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Mary Queen of Scots experienced a tumultuous period between March 1566 and May 1568. Caught up in Scottish politics, this period began with the murder of her private secretary and concluded with the defeat of Catholic forces at the Battle of Langside. In between (for her) was a long period of imprisonment.

Her one constant ally: George, Fifth Lord Seton.

From Carberry Hill to Dunbar Castle

Protestant and Catholic forces threatened and occasionally battled one another as the gentry of both faiths maneuvered to use Mary to their political advantage. Here we will concentrate on the activities of George Seton.

In a rather complicated scheme, Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley (Henry Stuart) was implicated in the plot to murder David Ricco. His death led to plot twists worthy of an opera including Mary and Darnley fleeing Edinburgh for Dunbar Castle in Lothian under the protection of George Seton.

Seton soon accompanied them on a return trip. Turbulent times followed: Darnley was murdered; Mary wed (perhaps after being abducted) James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (who was accused of murdering Darnley). Perhaps in the early part of 1567 Mary took refuge with him at his residence in Lothian. In June, Bothwell’s forces confronted the Confederate Lords (Protestants) in an almost-battle at Carberry Hill from which Bothwell fled. (Few or no casualties in that one.) Bothwell took refuge for a short time at Dunbar Castle (with Seton’s help?) before disappearing forever in Norway.

Not The Ideal Island Vacation

In the event, the Confederate Lords took Mary prisoner, ensconcing her on an island housing Lochleven Castle. This place was the Scottish equivalent of Alcatraz, where she was held from 17 June 1567 to 2 May 1568 accompanied by few friends. Among them, Marie Seton, George’s half-sister and Mary’s life-long companion. (Queen Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish throne during this time.)

Seton contemplated rescue but was unsuccessful until Mary turned two of her at jailers into allies. While Marie remained behind, disguised as Mary, Mary got a boat ride to shore where she met Seton who conveyed her to Niddry Castle, another Seton family stronghold.

According to the historian William Robertson, in his 1761 The History of Scotland, Mary worked on escape plans from the island castle while Seton arranged things on the outside:

“At last, Mary employed all her art to gain George Douglas her keeper’s brother, a youth of eighteen [Willy Douglas]. As her manners were naturally affable and insinuating, she treated him with the most flattering distinction; she even allowed him to entertain the most ambitious hopes, by letting fall some expressions, as if she would chose him for her husband. At his age and in such circumstances, it was impossible to refuse such a temptation.

He yielded, and drew others into the plot. On Sunday, the second of May, while his brother sat at supper, and the rest of the family were retired to their devotions, one of his accomplices found means to steal the keys out of his brother’s chamber, and opening the gates to the Queen and one of her maids, locked them behind her, and then threw the keys into the lake.

Mary ran with precipitation to the boat which was prepared for her, and on reaching the shore, was received with the utmost joy, by [George] Douglas, Lord Seton, and Sir James Hamilton, who, with a few attendants, waited for her.” (pg. 453)

Seton Keeps Trying

Seton and his loyal cavalry escorted Mary to Niddry Castle for a short period of safety. During the week following, various earls and lairds convened in her support nearly scaring the Regent of Scotland—her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, James Stewart—into retreat before the might of her army. Except he didn’t. Although outnumbered by the Queen’s newly gathered forces, he decided that delay in confronting her only gave her time to gather strength. Both sides drifted towards Glasgow.

George Seton, an experienced fighter by this time, co-led a cavalry unit in support of 2000 infantry led by Lord Claud Hamilton. An even larger contingent under the command of Archibald Campbell, Fifth Lord Aygrll, threatened Moray as well.

Mistakes compound as Mary, Seton, and the others were to learn. Next: the battle itself.

(On line references sometimes mistakenly call George, Seventh Lord Seton. There were lots of George Setons so it is easy to get confused.)

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