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James (The Gross), 7th Earl of Douglas





Armorial bearing of James, 7th earl of DouglasJames Douglas, 7th earl of Douglas and 1st earl of Avondale, and of Balvenie, [called James the Gross], (c1371 - 1443), was the younger son of Archibald the Grim (3rd Earl of Douglas) Douglas (c.1320–1400), and Joanna Murray, lady of Bothwell and Drumsargard (d. after 1401).

His exceptional rise to dominance in his family and in the kingdom began with the disastrous defeat of his elder brother, Archibald Douglas, fourth earl of Douglas, at Homildon Hill in 1402. After the capture of the earl and his leading followers James was left to maintain Black Douglas influence in southern Scotland. He deputized for the earl as warden of the Scottish marches and keeper of Edinburgh Castle, but when he tried to maintain his family's position found himself increasingly challenged by a rival faction in the south led by Robert III's councillors, Sir David Fleming and Henry Sinclair, second earl of Orkney. Most worryingly for James, Fleming's and Orkney's support of the rebel Henry Percy, first earl of Northumberland, created tensions with England which led to attacks on Douglas lands and jeopardized negotiations for the earl's release. In early 1406 these tensions resulted in open conflict. James Douglas led a force from Edinburgh which caught Fleming, Orkney, and the young heir to the throne, the future James I, in Haddingtonshire. Orkney and Prince James escaped by sea, but Fleming was killed by Douglas's men in a running fight.

James Douglas's success preserved Black Douglas dominance in the south. Between 1406 and the release of his brother in 1409 he managed the family's interests in the kingdom. He supervised the demolition of Jedburgh Castle in 1409, and the governor of Scotland, Robert Stewart, duke of Albany, recognized his significance by calling him ‘our lieutenant’ in 1407. Despite this importance James was never more than his brother's deputy and, when the earl returned to Scotland, James assumed the role of councillor to his senior kinsmen which would continue until 1440. His service to the earl brought rewards, albeit in a form which suggests a certain wariness on the latter's part. The grant of estates in 1408 included Balvenie in Banffshire, Avoch in Inverness, Aberdour in Buchan, Petty and Duffus in Moray, and Strathaven and Stonehouse in Lanarkshire, and without much doubt represents an attempt to direct James's interests and energies to the north. This appanage was created from the inheritance of James's mother, Joanna Murray, but in terms of James's future interests the earl's most notable grant to his brother was Abercorn Castle in Linlithgowshire. For the rest of his life Abercorn was James's principal residence. Between 1408 and 1424 it served as a base for his plundering of the Edinburgh and Linlithgow customs and as the basis for connections with the neighbouring Crichtons and Livingstons, which would later be of vital importance.

During this period James Douglas remained a councillor of his brother and in the early 1420s he acted as the link between the earl and Murdoch Stewart, duke of Albany, the new governor. Although there may have been plans for him to marry into the Albany Stewarts, James Douglas's links with the duke did not prevent his appearing as a councillor of James I when the king returned in 1424, and he was on the assize which condemned Albany and his sons in 1425. In these roles Douglas acted in his family's interests, but his marriage (before March 1426) to Beatrix Sinclair (d. in or before 1463), daughter of his former enemy the earl of Orkney, cemented his own connection with the royal council, and the king quickly appreciated the importance of Douglas's support for his relationship with Archibald Douglas, now fifth earl of Douglas, who was the nephew of both men. In 1426 James received royal confirmation of his lands at a time when the king was putting pressure on the earl, and in 1430–31, while his nephew was briefly imprisoned by the king, James replaced him as warden of the west march and remained a royal councillor. This backing from the earl's senior kinsman was vital to the king to prevent a clash with the Douglas affinity, and in the 1430s James received continued royal favour. His eldest son, William Douglas, was knighted by the king in 1430 and by 1435 he himself was sheriff of Lanark, confirming his place among the king's principal followers.

Despite the often difficult relationship between the king and the earl of Douglas, James Douglas successfully maintained his place in family councils and, when, in 1437, the king was assassinated, he transferred his support to the earl. Along with two other Douglas adherents in royal service, Sir William Crichton and John Cameron, bishop of Glasgow, James backed the earl's appointment as lieutenant-general for the young James II, contrary to the expectations of James I, who had planned that in the event of his death his wife, Joan, should act as regent. Return to family loyalty paid James Douglas well. Within months he was made earl of Avondale and justiciar, and, with his grateful nephew in power, he was guaranteed an influential role on the lieutenant's council. Along with Crichton, he probably engineered the downfall of Bishop Cameron in April 1439, further securing their place in government.

This security was shaken by the death of the fifth earl of Douglas in June 1439. Though James acted for his great-nephew William Douglas, sixth earl of Douglas, the future was now threatening. James's influence in the minority government and in the Douglas family were both at risk, the first from Queen Joan, the second from the new Douglas earl. Characteristically, both problems were resolved in James's favour by force applied by his allies with no certain guilt being attached to Douglas himself. In August 1439 the queen was arrested by Sir Alexander Livingston in Stirling Castle and released only when she surrendered her son, the king. Douglas was present throughout and had well-established links with Livingston. The settlement, which gave custody of the king to his ally, safeguarded Douglas's interests, and he produced his great-nephew to seal the agreement. Over the next year it was this great-nephew who caused James anxiety. Earl William was a potential rival who would soon have the lands and men to back any claim to his father's lieutenancy. James was no more prepared than Livingston and Crichton to risk this dominance and on 24 November 1440 Earl William and his brother, David, were arrested and executed at a feast in Edinburgh Castle. The deed was carried out on the direct order of Crichton, but to the chief advantage of James, who at the same time took the opportunity to remove Sir Malcolm Fleming, a close associate of the sixth earl who was also a local rival. This ‘Black Bulls Dinner’ left James as heir by male entail to the Douglas earldom and, together with the coup of 1439, made him the most powerful figure in the kingdom.

Monument to 7th earl of DouglasIn spite of his career as a royal councillor it is significant that, as seventh earl of Douglas and lord of Lauderdale, James concentrated on family aggrandizement, leaving custody of the king to Crichton and Livingston. The new Douglas earl sought to create a network of lands and alliances which was not limited to the southern interests of his predecessors. He directed his younger sons towards north-east Scotland. His third son, Archibald, was married to Elizabeth Dunbar, coheir of the earldom of Moray, and in 1442 was created earl of Moray. Archibald's twin brother, James Douglas, the future ninth earl of Douglas, was chosen as bishop of Aberdeen in 1441, a mark of his father's influence with the conciliar party, though the appointment proved ineffective; after the elder James's death his two youngest sons, Hugh and John, were provided for from his own northern estates. Earl James clearly intended to implant the Douglas family into the disturbed political society of the north. In the south he followed a similar course. In Berwickshire he intervened in a complex feud within the Hume family. His principal aim was to re-establish the influence exercised by his brother in the east march before 1424. James did not ignore the traditional territorial interests of the Black Douglases. Before his death he probably arranged the marriage of his eldest son, William, future eighth earl of Douglas, to Margaret, sister of William, the sixth earl. To achieve this he had to obtain a papal dispensation. Through this match Galloway, which James did not inherit, would be reunited with the earldom. By inclination and experience, Douglas was not a border magnate like his predecessors. His main residences at Abercorn and Lanark confirm him as a magnate whose lands and personal connections centred on Clydesdale and Lothian. The marriages of his daughters to landowners in these two sheriffdoms support this impression. It was thus appropriate that it was at Abercorn Castle that Douglas died on 10 March 1443. His grossly fat body, which earned him his nickname and which at his death reportedly contained 4 stone of tallow, was buried in a magnificent tomb in St Bride's Church in Douglas.

Douglas's career as earl was one of superficial success. Family aggrandizement created enemies, including Crichton, Bishop James Kennedy, and the earls of Angus, without any secure increase in Douglas power. Relative neglect of the family's place in the marches loosened loyalties already shaken by the ‘Black Dinner’. Finally, by centring his interests on Lothian, a heartland of royal interests, Earl James risked future conflict with James II. Douglas's career had parallels with that of his father. Both combined roles as royal servants, family councillors, and ambitious and forceful magnates, and both their long careers culminated in the acquisition of the Douglas earldom. But the 1440s were not the 1390s. Changes in Scottish political society and attitudes meant that the achievements of James Douglas would leave his sons a difficult legacy.


Father: Archibald the Grim (3rd Earl of Douglas) Douglas b: ABT. 1346
Mother: Joan\Johana (of Strathearn) Moray b: ABT. 1350

Marriage: Beatrix Sinclair, daughter of Earl of Orkney

  • Married: BEF. 7 MAR 1424/25 in Orkney, Scotland.

  1.  William 8th Earl of Douglas b: ABT. 1425
  2.  James 9th Earl of Douglas b: ABT. 1440
  3.  Archibald (Earl of Moray) Douglas
  4.  Hugh (Earl of Ormond) Douglas,  Executed in 1455
  5.  John (Lord of Balveny) Douglas
  6.  Margaret Douglas = Henry Douglas, son of Sir James Douglas,1st Lord Dalkeith 
  7.  Henry Douglas
  8.  George Douglas
  9.  Beatrice Douglas = William (1st Earl of Erroll) 2nd Lord Hay
  10.  Elizabeth Douglas = Adam (of Craigie) Wallace (or William?)
  11.  Janet Douglas b: 1398 in Brechin, Lanarkshire, Scotland = Sir Robert, 1st Lord Fleming


Born 1371, he died at Abercorn in 1444.


Seal of 7th Earl of Douglas


See also:
•  Standoff at Tantallon Castle



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