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Issue 80 - The Clan Douglas

Scotland Magazine Issue 80
April 2015


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The Clan Douglas

James Irvine Robertson considers a powerful dynasty

Take the name of Douglas out of Scottish history then there would be no history to tell.

It would certainly have been very different. The clan led the vanguard of the Scots army. The head of the family carried the Crown on public processions and cast the first vote in all of Scotland's parliaments and councils. At times, the power of the Douglases overshadowed that of the King himself.

The Douglas family seems to have originated in Theobald the Fleming, one of those French-speaking adventurers who came north with King David I in the early 1100s to help him secure the throne of Scotland. He was granted lands by Douglas Water in Lanarkshire and the family assumed the name Douglas – dark stream – soon afterwards.

Sir William Douglas was appointed Governor of Berwick when it was captured by Edward I at the outset of the Wars of Independence. He subsequently joined William Wallace's uprising, was captured, and died in the Tower of London in 1302. His son, James, carved a glittering reputation for chivalry and heroism as the chief lieutenant of Robert the Bruce and second-in-command at the Battle of Bannockburn. He was a brilliant strategist and tactician, and is said to have participated in 70 winning battles.

The English called him the Black Douglas and turned him into a bogeyman to frighten their children. His death in Spain in 1330, carrying the heart of his monarch on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was a tragedy for the Scottish nation. He was by far the best war leader in Scotland and, had he survived, the debacles of the battles of Dupplin Moor and Halidon Hill would most likely have been avoided.

His brother Archibald was elected Guardian of the Kingdom and was killed at Halidon Hill along with his nephew. Archibald's son William was created Earl of Douglas and it was his son, the 2nd Earl of Douglas, who started the line of the Black Douglases. His illegitimate son by the Countess of Angus was the progenitor of the Red Douglases.

Thereafter, the family continued to produce warriors who earned the accolade of their contemporaries. Sir James led the Scots army to the Battle of Otterburn in 1388 and died in the moment of victory. The medieval French author Jean Froissart wrote in his Chronicles 'Of all the battles that have been described in this history, great and small, that was the best fought and the most severe'.

The 4th Earl of Douglas was created Duke of Touraine by the French King, and died with most of his followers at the Battle of Verneuil in 1424 when the Scots were supporting the French in the 100 years war. His son, the 5th Earl, was made a regent on the death of James I and appointed Lieutenant General of the Kingdom.

But the power and influence of this remarkable dynasty was beginning to create problems. 'Nae man was safe in the country, unless he were either a Douglas or a Douglas man.'

The Scottish Crown, under the early Stewart kings, was weak, plagued by minorities. 'The earl, when he went from home, was accompanied with a train of two thousand men; he kept a sort of court, and even created knights. The greatness of the family, indeed, attained to such a pitch that it matched eleven times with the royal house of Scotland, and once, under the Angus branch, with that of England.'

The 5th Earl was Regent of Scotland during the minority of James II. On his death in 1439, the ambitious Lord Chancellor Crichton decided to end the power of the Douglases once and for all. He therefore lured the young 6th Earl and his brother to a lavish banquet inside Edinburgh Castle where they were both assassinated.

The title then passed to a cousin, who became the 8th Earl. He was a close friend of the King and subsequently contrived the downfall of Crichton. James II appointed him Lieutenant General of Scotland, but soon realised that the Douglas family were once again becoming too powerful.

During the 8th Earl's absence abroad, James was forced to take an army into Douglas territory to control his unruly vassals. On his return, the Earl sent a message of submission to the King, but at the same time signed a bond of mutual protection with the Lord of the Isles and the Earl of Crawford, the implication being that the obvious threat was the King.

In 1452, James summoned the Earl to Stirling Castle, giving him a safe conduct. There he tried to persuade him to withdraw from the bond. Douglas refused; the King stabbed him, and the Earl was finished off by courtiers. His successor took up arms against the King but fled into England in 1455.

The Black Douglas estates were forfeited and bestowed upon the 4th Earl of Angus, the head of the Red Douglases, who had commanded the Royal forces against his cousin and fellow clansman. Consequently, King James found that he had created yet another over-mighty noble.

The 5th Earl, Archibald Bell-the-Cat, so called as he had the courage to break cover in the Scottish nobles' conspiracy against James III. He led the rebel army at the Battle of Sauchieburn that resulted in the King's death in 1488. He was made Guardian to the young James IV and fell in and out of favour. When out, he was signing treacherous treaties with Henry VII of England. When in, he was made Chancellor of Scotland.

He died the year of the Battle of Flodden, losing two sons on the battlefield. In a panegyric to the 'Great Earl', the family historian added an afterthought, ‘One fault he had, that he was too much given to women; otherwise there was little or nothing amiss.’

Such were the ways in which great men passed on their genes and their names to their clansmen.

The 6th Earl of Douglas married Princess Margaret Tudor, widow of James IV of Scotland, mother of the infant James V, and sister of Henry VIII and, spent his entire life scheming for power. At times he achieved it and once again 'raised the power of the Douglases to such a height as seriously to endanger both the independence of the Crown and the liberties of the people.'

Both the 7th and 8th earls dabbled dangerously in high politics under James VI, but by then they had lost the dominance to shake the foundations of the nation. After the Union of the Scottish and English Crowns in 1603, the Douglas family's power declined still further. They remained loyal to the British Crown through the civil wars of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and Douglases continued to contribute to the Scottish nation.

In the 20th Century, the Lord Lyon King of Arms ruled that a Scottish Chief must carry the single name of the Clan he leads, so the Douglases, having married into the Hamiltons, Homes and Scotts have none.