Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kirkcaldy, William
KIRKALDY, Sir WILLIAM (d. 1573), of Grange, was the eldest son of Sir James Kirkcaldy [q. v.] Randolph, minister of Elizabeth, in a letter to him, 1 May 1570, refers to the time ‘when we were both students in Paris,’ but nothing further is known regarding Kirkcaldy's education. He was respected for his character and abilities both in England and in Scotland. In his father's absence he waited on James V at Hallyards, his father's house in Fifeshire, in November 1542, after the disaster at Solway Moss. Deputed by his father to superintend the arrangements for the murder of Cardinal Beaton at St. Andrews in May 1546, he arrived at the city some time before the other conspirators. Getting entrance to the castle early in the morning of the 29th, while the drawbridge was let down to admit building material, he held the porter in parley till the approach of Norman Leslie [q. v.] with his company. The porter was then thrown into the fosse, and, while the other conspirators went to seek the cardinal, Kirkcaldy took charge of the privy postern to prevent his escape (ib. pp. 173–5; Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser. i. 58). After the murder he proceeded to England to obtain assistance for the conspirators, who had taken refuge in the castle. He was brought back to the castle by English ships (Knox, i. 182), and articles of agreement were entered into between the defenders and Henry VIII (Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser. i. 61). On the surrender of the castle to the French in July of the following year, Kirkcaldy was carried a prisoner to France and confined in Mount St. Michael, Normandy; but by the aid of a page he and other Scottish prisoners there escaped, 5 Jan. 1549–50 (the eve of Epiphany), while the drunken garrison were asleep. Along with another Scotsman, Peter Carmichael, Kirkcaldy, in the guise of a mendicant, reached the French coast at Le Conquet, and ultimately, as ‘poor mariners,’ they embarked on a French ship, which conveyed them to the west coast of Scotland (Knox, i. 231). Thence Kirkcaldy escaped south to England, where he obtained a pension from Edward VI, who employed him on secret diplomatic service. In February 1550–1 he was at Blois, acting as the secret agent of England, the name under which he is known in political correspondence being ‘Coraxe’ (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1549–53, p. 77). Being deprived of his English pension on the accession of Mary, Kirkcaldy entered the service of France, and as captain of a hundred light horse (Sir James Melville, Memoirs, p. 256) distinguished himself in the campaigns against Charles V. According to Sir James Melville he acquired special repute both for his valour in battle and his skill in knightly contests, Henry II pointing him out on one occasion as ‘one of the most valiant men of our time.’ The French king conferred on him a pension, which, however, according to Melville, Kirkcaldy never drew (Memoirs, p. 257).
Although a special favourite of the French king, Kirkcaldy appears to have been secretly hostile to the influence exercised by France in Scotland, and was already taking means to thwart it. Writing to Queen Mary of England from Boissy, 30 Nov. 1556, Dr. Wotton states that Grange had offered ‘to serve her majesty for the like pension he had formerly in England whenever she pleases; and, whether in England, the Low Countries, or here, says he shall have good intelligence of the affairs of Scotland and France by his intimacy with those of both nations’ (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1553–8, p. 277). In another letter Wotton writes that Kirkcaldy is ‘either a very great dissembler or else bears no goodwill at all to the French, and next to his own country has a good mind to England’ (ib. p. 290). Mary refused his services, but the act of forfeiture against him and other murderers of Beaton was rescinded and he returned to Scotland about June 1557.
The severe treatment of his cousin, John Kirkcaldy, who had been taken prisoner by the English in a border skirmish, caused a breach in his friendly relations with England. To avenge his kinsman he challenged to a duel Lord Rivers, the English commander at Berwick, and it was subsequently accepted by Rivers's brother, Sir Ralph Rivers. The combat, according to Pitscottie, took place in sight of the English garrison of Berwick and the Scottish garrison of Eyemouth, Kirkcaldy running his adversary through the shoulder and unhorsing him. Subsequently Kirkcaldy had a principal share in the negotiations which resulted in the conclusion of the peace with England in May 1559. After its conclusion he, at the instigation of Knox (Works, ii. 22), entered into communication with Cecil to secure the support of England for the furtherance of the Reformation in Scotland. Even then he had taken no active steps against the queen-regent, but on 26 July Croft writes to Cecil that Kirkcaldy had now plainly declared himself a supporter of the protestants (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1558–9, entry 1073). At the skirmish of Restalrig in the following November Kirkcaldy with a number of horsemen rendered important service in checking the French advance. The campaign was then transferred to Fife, where in the following spring the French burnt Kirkcaldy's mansion of Grange to the ground. Learning soon afterwards that Captain le Battu with a hundred Frenchmen had left Kinghorn to forage, he and the Master of Lindsay surrounded them in a village. After a desperate fight fifty of the Frenchmen with their commander were slain and the remainder taken prisoners (Knox, ii. 11; Buchanan, History, bk. xvi.) The unremitting zeal of Kirkcaldy in annoying the enemy in Fife is highly lauded by Knox, who states that at Lundie he was shot under the left breast (vi. 106–8). On the arrival of the English fleet, Kirkcaldy by a rapid march succeeded in breaking down the bridge across the Devon at Tullibody, with the view of hindering the French retreat westwards to Stirling, but the French cleverly repaired it by the use of material from the roof of the parish church. Regarding the part played by Kirkcaldy in the subsequent events of the war there is no information.
In the autumn of 1562 Queen Mary, after reaching Aberdeen, sent for Kirkcaldy to take the command of forces for the capture of Sir John Gordon, and protect her during her progress against the possible designs of Huntly (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1562, entries 718 and 823). He doubtless rendered not unimportant aid in winning the battle of Corrichie. At the parliament held in May of the following year he was formally restored to his estates. He opposed the marriage of Mary to Darnley in 1565, and, disobeying the summons to appear at court after the marriage, was put to the horn. Thereupon he joined the Earl of Moray and others in their attempt to seize Edinburgh, but being received with a severe cannonade from the castle they retired, and, recognising that the sympathy of the nation was with the queen, they in October took refuge in England. Kirkcaldy was privy to the plot against Rizzio (Bedford to Cecil, 6 March 1566; Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1566–8, entry 162). On the night after the murder he arrived in Edinburgh along with Moray, and he took part in the subsequent deliberations in regard to the disposal of the queen. After the queen's escape to Dunbar he was, along with Moray, nominally restored to favour. He appears to have held aloof from the intrigues connected with the murder of Darnley. At this time he was a confidential correspondent of the English government, but his main purpose was probably to serve Moray and the protestant party. On 20 April 1567 he informed Bedford that ‘if the Queen of England will pursue for the revenge of the late murder she shall win the hearts of all the honest men of Scotland again’ (ib. 1119). He is the authority for the famous declaration of Mary that she would ‘follow Bothwell to the world's end in a white petticoat’ (ib.), and he also attributed the so-called ‘ravishment’ by Bothwell to the queen's own instigation (ib. 1131). With the bond in Bothwell's favour in Ainslie's tavern Kirkcaldy had no connection, and he explains that it had been signed by the majority ‘in fear of their lives,’ and ‘against their honour and conscience’ (ib. 1181). He affirmed that he was ‘so suited to enterprise the revenge’ that he ‘must either take it on hand or else leave the country.’ At first he determined on the latter course, and having disposed of ‘all his corn and movables’ (ib. 1234) had obtained a license to leave Scotland for seven years (ib. 1275), when his plans were altered by the resolution of the nobles in the beginning of June to seize Mary and Bothwell in Holyrood Palace. Kirkcaldy immediately joined the forces of the lords. At Carberry Hill he held command of the horse, and placed them in a position that would prevent a retreat towards Dunbar. Mary on learning this desired to have a conference with him. While they were in conversation a soldier sent by Bothwell took aim at him, but ‘the Queen gave a cry and said that he should not do her that shame’ (Melville, Memoirs, p. 183). When Bothwell declared his willingness to maintain his innocency by single combat, Kirkcaldy with characteristic alacrity took up the challenge, but Bothwell, no doubt well aware of his prowess, declined to fight with one who was only a baron (ib.) Finally the queen surrendered to Kirkcaldy, and Bothwell was permitted to escape.
As Kirkcaldy had pledged his word for the queen's safety, he strongly opposed the harsh treatment accorded to her, and especially her removal to Lochleven, after her letter to Bothwell pledging herself to constancy was intercepted. Even then he was willing to excuse, and he hoped that further difficulties might be removed by Bothwell's capture. On 11 Aug. he received, along with Sir William Murray of Tullibardine, a commission to fit out ships for the pursuit of Bothwell (Reg. P. C. Scotl. i. 544–6). While Bothwell was on shore he came up with his ships in Bressay Sound; but, as Kirkcaldy himself confesses, he was ‘no good seaman,’ and subsequently Bothwell outsailed him and escaped to Norway [see Hepburn, James, fourth Earl of Bothwell].
After his return to Scotland Kirkcaldy succeeded Sir James Balfour as governor of Edinburgh Castle. He attended the meeting of the ‘lords of the secret council and others’ on 4 Dec., when it was declared that Mary was a conspirator with Bothwell in the murder of the king. On Mary's escape from Lochleven he joined the forces of the regent against her, and at Langside the regent committed to him the ‘special care as an experimented captain to oversee every danger’ (Sir James Melville, Memoirs, p. 201). He rode from wing to wing, giving advice and direction at the most critical moments, and by his skilful generalship turned the tide of battle against the queen.
Kirkcaldy's subsequent transference to the queen's party is not difficult to explain. When Mary, after the conferences in England, finally agreed to a divorce from Bothwell, he was of opinion that an arrangement with her was possible. He was doubtless also strongly influenced by the plausible schemes of Maitland of Lethington. Nevertheless he for some time disguised his sentiments. On 8 May 1568 he and the provost of Edinburgh had entered into a mutual band to retain the town and castle for the young king's party (printed in Calderwood, ii. 412–413), and this severely hampered his subsequent action. His first decided step was the rescue in September 1569 of Maitland while under arrest in Edinburgh; but he pleaded as an excuse that the arrest was unjustifiable, and his professed purpose was to bring about a reconciliation with the regent. With that intent he in October had a friendly conference with Maitland at Kelso (Drury to Cecil, 22 Oct. 1569, Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1569–71, entry 479). From the castle Maitland wrote to Mary that Kirkcaldy would be ‘conformable to a good accord’ in her favour. The assassination of the regent on 20 Jan. 1569–70 somewhat altered the aspect of events. It rendered a peaceable arrangement impossible, and while it weakened the cause of Mary it deprived King James's party of an invaluable leader. So odious was the murder to ‘all that faction’ (including Maitland and Kirkcaldy) that they were ‘presently all reconciled and vowed to revenge’ (ib. 677). At the funeral of the regent Kirkcaldy bore his standard before the body (Knox, vi. 571). But while shocked at the assassination Kirkcaldy was not minded to subject himself over far to any surviving member of the king's party (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1569–71, entry 854), and when Lennox was chosen regent he refused either to come to the election or to permit a salute to be fired in his honour (ib. 1097). Still he continued for some time to profess neutrality, and it was not until a proclamation had been made forbidding any to serve him that he declared himself by announcing that for his own security and that of the castle he was ‘forced to join with such of the nobility as would concur with him’ (ib. 1668). His conduct in rescuing from the Tolbooth one of his followers who had been concerned in the slaughter of George Durie (for particulars see Richard Bannatyne, Memorials, pp. 72 et seq.) had already caused Knox to denounce him as a ‘murderer and throat-cutter.’ Violent letters passed between them, and a reference by Knox in one of his sermons to Kirkcaldy's conduct provoked loud protestations on Kirkcaldy's part, who was present. The breach between them was never healed. After his final declaration Kirkcaldy began to fortify the approaches to the castle from the city, mounting for this purpose cannon on the steeple of St. Giles and within the body of the church. He also appointed his son-in-law, Andrew Ker of Ferniehirst [q. v.] provost of the city, which, as well as the castle, was now held for the queen. So satisfied was Kirkcaldy with his preparations for resistance that he celebrated their completion in what Calderwood disparagingly terms a ‘rowstie rhyme,’ but which was really a very clever political squib (printed in full in Sir J. Graham Dalyell's Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century; and in Satirical Poems of the time of the Reformation, Scottish Text Soc., i. 174–9). In September he despatched from the castle a force which made an unsuccessful attempt to capture the leaders of the king's party at Stirling. In the fray the regent Lennox was shot, but the murder was done solely at the instance of the Hamiltons, and was deeply regretted by Kirkcaldy, who declared that if he knew who had committed the foul deed or even directed it to be done he would avenge it with his own right hand (Sir James Melville, Memoirs, p. 242). Through the interposition both of the English and French representatives a truce was entered into on 1 Aug. 1572, which lasted to the following January. Knox on his deathbed sent word to Kirkcaldy that unless he ‘was brought to repentance’ he should be ‘disgracefully dragged from his nest to punishment and hung on a gallows in the face of the sun’ (Works, ii. 157). Morton, who succeeded Mar in the regency on the day of Knox's death, employed Sir James Melville to negotiate an agreement with Kirkcaldy. The negotiations promised to be successful, but on Kirkcaldy learning that Morton did not intend to include in them ‘the rest of the queen's faction,’ especially the Hamiltons, he, in the words of Melville, ‘stood stiff upon his honesty and reputation,’ and declined conditions which implied the ruin of his friends. While the negotiations were thus in suspense Morton received final pledges of assistance from England to enable him to capture the castle. Thereupon he came to terms with the Hamiltons, and refused to the defenders of the castle any conditions except the safety of their lives. The task of capturing it was entrusted to the English commander, Sir William Drury, who had brought with him English cannon and a force of fifteen hundred men, the besieging force being completed by about five hundred Scottish soldiers. From 17 May to the 20th they kept up a continuous cannonade day and night and the spur was captured by assault. The position of the defenders, from lack of water and provisions, was now hopeless. Kirkcaldy, therefore, on the 28th sent privately to Hume and Crawford, who commanded the Scottish contingent, and delivered the castle into their hands, thus avoiding the surrender of it to the English. Next morning he gave up his sword to Sir William Drury, by whom he was treated with every courtesy. On 3 June he and Maitland wrote to Elizabeth that they had surrendered themselves to her, and hoped that she would not put them ‘out of her hands to make any others, especially our mortal enemy, our masters;’ but on the 18th they were delivered up to Morton. Every effort was made by Kirkcaldy's friends to save his life, and Morton candidly admitted the strength of the temptation which the offered bribes exerted on him. But he saw that the ‘denunciations of the preachers’ rendered the sacrifice of Kirkcaldy, which Knox had foretold, essential to his own continuance in power. Kirkcaldy was executed on the afternoon of 3 Aug. 1573, on the gibbet at the cross. After the accession of James VI his remains were removed to the ancestral burying-place at Kinghorn.
Sir James Melville describes Kirkcaldy as ‘humble, gentle, and meek, like a lamb in the house and like a lion in the field, a lusty, stark, and well-proportioned personage, hardy, and of magnanimous courage’ (Memoirs, p. 257). He also states that he refused ‘even the office of regent’ (ib. p. 258). Although his political career is chargeable almost throughout with inconsistency, he was not directly involved in the baser intrigues of his time, and was less influenced than most of his contemporaries by ulterior and selfish motives. His defence of the castle for the queen was not merely quixotic, but incompatible with the clear obligations into which he had entered. Nevertheless his chivalrous resolve and the constancy of his courage have secured him a place of honour in Scottish history.
[Knox's Works; Sir James Melville's Memoirs; Calderwood's Hist. of the Kirk of Scotland; Lindsay of Pitscottie's Chronicle; Buchanan's Hist. of Scotland; Spotiswood's Hist. of Scotland; James Melville's Diary; Richard Bannatyne's Memorials; Diurnal of Occurrents; Reg. Privy Council of Scotl. vols. i. and ii.; Cal. State Papers, Scott. Ser.; Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1549–73; Biographical Sketch of Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange in Sir J. Graham Dalyell's Scottish Poems of the Sixteenth Century, 1801; Grant's Memoirs and Adventures of Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, 1849.]