Boswell Castle and Mary Stuart, details

The Earl of Boswell: Escape from Scotland

James Hapburn, Earl of Boswell was a Scottish nobleman, the third consort of Mary Stuart, and King of Scotland during the five-month period of 1567. This extraordinary man played an important role in the fate of the Queen of Scots. The Earl of Boswell was Mary Stuart’s closest adviser, was a major military commander, and had the rank of Admiral of Scotland. However, in 1567, after the mysterious murder of Mary Stuart’s husband – Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – Boswell was accused of organizing the crime. A trial was held, which resulted in the Earl’s acquittal. On May 15, 1567, Boswell married Mary Stuart and became King of Scotland. This marriage caused outrage in the country and the powerful Scottish nobles opposed the royal couple. On 15 June 1567, Boswell’s small army clashed with rebel troops at Carberry Hill, and the latter were victorious. Mary Stuart surrendered on condition that the Earl of Boswell be granted temporary freedom. Pursued by his enemies, Boswell was forced to flee Scotland.

The Earl’s later life is known only in general terms. In the fiction and historical literature on Mary Stuart, Boswell’s fate is discussed in detail only at points where it touches the fate of the Queen. Mary parted from the Earl after a lost battle and never saw him again. There are many fictions and legends about Boswell’s life that followed this parting. According to one, the fugitive became a pirate and robbed ships in the Norwegian Sea. The adventurer, who had been an illegitimate king and became a robber, forgot his Queen, to whom he owed his life. He chose to hide his past, passed himself off as another person and did nothing to rescue Mary from captivity. His life of robbery and dubious deeds led the adventurer to prison, where he ended his days. This is often the tone in which the ending of Boswell’s biography is painted. However, one must separate myth from reality.

How did Boswell escape from Scotland? Who pursued him? Why did he decide to flee to Denmark and Norway? Where did information about the Earl’s pirate adventures come from? Was he impersonating another identity? Was he trying to save Mary Stuart? This is covered in detail in this article.

Boswell’s escape began after Mary Stuart’s defeat at the Battle of Carberry Hill (15 June 1567). The queen agreed to surrender on one condition – that Boswell be granted temporary freedom. The victorious side agreed to this demand. Boswell was not captured immediately; he was allowed to leave the battlefield. This did not mean, however, that he was guaranteed safety. The country’s most powerful nobles-Murray, Maitland, Morton, the Douglases-were eager to destroy Boswell. He was not only an official suspect, but a dangerous witness who knew the details of the murder of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – a murder in which the most powerful persons were involved.

Leaving the battlefield, the Earl of Boswell rushed to Dunbar Castle, which belonged to him. Dunbar Castle was located on the seashore and provided access to the sea. At Dunbar, the earl rigged two ships, one of which sailed from the fortress on June 27.

After sailing from Dunbar, Boswell found temporary refuge in the coastal town of Elgin, at Spynie Castle. It was the estate of the Earl’s relative, Patrick Hepburn, Bishop of Moray. After a visit to the bishop, Boswell hoisted sail again and sailed for Orkney.

Boswell was granted possession of the Orkney and Shetland Islands by order of Mary Stuart. In the current situation, Shetland was of particular interest to Boswell. The Shetland Islands were remote from Scotland, and the events unfolding in the kingdom’s capital were slow to reach there. The islands provided a safe harbour for the Earl’s ships. Moreover, Boswell was related (on his mother’s side) to the king’s steward of the islands, Olaf Sinclair of Brew. Boswell may have already been contemplating a plan to visit Denmark. King Frederick II of Denmark could assist in rescuing Mary Stuart from captivity. Boswell expected to leave the Shetland Islands, the point of separation between the Norwegian Sea and the North Sea, and take a short cut to Copenhagen.

Before reaching Shetland, however, the Earl headed for the Orkney Islands. During the voyage, he spotted the vessel St Andrews, which was waiting out bad weather in Cromarty Firth. The ship was ferrying provisions for the earl’s worst enemy and chief pursuer, Lord Murray. Upon learning of this, Boswell seized the ship and, according to its owner Alan Watson, “violently and skilfully robbed her of her goods and property.”

Liebenstein Castle Prison, now a hotel and restaurant

Boswell then continued his voyage and arrived in the Orkney Islands, where he received a hostile reception from Sheriff Gilbert Balfour. Boswell remained in Orkney for two days before sailing to Shetland.

In the Shetland Islands, Boswell landed with a detachment of about 200 men. In Samburg he met Gerdt Hemelingk, a merchant from Bremen whose ship, the Pelikan, was loading at the Hanseatic trading center, the Pool of Virkie.

Gert Hemeling, unlike most Hanseatic traders whose business was seasonal, was able to live on the Shetland Islands for some time. He may have had a permanent residence in Samburg. Hemeling’s ship was a relatively large two-masted vessel, most likely a caravel built in Bremen. The average tonnage of the ships used by the “hitlandfahrer” (“Shetland travelers”) in the mid-16th century was 15-20 fins (a measure of cargo) – or 30-40 tons.

In August 1567, the Pelican was loading in the Shetland Islands when the Earl of Boswell seized the ship and forced the owner to sign a contract to lease the ship. In a letter to the burgomaster of Bremen dated March 3, 1568, Geert Hemeling wrote: “At Shetland the Scottish lord with a hundred men seized my vessel and – resulting in my obvious and irretrievable loss – threw the fish and other cargo ashore and then urged me to agree to sell the vessel belonging to me and my partners, or to charter it for two months.”

The captain agreed to charter the vessel. The contact was made on August 15, 1567, at Sumburgh, and provided for a monthly rent of 50 crowns, with compensation of 1,600 crowns if the ship was not returned.

Hemeling sent the contract to Bremen on September 17, 1567. He asked the Bremen authorities to give him an official representation for King Frederick II of Denmark, so that the latter could help the shipowner either to return the ship or to receive for it the amount of compensation promised by Boswell.

At the same time that Boswell seized the Pelican, he acquired another Hanseatic ship, the Breme of Hamburg, a smaller ship owned by skipper David Lodt. The Earl anchored these two ships, along with two of his own Scottish ships, in Lerwick Harbour (also called “Bressay Sound”).

Meanwhile in Scotland he was accused of the murder of Lord Darnley and declared a criminal, a rebel, and a pirate. His sworn enemy, Lord Murray, organized an expedition to pursue the fugitive.

The expedition consisted of four ships: the Unicorn, the James, the Primrose, and the Robert. These were large ships, armed and augmented by a detachment of 400 soldiers. The crew included William Kirkcaldy of Grange and William Murray Tullibardine, both nobles who had fought against Boswell at the Battle of Carberry Hill. Bishop Adam Boswell (no relation to Earl Boswell) supported them. Kerkoldy wrote, “…if I should one day encounter him (Boswell) on land or on sea, he must go after me, or I will bring him dead to Edinburgh.”

On August 19, 1567, a squadron of ships left Scotland, visited the Orkney Islands, and on August 25 entered Lerwick Harbor, where the Earl’s pursuers were surprised to see four of Boswell’s vessels anchored.

In the face of this superior force, Boswell was forced to give immediate orders to sail. One of the Earl’s vessels, pursued furiously by the Unicorn, struck a reef lying to the east of the northeastern tip of Hawks Ness. The Earl’s ship sustained only a scratch, but the Unicorn was more seriously damaged and began to sink. Kirkoldy and Bishop Adam Boswell narrowly escaped, the ship’s crew being picked up by other ships.

The reef has since been known as the “Rock of the Unicorn.”

Discouraged by the loss of the Unicorn, the Scottish squadron abandoned the pursuit, while the Earl’s four ships continued their escape and finally anchored off Unst. Boswell, meanwhile, had fled overland through Yell to Unst to join his sea crew there. He allocated one of his ships with a cargo of jewels and rich clothing and sent it to Scalloway, then the administrative center of the Shetland Islands. The crew of that ship subsequently learned of Boswell’s arrest and turned the ship back. The disappearance of the ship and its cargo put the Earl in a difficult position when he arrived in Denmark.

Balmoral Castle in Scotland, photo and description

However, we must return to the events that unfolded off Anst. While Boswell was busy sending one of his ships to Skelloway, a Scottish squadron reappeared off the Shetland Islands and forced the Earl’s small fleet to retreat with a fight. The skirmish lasted three hours, the main mast of the Pelican was shot through, but the Scottish squadron failed to prevail. Count Boswell and his two ships, the Pelican and the Bremen, managed to escape and continue their voyage to Denmark. Boswell’s small fleet was saved by the resulting storm and by the skillful management of the ships by the deposed Admiral of Scotland. The Earl continued his escape with a detachment of 140 men.

Boswell’s wounded fleet came ashore near Karmoy, 80 miles south of Bergen, and moored alongside a friendly Hanseatic vessel from Rostock. They barely had time to anchor before they were stopped by the Danish warship Bjšrnen. The ship’s captain, Christian Aalborg, demanded papers from the ship’s owners informing them of the ships’ origins, purpose of their arrival and crew. Boswell did not have these documents. Captain Aalborg attempted to identify him. Boswell, dressed in the costume of a common sailor, told him that he was the husband of the Queen of Scots and was sailing with the crew to Denmark to offer his services to King Frederick II. Aalborg did not believe this information and escorted the ships Boswell to Bergen, where they arrived September 2, 1567.

At Bergen, the earl’s fleet found itself not only without papers, but also without commands. Erik Rosenkranz, governor of Bergen, provided Boswell’s soldiers with a ship to take them home to Scotland. The Burgomaster of Bremen sent a second message to the Danish king to guarantee that the owner of the Pelican would return the ship or pay compensation for it.

Frederick II’s replies were courteous and conciliatory. In a letter dated April 10, 1568, he indicates that he could not act hastily in the matter and that the case would be investigated legally. This correspondence has survived and is contained in the archives of Copenhagen and Bremen.

The Pelican case dragged on for several years. The last letter from Bremen, dated October 8, 1573, elicited no response from the Danish king. “The Pelican” was difficult to return to its owner, for Boswell was by then a prisoner, deprived of all his means.

At the time of Boswell’s delay in Bergen, both of the Earl’s ships were anchored in the city’s harbor. The ships required repairs. What happened to the ships thereafter is not known exactly. There is no evidence that the Pelican ever returned to its owner or that he received compensation for the ship. However, papers from the Bergen archives indirectly indicate that the count’s two ships were given for use by Hanseatic merchants.

After his detention, Count Boswell found himself in the care of Bremen Governor Eric Rosencrantz. The Earl was treated kindly until difficulties began. The first problem was with the Earl’s partner, the owner of the ship Bremen, David Lodt, who had been accused of piracy by German merchants and imprisoned.

The second problem was Anne Trondsen, Boswell’s former bride and mistress, whom the Earl had once promised to marry and whose dowry he had used for his own purposes.

Upon learning that Boswell was in Denmark, Anne accused the earl of breach of duty and sued him. Boswell tried to bribe her by promising her a reward and a gift of the ship Bremen.

The third problem involved the vessel Pelican. The German merchants wanted to know how Boswell had acquired the ship, in which they identified the Hanseatic vessel from Bremen. Meanwhile, any doubts that still existed about the Count’s identity were dispelled. Boswell presented his papers, which he had originally concealed by burying in a pile of rubble on one of the ships (most likely the Pelican).

At the same time, other documents arrived in Denmark from Scotland, declaring the Earl a murderer and criminal. The authorities in Bergen placed Boswell on a warship and sent him to Copenhagen.

In Copenhagen, Boswell became a pawn in international politics. The Earl of Murray, who had become regent of Scotland after the deposition of Mary Stuart, demanded that the Earl be extradited to the country, where he would be tried and doubtless executed. Murray was actively supported by Elizabeth I and her ministers on the English side.

Cesky Sternberg Castle, history and location

At the same time, King Charles IX of France supported Frederick II in his refusal to extradite Boswell.

Boswell himself tried to explain the reasons that led him to Scandinavia. In a letter to Charles IX of November 12, 1568, written in impeccable French, the Earl states: “I left Scotland and departed for Norway-Denmark in search of military support, to find enough ships and soldiers, to return the islands of Orkney and Shetland to the crown of Denmark and Norway, and to free Mary Stuart from captivity.”

What was King Frederick’s reaction? He had been a petitioner for Mary Stuart’s hand after the death of her first husband, Francis II, and was also related to her by distant kinship ties. But Frederick was unlikely to want to start a war to protect Mary’s interests. As for Boswell’s proposal to restore the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the king was undoubtedly intrigued by the prospect. However, it became clear to him that Boswell was hardly in a position to carry out his grand proposal. Frederick preferred not to engage in adventures and to keep the dangerous prisoner “to himself”.

The count was placed in Malmehus Castle in Malmo. The prisoner’s confinement was comfortable. The king provided Boswell with decent rooms, money, and elegant clothes befitting his title.

However, the Earl of Murray continued to demand the prisoner’s surrender. He even went so far as to arrange for Boswell’s execution in Denmark and to have his head taken to Scotland. Frederick formally ordered a trial, but the case did not proceed.

Meanwhile, Boswell’s situation worsened. In June 1573 he lost his comparative comfort and was transferred from Malmö to the grim fortress of Dragsholm, where he was held in cruel conditions of strict confinement. The oppressive atmosphere, despair and physical suffering provoked the development of a mental disorder that overtook the Count in confinement.

He died in Dragsholm Fortress prison on April 14, 1578, at the age of 43.

James Hepburn, Earl of Boswell, Admiral of Scotland and husband of Queen Mary Stuart, Herzog of Orkney and Lord of Shetland was buried in Faarevejle church. There is now a museum with exhibits dedicated to the famous prisoner.

“The ashes of the Earl of Boswell are carried to Faarevejle Church”: by Hugo Larsen, 20th century.

14 tragic facts about the most unhappy queen in history: Mary Stuart

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Mary Stuart’s life was turbulent and incredibly dramatic. No wonder she became a favorite subject of filmmakers and writers who sung and poured mud over her. As a Catholic, the Queen of Scots, raised in France, faced a Protestant wave during her six-year reign. She had no luck with men, and fate seemed to be against her at every turn. Trouble and strife did not abate around the crown either. Since Mary was a direct descendant of Henry VII, she could therefore claim the English throne of Elizabeth I. This fact became a major problem between Mary and Good Queen Bess, who became sworn enemies for life.

1. she became queen of Scotland on the sixth day after her birth

Portrait of Mary Stuart as a young woman by François Clouet.  Photo:

Mary was born at Linlithgow Palace near Edinburgh. And six days after her birth she inherited her father’s throne. James V unfortunately died of an illness that some believe he may have contracted from drinking contaminated water. As a result, the young new queen could rely only on the integrity of the regents, including her formidable mother, the Frenchwoman Marie de Guise, who ruled on her behalf until Mary was nineteen.

2. she became engaged at the age of five.

Francis and Mary.  Photo:

Her mother provided for workarounds and entered into a marriage with the royal house in France, which was part of the “old alliance” with Scotland. Following the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” France and Scotland had for centuries built an Alliance based on a shared hatred of England. So Marie de Guise sent her five-year-old daughter to the French court, where she was waited on by the naming of Francis, who was only three years old at the time. For several years the French court served as Mary’s home, overflowing with intrigue, secrets, luxury, and politics.

Castel del Monte in Italy, detailed description

3. she was Queen of France.

Mary, the author of the painting is considered the court painter of the French kings, François Clouet.  Photo:

Mary, the author of the painting is considered to be the court painter of the French kings, François Clouet. Photo:

Her first husband was the young dauphin, the heir to the French throne, Francis II. They married when Mary was fifteen years old. Their marriage was very short, but happy enough.

After the tragic death of Henry II, young Francis ascended the throne with Mary as his queen. But sadly, he reigned for less than two years, dying of an ear disease. After the death of his king, the French court lost all respect and interest in Mary in an instant.

In order not to miss her chance, Catherine de Medici immediately took advantage of the situation and took over as regent, starting her reign in place of her ten-year-old son Charles. In the end, Mary had no choice but to return to her homeland to assume her full duties there.

4. Her second husband was a jealous despot

Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.  Photo:

Mary understood the importance of her second marriage, so she chose as her second husband Lord Darnley, a handsome man with a fine pedigree and a legitimate claim to the Scottish and English thrones. Although she admired his looks, describing the lord as the handsomest and most statuesque man she had ever seen, their marriage proved to be a most calamitous disaster, with a series of tragic events. The new spouse quickly revealed his true face, turning out to be an inveterate drunkard, rude, jealous and goosey (he was supposed to have contracted syphilis).

5. Shocking incident.

The murder of David Rizzio.  Photo:

One of the most tragic moments in the life of the Queen of Scots occurred on a March night. Darnley, suspecting Mary and her secretary David Rizzio (David Riccio) of an intimate relationship, literally went off the rails.

As a result, he hatched an insidious and cruel plan. At night a group of mercenaries (hired by her husband) burst into Maria’s private apartments and killed David right in front of her and her court ladies. The incident left the pregnant queen in shock for a long time and she could not forget the terrible incident for a long time. Although the lord denied any involvement, his accomplices showed Mary his written consent to kill Rizzio.

6. She was accused of murdering her husband.

Lord Darnley and Maria.  Photo: es.qaz.wik.

Lord Darnley was out of favor with many and never had much love or respect from the public, much less from his own wife. He died under mysterious circumstances – he was found strangled in the garden, after the explosion of the house he was supposedly in at the time. Nevertheless, the nation was quick to point the finger at Mary and the man they believed to be her lover, the Earl of Boswell (Bothwell). Whether or not Mary had anything to do with her husband’s death remains a moot point. But there is evidence that a group of Scottish conspirators (without the queen’s knowledge or permission) had a hand in it.

7. The Earl of Boswell.

Mary abdicates the throne.  Photo:

The Earl of Boswell, however, was one of the most ambitious and unloved nobles in the court of the Queen of Scots. Accordingly, when her second husband, Lord Darnley, died in mysterious circumstances, Boswell was quick to seize the opportunity. After a hastily arranged divorce from his first wife, he and eight hundred men met Mary’s royal entourage on their way to Edinburgh from Stirling Castle, where her young son lived. The earl literally kidnapped Mary, raped her, and forced her to marry him.

Nevertheless, many are of the opinion that Maria and the Earl were romantically involved and that what happened was pure fiction. Their marriage shocked and horrified the Scottish nobles, who distrusted Boswell and used the event to further discredit Mary. Her marriage to the earl more or less marked the end of her reign. After a few months, the queen would yield to public pressure and abdicate the crown and the throne.

8. Escape

Mary Stuart's escape.  Photo:

After abdicating the throne in favor of her one-year-old son, Mary was imprisoned at Lochleven, a small castle on an island in the middle of a lake. But she was not going to “play the part” of a prisoner in her own kingdom. So the former queen began to organize her escape. After eleven months in captivity, she got her guards drunk on wine and, with the help and support of the boys, managed to disguise herself and leave the island. In fact, she walked right out the front door of the castle. The May Day festivities provided the perfect distraction from her exit and escape. But her freedom was short-lived, as she spent the rest of her life in confinement, in England.

Blois Chateau in France, photo and description

9. She spent 20 years in captivity.

Mary Stuart in captivity.  Photo:

After Mary abdicated the throne in favor of her infant son James (James), she made her escape to the south of England, hoping that her cousin Elizabeth I would welcome her hospitality and help her regain the Scottish throne. But instead of hospitality, Elizabeth actually imprisoned Mary. Because Mary had Tudor blood in her veins – her grandmother was Elizabeth’s aunt – the unhelpful queen of Scotland could easily claim the throne on which Elizabeth sat. As a result, to eliminate the threat of her cousin, Elizabeth banished Mary to one of the remote castles scattered throughout Central and Northern England.

10. Conspiracy and Accusation

Elizabeth signs Mary Stuart's death sentence.  Photo:

Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy, knew that the former Scottish queen was a major thorn in his queen’s side. Nevertheless, Elizabeth could not so easily order the execution of her cousin.

So Walsingham had to gather evidence that Mary posed a real threat to Elizabeth’s throne. The opportunity presented itself when English Catholic Anthony Babington conspired to overthrow the Protestant Elizabeth, replacing her with Mary, who was Catholic. Walsingham hired a double agent to forward letters for the former Scottish queen, eventually the master of espionage knew everything she wrote. When Babington finally contacted Mary and obtained her permission to follow through, Walsingham jumped at the chance to prove her guilt and involvement in the conspiracy.

11. Mary never saw her son again

James VI King of Scotland and King James I of England and Ireland.  Photo:

Twenty-four-year-old Mary formally abdicated the crown in July 1567. Her young son was crowned King James VI (James) of Scotland, and a retinue of regents would rule the kingdom until he came of age. Although Mary would live another twenty years, she would never see her son again. James will grow up a Protestant, never truly knowing his mother or hearing from his own mentor that Scotland did the right thing in getting rid of her.

12. Catholic Martyr.

Former Queen of Scotland.  Photo:

When Mary returned to her homeland after living in France for nearly thirteen years, the religious direction of the country had changed. As a Catholic, she had a hard time among those who were on the side of the Protestant wave. A fervent Protestant Reformer named John Knox was vehemently opposed to the Catholic Mary, as well as to women rulers in general.

Mary was not only a political and cultural outsider in her country, but also a religious one. Judging by the last letter she wrote just hours before her death, Mary saw herself as a Catholic martyr.

13. Mary had a faithful friend

Mary Stuart's farewell.  Photo:

After her trial for high treason (although, as Mary herself pointed out, she was not an English subject and therefore could not have been tried for treason), Mary was quickly sentenced to death as a result of the Babington conspiracy. On February 8, 1587, she climbed the scaffold built at Fotheringay Castle and bowed her head to the executioner with dignity. Five hundred spectators watched in horror as the executioner swung his arm several times before finally beheading her. It must have been an agonizing death.

According to at least one eyewitness, her little doggie was hidden in the folds of her dress and was found in her mistress’s blood in a state of great agitation, flatly refusing to leave “her little hiding place.” At the end of her life, Mary still seemed to have at least one faithful friend.

14. Her son inherited the English throne

James Stewart.  Photo:

Although Mary was executed because Elizabeth feared she would usurp her throne, nevertheless, even after her death Mary left an indelible mark on her cousin’s life. Unmarried and childless, Elizabeth named as her heir Mary’s only son, James, who after the death of the good Queen Bess, James VI, King of Scotland also became James I, King of England.

Read also about how marriages often ended in Europe and what really moved people in such moments.

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