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John Forbes - The Lord Who Wasn't

1570 - 1606


When the second son of Protestant John, 8th Lord Forbes, escaped his arranged marriage to become a Catholic monk in Ghent, he ignited a succession controversy that lasted three and half centuries.

John was born into a long-standing feud over land between the Protestant Forbes and the Catholic Gordons that his father’s marriage to his mother was supposed to heal. When John, the Master of Forbes and eventual 8th Lord Forbes, was six years old, he was contracted to marry one of the daughters (either Margaret or Jane, then three and two years old) of George, 4th Earl of Huntley. John was dutifully wed to Margaret in 1558. However, as noted in the House of Forbes (1937), “Far from helping to heal the ancient feud between Gordon and Forbes, the marriage of John Forbes and Margaret Gordon produced further troubles.”

The eldest son William was born on 1563 and the second son John entered life in 1570. While the Master of Forbes insisted that the sons be raised as Protestants, he allowed Margaret to raise the three daughters as Catholics. However, this compromise was not enough to save the marriage as the Master of Forbes claimed that his wife committed adultery with Patrick Hepburn, “the notorious Bishop of Moray,” as styled by Sir James Balfour Paul in the Peerage of Scotland (1907.) The Master of Forbes was granted a suit of divorce on June 24, 1573. The Master of Forbes remarried in 1580 to Janet, daughter of Walter Seton of Touch and widow of Sir John Bellenden, and son Arthur was born in 1581.

As relayed in the House of Forbes, the eldest son William “fell under the influence of his Catholic uncles, William and James Gordon” and fell “out of sympathy” with both his father the Master of Forbes and his grandfather the 7th Lord Forbes. In 1588, William formally renounced his claim as heir to Lord Forbes in favor of his brother John. He lived as “Brother Archangel” in a convent in Ghent and died only four years later in 1592. A portrait in Castle Forbes indicates that his brother John also “embraced the Catholic faith, and like another Alexius, leaving his affianced bride, he went as a stranger into foreign lands.” Evidence seemed to indicate that his brother John followed in his footsteps to Ghent and that the Master of Forbes attempted to forcibly return him to Scotland. This attempt failed when John was spirited away to another Capuchin convent. In the Peerage of Scotland, Sir James Balfour Paul, recounts a far more colorful picture:

It is said that rather than comply with his father’s wish and make a rich marriage with a lady to whom he appears to have been actually betrothed, he followed the example of his older brother, and escaped to Belgium at an early age, in the disguise of a shepherd. Landing at Noorda, he was soon after apprehended by a Spanish soldier as a spy and brought before Mondragone, the Governor of the citadel of Antwerp, who took him for a runaway soldier, and sent him to prison. Taking the habit of a Capuchin on 2 August 1593 at Tournai, in his twenty-third year, under the title of “Brother Archangel,” he is said to have converted 300 Scots soldiers to Catholicism at Dixmude, and another body of Scottish heretics to the bosom of the Church at Menin.

After the Master of Forbes’s eldest son William died in 1593, the Protestant Master of Forbes was determined that his Catholic son John should not succeed him. He executed a charter which ensured that the next Lord Forbes should be Arthur, his eldest son by his second wife. This was confirmed by a letter from Robert Bowes of Aske, Queen Elizabeth’s Ambassador to the Court of Scotland. Master of Forbes succeeded as 8th Lord Forbes in 1594 and died on June 26, 1606. John, Brother Archangel the Second, died a few months later on August 2, 1606.

Forbes tradition has held that Arthur succeeded his father as the 9th Lord Forbes and this duly recorded in the Genealogy of the Family of Forbes, by Mr. Matthew Lumsden of Tulliekerne (1819.) However, two years after assuming the role of the 19th Lord Forbes in 1868, Horace Courtenay Forbes began having doubts about the proper numbering in the succession. The Lord Lyon sent his opinion, dated October 25, 1870, referencing the charter signed by the 8th Lord Forbes:

If alive then, it seems very probable this Charter was granted for the purpose of excluding John, as a foreign Ecclesiastic, from the succession. I do not consider that I have materials before me to pronounce positively on the question, but in default of evidence to the contrary, I would presume that the older writers were right, according to whom the present Lord Forbes must be accounted 19th Baron…

The matter was settled – for the next 35 years until Col. James Allardyce of Culquoich, LL.D. Col. Allardyce penned an article called "Forbes" since, as the House of Forbes relates, he was “an industrious collector of Forbes material, but not specially trained in Scots Peerage Law.” This caught the eye of the current Lord Lyon, Sir James Balfour Paul, who included John as the 9th Lord Forbes for the first time in the New Scots Peerage, Volume 4, printed in 1907. With the new numbering, the Lord Forbes who had succeeded in 1868 as 19th Lord now found himself bumped up to the 20th. His reaction, according to the House of Forbes, was “inimical.”

The matter was settled again – for the next 50 years. Two years after Nigel Ivan, the great-grandson of Horace Courtenay Forbes, succeeded as Lord Forbes, the Lord Lyon of the day submitted another opinion. Sir Thomas Innes of Learney determined that, according to Scots Peerage tradition of the time which allowed for charters of succession, John Forbes, Brother Archangel the Second, became a monk and so the 8th Lord Forbes had every right to divest him of the title.

Therefore, Arthur succeeded as 9th Lord Forbes on the death of his father in 1606. Therefore, Nigel Ivan was not 23 Lord Forbes but the 22nd. Malcolm, the 23rd Lord Forbes, succeeded his father in 2013. And the matter is settled. Again.

Translation of Inscription on the Picture of Brother Archangel in Castle Forbes: Friar Archangel, a Scot Capuchin preacher sprung from the most noble lords of Forbes and on his mother’s side of the blood royal of Scotland, was nurtured on the milk of Calvinism, but by divine light embraced the Catholic faith, and like another Alexius, leaving his affianced bride, he went as a stranger into foreign lands, but ardently desirous of further perfection, he entered the Order of Capuchins and in it was renowned for every kind of virtue. He died as a victim of charity, being carried off by plague in the year of our Lord 1606.

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