John Maxwell was born in Dumfries the year before the Battle of Flodden. The Maxwells were an important family in the Scottish West Marches – one of their castles was Caerlaverock. Together with the Johnstones they made their mark on the Scottish West Marches – largely based on their hatred of one another.
When his father died in 1546, after losing the Battle of Solway Moss and spending some time in English captivity John Maxwell succeeded him as warden of the march- he took his role seriously and later in life made suggestions for reforms that set about ridding the region of lawless Grahams, Armstrongs and other reivers.
More immediately however, John needed to make his fortune. He had set his sights on Agnes Herries- it might perhaps have been a love match apart from the small fact that she was an important heiress whose lands marched with his own. Mary Queen of Scots’ regent – the Earl of Arran had also identified the match as a good one for his own son so there was a stand-off as to which man should wed young Agnes. Her opinion was not sought.
It was the time of the Rough Wooing, Maxwell was an assured Scot – the English had overrun Dumfries and burned the homes of the lairds who’d refused to sign a paper to say that they would support the English. The assurances came with hostages. It was an established system. Maxwell sent twelve hostages to Carlisle as surety for his good behaviour and he received an English pension in return. The twelve included members of his family. Maxwell was soon faced with a stark choice: he could marry Agnes Herries but he would have to break his assurance with the English. Arran would permit the marriage only if Maxwell agreed. And so John Maxwell became the Fourth Lord Herries. The hostages were executed and according to a local story Maxwell built Repentance Tower as a sign of his repentance for their deaths. More of the tale can be read in my forthcoming book about Harraby Hill – Carlisle’s site of execution.
Maxwell was not unduly troubled by the bloodthirsty habits of the times. He and Agnes produced twelve children; he fulfilled his role as Lord Herries and assumed the role of Warden of the Scottish West Marches for several terms of office. Maxwell was also praised by John Knox for his staunch Protestantism. Indeed, the border laird spent time in Edinburgh Castle for his beliefs.
It is perhaps strange then Lord Herries, border reiver, Protestant and signatory of the Treaty of Berwick was loyal to Mary Queen of Scots throughout his life. Mary, captured after the disaster at Carberry in 1567 was imprisoned in Lochleven. The English Ambassador, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton identified him as the wisest person in the queen’s faction and also reported that Mary Queen of Scots said ‘there is nobody can be sure of him.’ Certainly he was very critical of her when she refused to be divorced from the Earl of Bothwell – but then James Hepburn was a border baron as well.
But then having spoken for the infant King James’ party of Lords on the morning of 13 May 1568 he commanded Mary’s cavalry at the Battle of Langside. Forty-five minutes after the battle began he and his queen were in headlong flight.
They rode sixty miles through the night. The queen slept on the ground and cut her hair short to disguise herself. Herries led her through Dumfries to his home at Terregles. Herries wrote to the English Deputy warden, Sir Richard Lowther asking for permission to enter England. The sad little party moved on to Dundrennan Abbey. On 16 May Herries and fifteen loyal followers of the queen accompanied Mary across the Solway Firth to Workington.
Herries found himself drawing on old friendships and travelling to London on behalf of his queen who wrote frantic letters to her cousin asking for help in her time of need. It was Herries who helped to represent the queen that October at the Conference of York in an attempt to prove her innocence from any complicity in the murder of Darnley at Kirk o’ Field. By January 1569 it was clear that Mary had thrown herself straight out of the frying pan and into the fire. She was a prisoner.
In Scotland, civil war erupted and simmered for a further two years. Unsurprisingly Herries found himself in trouble with the Scottish Regent (and Mary’s half-brother) the Earl of Moray. Once more he found himself in the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle. Although he was released Herries found himself on the receiving end of English raids encouraged by the Scottish government as well as penalties imposed by the Scottish government.
Herries was getting old but he made one last attempt to help his queen. He threatened Queen Elizabeth with the suggestion that if she did not support Mary then her friends would have to look abroad for help – a fear that filled Cecil and Walsingham’s minds. Herries continued to play a part in Scottish politics as well as writing his memoirs- he even took on the office of Border Warden on more time under the Regent Morton.
He died at the beginning of 1583, four years before his queen.