Kevin McKidd as Bothwell in ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot’
In 1556, aged twenty-one, James Hepburn inherited the Earldom of Bothwell along with the offices and duties of Sheriff of Berwick, Haddington and Edinburgh; of Bailie in Lauderdale (with the castles of Hailes and Crighton); and of Lord High Admiral of Scotland.
The Fair Earl had sold many acres of land to meet the demands of his creditors, and so James found the lands and rents were much diminished. His first task was therefore to save what he could from the wreck of his father’s fortunes. Bothwell’s grandmother died within a few months, and it appeared he cared little about her good name as he declared that she had been illegitimate, and so claimed, and was granted, all her goods. He also managed to disinherit his great-uncle Patrick Hepburn of Bolton.
Meantime, as the Reformation proceeded in Scotland, key positions were being given by the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, to French Catholic officials. At the end of 1557, the Band of the Congregation of the Lords was formed. A group of earls and lairds, including Lord James Stewart (Mary Stuart’s illegitimate half-brother, and later Earl of Moray) and the Earls of Glencairn and Argyll, entered into a Covenant to support the new Protestant religion and oppose Catholicism. Bothwell considered that they were using religion to undermine the power of the Queen Regent. Mary of Guise had few nobles she could trust, and as her daughter would do in future, she had blind spots to the treachery of certain lords – one of her most trusted was the Earl of Argyll, along with the largely faithful Earl of Huntly an Bothwell himself, who always seemed to have her best interests at heart.
War with England was dragging on, and the French men-at arms found Border warfare difficult. This was something Bothwell excelled at, and his success earned him Hermitage Castle, which was granted to him along with a monthly income of twenty three pounds.
As time went on, the situation failed to improve, and the Queen Regent was forced to abandon her plans to invade England. However, she was impressed by Bothwell, and in October 1558, she appointed him Lieutenant of the Border, giving him many new powers.
Just after Christmas in 1558 he led a raid on Norham Castle, a Percy stronghold in the North of England. London was alarmed at his success, and promised to increase garrisons at the border. The reinforcements never came, for Mary Tudor died. Elizabeth wished to secure her kingdom and long-protracted peace talks ensued. Bothwell was suspicious (with good reason) of the English, and they found him difficult to deal with.
Bothwell paid perhaps less attention to these talks than he should – he had fallen in love with Janet Beton, a woman nineteen years older than him. It was rumoured that she had used magic to trap him, but it was more likely their shared enmity against the Kerrs that brought them together. When Janet appeared in a law-case which Bothwell was trying in 1559, the plaintiff complained that they were handfast, and so a new sheriff was found to try the case. Handfasting was a common form of binding betrothal in the Borders until the beginning of the eighteenth century. The romance was brief, but the couple parted on friendly terms.
Meanwhile, Henri II of France had died as a result of a jousting accident, making his son, Francois, king. Francois’ wife, Mary Stuart (the heir to the Scottish throne) was now Queen of France.
Peace talks being protracted, England managed to instigate a Protestant uprising against Mary of Guise, confident that she only had the support of two of her lords (Bothwell being one). On 21st October 1559 the Congregation met at the Tolbooth and formally deprived her of all authority. Money was being sent to these rebels from England, carried by John Cockburn of Ormiston. He never made it. Bothwell had heard of his plans via the Blackadder family. (Yes! There really were Blackadders! And it seems like one of them had a cunning plan!) As a ruse, Bothwell sent an emissary to the Congregation to discuss the planned treachery. This convinced them that Cockburn was safe to pass though Hepburn lands, and Bothwell successfully ambushed him just outside Haddington, carrying the money off to Crichton Castle. He had both deprived the rebels of the help they needed, and had exposed England’s pretence of neutrality.
Lord James Stewart and the Earl of Arran acted immediately they heard what had happened, and pursued Bothwell with two thousand men. He left Crichton Castle and fled back to Haddington where he hid in the house of Cockburn of Sandybed, disguised as a kitchen-maid for a few days until the coast was clear. He repaid the family with a yearly grant of four bolls of wheat, barley and oats, which was paid for the next two hundred years.
When Bothwell had fled Crichton, it was taken by Lord James Stewart. He sent word to Bothwell that unless he returned the money and made reparation to John Cockburn, Crichton would be sacked and burned, his property confiscated, and he would be declared an enemy of the Congregation. By now sheltering at neighbouring Borthwick Castle, Bothwell refused to comply. He could only watch as his castle was destroyed and his belongings removed to Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, the Queen Regent’s forces were gaining in strength, as lack of funds and growing numbers of defeats meant that Congregation numbers were falling fast. The French cut the Congregation’s food supply, and laid siege to them in Leith. Retreat to Stirling was the only way out.
Much of the bad press Bothwell recieves to this day dates from this exploit. By ambushing John Cockburn, he irritated the English and earned the enmity of the important Protestant lords. Maybe Antonia Fraser would have been a bit nicer to him if she’d known what part he’d played in helping out the Catholic Queen Regent.
This episode also shows how he had a strong moral code – he would do what he thought was the right thing, regardless of the consequences to himself. His actions had lost him a castle and his belongings – but even knowing that, he had stuck by his Queen Regent. On the other hand, Lord James Stewart had proven himself to be duplicitous, self-serving and untrustworthy. Who would prosper…..