Wednesday, August 21, 2013

WHEN THE OTHER WOMAN IS A QUEEN: Lady Jean Gordon and the Queen of Scots

Dornoch Cathedral,Sutherland, courtesy of GNU Project, Otter
Lovely Dornoch Cathedral is the resting place of one of 16th Century Scotland's most enigmatic women. Her critics called her cold, and Marie Stuart or whoever else may have written the Casket Sonnets, implied that she was sexually frigid. She was said to have a sharp nose and bulbous eyes, and no one called her beautiful, but many called her bright. She was said to have a 'manly intellect'. She certainly was possessed of goodly doses of robust health and canniness to survive the Queen of Scots by more than forty years and the husband that Marie Stuart stole away from her for more than half a century.  She was Jean Gordon, youngest child of the Catholic Cock o' the North George Gordon,  Earl of Huntley who was considered the wealthiest man in Scotland when Marie Stuart began her six years of personal rule. Two years later he was dead in his saddle at the Battle of Corrichie Burn, as described below. His estates and titles were forfeited.  Nevertheless, when Jean died in 1629, she was very likely Scotland's richest woman, and none of it came easy.

Even the most critical historians who write about Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, tell us that she was kind, generous and affectionate to her friends.  She was very good at giving gifts.  Even her wills were drawn with careful consideration. What had a particular chamber woman admired? What was Marie Flemyng's favorite color?  Who appreciate books and which of her counselor's wives had admired her needlework?  None of her gift-giving was capricious; no past favor went unrewarded. When she was Queen of France, she  sent lovely salt cellars to English ambassador Sir Nicholas Throckmorton's wife, presumably for keeping her husband in France long after he was due to rotate home.  She took an active interest in the education of her cousin Harry d'Angeloume,  bastard son of her  disgraced aunt and governess Lady Janet Flemying and the French king Henri II.  She sent expensive gifts to her favorite nephew Francis Stewart, son of her deceased half-brother John and her double sister-in-law Jean Hepburn, who was not only the spouse of her favorite brother but sister of the queen's third husband James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. 
But if there  was another side to the Queen of Scots, no one knew that better than Lady Jean. Three times during the six years of her personal rule, Marie Stuart deprived Jean of the men she most loved, and if that was not enough, she took grand slices of the young woman's pride and reputation. If the Casket Sonnets are genuine, the queen stooped to petty jealousy in memorializing Jean's shortcomings in verse, accusing her of being bad in bed and devoid of clothes taste.

Earlier in Marie Stuart's six year period of personal rule, she collaborated with her half brother James Stewart in a military excursion to the north aimed at neutralizing the Gordon House of Huntly, and dispatched Jean's  father and her favorite brother to their deaths. After Jean and her mother reconciled with the queen in order to save the earldom for Jean's oldest brother George,  the queen diverted Jean's first love into the arms of another woman.  She did so,  presumably,  to salvage her lady-in-waiting Marie Beaton's  reputation.  Beaton had been carrying on with Sir Thomas Randolph, the English envoy and her good name needed a cleansing in a hurry. In a bit of self-serving match making,  the queen orchestrated a marriage for Beaton to Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne, Lady Jean's fiance,  and in it's second stroke, she conspired with Jean's brother George to marry his grieving sister to their mutual friend,   the queen's champion James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who needed Jean's dowry to pay his enormous debts.  It was not the first time that Hepburn solved his financial woes by finding himself an heiress. Previously he had jilted a Norwegian heiress, Anna Trondsen as soon as he spent all her money. \]
It is rumored that Jean Gordon's reason for  wearing black at the time of her marriage to the Earl of Bothwell was not due to the death of her father at the Battle of Corrichie Burn or the subsequent  execution of her brother John and the  posthumous trial and dismemberment of her father's body, but because of Ogilvy's marriage to Marie Beaton.  She was mourning for the loss of the man she loved.

That was not the end of it. Soon Jean settled into the marriage and made the best of it, and appeared to be developing tolerance if not warm feelings for her husband in spite of his flagrant affair with one of Jean's servants Bessie Crawford. But the story was not over. The queen's consort Henry Stuart, father of Prince James, the man known to history as Lord Darnley, was found strangled outside of the curtilage of his temporary lodging which exploded while Darnley was being dispatched.  Bothwell emerged as the queen's new favorite, but the scandal had not peaked.  That waited until late April after he had abducted and raped her under circumstances that hinted of collusion.  Within days she was vacationing with him at Hailes, teaching him to play golf, and telling her subjects to forgive the earl his rudeness.  Next the queen and Bothwell stage-managed his quick divorce from Jean, and a probably already pregnant Marie Stuart married him herself, all within three months of her second husband's murder, most probably at Bothwell's design. The queen's marriage to Bothwell occurred slightly more than a year after the queen had given Jean the cloth of silver for her wedding dress and helped plan her wedding. As for Jean, one thinks of another trite saying: 'with friends like these, who needs enemies?'

Admittedly this is a superficial synopsis, that there is much more to the story than crammed into a paragraph or two, but nevertheless, the story begs the question- Why Jean? Why was she such an easy target?  Probably because she was bullied by her brother and her mother into doing whatever would keep the Huntly estates in the hands of the Gordons, and because she was a good Catholic Scottish girl and had little in the way of choices. The formidable woman who became Countess of Sutherland emerged afterwards.

If the Casket Sonnets are genuine, they are  one of the few examples of Marie Stuart's dark side, but not the only one. When she was an adolescent she had followed the lead of her arrogant Guise uncles and reported scorned Queen Consort Catherine de' Medici, her prospective mother-in-law by referring to her as a ' the Florentine shopkeeper's daughter.'   Catherine also had somewhat bulbous eyes and a less than lovely nose. Youthful Marie had been so vindictive toward the French governess who supervised her suite that she eventually  drove her off in tears, in spite of the fact that she was the personal choice of her grandmother Antoinette de Guise and her Aunt Anne d' Este, the dowager and current duchesses of Guise. She did not hesitate to engage the king in her dispute with Queen Catherine when Marie insisted on defying convention  by wearing a white wedding dress, rightfully guessing that Henri II would side with her against his wife. Even when a prisoner in England, she was not so humbled by her situation that she did abstained from writing to Elizabeth complaining about her treatment by the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, who for her own part was not about slinging mud herself.  When one looks closely at these examples and the many more contradictory ones  which show the queen's compassion and generosity, a vision of Marie emerges in which she is comfortable in the company of women as long as they are subservient and  not standing in the way of what she wanted.  After all, she was an anointed one, ordained by God. Nevertheless, after the divorce, the reluctant Countess of Bothwell became the victor. We do not know who exactly negotiated the terms of the countess's marriage contract, but whether it was Jean herself who later revealed substantial business talent, or her brother George. While Bothwell got the funds he needed to keep his creditors at bay, Jean acquired rights that were not forfeited when Bothwell and most of his kin were vanquished. When the earl was forfeited, Jeans was not left penniless, and she did not immediately lose Crichton.   The Hepburn estate Crichton Castle is
The ruin at Crichton
shown in the sketch as a ruin, but was one of the most formidable of Scotland's castles, a favorite holding of the Hepburn family. After the divorce, Jean continued to live there.
Jean did not remarry immediately, but when she did, she wed her cousin, Alexander Gordon, 12th Earl of  Sutherland, who was several years her junior. They had seven, possibly eight children. The earl, a handsome young man who had comported himself well during the Douglas wars, was unfortunately in poor health, and in within a few years of their marriage, Jean had taken over the management of their vast estates.  By then she had moved back to the north and was living at the Sutherland ancestral home  Dunrobin Castle, but her enterprises were widespread.  Her talent for entrepreneurship made her one of the most successful salt and coal miners in early modern Britain. Apparently she managed the mining business first hand rather than delegating it. Her husband Sutherland died in 1594. 
Two years later Jean married none other than Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne, the love of her youth. Unfortunately, the rekindled love did not last long and Jean was again a widow who spent the remaining thirty years of her life administering the family enterprises. There is an entire chapter devoted to this amazing woman in Margaret H.B. Sanderson's Mary Stewart's People, and a fictional account is more than I can resist.  Bittersweet: Lady Jean Gordon and the Queen of Scots is planned as my next book in the Queen of Scots Suite if fortune is kind and if God be willing.
Jean Gordon died on May 14, 1629.  The Queen of Scots had been dead for more than forty-two years,




  1. This is a wonderful post, and a terrific lady to base your 6th novel on. There are so many women (and men) of interest who touched Marie's life in some fashion. Personally I can't wait to learn more about Jean Gordon. I will post this on my page, as their is so much information and insight here. Most of us, including myself only know her name, not her story. Great writing as always. Jan

  2. What resources would you recommend if I wanted to research Lady Jean Gordon's fascinating life?