There must be something about the name Bothwell that invites trouble. James Hepburn the 4th Earl was probably involve dint he murder of Henry Stuart Lord Darnley’s murder, kidnapped Mary Queen of Scots, married her and ended up imprisoned in Dragsholm in Denmark chained to a post where he died in a state of filth and ever increasing insanity.
The 5th Earl was James’ nephew. His mother was James’ sister Janet and his father was John Stewart – one of Mary Queen of Scots’ illegitimate half-brothers. He became the earl in 1576 but travelled abroad so only became an important, if troublesome, figure in the court of James VI in 1581 when he returned home.
Unfortunately Francis wasn’t keen on the Earl of Arran – who was James VI of Scotland’s favourite at that time. In 1583 he was part of a kidnap plot which aimed to separate James from Arran. Another attempt was made in 1584. This time Francis had to flee to England to escape the repercussions of his plans. In 1585 he returned to Scotland with an army provided by Elizabeth I – Arran fled and Francis returned to court.
The calm was quickly shattered with the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. Francis took a dim view of the death of his aunt and wasn’t impressed by James’ response. When James ordered the court into mourning after no attempt to save his mother’s life, Francis turned up in a suit of armour.
And then in 1590 it swiftly became clear that James regarded his cousin as the devil. James had travelled to Denmark to marry his bride. Once there he’d become intrigued with the idea of witchcraft. He believed that the storm which had driven Ann back to Norway, then part of Denmark’s realm, had been caused by witchcraft.
Investigations commenced. James VI oversaw them. It turned out that the North Berwick coven had men on October 31st in North Berwick churchyard – many of them arriving by broom or axe – then several unfortunate cats were thrown into the sea having been tortured and strangled. This was what caused the storms.
Geillis Duncan was questioned first. She had a reputation for being good with herbs and widened to encompass a net of some three hundred alleged witches. James VI oversaw the interrogation of Agnes Sampson which involved shaving all the hair from her body and then wrenching her head with a rope. Oddly enough she confessed to avoid further torture.
Conveniently for James the Earl of Bothwell’s name kept making an appearance- there are two schools of thought on this i) he was framed or ii) he was indeed a practitioner of dark arts – his uncle was similarly accused. In April 1591 the Earl of Bothwell was summoned to Edinburgh to answer charges. James believed that Francis wanted his throne and what better way of achieving it than by bumping off the current incumbent by witchcraft?
The earl escaped and went into hiding – the outcomes of James’ trials tended to be unpleasant. When the jury cleared Barbara Napier the king had them put on trial as well. James declared that Francis had given himself over to the devil and promptly confiscated his belongings.
The earl then attempted to seize Holyrood House with the idea of capturing James and making him change his mind. The bid was not a success. In 1593 he captured the king using the stratagem of simply marching in upon the hapless monarch with a pistol and asking for forgiveness. Francis extracted a praise of pardon for his previous misdemeanours from James who was caught on the privy stool. Later, and presumably in a position of more dignity James forbade his cousin from coming within ten miles of him.
Francis failed to change his behaviour. In March 1594 he launched the Raid of Leith to capture the king with four hundred men. It was unsuccessful and James’ patience was completely exhausted. In 1595 the earl fled to France and from there to Naples where he died.
He was the last Earl of Bothwell.
Borman, Tracey. Wichen: James I and the English Witch hunts.