Through 2015 and 2016, the University of Glasgow will be hosting a series of events commemorating the 450th anniversary of the birth of James VI of Scotland. Building on a range of recent work on Scottish noble power and culture, this opening conference focused on the dynamics between James and his magnates over the course of his personal reign in Scotland. Speakers:

  • Amy Blakeway (Homerton College Cambridge): ‘A ‘good servant’? James VI and James Douglas, Regent Morton’
  • Ross Crawford (University of Glasgow): ‘Beyond Basilikon Doron: The Development of James VI’s Highland Policy’
  • Paul Goatman (University of Glasgow): ‘James VI, Noble Power and the burgh of Glasgow, c. 1580-1605’
  • Julian Goodare (University of Edinburgh): ‘The Octavians’
  • Ruth Grant: ‘Friendship, Politics and Religion: George Gordon, Sixth Earl of Huntly and King James VI, 1581-1595’
  • Anna Groundwater (University of Edinburgh): ‘’Your brother in na termes’: James VI’s suppression of the Scott-Ker bloodfeud’
  • Amy Juhala (Bismarck State College): ‘“For the King Favours Them Very Strangely”: The Rise of James VI’s Chamber, 1598 to 1603’
  • Adrienne Miller (University of Edinburgh): ‘Rise of a Courtier: the second duke of Lennox and strategies of noble power under James VI’
  • Steven Reid (University of Glasgow): ‘Of Bairns and Bearded Men: the noble politics of the Ruthven Raid’
  • Jenny Wormald (University of Edinburgh): ‘Understanding Gowrie: do we really need to wait for the Day of Judgement?’

For more information, please contact Miles Kerr-Peterson:


Amy Blakeway of Homerton College, Cambridge, will present ‘A ‘good servant’? James VI and James Douglas, Regent Morton’

The process by which James VI emerged from his minority and gained enough de facto as well as de jure power to commence his personal rule was intimately intertwined with the fall of his last regent, James Douglas, earl of Morton. In the last twenty years the historiographical emphasis has moved away from older assessments of Morton’s fall as a ‘problem in satellite diplomacy’ attributable to Elizabeth’s failure to intervene, towards a focus on James VI’s relations with a cadre of ambitious nobles driven by their own distaste for Morton.

Yet a crucial piece of the puzzle is missing. We know James was capable of great loyalty and affection, and it is equally evident that no such feelings prompted him to intervene with Morton’s downfall, first in 1578 when he lost the regency, and finally in 1581 when he was executed. Indeed, the quotation embedded in this paper’s title is taken from Morton’s own retrospective justification of his behaviour as regent, given at the scaffold of his execution. A look back into James’ minority provides a longer-term view of the relations between monarch and regent. This seems to rule out the possibility that Morton enjoyed a friendly relationship with his monarch, yet this must be placed in the broader context of the convention which restricted Scottish regents’ access to the person of a monarch.


Ross Crawford of the University of Glasgow will present ‘James VI, The Earl of Argyll, and the end of the Irish mercenary trade in the Western Isles, 1594-5’.

The personal views of King James VI towards the Highlands and Islands of Scotland preserved within Basilikon Doron have long overshadowed royal government policy towards the Gàidhealtachd during his reign. There is a tendency to read all government interactions with the region from the vantage point of his 1599 treatise, in which mainland Gaels are described as ‘barbarous for the most part, and yet mixed with some shewe of civilitie’, while the Gaels of the islands are ‘alluterly barbares’. Few have recognised that these unkind words were the culmination of fourteen years of personal rule, rather than foundational statements expressed by a young king come of age in 1585.

Focusing on the final years of the Irish mercenary trade in the Western Isles in 1594-5, this will assess the dynamics between James and his Gaelic magnates some four years before Basilikon Doron was written. Preventing the seasonal flow of ‘redshanks’ or Scottish Gaelic mercenaries into Ulster became a matter of urgency for the Elizabethan government in the waning years of the sixteenth century as the conquest of Ireland was hindered by resurgent resistance. From 1594 onward, the English queen put increasing pressure on the Scottish king to deploy Gilleasbuig Campbell, Earl of Argyll, to ‘stay’ these mercenaries. Relations between Argyll and the king were consistently strained, yet James relied heavily upon the Campbell chief to control the island clans. The king’s inability to prevent the sailing of the redshanks was a potential source of embarrassment as he aimed to prove his worthiness to succeed Elizabeth to the throne of England.


Paul Goatman of the University of Glasgow will present on ‘James VI, Noble Power and the burgh of Glasgow, c. 1580-1605’

During the minority of James VI, the successes and failures of magnates at court determined burgh politics. During his regency (1572-8), the fourth Earl Morton cultivated the interests of Robert, fifth Lord Boyd in the Glasgow area, overriding the local interests of the Lennox Stewarts, who had governed the burgh in tandem with the archbishop since the early sixteenth century. Morton’s downfall saw Esmé Stewart, first Duke of Lennox, briefly rise to prominence at court, and he attempted to establish a power base in Glasgow by appointing a new archbishop and purging the magistracy and town council. Following his own fall, a former Lennox supporter, Matthew Stewart of Minto, seized control of the town council and aligned himself with the Ruthven regime, but he in turn was usurped when James Stewart, Earl of Arran, rose to prominence at court. During his personal rule, James supported the Lennox interest and Minto realigned with Ludovick Stewart, second Duke of Lennox, to usher in a period of relative calm in the burgh. However, political tensions remained under the surface, erupting after James and Lennox headed south at the Union of Crowns and left a power vacuum in Glasgow.


Julian Goodare of the University of Edinburgh will present on ‘the Octavians’.

The Octavians were a group of eight reforming financial administrators drawn from the lesser nobility. Initially part of the household of Queen Anna, they were formed in 1596 to attempt to tackle the calamitous state of James’ finances. They were led by the celebrated Alexander Seton, later first Earl of Dunfermline, one of the greatest Scottish patrons of the arts in the period.  Two years later, having largely failed in the impossible, they were disbanded, but each member continued to have some role in government. James’ finances went back to a state of chaos as his chamber took over.

Although they had some brief successes in bringing James’ exchequer into some sort of order, they attracted much criticism, partly because of their reforms, but partly because several of their number were known Catholics. Julian will talk about the origins of the group, their fiscal ideas and their later careers.


Ruth Grant will present ‘Friendship, Politics and Religion: George Gordon, Sixth Earl of Huntly and King James VI, 1581-1595’

George Gordon, sixth earl of Huntly’s relationship with James VI was unparalleled and often misunderstood by both contemporaries and modern historians, puzzled as to how a Protestant king could exhibit blatant favouritism to a Catholic magnate active in the Counter-Reformation. Their relationship has been interpreted as fraught by religious division, which drove Huntly to rebel and to conspire with Philip II, king of Spain.

When the confessional politics are stripped away and the evidence is studied, however, what one finds is a close friendship between James and Huntly and an earl who assiduously served his king in both national and international politics, enabling James to use Counter-Reformation politics to further his objectives in securing the English throne following Elizabeth I’s death. Huntly’s adherence in 1581 to James’s first favourite, Esmé Stewart, duke of Lennox and his enforcing the change from the Ruthven Regime in June 1583 won James’s trust and close friendship – the dividends of which he reaped throughout his life. Their relationship withstood Huntly’s vehement dissent to John Maitland, lord Thirlestane’s government, which also enabled James to pursue diametrically opposed policies and Huntly’s brutal bloodfeud with James Stewart, earl of Moray from 1590 to 1595. Overall, Huntly needs to be understood as a political faction leader, whose Catholicism was a tool both he and James employed by each to widen political influence. At its most basic, however, the relationship between James and Huntly, was predicated on friendship and loyalty – given and received by both men.


Anna Groundwater of the University of Edinburgh will present ‘’Your brother in na termes’: James VI’s suppression of the Scott-Ker bloodfeud’

In the grand tradition of the borders, the Kers of Cessford and the Scotts of Branxholm, two important families in the Middle March, had been at feud for decades. Even though the principals of the families Robert Ker and Sir Walter Scott became brother-in-law in 1586 they continued fighting into the 1590s.

James often left his nobles to fight it out among themselves in the localities, but being on the border and with his ambitions for the English crown, the king could not afford to turn a blind eye, lest upset Elizabeth. James and his government tried a range of measures in to stem the bloodfeud and bring order to the marches, applying increasing pressure on Ker and Scott to settle. After Scott made a daring raid on Carlisle to release Kinmont Willie Armstrong, James was forced to intervene personally and have the two men warded. Eventually friends of the two enemies managed to reach a settlement behind closed doors and eventually the two were even ennobled.

This paper will explore how a combination of pressures, of intensifying government under James VI, increasing efforts to suppress the bloodfeud, and changing Anglo-Scottish relations, forced the settlement of an apparently endless spiral of violence between the Scott and Ker kindreds. It will consider the efficacy of James’s utilisation of the bonds of lordship and kinship in the reconciliation of bloodfeud, and how he was able to turn two major proponents of that ancient art into agents of its suppression.


Amy Juhala, Bismarck State College, will present ”For the King Favours Them Very Strangely’: The Rise of James VI’s Chamber, 1598 to 1603′

The later years of James VI’s Scottish residency saw a growth in the power and influence of the King’s Chamber. While factionalism and intrigue had been a constant part of court life since the regency, as James grew up, so too did his court, slowly shifting from a bachelor’s establishment to one that included a royal consort and heirs. But while the court changed and adapted, there was a noticeable lack of change in those who had gained the ear of the king and who occupied the Chamber. Here, one finds a handful of long-serving, highly-trusted friends, and numerous lesser gentlemen who had proved their worth through decades of steadfast service to the king. They had served and guided the king through financial crises, political uncertainty, and personal attacks. Several were his Stirling classmates; they and others were men whose personal wealth and positions were directly tied to their exemplary service to the king. Thus, as James gathered more personal control over his government, it was natural for him to increasingly rely upon the trusted counsel of these servitors who inhabited his Chamber.