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date: 21 February 2024

Hepburn, James, fourth earl of Bothwell and duke of Orkneyfree


Hepburn, James, fourth earl of Bothwell and duke of Orkneyfree

  • Rosalind K. Marshall

James Hepburn, fourth earl of Bothwell and duke of Orkney (1534/55–1578)

by unknown artist, 1566

Hepburn, James, fourth earl of Bothwell and duke of Orkney (1534/5–1578), magnate and third consort of Mary, queen of Scots, was the only son of Patrick Hepburn, third earl of Bothwell (d. 1556), and his wife, Agnes Sinclair (d. in or after 1572). His mother was the daughter of Henry Sinclair, third Lord Sinclair (d. 1513), and his wife, Margaret Hepburn (d. 1542), sister of Patrick Hepburn, first earl of Bothwell.

Early career

James Hepburn's parents divorced before 16 October 1543 and he was brought up at Spynie Castle, Moray, by his notorious great-uncle, Patrick Hepburn, bishop of Moray. Continuing his studies in Paris, where he learned to speak fluent French, he read military history and theory in French translations from the Latin and wrote in an elegant, italic hand. He was twenty-one when in 1556 he inherited his father's titles along with the hereditary offices of lord high admiral of Scotland, sheriff of Berwick, Haddington, and Edinburgh, and bailie of Lauderdale, and also the castles of Hailes and Crichton. Contemporaries described him as being short, muscular, and simian in appearance. The only authentic likeness of him, a miniature painted in 1566, shows a dark-haired, weather-beaten man with a long moustache and what looks like a broken nose.

Although a committed protestant Bothwell strongly supported the Catholic queen regent, Mary of Guise. He signed the act of 14 December 1557 appointing commissioners to negotiate the marriage contract of Mary, queen of Scots (1542–1587), and the future François II of France, and was made keeper of Hermitage Castle, Roxburghshire. Having repelled a raid by the earl of Northumberland, he was in October 1558 appointed lieutenant of the border. While busy ransoming Scottish prisoners taken by the English, he found time in 1559 to begin a passionate affair with Janet Beton (b. 1516), the Wizard Lady of Branxholm, a mature beauty who was forty-three years old to his twenty-four, three times married, and the mother of seven children. Always willing to promise marriage to the women he seduced, he was rumoured to have made her his wife, but if they were irregularly married he soon discarded her to concentrate on his pursuit of power.

In October 1559 Elizabeth I sent £3000 north for the protestant lords of the congregation. Bothwell seized John Cockburn, laird of Ormiston, who was carrying the silver, and passed it to Mary of Guise. Furious, the protestant leaders James Hamilton, third earl of Arran, and Lord James Stewart captured Crichton Castle, taking away not only the furnishings but also Bothwell's family charters. Bothwell refused to hand back the money and challenged Arran to single combat. 'When you may recover the name of an honest man, I shall answer you as I ought', Arran retorted (Gore-Browne, 85). Bothwell did not accompany Arran and Lord James to Fife at the end of 1559, but he was in Leith when the English besieged it early the following year, slipping out regularly to harass their supply columns. With Mary of Guise's approval he then set off for the French court to seek further military assistance, moving on to Denmark, where he hoped to persuade Frederick II to lend him his fleet. Mary of Guise died on 11 June, however, and on 6 July the French and English signed the treaty of Edinburgh, agreeing to withdraw all their forces from Scotland.

Bothwell had by now met Anna, daughter of Christopher Throndsen, a wealthy Norwegian noble and retired admiral living in Copenhagen. A contemporary described seeing her at a fashionable wedding, dark and exotic, dripping with pearls and precious stones, clad in a red damask tunic, a gold chain round her head. She fell desperately in love with Bothwell; he promised to marry her, and when he set off for Paris she insisted on going too. Contrary to later accounts he does not seem to have deserted her in Flanders, but left her there while he continued his journey. Mary, queen of Scots, and François II rewarded him for past services with 600 crowns and the post of gentleman of the king's chamber. In November Bothwell suddenly left Paris, causing Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador, to warn Elizabeth I against this '[vain] glorious, rash and hazardous young man' whose 'adversaries should have an eye to him' (CSP for., 1560–61, 409). Bothwell seems to have spent the next three months in Flanders with Anna, who may have been pregnant and could have been the mother of his one illegitimate son, William. Perhaps he even took her back to Scotland, where he received the queen's orders to convoke a meeting of parliament. François II had died on 5 December, and the protestant lords now invited Queen Mary to return to Scotland; Bothwell, as lord high admiral, went to France to escort her home.

The reign of Queen Mary

On 6 September 1561 Bothwell became a member of Mary's new privy council. Mary tried to end his feud with Arran by obliging them to keep the peace, but trouble flared up again when Bothwell and his brother-in-law, Lord John Stewart, forced their way into the house where Arran's mistress lived. After a street fight between the Hamiltons and the Hepburns, Bothwell was ordered to leave Edinburgh. John Knox managed to effect a reconciliation between the two men, but Arran now claimed that Bothwell had urged him to kidnap the queen. This might have been so, but Arran had obviously suffered a mental breakdown. Both were arrested and imprisoned, first at Falkland, then at St Andrews, and finally in Edinburgh Castle. Bothwell managed to escape on 28 August and Anna Throndsen received a passport to sail to Norway that autumn. By the end of December, Bothwell was aboard a merchant ship bound for France but storms drove his vessel to Holy Island off the coast of Northumberland; taken by the English, he was held at Tynemouth before being consigned to the Tower of London.

Following the intervention of Queen Mary and the French, Bothwell was released on parole in May 1563. After a summer spent in the north of England he was allowed to go to France, bearing a letter from Queen Mary recommending him for a vacant position as captain of the Scottish archers. He was back in Edinburgh again by 5 March 1565, however, perhaps having heard that Queen Mary's latest suitor, Lord Darnley, had arrived in Scotland a fortnight earlier, but his stay was brief. His enemy Lord James Stewart, now earl of Moray, was determined that he should be outlawed and although the queen resisted this, when she was told that Bothwell had said that she and Elizabeth I 'could not make one honest woman' (CSP for., 1564–5, 325), she summoned him for lèse majesté. He failed to appear, and fled back to France. However, well aware of Moray's opposition to her intended marriage to Darnley, Mary decided that she needed Bothwell's support and recalled him on 16 July. He sailed from Flushing, narrowly avoided capture by the English, and took part in the chaseabout raid, driving the rebellious Moray out of Scotland. Early the following year, possibly at the queen's suggestion, Bothwell decided to marry one of her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Jane (Jean) Gordon [see Gordon, Jean, countess of Bothwell and Sutherland (1546–1629)], sister of his friend the fifth earl of Huntly. A dispensation was obtained, for they were within the forbidden degrees. Bothwell insisted on a protestant marriage and the ceremony took place at Holyrood on 22 February 1566.

Less than three weeks after his wedding, on the night of 9 March 1566, Bothwell was in the palace of Holyroodhouse when the queen's secretary David Riccio was murdered. Bothwell and his brother-in-law Huntly had also been intended victims, but they got away through a back window. Mary managed to win over Darnley and escape to Dunbar, where Bothwell was one of those who joined her. She later credited him with her survival. She entered Edinburgh once more on 18 March, and on 19 June 1566 gave birth to the future James VI. Her marriage by now was in deep trouble and her reliance on Bothwell was arousing suspicion. Henry Killigrew noted on 24 June, 'Bothwell's credit with the Queen is greater than all the rest together' (CSP for., 1566–8, 93), and the earl of Bedford confirmed this on 27 July, adding that Bothwell was 'the most hated man among the noblemen in Scotland' (ibid., 110). That autumn Bothwell was seriously wounded in a fracas while carrying out his duties as lieutenant on the border. Recovering at Hermitage Castle he received a visit from Mary on 16 October, presumably to discuss the perennial problem of peacekeeping along the frontier with England. Their enemies put it about that this had been some kind of illicit assignation, but in reality the queen had been accompanied by a large number of courtiers; they included Moray, by now returned and restored following Riccio's death.

The Darnley murder

Bothwell was among those lords who met Mary at Craigmillar Castle in November 1566 to discuss what should be done about Darnley, and, according to the earl of Morton, it was he who suggested that they should murder the queen's troublesome husband, presumably with the intention of supplanting him. Early the following January, Darnley fell gravely ill in Glasgow. Mary effected some sort of reconciliation with him and arranged to bring him to Kirk o' Field, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, to complete his convalescence. Bothwell met them outside the capital and escorted them the rest of the way. At 2 a.m. on Monday 10 February the house where Darnley was staying was demolished in a massive explosion, and he and his servant were discovered dead in a garden on the other side of the town wall. They had been either strangled or asphyxiated.

Bothwell was in his apartments at Holyrood when the explosion shook the town, ready to leap from his bed to investigate the crime in his capacity as sheriff of Edinburgh. He had actually just returned from Kirk o' Field. According to the depositions of four of his retainers, he had been responsible for placing the gunpowder in Darnley's lodgings and had returned at the last moment with characteristic rashness to make sure that the fuse was lit. The version of events given by the four men, who were later executed, includes some highly improbable detail, but there is little doubt that Bothwell played a principal part in the murder. A week later the queen moved from Holyroodhouse to Seton, leaving Bothwell and Huntly in charge of her baby son. Bothwell visited her at Seton and Tranent, and by 29 March there were reports that they would marry.

Within a week of the murder placards had begun appearing in Edinburgh, accusing both Mary and Bothwell of Darnley's death. On one, Bothwell was depicted as a hare, from his coat of arms, while the queen featured as a mermaid, the symbol for a prostitute. Whatever the sexual attraction between them, she looked to him more than ever as her powerful and reliable protector. She left it to her father-in-law to prosecute him for the murder of Darnley, but Lennox did not attend the trial on 12 April, for Edinburgh was packed with his enemies and he had been forbidden to bring more than six followers with him. Bothwell was acquitted, and on 14 April parliament confirmed his rights to his various lands and lordships. On 19 or 20 April he persuaded a group of leading lords and ecclesiastics to sign the so-called Ainslie bond, urging the queen to marry him. She refused to do so but he persisted, and on 24 April, apparently at his request, his wife raised an action for divorce in the protestant commissary court of Edinburgh on the grounds of his adultery with one of her maidservants.

Marriage to the queen

That same day Bothwell seized Queen Mary on her way back to Edinburgh from Linlithgow and carried her off to Dunbar Castle, where he raped her. He is unlikely to have had any romantic feelings for her, but he was willing to go to any lengths to achieve his ends and had presumably persuaded her to agree to the abduction. Mary would not have expected it to culminate in rape, but she told the bishop of Dunblane two weeks later, 'Albeit we found his doings rude, yet his words were gentle' (Lettres, 2.31). James Melville, who was in Dunbar Castle at the time, pertinently remarked, 'The queen could not but marry him, seeing he had ravished her and lain with her against her will' (Memoirs, 149). On 3 May 1567 Lady Bothwell was granted her divorce, and three days later Bothwell and Mary returned to Edinburgh, he leading her horse by the bridle as if she were his captive; on the 7th Archbishop Hamilton's recently reinstated consistory court annulled his marriage on the pretext that it had taken place without the necessary dispensation for consanguinity. On 12 May Bothwell was created duke of Orkney by the queen and their marriage banns were proclaimed. The contract was signed on 14 May and the following day Bothwell and Mary became husband and wife in a protestant ceremony in the great hall at Holyroodhouse.

Regardless of the Ainslie bond the lords were now consumed with jealousy and exploited rumours that the queen was bitterly unhappy, repelled by her new husband's boorish behaviour, and overcome with remorse at having contracted a protestant marriage. According to James Melville, Bothwell was so suspicious that he reduced the queen to tears every day, while Maitland commented that not only was Bothwell jealous if Mary looked at anyone but himself, but his language was appalling, and he accused her of being like all women, preoccupied with frivolity. On 16 June the lords signed a new bond, complaining that they were unable to see the queen without Bothwell being present, and alleging that he was virtually keeping her prisoner. Forewarned of an attempt to capture them, the couple fled to Borthwick Castle. When Morton and Lord Home surrounded it with their men Bothwell managed to slip away to Dunbar, where he gathered a powerful force. Mary escaped, and joined him, and they marched towards Edinburgh, confronting the lords at Carberry Hill near Musselburgh on 15 June. A spokesman for the enemy challenged him to single combat and Bothwell was eager to agree, but the queen would not allow it and in the end she sent him away and surrendered. Imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, she miscarried his twins towards the end of July and was forced by her captors to abdicate.

Exile, imprisonment, and death

Bothwell rode for Dunbar, where he remained until 26 June, when the lords announced that they had proof that he had been 'principall author' of Darnley's murder (Reg. PCS, 1.524). They now had in their possession a silver casket taken from one of Bothwell's followers containing, it would be alleged, letters proving that the queen, passionately in love with Bothwell, had lured Darnley to his death. With a price on his head Bothwell rode north to Strathbogie, where Huntly refused to assist him, and then to Spynie. He intended to assemble a naval force to help the queen but was forced to move on when his great-uncle's illegitimate sons plotted to murder him. He sailed to Orkney and then Shetland, and when the privy council sent a naval expedition against him, he left for Norway.

Stopped and taken to Bergen by a Danish warship, Bothwell was questioned by the authorities. He declared that he was supreme ruler of Scotland and confidently awaited his release. However, unknown to him Anna Throndsen was living in the town, and she immediately sued him for money she had lent him during their time in Flanders. His papers were searched and were found to include not only a letter in the handwriting of Queen Mary deploring her situation, but proclamations against him for treason and murder. Bothwell nevertheless managed to buy Anna off with the promise of an annuity and convinced the authorities that he should be allowed to sail on to Copenhagen, where he hoped to enlist the help of Frederick II. The Danish king, who was in north Jutland, gave orders that he was to be held in Copenhagen Castle until his return. Regarding Bothwell as a useful pawn, Frederick refused Moray's requests for his extradition, but had him moved to the much more secure Malmö Castle on what is now the Swedish mainland. Desperate to obtain his freedom, Bothwell claimed to have the authority to offer the return of Orkney and Shetland to Denmark, and possibly as a result Frederick continued to refuse Moray's repeated demands.

In 1568 Mary escaped from Lochleven, was defeated at Langside, and fled to England, where she was to spend the rest of her life in captivity. Seeing marriage to a respectable protestant English nobleman as her best hope of release, she decided to divorce Bothwell; however, contrary to the comments of the English ambassador in Paris, she did not secure an annulment of her marriage in 1570 and, according to a report sent to William Cecil on 19 January 1571, was still in 'daily' correspondence with her husband (CSP Scot., 1509–89, 310). She did send Bishop John Lesley to Rome in 1576 to seek an annulment, but, though the pope clearly regarded her as being free to marry again, no decree of nullity has ever been found. When it became obvious that Mary's cause in Scotland was lost Frederick treated Bothwell more severely, and in June 1573 had him removed to Dragsholm in Zeeland, where he was kept in solitary confinement, allegedly chained to a pillar half his height, so that he could never stand erect. He died there, insane, on 14 April 1578, and his mummified remains were displayed in Faarevejle church until finally buried in the late twentieth century.

A daring, reckless opportunist, Bothwell had revelled in his early adventures, but when with his customary ruthless disregard for everyone else he aimed for supreme power, he underestimated the jealousy of his fellow noblemen and precipitated the downfall not only of himself but also of Mary, queen of Scots.


  • A. Fraser, Mary, queen of Scots (1969)
  • G. Donaldson, The first trial of Mary, queen of Scots (1969)
  • R. F. Gore-Brown, Lord Bothwell (1937)
  • Les affaires du conte de Boduel, ed. [T. G. Repp], Bannatyne Club, 29 (1829)
  • M. H. Armstrong, The casket letters (1965)
  • R. K. Marshall, ‘Mary, queen of Scots and Bothwell's bracelets’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 127 (1997), 889–98
  • R. S. Ellis, Latter years of James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell (1861)
  • CSP for., 1558–62; 1564–8
  • Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, 1535–1617, ed. A. F. Steuart (1929), 149
  • Lettres de Marie Stuart, ed. and trans. A. Teulet (Paris, 1859)
  • Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Marie Stuart, reine d'Écosse, ed. A. Labanoff, 7 vols. (1844), vol. 2, p. 31
  • Reg. PCS, 1st ser., 1.524
  • Scots peerage, 2.159–67; 4.534–9
  • CSP Scot. ser., 1509–89
  • G. Donaldson and R. S. Morpeth, A dictionary of Scottish history (1977)


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W. B. Turnbull & others, eds., (1861–1950)
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Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
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