Politics and protestant Lordship in North East Scotland during the reign of James VI: The life of George Keith, fourth Earl Marischal, 1554-1623

Kerr-Peterson, Miles (2016) Politics and protestant Lordship in North East Scotland during the reign of James VI: The life of George Keith, fourth Earl Marischal, 1554-1623. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b3165301


George Keith, fourth Earl Marischal is a case study of long-term, quietly successful and stable lordship through the reign of James VI. Marischal’s life provides a wholly underrepresented perspective on this era, where the study of rebellious and notorious characters has dominated. He is also a counter-example to the notion of a general crisis among the European nobility, at least in the Scottish context, as well as to the notion of a ‘conservative’ or ‘Catholic’ north east.

In 1580 George inherited the richest earldom in Scotland, with a geographical extent stretching along the east coast from Caithness to East Lothian. His family came to be this wealthy as a long term consequence of the Battle of Flodden (1513) where a branch of the family, the Inverugie Keiths had been killed. The heiress of this branch was married to the third earl and this had concentrated a large number of lands, and consequently wealth, in the hands of the earls. This had, however, also significantly decreased the number of members and hence power of the Keith kindred.

The third earl’s conversion to Protestantism in 1544 and later his adherence to the King’s Party during the Marian Civil War forced the Keiths into direct confrontation with their neighbours in the north east, the Gordons (led by the Earls of Huntly), a Catholic family and supporters of the Queen’s Party. Although this feud was settled for a time at the end of the war, the political turmoil caused by a succession of short-lived factional regimes in the early part of the personal reign of James VI (c.1578-1585) led the new (fourth) Earl Marischal into direct confrontation with the new (sixth) Earl of Huntly. Marischal was outclassed, outmanoeuvred and outgunned at both court and in the locality in this feud, suffering considerably. However, Huntly’s over-ambition in wider court politics meant that Marischal was able to join various coalitions against his rival, until Huntly was exiled in 1595. Marischal also came into conflict briefly with Chancellor John Maitland of Thirlestane as a consequence of Marischal’s diplomatic mission to Denmark in 1589-1590, but was again outmatched politically and briefly imprisoned. Both of these feuds reveal Marischal to be relatively cautious and reactionary, and both reveal the limitations of his power.
Elsewhere, the study of Marischal’s activities in the centre of Scottish politics reveal him to be unambitious. He was ready to serve King James, the two men having a healthy working relationship, but Marischal showed no ambition as a courtier, to woo the king’s favour or patronage, instead delegating interaction with the monarch to his kinsmen. Likewise, in government, Marischal rarely attended any of the committees he was entitled to attend, such as the Privy Council, although he did keep a keen eye on the land market and the business conducted under the Great Seal.

Although personally devout and a committed Protestant, the study of Marischal’s interaction with the national Kirk and the parishes of which he was patron reveal that he was at times a negligent patron and exercised his right of ministerial presentation as lordly, not godly patronage. The notion of a ‘conservative North East’ is, however, rejected.
Where Marischal was politically weak at court and weak in terms of force in the locality, we see him pursuing sideways approaches to dealing with this. Thus he was keen to build up his general influence in the north and in particular with the burgh of Aberdeen (one result of this being the creation of Marischal College in 1593), pursued disputes through increasing use of legal methods rather than bloodfeud (thus exploiting his wealth and compensating for his relative lack of force) and developed a sophisticated system of maritime infrastructure, ultimately expressed through the creating of the burghs of Peterhead and Stonehaven. Although his close family caused him a number of problems over his lifetime, he was able to pass on a stable and enlarged lordship to his son in 1623.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Scottish, Scotland, Reformation, Union of the Crowns, King James VI, Earl Marischal, Aberdeen, Lordship, Nobility, Protestant, Stonehaven, Peterhead.
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain > DAW Central Europe
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Humanities > History
Supervisor's Name: Reid, Dr. Steven J. and MacGregor, Dr. Martin
Date of Award: 2016
Depositing User: Dr Miles Kerr-Peterson
Unique ID: glathesis:2016-7480
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 09 Aug 2016 12:35
Last Modified: 16 Jul 2019 10:12
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/7480
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