This page was last updated on 30 September 2021

Click here to 
Print this page

Biography finder





























Index of first names

James Douglas of Pittendreich, 4th Earl of Morton.






James, 4th Earl of MortonJames Douglas, jure uxoris 4th Earl of Morton (c. 1525 – 2 June 1581) was the last of the four regents of Scotland during the minority of King James VI. He was in some ways the most successful of the four, since he did manage to win the civil war which had been dragging on with the supporters of the exiled Mary, Queen of Scots. However he came to an unfortunate end: during his time as regent he introduced the maiden, a primitive guillotine, to Scotland, and he was eventually executed by it himself.

He was the second son of Sir George Douglas of Pittendriech who before 1543 had married Elizabeth (d. 1574), daughter of James Douglas, 3rd Earl of Morton. In 1553 James Douglas succeeded to the title and estates of his father-in-law, including Dalkeith House in Midlothian, and Aberdour Castle in Fife. In 1563 he became Lord Chancellor of Scotland. Though his sympathies were with the reformers, he took no part in the combination of Protestant reformers in 1565, but he headed the armed force which took possession of Holyrood Palace in, March 1566 to effect the assassination of David Rizzio, and it was to his house that the leading conspirators adjourned while a messenger was sent to obtain Queen Mary's signature to the "bond of security."

The queen, before complying with the request, escaped to Dunbar, and Morton and the other leaders fled to England. Having been pardoned, Morton returned to Scotland early in 1567, and with 600 men appeared before Borthwick Castle, where the queen after her marriage with Bothwell had taken refuge. He was present at the remarkable conference at Carberry Hill, and he also took an active part in obtaining the consent of the queen at Lochleven to an abdication. He led the army which defeated the queen's forces at the Battle of Langside in 1568, and he was the most valued privy counsellor of the Earl of Moray during the latter's brief term of office as regent. On the death of the Earl of Mar (28 October 1572), Morton, who had been the most powerful noble during this regency, and also during that of the Earl of Lennox, at last reached the object of his ambition by being elected regent. In many respects Morton was an energetic and capable ruler. He effected at Perth, in February 1573, with the aid of Elizabeth of England's envoy, a pacification with George Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly, the Hamiltons and the Catholic nobles who supported Mary. Only Edinburgh Castle held out, and this, aided by English artillery, he succeeded in taking after a brave resistance by Kirkcaldy of Grange and Maitland of Lethington.

The ensuing execution of these men put an end to the last chance of Mary's restoration by native support. But while all seemed to favour Morton, there were under-currents which combined to procure his fall. The Presbyterian clergy were alienated by his leaning to Episcopacy, and all parties in the divided Church by his seizure of its estates. Andrew Melville, who had taken over as leader from John Knox, was firmly against any departure from the Presbyterian model, and refused to be won by a place in Morton's household. As well as the pressure from the Presbyterians, Colin Campbell, 6th Earl of Argyll and John Stewart, 4th Earl of Atholl, both leading Roman Catholics and members of the Queen's party in league with Alexander Erskine, governor of Stirling Castle and the custodian of young King James, received such widespread support, that Morton had no option but to resign his Regency.

He surrendered Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, the Great Seal and the Honours of Scotland, retiring to Lochleven, where he busied himself in laying out gardens. But his ambition could not deny itself another stroke for power. Aided by the young earl of Mar, he got possession of Stirling Castle and the person of the king. Civil war was avoided only by the influence of Sir Robert Bowes, the English ambassador. A nominal reconciliation was effected, and a parliament at Stirling introduced a new government. Morton, who secured an indemnity, was president of the council, but Atholl remained a privy councillor in an enlarged council with the representatives of both parties. Shortly afterwards Atholl died of poison, it was said, and suspicion pointed to Morton. His return to power was brief, and the only important event was the prosecution of the two Hamiltons, who still supported Mary and saved their lives by flight to England. The final fall of Morton came from an opposite quarter.

The Earl of Arran accusing Morton of Darnley's murder
The Earl of Arran accusing Morton of Darnley's murder
In September 1579 Esmé Stuart, the king's cousin, came to Scotland from France, gained the favour of James by his courtly manners, and received the lands and earldom of Lennox, the custody of Dumbarton Castle, and the office of chamberlain. One of his dependants, Captain James Stuart, son of Lord Ochiltree and brother-in-law of Knox, had the daring to accuse Morton at a meeting of the council in Holyrood of complicity in the murder of Darnley, and he was at once committed to custody. Some months later Morton was condemned by an assize for having taken part in that crime, and the verdict was justified by his confession that Bothwell had revealed to him the design, although he denied participation in its execution.


His lands, and those of his family, were forfeited in May 1581  pdf

He was executed on the 2nd of June 1581. The method of his execution was the "maiden" — a guillotine he had himself brought from Halifax, England, having been "impressed by its clean work". His corpse remained on the Scaffold for the following day, until it was taken for burial in a Common grave at Greyfriars Kirkyard. His head however remained on a spike outside the Tolbooth of Edinburgh for eighteen months until it was ordered to be reunited with his body in December 1582.


Although Morton's final resting place is allegedly marked with a small sandstone post incised only with the initials "J.E.M." for James Earl of Morton, this is simply a Victorian marker for a lair edge, twisted in meaning for convenience. Logically, were a marker allowed (which was not permitted for executed criminals) firstly it would more logically read "J.D.", and secondly it would have been cleared away in 1595 when all stones were removed from Greyfriars!

The attainted earldom of Morton passed by charter at his death to a grandson of the 3rd earl, John Maxwell, 7th Lord Maxwell (1553-1593), who had previously claimed the title. In 1586, however, the attainder was rescinded in favour of Archibald Douglas, 8th Earl of Angus, a nephew of the 4th earl.


After the execution of her husband, Morton's wife, Dame Elizabeth Douglas was found by an inquest to be incapable of managing her affairs, as she was "idiot and prodigal" in the language of the time. King James VI signed a warrant to appoint a legal guardian called an "administrator and tutor" to supervise and protect her property.

The title of Earl of Morton passed by charter to the son of Dame Elizabeth Douglas's sister Beatrix, John Maxwell, 8th Lord Maxwell. Maxwell had been in dispute with Regent Morton over the title, and while the former Regent was in prison, Maxwell had made a contract with the Duke of Lennox on 29 April 1581. Lennox would work to give Maxwell rights over the Morton earldom, and make him the legal guardian of James Douglas and Dame Elizabeth's three daughters. The three sisters, like their mother would be declared incapable by a "brieve of idiotry". However, it appears one of them, Lady Elizabeth, married James Richardson, natural son of Robert Richardson, (d.1578), the son of Robert Richardson (died 1578) was a Scottish Prior of St Mary's Isle Lord Treasurer.

In 1586, however, the title was given to Archibald Douglas, 8th Earl of Angus, a nephew and legal heir of Regent Morton. Maxwell was still able to use the title, though it did not descend to his heirs.


Although some reports state that they had 6 -10 children, it is generally stated that James and Elizabeth died without children.  However, James did sire four children out of wedlock:

  partner(s) unknown
  (i) James Douglas, Prior of Pluscardine had issue
  m. (mcrt 18.02.1577/8) Anna Home (dau of George Home, fiar of Spott)
  (ii) Archibald Douglas of Pittendreich
  m. (mcrt 09.11.1590) Elizabeth Sutherland (dau of Alexander Sutherland of Duffus)
  (a) Elizabeth Douglas
  m. John Innes of Leuchars
  (iii) George Douglas of Parkhead
  (a) Sir James Douglas of Parkhead, later of Torthorwald (d 07.1608)
  m. (before 11.08.1587) Elizabeth Carlyle (a 08.05.1642, dau of William, Master of Carlyle)
((1)) James Douglas, Lord Torthorwald
  m1. (before 06.1611, div) Elizabeth Gordon (dau of Sir Robert Gordon of Lochinvar)
  ((A)) James Douglas (bpt 02.01.1621)
  m2. (11.1618, div 1622) Anne Saltonstall
  ((2)) Sir George Douglas of Mordington
  Identified in BP1857 (Lockhart) as brother of James, Lord Torthorwald. Although it is known that there was a George in this generation, the dates suggest he should be of a generation earlier


  ((A)) Martha Douglas
  m. (1619) Sir James Lockhart of Lee (b 1596, d 04.06.1674, Judge as Lord Lee)
  ((3)) other issue - Archibald, John
  (iv) William Douglas of Mosshouses (d before 11.1605)
  (v) 3 daughters (see above)



See also:

  • Morton's House, Edinburgh


    Any contributions will be gratefully accepteddsp;




    Back to top


    The content of this website is a collection of materials gathered from a variety of sources, some of it unedited.

    The webmaster does not intend to claim authorship, but gives credit to the originators for their work.

    As work progresses, some of the content may be re-written and presented in a unique format, to which we would then be able to claim ownership.

    Discussion and contributions from those more knowledgeable is welcome.

    Contact Us

    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024