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Issue 96 - The Despicable Duke

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


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The Despicable Duke

James Irvine Robertson tells the tale of John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale

The Cabal was originally the acronym made up of the initials of the five most powerful of Charles II's ministers. 'L' was for 'Lauderdale' - John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale - who was virtual dictator of Scotland. History has not been kind to him.

Many politicians can seem to be rather grey figures. Not Lauderdale. His greatest critics admitted that Lauderdale was intellectually accomplished and well-read in many languages, but he nevertheless crashes down the centuries as a vivid and deplorable character that was motivated entirely by self interest and, although the least courtly of men, a master of court intrigue.

He was a big, jowly man with a mass of red hair, exceedingly arrogant, and known to have a foul temper. One contemporary is noted for recording that, 'His tongue was too big for his mouth, which made him bedew all that he talked to; and his whole manner was rough and boisterous.'

The king supposedly had a special snuffbox that he reserved for offering to Lauderdale as the sight of his minister's fat, damp fingers rifling through his own box was more than he could bear. As far as music was concerned Lauderdale said he preferred the mew of a cat to any of it. He had a particular dislike of the bagpipes. He was a glutton and would consume a leg of lamb before dinner 'in order to reduce the level of his stomach to the level with those of his company.' His usual breakfast was a pint of bone marrow.

Born in 1616, he began his career as a Covenanter, an elder of the Church of Scotland. In the midst of the Civil War in 1643 he represented the Church at the Westminster Assembly that tried to thrash out a common form of worship for both countries. The next year he was on the delegation that tried to persuade Charles I to accept a Presbyterian form of government and, when the king surrendered to the Scots army in 1647, he became a fervent royalist.

Lauderdale met the future Charles II later that year and established a rapport that would last thirty years. The Scots now had the king in their pocket, so an army crossed the border to support English royalists and was soundly beaten by Oliver Cromwell at Preston. The Scots government changed its policy and cast Lauderdale adrift. Adherence to the future Charles II looked like his best option, but he was captured at the Battle of Worcester and spent the next nine years imprisoned in the Tower of London.

He was released just before the Restoration and sped to Charles in the Netherlands. Against the objections of other Scots, Charles named him Secretary of State for Scotland.

Lauderdale understood that to enjoy power he must make and keep the king happy. What the king wanted, Lauderdale would achieve - whatever the cost to his own countrymen. His position gave him constant access to the monarch and the opportunity for personal enrichment and he began to accumulate estates north of the border. He still did not have complete control of the governance of Scotland and powerful ministers in England wanted to retain influence over Scots affairs.

Lauderdale convinced the king that his royal prerogative was being usurped and his orders were being countermanded north of the border. 'You govern this poor kingdom yourself,’ he told his monarch. Of course, he knew just the man to be the king's viceroy. Bishops were again running the church north of the border and laws, supported by Lauderdale, fined dissenting ministers and their followers. The Pentland Rising against these measures was crushed and the bishops demanded stronger action against those who worshipped outside the established Kirk.

Lauderdale was not interested in the demands of others and persuaded the king that the Rising had been incited by the repressions of the bishops and their supporters. The king must oversee the church directly - with Lauderdale as his agent.

In 1669 he was appointed the royal commissioner to parliament and steered through an act making the king supreme head of the Church in Scotland. 'Never was a king so absolute as you in poor old Scotland,' he announced to Charles. What's more, since Lauderdale controlled access to the sovereign, anyone who disagreed with his policies would not get his voice heard.

Maitland had inherited the earldom of Lauderdale in 1645. In 1672 Charles made him Marquess of March and Duke of Lauderdale, and appointed him a Knight of the Garter. A new widower, he also married his long-time mistress, Elizabeth Murray. She was a power in her own right and just as ruthless, arrogant and grasping as her husband. She came with a magnificent mansion, Ham House, just south of the Thames, into which they poured some of the money that they misappropriated from Scotland.

That was the peak of Lauderdale's career. His domination of Scotland depended on maintaining peace in the country and keeping any of its problems away from the king, but the Covenanters would not keep quiet. Particularly in southwest Scotland, illegal open-air church services were common and heavily persecuted. The death penalty was introduced for those who preached and torture was commonplace. But it didn't help.

In 1678, Lauderdale ordered the Highland Host, 6,000 Highlanders and 3,000 Lowlanders, to occupy the troubled southwest and crush resistance. They lived by looting, terrorised its inhabitants and, crucially, they plundered estates of grandees like the Earl of Cassilis and the Duke of Hamilton. The aristocrats complained in parliament and a motion to demand Lauderdale's dismissal was only defeated by a single vote.

Lauderdale's personality had made him many enemies amongst the powerful. The king continued to give him his support, but he could no longer control access. Thus, Charles began to hear other voices and other opinions on what was best for Scotland.

After losing his privilege to govern Scotland, it was discovered how much money Maitland and his duchess had pocketed over the years, especially while acting as Secretary of State for Scotland. However, the despicable Duke was saved from ignominy by a stroke in 1680 that brought about his resignation.

He died without heirs two years later.

Was he the despot history made him out to be, or a great political survivor whose name was sullied by jealous rivals? Only those that lived in his time would know.


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