Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland

Robert Stewart (1553-1593)
Robert Stewart, Earl of Caithness and Orkney (1553-93),  was a natural son of King James V of Scotland by Euphemia Elphinstone (b. 1509), daughter of Alexander, 1st Lord Elphinstone. He was half-brother to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), and to James Stewart, Earl of Moray (1531-70), a prominent figure in Scotland’s Protestant cause.

Young Robert was raised with three other illegitimate (but acknowledged) sons of James V: James senior, son of Elizabeth Shaw; James secundus (the future earl of Moray), son of Margaret Erskine; and John, son of Elizabeth Carmichael.

Ruins of Holyrood Abbey
On December 30, 1534, Pope Clement VII agreed that the boys could be trained for careers in the Church, despite the circumstances of their birth. Therefore, on August 18, 1539, shortly before his sixth birthday, Robert was named the commendator of Holyrood Abbey, which had an annual income of £5,600, making it the fifth richest monastic foundation in Scotland. In June 1540, he joined his half-brothers at St. Andrews, probably to begin his education (2-5).

Then, in 1548, the three of them were sent to France to be educated, probably under the tutelage of the famed French humanist, Peter Ramus. He traveled to France with his half-sister, the princess Mary, who was betrothed to Francis, the dauphin of France. Robert returned to Scotland in 1557. (8)

Protestant Reformer, John Knox, returned to Scotland from exile in the winter of 1555-56. By this time, Robert’s father had been killed at the Battle of Flodden, and the power of the Crown rested in James’s queen, Mary of Guise, an ardent Catholic and regent of Scotland during the minority of her daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. Through his half-brother James secundus (later 1st earl of Moray), Robert was drawn to the Protestant faction. Present at parliament in November 1557, he probably played no serious role in the undertakings of the Lords of the Congregation, a group of Scottish Protestant noblemen, led by his brother James, who were arrayed against the queen regent. Stewart was at times present at gatherings of the Congregation, and though he did not play a major role, was in attendance when the Lords entered Edinburgh in 1559 to oppose the Catholic Scots and their French allies. When the French made a show of force, however, a number of the supporters of the Lords of the Congregation fled, and at this time Robert was put in charge of the counter-attack, though he submitted to the regent shortly after  (9-10).

When James Hamilton, 3rd earl of Arran, was tried for treason for his role with the Congregation, Stewart, siding with the regent, gave testimony against him, yet when the English invaded in March, Robert, perhaps seeing a renewed rise in Protestant power, wavered again and bolted to their side, signing the Treaty of Berwick between the English and the Lords of the Congregation on May 10. Though Robert’s vacillation may have been more political than religious in intent, he did renounce Catholicism at parliament in August. This vacillation is what biographer Peter D. Anderson called signs of Stewart’s “undoubted untrustworthiness” (10-11).

Mary, Queen of Scots
The political landscape changed in 1560 and 1561. First, the queen regent died in June, and Mary, now Queen of Scots, was suddenly widowed in December of the same year.  Upon her return to Scotland in January 1561, she landed at Leith, where Robert Stewart was, at first, the only Scottish noble present to greet her.   As Mary settled in, Lord James, though a staunch Protestant, did not object to the presence of her priests and asked Robert and their half-brother John to see to the protection of the priests, but a few weeks later one of them was beaten by one of Robert’s servants (42).
James Stewart, a forceful and competent man, was made 1st Earl of Moray in January 1561-2, and Anderson avers that Robert stood always somewhat in the shadow of James and their other brother John (42).  Even so, Robert remained prominent at court and is known to have participated in festivities in November 1561 when he agreed to join a “ride at the ring.” Robert, as it turned out, led the winning team, who were all dressed as women, against Mary’s uncle of Guise, Rene d’Elboeuf, who were dressed as “strangers in fancy dress” (Fraser 214). Robert’s relationship with Mary was a warm one. He offered her the gift of a horse, and she showered him with lavish garments of velvet, silk, and taffeta, and other gifts from the treasury (Anderson 43). Though the queen showed trust in Robert by employing him in various errands on her behalf, she never gave him a title, though she did grant him lordships, lands, and the sheriffdom of Aberdeen. More importantly, in December 1564, he was granted infeftment of the lands of Orkney and Shetland (44, 47).
Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley

When Mary made known her interest in marrying her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, it was Robert who greeted the nineteen-year-old dandy at Holyrood and hosted him for three days in February 1565. Despite their age difference (Robert was now 30), the two developed a friendship, and, along with Darnley’s father, Lord Lennox, gained a reputation for being the “greatest enemies of all virtue,” as English diplomat Thomas Randolph put it, adding that Robert was “vain and nothing worth, a man full of all evil, the whole guider and ruler of my Lord Darnly [sic]” (45).

On the same day that the wedding banns for Mary and Lord Darnley were announced, May 10, 1565, Darnley, having been made Duke of Albany, then knighted Robert Stewart. Being close to Darnley, however, did not long prove to be an advantage, as the queen’s original happiness with Darnley had soured by early 1566. In March, Lord Robert was seated with the queen and her Italian secretary David Rizzio, when Darnley and his followers burst into Mary’s chamber and murdered the man. Though present, Robert is deemed not to have been involved in the plot. After this, his relationships with both Darnley and Mary cooled, and he was not present at court for several months (47-49).

A year later, he may have been aware of Mary’s plot to assassinate Darnley, however. Though Lord Robert was not complicit, George Buchanan, writing in 1827, stated unequivocally that Robert knew of the conspiracy and, “moved by the atrocity of the action, or by pity for the youth,” warned the king of the queen’s plans for him. Darnley, “according to his custom,” says Buchanan, immediately reported Robert’s communication to the queen. When confronted, Robert “firmly denied it, when each giving the other the lie, they drew their swords.” Though no violence occurred that night, on the night of February 10, 1567, Darnley was assassinated (Buchanan 2:491).

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell
Events were moving quickly. First, the following May, Mary took the lands of Orkney and Shetland away from Robert and gave them to her lover James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, whom she elevated to the title Duke of Orkney just days before their marriage. Taken captive by Scottish peers who disapproved of the murder of Darnley and the marriage to Bothwell, Mary abdicated on July 24, 1567. At that time, Robert Stewart was inactive for about three months; then, on November 4, he suddenly appeared in Kirkwall, capital of Orkney, assumed the role of sheriff, and announced himself to be “feuar of the lands and lordship of Orkney and Shetland” (51). This set off a feud between Robert and Patrick Bellenden of Auchnoll, who had hitherto held the office of sheriff there. The earl of Moray, who was acting as regent to the infant King James VI, continued to trust in his brother, but, perhaps in response to complaints by Bellenden, did not immediately recognize his claim to Orkney.

Lord Robert, however, continued to throw his weight around and clashed with Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney, forcing him to exchange the temporalities of the see of Orkney for Stewart’s abbacy of Holyrood House. The bishop described the arrangement, thus:

 “Lord Robert violentlie intruded himself on his whole living, with bloodshed, and hurt of his servants; and after he had craved justice, his and his servants' lives were sought in the verie eyes of justice in Edinburgh, and then was constrained, of meere necessitie, to tak the abbacie of Halyrudhous, by advice of sundrie godlie men” (DNB 5:444). 

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
Stewart quickly earned a reputation on Orkney for being a conniver who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. An example of this is provided in a violent clash inside St. Magnus Cathedral in February 1568 when one Robert Brown, a servant of Lord Robert’s, did not leave the cathedral grounds after prayer but began to climb up on top of the cathedral’s arches. The bishop’s men shouted at him to come down, and, offended, Brown re-entered the cathedral and complained to Lord Robert’s men, who then went outside to quibble with the bishop’s men. Seeing them approach, one of the bishop’s men shot Brown in the head, killing him instantly. Robert’s men then returned to the cathedral and evened the score, as they might have said, by killing two of the bishop’s men, one of whom was kin to Patrick Bellenden. Lord Robert was not present at the time, and at first maintained that he had no part in the assault and sincerely regretted what his men had done in his name. However, some weeks later he admitted that he had planned all along to take the church in an effort to prove to Bishop Bothwell that he was in Orkney to stay. Perhaps in atonement for the killing Bellenden’s kinsman, Stewart bestowed the bailiary of Kers on Bellenden, though the peace between them was always tentative (Anderson 57-58).

For the next few years, Robert endeavored to consolidate his authority in the Northern Islands, mainly by confiscating lands and offices and handing them over into the keeping of his family members and friends. As for the inhabitants of Orkney, he undertook to arrange matters so that, to quote the old song, “They owed their souls to the company store,” or to put it in medieval terms, he “was establishing a quasi-feudal overlordship by taking the land on a pretext—charges of witchcraft and suicide occur as well as of theft and unauthorized departure from the islands—and then re-granting it to the same persons or close relatives,” who would then be beholding to Robert for their livelihood (73). Not long after his arrival in the Isles, Lord Robert began building a palace at Birsay near the old palace, long the residence of the bishops of Orkney, which he used as a quarry for his stone. It appears to have been built in two stages. The first, from 1569-75, saw the construction of a courtyard enclosed on three sides and protected by a wall on the north side. The second phase, which may have been undertaken by his son Patrick Stewart, saw the enclosure of the north side and the removal of the wall (73-74).
Earl's Palace, Birsay

In December 1575, Lord Robert’s position in Orkney was severely threatened when he was charged on four counts of oppression and usurpation of the king’s authority. The most serious charge, treason, was based on his offering Orkney and Shetland to the Danish king, a proposition he had no authority to make, though he was probably banking on the fact that Orkney had only belonged to Scotland for a little over a century. He was probably motivated by the desire to become the earl of Orkney under the authority of the Danish king, who declined, noting that Stewart was “scurra et praestigiator iprobissimus, Scotus natione, fuit,” in other words, a scoundrel and a cheat (87). As a result of the trial, Stewart was imprisoned first at Edinburgh castle, then in Linlithgow Prison near Edinburgh, for two years. When released in 1577, Robert did not return immediately to Orkney but remained in Edinburgh, attending council meetings and “networking,” as we would put it today. In particular, he used his time there to cultivate a friendship with the young king, who was now eleven years old. He returned to Orkney in 1580 but continued to build his friendship with King James in 1581 when he once again visited Edinburgh (106). Stewart had gained a reputation as a self-aggrandizer, so it is possible his friendship with an impressionable boy, who was, after all, his nephew, was calculated to win him his long-desired earldom, which he did, in fact, receive, along with the lordship of Shetland, on August 28, 1581. A year later, an anonymous essayist, purporting to describe the “present state, faction, religion and power of the nobility of Scotland,” sounded the familiar refrain: the Earl of Orkney was “a man dissolute in lyfe; lyttle sure to any faction; of small zeale in religion” (108). Apparently, his two years in the tank had not made him reflective on the direction of his life.
James VI, age 20

He definitely continued his oppression of the independent landowners on Orkney, and by 1586 the king, now twenty years old, was coming round to the consensus opinion of Robert Stewart, for the French ambassador recorded that James “does not much like the . . . Earl of Orkney, saying that he only serves his own ends” (111). No doubt, James was to some extent stepping away from Earl Robert, who had placed in his palace an inscription, in Latin, which, translated, read: “Robert Stewart natural son of James V King of Scotland constructed this building,” one possible implication being that Robert was calling himself the king! (114)

The Orcadians continued to bring their complaints to the king, and the earl began to feel the pinch in 1587, when parliament turned the lands of his earldom and lordship over to his foes, Sir Lewis Bellenden of Auchnoull, justice clerk, and John Maitland of Thirlestane, the chancellor (112), and it became increasingly possible that Orkney would once again be held directly by the king.

In 1589, two maneuvers of the earl suggested, if not reform, at least a sense of self-preservation. First, he granted Sir Lewis Bellenden the lands of Evie, which his old enemy Patrick Bellenden had once desired, and, second, he married his daughter Elizabeth to James Sinclair of Murkle, who was the uncle of William, Master of Caithness, who had been supporting Bellenden and Maitland against the earl (117).

Spanish Galleon
In the aftermath of the Spanish Armada’s defeat by the English in 1588, Robert Stewart flirted a bit with Spain, sometimes hosting Spaniards on Birsay. In July 1590, the earl “feasted” Spaniards who had arrived in Orkney with three English ships they had taken off Hartlepool in June. When they left, William Stewart, one of the earl’s illegitimate sons, left with them, and participated in their attack on four English fishing vessels off Fair Isle, one of the Shetland islands. These vessels were taken to Kirkwall, where one of them was swapped with Earl Robert for four cannon (124).

In 1589, the earl was one of the commissioners appointed by the privy council of the kirk to execute the acts against the Jesuits:

“Therefore the saids [sic] Lords of our Secreit Counsell at the humble and earnest desire of the Generall Assemblie of the kirk presentlie conveenned, have thought good, concluded, and ordeanned that our said commissioun and acts foresaid sall be putt in due and full executioun, by the persons respective after following, givin in by them in roll within the liberteis, shirefdoms, stewartreis, and bailliffereis, particularlie undermentiouned.  They are to say the proveists and bailliffes of everie citie and burgh, justicers and commissioners within the self and liberteis of the same. And for the countrie to landwart, Robert Erle of Orkney, within the bounds of our shirefdome of Orkney” (Calderwood 42). 

Interior, St. Magnus Cathedrdal
Of course, that he carried out the duties required of all the earls really tells us little of the man’s personal religious views (if any, for he seems to have been quite irreligious all his life and was willing to turn whichever way the wind was blowing), and upon his death on February 4, 1592, he was buried in the Stewart Aisle in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, according to the Roman Catholic ritual “with such service as the rampant Calvinism of the day permit[ted].” (Hossack 51; Tudor 253)

Robert Stewart was married to Lady Janet Kennedy (1537-98), daughter of Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd Earl of Cassilis [pronounced "castles"]. They had ten children:

Mary (1553-1644)

Henry (1566-90)
Patrick, 2nd Earl of Orkney (1568-1614)
Jean (1570-1642)
John, Lord Kincleven, Earl of Carrick in Birsay (1576-1643)
James (b. 1577)
Robert (b. 1578)
Barbara (b. 1580)
Christian (1580-1644)
Elizabeth (d. 1642)

                                                                     Works Cited

Anderson, Peter D. Robert Stewart: Earl of Orkney, Lord of Shetland, 1533-1593. Edinburgh, John Donald, 1982.

Buchanan, George. The History of Scotland. Vol. 2. Glasgow: 1827.

Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. New York: Dell, 1969.
Hossack, Buckham Hugh. Kirkwall in the Orkneys. Kirkwall, William Peace, 1900.
Leslie, Stephen. Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 5. London: 1886.
 © Eileen Cunningham, 2017

Robert Stewart, 1st Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland

Robert Stewart (1553-1593) Robert Stewart, Earl of Caithness and Orkney (1553-93),  was a natural son of King James V of Scotland by E...