Origins of the Douglas family in Italy

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The origins of the Douglas Scotti and Scoti Douglas families are said to stem from Sholto Douglas the (mythical) progenitor of Clan Douglas, 'a powerful and warlike family in medieval Scotland'. This apparently mythical man apparently took part in a mythical battle, where he was given a surname.

A (mythical) battle took place: "in 767, between King Solvathius rightful king of Scotland and a pretender Donald Bane. The victory was so nearly Donald's when a certain noble man, disdaining to see so bad a cause have good successe, struck in for the king and turned the fortunes of the day. When the king inquired about the knight who had done such valuable service, somebody exclaimed 'Sholto du glasse!'...'Behold the black gray man!'."

The (mythical?) Sholto had two (mythical?) sons, William and Marius (Mario).

In the year 773 king Charlemagne started a military campaign against the Lombards in Italy, because they were not respecting an agreement made with Pepin the Short, Charlemagne's father, to give part of their land to the state of the Church. He asked for help from king of Dál Riata (Western Scotland) Eochaid IV (1). The latter asked his cousin Count William of Douglas to recruit and bring to France a brigade of 4,000 men, which he did. But soon thereafter he had to return to Scotland to govern the family clan, leaving his command to his younger brother Marius Douglas, who at the time was described as courageous, tall, strong and with a reddish beard.(2)

The army of the Franks crossed the Alps and took base in the Benedictine Abbey of Novalesa, in the high valley of Dora Riparia. Mario Scoto, as he was known in Italy, discovered a small path through forests between the mountains which was absolutely unusable by the army, but perfect for the Scottish highlanders. After walking quietly for three days along the path, Mario Scoto and his men attacked the Lombards by surprise from the back, while king Charlemagne attacked with the cavalry from the front. It was a major victory for the Franks which marked the decline of the Lombards in Italy.

In the spring of 774, Pope Adrian I and the king Charlemagne decided to meet. With a small escort, amongst whom Mario Scoto was present, Charlemagne travelled the ancient via Cassia to Saint Peter's Basilica where he was received and blessed by the pope. Mario Scoto was Catholic as were the majority of Scotsmen at the time and at the service of his king became himself a defender of the Faith. He became an appreciated military advisor and distinguished himself in the Spanish campaign and in the battle against the Saxons at the confluence of the Weser with the Aller in which of the 5,000 Saxons, only the 500 who chose to be baptised were spared their lives.

Towards the end of the century Mario Scoto retired from the army, married an Italian noblewoman called Marozia and, for his devotion to the pope, settled in Rome where he was granted the honor to escort the pope. He was therefore present when in April 799 Pope Leo III was assaulted and kidnapped near the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Mario Scoto was able to find the pope in a monastery on the Aventine Hill and rescued him and returned him to his throne at the Holy See. The scene was later painted in Bologna by Giuseppe Antonio Caccioli.

On Christmas Day 800 Mario Scoto was invested Count of Bagnacavallo in Romagna and was granted the privilege to ornate his family crest, which already had the rampant leopard of Scotland, with the three fleur-de-lis, characteristic symbol of the French kings.

The family still conserves a very ancient portrait of a soldier with the following encryption in Latin: "Marius de Calveis, Scotus, Carl Mag M Dux Familiam Marescotti Fundavit ANN D. DCCC" (Marius of Galloway, Scottish, military commander under Carlemagne, founder of the Marescotti family. AD 800)

In the 9th century the Marescotti people (name derived from Mario Scoto) carried the title of counts of Bagnacavallo, a large fiefdom between the Lamone and Savio rivers. Charlemagne had received vast lands in the Bologna area and had later distributed them, as was the custom in those days, to the veterans of his army.

Returning to the elder brother, William, we note two versions of the story.

Said to be Count William Douglas, who left France  'to recruit and bring to France a brigade of 4,000 men, which he did (3)'. But soon thereafter we note he had to return to Scotland to govern the family clan, leaving his brother in charge.  However, we note elsewhere that William remained in Piacenza due to bad health and married a daughter of Antonio Spettino, and William fought with the army of Charlemagne against Desiderius, was in Piacenza and married the only daughter of the Lord of the castle of Spettino becoming the founder of the "Scots".

David Hume writes:
William Douglas father of the honourable familie of the SCOTI in Italy.

This William was son to the first Hugh, and grandchilde to Sholto, younger brother to the second Hugh: he it is that was father to the noble familie of the Scoti in Placenza in Italy, which fell out thus, as it is related by the Italian Historians, agreeing with ours.

Achaius king of Scotland having succeeded to Solvathius, did enter into league with Charlemaigne, which league hath continued betwixt the Scots and French without breach on either side ever since untill these our dayes; whereupon when the Emperour Charles went into Italy to represse the insolencies of Desiderius King of the Lombards committed against the Sea of Rome, Achaius as his confederate did send him foure thousand choice men under the conduct of his brother William, a pious and valarous young Prince.

Amongst other of his Captains that went with him, this William Douglas was one of the chief, and had the leading of the men of armes. The Emperour having restored Pope Leo the third to the dignity of his Seat, as he returned through Tuscanie, amongst other his notable acts, he restored also the Commonwealth of Florence to their former libertie; in which exploit the valour and actions of the Scottish Prince William were much remarked: the Florentines to shew their thankfulnesse to the Emperour took to their Armes the Red Lillie, a part of the French Armes, the colour only being changed: And in memorie of the valour of Prince William they did institte publike playes yearely, in which they crowned a Lion with great ceremonie and pomp, ordaining also that certain Lions should be kept upon the charges of the common Thesaurarie, because William had a Lion for his Armes, which is also the Armes of the Kings of Scotland. They have also a prophesie in Florence, which saith,

While crowned Lions live in Florence field, *
To forraine Armes their State shall never yeeld.

This Prince William, brother to Achaius King of Scotland, passed into Germanie, and gave himselfe wholly to the warres, where for his service by his sword, having obtained large Territories, he led a single life all his dayes, and thinking to make Christ his heire, he founded and doted fifteen Abbacies for those of the Scottish Nation. It is he (saith Major) who is named in songs made of him, Scottish Gilmore. Now while as the Emperour and Prince William were in their returne from Italy towards France, William Douglas in his voyage through Plaisance did fall into a heavie disease, and not being able to go along with the Emperour, stayed at Plaisance till he recovered his health. And then considering the toile and danger of so long a journey, as it would be into his own Countrey, he resolved rather to remain there, then to hazzard his person any more, which such travell would have greatly endangered: wherefore to gain the good will of the Citizens of Plaisance, and to strengthen himselfe (being a stranger) by a good alliance, he took to wife a daughter of Antonio Spettino, one of the most eminent and honourable houses in that Citie: by her he had many children, of whom are descended those of the most noble Familie of the Scoti, who are so called by reason of this William, their Ancestour, who was a Scottishman, the name of his Country being better knowne, and more remarkable, then either his own proper name, or the name of his Familie. This originall of the Scoti in Plaisance is collected and confirmed,

1. by the testimonie of the Italian Writers;

2. by the tree and genealogie of that familie;

3. and by their Coat of Arms which they give, being the same with the ancient Coat of the Douglasses, with some difference.



The Douglas Scotti became very rich merchants since the 13th century had acquired vast possessions and important representatives in the government of the city of Piacenza .

The family was feudal in the fifteenth century of the counties of Agazzano and Vigoleno , whose rights were also recognized by the Visconti with whom they had several clashes.

The Scotti family joined the Gonzaga family thanks to the marriage of Giovanni Maria Scotti , Count Vigoleno , with Luigia Gonzaga , daughter of Francesco I , of the royal line of Novellara , giving birth to the Scotti- Gonzaga family.

In 1414, Emperor Sigismondo received the Douglas title in memory of the ancient Scottish origin of the family, divided into several branches, among which:

•  Douglas Scotti of Sarmato
•  Douglas Scotti of Vigoleno

Amongst notable family members was Ranuccio Scotti Douglas (1597-1659), bishop of Fidenza

1.  The king in question was more probably Áed Find. It seems there might have been some confusion during the middle ages on the rulers of Dalriata.
2.  Galeazzo Ruspoli, I Ruspoli, Gremese Editore, 2001. page 10
3.  To France? or to Italy?

Letter to the Earl of Angus

My honourable Lord, William Douglas,

When I had the honour to see you at Orleans, I promised to send you the tree of the family of the Scoti of Piaisance, which is descended of the illustrious house of Douglas: but because I have not hitherto had a convenient opportunity of sending it safely, I have not yet paid this debt. Now therefore having found the occasion of this gentleman, my friend, who was to go into England, I would delay no longer to send the tree or genealogy; which I have done, beseeching your Lordship, as you promised me, to honour me with the tree of the house of Douglas in Scotland, at least, so much of it as the iniquity of times past, and the wars in that kingdom have suffered to remain undefaced and undestroyed, and I shall rest your Lordship's obliged for this favour.

The old arms of the Scoti in Piaisance, were conformed to the old arms of the Douglas, as may be seen in the foresaid city, in the church of Saint Lawrence. But when the Ghelfs and Ghibellines did war one against another in Italy, the Scoti, as partners of the French, were chosen to be heads of the Ghelfs in Piaisance. And because all things of an odd or unequal number were taken for Ghibelline, they were constrained to change the number of three stars, into either four or two. But esteeming that it was not fit to increase the number, they resolved to take one from them; in the place of which (in memory of it) they put a white or argent bar, which beginning at the right hand, is drawn along, and ends at the left: for if it had begun at the left, and ended at the right hand, it had been Ghibelline. The field which was given by the emperor Henry IV. together with a pelican for the crest, which is the crest of the Scoti only, who carry it at this hour, and the field of the whole family generally.

I have thought good to make this short digression, that your Lordship might have some knowledge wherefore this change was made in our coat: your Lordship should do me a singular favour, if you would be pleased to write unto me of the receipt of this tree, in the arms of which the coronet it wanting, because the crest is the place where it should be, and to honour me with your letters, which you may send to my noble captain the Duke of Nevers, and so they shall come safe to me; for which favour I shall be particularly obliged to your Lordship.

So kissing your Lordship's hands, together with these of your brethren and children, I pray the Lord to bless you with all happiness and prosperity.

Your Lordship's humble Servant and Cousin,

Mark Antonia Scoto, Count d' Agazano.
Paris, 8th May, 1622.

This tree was received by the Earl of Angus, who did also send to him the tree of the house of Douglas.

David Hume writes: Now, besides all this which we have said, the evidences and monuments, charters and writs of privilege of their house do witness the same; for in the privileges granted to them by the emperor Henry IV. and Sigismund, as also by Giovanni Maria Duke of Milan, the sirname of Douglas is expressly inserted with the titles of Earls given to three several persons of that house, first Francisco, created Conte de Vigolino, Giovanni, his brother, Conte d' Agazano, by the said Duke, and to Alberto, expressly intitled, Conte de Douglas et Vigolino, by Sigismund the emperor. Now, after all this, I hope we may justly say with John Lesly, Bishop of Ross, that the Scoti in Plaisance are come of the Douglases in Scotland. And thus much ,for William the second, son to Hugh the first, and grandchild to Sholto.

See also:
•  Extract from The History of the House and Race of Douglas and Angus, by David Hume (pdf)
•  Italian members of the Douglas family
•  Origins of the name Scotti
•  How the Scotto came to Piacenza (Slideshow)

For more on the Douglas Scotti families of Italy, see our Italy portal.



•  Restoration of Piacentini Palaces: Palazzo Douglas Scotti, Scala of St. George (Pdf; in Italian)
•  Footprints of the Douglas Scotti; A Scottish Warrior Journeys to Piacenza in Northern Italy in 794 - The Douglas castles (Pdf; in English)





Sources for this article include:

•  The History of the House and Race of Douglas and Angus, by David Hume

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Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024