This article is available in full as part of History & Heritage, visit now for more free articles and information.
Scotland Magazine Issue 7
This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive.
Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.
Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2017.
All rights reserved.
To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.
NEIL GUNN EXAMINES THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDREW FLETCHER, WHO FOUGHT FOR SCOTTISH DEMOCRACY AND INDEPENDENCE
Throughout Scotland’s long history there have been many who fought for and were devoted to their country. The names of Bruce and Wallace remain uppermost in our psyche as heroes of the battlefields of Bannockburn and Stirling Bridge. But only one man has been given the epithet ‘The Patriot’.
Certainly, he is known to have taken up arms in defence of his beliefs, but his reputation comes from his selfless defence of his country’s interests in parliament.
Andrew Fletcher was born in Saltoun in East Lothian in 1653. He was educated by Gilbert Burnet, the great churchman and historian, and may have gone to Edinburgh University before travelling in Europe to complete his studies.
In 1678 he was called as a Commissioner for Haddingtonshire to the Convention of Estates (a gathering similar to a full parliament with tax-raising powers but not judicial powers).
In 1681, James, Duke of York and brother of King Charles II, was appointed High Commissioner in Scotland. Charles had persuaded the English parliament not to pass legislation preventing his brother, a Catholic, from succeeding the throne. The Duke now wanted the Scottish parliament to do likewise.
Andrew Fletcher fought hard against James, arguing that the security of the Protestant religion should be paramount. His bitter opposition to the future king was an early sign of his need to stand up and be counted. It wasn’t that he was a man of intense religious conviction. He was a passionate believer that authority should lie with parliament and not with the church or state.
With the increasing enmity between the Duke of York and Fletcher, and after the Rye House Plot of 1683 (a plot to kill Charles and James), life was becoming more dangerous for Fletcher. He left Scotland to join the Duke of Monmouth (the illegitimate son of Charles) and others in Holland to discuss what action could be taken to stop James’s succession. Monmouth believed he was the rightful heir to the throne.
Charles died on 6th February 1685, and his brother James ascended the throne and became a Catholic king in a Protestant land. Monmouth’s chance of succession was now gone.
Fletcher was determined to see James overthrown, and joined Monmouth in an expedition against him. They landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset barely four months after the death of Charles.
Fletcher’s return was brief. He was forced, after what Burnet called an “unhappy accident”, to leave the country quickly, sailing to Spain, before joining William of Orange in Holland.
The Scotsman, well known for his fiery temper, had disputed the ownership of a horse with one Heywood Dare, the Mayor of Taunton. Dare, a “rough, ill bred man” who had brought a large number of men to join Monmouth, took exception to this and during the ensuing argument Fletcher had shot him dead.
Monmouth and his mainly peasant army made for Bristol, but were crushed by royalist forces at the Battle of Sedgemoor. He was captured, and along with around 230 of his men, met his fate at the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffries. Among the fortunate ones who escaped was Daniel Defoe, to reappear at the height of Union negotiations as an English propagandist and spy.
In his absence, Fletcher was charged with participating in the Monmouth rebellion, and on 21st December 1685 was tried at the High Court of Justiciary. He was found guilty and condemned as a traitor. His estates at Saltoun were confiscated and granted to the Earl of Dumbarton.
Within a few years, Protestants had their worst fears confirmed, as James promoted Catholics to positions of influence. The final straw was the birth of his son James Frances Edward Stuart in 1688. The nation now had a Catholic successor.
In fact James was finally succeeded by William and Mary in 1689, but Scotland had problems. Historian Hugh Trevor Roper comments: “At the end of the 17th century, Scotland was a by-word for irredeemable poverty, social backwardness and political faction.“
Fletcher, who had returned with William, became suspicious of the new monarch. George Lockhart of Carnwarth, an ardent Jacobite, commented of Fletcher’s antipathy to the Dutchman: “But that the Prince was not many months in England, till he saw his Designs, and left him and ever thereafter hated him … ”
In the following years, William’s hand was seen at work in the Glencoe massacre and the Darien Disaster, further alienating him from his northern kingdom.
Darien, an ill-fated attempt to start a trading empire in Panama in 1698, had been the great hope for Scotland. Fletcher was closely involved at its inception, investing £1,000 of his own money, adding to a total investment by the Scots of £400,000 – an incredible sum for an impoverished nation.
The story of the scheme’s ultimate failure is well known, and Fletcher was profoundly affected by it. From that point he would: “distrust England, and devote himself, heart and soul to the cause of Scottish independence … “ says G. W. T. Omond.
Andrew Fletcher wrote on a range of subjects. His Discourse Concerning the Affairs of Scotland was a passionate argument to improve the economic conditions of many Scots. His belief in morality and freedom and the need to transfer some of the royal authority to parliament emerges in other documents published between 1697 and 1703.
Queen Mary’s death in 1694 considerably weakened the king, but he continued to reign until his death in a riding accident in 1702. Anne, sister of Mary and James VII (II) ‘s second daughter, ascended the throne, the last in a long line of Stuart monarchs.
Anne was bedevilled with ill health, and though she bore 17 children, none lived past 11 years. It became clear she would not produce an heir, and thoughts turned to the succession.
A new parliament was elected in Scotland and sat for the first time on 6th May 1703, and continued, mainly during the summer months, until its demise on 25th March 1707. Andrew Fletcher with his lands and titles now restored was returned as one of the Commissioners for Haddingtonshire.
The tumultuous parliamentary session of 1703 was dominated by Fletcher. He told the chamber that since the Union of the Crowns a century before that: “we have from that time appeared to the rest of the world more like a conquered nation than a free and independent people.”
He introduced a number of radical measures during the first session, but, most alarmingly for English ministers, he proposed an Act of Security (not given royal assent until 1704) that decreed: “The Scottish successor to Anne was not to be the same as the English, unless conditions of government had been established which secured Scottish independence free from English or any foreign influence.”
The act was designed to give Scotland, still nominally an independent country, the chance to run her own affairs without interference. English historian P.W.J. Riley says that the “Act savoured of aggressive nationalism and seemed very like an attempt to dictate terms to England.” But surely it was a bold attempt to redress the balance that weighed so heavily in England’s favour?
When the English parliament responded with the draconian Alien Act, promising severe financial penalties for rebellious Scots, the scene was set for Union negotiations.
Andrew Fletcher was not against a union, but argued fiercely for a federal union with two separate parliaments, and not an incorporating union. But he must have been disheartened when the Westminster government used the “usual methods of bribery and coercion” (Houston and Knox). Robert Burns later denounced the overt greed of some of the Scottish nobles: “We’re bought and sold for English gold, such a parcel of rogues in a nation.” Modern historian Paul Henderson Scott is less harsh: “Perhaps not so much rogues as men confused, impoverished and tempted. It was against this background that Fletcher’s patriotism and integrity were outstanding.”
To ensure the English Parliament was kept informed of all the current thinking in Edinburgh, a network of spies was employed, including Daniel Defoe (13 years before publishing his famous novel Robinson Crusoe), whose job was not only to report back to ministers Harley and Godolphin, but also to persuade the Scots that they would benefit from the Union.
The Scottish parliament ratified the Union treaty in January 1707, and although it sat for a further two months, it was, said the Earl of Seafield: “The end of an auld sang.”
Andrew Fletcher retired from political life and died in London on 15th September 1716. His body was taken home to Saltoun for burial.