Open main menu

Stewart, William (fl.1575-1603) (DNB00)

STEWART, Sir WILLIAM (fl. 1575–1603) of Houston, soldier and diplomatist, was, according to De Thou, an illegitimate son of some Scottish noble (Chéruel, Marie Stuart, p. 100), but Douglas and others make him to be the younger son of Thomas Stewart of Galston by Isabel Henderson, his wife (Duncan Stewart, Genealogy of the Royal Family). Tytler, David Laing, and others confuse him with Sir William Stewart of Monkton (d. 1588) [q. v.] and with Sir William Stewart of Caverstoun, who was captain of Dumbarton castle from 1580 to 1585. According to Calderwood (iv. 448), Sir William of Houston ‘was, as is constantly reported, first a cloutter of old shoes. He went to the Low Countries first as a soldier, then as a captain, and last as a colonel.’ He is probably the ‘William Stewart, servant to Lady Lennox,’ who was reported (13 Oct. 1572) to be passing through Berwick prepared to give Burghley certain information (which he afterwards did give) regarding the proceedings of Du Croc in Scotland (Cal. State Papers, For.) He was certainly the Mr. William Stewart who despatched to Burghley from the Low Countries news of military affairs in the summer of 1575, and wrote from Rotterdam in the October of that year that he had received a commission from the Prince of Orange to serve with three hundred Scots, and therefore craved license to transport pikes and corslets from England, as he doubted if arms could be purchased at reasonable prices in his own country. In 1579–80 Colonel Stewart, who was for some time quartered at Brussels, had under his command eight companies (Renon de France, Troubles, ii. 512, iii. 382). Great efforts were now being made by the Spaniards, in conjunction with Mary Stuart, to entice or bribe the Scots to abandon the service of the Dutch or to betray their fortresses. Balfour was reported to be already wavering; and Stewart, who was said to be much under the influence of Mary's ambassador at Paris (April 1580), was ‘to be sounded.’ The queen herself wrote (October 1581) to urge her Scottish friends to withdraw, and in particular promised Colonel Stewart a good pension in Scotland (Cal. State Papers, Spanish, iii. 27, 184). He had meanwhile married a Flemish wife, the widow of the Count of Mandercheit (Lettenhove, Les Huguenots, vi. 147). There is no evidence that Stewart accepted the bribe referred to, but within twelve months he made his appearance in Scotland, having for some reason forfeited his wife's dowry, and was acting contrary to expectation with the English and anti-catholic party which came into power after the Ruthven raid. He was appointed one of the commissioners at the general assembly of the kirk in 1582, and captain of the king's guard. In the following April he was sent with John Colville [q. v.] on an embassy to England, where he was well received by Queen Elizabeth, who presented him with a valuable chain. His object was to cement the friendship with England, and to procure, if possible, a large sum of money for James. Mauvissière, in his disgust, described him as ‘ung pauvre aventurier escossois,’ and discovered in him a passion for money-making. Some divergence in his policy from that of his colleague, Colville, soon made itself felt, and on his return to Scotland the colonel, who enjoyed the confidence of the king, became his chief instrument in effecting the counter-revolution which released James from the control of the Ruthven raiders, and brought back James Stewart, earl of Arran. The earl and the colonel, notwithstanding some jealousy between them, now governed the king and country, and incurred the fierce hostility of the church. Stewart was made a member of the privy council, and (July 1583) received a grant of the priory of Pittenweem. As captain of the guard he vigorously supported the king, besieged and captured the Earl of Gowrie [see Ruthven, William, first Earl of Gowrie], at Dundee, brought him to his trial at Edinburgh, helped to frustrate the attempt of the insurgent lords at Stirling, April 1584, and held Lord Maxwell in check on the south.

Fontenay reported to Mary Stuart that James, according to the king's own account, valued Stewart simply as a fighting man, and had said that the colonel, though devoid of intelligence or gift of speech, was a brave and faithful servant. On one occasion Stewart had forgotten himself, and the king brought him to his knees by threatening to reduce him to the coquin et bélître that he once was. Stewart, however, as the king must have soon discovered, possessed considerable diplomatic skill. At this moment he was bent on recovering his Flemish wife's property. He got the king to write on his behalf to Philip II, and he himself sent letters through Fontenay and Mary to Parma and Guise, as well as to the king of Spain; and he even induced Elizabeth to request as a favour from Mary Stuart that she should herself intercede for him with Parma, which Mary did on 13 May 1585 (Labanoff). Fontenay told Nau that Stewart would be on Mary's side, if not from good will, at least from self-interest: ‘this and money rule all the Scots nobles’ (Hatfield MSS. 15 Aug. 1584).

In November 1585 there occurred another coup d'état on the part of the banished lords; and with the help of John, lord Maxwell and earl of Morton [q. v.], who from personal reasons had momentarily joined their party, they made the king a prisoner at Stirling. The Earl of Arran was dismissed; the colonel lost his office of captain of the guard, and was given into the custody of Maxwell, who took him to Dumfries. Stewart quickly accommodated himself to the change of circumstances, made friends with Maxwell, reappeared for a short time at court to the disgust of the church party, and slipped away or was dismissed to the continent with a secret mission from James. He first appeared in Denmark, where he added the Danish king to the list of royal suppliants for the restoration of his wife's dowry; and in December 1586 he was in Paris closeted with Mendoza, to whom he explained that he came as a secret agent from the catholic earls, who were resolved with the aid of Spain to free the king from the hands of the English faction, to secure liberty of conscience for catholics, and finally to restore Scotland to the Roman church. To carry out this enterprise, said Stewart (and in this he was supported by the assurances of another catholic agent, Robert Bruce), it would only be necessary to kill four of the hostile lords—Angus, Boyd, Hamilton, and Mar. In return for aid they offered to molest the queen of England. ‘Stewart,’ wrote Mendoza to Philip, ‘is a catholic himself although a politique.’ It is not surprising after this to learn that the colonel was in great credit with Parma, and had at last recovered his wife's possessions. In the same year he was again in Denmark, busy apparently with James's matrimonial projects.

On his return to Scotland on the eve of the armada, Stewart found the king was no longer willing to give countenance to his Spanish intrigues; but Stewart, now bent on claiming from the Dutch the arrears of pay which he declared to be due to him for his former military services, persuaded the king to grant him letters of marque to enable him to extort forcible compensation from the Dutch merchants. The States-General, indignant at the audacity of these proceedings, sent envoys to Scotland with instructions to pass through London on their way. They were stopped by Elizabeth, who undertook to bring James to reason if they would leave the matter in her hands. Thus baffled, the Dutch despatched De Voecht and De Warck on a second mission direct to Leith, where they landed 17 May 1589. The result of the conferences which they held with James and his councillors, partly in the presence of Stewart, was not satisfactory to the Dutch, and a few years later they were compelled to pay to the colonel a large sum of money. No sooner had the envoys re-embarked than Stewart set sail for Aberdeen to join the earl marischal and others who were to complete the king's marriage with the Princess Anne. After many delays and adventures he finally commanded the six ships commissioned to bring back both king and queen from Denmark. His zeal in this matter raised him higher than ever in the king's favour. He became once more a member of the privy council, and in the summer of 1590 was sent as ambassador to the princes of Germany. On his return he was rewarded for his great services to the king in foreign nations with a gift of ten thousand merks and a further grant of lands (Privy Council Reg. 12 Jan. 1591). A cloud passed over him for a moment in 1592, when he was warded in the castle of Edinburgh on suspicion of being concerned in one of the mad freaks of Bothwell; but in the following year he was entrusted with an embassy to the Low Countries, having instructions to form an evangelic alliance against the jesuits. He now received a grant of the lands of Houston, and was knighted on the occasion of the baptism of Prince Henry. In December 1594 Sir William Stewart of Houston went again as ambassador to the Low Countries, where he requested a loan of cavalry and infantry to fight against the catholic rebel earls. Two years later he was granted a commission as the king's lieutenant for the Isles and Highlands to establish the royal authority in Kintyre; in 1598 he was once more in Denmark, soliciting the king's goodwill in the prospect of James's accession to the English throne; and in the same year he was one of the ‘gentlemen adventurers’ who were appointed, at their own cost, to plant policy and civilisation in the hitherto most barbarous Isle of Lewis.

Stewart had meanwhile married, for a second time, a widow, Isabella Hepburn, the lady Pitfirrane, the daughter of Patrick Hepburn of Wauchton, ‘not without suspicion of the murder of her former husband,’ adds Calderwood (iv. 448). The suspicion may fix approximately the date of the marriage. For in 1585 the laird of Pitfirrane, provost of Edinburgh, having given offence to the clergy, the brethren commended the wrong to God, and ‘within a few years after,’ adds Calderwood, he was found fallen out of a window of his own house of Pitfirrane. ‘Whether he threw himself out of a melancholious despair, casting himself, or by the violence of unkind guests ludgit within,’ remarks James Melville, ‘God knows’ (Diary, p. 151). Stewart survived this marriage some eighteen years or more, dying between 1603 and 1606.

By Lady Pitfirrane Stewart had a daughter Anne, born 5 June 1595, and an only son Frederick, in whose favour the lands and baronies of the priory of Pittenweem were erected into a temporal lordship by act of parliament in 1606. Frederick was created a peer, under the title of Lord Pittenweem, on 26 Jan. 1609, but died childless on 16 Dec. 1625 (G. E. C[okayne], Complete Peerage, s.v. ‘Pittenweem’).

[Calderwood's History, iii. 714, iv. 422–50; Tytler, viii. 77, 97, 153, 198, ix. 19, 320; Hatfield MSS. (Hist. Comm.), iii. 52, 57, iv. 600, &c.; Cal. State Papers, Spanish, iii. 26, 183, 458, 471, 488, 681; Border Papers, i. 1583–1588; Hamilton Papers, ii. 649, 697, 703; Privy Council, Scotl. 1583–1606; Reg. Mag. Sig. Scot.; Colville's Letters (Bannatyne Club); Douglas's Peerage; Meteren's Hist. des Pays-Bas, p. 310; Manuscript Reports and Papers relating to the affairs of Colonel Stewart, the embassy of De Voecht, &c., from the public archives at The Hague, now in course of publication by the Scottish History Society.]

T. G. L.