Kirkcaldy of Grange - Louis A. Barbé - ebook

THE materials available for a biography of Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange are very unequally distributed over the two portions into which his life naturally divides itself. For the first of them, I have been obliged to content myself with the rather meagre and fragmentary information to be gathered from the old chroniclers. As regards the incidents that occur during those earlier years, I cannot, therefore, claim much novelty for my sketch. By looking closely into dates, however, I have been able to rectify some minor details, and to set forth events in their proper sequence.

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Kirkcaldy of Grange


Louis A. Barbé

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The materials available for a biography of Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange are very unequally distributed over the two portions into which his life naturally divides itself. For the first of them, I have been obliged to content myself with the rather meagre and fragmentary information to be gathered from the old chroniclers. As regards the incidents that occur during those earlier years, I cannot, therefore, claim much novelty for my sketch. By looking closely into dates, however, I have been able to rectify some minor details, and to set forth events in their proper sequence.


On the second part of Sir William’s public career, the documents preserved in the Record Office throw considerable light. Some of them have been utilised, to a certain extent, in connection with the general history of the time; but, so far as I know, no attempt has yet been made to base on them a connected narrative of this important period of Grange’s life, or to draw from them an explanation of his policy. By using his own correspondence—both the letters which he wrote, and those which were addressed to him—I have endeavoured to represent the man as he wished to be understood by his contemporaries.


It has not been my special object to justify Kirkcaldy’s conduct; but I am not without the hope that the impartial account of it which I have striven to give, may show how unfair it is to form an estimate of him from a consideration of the bare fact that he was, in turn, the champion of two conflicting parties.

L. A. B.

8 Wilton Mansions, Glasgow,

October 1897.


In the parish of Kinghorn, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth, a farm-house known as the Grange still marks the spot where, three centuries ago, the ancestral seat of the Kirkcaldys stood. The greater part of the present structure is comparatively modern; yet it bears a look of antiquity which indicates that its transformation has been gradual and fragmentary, and not wholly uninfluenced by the design of the original builder. The only date to be seen about it figures, accompanied with an illegible monogram, on the lintel of what is now an inner door, and commemorates some addition or alteration made in 1687. Two portions, however, show traces of even greater age, and may, with some plausibility, be looked upon as relics of the old baronial mansion. They are a dovecot, and a flanking tower of solid masonry. A low recess, near the foot of the latter, is traditionally believed to have been the entrance to a subterranean passage leading down to the shore, beneath the village which the cottages of the dependents of the family formed, and on the site of which a few dwellings still cluster together. That, in the days when the prosperity of the Lairds of Grange was at its height, this village was of some size and importance, may be inferred from the fact that it possessed a chapel of its own, dedicated to St Mary, and used as a burial-place for the family.

The Kirkcaldys, who took their territorial appellation from their estate of Grange, and who probably derived their name from the ancient town near which that baronial seat was situated, were amongst the oldest and most influential families in the county of Fife. As early as the thirteenth century, Sir William de Kirkcaldy is mentioned amongst the nobles on whom the fortune of war imposed temporary submission to Edward I., and who were compelled solemnly to take the oath of allegiance to him, on the Gospels, in presence of his Commissioners. In 1440, the name of Sir George de Kirkcaldy appears in a charter which made over to him one half of the lands of Seafield and of Tyrie.

About the middle of the sixteenth century, the family of Kirkcaldy was represented by Sir James, who, having married Janet, daughter of his neighbour Sir John Melville of Raith, was introduced by his father-in-law to the court and service of King James V. He was first appointed to be a simple Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, but was soon afterwards advanced to the more important and responsible post of Treasurer. The confidence and favour with which he was honoured by his royal master excited the jealousy and the fear of Cardinal Beaton, to whom he was opposed in religion, as an adherent to the doctrines of the Reformation, and in politics, as an ardent advocate of an alliance with England. All the efforts of his rival to bring about his fall proved ineffectual as long as the King lived. Under the regency of the Earl of Arran, however, the influence of the Churchman prevailed; and the Treasurer was set aside to make room for John Hamilton, abbot of Paisley.

Contemporary chronicles testify to the important part played by Sir James Kirkcaldy during the troubled days of his tenure of office. He is described by Melville as ‘a stout bold man, who always offered by single combat, and at the point of the sword, to maintain what he spoke.’ That, in those turbulent times, the fiery and rather overbearing temper of which these words are only a veiled and too partial description, should have brought trouble upon him, was but a natural consequence; and it is not surprising to learn from the evidence of a remission granted him in 1538, that respect for law and order did not always guide his conduct. A few years later, the energy of his character showed itself in the prompt and decisive action which he took under circumstances as critical for the State as they were dangerous to his liberty, and even to his life. It was he who, with Sir Thomas Erskine and Sir James Learmonth, on the authority of a verbal message brought to him by a youth, and with the King’s ring for his sole warrant, ordered the arrest of Sir James Hamilton, the powerful and notorious Bastard of Arran, lodged him in the Castle, brought him to immediate trial on a charge of being in secret intelligence with the banished Earl of Angus, the Douglasses, and other declared enemies of the realm, and of having formed a plot to break into the King’s chamber to slay him, and sent him to a traitor’s doom before influence could be brought to bear upon the fickle monarch in favour of his former favourite.

It was to the Treasurer that the delicate negotiations between James V. and his uncle Henry VIII. were entrusted; and it was owing to his influence that, whilst the King of England was at Pomfret, during his northern progress, ‘one of the King of Scots’ most secret councillors’ appeared at the Court, to arrange a meeting between the sovereigns. Unfortunately for Sir James’s scheme, his opponents discovered it at the critical moment. For the purpose of bringing him into discredit, they accused him of favouring the new creed, as in truth he did, though he had not yet made public profession of it; and they put his name on a list of noblemen whom they urged the King to burn as heretics. But inconstant though he was, James was not so easily to be turned against his Treasurer, for he believed him to be loyal, trustworthy, and thoroughly devoted to his sovereign’s interests. At their next meeting, he showed Sir James the black roll, and jestingly, or perhaps only half jestingly, asked him what objection he could raise to the Churchmen’s suggestions. Having thus been invited to plead his cause, Kirkcaldy availed himself to the utmost of the opportunity which the King’s good-nature afforded him. Not only did he draw a glowing picture of the advantages which would accrue to both sovereign and people from an alliance with England, and warningly point out the danger of rejecting King Henry’s friendly advances, he also denounced the selfish policy of his opponents, represented the gross abuses of the Roman Church, inveighed against the ungodly and scandalous lives of the prelates, and advised the King, not indeed to send the Cardinal and his bishops to the stake, as they wished to do by their enemies, but, if he would be well and rich, to take home again to the profit of the Crown all vacant benefices, by little and little, as they fell by the death of each prelate. The proposal to turn the tables on the Churchmen, besides holding out a promise of much-needed pecuniary help, contained an element of grim humour, which, for the time at least, caught the King’s fancy; and his resolve to adopt it was so far sincere, that it led to a characteristic scene at his next conference with the Cardinal and his prelates at Holyrood. Gradually working himself into a passion as he rebuked them for their treacherous and cruel advice, he disconcerted them by his indignant words and impetuous threats of violence. ‘Wherefore,’ he asked, ‘gave my predecessors so many lands and rents to the Kirk? Was it to maintain hawks, dogs, and concubines, to a number of idle priests? Pack, you javells! Get you to your charges, and reform your own lives; and be not instruments of discord betwixt my nobility and me, or else, I vow to God, I shall reform you, not as the King of Denmark doth, by imprisonment, nor yet as the King of England doth, by hanging and heading, but by sharper punishments; if ever I hear such a motion made by you again, I shall stick you with this whingar!’ And as he drew his dagger to emphasize his meaning, the terrified priests, more careful of their personal safety than of their dignity, precipitately fled from his presence.

This temporary check did not discourage the Treasurer’s opponents. As a proof that they, too, were actuated by disinterested and patriotic motives, they offered to make the King an annual grant of fifty thousand crowns, out of the rents of the Church, for the maintenance of hired soldiers, in case King Henry should levy war against him because of his refusal to keep his promise with regard to a personal interview at York. Even this bribe might have failed to win James over to their views but for a circumstance which deprived him for a while of the counsel and support of the Treasurer. He had lately sanctioned the betrothal of Helen Leslie, heiress of Kellie, who was a ward of the Crown, to Kirkcaldy’s second son; and Sir James found it necessary to go over into Angus on business connected with this advantageous matrimonial alliance. His rivals did not neglect to make the most of the opportunity which his absence from Court afforded. They renewed the charge of heresy against him, basing it on the fact that he always carried an English version of the New Testament about with him in his pocket; they complained of the haughtiness and arrogance which had characterized his conduct ever since he thought himself secure in the King’s favour; they denounced his greed, of which his anxiety to marry his son to an heiress with a dowry of twenty thousand pounds was adduced as a proof; and they questioned his fitness, in point of honesty, for the responsible position to which he had been raised.

Seeing that James was wholly unmoved by accusations which he knew to be prompted by malice and envy, and which he met by unhesitatingly declaring his esteem and affection for Kirkcaldy, to whom, if he had not done it already, he would willingly entrust the fortune of his ward, they insidiously changed their tactics, and directed their attack against what they well knew to be the weakest point in the dissolute monarch’s character. ‘Sir,’ said the Prior of Pittenweem, himself a notorious and unscrupulous libertine, ‘the heiress of Kellie is a lusty, fair lass, and I dare pledge my life that, if your Majesty will send for her presently, the Treasurer shall refuse to send her to you.’ On this point, too, James asserted his absolute confidence in Kirkcaldy’s fidelity and devotedness; nevertheless he so far yielded to the tempters as to consent to their putting him to the test. The plan devised by them was, that a letter should be written and entrusted to the Prior of Pittenweem, who was to deliver it in person, and, if the Treasurer obeyed the order contained in it, to bring Helen Leslie to the King.

The event was precisely such as had been anticipated when choice was made of an agent who, to his evil reputation joined the further qualification of being at deadly enmity with the Laird of Grange. Sir James refused to entrust his son’s intended bride to the unprincipled messenger, at whom he did not hesitate to cast the plain and vigorous epithets which his flagrant licentiousness deserved, and which the blunt and unconventional language of the time justified. Rejoicing in the failure of his mission and the success of his scheme, the Prior hastened back to Edinburgh. On hearing his carefully and craftily framed report of what had taken place, the King flew into a violent passion, and in the heat of it, consented to the issue of a warrant for the arrest of Sir James as soon as he returned.

When the Treasurer, who had no difficulty in penetrating the designs of his enemies, and who consequently followed close on the Prior’s heels, presented himself at Holyrood, he was refused admittance. Disregarding the prohibition, however, he made his way to the presence of the King, who was just then at supper; but only to be received with ominous silence by the angry monarch. This did not awe him into a passive submission, which would have been interpreted into a confession of guilt. Respectfully, yet firmly, addressing his sovereign, he begged to be told what offence he had committed, and why he had suddenly been deprived of the favour with which he had so lately been honoured. The reply was such as he expected it would be. ‘Why,’ asked James, ‘why did you refuse to send me the maiden whom I wrote for, and give despiteful language to him I sent for her?’ Put in this form, the charge was easy to meet. Kirkcaldy dared anyone present to accuse him of disobedience to the King’s command. He had, he admitted, declined to give Helen Leslie into the Prior’s keeping; but his refusal was justified by the messenger’s too well-known character—a character which he did not veil his words to denounce. Moreover, as he had stated at the time, he considered himself the fittest person to accompany the young lady to Court; and, in proof that he had never been unwilling to yield compliance to the King’s wishes, he was able to answer in the affirmative when asked whether he had brought the gentlewoman with him.

James understood from his Treasurer’s undaunted manner, no less than from his straightforward explanation, that a faithful servant had been falsely accused and unjustly condemned; but if he could recall the warrant which had been extorted from him, he could not prevent the consequences of a more momentous step which he had also been induced to take. Beaton and his party had prevailed on him to adopt their policy, and decisively to reject the proffered alliance with England—a slight to Henry, which that imperious monarch was not slow to resent, and which was the immediate cause of one of the most disastrous and humiliating defeats ever inflicted on Scotland.

Once again Sir James Kirkcaldy figures in connection with the sovereign whom his advice, had it not been so petulantly neglected, might have saved from the closing disaster of his career. After the ill-fated battle of Solway Moss, when King James wandered aimlessly and hopelessly into Fifeshire, ashamed to look any man in the face, it was to Halyards, one of the Laird of Grange’s estates, that he came for rest and shelter. The Treasurer was absent at the time, but the unfortunate and broken-hearted monarch was received with loyal affection by Lady Janet, an ‘auncient and godlie matron,’ and waited upon during his brief stay by her eldest son, William Kirkcaldy. The youth was destined to behold many a sorrowful scene in after years, yet few so pathetic and so impressive as that of which he was a silent spectator on the memorable evening of the King’s stay. At supper, James sat pensive and dejected, unable to realise the full extent of the disaster that had fallen upon him, and inwardly repeating his ‘continuall regrate’: ‘Oh! Oh! Fled Oliver? Is Oliver taken? Oh! Fled Oliver?’ Lady Grange, in a kindly attempt to comfort him, begged him to take the work of God in good part. But his incoherent answer showed how little he had understood her meaning. ‘My portion of this world is short,’ he said, ‘for I will not be with you fifteen days.’

To break the distressing silence which followed the gloomy reply, one of the attendants inquired where his Majesty wished preparation to be made for celebrating Christmas, which was near at hand. With a ‘disdainful countenance,’ as though the matter were one with which he had no concern, ‘I cannot tell,’ he answered, ‘choose you the place. But this I can tell you; before Christmas you will be masterless, and the realm without a king.’ And he seemed so convinced of the truth of his prediction that, although there was no sign of approaching death about him, none dared contradict him for fear of his anger.

Next day the wretched King left Halyards, accompanied by young Kirkcaldy. The Treasurer himself joined them a little later; and both father and son were amongst the attendants who stood about the dying monarch in the palace of Falkland, on the 13th of December 1542, and vainly strove to soothe the mighty grief which found expression in the one despairing cry: ‘Fie! Fie! Is Oliver fled—and taken? Then all is lost—all is lost!’


William Kirkcaldy, who makes his first appearance in the pages of history as the attendant of James V. during the brief interval between the shameful rout of Solway Moss and the last melancholy scene at Falkland, is usually represented as being but a child at the time. No record indicates the year of his birth; but it is assumed to have taken place about 1530. That, however, does not seem to tally with the known dates of several events in which he and other members of his family bore a part.

In the first place, if it be not impossible, it may be looked upon as at least improbable, that a lad of twelve was given to James as an attendant, under the peculiar circumstances of his visit to Halyards. It is still less likely that, whether the will attributed to James V. be genuine, or fraudulent, as was afterwards maintained, such a mere child should figure amongst the witnesses to it, and should, as the document, under any circumstances, fully establishes, have been allowed to be present at the King’s last moments. Nor does it agree with the description of Lady Grange as ‘an ancient matron,’ that the eldest of her nine children should have been so young at the time.

As we have already seen, it is mentioned by Melville that, as early as 1542, a younger brother, James Kirkcaldy, had obtained ‘the ward and marriage of Kellie in Angus,’ and that his father, the Treasurer, had ‘gone there to take possession thereof’ whilst the negotiations with Henry VIII. were still pending. The difficulty of believing that the betrothal of James Kirkcaldy—if, indeed, the passage do not actually refer, as some have thought, to his marriage—took place when he was at most but eleven years old, naturally suggests doubts as to the accuracy of the date assigned to his elder brother’s birth. Such early matrimonial engagements were not, it is true, unknown, or even uncommon, in those days; but that the intended bride, at least, was no longer in her girlhood may fairly be inferred from the details of the discreditable plot against the Treasurer, in which the Prior of Pittenweem made her play a part.

All that can be ascertained with regard to Kirkcaldy’s education is supplied by a letter, in which Randolph, the English agent, writing to him, makes allusion to their early acquaintance, as students, in France, at the time that the University of Paris was presided over by the Cardinal of Lorraine. As Randolph was born in 1523, he would have been Kirkcaldy’s senior by seven years, a disparity of age which still further diminishes the plausibility of the theory that the latter was born in 1530. Yet another objection to it may be gathered from a passage in Master Randolph’s Fantasy, a poem recording the events of what is known as the Round About Raid, in 1566. Sir William Kirkcaldy is mentioned in it, amongst the rebellious nobles; and the special reference to his ‘horye head’ would unquestionably seem to imply that he was more than thirty-six years old at the time. Finally, it is known that Kirkcaldy’s only daughter, Janet, was married to the Laird of St Colme’s Inch at the beginning of the year 1561; and it is assuredly not easy to make that fact accord with the assumed date of her father’s birth.

Such are the difficulties in the way of accepting Grant’s opinion, that Kirkcaldy’s birth ‘probably took place about the year 1530,’ or Froude’s later statement that ‘the Treasurer’s eldest son’ was ‘a boy of about seventeen,’ in the year 1546. None of the arguments adduced may be convincing if considered singly; but, when all are taken together, they assume sufficient weight to justify the supposition that Kirkcaldy was at least as old as his fellow-student, Thomas Randolph; that he was a young man of over twenty when he accompanied his King from Halyards to Falkland; and that he was, not a lad of sixteen or seventeen, but a man approaching his thirtieth year at the time of the important event which has now to be chronicled as the next in his career, and in which he was destined to play important parts that would scarcely have been entrusted to a ‘boy.’

It is possibly owing to his absence on the Continent, for the prosecution of his studies, that, after James V.’s death, young Kirkcaldy’s name disappears for a time from the chronicles of the age. When mention of him is again made, it is in connection with an event which, even in those troubled days, when men were but too familiar with deeds of violence, sent a thrill of terror through the land, and which still stands out in terrible prominence amongst the most striking examples of the lawlessness of our forefathers, of the contempt which they displayed for human life in the furtherance of their political schemes, and of the disregard for the fundamental precepts of morality which, by a strange inconsistency, they were able to reconcile with an earnest zeal for religion. It is as one of the assassins of Cardinal Beaton that William Kirkcaldy first takes an active part in the political and religious struggle in which he was destined to figure so conspicuously.

By what means Beaton had risen to power, with what uncompromising fixity of purpose, and in what cause he wielded it, there is no necessity for recalling. Neither would it serve any good purpose to re-open the controversy which has raged about his memory. Even if it were possible to attempt an impartial and unbiased estimate of his work and character without being confronted at the outset by the difficulty of obtaining any evidence, either for impeachment or for defence, but that of witnesses whose avowed partisanship at once marks them as untrustworthy, there would be but little prospect of a definitive settlement of the vexed question so long as one side endorses the sentiments of him who wrote ‘merrily’ of the ‘godly fact’ of his murder, whilst another holds him up to veneration as a martyr.

In 1546, the Cardinal had attained a position of almost absolute authority in the kingdom; but he had also incurred the hatred of powerful and determined men, by whom his death was resolved upon, and who were only waiting for a favourable opportunity to carry out their desperate designs. Foremost amongst them were the Kirkcaldys. Whatever may have been the motives by which the other conspirators were swayed, it seems impossible to doubt that the late Treasurer and his family were actuated by a desire to be revenged, rather upon the Statesman who had thwarted their policy than upon the Churchman who opposed their religion. As early as 1544, long before the execution of Wishart had occurred to lend a semblance of wild justice to the plot against the Cardinal, it had been reported by the Earl of Hertford to Henry VIII., that ‘the Larde of Grange, late Thesaurer of Scotland, wolde attempt eyther to apprehend or slee him at some time when he sholde goe through the Fyfeland, and, in case he colde so apprehend him, wolde delyver him unto His Majesty.’

Owing to various circumstances, amongst which, however, cannot be included any special precautions taken by the intended victim, who, according to his enemies, had reached that point of infatuated security which fatally precedes destruction, the ‘manie purposes devysed how to cutt off’ Beaton, all failed till Friday the 28th of May 1546. On the evening of that day, Norman Lesley, Master of Rothes, with five companions, came to St Andrews, which William Kirkcaldy had entered before