Stewart, Matthew, thirteenth or fourth earl of Lennox (1516–1571), magnate and regent of Scotland
by Marcus Merriman

Stewart, Matthew, thirteenth or fourth earl of Lennox (1516–1571), magnate and regent of Scotland, was born in Dumbarton Castle on 21 September 1516, the eldest surviving son of , and his wife, Elizabeth (d. after 1556), eighth daughter of John Stewart, first earl of Atholl.

Background and early career

The Lennox Stewart lands lay to the west of the country, mostly north of the Clyde, but the family also had close connections with nobles from the west highlands and the Isles. Matthew's younger brother was nominated bishop of Caithness in 1541, though he was never consecrated. The Lennox Stewarts were born of one of the major houses of Scotland; if the Hamilton assertion to be second person of the realm was in any way compromised, the Lennoxes had the next strongest claim. They had also gained renown in France; following the example of his kinsman Bérault Stewart, Lennox's uncle , had moved to France in the 1490s and there enjoyed a distinguished military career.

Matthew Stewart was not quite ten when his father was killed near Linlithgow, on 4 September 1526, and the wardship of his earldom was divided between the earls of Angus and Arran; however, it was soon conveyed to Andrew Stewart, Lord Avondale. Matthew's adolescence was overshadowed by a problematic relationship with Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, a powerful figure at the court of James V who had also been the killer of Matthew's father and who was Avondale's associate in exploiting the lands of the earldom—Finnart's half-sister was Avondale's wife. On 29 April 1531 the new earl and Finnart made an agreement under which Lennox forgave his father's killer, who relinquished his rights in the earl's marriage but was to be left undisturbed in the lands he had come to hold of the earldom of Lennox. At this time the balance of advantage undoubtedly lay with Finnart, and though Lennox was appointed lifetime keeper of Dumbarton Castle (an office resigned by Finnart) on 21 April 1531, and attended parliament as a peer of the realm on 26 April 1531 and 17 May 1532, either concern for his safety or a nose for adventure then took him to France, under a letter of safeguard issued on 1 July 1532. In his absence members of his family looked after his interests, with some assistance from the king. In France Lennox gained command of a company of Scots soldiers, and in summer 1536 he joined his uncle Robert Stewart in François I's campaign to Provence. So valiant was his performance in this ‘joyage’ that in January 1537 he was granted rights of denizenship under the French crown. François I was fairly liberal with such awards to Italians, but less so with his allies to the north: Lennox's grant was thus a definite feather in his cap and he settled easily into the life of a French courtier. But the course of his life was redirected by the death of James V on 14 December 1542.

Struggle with Arran

François I, anxious to ensure that French influence was maintained in Scotland during the minority of Mary, queen of Scots, decided to pluck Lennox from the French court and send him to Scotland as the French ambassador. Few Scottish nobles had such a stronghold as formidable as Dumbarton at their disposal, and Lennox sailed to Scotland in March 1543 through an Irish Sea full of English warships. He arrived with supplies of munitions, armour, gold, and silver, lavishly provided by François I. He immediately tendered his letters of accreditation to the governor of the realm, James Hamilton, earl of Arran, to which he had had a handsome salutation added, probably penned by his indefatigable secretary, Thomas Bishop.

Although Lennox's return was not entirely unforeseen, it still created problems. In his own eyes he was heir to the throne, as there were doubts over Arran's legitimacy—Cardinal David Beaton spoke up for his claims in preference to those of Queen Mary on the ground that Scotland needed an adult male as monarch—and for the furtherance of his mission, as well as his personal ambitions, he needed allies. Once off ship and his supplies secured, Lennox made haste to speak with the queen dowager, Mary of Guise. He was received with enough grace to arouse suspicion of Mary of Guise's intentions, but in fact neither the queen dowager nor other potential supporters, such as Archibald Douglas, sixth earl of Angus, and William Cunningham, third earl of Glencairn, were willing to support Lennox's claim to the governorship over that of Arran.

None the less, when parliament met at the end of April 1543 Lennox, who attended as French ambassador and in that capacity demanded a renewal of Scotland's treaty with France, refused to subscribe the act acknowledging Arran as governor and second person of the realm; Arran thereupon demanded he surrender Dumbarton Castle. Lennox refused and fled to the security of the highlands where his family still had many supporters. He formed an alliance with Beaton, who was also a supporter of French interests in Scotland, and on 21 July brought a force of highlanders to Linlithgow, where Arran had fortified the palace. Three days later Lennox and his allies subscribed a bond to defend the infant queen against English policy, and as they outnumbered Arran they were able to win him over. Lennox escorted the queen and her mother to Stirling Castle on 27 July, and Mary was crowned there on 9 September: Lennox carried the sceptre. Any realistic chance that the Scottish queen would marry Prince Edward was now at an end.

For a short period Lennox became involved in the government of Scotland, and there was even talk of his marrying the queen dowager—he is described (by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie) as having been ‘a strong man of personage well shaped … fair and pleasant faced, with a good and manly countenance … and upright in his passage. Therefore at that time he was most pleasant for a lady’ (Marshall, 135). Mary of Guise may have encouraged Lennox's hopes for political reasons, but she did nothing to satisfy them. Meanwhile François I continued to regard him as an ambassador of France, and when the French king finally sent representatives (Jacques de la Brosse and Jules de Menage) to Scotland they were strictly instructed to liaise with Lennox and to place all their trust in him. Thus they went to Dumbarton in late September and unloaded the entire contents (weapons, powder, presents, and money) of their seven vessels into the castle's keeping. Just how much was brought by them is not certain, but during their embassy they promised pensions of over 2500 crowns of the sun and their total costs came to 41,700 livres tournois. None of these moneys were ever seen again: Lennox was becoming a very rich and well-armed man. The money and supplies were not intended for the earl's personal use, however, and by commandeering them he was weakening the French cause in Scotland, faced as it was by a party backed by England. Lennox's reluctance to co-operate with potential allies in Scotland itself worked to the same effect. It is not clear how much policy lay behind his dissembling in his numerous interviews with Beaton and the queen dowager; he may not have known what to do and so he fished for advantage. Presumably it was in the hope of retaining his loyalty that Mary of Guise proposed that he should marry her daughter, Queen Mary, on condition of his handing over the French money and supporting the Franco-Scottish alliance. To the French ambassadors Lennox was cordiality itself, declaring that he was determined to die for François's service. It was not until November 1543 that the French appreciated how damaging to their cause his actions had become.

The December parliament finally ousted Lennox from the governor's council, and in January 1544 the earl executed a breathtaking volte face, abandoning any pretence of alliance with Arran and Beaton, and joining with Angus, Glencairn, Gilbert Kennedy, third earl of Cassillis, and other supporters of Queen Mary's English marriage. These ‘men of the west’ mustered a force of retainers and marched in the dead of winter to force Arran to accept the betrothal. However, when they reached Leith, they found themselves vastly outnumbered by Arran's force. Consequently they had no alternative but to accept on 23 January a dictated acknowledgement of the governor's authority, the Greenlaw agreement, to lay hostages (such as George Douglas), to lay surety (Lennox's was £10,000 Scots), and to retire to their estates. In an eloquent letter of 13 February 1544 François tried to lure his former ambassador back to France, though one of Lennox's own agents in France was considerably blunter, telling the earl that ‘you have had yourself marvellous evil to the Queen's Grace in many cases … which, my lord, will not fail to come to your great displeasure’ (Marshall, 143). The French ambassadors exercised what charms they could muster, but by then it was too late.

Alliance with England

After their humiliation at Greenlaw, it was no surprise that Lennox and Glencairn should have turned to Henry VIII. They agreed on 17 March 1544 to deliver various strongholds, to promote Mary's marriage to Prince Edward, and to become protestants. Lennox's reward was to be the hand of , Angus's daughter from his marriage with James IV's queen, Margaret Tudor, and land in England. Once Henry had prevailed in Scotland, Lennox was to be made governor. Meanwhile Lennox defied the government by placing a garrison in Glasgow steeple and in Dumbarton and with Glencairn gathered about him a small army. Arran then lost all patience and sent yet another army against him in April–May, savaging his retinue on Glasgow Moor and taking the city.

Having lost his Glasgow outworks to Arran, Lennox realized that he had no viable options in Scotland. He therefore engaged in further negotiations with Henry and a formal pact was concluded on 17 May 1544. While Arran was distracted by Hertford's attack on Edinburgh, Lennox mustered a small navy, set his affairs in order, and slipped away from Dumbarton on 28 May; he arrived in Chester by sea on 7 June and proceeded to London. On 26 June his marriage contract was finalized, and three days later he married Lady Margaret Douglas at St James's Palace in the presence of Henry and Queen Katherine Howard. On 10 July he became an English subject. He was then granted lands at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire, worth 1700 marks yearly. In Scotland he was forfeited by parliament on 1 October 1545. The Lennoxes had two surviving sons, , and Charles Stewart, later earl of Lennox, but their other six children died in infancy.

Henry VIII had an unshakeable belief that Dumbarton, though strategically less important than Leith or Stirling, was the key to Scotland, and that Lennox's allegiance was crucial for securing it. Acting simultaneously now both as a political negotiator and as a mercenary, Lennox spent much time and effort trying unsuccessfully to bend his ally Angus to Henry's will. In July 1544 the English king sent him with sixteen vessels and 600 soldiers on a futile expedition against the west of Scotland, and in the following month he appointed him lieutenant for the north of England and the south of Scotland: a pointless combination of imaginary offices since the earl had insufficient territorial connections in either area. Another of Henry's fixations was the raising of the highlands. Arran had released from captivity Donald Dubh MacDonald, claimant to the lordship of the Isles. In 1545 Lennox, MacDonald, and other chiefs quickly hammered out an alliance with the English king. Lennox then organized a massive naval assault force which initially harboured at Carrickfergus, preparatory to an attack on the Clyde.

But Henry then ordered Lennox to leave Ireland and liaise with Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, to advise him where best to lead the army with which in September 1545 he attacked the Scots and the French on the east marches. Lennox dutifully took ship to Chester and thence made his way to the other side of the country. Left without leadership, his laboriously collected maritime army disintegrated, and by the time he was able to return to base his force had dwindled considerably and drifted down to Dublin. Thus when in November Lennox battled his way up the Clyde, it was at the head of an army too small to accomplish anything of value. In 1546 Lennox again took to the water and attempted to regain Dumbarton. In May he approached the keeper, George Stirling of Gloret, with a demand for the surrender of his principal stronghold, backed up by a naval force. Gloret admitted Lennox and his brother Robert into the hold, but baulked at handing it over. Arran laid siege to the castle, hounded Lennox back to England, and then lured Robert Stewart away from his brother by restoring his ecclesiastical revenues.


Following Henry VIII's death in 1547 Lennox supported the more intelligent strategy for Scotland of Edward Seymour, now protector and duke of Somerset. Based in Carlisle with Thomas Wharton, first Baron Wharton, he once again attacked the west of his country, pounding down Annan steeple, taking and fortifying Castlemilk, and capturing Dumfries. He returned in February 1548. After Angus defeated Wharton near Drumlanrig, however, Lennox had to retire in ignominy (his own secretary Thomas Bishop later sneered that the earl was ‘16 myles from ws sleping in his bed’ when the action took place). Thereafter he took little part in English war plans during the rough wooing.

Instead Lennox wrote and schemed. He and his wife maintained communication with family members: Lennox with his brother Robert, and his wife with her father, Angus. Lennox knew that Angus could no longer be persuaded to join an English alliance, but he carried on a lively correspondence with Angus's brother George Douglas, and between 1547 and 1550 he sought to secure the support of Glencairn. Glencairn was replete with promises but in 1548 became a pensioner of the French. Lennox also funded numerous spies within Scotland; as a result the English government was never ignorant as to what the French were doing or preparing to do. Considerable sums were paid out, some from his own pocket, in these information-gathering exercises. Lennox knew that the English position in Scotland was too weak to determine the course of events, but his espionage made him seem useful to Somerset, in particular his liaising with Patrick Hepburn, third earl of Bothwell, in 1549. One important aspect of his work during this period was the acquisition, execution, and forwarding of maps of Scotland. Throughout the rough wooings English efforts were seriously hindered by ignorance of Scotland's topography, resulting in the flowering of a remarkable cartographic collection. Many of these ‘plates’ were subsequently lost, but enough survived for William Cecil to amass a remarkable portfolio which he used until the 1590s.

In 1551 Lennox was implicated in the activities of one Robert Stewart, who had come to London from France with a plan to murder the young Mary, queen of Scots, by poisoning her favourite sweet, frittered pears. Stewart was eventually arrested, gaoled, returned to France, and executed, but the ramifications of his bizarre scheme were extensive, and among those allegedly implicated was Lennox, who was so intimidated by the rumours of his involvement that he publicly renounced any desire or possibility of becoming king of Scots. He made no such statement concerning the possibility of his wife becoming queen of England, and privately he must have envisaged circumstances where his renunciation of the Scottish throne could be put aside. The Lennoxes and their sons were protected by their dynastic position; French, English, and Scots all kept in contact, however clandestinely, in the hope that circumstances might arise in which Lennox and his family might become useful.

During the early 1550s Lennox lived in retirement from the court in Yorkshire. Despite his promise of 1544 to convert to protestantism, both he and his wife harboured Roman Catholic sympathies and did what they could to foster the faith under Edward VI. Their circumstances changed when Margaret's friend Mary I became queen of England in 1553. Now they found themselves fêted, and the earl became an English privy councillor. Religious differences did not prevent John Elder, a highland Scot of a strong protestant hue, becoming drawn into Lennox's family circle. He became tutor to the earl's children and published a description of the ceremonies at Queen Mary's marriage to Philip of Spain in 1554. It was crafted as a report for Lennox's brother Robert.

Lennox and Mary, queen of Scots

Following the accession of Elizabeth in 1558, the same dynastic considerations that had earlier made Lennox a figure to be reckoned with brought him under suspicion and led to the imprisonment of both earl and countess (who was as passionate in promoting the interests of her family as her husband) in the Tower of London. Their son Lord Darnley was a great-grandson through his mother of Henry VII, and the new queen looked without favour on potential rivals, or at any rate possible successors, to herself. In the policy of Anglo-Scottish alliance, which Elizabeth pursued from 1559, moreover, her principal allies in Scotland were Lennox's old rival James Hamilton, now duke of Châtelherault, and James Stewart, earl of Moray, who following the death of her father was a rival to the countess of Lennox for the earldom of Angus. Henry VIII's pledge to see Lennox restored to his lands and honours in Scotland was overlooked, and in 1561 the earl appealed to Mary, queen of Scots, for restoration, which merely deepened the suspicion in which he was held south of the border. In 1562 the English privy council subjected the actions of the Lennoxes to a narrow scrutiny, but nothing dangerous was found and by February 1563 both had been released from custody.

In April 1564 Mary approved Lennox's restoration. Although Elizabeth was at first unwilling to let him go, the earl was eventually allowed to go north in September. Hindsight shows that from this stemmed the process whereby Darnley, too, travelled to Scotland and there won the hand of Queen Mary, so forging a potentially momentous union of two lines of descent from Margaret Tudor. But at the time it was by no means obvious that such a development would follow from Lennox's being allowed to go home. Elizabeth may well have won a pledge from Lennox that he would not act in a manner contrary to English interests, and in any case she was promoting Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, as a husband for Mary, and it probably did not occur to her that Darnley might be a rival to her own favourite. Only Dudley's refusal to consider marrying Mary gave Darnley his chance; when the latter returned to Scotland in February 1565 his arrival there aroused little interest.

Meanwhile Lennox had thrown himself into achieving his restoration: he was pardoned in December 1564 and had his lands and honours restored on 1 October 1565. He also set about securing a place at the heart of government, and quickly built up a following of nobles and lairds, principally from among those excluded from office and patronage by the regime of Moray and the Hamiltons. Several of his supporters were protestants, showing that he did not allow religion to become a bar to the pursuit of power. His rehabilitation and advancement, reinforced by Mary's marriage to Darnley on 29 July, provoked the rising by Moray and his supporters in August known as the chaseabout raid, a rising which the queen suppressed without difficulty. Problems soon arose, however, when it looked as though the rebels would be rehabilitated. Lennox and his son had no desire to see their recent enemies restored, and accordingly fell out with the queen. The earl had gone along with the queen's recent reassertion of her Catholicism, attending mass on Candlemas day, but facing the possibility of exclusion from power he aligned himself with the malcontents, including both Darnley and the rebels of the previous year, who murdered Mary's secretary David Riccio on 9 March 1566.

With the birth of the future on 19 June 1566 Lennox's star must have seemed firmly in the ascendant. But his son's was on the verge of sinking; Mary had never forgiven his involvement in the murder of Riccio, and Darnley was murdered, with or without her connivance, on 9 February 1567. Whether or not Lennox mourned the death of his son, convention required that he avenge it, and he had little choice but to pursue the fourth earl of Bothwell, almost universally named as the man who had engineered the deed, in the courts. On 24 March he formally charged Bothwell, but so comprehensively had the latter packed Edinburgh with his supporters that Lennox did not dare appear at the trial, with the result that the accused was acquitted. On 29 April Lennox once again took to the sea and removed to England, but he was able to return in July following Mary's defeat at Carberry on 15 June 1567 and then her internal exile at Lochleven. When she escaped and was at once supported by the Hamiltons, it was hardly surprising that Lennox should have joined the forces which defeated her at Langside on 12 May 1568. Thereafter he continued to hound the wife of his son's killer, giving evidence in person at the Westminster conference in November and December.

Regent to James VI

Following Mary's enforced abdication James Stewart, earl of Moray, had become regent for the infant King James. But he was assassinated at Linlithgow on 23 January 1570, leaving no obvious successor. Despite Queen Elizabeth's strong misgivings, Lennox was chosen, even though he seems to have been in England at the time. He crossed the border in May, in a force from the Berwick garrison led by Sir William Drury, though his wife was detained in England. At first Lennox was appointed lieutenant-general of Scotland, but on 12 July he was formally elected regent. He was a highly divisive choice: he was bitterly opposed by the Hamiltons, and by the associates of Bothwell whom he had continued to prosecute for his son's murder, as well as by supporters of Queen Mary who sought her restoration. A bitter civil dispute developed between the king's party, which aspired to govern in the name of James VI, and the queen's party, which conducted a rival administration from Edinburgh Castle in Mary's name. The queen's adherents held a ‘parliament’ in Linlithgow on 10 August renouncing Lennox's authority, and the sixth earl of Huntly, who was prominent among them, led an army against the regent but was utterly routed at Brechin. Lennox then issued a proclamation against Huntly's ‘calumnies’ that he was a closet Englishman, marched his forces to just above Stirling, and captured the castle of Doune. In September a six-month truce was brokered (largely through English intervention), but in the following February hostilities resumed; Lennox defeated a force of Hamiltons, took Paisley, and finally recaptured Dumbarton on 2 April 1571. He forced his way into Leith with a small army on 11 May, and then on 14 May entered the Edinburgh Canongate, where he held the so-called ‘creeping’ parliament, whose members crawled about their business under fire from the Marians in the castle. When parliament reassembled at Stirling, it was disrupted by an attack of the queen's party. Lennox was captured in this brawl but then escaped; however, he was eventually fatally wounded from behind by a Captain James Calder. He died in Stirling Castle on the afternoon of 4 September 1571. Before he expired he made a rambling speech, forgiving his enemies, summing up his life, and beseeching the nobility of the realm to care for and protect James VI. Lastly he entreated John Erskine, earl of Mar, to convey all his love to his wife. He was interred in the Chapel Royal at Stirling, a fitting last resting place for a Stewart. Lennox was succeeded in his titles and estates by James VI, but in 1572 these were granted to his surviving son Charles, the father of Lady Arabella Stuart (1575–1616).


Few Europeans had so many different homes in so many different countries as the thirteenth earl of Lennox. In 1537 he became French; in 1544 he was English; in 1564 he was Scottish again. Quite possibly the first man to own land on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border since the fourteenth century's wars of independence, he may well have enjoyed a uniquely ‘British’ perspective on events in the two countries. He was certainly blessed with one critical virtue: perseverance. When berated by Elizabeth for wanting to return to Scotland, he retorted that he was only ‘travelling for his right’, which he had been doing throughout his mature life. His effort was crowned with success when in 1570 he became what Arran had been—regent: not king, but James VI could have died any afternoon. Such a triumph over his old rival after twenty-six years must have been sweet, even if it was agonizingly short-lived. Opinions concerning Lennox's sagacity and political shrewdness vary. Buchanan was an ardent admirer and composed a handsome epitaph on his death. The Dictionary of National Biography havered between condemning his ‘haughty manners’ and his pretensions, and praising his occasional wisdom. But Lennox was not just a ‘strong man’, as Pitscottie described him; he was the heir to his family's lands and claims, and his desire to protect the interests of his dynasty only increased when he had first two sons of his own and then a king for a grandson.



GEC, Peerage, 7.597–9 · APS, 1424–1592 · CSP Scot., 1547–71 · Reg. PCS, 1st ser., vols. 1–2 · APC, 1542–75 · LP Henry VIII, vols. 17–21 · J. Cameron, James V: the personal rule, 1528–1542, ed. N. Macdougall (1998) · M. Merriman, The rough wooings: Mary queen of Scots, 1542–1551 (2000) · G. Donaldson, Scotland, James V–James VII (1965) · G. Donaldson, All the queen's men (1983) · R. Marshall, Mary of Guise (1977) · M. H. B. Sanderson, Cardinal of Scotland: David Beaton, c.1494–1546 (1986) · G. Phillips, The Anglo-Scots wars, 1513–1550: a military history (1999) · M. Lynch, ed., Mary Stewart: queen in three kingdoms (1988)


NA Scot., letter-book


L. de Vogelaare, group portrait, oils, 1567–8, Royal Collection [see illus.] · L. de Vogelaare, group portrait, oils, second version, Goodwood House, West Sussex

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Matthew Stewart (1516–1571): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/26497