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Douglas, Archibald [nicknamed Bell-the-Cat], fifth earl of Angusfree

(c. 1449–1513)
  • Norman Macdougall

Douglas, Archibald [nicknamed Bell-the-Cat], fifth earl of Angus (c. 1449–1513), magnate and rebel, was the elder of the two sons of George Douglas, fourth earl of Angus (c. 1417–1463), and his wife, Isabel, daughter of Sir John Sibbald of Balgonie in Fife. The steady advance of this comital family to a position of great power, especially on the borders, was based on unswerving loyalty to the crown over two generations. Earl Archibald's career displays no such consistency; indeed, he may be regarded as the great political maverick of the reigns of James III and James IV, an earl who rose to be chancellor, yet whose last years were spent trying to preserve his family's inheritance from the encroachments of a predatory crown.

Early manoeuvrings

On 4 March 1468 Earl Archibald, who had succeeded his father in 1463 at the age of about fourteen, married Elizabeth (d. 1498), eldest daughter of Robert, Lord Boyd (d. 1482), the chamberlain, whose power rested on his seizure of the adolescent James III in July 1466. Boyd earned the king's undying hatred by marrying his son Thomas to James's elder sister Mary in 1467; so the AngusBoyd alliance of 1468, although doubtless made with a view to advancing the fortunes of both families, soon misfired badly. In November 1469 the king took control of government, and the Boyds, forfeited, finished up in exile or on the block. The young Earl Archibald, having backed the wrong side, hastened to make amends to the king by sitting on the parliamentary assize of November 1469 which condemned his Boyd kinsmen.

Thereafter, during most of the 1470s, Angus was rarely at court, and was only occasionally in parliament. His territorial interests lay mainly, though not exclusively, in the south and west, where he had inherited lordships stretching from Haddingtonshire to Kirkcudbright; and by the early 1480s, if not before, he was justiciar south of Forth. Together with his near neighbour Alexander Stewart, earl of March and duke of Albany, the king's brother, Angus appears to have disliked James III's obsessive concern for peace and alliance with England. Albany's opposition to the king's Anglophile stance led to a royal attack on his castle of Dunbar in the spring of 1479. The duke fled to France (moving to England in the late spring of 1482), and James III's unconvincing indictment of Albany failed to secure a parliamentary sentence of forfeiture in October 1479. In the following spring the king's foreign policy collapsed, and Angus was first off his mark in the war with England which ensued, raiding Northumberland and burning Bamburgh Castle.

Treason and plots

Angus played an important, if rather obscure, role in the Lauder crisis of July 1482, when James III, mustering the host to resist the invasion of a huge English army commanded by Richard, duke of Gloucester, and the exiled Albany, was seized by his own magnates and incarcerated in Edinburgh Castle. Angus was certainly present at Lauder—he had probably no further to come than from Tantallon Castle in Haddingtonshire and, according to the chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, writing in the 1570s, he played a major part in arresting and hanging Cochrane and other offensive royal familiars—but his motives are difficult to ascertain. He can hardly have been the prime mover in the Lauder coup, for he played no obvious part in the governmental regime which followed it; control of the king fell to James III's half-uncles, the earls of Atholl and Buchan, and Andrew Stewart, bishop-elect of Moray. Angus may, indeed, have been a committed Albany man throughout, looking to the duke as ‘Alexander IV’, a suitable replacement for James III; he may have taken part in an embassy to the exiled duke in France in the spring of 1482, and therefore been in collusion with Albany before the Lauder crisis; and later, when Albany had acquired a new backer in Edward IV of England, Angus may have been one of those twenty-six Scottish magnates who gave a written commitment to the English king to support the duke in his efforts to displace James III. What is clear beyond doubt is that, early in 1483, Angus was acting as one of Albany's commissioners to Edward IV, travelling south to Westminster to negotiate a treasonable treaty with the English king. According to this agreement (11 February 1483), Albany and his supporters, including Angus, would become liegemen of the English king, and Edward IV promised to assist Albany in his efforts to acquire the Scottish crown.

Thus Angus's role in the crisis of 1482–3 was overtly treasonable, a far cry from the later portrayal of the patriotic earl acting out of concern for his king, misled as he was by evil counsellors who had to be removed for the good of the kingdom. This latter view of the earl has persisted, however, thanks to the efforts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century chroniclers to portray Angus in a flattering light. Among these, David Hume of Godscroft, in his History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus (1644), was the first writer to apply the epithet Bell-the-Cat to the fifth earl. According to Godscroft, when the nobles were holding their conference in Lauder kirk to decide what could be done to remove the royal favourites, Lord Gray told the old story of the mice who resolved to hang a bell about the cat's neck, to give warning of its approach, but lacked the courage to do so, whereupon Earl Archibald volunteered to bell the cat. In spite of the fact that no earlier chronicler—not even Pitscottie, the locus classicus for this event—mentions the story, the tag has stuck as an inappropriate nickname for the fifth earl.

Tacking between James III and James IV

The recovery of power by James III and the death of Edward IV in April 1483 doomed Albany's schemes, and left Angus and the rest to make what terms they could. Given his recent treasons, the fifth earl was treated remarkably leniently, losing his justiciarship and keepership of Threave, but acquiring, astonishingly, the wardenship of the middle marches. However, uncertainty as to his standing with James III made Angus a rebel in the crisis of 1488 when Prince James (the future James IV) took arms against his father at the head of a huge and diverse body of disaffected magnates.

As in 1482, Angus's initial role in this crisis is obscure. James III may have tried to buy his support, for the earl remained at court until early March 1488, more than a month after the start of the rebellion, and he was at best a lukewarm rebel. When the end came for James III at Sauchieburn (11 June), no contemporary record, no later chronicler even, mentions Angus's prowess at the battle, and he may not have been there at all. Perhaps significantly, many of the earl's relatives and tenants—Lindsay of Auchtermonzie, lords Forbes and Glamis, David Scott of Buccleuch, and William Douglas of Cavers—did not join him in rebellion.

The advent of the fifteen-year-old James IV produced a temporary improvement in the fifth earl's fortunes; he was the king's friend, who gave James presents and who on occasions played cards and dice with him. More to the point, Angus acquired the wardenships of all three marches at the start of the reign. But there was no room for him in the new government, dominated as it was by Patrick Hepburn, recently created earl of Bothwell, and his Hume allies. Fearing Angus's power on the borders and facing a serious rebellion against their authority in 1489, the leaders of the new regime gradually stripped the earl of his lands and offices: all his march wardenships, the sheriffdom of Lanark, the Berwickshire lands of Earlston, and the lands and castle of Broughty in Angus. The earl also disappeared from the royal council and from parliament for three years (1489–92).

Under severe threat in the borders, Angus renewed his treasonable links with England, this time with Henry VII, promising by an agreement of November 1491 to hand over Hermitage Castle in Liddesdale to the English king in return for lands of equal value in England, if he could not move the Scottish government towards peace with England. About this time he also sought to have himself recognized as heir-at-law to the last earls of Douglas, a chilling prospect for his Hepburn and Hume rivals in southern Scotland. In October 1491 the king laid siege to Angus's castle of Tantallon; the outcome is unknown, but in spite of a reconciliation between King James and Angus at Christmas, the Bothwell-dominated royal council was taking no chances with Angus's future loyalty. On 29 December 1491 the earl was forced to exchange his border lordship of Liddesdale and castle of Hermitage (which went to Bothwell in regality) for the lordship of Kilmarnock in Ayrshire.

Gains and losses

AngusBothwell rivalry continued for much of the rest of the reign, with Earl Archibald generally on the losing side. In January 1493 he made a spectacular political comeback by acquiring the chancellorship, an office which fell to him partly through the growing importance of his Ayrshire relatives, for his niece, Marion Boyd, was James IV's first mistress. But advancement acquired in this way was difficult to sustain. Within a few years the king was an adult, Marion Boyd was discarded, and the Anglo-Scottish war of 1496–7 made Angus, with his earlier English affiliations, a highly unsuitable chancellor. He was dismissed to make way for the earl of Huntly in the autumn of 1497 and thereafter Angus's career was visibly in decline. In 1498 he made the tactical mistake of granting the baronies of Braidwood and Crawford-Lindsay in Lanarkshire to his mistress Janet Kennedy, only to see Janet transfer her affections to the king, who was quite happy to confirm the earl's Lanarkshire grants to the woman who was to become the most durable of his mistresses.

Angus suffered some losses in the royal revocation of 1498; and Hepburn rivalry may account for Earl Archibald's being warded in Dumbarton Castle in 1501 and, much more seriously, on the island of Bute for the remarkable period of seven years (1502–9). Perhaps significantly, he was not freed until after the death of Patrick Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, in 1508, and then only to be savagely pursued by the crown on the legal technicality of non-entry—forty-five years of it—to his lands of Kirriemuir in Angus and his border lordship of Eskdale, and presented with an appalling bill of £45,000 Scots for Kirriemuir alone. Angus, endeavouring to preserve some of his inheritance in the face of relentless and cynical royal demands, settled for a composition of 5,000 merks, not all of which had been paid when he died.

In his last years, though a chastened old man, Angus re-emerged at court. According to Buchanan, he opposed the Anglo-Scottish war of 1513; yet his two eldest sons, George, master of Angus, and Sir William Douglas of Glenbervie, were both killed in James IV's army at Flodden (9 September 1513). Angus's survival left him one of Scotland's senior earls, but towards the end of October 1513 he died at Whithorn, Wigtownshire, aged about sixty-four. He was succeeded by his grandson Archibald Douglas (d. 1557), another political high-flyer who came to grief even more spectacularly than his grandfather.

The fifth earl of Angus was twice married. He and his first wife, Elizabeth Boyd, had four sons and three daughters: George, master of Angus, and Sir William Douglas (both killed at Flodden), Gavin Douglas, the poet and bishop of Dunkeld, Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie (d. before 1540), Marion, Elizabeth, and Janet. Angus's second marriage, to Katherine Stirling, daughter of Sir William Stirling of Keir, in the summer of 1500, produced no children and had ended in divorce or separation by 1512.


  • J. M. Thomson and others, eds., Registrum magni sigilli regum Scotorum / The register of the great seal of Scotland, 11 vols. (1882–1914), vol. 2, index
  • T. Dickson and J. B. Paul, eds., Compota thesaurariorum regum Scotorum / Accounts of the lord high treasurer of Scotland, 1–4 (1877–1902)
  • APS, 1424–1567, index
  • W. Fraser, ed., The Douglas book, 4 vols. (1885), vol. 3
  • LP Henry VIII, vols. 1/1–2
  • [G. Buchanan], The history of Scotland translated from the Latin of George Buchanan, ed. and trans. J. Aikman, 6 vols. (1827–9), 253–5
  • D. Hume of Godscroft, The history of the houses of Douglas and Angus (1644), 226–7
  • M. G. Kelley, ‘The Douglas earls of Angus: a study in the social and political bases of power in a Scottish family from 1389 to 1557’, PhD diss., U. Edin., 1973
  • N. Macdougall, James III: a political study (1982), index
  • N. Macdougall, James IV (1989), index


  • NA Scot., APS
  • NA Scot., RMS
  • NA Scot., TA
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)
J. B. Paul, ed., , 9 vols. (1904–14)
, 12 vols. in 13 (1814–75)
Scottish Text Society