been unsettled. is parents’ divorce meant that he saw little of his mother – his father gifted her the lands of Moreham, where she lived until her death, whereas James was sent to his great uncle Bishop Patrick at the Palace of Spynie, to be educated.
James completed his education abroad, certainly spending some time in Paris, where critics later claimed he studied the black arts of magic and sorcery. He returned to Scotland on the death of his father in September 1556. Patrick Hepburn had died, possibly of TB, aged thirty four, and James succeeded to his titles.
James’ later actions showed that he had learned from his father’s follies – his disloyalty had brought about the loss of his liberty and his lands, and his grudges had never been satisfied. James Hepburn became a loyal servant of the Scottish Crown, and the only noble not to ever be in the pay of the English – he never forgave them for the Rough Wooing, and refused to accept such an income, however badly in need of it he became.
Although a Protestant, James also had a hatred of religious persecution which was not shared by his Knox-led contemporaries. As well as the fact of his being educated partly by a Catholic Bishop, it has been speculated that this may have been due to the involvement of his father in the death of Wishart, a man James Hepburn likely heard preach in the villages around his childhood home, possibly even his spiritual teacher.
One trait James did share with his father was an eye for the ladies and a sense that he could have any woman he wanted – even a Queen.