William, 8th Earl of Douglas

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William, eighth Earl of Douglas, who inherited all the courage, ambition, and energy of his family, was born about the year 1425, and succeeded to the family title and estates in 1443. In the following year he obtained from Rome a dispensation to marry his kinswoman, Margaret Douglas, Lady of Galloway, heiress of the victims of the Black Bull's Dinner —a union which was greatly desired by his father. Thus the vast possessions of the family, which had been divided on the death of the sixth Earl, were united in the person of the eighth Earl. This increase of territory greatly augmented the power of the Earl and of his formidable house.

He lost no time in maturing and carrying out his plans for the restoration of the political influence of his house, and securing that place in the administration of public affairs which he considered due to his ancient family and extensive estates. He first of all made his peace with the King, professing unbounded attachment to his person and crown. James, who was greatly delighted with his unexpected submission, made the Earl a member of the Privy Council, and soon after conferred on him the office of Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom. ‘The raising of new and mean men was the thing that he and his house did ever dislike very much,’ says Godscroft, a remark which, as Mr. Hannay observes, brings the Claudian family to mind, and shows us how great power bred great haughtiness, and the house became unfit to be quiet subjects. This feeling was, no doubt, at the root of the Earl’s dislike to Livingston and Crichton. Through his influence the former was deprived of his office; and Crichton, towards whom he cherished a deadly hatred, was in a Parliament held at Stirling, in 1445, found guilty of treason, and proclaimed a traitor and his estates confiscated.

The influence of Douglas was now paramount. Three of his brothers were raised to the peerage, who became, in turn, Bishop of Aberdeen, Earl of Moray, Earl of Ormond and Lord of Balveny, and the chief offices in the administration were filled with his creatures. Bishop Kennedy, of St. Andrews, a prelate of great wisdom and integrity, set himself to thwart the designs of the Earl on the independence of the Crown, and in consequence his estates were laid waste with fire and sword by the partisans of the Earl.

A treasonable league was formed between Douglas and the Earl of Crawford and Alexander Ross, Lord of the Isles, which menaced both the safety of the King and the peace of the country. The signal service which was rendered at this period by Hugh, Earl of Ormond, a brother of Douglas, in defeating, at Sark, a powerful English army which had invaded Scotland, tended not a little to strengthen the interest of the house. But the arrogant and lawless behaviour of its head gradually alienated the confidence and regard of the King.

Indignant at the diminution of his influence, the Earl resolved to retire from the country for a season, and went to the Jubilee at Rome, in 1450, ‘as his enemies did interpret it,’ says Godscroft, ‘to show his greatness to foreign princes and nations. There went with him in company a great number of noblemen and gentlemen, such as the Lord Hamilton, Gray, Salton, Seton, Oliphant, and Forbes; also Calder, Urquhart, Campbell, Fraser, Lauders of Cromarty, Philorth, and Bass, knights, with many other gentlemen of great account.’ At Paris the Earl was joined by his brother James, his successor in the earldom, who appears to have been at this time prosecuting his studies at the University there. He was received by the French Court with the respect due to his rank and the eminent services to France of his grandfather and his uncle Earl Archibald; and even at Rome his reputation and ostentatious magnificence seem to have attracted no small notice.

During his absence the turbulent conduct of his vassals disturbed the peace of the country and drew down upon them the vengeance of the Government. The King marched in person to the Borders, demolished Crag Douglas, a fortalice on the Yarrow, and inflicted summary punishment on the offenders. On his return the Earl sent a submissive message to the King, expressing his displeasure with the conduct of his vassals during his absence, and his resolution to observe the laws and to maintain order among his dependents. He was on this received into favour; but there is good reason to believe that he speedily resumed his treasonable designs, and that, while engaged as one of the Commissioners in negotiating a truce with England, he entered into a secret intrigue with the Yorkist faction against the authority of his sovereign.

Although the Earl had now been deprived of the office of Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom, James, unwilling to come to an open rupture with his too-powerful subject, appointed him Warden of the West and Middle Marches, and confirmed to him and his descendants, by deed of entail, the earldoms of Wigton and Douglas. But these acts of kindness, which he probably regarded as indications of weakness and fear, only emboldened the Earl to set at defiance both the restraints of law and the authority of his sovereign. He attempted to assassinate his old enemy Crichton, who had been restored to the Chancellorship; he hanged Sir John Herries of Terregles(3), who had refused to become his ally, in contempt of a positive order of the King requiring his release; and he beheaded Maclellan of Bomby, in circumstances shockingly cruel and aggravating(1).  With an evident view to an open insurrection against the royal authority, ‘he sought and persuaded all men under his opinion and servitude, and in special the gentlemen of Galloway, with Coile, Carrick, and Cunninghame, and all other parties that were near adjacent unto him, desyreing them daylie to ride and goe with him as his own household and servantis, and to assist him in all thingis whatsomevir he had to doe, whether it was ryght or wrong, with the King or against him.’

Matters were now evidently approaching a crisis; but the King was anxious to avert an open rupture, for he was well aware that Douglas and his two associates in a treasonable league could unitedly bring into the field a force superior to that of the Crown. He resolved, therefore, by the advice of Crichton and other experienced counsellors, to invite the Earl to Court, in order that he might try the effect of a personal remonstrance with him respecting his illegal and turbulent conduct. Douglas accepted the invitation, but took the precaution to obtain a letter of safe conduct under the great seal, and signed by the principal nobles of the Court. Trusting to this security, he repaired to Stirling with a small retinue, and upon Shrove Tuesday (13th February, 1452) received and accepted an invitation to dine at the royal table. He not only dined but supped at the Court. After supper the King conducted his guest apart into an inner room, and, informing him that he was aware of the league he had made with the Earls of Crawford and Ross, entreated him to withdraw from a confederacy which was both inconsistent with his allegiance and dangerous to the peace of the country. Douglas refused, however, to comply with the King’s request, and as James continued to urge him more earnestly he became more haughty and dogged in his refusal, and declared that he could not honourably renounce the engagement which he had made with Ross and Crawford, nor would he do so for any living man(2). The King, whose temper was naturally fiery and impetuous, lost all self-command at this insolent defiance, and passionately exclaiming, ‘If you will not break this league, I shall,’ drew his dagger and stabbed the Earl, first in the throat and then in the lower part of the body. Sir Patrick Gray, who was present, and had sworn to be revenged upon Douglas for the murder of his nephew, struck him on the head with his battleaxe, and the rest of the nobles rushing in stabbed the dying man in the most dastardly and disgraceful manner with their daggers and knives. The dead body of the murdered noble, pierced with twenty-six wounds, was cast out of the window into the open court, where it was buried.

The Earl left no family.


1.  George Buchanan's version of events suggests that Maclellan had previously killed one of the Douglas family by whom he had been insulted, but it is generally understood that the cause of quarrel was Maclellan's refusal to join the alliance. The Earl of Douglas, outraged with this opposition to his plot, laid siege to Raeberry Castle (MacLellan's Castle) and captured Sir Patrick Maclellan forcibly removing him to the fortress of Threave Castle, where Maclellan was held a prisoner.

Lord Andrew Gray, Maclellan’s uncle, whose son, Sir Patrick Gray, held a high office at the Court, was able to obtain a letter from King James requesting the earl of Douglas to release his prisoner. Sir Patrick Gray carried the dispatch himself, appearing with the king's letter. William Douglas, suspecting its message, refused to open the dispatch until after Sir Patrick Gray had dined. Treachery was afoot however, in the Douglas camp. Having received such a shrewd guest as Gray, and anticipating his intentions, the earl ordered Maclellan to be immediately put to death.

Douglas then conducted Gray to the courtyard, where Sir Patrick Maclellan's headless body lay. Gray retreated from the castle, almost certainly Threave and not the much lesser castle of Douglas and escaped capture only by his skill as a horseman.

2.  A poem imagines the Earl's refusal...

'No, by the cross it may not be;
I've pledged my knightly word',
And like a thundercloud he scowled,
And half unsheathed his sword.
Then drew the King that jewelled glaive,
Which gore so oft had spilt
And in the haughty Douglas' heart
He sheathed it to the hilt.


3.  Some sources state that it was Sir Herbert Herries, John's brother, who was taken and hanged by the Earl of Douglas.  There is no sure evidence.



Sources for this article include:
  • A History of the House of Douglas, London, Sir Herbert Maxwell, Bt., 1902

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    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024