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date: 25 February 2021


(act. 1596–1598)
  • Julian Goodare

Octavians (act. 1596–1598), financial administrators, were eight reformers prominent in the government and politics of Scotland under James VI. On 9 January 1596 they were appointed as joint commissioners of a new permanent exchequer, with full powers over the collection and disbursement of royal revenues. Their appointment was for life and the king was to appoint no further members to the commission without their agreement; nor could he spend money without their prior approval.

The Octavians, in the order in which their commission named them, were: Alexander Seton (1556–1622), commendator of Pluscarden, later first earl of Dunfermline; Walter Stewart (d. 1617), commendator of Blantyre, later first Lord Blantyre; David Carnegie of Colluthie (d. 1598), later laird of Kinnaird; John Lindsay of Menmuir (1552–1598), later laird of Balcarres; James Elphinstone of Invernochty (1557–1612), later laird of Barnton and first Lord Balmerino; Thomas Hamilton of Drumcairn (1563–1637), later Lord Binning, earl of Melrose and first earl of Haddington; John Skene of Curriehill (c. 1540–1617); and Peter Young of Seton (1544–1628).

The nucleus of the group had been formed in 1593, when six of the future Octavians (Elphinstone, Hamilton, Lindsay, Seton, Stewart, and Young) were appointed to constitute the queen's financial council. On 1 January 1596 Queen Anne presented her husband with a large purse of gold as a new year's gift, symbolizing her council's financial efficiency and legitimizing the promotion of its members. In February the English ambassador reported that four new councillors—Elphinstone, Hamilton, Lindsay, and Seton—had been promoted. But the group's identity, and the name of Octavians, was soon universally established. A later contemporary account added Stewart to the group's active members, implicitly characterizing the others as passive. However, these perceptions focused on those who were most prominent as politicians, and the Octavians were not simply politicians. Part of their team's strength lay in its diverse membership, with each person making a distinctive contribution. Together they had social status and connections, political acumen, legal training, and financial expertise.

The three Octavians regarded as passive illustrate the point. Skene was a hard-working bureaucrat, whose assiduous researches into the government records in his care seem to have been behind some of the Octavians' attempts to reassert royal rights. Carnegie's particular area of expertise was finance—he had long experience as an auditor of exchequer and of other financial commissions, and had personally speculated in government debts. Young's skills were in humanist learning and diplomacy. Three Octavians—Elphinstone, Seton, and Lindsay—were younger sons of peers, and two were closely connected to the king personally: Young had been the king's tutor (along with George Buchanan) between 1569 and 1580, while Stewart had been one of the four youths whom he educated alongside the royal pupil. Young had since acted periodically as an ambassador and held the honorific post of royal almoner, and Stewart had become a gentleman of the king's chamber. All the members of the group except Stewart had university degrees; his lack of one presumably reflects his attachment to the court since his youth.

All but two Octavians were judges in the court of session, which required legal expertise and usually significant formal training; the two exceptions, Carnegie and Young, also had some legal expertise. All were privy councillors, though they had not necessarily attended council meetings regularly. Two were already officers of state: Seton had been lord president of the court of session since 1593 and Skene had been clerk register since 1594. Stewart had been keeper of the privy seal, a lesser office, since 1582. All officers of state had lately been overshadowed by the chancellor, John Maitland of Thirlestane, but Maitland's death in September 1595, and James's decision to leave his office vacant, left a political gap which the Octavians moved astutely to fill. The team had no leader, though there was some initial jockeying for position between the two members of highest status, Seton and Stewart. Seton wanted to be president of the council, whereas Stewart wanted the keepership of the great seal. Each felt that such promotion would make them the recognized leader of the team. However, neither obtained his wish, and they evidently recognized the advantage of co-operation.

The Octavians' sweeping powers attracted immediate attention, and critics denounced their effectiveness in cutting expenditure seen as necessary to the king's status. Their initial intention was merely to supervise and control the royal officials responsible for revenue administration. Soon the Octavians changed from supervising to take most financial and other offices for themselves. This may have increased their efficiency but it tarnished their disinterested public image. They pursued various policies in increasing revenue. They reformed the customs administration, and introduced wholly new customs on imports in May 1597. They put much effort into reviving the ancient dues from the crown lands. They helped to put a larger-than-ever direct tax through parliament in November, though much of their work at restoring the land revenues was perceived as being an attractive alternative to direct taxation. Finally, they stepped up the crown's hitherto nominal claim to highland revenues: having sent a military expedition to the highlands in 1596 they asserted sweeping powers over the chiefs in 1598, which stored up much future trouble. One policy to which they did not stoop, debasement of the coinage, was resumed with a vengeance after their removal. However, it was their efforts to reduce expenditure that attracted most hostility—cuts in household fees and in pensions to the nobility, which hit the pockets of the well-connected.

The Octavians' regime was diluted on 30 November 1596, when eight nobles and two other administrators were appointed to assist them, apparently to deflect criticism. This seems to have made little practical difference. A more serious challenge came the next month, as the Octavians were caught up in the struggle of the radical leaders of the church against the political influence of certain Roman Catholic nobles. Four of the Octavians—Elphinstone, Hamilton, Lindsay, and Seton—were believed to be closet Catholics (Elphinstone and Seton indeed were). The uprising in Edinburgh (17–19 December) collapsed for lack of noble support, but in the aftermath the Octavians were forced to resign, on 7 January 1597.

However, ten days later the Octavians were reappointed to a new exchequer commission, further enlarged to twenty-two members of whom they themselves formed the core (most of the others were unlikely to act regularly). Their powers were as before, except that they now held office during royal pleasure rather than for life. The commission could not act without Stewart, who now held the two key offices of comptroller and treasurer. This arrangement worked at first, but Stewart's offices ran him into debt and he soon sought to resign. In October he entered negotiations with Thomas Foulis, a goldsmith and financier who had extended large credit to the king and who had managed several branches of the revenue before the Octavians' advent. The result, on 29 December 1597, was a new commission of exchequer with a similar membership to the previous one, but with Foulis and his two deputies added, and with a proviso that Foulis's authority was necessary to all expenditure. With the addition of a private agreement between Stewart and Foulis, the latter now had full effective control over the royal revenue.

Foulis's imposing-looking regime soon came crashing down. One Octavian, Lindsay, engineered its destruction with the king's connivance, by a contrived failure to meet royal obligations to Foulis. This indicates division in the Octavian ranks, since Stewart seems to have been sincerely committed to Foulis and Hamilton had recently married Foulis's sister. On 17 January 1598 Foulis's scheme collapsed and the king charged Stewart to resume his office of treasurer, signalling that there was no longer any immediate intention of repaying the large royal debt to Foulis. This, effectively a royal bankruptcy, was one of the main legacies of the Octavian period.

After this the Octavians retained a collective identity for five more months, as a political faction opposed to the gentlemen of the chamber. The end came on 29 June 1598, when the permanent exchequer, the Octavians' power base, was abolished by a convention of estates. This signalled an end to policies of restraint in royal generosity to the nobility, evidently as a quid pro quo for the convention's other main measure, the Act anent Feuding by which the nobles agreed to submit blood feuds to royal justice. The Octavians' demise thus brought some benefit to James, who had long sought such an act, though his finances went from bad to worse until 1603.

The Octavians themselves went their separate ways after 1598. Two (Carnegie and Lindsay) died in that year. For the survivors, especially Elphinstone, Hamilton, and Seton, membership of the group had launched their careers while not tying them to any continuing group loyalty. In 1611 Hamilton and Seton were among the members of a new eight-man financial commission, immediately dubbed the New Octavians. The Octavians placed financial reform, or at least the idea of it, on the agenda for a generation of Scottish politicians.


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