PART OF THE The Bold and the Brave ISSUE

‘As news of Huntly’s defeat was brought to Mary, Queen of Scots in Aberdeen, there was a scramble to decide what to do next.’

Scotland’s Year of Stories sees many books being released that finds more ways to tell the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. Jennifer Morag Henderson’s Daughters of the North looks at Mary’s relationship with Jean Gordon – the Earl of Bothwell’s first wife – as well as exploring the political machinations and bloody events in the Highlands during her reign.


Daughters of the North: Jean Gordon and Mary, Queen of Scots
By Jennifer Morag Henderson
Published by Sandstone Press


The Downfall of the House of Huntly: 1562–1564 

The prophecy of Lady Huntly’s tame witches had been fulfilled: Huntly was in Aberdeen without a scratch on him as they had promised – but he was dead. John Knox said that Lady Huntly blamed her chief witch for the defeat, but the witch defended herself by saying that her prophecy had come true to the letter. Huntly’s body had been carried from the battlefield with some difficulty; eventually thrown over two creels, or fish-baskets, and transported that way, and taken, along with Jean’s brothers John and Adam and the other prisoners, to Aberdeen Tolbooth. Huntly’s body lay there overnight, and was an object of curiosity for many, who came to see the extraordinary downfall of the Earl, as he lay dressed only in a canvas doublet, grey hose, and hastily covered by one of the fine wool tapestries more usually found hanging on the walls. One of Huntly’s children may have been able to come to him: Jean’s middle sister, Margaret, wife of the Master of Forbes. There had been Forbes on both sides of the conflict at Corrichie, but Margaret’s husband and parents-in-law were resolutely Protestant and had opposed Huntly. Margaret’s mother-in-law was in Aberdeen, and the morning after Corrichie she joined the groups of people who wished to view Huntly’s body: ‘What stability shall we judge to be in this world?’ Margaret’s mother-in-law asked when she saw him. ‘There lieth he that yesterday in the morning was held the wisest, the richest, and a man of greatest power that was in Scotland.’In man’s opinion,’ said John Knox, other than the royal family, ‘there was not such a one these three hundred years in this realm produced as Huntly’. He was the very greatest in the land, brought to the very worst end. His sons, Jean’s brothers the dashing John and the young Adam, were in prison. Moray’s triumph was almost complete.  

As news of Huntly’s defeat was brought to Mary, Queen of Scots in Aberdeen, there was a scramble to decide what to do next. Moray at least had a plan and a vision. Meanwhile, Mary, Queen of Scots dined, passing her supper ‘in mirth’, and was distracted only by the fact that the English ambassador Randolph had just received a letter from Queen Elizabeth. Mary told Randolph that she hoped to now travel as far south as she had travelled north – since she was now ‘assured of good quietness at home’, but Randolph reported to Elizabeth that no one quite knew what to do with Huntly’s body, with some arguing that he should be buried and the matter thus laid to rest, while others advanced the competing idea of beheading the corpse.  

The first thing to do was to try Huntly’s sons. It was decided that Adam should be freed on account of his young age, but John must finally be brought to trial. The original feud with the Ogilvies was forgotten in the new fault of taking arms against the Queen. Compromising letters from the Earl of Sutherland had been discovered in Huntly’s possession, which were shown to Mary, Queen of Scots to prove that not only Huntly but also Sutherland and others had treasonable thoughts. John, once again in a comfortable prison, was as confident and arrogant as ever, and declared that any fault must lie with his father, avowing his love and support for Mary, Queen of Scots. 

However, faced with the implacable Moray, John had no chance this time of escaping or persuading Mary, Queen of Scots that he could be redeemed. He was sentenced to death, and the execution was to be carried out immediately.  

Huntly Castle had become forfeit, to be handed over to Mary, Queen of Scots’ men, so Jean and her mother had to leave their home and travel to Aberdeen. Jean’s mother tried her best to speak to Mary, Queen of Scots, but once again she was refused an audience.8 Jean and her mother were left to watch events unfold without hope of influencing them. 

John’s execution was designed to be a public event to show the crowds in Aberdeen what would happen to those who stood against royal authority, a public declaration that bands of young Gordon men were not in control of the north-east and that the new Earl of Moray was taking charge, under the lead, of course, of his half-sister, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary herself, and her ladies-in-waiting, all came out to watch the execution as though it was another entertainment laid on for them.  

His hands bound by ropes, Jean’s brother John was led to the Castlegate, the main marketplace where public executions often took place, followed by four of his closest friends. They were to be beheaded. John was young and handsome, and the crowd was moved by his strength and resolution in the face of death. When John saw the queen, it was said that he cried out that her presence gave him solace. He needed that solace, because the executioner, ‘a butcherlie fellow’, made a botch job of the killing. It was a truly horrendous scene, as a blunt blade meant several strokes were needed before John was dead. Mary, Queen of Scots was so appalled that she broke down completely, weeping uncontrollably, and had to be carried away by her waiting-women before spending the rest of the day, and much of the following day as well, resting in her chamber. The unseen killing of unknown soldiers at Inverness Castle was one thing but witnessing the horrendous death of a young nobleman who was known to her was another. It was only a few months earlier that John had been knighted at Moray’s wedding. The tourism aspect of Mary’s trip north was emphatically over.  


Daughters of the North: Jean Gordon and Mary, Queen of Scots by Jennifer Morag Henderson is published by Sandstone Press, priced £24.99.

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