”A man of courage, enterprise, wit, and many accomplishments, he had all the Hepburn ambition, with all the charm of recklessness. His ambition was boundless, but crossed by a madcap vein which frustrated his desires. From the queen to the lowest of the people he was popular, and among so many ruffians he alone had a touch of what is genial, sympathetic, and boyish.”
-Andrew Lang, describing Francis Stewart
Francis Stewart, 5th (and final) Earl of Bothwell, is not nearly as well-remembered in history as his uncle, the 4th Earl, who was the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. This is a pity, as the 5th Earl had a life just as tempestuous and possibly even stranger than his legendary relative. (In fact, in recent years, an amateur historian named Brian Moffatt made a respectable case that Francis was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero.)
Francis Stewart, born circa 1563, was the eldest child of John Stewart, one of Queen Mary’s innumerable illegitimate half-siblings, and Janet Hepburn, sister to the 4th Earl of Bothwell. In 1576, his cousin King James VI (later James I of England,) bestowed upon him his uncle’s deserted earldom. In 1582, Francis returned to Scotland after several years abroad, and his career as (in the words of William Roughead) “the stormy petrel of Scots politics” began in earnest. Francis is generally thought of as an irresponsible, even half mad, troublemaker—Scottish historian John Hill Burton expressed the majority view when he stated the 5th Earl had “no more policy in his violent and astounding enterprises, than in the mischievous frolics of the young man who in the present day wrench off knockers and upset policemen.”
I suspect that is hardly doing Francis Stewart justice. Like his famed uncle, he was a highly intelligent, charismatic, and educated man who simply, well, had his own ways of doing things. He played his own game, for his own purposes. And those purposes may have been even stranger than we know.
Until 1583, relations between Francis and his cousin the king were amicable. Then—as always seemed to be the case with Earls of Bothwell—things began to get weird. Francis was of the party that sought to extricate James from the control of his current “favorite,” the Earl of Arran. On November 28, there was “an evill-favoured brawl betuixt” Bothwell and another of James’ pet councilors, Lord Hume. Bothwell was confined to house arrest for a few days—even though “The Ladie Arran cried to strike off his head”—but then he was restored to the Royal favor.
That did not last long. In April 1584 Bothwell joined in another effort by dissatisfied nobles to pry James out of Arran’s domination and into their own. These plans failed, and the rebel lords fled into England. However, Scottish politics of the day was like a lethal game of musical chairs, with no one staying in the seat of power for long. The next year, the exiled lords, with the backing of Queen Elizabeth, came roaring back into Scotland with an army. Arran, sensing which way the wind was blowing, did a hasty retreat from political life, undoubtedly grateful to be one of the few Scottish politicians to retire with his head. James accepted his new keepers, settling for plaintively wishing Bothwell “a more quiet spirit.”
Bothwell’s spirit was—for him—“quiet” until the execution of his aunt, Mary Queen of Scots, in February 1587. He expressed outrage that James did not lift a finger to try and prevent his mother’s judicial murder—indeed, the king had quietly encouraged it. He told James to his face that he deserved to be hanged, and did his best to promote a retaliatory raid into England. After Mary’s death, when James, with typical hypocrisy, ordered his court into mourning, Francis defiantly appeared wearing armor, which was, he declared, the only suitable “dule weed.”
Francis’ career continued with no more than the usual deadly personal feuds, violent, nearly senseless political brawls, and private “living most dissolutelie” common to the Scottish nobleman of the time until 1591. He kicked off that year by kidnapping a material witness in a divorce case the Laird of Craigmillar was bringing against his wife (Bothwell was a friend of Craigmillar's lady,) calling Calvin's "Institutions" "a childish worke," mocking the God-fearing women of Edinburgh by dubbing them "the Holie Sisters," and generally treating the king's "authoritie" with the contempt most Scots felt it deserved.
That was also the year in which it was made public that Francis, Lord Bothwell, was the Devil.
December 1590 saw the beginning of those infamous trials known to history as the case of the “Witches of North Berwick.” A remarkably large number of well-to-do, respectable Scottish citizens were accused of forming a witch cult, in the hope of invoking Satan’s aid to destroy the King and Queen of Scotland. The most illustrious name of all to appear in the indictments was King James’ cousin, Francis Stewart.
Did these accusations have any merit? The balance of the evidence indicates that something very strange was happening in Berwick, but what?
The most intriguing explanation for the North Berwick affair comes from Professor Margaret Murray, who specialized in studying the history of European witch-cults. She was convinced that the accused did indeed worship the Devil, who appeared to them in human form, and instigated and directed all their activities.
Murray believed the “Devil” that led the North Berwick cult was none other than the Earl of Bothwell. She argued, not unconvincingly, that Bothwell believed he had a right to the Scottish throne. His father had been legitimized by the Pope, as well as by Queen Mary. This gave Bothwell a reasonably good claim to be James’ heir presumptive, until, of course, the King and his new Queen had children--something, presumably, that Bothwell would be anxious to prevent. Murray pointed out that James himself had declared that Bothwell coveted his throne. Another witchcraft historian, Ian Ferguson, concurred, writing that “John Fian, head of the Berwickshire witches, died in horrible agony to preserve the life of the Grand Master, the Earl of Bothwell.”
Bothwell was certainly capable of such shenanigans, and the theory would supply a powerful motive for his eccentric antics. And, in the words of a contemporary, it was universally believed that Bothwell, like his famous uncle, “had much traffic with witches and was himself an expert necromancer.” On the other hand, the counter-argument that James invented the treason allegations in order to frame a man he feared as a possible challenger to his throne is also quite plausible. At this great distance in time, all we can do is speculate.
James had a notorious fixation about witchcraft, not to mention a great (and, to be fair, not unjustified) paranoia about his personal safety. The North Berwick trials were tailor-made to encourage all his most brutal instincts. The “witches” were all swiftly convicted of consorting with the Devil in order to plot His Majesty's demise, and duly burned at the stake. The one exception was a woman named Barbara Napier, who, wonder of wonders, was actually acquitted.
The jury paid dearly for their courage. James was incensed at the idea of this minion of Satan getting away with it. He sent the court orders that a fresh verdict of “guilty” be brought in, and had the jurymen indicted for “manifest and Wilfull Errour.” The jury quickly groveled in admission of their heinous "Errour," leading His Majesty to graciously pardon them. It can be taken for granted Napier did not escape the flames a second time.
In April 1591, Lord Bothwell himself was summoned before the Lords of the Secret Council. He clearly had some explaining to do. Although he defiantly denied his guilt, he was shut up in Edinburgh Castle to await trial. Having a good idea of how James’ justice system worked, Bothwell wisely escaped captivity and went into hiding. A Royal proclamation was issued announcing that Bothwell had “gevin him self ower altogidder in the handis of Sathan,” and “all kynd of filthiness.” He was declared an outlaw, with all of his titles and estates forfeited.
Bothwell was not one to take his medicine quietly. On December 27, he retaliated with a direct military raid on Holyrood Palace itself, the King’s personal residence, with the aim of making James his obedient captive. The attack was beaten off, but although some of Bothwell’s cohorts were taken prisoner, the Earl made his escape. James made several efforts to capture his unruly cousin, but with small success. In the meantime, Parliament found Bothwell guilty of treason. He now was not only officially persona non grata, he had a death sentence hanging over his head.
Bothwell’s response to this was to march straight into James’s private chambers early one morning, prudently “weill provydit with pistol.” While a half-dressed King cowered in terror at this invasion, (the more indiscreet accounts suggest His Majesty was cornered while in the privy,) Francis placidly bowed at his sovereign’s feet (Roughead: Bothwell, "though a wizard, was a gentleman") and begged forgiveness.
It is a tribute to the paralyzing effect this amazing man had on King James that this is exactly what he got. That very day, a proclamation was made in Edinburgh announcing Bothwell had received the Royal pardon for all offenses, “with heralds and trumpettis sounding for joy.”
Now that Bothwell had the upper hand, he thought it would look well to hold a trial to officially clear his name of these pesky witchcraft and treason allegations. (He first took the expected precaution of packing Edinburgh with his private army, just to ensure the sympathies of the jury.)
In response to the depositions of the “witches” implicating Bothwell in their activities (depositions that were, of course, obtained under torture,) he simply dismissed them as lies put in the mouths of those unfortunates by his political enemies. He threatened to produce witnesses who would swear they had been told that if they did not implicate Bothwell in the conspiracies against James, they would “endure such torments as no man was able to abide.”
Whether out of a healthy fear of Bothwell’s soldiers, a desire to defend the nobility, or even—who knows?—a belief in the defendant’s innocence, the jury voted unanimously for acquittal.
James, alas, was unreliable even as a puppet. As soon as Bothwell was at a safe distance, the king announced that his pardon of Bothwell had been given under duress, and was now revoked. James sensibly added that the Earl was now forbidden from getting within ten miles of him.
Bothwell’s last grand gesture against his kingly cousin came in March of 1594, when he instigated what is now known as the Raid of Leith. The Earl came swooping down on James with some four hundred men, but the townspeople proved loyal. Although Bothwell fought “fearcelie with clamor and courage,” the raiders were fought off. (During the affray, we are told James himself fled in panic, “ryding in to Edinburgh at the full gallop, with little honour.”)
Bothwell did not have many more cards to play. He sought refuge in England, but Elizabeth, who had little sympathy for losers, bade him begone. After some futile political coquetting with the Catholics, Bothwell departed for the Continent, and Scotland saw him no more. He made energetic efforts to raise armies to enable him to regain citizenship in his homeland by force, but to no avail. The Earl finally settled in Italy, where, we are told, he became “famous for suspected necromancy.” Legend has it he made a professional career of casting horoscopes and performing even more Satanic arts.
We have the text of a letter Bothwell allegedly wrote a French witch-hunter during his final years. If genuine, it certainly provides a suggestive coda to the North Berwick witchcraft story. He wrote:
”You Christians are treacherous and obstinate. When you have any strong desire, you depart from your master and have recourse to me; but when your desire is accomplished, you turn your back on me as your enemy, and you go back to your God, who being benign and merciful, pardons you and receives you willingly. But make me a promise, written and signed by your own hand, that you voluntarily renounce Christ and your Baptism and promise that you will adhere and be with me to the day of judgment, and after that you will rejoice yourself with me to suffer eternal pains; and I will accomplish your desire.”
Bothwell is believed to have perished not long after writing this letter, sometime around 1612.
But, of course, everyone knows the Devil never really dies.