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Abdication, Assassination, and Eruption of the Forbes-Gordon Feud

The uneasy truce between the Forbeses and Gordons was shattered against the backdrop of the abdication of a Queen, the Assassination of a Regent, and the bloody battles of the Scottish civil war known the Marian War, named for Mary, Queen of Scots.

James V, King of Scots. By Corneille de Lyon - Weiss Gallery Image

The feud between the Forbeses and Gordons had been simmering since George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly, had falsely accused John, the Master of Forbes and son of John, 6th Lord Forbes, of treason in 1536. On July 15, 1537, the Master of Forbes, was beheaded and quartered in Edinburgh. James V, King of the Scots, eventually learned of the treachery. He posthumously pardoned the Master of Forbes, gave lands of the Earl of Huntly to Lord Forbes, and appointed William, the new Master of Forbes, to his court as a “gentleman of his bedchamber.”


Queen Mary was six days old when her father King James V died and she ascended to the throne in 1542. The country was ruled by regents while Mary lived in France and was married to Francis II of France. After he died, she returned to Scotland in 1561 to find the country torn between Catholic and Protestant factions. The Catholic George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly, then Lord Chancellor, was dismayed by Queen Mary’s acceptance of Protestants in her privy council and led a rebellion against her in the Highlands.

Mary, Queen of Scot, by François Clouet

William, now 7th Lord Forbes, had entered into historic agreements of mutual defense with the Earl of Huntly. However, the Government formally released them from these oaths. This allowed Lord Forbes to join Clan Fraser, Clan Munro, Clan Mackenzie, Clan Mackintosh, Clan Mackay, Clan Murray, and Clan Cameron to rally to the Royalist cause while Huntly rallied Clan Gordon and Clan Brodie.


The armies met at Corrichie, near Aberdeen, Scotland, on October 28, 1562. The Royalist forces were commanded by Queen Mary’s half-brother, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray. Under him, Lord Forbes commanded the local clans of the Forbes, Leslie, Irvine, and Hays. The Queen's forces achieved a resounding victory in the Battle of Corrichie. Huntly was captured and died on his way to Aberdeen. Sir John Gordon was executed for treason.


As a reward for his loyalty, Lord Forbes received a charter in 1563 from Queen Mary promising him Huntly’s lands, since they would be held direct by the Crown. This meant that the Lords Forbes and his son, John, Master of Forbes (later 8th Lord Forbes) became a greater challenge to the Gordons.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

The political scene shifted dramatically when Mary married her half-cousin, in July 1565. This marriage to another Catholic prompted the Earl of Moray to openly rebel against the Queen. The brief rebellion was quelled and Moray was declared an outlaw and escaped to England.


As the King Consort, Lord Darnley insisted on the “Crown Matrimonial” which would make him co-sovereign of Scotland and King in his own right if Mary had died. He secretly conspired with many of the lords who had rebelled in the previous year. Darnley and his co-conspirators stabbed to death Mary’s Catholic private secretary, David Rizzio, who was suspected of having an illicit affair with the Queen.


The Queen gave birth to her son James on June 19, 1566. On February 19, 1567, Darnley died suspiciously from an explosion from a cache of gunpowder. Mary and her close adviser James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, were suspected of planning the murder. On April 12, 1567, Lord Darnley’s father, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, formally accused Bothwell of murdering his son. However, he could provide no proof and the jury of Scottish Peers acquitted Bothwell. John, Master of Forbes, was among those fifteen Peers. (Colville, John. 1588 - 1597, republished in 1825. The Historie And Life Of King James The Sex MDLXVI- MDXCVI. Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club.)


In soon after his acquittal, Bothwell convinced Mary to pardon the Earl of Huntly and to appoint him Lord Chancellor. On May 7, 1567, Bothwell received a formal annulment of his marriage to his wife of one year, Lady Jean Gordon who was the daughter of the Earl of Huntly. One week later, he wed Mary, Queen of Scots. Twenty-six nobles were so outraged that Mary married the accused murderer of Darnley that they joined with the Earl of Moray in rebelling against her in August 1565. These “confederate lords” included William, 7th Lord Forbes. (Ibid.) These lords accused Mary of being an adulteress and imprisoned her in Loch Leven Castle. On July 24, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son James. The Earl of Moray was appointed as Regent.

James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray

However, with the help of her supporters, Mary escaped. She rallied her supporters at Langside, south of Galsgow where they battled the forces loyal to the James VI and the Regent, the Earl of Moray, on May 13, 1568. Mary was defeated and fled to England seeking asylum from her cousin Queen Elizabeth. However, she was once again imprisoned.


Politically, Lord Forbes supported the Earl of Moray and young James VI. However, on July 28th, 1568, Lord Forbes joined with 21 other Scottish peers to sign a letter penned by Archibald Campbell, 5th Earl of Argyll, to Queen Elizabeth of England requesting Mary release from prison: “We humblie beseik your Grace to suffer our Queen's Grace to cum and depart frelie forth of your realme again to her awin cuntrie and nocht to maik ony aid or assist in ony sort to thais her unnatural subjettes, that we may do her awin service in reponing and establishing her grace in her awin realme as our detbound dewtie is, for we are all deliberat to maintain her as our natyve princeis indurand her lyftyme and efter bir the aires cumit of her body.” (Calendar of the State Papers Relating to Scotland and Mary, Queen of Scots, 1547 -1603, Volume 2, p. 468. 1900. Edinburgh: H.M. General Register House.)


Believing that the Earl of Moray was too accommodating to Queen Elizabeth, James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh assassinated him in Linlithgow from the house of his uncle John Hamilton, Archbishop of St. Andrews, on January 23, 1570. Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, then became the Regent for his grandson King James VI.


Again, William, Lord Forbes, signed a letter to Queen Elizabeth on April 16, 1570, requesting the release of Mary: “We have recourse to your Majestie as the Princess of Christendom who has the best means, and as we think should have the best will to quench this heat begun amongst us before it burst out to a flame which may set both countries on fire.” (Ibid.) In November of that same year, he and twenty-two other Scottish Peers suggested that their kin be offered as hostages for Queen Mary, four at a time. The document was signed at Doune and at Strathbogie on November 20th, 1570. (Ibid.) Elizabeth did not acquiesce.


In September 1571, the Regent, the Earl of Lennox, was killed during a raid on Stirling Castle, led by the George Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly. In order to check the growing power of the Gordons in northern Scotland, the succeeding Regent, John Erskine, Earl of Mar, appointed John, the Master of Forbes, as the King's Lieutenant in the North in November 1571, with the power to collect rents. The Commission specifically stated that the Master of Forbes would serve as the King's Lieutenant within certain bounds of the North Country for uplifting the two thirds of the Rents of the Bishopric of Aberdeen for supporting his expense in that office of the King's Lieutenant.


As intended, this commission infuriated the Gordon family, which had traditionally held the post of King's Lieutenant in the North. In retaliation, Adam Gordon of Auchindoun, a brother of the Earl of Huntley, attacked the Master of Forbes at Craibstane on November 20, 1571, and imprisoned him in Spynie Castle. Adam Gordon went on to sack and burn Castle Forbes (now called Druminnor Castle.)


This inflamed the feud which led to the Battle of Tillieangus, the death of the Master's uncle, Black Arthur Forbes, and Adam Gordon’s murder of Margaret Campbell Forbes, wife of John Forbes of Towie, in Corgarff Castle. The bloodshed was temporarily staunched by the 1573 treaty called the "Pacification of Perth." That was intended to ended the war between the Roman Catholic supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots and the Protestant Lords who had forced her 1567 abdication.


Learn more about the Gordon feud and the Marian Wars here:

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