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Issue 85 - The Clan Hamilton

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


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The Clan Hamilton

James Irvine Robertson follows the complex lineage of a great family

The Hamiltons have been at the forefront of Scots history since before the days of Robert the Bruce.

Over the centuries many land-owning families have spun off the main line and others had ancestors so closely associated with them that they adopted the name. Their progenitor was Sir Walter fitz Gilbert of Hameldone who, by 1294, held lands in Renfrewshire and, like so many such men, also had estates in England. The make or break decision for the dynasty was which side to plump for in the Wars of Independence. Sir Walter initially supported King John Baliol and was appointed Governor of Bothwell Castle by Edward II but switched to Bruce after the Battle of Bannockburn. He was rewarded with lands confiscated from the Comyns.

In 1445, James, 6th Baron of Cadzow, was raised to the Peerage of Scotland as Lord Hamilton. His mother was a Douglas and he married the young widow of the 5th Earl of Douglas and thus was stepfather to the 6th Earl and his brother Lord David. In spite of the tearful remonstrations of 10-year-old James II, they were both murdered after the Black Dinner in Edinburgh Castle. Consequently, Lord Hamilton was a close supporter of the Douglas faction when it looked as though it could overwhelm the Crown.

In 1454, the 7th Earl of Douglas, uncle of the dead boys, turned up near Stirling with, it was said, 40,000 men. The King had mustered 30,000. However, on the eve of battle, Hamilton switched sides and the rebel army melted away, thus sending his family soaring to the peak of the Scots aristocracy. He was rewarded with the Isle of Arran, along with which came the King's sister, 40 years his junior. They had two children, the eldest became Earl of Arran and their daughter married the Earl of Lennox, great grandfather of Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The 1st Earl battled with his cousin the Duke of Albany for the Regency, then with the Earl of Angus. The latter had married Queen Margaret, the infant James V's widowed mother. Their conflict spilled onto the streets of Edinburgh in 1520, in 'Cleanse the Causeway' when a street brawl between the two factions erupted into serious violence and up to 300 Hamilton supporters were killed.

In 1542, the nation had two rival factions: the Catholics led by James V's widow Mary of Guise and the Protestants fronted by the 2nd Earl of Arran, who was Regent for Mary, Queen of Scots and next in line to the throne. His first thought was to marry the infant Mary to his son James. That never got off the ground, so he then tried to arrange her marriage to Henry VIII's heir and James to the English King's daughter. Henry, never a patient man, invaded Scotland to hurry things along. Arran led the Scots army to defeat at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.

Then he switched sides, became a Catholic and negotiated Mary's marriage to the Dauphin of France. He returned to Scotland as Duke of Châtelherault with greatly enriched coffers. He proposed his own son once more as Mary's husband when she was widowed, but she eventually fell for her cousin Lord Darnley and then Queen Elizabeth rejected the offer of the still-single James. The machinations of the Arrans to the throne ended when the unfortunate James became insane, even before his father's death.

James was succeeded by his brother, who rose high in the favour of James VI and became Marquis of Hamilton. The 2nd Marquis, who was somewhat of a soldier, was close to Charles I and in 1643 he was created Duke of Hamilton.

The Hamilton dukedom had a special dispensation allowing it to be passed through the female line in default of male heirs. Their sister, Duchess Ann succeeded and married the Earl of Selkirk, younger son of the Marquis of Douglas. As well as having thirteen children, Duchess Ann and her husband built Hamilton Palace, demolished in 1921, which was the largest private residence in the Western hemisphere.

Alexander, the 16th Duke of Hamilton and the 13th Duke of Brandon, is the premier peer of Scotland. He is also Hereditary Keeper of the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Hereditary Bearer of the Crown of Scotland since 1591. This gives him the exclusive right to remove the Honours of Scotland from the confines of Edinburgh.