John Stewart, Lord Kincleven and later the 1st Earl of Carrick, was the third of five sons born to Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney and Strathearn, and his wife Jean Kennedy, daughter of Gilbert Kennedy, 3rd Earl of Cassilis. He was also the grandson of King James V, whose mistress, Euphemia Elphinstone, had given birth to Robert Stewart in about 1533. James had recognized Robert as his son and had him educated, along with his other illegitimate sons, for a career in the Church. (Robert Stewart, being far from a pious man, however, never did more than take pensions from church benefices.)
The birth year of John Stewart is not certain, but he was often said to be the third son, between Patrick and James, and was probably born around 1576 (Cracroft). At that time, his father had not yet received the earldom of Orkney but did hold lands in Orkney and Shetland. However, Jean Kennedy, John’s mother, “does not appear to have set foot in the islands at all,” and all of Robert’s legitimate sons, including John, were “educated in the south” (P. Anderson Robert, 131). John had three sisters—Mary, Christian, and Elizabeth. There were also six half-brothers and several half-sisters, illegitimate children of Robert Stewart, all of whom made their appearance in Orkney while Lady Jean remained in Edinburgh.
From various documents, it is possible to detect some of the personal undercurrents in these relationships. In 1585, when Robert Stewart was created earl of Orkney, the entail (right of inheritance) was to his sons Henry, Patrick, James, and Robert—John’s name being omitted. If the line of legitimate sons failed, the entail was to Robert’s illegitimate sons—James and Robert—then to his nephew, Francis, Earl of Bothwell. When Robert died in 1593 and the earldom passed to Patrick (Henry having predeceased his father), the papers drawn up for Patrick in 1600 named Patrick’s sons as heirs and then, behind them, his “second brother, John” (Steuart 2922). This time, brother James is not mentioned. These omissions could have been clerical errors, but the fact that their mother Jean was also omitted from Earl Robert’s will—when his mistresses were all named—leads one to wonder what family dynamics were at work here.
It is hardly possible to say that Patrick’s naming his brother John was due to a special friendship between the two because the first time John’s name appears in the historical record in 1594 (the year after the father’s death), it is in an indictment against him for conspiring with a witch to poison his brother Patrick, who discovered poison in the possession of John’s servant, Thomas Paplay (Paul 440).
John Stewart, at that time styled Master of Orkney, a title for younger sons of an earl, was suspected, and Paplay was arrested and tortured mercilessly. During the torture, he gave up the name of one Alesoun (or Alison) Balfour, a “known notorious witch” (“Witchcraft”).
However, Alesoun Balfour refused to confess or implicate John Stewart, despite the fact that her husband and son were cruelly tortured before her eyes. It was only when her daughter was put to torture that she “confessed.” Though she later recanted, she was tried and put to death on 15 December 1594. In 1596, John Stewart, Master of Orkney, was indicted for “consulting with witches, for [the] destruction of [the] Earl of Orkney” (“Witchcraft”). Now, John would have been only about seventeen when the incident occurred and nineteen at the time of the indictment. Perhaps the mixture of his youth and the forced confessions are enough to persuade us that John was not involved in this incident and that Patrick was sure enough of his brother’s loyalty that he did, in fact, place him in line for the earldom if his own male line failed. Whatever the case, John Stewart got his revenge eighteen days after his acquittal when he murdered the inquisitor of Alesoun Balfour, who just happened to be Patrick Stewart’s chamberlain (“North Isles—Eday”).
Being the grandson of James V meant, of course, that he was a first cousin of James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Lord Darnley. Through James V’s mother, Margaret Tudor, sister to England’s King Henry VIII, the Stewarts stood in line to inherit the throne of England should the Tudor line fail, which it did on 24 March 1603 at the death of the unmarried English queen, Elizabeth I.
James VI departed Scotland in April, taking his cousin, John Stewart, along with him for the ceremonies related to his accession to the crown, which would make him James I of England. John Stewart must have enjoyed the festivities, as we learn from thirteen-year-old Lady Anne Clifford, daughter of George, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, who kept a diary, that John Stewart, Master of “Orckney” and Sir John Murray of Tullebardine “came thither to see us” at Hampton Court because they “were much in love with Mrs. Carey” (Progresses 196). (Which Mrs. Carey is referenced here is unclear.)
Stewart was still in the London area in November 1604, when once again letter writers were reporting on his shenanigans. On November 7, Edmund Lascelles wrote to Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury, to tell him about the arrival of the king at Whitehall from Royston. Before closing, he added a bit of court gossip: “Mr. Thomas Somerset and the Master of Orkney fell out in the Balowne Court at Whithall. Boxes on the eare passed on eyther side, but no further hurt doon; Mr. Sommerset was commanded to the Fleet, whear he is yet, and the Master of Orkney to his chamber; what more will be doon in it we know not yet” (Progresses 465).
Now, it is a bit unclear exactly what is meant by the term “Balowne Court,” but apparently there was a game, invented by the Romans but still popular in England at the time, played with a “Balowne, or Balloon, Follis [leather bag or handball]. . . filled with wind” and requiring the use of a gauntlet (or glove) made of leather thongs. The players protected their arms with wooden bracers like those worn by archers to protect the forearm (Fosbroke 2:682). If this is, in fact, the intended meaning of balowne court, we can perhaps conclude that Somerset and Stewart were playing a game of some sort when they fell to fighting.
Young Thomas, later 1st Viscount, Somerset was at that time a freshly received student at Gray’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court where young men were educated for the law. He was also a member of the House of Commons, and though he was obviously no slouch, the fact that he was sent to the Fleet while Stewart was confined “in his chambers” probably is explained by their social difference at this point in time, though it must be noted that the Fleet did not hold common criminals, as Newgate did, but troublesome nobles or political and religious dissidents.
Now, it should be noted here that just nine days before this scuffle, on 26 October 1604, John Stewart, aged 28, had married Lady Elizabeth Howard Southwell, aged 40 and the mother of six children. It seems that with a Scotsman on the throne of England, marriages with Scots, especially those close to the king, were highly prized. Elizabeth’s father was widower Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, whose “determination to be identified with the royal house” is shown not only by his daughter’s marriage to John Stewart, but by his own marriage on 2 June 1604 to Margaret Stewart (Brown 571). He was 67 and she, a teenager. Margaret was sister to James Stewart (or Stuart, as they were beginning to style themselves in the French manner), 3rd earl of Moray, and a granddaughter on her mother’s side to James Stewart, the Regent Moray (d. 1570)—another illegitimate son of James V, a half-brother to Robert Stewart, and a half-uncle to John Stewart, Master of Orkney. These relationships seem to have trumped, in Nottingham’s mind, the December-May nature of the alliances.
It is possible that Nottingham desired these marital connections to the royal house of Stuart inasmuch as he had been related to the previous monarch, Elizabeth I. What is more, his first wife, Catherine Carey, had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth but, even more than that, a dear personal friend and confidante of the queen. Certainly it would be nice to maintain such connections with the royal family, but Nottingham had still one more reason to push for a secure position in the new monarchy: he had been instrumental in the queen’s decision to execute Mary, Queen of Scots, mother of James VI and I. Nottingham had been appointed as one of the commissioners for the Scottish queen’s trial for treason, and, though he had not actually sat at the trial, he had led some of the examinations in London in preparation for trial. Contemporaries noted, in addition, that it was through the urging of Nottingham that Elizabeth had finally decided to sign her cousin’s death warrant (“Howard”). King James had never really known his mother and had been raised as a Protestant, but there were times when he first came into his majority, that he greatly resented what his “handlers” had done to his mother. Better not to take chances, but to push forward with new alliances that prove friendship with the new king.
Before her marriage to John Stewart, Lady Southwell had been serving as lady-in-waiting to James’s queen, Anne of Denmark. By early February 1604, it was already being “confidently reported” that the Lady would marry John Stewart, Master of Orkney. Edward Somerset, 1st earl of Worcester, had commented on the impending marriage in a letter to another courtier, adding this note about the environment in which the ladies-in-waiting served: “[T]he plotting and mallice amongst them is sutche, that I thinke Envy hathe teyd an invisible snake abowt most of ther neks to sting on another to deathe.” Perhaps it was time for Lady Elizabeth to move on, albeit with a husband about half her age (Progresses 464).
One of the first properties acquired by John Stewart was a gift from the Earl of Nottingham, his father-in-law. The accounts of the Paymaster of Works (1600-1601) has the following entry: “The Ladie Southwell, for money by her La . [Ladyship] layde out for the repayringe of the house called Hances house, sometymes appointed for an Armorie, adioyninge to her Mat [Majesty’s] Orcharde at Whitehall” (“Bowling Green”). Property adjoining the orchard at Whitehall was prestigious indeed and goes some way toward confirming Earl Charles’ social ambitions for his daughter and her new husband.
The next big step for John Stewart occurred on 10 August 1607 when King James created a title for him, Lord Kincleven (variously spelled as Kinclaven). For his financial support, he obtained charters in 1616 “of the dominical lands and mill of the Monastery of Crossregal, of the lands of Ballorsom, and of the lands of Knockronnall, and the barony of Grenane,” which were parts of the ancient but then extinct earldom of Carrick in Ayrshire (W. Anderson 597).
Stewart received these honors despite the fact that his brother, Patrick, 2nd earl of Orkney, and Patrick’s son Robert had been found guilty of treason and executed in 1615. That John seems to have played no role at all in the intrigues and rebellions of Patrick and Robert testifies to his loyalty to the government of his cousin, King James VI and I, in whose train he had traveled to London in 1603 and to whom he owed his title and his advantageous marriage. Nor had he been involved with the treasonous activities of his father, who was imprisoned in the late 1570s.
After King Charles I came to the throne in 1625, Kincleven sought the title Earl of Carrick in view of his possession of these lands. The process to renew the earldom in Stewart’s name was soon halted, however, when Sir John Hope, the Lord Advocate, advised the Privy Council that the earldom of Carrick “was one always borne by the heir-apparent to the Crown” (Tudor 368) and could not be transferred to Stewart.
However, Kincleven pointed out that “the title he had assumed was derived from Carrick in Orkney and not Carrick in Ayrshire” (Balfour 441). This is an interesting sleight-of-hand in that Stewart did not receive the charter for Eday, where Orcadian Carrick supposedly lay, until he received the letters patent for the title Earl of Carrick (in Orkney) (“Eday, Carrick House”).
Some have even speculated that Stewart deliberately named a corner of his holdings Carrick afterward, in order to meet the letter of the law. This conjecture is based on the fact that there is no evidence of a place named Carrick in Orkney before this time (Crichton-Stuart). What’s more, the place name Carrick derives from the Gaelic word caraig, meaning crag, while place names in Orkney are almost exclusively derived from Norse origins, Orkney having belonged to Norway until 1468 (Bell 247). But whether it existed at the moment of Lord Kinclevan’s argument, the king was content with this solution, and the patent for the earldom of Carrick was delivered to Stewart by the Lord Chancellor on 14 December 1630, “which patent the said earl accepted on his knees, his ambition now being gratified” (W. Anderson 597). Certainly, he became busy in 1631 building Balmerino House in Leith (Gentleman’s 595) and in 1633 building Carrick House on his lands in Eday (Bell), which may have been an attempt to bolster his prestige and his claim to the name Carrick.
Once Stewart had been created an earl, it necessarily followed that he would acquire a coat of arms, which has been described, thus: “The arms of this Earl were quarterly, first and fourth or [gold], a lion rampant gules [red], armed and langued azure, within a double tressure flory-counterflory gules, and all again within a bordure company azure and argent; second and third, azure, a galley at anchor within a double tressure flory counterflory or” (Crichton-Stuart 102).
With the earldom there also came new charters and commissions. In 1630, Earl John was named Commissioner of Fisheries. On 14 January 1632, Charles I showed his favor when he “erected Carrick and the port of Calf Sound in the island of Eday in Orkney into a burgh of barony” (Crichton-Stuart). The term burgh of barony refers to a town on estates held by a landowner directly from the crown. Sometimes landowners who were granted burghs of barony were also given authority to hold weekly markets, to collect taxes, to oversee criminal courts, and even to apply the death penalty, but historians have pointed out that “there is no indication that any form of municipal government was ever constituted” in Earl Carrick’s lands (Crichton-Stuart). Two and a half years later, on 14 June 1634, Stewart was also given a charter of the easterly and westerly lands of Corstorphine, near Edinburgh, with an entailment for his heirs (Paul 441).
In 1633, the earl of Carrick undertook the building of Carrick House, located on Calf Sound on the eastern side of Eday. It looks out to sea between the so-called Red Heads of Eday.
According to one source, Stewart chose this remote location due to “some discontent which fell out between him and his Lady” (Brand 37). Be that as it may, Carrick House was a two-and-a-half storied house with a slated roof and crow-step gables, which were in vogue among the Scottish baronial set of the day. The date 1633 can still be seen in the round-arched keystone in the north wall, but the arms engraved above the door are those of subsequent owners, the family of Sir John Buchanan (Bell 238). Over the years, additions have been made to the house, which still stands intact today, and even now in the fall of 2014 renovations are being done by Orkney-based Colin Watson Stonework, in particular the Buchanan arms (see at left and below) (Watson).
However, it was Stewart himself who established on the site twelve salt-pans—shallow containers or depressions where salt water is left to evaporate, leaving usable salt for human use. He apparently had a view toward foreign trade in salt but died before he could bring his idea to fruition. Only one of the salt-pans can be seen at the present time (Brand 38).
As the Reformation advanced in Scotland, the Stewarts, like other Scottish barons of the day, found themselves in tumultuous times. Robert Stewart’s half-brother, James Stewart, 1st earl of Moray—another illegitimate son of James V—was one of the strongest champions of the Presbyterian cause against his Catholic half-sister, Mary, Queen of Scots. As Regent of Scotland, he had made sure that the young King James VI was raised as a Protestant, and in 1588 the king appointed his half-uncle, Robert Stewart, to his commission against the Jesuits, who were being obliged to leave the country. Still, this is no sign of inward belief, and it is known that a Roman Catholic funeral service was offered at the elder Stewart’s passing in 1592 (Tudor 253).
Then in August and September of 1643 came the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, an agreement between Presbyterian Scots and the Cromwellian Parliamentarians in England, who opposed Charles I, by which a Presbyterian-parliamentarian union of England, Scotland, and Ireland was formed. Signing the Covenant was a prerequisite to office-holding in England and Scotland, so, not surprisingly, John Stewart did subscribe the Covenant (Balfour 441).
The exact date of John Stewart’s death is unknown. According to The Peerage, he died somewhere between late 1643 and early 1645/46 (“John Stewart”). We know that the Covenant did not make its way to Kirkwall in the Orkneys until December 1643, and since Stewart did accept the Covenant, we know he was still alive at that time. He would have been sixty-seven.
John Stewart left only one surviving legitimate child, Margaret Stewart, born c. 1605, who, in 1630, married the Englishman Sir Matthew (John) Mennes, who became a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Charles I.
Though he had tried to obtain his brother’s lands in Orkney, he had failed, (P. Anderson “Stewart”) and at his death in 1643, the titles and honors he had been awarded by the Stewart kings became extinct.
In summing up, the life of John Stewart provides us a look into the system of court patronage and how illegitimate sons—and grandsons—of kings could cultivate friendships, make advantageous marriages, and scrap together baronies for themselves—albeit in the forgotten northern isles. Carrick in Orkney was probably a non-existent place when Stewart received the title Earl of Carrick in Orkney. Eday is an island only about eight miles long and (today) “home to 150 people who are vastly outnumbered by the isle’s wildlife and bird population” (“Eday”). It was probably not much different when it belonged to John Stewart, but the land perhaps mattered less to Stewart than the title, which gave him at least the pretense of equality among the peers of the realm.
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(c) Eileen Cunningham 2014