THE escape of Mary Queen of Scots, from Lochleven Castle, is one of the most striking passages in the history of female royalty. The time, the place, the beauty and exalted rank of the illustrious heroine, her wrongs, and her distress, the chivalry and courage of the gallant spirits who had undertaken to effect her deliverance, the peril of the enterprise, and its success, combine all the elements of a romance. Yet the adventure creates a more powerful impression related in the graphic simplicity of truth, as it really befell, than when worked up with imaginary circumstances into a tale of fiction, even by the magic pen of Scott in the pages of “The Abbot.”
The fatal concatenation of events, which had the effect of entangling the royal victim in the toils of her guileful foes, can not be developed here. The broad outline of the outward and visible facts is familiar to almost every reader, but to expose the undercurrent to view by documentary evidences, and to make manifest the hidden workings of iniquity, requires a wider field than these brief pages can afford. I must, therefore, refer the public to my long-promised “Life of Mary Stuart,” which will shortly appear in my new series of royal female biographies,* based on documentary sources, for particulars which can scarcely fail of removing the obloquy with which mercenary writers, the ready tools of self-interested calumniators, have endeavored to blacken the name of this hapless lady.
The confederate lords into whose hands Mary, confiding in their solemn promises to treat her with all honor and reverence as their sovereign, rashly surrendered herself, at Carberry-hill, not only shamelessly violated their pact, but after exposing her to the most cruel insults from the very abjects of the people, incarcerated her in the gloomy fortress of Lochleven, under the jailorship of the mother of her illegitimate brother, the Earl of Murray, and the wardership of the sons that person had had by her late husband Sir Robert Douglas, of Lochleven, for the Lady of Lochleven was a married woman when the Earl of Murray was born.†
It is scarcely possible to imagine a more doleful abiding place for the fallen queen, in her affliction, than that which had been thus injuriously and by a refinement of malice, selected for her by her perfidious foes. The castle, which is of extreme antiquity, said indeed to have been founded by Congal, a Pictish king, is of rude architecture, consisting of a square donjon keep, flanked with turrets, and encompassed with a rampart; it is built on a small island, almost in the centre of the wild expanse of the deep, and oft-times stormy, waters of the loch, which is fifteen miles in circumference. The castle island consists of five acres, now overgrown with trees and brushwood. In the midst of this desolation tradition points out one ancient stem, of fantastic growth, said to have been planted by the royal captive as memorial of her compulsory residence in the castle. The boughs of this tree, which is called “Queen Mary’s Thorn,” are constantly broken and carried away as relics by the visitors, whom the interest attached to the memory of that unhappy princess attracts to the spot, which her sufferings have rendered an historic site of melancholy celebrity.
The events of the long dreary months which Mary wore away in this wave-encircled prison-house, bereft of regal state, deprived of exercise and recreation, and secluded from every friend save her two faithful ladies, and a little maiden of ten years old, the voluntary companions of her durance, as well as the occupations wherewith she endeavored to beguile her sorrowful hours, will be found very fully detailed in my biography of that unfortunate queen, with many recently-discovered facts.
Toward the end of March, George Douglas, the youngest son of the Lady of Lochleven, whose manly heart had been touched with generous sympathy, or, as some assert, with a deep and enduring passion for his fair ill-fated sovereign, made a bold and almost successful attempt to convey her out of the castle, in the disguise of a laundress. The queen, however, being identified by the whiteness and delicacy of her hands, which she had raised to repel one of the 23 rude boatmen, who endeavored to remove her hood and muffler to get a sight of her face, she was brought back, and George Douglas was expelled from the Castle with disgrace. But though banished from his house, he lurked concealed in the adjacent village, where he had friends and confederates, and, doubtless inspired many an honest burgher and peasant with sympathy for the wrongs of their captive sovereign, by his description of the harsh restraint to which she was subjected within the grim fortress of Lochleven. At Kinross he was joined by the faithful John Beton, and other devoted servants of the queen, who were associated for the emancipation of their royal mistress, and had long been lurking, in various disguises, among the western Lomonds, to watch for a favorable opportunity of effecting their object.
Douglas had left, withal, an able coadjutor within the castle, a boy of tender years, of mysterious parentage, and humble vocation, who was destined to act the part of the mouse in Æsop’s beautiful fable. This unsuspected confederate was a youth of fifteen, who waited on the Lady of Lochleven in the capacity of page. He is known in history by the names of Willie Douglas, and the Little Douglas; in the castle he was called the Lad Willie, the Orphan Willie, and the Foundling Willie,‡ for he was found, when a babe, at the castle gates. Home, of Godscroft says, “He was the natural brother of George Douglas,”§ a statement perfectly reconcileable with the story of his first introduction into the family of the late Laird of Lochleven. Such incidents are not of unfrequent occurrences in the daily romance of life, and often has it happened that the appeal made to the parental feelings of a profligate seducer, in behalf of a guiltless child of sin and sorrow, has awakened feelings of feminine compassion in the bosom of the injured wife, and the forlorn stranger has received a home and nurture through her charity. This appears to have been the case with regard to Little Willie and the Lady of Lochleven; for, whether she suspected his connection with the laird her husband or not, he was taken in, and brought up under her auspices, and as attendant on her person. Frail as she had been in her youth, and cruel and vindictive in her treatment of the lawful daughter of her royal seducer, whom it irked her pride to consider as her sovereign, it is nevertheless pleasant to trace out the evidence of some good in the harsh Lady of Lochleven.
The Foundling Willie remained in the castle, after the death of the old laird, an orphan dependent in the family, but his subsequent actions prove that he had received the education of a gentleman; for not only could he read and write, but he understood enough of French and other languages to be sent on secret missions to foreign princes. To these acquirements Willie added courage, firmness, and address, seldom paralleled in one of his tender years.
There is not any circumstance in the course of Mary Stuart’s career more striking than the fact that, in this dark epoch of her life, when deprived of all the attributes of royalty, oppressed, calumniated, and imprisoned, two friends like George and Willie Douglas should have been raised up for her in the family of her deadliest foes. The regent and his confederates, men whose hands had been soiled with English gold, had not calculated on the existence of the chivalric feelings which animated those young warm hearts with the determination of effecting the liberation of their captive queen.
“Mary being deprived of pen and ink at this time,” says her French biographer, Caussin, “wrote her instructions with a piece of charcoal, on her handkerchief, which she employed the boy Willie Douglas to dispatch to the Lord Seton.” John Beton, who still lay, perdue, among the hills, was the ready bearer of this missive, and arranged every thing for the reception and safe conduct of his royal mistress, in case she should be fortunate enough to reach the shore in safety. For many nights he, with Lord Seton, George Douglas, and others, kept watch and ward on the promontory which commanded a view of the castle and the lake, in expectation of being apprised, by signal, that the project was about to be carried into effect.
On Sunday, the second evening in May, all things being in readiness, and the family at supper, Willie Douglas, who was waiting on the Lady of Lochleven, contrived, while changing her plate, to drop a napkin over the keys of the castle (which were always placed beside her during meals), and having thus enveloped them, succeeded in carrying them off unobserved. Hastening with them to the queen, he conducted her, by a private stair, to the postern, and so to the water-gate of the castle, which he took care to lock after him; and when the boat had gained convenient distance from the shore, flung the keys into the water. These mute memorials of the adventure were found covered with rust when the lock was drained, early in the present century. They are now in the possession of the Earl of Morton, at Dalmahoy House, where I saw them, and the rude iron chain which formerly linked them together, but which, being rusted through, fell to pieces when taken out of the water. The Lochleven keys are five in number, large and small, of antique workmanship, and are all carefully enthroned in a casket lined with velvet, and preserved as precious relics by the noble representatives of the chivalric George Douglas.
The boat which Willie the Orphan had adroitly secured for the service of his captive sovereign, was that belonging to the castle, and the only medium of communication for the castellan and his meiné with the shore. Immediate pursuit was, therefore, almost impossible. The companions of Queen Mary’s flight were, her faithful attendant, Mary Seton, ever near her in the hour 24 of peril, and a little girl of ten years old, of whose safety her majesty appeared tenderly careful, as she led her by the hand. The other damsel, a French lady of the name of Quenede, gave a remarkable proof of her personal courage and devotion to her royal mistress; for, not being quick enough to reach the castle gate till it was locked behind the retreating party, she fearlessly leaped out of the window of the queen’s apartment into the loch, and swam after the boat till she was received within that little ark in her dripping garments.
Meantime, Lord Seton and his gallant associates, who were anxiously reconnoitring from their eyrie the progress of the little bark and its precious freight across the lake, remained in a state of the greatest excitement, not daring to believe that so feeble an instrument as the orphan Willie had succeeded in achieving an exploit which the bravest peers in Scotland might have been proud of having performed, and her own royal kinsmen, the allied princes of France and Spain, had not ventured to attempt. But all doubts and fears were dispelled when they recognized the stately figure of their queen, distinguished from the other females by her superior height, rising in the boat and giving the telegraphic signal of her safety, as previously agreed, by waving her vail, which was white with a crimson border, the royal colors of Scotland. The moment that auspicious ensign was displayed, fifty horsemen, who had lain concealed behind the hill, sprang to their saddles, and, with Lord Seton at their head, galloped down to the shore, where George Douglas and Beton, with another party of devoted friends, were already waiting to receive and welcome their enfranchised sovereign, as she sprang to the land. The fleetest palfreys that Scotland could supply had long been provided, and concealed by George Douglas’s trusty confederates in the village, in anticipation of the success of this enterprise, and were now ready caparisoned for the queen and her ladies. Mary mounted without delay, and, attended by the faithful companions of her perils and escape, scoured across the country at fiery speed, without halting, till she reached North Queen’s Ferry, about twenty miles from Lochleven. Embarking in the common ferry-boat at that port, she and her company crossed the rough waters of the Firth, and landed, tradition says, at the ancient wooden pier, which formerly jutted out into the sea, just above the town of South Queen’s Ferry. There she was met and welcomed by Lord Claud Hamilton, and fifty cavaliers and other loyal gentlemen, eager to renew their homage, and burning to avenge her wrongs.
Lord Seton conducted his royal mistress to his own castle at West Niddry, distant seven miles from Queen’s Ferry, where she partook of his hospitality, and enjoyed the repose of a few hours, after her moonlight flitting. West Niddry now forms part of the fair domain of the Earl of Hopeton. The roofless shell of the stately castle, which afforded the first safe resting-place to the fugitive sovereign is still in existence. The changes of the last few years have conducted the railroad line between Edinburgh and Glasgow in close proximity to the ruins of the feudal fortress, which gave rest and shelter to the royal fugitive, after her escape from Lochleven. The gray mouldering pile, in its lonely desolation, arrests for a moment the attention of the musing moralist or antiquarian among the passengers in the trains that thunder onward to their appointed goal through solitudes that recall high and chivalric visions of the past. But Niddry Castle should be visited in a quiet hour by the historical pilgrim, who would retrace in fancy the last bright scene of Mary Stuart’s life, when, notwithstanding the forced abdication which had transferred the regal diadem of Scotland to the unconscious brow of her baby-boy, she stood a queen once more among the only true nobles of her realm, those whom English gold had not corrupted, nor successful traitors daunted.
One window in Niddry Castle was, within the memory of many persons in the neighborhood, surmounted with the royal arms of Scotland, together with a stone entablature, which, though broken, is still in existence, in the orchard of the adjacent grange, inscribed in ancient letters with the day of the month and the date of the year, and even the age of George Lord of Seton, at the memorable epoch of his life when the beauteous majesty of Scotland, whom he had so honorable a share in emancipating from her cruel bondage, slept beneath his roof in safety.
Lord Seton had been an old and faithful servant of his queen. He was the master of the royal household, and had been present at her nuptials with the beloved husband of her youth, King Francis II., of France. On her return to Scotland, after the death of that sovereign, Mary offered to advance Seton to the dignity of an earldom, but being the premier baron in parliament, he refused to be the puisne earl, giving humble thanks to her majesty for her proffered grace at the same time. Mary then wrote the following extempore distich in Latin and also in French:
which in plain English, may be rendered thus:
“After that unfortunate battle of Langside, the said Lord George Seton was forced to fly to Flanders, and was there in exile two years, and drove a wagon with four horses for his subsistence. His picture in that condition,” adds the quaint, kindred biographer of the noble family of Seton, “I have seen drawn, and lively painted, at the north end of the long gallery in Seton, now overlaid with timber. From Flanders, the said Lord George went to Holland, and there endeavored to seduce the two Scots regiments to the Spanish service, upon a design thereby to serve his sovereign the queen, the king of Spain being very much her friend. Which plot 25 of his being revealed, the states of Holland did imprison and condemn him to ride the cannon; but by the friendship and respect the Scotch officers had to him, he was by them set at liberty, notwithstanding this decision of the States.” ¶
Lord Seton outlived these troubles, he was preserved to enjoy the reward of his integrity after those who pursued his life had been successfully summoned to render up an account of the manner in which they had acquired and acquitted themselves of their usurped authority, till all were clean swept away. It is a remarkable fact that the most relentless of the persecutors of their hapless sovereign, Mary Stuart, especially those who for a brief period were the most successful in their ambitious projects, Murray, Lennox, Marr, Lethington, and Morton, all by violent or untimely deaths preceded their royal victim to the tomb.
James VI. testified a grateful sense of the services Lord Seton had rendered to queen Mary, by preferring him and his sons to the most honorable offices in his gift.
Mary herself rewarded George Douglas to the utmost of her power, in various ways, but above all by facilitating his marriage with a young and beautiful French heiress of high rank, to whom he had formed an attachment, and as his poverty was the only obstacle to this alliance, she generously enabled him to make a suitable settlement on his bride out of a portion of her French estates, which she assigned to him for this purpose by deed of gift. “Services like his,” as she wrote to her uncle, “ought never to be forgotten.”
A simple black marble tablet in the chancel of Edensor Church, to the left of the altar, marks the grave of John Beton, on which a Latin inscription records the fact, “that he died at Chatsworth, in his thirty-fourth year, worn out with the fatigues and hardships he had encountered in the service of his royal mistress,” adding as his best and proudest epitaph, “that he had assisted in delivering that illustrious princess from her doleful prison in the Laga Laguina.” (Lochleven.)
Poetry is the handmaid as well as the inspiration of chivalry, and if ever the deeds of brave and loyal gentlemen deserved to live in song, surely the achievement of the loyal associates who rescued their oppressed queen from her cruel captivity in Lochleven Castle, ought to be thus commemorated, and their names had in remembrance long after “the marble that enshrines their mortal remains has perished, and its imagery mouldered away.”
* “Lives of the Queens of Scotland, and English Princesses connected with the regal succession of Great Britain.”
† See many dispatches from the English envoys resident in Scotland. State Paper Office, from 1534 to1536.
‡ “Life of Lord Herries,” edited by Pitcairne, Abbotsford Club, p. 101.
§ “Life of James Earl of Morton,” in the “Lives of the Douglases.” p. 302.
¶ Continuation of the “History of the Houses of Seytoun, by Alexander, Viscount Kingston. Printed for the Maitland Club.”
** From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume II, Number VII, December, 1850; Harper & Bros; New York; 1906; pp. 22-25.