WE will never truly know if King James VI of Scotland had a homosexual relationship with his first cousin once removed Esme Stuart who, as we saw in the last column, was certainly the object of immediate infatuation by the king even though Esme was more than twice James’s age and married with children.

His dazzlingly handsome looks and worldliness were undoubtedly attractive to the teenage king, who had been deprived of affection and contact with the outside world during his stern upbringing and education by George Buchanan.

We know that James was rebelling against that upbringing because his other tutor, Peter Young, an academic genius and much softer figure than Buchanan, became more of a mentor and adviser to James. James sidelined Buchanan who, as we saw, went off to write his History of Scotland which was eventually published in 1582, the year of his death.

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Stuart’s conspiracy to have James’s last Regent, the Earl of Morton, convicted and executed in June 1581 for his part in the killing of the king’s father Henry, Lord Darnley, saw Esme promoted to become the second-highest figure in the land as the leading light of the king’s court.

As always with powers behind the throne in the Stewart-Stuart dynasty, such people needed to be very cautious and proceed without annoying the monarch. But not only did he not annoy James, Stuart found himself showered with honours, including the income from Arbroath Abbey and the title of Earl of Lennox which had been held by the King’s grandfather. James even gave Lennox some royal jewels which the Earl rather ostentatiously had sown on his robes.

James appointed him first gentleman of the royal bedchamber – perhaps an unfortunate title given the rumours that were circulating about the pair – and also Lord Chamberlain of Scotland.

More significantly, Lennox was made governor of Dumbarton Castle and Lord Chamberlain of Scotland, positions of military and economic power. His co-conspirator James Stewart of Bothwellmuir was made Earl of Arran, a title normally held by the powerful Hamilton family. They were not pleased and were chief among the nobles who began to agitate against Esme Stuart, who was promptly made the 1st Duke of Lennox by the infatuated king.

That promotion also caused anger among those who opposed Lennox. At that time there was only one dukedom in Scotland and it had been created by the king for his cousin. As feelings against Lennox multiplied, one facet of him became the object of his opponents’ attention – the fact that he remained a Roman Catholic when the king and nearly all his courtiers and supporters were strictly Protestant.

Rumours began to be spread that Lennox was in league with the Catholic powers of Europe who were determined to unseat Elizabeth of England and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne, as well as to restore her to Scotland where she would be Regent for her son.

How far-fetched these reports were can be judged from the fact that Mary was in effect a prisoner in England and that neither the monarchs of France nor Spain were in any position to attempt to invade the British Isles – at least not for a while.

I have often wondered if James VI had studied the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, such as The Prince, because the king began to display some of the unattractive traits of a Machiavellian character. The historian professor John Duncan Mackie wrote in his magisterial A History of Scotland that James “enacted the part of Mr Facing Both Ways”. Ostensibly he remained the Protestant ally of England but he was determined to be included in any great action by the Catholics and kept in touch with their eternal conspiracies.

Yet neither could the king ignore the rising tide of revulsion against his cousin Lennox. James instructed a leading Protestant minister, John Craig, to draw up a document which became known as the King’s Covenant or Confession and also the Negative Confession as it was a litany of abjuration of Catholic doctrines.

Lennox publicly converted to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and signed the King’s Confession in January 1581.

Writing several decades later, the Presbyterian historian and propagandist Robert Baillie stated: “In the year 1580 some prime courtiers and others truly popish in their heart, yet for their own ends ere content to dissemble and to abjure popery with their owne equivocations and mentall reservations, the king, desiring to stop all starting holes, caused Mr Craige, the pastor of his familie, to draw up a confession of every particular rejecting expressly the most of the Romish errors.”

Craig did a brilliant job, concocting a Covenant which no genuine Catholic could sign. Its influence was such that when the Presbyterian National Covenant was drawn up in 1637, it contained echoes of, and indeed excerpts from, the King’s Confession.

His submission to the Protestant faith did Lennox no good but it was an extraordinary intervention by another power-behind-the-throne which sealed his fate.

Lord William Ruthven had been one of the main organisers of the plot to kill Queen Mary’s favourite David Rizzio, a conspiracy led by his father Lord Ruthven, and he was also in charge of her imprisonment at Lochleven Castle.

By 1581 he was acknowledged as among the top military commanders in the country and was also Lord High Treasurer of Scotland.

James made him the Earl of Gowrie for his services, yet he too was playing a double game. On the one hand he seemed to convince the king that he was not averse to Lennox, yet on the other he was conspiring with other Protestant lords against James’s favourite. These nobles formed a group which called itself the Lords Enterprisers, and in August, 1582, they struck. Except it was not the Duke of Lennox they seized but King James VI himself.

The king was just 16 years old when he went out hunting, one of his favourite pastimes, at the Atholl estate in Perthshire. There are various accounts of what happened next, but I believe the facts are that Gowrie rode out to meet the king and offered him hospitality at Ruthven Castle.

Not realising that Gowrie was one of the leaders of the Lords Enterprisers, James accepted the offer and they rode together, apparently in good humour, to the Place of Ruthven, as the mighty castle was known. It can still be visited to this day, though it long ago became Huntingtower.

Arriving at Ruthven, it became instantly clear that James was now a prisoner in his own realm. He must have been very shocked to realise that not only was Gowrie against him, but so was his childhood friend from their days at Stirling Castle, John Erskine, the 2nd Earl of Mar. We’ll find out more about him next week. Other Lord Enterprisers now gathered and in effect they performed a coup d’etat, proclaiming themselves the government of Scotland.

James was powerless in their hands, but the Duke of Lennox and the Earl of Arran were determined to free the king. The latter rode to Ruthven and attempted a single-handed rescue by demanding that the king be released forthwith.

His brother, William Stewart, also charged to Ruthven and fought with the guards, losing two fingers. Both Arran and his brother duly joined the king in captivity and by then they knew the Duke of Lennox had had to abandon his rescue plans as Mar had posted an armed force at Kinross to stop any northward march.

On August 23, according to the English ambassador writing to Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, the Lords Enterprisers presented a “supplication” to James. The only copy of it is in the Public Records Office London. Their chief demands included the end of any adherence by Scots to the Catholic Church and the expulsion of the Duke of Lennox.

James was forced to sign a document stating that he was a “free” king and asked Lennox to go home to France. Esme Stuart (below) was having none of it at first, but by December 1582 he had accepted the inevitable and departed.

The National:

The Duke of Lennox died of natural causes in Paris at the age of 41 a few months later, on May 26, 1583. He bequeathed his embalmed heart to James and not his wife – a sign of whom he truly loved?

In his captivity James wrote Ane Metaphoricall Invention of a Tragedie called Phoenix, in which he portrayed Lennox as an exotic bird come to Scotland and set upon by lesser birds.

Scholars have long argued that Phoenix was a homoerotic poem, and there is certainly some evidence that James physically adored his duke, as seen in this excerpt describing the bird/Lennox:

This foule, excelling Iris farr in hew.

Whose body whole, with purpour was owercledd, Whose taill of coulour was celestiall blew,

With skarlat pennies that through it mixed grew: Her craig was like the yallowe burnisht gold, And she her self thre hundredth yeare was old.

The death of his favourite seems to have inspired a desire for freedom in James. During these days of what became known as the Gowrie Regime, the king was moved to various houses and castles in lands controlled by the Lord Enterprisers whose number now included Francis Stewart, the King’s cousin and the Earl of Bothwell, nephew of Queen Mary’s third husband James Hepburn.

The king, who it must be remembered was only in his 17th year, became determined to escape and a month after Lennox’s death he devised a typically clever ruse to get out of the Enterprisers’ clutches.

He told them he was resigned to a long captivity and Gowrie granted him a move to the much more comfortable Falkland Palace in Fife. He was even allowed to attend some kind of party at St Andrews and it was here that his escape took place.

James had arranged for a multitude of his supporters to attend and in a rush they got him into St Andrews Castle. With the ambassadors of France offering military support, James felt confident to act against the Lords Enterprisers, with the Earl of Arran leading the assault on the Ruthven raiders.

The Lords Enterprisers surrendered en masse, and asked for mercy from the king. James decided to bide his time before acting and meanwhile installed the ruthless Arran as his first Lord of the Privy Council – he had no scruples about persecuting people he saw as traitors. It helped that the Earl of Mar had gone south for refuge.

Unable to accept Arran as their new commander-in-chief, the Lords Enterprisers decided to try again and in April 1584 they gathered at Stirling Castle in another attempted coup. James and Arran had anticipated such a move and had left the castle to gather an army of 12,000 troops which promptly marched on Stirling. Still just 17, James rode at the head of the host alongside Arran. The Lords Enterprisers were vastly outnumbered and surrendered, most of them heading south into exile in England.

This time there was no mercy for the Earl of Gowrie. He was quickly tried for treason and executed. It wouldn’t be the last time the Gowrie name would feature in James’s story.

The king had avenged one insult and now he was determined to act against another body which he considered to have insulted him – the Church of Scotland itself.

Find out about that and the remarkable story of two women behind his throne next week.