On or about this date in 1425, Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany, climbed the Heading Hill.
That made the Dukes of Albany pere et fils a pair of vipers in a pit full of them: violent, covetous lords scrabbling ruthlessly after power. Few scrabbled with less ruth than the Albanies.
Robert Stewart had seized effective control of the government in an intra-family coup in 1389, so even though his older brother succeeded as King James I, it was the kid brother who ruled and this made for some extremely awkward years.
And he did not exercise the office with a kinsman’s love. If anything, he had an idea to supplant his brother. In 1402, the Duke of Albany even seized his own nephew — and potential royal heir — the Duke of Rothesay** and murdered him in custody. The frightened king soon sent his youngest kid, the future King James II, out of the country to keep him away from the relatives. James was promptly kidnapped by the English, and Albany — succeeding to titular power as the Regent when his feeble brother died — gleefully refused to pay the ransom while he bossed Scotland from 1406 until his death in 1420. James spent 18 years refining his poetry at the English court.
In another timeline — the one intended by Albany, no doubt — this is all prologue to his own offspring gaining the crown. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Albany’s death in 1420 passed his title to his son, our man Murdoch Stewart — who was already at the ripe old age of 58.† But the Albany run as permanent Regent was nearing the end of the line and political pressure soon forced Murdoch to sign off on the ransom of the occluded King James. His return in effect put two rival sovereigns in the realm, where both could not long abide together.
An English rout of French and Scottish troops on the continent at the Battle of Verneuil would prove ruinous to Murdoch as well, for Murdoch’s brother the Earl of Buchan was slain in the process. With him died Murdoch’s own political security, and the king crushed his cousin with dispatch.
Although some sources place Murdoch Stewart’s execution on the 24th, we’ll follow the narrative of Patrick Fraser Tytler’s History of Scotland, Volume 3:
Murdoch, the late governor, with Lord Alexander Stewart, his youngest son, were suddenly arrested, and immediately afterwards twenty-six of the principal nobles and barons shared the same fate. Amongst these were Archibald Earl of Douglas, William Douglas Earl of Angus, George Dunbar Earl of March, William Hay of Errol, constable of Scotland, Scrimgeour, constable of Dundee, Alexander Lindesay, Adam Hepburn of Hailes, Thomas Hay of Yester Herbert Maxwell of Caerlaverock, Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, Alan Otterburn, secretary of the Duke of Albany, Sir John Montgomery, Sir John Stewart of Dundonald, commonly called the Red Stewart, and thirteen others. During the course of the same year, and a short time previous to this energetic measure, the king had imprisoned Walter, the eldest son of Albany, along with the Earl of Lennox, and Sir Robert Graham, a man of a dark, fierce, and vindictive disposition, who from that moment vowed the most determined revenge, which he lived to execute in the murder of his sovereign. The heir of Albany was shut up in the strong castle of the Bass, belonging to Sir Robert Lauder, a firm friend of the king, whilst Graham and Lennox were committed to Dunbar, and the Duke of Albany himself, confined in the first instance in the castle of St Andrews, and afterwards transferred to that of Caerlaverock. At the same moment the king took possession of the castles of Falkland, and of the fortified palace of Doune, the favourite residence of Albany. Here he found Isabella, the wife of Albany, a daughter of the Earl of Lennox, whom he immediately committed to the castle of Tantallan; and with a success and a rapidity which can only be accounted for by the supposition of the utmost vigour in the execution of his plans, and a strong military power to overawe all opposition, he possessed himself of the strongest fortresses in the country; and after adjourning the parliament, to meet within the space of two months at Stirling, upon the 18th of May, he proceeded to adopt measures for inflicting a speedy and dreadful revenge upon the most powerful of his opponents.
In the palace of Stirling, on the 24th of May, a court was held with great pomp and solemnity for the trial of Walter Stewart, the eldest son of the Duke of Albany. The king, sitting on his throne, clothed with the robes and insignia of majesty, with the sceptre in his hand, and wearing the royal crown, presided as supreme judge of his people. The loss of all record of this trial is peculiarly to be regretted, as the proceeding would have thrown important light upon a most interesting, but unfortunately, most obscure portion of our history. We know only from an ancient chronicle that the heir of Albany was tried for robbery, “de roboria.” The jury was composed of twenty-one of the principal nobles and barons, and it is a remarkable circumstance, that amongst their names which have been preserved, are to be found seven of the twenty-six barons whom the king had seized and imprisoned two months before at Perth, when he arrested Albany and his sons. Amongst these seven, were the three most powerful lords in the body of the Scottish aristocracy — the Earls of Douglas, March, and Angus; the rest were Sir John de Montgomery, Gilbert Hay of Errol the constable, Sir Herbert Herries of Terregles, and Sir Robert Cuningham of Kilmaurs. Others who sat upon this jury we know to have been the assured friends of the king, and members of his privy council. These were, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, Sir John Forrester of Corstorfin, Sir Thomas Somerville of Carnwath, and Sir Alexander Levingston of Callendar. It is probably that the seven jurymen above mentioned were persons attached to the party of Albany, and that the intention of the king, in their imprisonment, was to compel them to renounce all idea of supporting him, and to abandon him to his fate. In this result, whatever were the means adopted for its accomplishment, the king succeeded. The trial of Walter Stewart occupied a single day. He was found guilty, and condemned to death. His fate excited a deep feeling of sympathy and compassion in the breasts of the people; for the noble figure and dignified manners of the eldest son of Albany were peculiarly calculated to make him friends amongst the lower classes of the community.
On the following day, Albany himself, with his second son, Alexander, and his father-in-law, the Earl of Lennox, were tried before the same jury. What were the crimes alleged against the Earl of Lennox and Alexander Stewart, it is now impossible to determine; but it may be conjectured, on strong grounds, that the usurpation of the government and the assumption of supreme authority, during the captivity of the king, offences amounting to high treason, constituted the principal charge against Duke Murdoch. His father undoubtedly succeeded to the regency by the determination of the three Estates assembled in parliament, but there is no evidence that any such solemn decision was passed which sanctioned the high station assumed by the son, and if so, every single act of his government was an act of treason, upon which the jury could have no difficulty in pronouncing their verdict. Albany was accordingly found guilty; the same sentence was pronounced upon his son, Alexander Stewart; the Earl of Lennox was next condemned; and these three noble persons were publicly executed on that fatal eminence, before the castle of Stirling, known by the name of the Heading Hill. As the condemnation of Walter Stewart had excited unwonted commiseration amongst the people, the spectacle now afforded was calculated to raise that feeling to a still higher pitch of distress and pity. Albany and his two sons were men of almost gigantic stature, and of so noble a presence, that it was impossible to look upon them without an involuntary feeling of admiration; whilst the venerable appearance and white hairs of Lennox, who had reached his eightieth year, inspired a sentiment of tenderness and pity, which, even if they admitted the justice of the sentence, was apt to raise in the bosom of the spectators a disposition to condemn the rapid and unrelenting severity with which it was carried into execution. Even in their days of pride and usurpation, the family of Albany had been the favourites of the people. Its founder, the regent, courted popularity, and although a usurper, and stained with murders, seems in a great measure to have gained his end. It is impossible, indeed, to reconcile the high eulogium of Fordun and Winton with the dark actions of his life; but it is evident, from the tone of these historians, that the severity of James did not carry along with it the feelings of the people. Yet, looking at the state of things in Scotland, it is easy to understand the object of the king. It was his intention to exhibit to a nation, long accustomed to regard the laws with contempt, and the royal authority as a name of empty menace, a memorable example of stern and inflexible justice, and to convince them that a great change had already taken place in the executive part of the government.
With this view, another dreadful exhibition followed the execution of the family of Albany. James Stewart, the youngest son of this unfortunate person, was the only member of the family who had avoided the arrest of the king, and escaped to the Highlands. Driven to despair, by the ruin which threatened his house, he collected a band of armed freebooters, and, assisted by Finlay, Bishop of Lismore, and Argyle, his father’s chaplain, attacked the burgh of Dumbarton, with a fury which nothing could resist. The king’s uncle, Sir John of Dundonald, called the Red Stewart, was slain, the town sacked and given to the flames, and thirty men murdered, after which the son of Albany returned to his fastnesses in the north. But so hot was the pursuit which was instituted by the royal vengeance, that he, and the ecclesiastical bandit who accompanied him, were dislodged from their retreats, and compelled to fly to Ireland. Five of his accomplices, however, were seized, and their execution, which immediately succeeded that of Albany, was unpardonably cruel and disgusting. They were torn to pieces by wild horses, after which their warm and quivering limbs were suspended upon gibbets; a terrible warning to the people of the punishment which awaited those, who imagined that the fidelity which impelled them to execute the commands of their feudal lord, was superior to the ties which bound them to obey the laws of the country.
* Destined in time to suffer one of the annals’ most illustrious beheading.
** Fun aristocratic title fact: “Duke of Rothesay” is a still-extant title held by the British heir apparent (so, as of writing, Prince Charles).
† He’d spent more than a decade in English custody himself, after being captured in battle; he’s referenced in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, Part 1 using another title companion to that of the Duke of Albany, the Earl of Fife.
Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights,
Balk’d in their own blood did Sir Walter see
On Holmedon’s plains. Of prisoners, Hotspur took
Mordake the Earl of Fife, and eldest son
To beaten Douglas; and the Earl of Athol,
Of Murray, Angus, and Menteith:
And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize? ha, cousin, is it not?