IT was in this week 450 years ago that one of the most infamous and shocking murders in Scottish history took place.

On January 23, 1570, James Stewart, the 1st Earl of Moray, was assassinated. At the time he was the Regent of Scotland, and thus earned himself the unwanted record of being the first government principal anywhere to be assassinated by a firearm.

Moray, as I shall refer to him from now on, partly caused the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots, his own half-sister. Historians like to portray her as a tragic heroine and Moray has long been seen as the villain of the piece, but it could be argued that Moray himself was a victim of the political and religious intrigues that engulfed Scotland in the 1560s.

Religion, politics and sheer hatred were the prime causes of his assassination for the perpetrator was a Roman Catholic, James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, whose family were staunch supporters of Mary and had personal grudges against the Regent.

Born in 1531, Moray was the illegitimate son of King James V and his mistress, Lady Margaret Erskine. James wanted Margaret to be his Queen Consort and he unsuccessfully petitioned the Pope that she could get a divorce from her husband so he could marry her and thus legitimise young James, who would then have become King James VI with Mary, Queen of Scots, nowhere near the throne.

Raised a Catholic, it is not known exactly when Moray converted to Protestantism, and it may have been through a meeting with John Knox, but it did not stop him acting as a commissioner in the negotiations for the marriage of his half-sister Mary to the Dauphin of France on behalf of the queen’s regent and mother, Mary of Guise.

With the other Protestant Lords of the Congregation he turned against Mary of Guise, though when Queen Mary’s husband King Francis II died, it was Moray who went to France to fetch Mary home to reign over Scotland.

As a close adviser to Mary, who had declared freedom of religion, he dealt firmly with both John Knox who wanted Mary to be banned from attending Mass, and the Catholic rebel George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, who he defeated at the Battle of Corrichie in October, 1562.

In reward, Mary made James both Earl of Mar, briefly, and Earl of Moray, the latter a revived title. By 1565 they had fallen out, however, over Mary’s choice of the Catholic Henry, Lord Darnley, as her consort.

Moray broke out in open rebellion against the Queen and there followed the so-called Chaseabout Raid with a series of close encounters that ended with Moray fleeing to England where he had to explain himself to Queen Elizabeth.

Moray spent time forging links with the English authorities and was absent from Scotland when both David Rizzio and Darnley were murdered, so he could not be blamed for either.

Moray left the country again when James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, married Mary and tried to take charge of the country with the support of the powerful Hamilton family.

The Lords of the Congregation began an open civil war against Mary and after the bloodless Battle of Carberry, Mary was forced by them to abdicate and was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in July, 1567. Moray returned to Scotland the following month and was made Regent for the infant James VI.

After Mary’s dramatic escape from Loch Leven, at the Battle of Langside near Glasgow on May 13, 1568, Moray’s stronger forces soundly defeated Mary’s supporters, led by the Hamiltons, causing her to flee to England.

Moray already had some enmity with the Hamiltons who continued to resist his rule. After a year of suppressing support for Mary in the south and west of Scotland, he razed the Hamilton stronghold, Rutherglen Castle. By the end of 1569 he had managed to bring all parts of the country into an uneasy peace – a formidable achievement. Only Dumbarton Castle held out for Mary. He was on his way to arrange its recapture when he passed through Linlithgow on January 23, 1570.

James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh had a personal grudge against Moray who had evicted his family from their homes. He lay in wait behind the window of his uncle Archbishop John Hamilton’s house on the high street of the town, and as Moray passed on horseback, the assassin struck.

There is a contemporary account of the event in the diary of Robert Birrel, a burgess of Edinburgh, who chronicled all the diverse happenings of most of the decades of the 16th century.

He wrote: “The Earl of Moray, the Good Regent, was slain in Linlithgow by James Hamilton of Bothwell-haugh, who shot the said Regent with a gun out at ane window, and presently thereafter fled out at the back, and leapt on a very good horse, which the Hamiltons had ready waiting for him; and, being followed speedily, after that spur and wand had failed him, he drew forth his dagger, and struck his horse behind; whilk causit the horse to leap a very broad stank; by whilk means he escaped.”

Moray had been shot below the navel, and though he walked away, his death later than night was inevitable. He was just 38.

Hamilton escaped to France and was never captured, but members of his family, including Archbishop Hamilton, were arrested and executed for their alleged part in the murder.

Moray was buried in St Giles Cathedral, with John Knox preaching at his funeral. There is a stained glass window in the cathedral which tells the story of the assassination and which depicts Knox preaching – ironic, since Knox always railed against such Papist decor.

The Earl left a poisoned legacy, namely the so-called Casket Letters which were used against their alleged author Mary, Queen of Scots, in the proceedings that ultimately led to her execution in 1587. It was Moray who acquired those letters and showed them to the English nobility.

For that alone, he is often reviled by the fans of Mary.