‘Reformation, Bloodfeud and East Coast Shipping: the Earls Marischal 1542-1623’

Published on: Author: Megan Leave a comment

On 17 November, 2015, the Centre welcomed Miles Kerr-Peterson (Glasgow) to discuss ‘Reformation, bloodfeud and east coast shipping: the Earls Marischal 1542-1623’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Miles’s research focuses on George Keith, the Fourth Earl Marischal, who was born in 1554 and became Earl after his grandfather’s death in 1580. He has found that the Keith family is representative of the general experience of long-term stable lordships at the time. The family was loyal to the king and attempted to maintain a low profile throughout the unstable politics at this time.

17 November Blog Image

The Bloodfeud began in 1583 between the George Keith, the Fourth Earl Marischal and George Gordon, the Sixth Earl of Huntly. Although the Keiths and the Gordons had been friendly prior to the bloodfeud, this changed during the Reformation. The Keiths were Protestants, the Gordons were Catholic, and consequently they drifted into different social circles. Though the two families had previously been at odds, it was thought that their issues were mostly resolved by 1577. Troubles arose again when the King’s favourite, George Gordon the Sixth Earl of Huntly was made Lieutenant of the North, which gave him jurisdiction over the Earl Marischal. Because Gordon was aggressive in his expansion efforts, he had many rivals who were willing to join with Keith against him. Keith took a defensive role, and used his great wealth and many cannons to wait out Gordon’s many attacks. Gordon exploited Keith’s less-than-stable family life, turning even his younger brother Robert and his own wife against him. Despite Gordon’s many kin branches and having the king’s favour, he was forced into rebellion several times until he was eventually exiled in 1595. At this point, Marischal was exempted from the power of the Lieutenant.

Overall, Miles explained that Marischal was an unambitious lord. Not only did he resist going on the offensive against Huntly during the Bloodfeud, but he sent Sir William Keith of Delny to go to court for him and never really made the effort himself. He barely attended Privy Council, with an attendance record of 5.3%, and he only had a 50% Parliament attendance record, although he was frequently present in Edinburgh to keep an eye on the land market. He also failed to properly maintain the churches within his lands and the minister appointments he made often included his own kinsman or members of the client families. While he had faith, he did not make any attempt to advance the Protestant church at all.

What Keith did focus on was the founding of two towns, Peterhead and Stonehaven, and three harbours (North and South in Peterhead, one in Stonehaven). He saw the success that Sir Alexander Fraser of Philorth was experiencing and subsequently founded Peterhead and Stonehaven between several royal burghs on the east coast of Scotland in order to insert himself into the international maritime trade routes. It was through Peterhead and Stonehaven that he made connections with the markets in Aberdeen and Leith and made a great deal of money.

Prior to the Reformation, Catholic lords were able to found abbeys and other buildings to carry on their name to ensure that they were remembered. Marischal was Protestant, so few options were left to him. He founded Marischal College in 1593 in Aberdeen, even though Aberdeen already had King’s College. King’s College was located in Old Aberdeen, closer to Huntly’s house. The Town Council was located in New Aberdeen, closer to Marischal’s house, and wanted their own college. Thus, Marischal College was founded in New Aberdeen, with the Town Council providing administration and Marischal providing money and acting as a lobbying power with the King.

Miles concluded by saying that while George Keith, the Fourth Earl of Marischal, might have been lazy in some respects, he is a good example of a long-term stable lordship during this period, who usually kept out of trouble, defended himself when necessary, and worked with what he had. Although he did not have a happy home life, did not maintain the churches on his lands, and was not an aggressive fighter, he built up a significant maritime infrastructure that made him very wealthy and led to his heir’s appointment as Commander of the King’s Navy.

His motto was displayed prominently above the main entrance at Marischal College: “They say – what they say? – let them say.”

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD researcher)

Our seminar series continues on 24 November 2015 with Stephen Harrison (Glasgow) discussing ‘The Battle of Clontarf 1014 – Literature, Legend and Landscape’. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30 pm. 

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