James of Pittendreich, 4th Earl of Morton
Regent of Scotland (1572-1578)

4th Earl of Morton


Originally of Red Douglas heritage, James acquired the Morton honors after his father-in-law, James, 3rd Earl of Morton, died without male issue. James of Pittendreich was Lord High Chancellor (1562-1572) and then Regent of Scotland (1572-1578) in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. He also served as Lord High Admiral from 1578 until he was executed for complicity in the murder of Darnley on June 2, 1581. 

At this time the Morton estates and titles became forfeit to The King who conferred them upon John, Lord Maxwell, grandson of James, 3rd Earl of Morton. With the passing of the Act of Indemnity in 1585, the grant to Lord Maxwell was revoked and the Morton honors were conferred upon the 4th Earl's nephew, Archibald, 8th Earl of Angus.



  • Death: 2 JUN 1581 in Executed for high treason
  • Event: Info 6 See Burke's Peerage under "Morton"

    Father: James Douglas
    Mother: Elizabeth (of Morton) Douglas

James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton (c. 1525 - June 2, 1581), was the last, and arguably the most successful, of the four regents of Scotland during the minority of King James VI. However he met an unfortunate end: during his time as regent he introduced the maiden, a primitive guillotine, to Scotland, and he was eventually executed by it himself.

He was the second son of Sir George Douglas of Pittendriech. Before 1543 he married Elizabeth (d. 1574), daughter of James Douglas, 3rd Earl of Morton. In 1553 James Douglas succeeded to the title and estates of his father-in-law, and in 1563 he became Lord Chancellor of Scotland. Though his sympathies were with the reformers, he took no part in the combination of Protestant reformers in 1565, but he headed the armed force which took possession of Holyrood palace in, March 1566 to effect the assassination of Rizzio, and it was to his house that the leading conspirators adjourned while a messenger was sent to obtain Queen Mary's signature to the "bond of security."

The queen, before complying with the request, escaped to Dunbar, and Morton and the other leaders fled to England. Having been pardoned, Morton returned to Scotland early in 1567, and with 600 men appeared before Borthwick Castle, where the queen after her marriage with Bothwell had taken refuge. He was present at the remarkable conference at Carberry Hill, and he also took an active part in obtaining the consent of the queen at Lochleven to an abdication. He led the army which defeated the queen's forces at Langside in 1568, and he was the most valued privy counsellor of the Earl of Moray during the latter's brief term of office as regent. On the death of the earl of Mar (October 28, 1572), Morton, who had been the most powerful noble during this regency, and also during that of the earl of Lennox, at last reached the object of his ambition by being elected regent. In many respects Morton was an energetic and capable ruler. He effected at Perth, in February 1573, with the aid of Elizabeth of England's envoy, a pacification with Huntly, the Hamiltons, and the Catholic nobles who supported Mary. Only Edinburgh Castle held out, and this, aided by English artillery, he succeeded in taking after a brave resistance by Kirkcaldy of Grange and Maitland of Lethington.

The ensuing execution of these men, the bravest and the ablest Scotsmen of that age, put an end to the last chance of Mary's restoration by native support. But while all seemed to favour Morton, there were under-currents which combined to procure his fall. The Presbyterian clergy were alienated by his leaning to Episcopacy, and all parties in the divided Church by his seizure of its estates. Andrew Melville, who had succeeded to the leadership of Knox, was more decided than Knox against any departure from the Presbyterian model, and refused to be won by a place in his household. The powerful earl of Argyll and Atholl, a Stuart and Roman Catholic, united with Alexander Erskine, governor of Stirling, who now had the custody of the young king, and others in a league which received so much support that Morton bent before the storm and offered to resign.

He surrendered Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, and the royal treasures, retiring to Lochleven, where he busied himself in laying out gardens. But his ambition could not deny itself another stroke for power. Aided by the young earl of Mar, he got possession of Stirling Castle and the person of the king. Civil war was avoided only by the influence of Sir Robert Bowes, the English ambassador. A nominal reconciliation was effected, and a parliament at Stirling introduced a new government. Morton, who secured an indemnity, was president of the council, but Atholl remained a privy councillor in an enlarged council with the representatives of both parties. Shortly afterwards Atholl died of poison, it was said, and suspicion pointed to Morton. His return to power was brief, and the only important event was the prosecution of the two Hamiltons, who still supported Mary and saved their lives by flight to England. The final fall of Morton came from an opposite quarter

In September 1579 Esmé Stuart, the king's cousin, came to Scotland from France, gained the favour of James by his courtly manners, and received the lands and earldom of Lennox, the custody of Dumbarton Castle, and the office of chamberlain. One of his dependants, Captain James Stuart, son of Lord Ochiltree and brother-in-law of Knox, had the daring to accuse Morton at a meeting of the council in Holyrood of complicity in the murder of Darnley, and he was at once committed to custody. Some months later Morton was condemned by an assize for having taken part in that crime, and the verdict was justified by his confession that Bothwell had revealed to him the design, although he denied participation in its execution. He was executed by the maiden--a guillotine he had himself brought from England--on the 2nd of June 1581. He is buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh

The attainted earldom of Morton passed by charter at his death to a grandson of the 3rd earl, John, 7th Lord Maxwell (1553-1593), who had previously claimed the title. In 1586, however, the attainder was rescinded in favour of Archibald Douglas, 8th Earl of Angus, a nephew of the 4th earl.

Signature, Regent Morton




This page was last updated on 30 September 2021

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