1573: William Kirkcaldy of Grange, former king’s man

On this date in 1573, William Kirkcaldy of Grange was hanged at Edinburgh. A marker at Edinburgh Castle honors the man who “held this castle for Queen Mary from May 1568 to May 1573 and after its honourable surrender suffered death for devotion to her cause.”

It’s a surprising epitaph.

The fellow’s father, James Kirkcaldy, was one of the realm’s prominent Protestants, and young William worked in France as an English secret agent in the 1550’s while that same Queen Mary held court there as the consort of crown prince turned underprepared child-king Francis II.

After Francis died in 1560, his widow returned to Scotland — not only as Mary, Queen of Scots but as a potential Catholic champion for the throne of England itself.

Kirkcaldy was a natural enemy in a confusing political situation. Scotland in the 1560s slid into civil war between the “Marian” party and the (more Protestant, more pro-English) “king’s men” supporting the regents governing in the name of Mary’s son, James VI.*

As one might expect, Kirkcaldy was a king’s man. He beat Mary in battle in 1567 and took her prisoner, helping force her abdication; after she escaped and had another go at it, he beat her again, and Mary fled to England, never to see Scotland again.

But a funny thing happened to Kirkcaldy on his way to the winner’s circle. In the jockeying that followed Mary’s flight, a fellow pol pulled him over to the Marian party.

Kirkcaldy’s considerable talents now strained themselves for the return of the monarch and the curtailment of the regents. He lost.

When it came again to open conflict, the king’s men (backed by aid from England) trapped Kirkcaldy in Edinburgh Castle and besieged it until the man was forced to surrender to the scanty mercy of his captors and the immortality of that latter-day plaque.

* James is notable in these pages for his adulthood penchant for witch hunting.

On this day..

4 thoughts on “1573: William Kirkcaldy of Grange, former king’s man

  1. I have just completed my second historical novel, this one The Last Knight, subject of course is William Kirkcaldy, and after reading 53 texts and historioes and numerous pamphets, I still cannot explain Kirkcaldy’s switch, although it well may have been a romantic attachment to concepts of honor based upon the code of chivalry. He was tricked into accepting the harsh treatment of the queen after Carberry by displaying a letter allegedly written by the queen to Bothwell on the night of her capture, which was likely a forgery or an altered earlier letter. He was bribed to stay silent with the governorship of the castle. But still, he was the king’s man until the assassination of Moray, who he criticized but never abandoned. It seems that the idea of a Lennox regency pushed him over the edge. He had never forgotten that Lennox had marched against his fellow Scots at Hereford’s side. And I agree that as silbver tongued as Lethington was, he could not have swayed Kirkcaldy without some other dybanuc cinubg ubti okat,

  2. I suppose because, from what I’ve read, it was never really made clear why he jumped sides. We are told that Lethington persuaded him into it, but no one seems to know exactly what arguments he used. And fine diplomat though he was, I doubt that William Maitland’s silver tongue alone would have done the trick.

    As you noted in this post, Kirkcaldy seemed to have been set for a prosperous future, when he suddenly chucked it all for a cause that by that point was already looking pretty dubious. And he did not strike me as an unworldly idealist, ready to martyr himself simply for “principles.”

  3. Of all the dizzying cases of coat-turning that characterized the Marian years, I’ve always thought Kirkcaldy’s about-face was probably the strangest.

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