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From delusions of greatness to insanity – the sad story of James Hepburn

(c) Scottish Borders Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThere are some fates that remain forever ingrained in your mind, impossible to forget. One such fate is that of the glamorous Earl of Bothwell, Scottish nobleman, husband to the flamboyant Mary Queen of Scots. It seems to me James Hepburn was larger than life from the moment he entered it, and to have all that vibrant energy , all that swaggering maleness reduced to an insane wreck chained to a post feels wrong, somehow.

I’m not saying James Hepburn didn’t have something coming his way – of course he did. Men can’t go about the world, ordering it to fit their purposes, without there being a price to pay. Hang on a minute; quite a few men do, don’t they? And quite a few of those power brokers never end up caged like a beast. But James Hepburn did, and all because his youthful indiscretions finally caught up with him. A woman scorned is indeed a fearful thing, and a Scandinavian woman scorned is something most men prefer never to become acquainted with.

James Hepburn was born in 1534 to Patrick Hepburn and Agnes Sinclair. James’ father deserves a post all of his own what with his exciting life, including such ingredients as switching allegiances between England and Scotland about as often as modern men change their underwear. He was also somewhat of a weather-cock when it came to his marital arrangements, and therefore divorced James’ mother because he wanted to marry well above his own position. (A failed venture)All in all, one can but conclude that Patrick Hepburn, for all that he was known as the “Fair Earl” was not much of a role model.

Early on, James displayed an adventurous streak, something that came in handy when he inherited not only his father’s titles and lands but also his office as Lord High Admiral of Scotland in 1556. James took to the seas, and in 1559 he arrived in Copenhagen, where he met Anna Tronds, a Norwegian noblewoman. Not that he knew it at the time, but the events that followed would ultimately lead to the horrors of his last years.

James handfasted with Anna – a ceremony that carried as much weight as a regular marriage in Denmark, evidenced by the fact that Anna’s family had no objection. But initial infatuation quickly wore off – at least for James – and poor Anna was returned to her family while James set off to navigate the turbulent political waters of Scotland, with the regent Marie de Guise on one side and the Protestant Lords –and the formidable John Knox – on the other. It is interesting to note that James remained loyal to the regent until she was deposed by the Scottish nobility, despite the substantial private loss this caused him.

By now, James had met Mary, Queen of France and Scotland, on a couple of occasions. Upon Mary’s royal husband’s death she returned to Scotland there to become reigning Queen. And in his role as High Admiral, James had a hand in the travelling arrangements. Whether it was love at first sight between those two we will never know. Was it love at all? Some say no, insisting that the Earl forced the Queen into their future marriage – as yet some years in the future. I am prone to believe there was something there; Mary seems to have liked and trusted James, and she was, by all accounts, quite the femme fatale when she wanted to be.(That’ what you get when you raise an attractive young woman in France – especially at the court of Henri II, complete with the king’s magnificent mistress, Diane de Poitiers. But I digress…)

Mary Stuart

There followed a number of tempestuous years. The young Queen had problems ruling this country of hers, a country of which she knew little having spent most of her life in France. While the Queen remained Catholic, her country did not, and in Scotland the reformation was in full bloom, with John Knox as its foremost – and vociferous – representative. Mary was also required to fulfil her duty and present her realm with an heir, which was why she focused considerable attention on the election of a new husband. While the list of potential bridegrooms varied it does not seem to have included James. Instead, for whatever totally insane reasons, Mary decided to marry Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

Now, there is a lot that one can say about lord Darnley, very little of it complementary. (This was the man, after all, who had his wife’s secretary murdered before her eyes) To summarise, the man was a drunken, lecherous sort, already infected with syphilis and – at least in my opinion – with the intellectual agility of a toad. But he was handsome – and tall, which was important to Mary, who in general over-topped most of the women and men that surrounded her.


Anyway, the royal marriage quickly deteriorated from honeymoon joy to daily discord, and I dare say the queen regretted her choice of husband, eyes drawn to the dashing, dangerous and decidedly intelligent James Hepburn. In the summer of 1566, James was seriously wounded during an altercation with a John Elliot. It is said that upon hearing this, the queen galloped madly across the country to be at James’ side, but this is not substantiated. In the absence of a mad ride to be at her wounded man’s side, there is therefore no conclusive proof Mary and James were lovers at the time. Hmm. Is a hell for leather ride absolute proof of an amourous relationship? I think not. However, being an incorrigible romantic, I hope Mary and James were having an affair already in 1566 – if nothing else because their time together would be so short, and the aftermath so very long and trying.

In 1567 Lord Darnley was murdered. Someone had placed kegs of gunpowder under his room and blown Darnley sky-high, but this does not seem to have been the cause of death – rather it was said he’d been strangled. Whatever the case, he was dead and three months later, in May of 1567, the Queen married James Hepburn – the man most people suspected of murdering Darnley – this after an alleged abduction and rape. (Seeing as Mary miscarried twins in July, it’s a safe bet to assume she was already pregnant when this little episode played out.)

The newly-weds time together was to be very short. The queen’s marriage to one of the suspects in her husband’s death tore the kingdom asunder, and after a month of marital bliss (well, assuming there is some bliss to be found when the country takes up arms against you) the loving couple separated on the battlefield. One last embrace, one long lingering kiss and James Hepburn took off, promising his wife and queen that he’d be back soon – with reinforcements.

He never came back. James was, one could say, detained. An alternative description would be to say his history caught up with him. It began with a storm that blew his ships off course. James’ intended destination was Denmark, but instead he ended up in Bergen, and who might be sitting in Bergen, still nursing a broken heart? Anna Tronds, of course, and in Bergen she had the upper hand, being related to the powers that were. James was thrown in prison while Anna’s case was heard, but after some wheeling and dealing he got himself out of that mess.

Fredrik II of Denmark

Just as he was about to be released from imprisonment in Bergen, the Danish king, Fredrik II ordered him to be taken prisoner – again. James must have protested, he must have yelled and demanded his rights, but to no avail. Fredrik wanted to make an impression on Elizabeth of England, and what better gift could he offer than the potential murderer of Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Darnley?

In the event, Elizabeth showed no interest. But Fredrik held out hope – or maybe he took a dislike to his prisoner and decided to hold on to him, indefinitely. James Hepburn spent five long years in confinement in Malmö, years spent trying to get someone to take an interest in his plight and help him regain his freedom. His wife was not in a position to aid him – she was imprisoned in England.
The last five years of his life, James Hepburn spent in horrible conditions in Dragsholms Castle in Denmark. It is said James lost his mind in there, shackled like an animal in a miniscule cell. It is also said his soul prowls the castle to this day, as restless in death as he seems to have been in life.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Supposedly a depiction of the Earl’s mummified head

James Hepburn was 44 when he died. It seems to me he paid a very high price for what little joy he found in his life. Was he a self-seeking cad who left jilted women along the way while he set off in pursuit of the next? Maybe. But he was also a loyal subject to the regent and his queen,he was brave and determined, and seems to have cared for his royal wife.

Mary Stuart was also 44 when she died, executed for her purported participation in the Babington plot. By then, she had spent almost half her life as Elizabeth’s prisoner, the last nine of them as a widow who would weep upon hearing her husband’s name.

Leucojum vernumTwo larger than life personalities, two tragic ends. Did James, in a rare moment of lucidity, cry out for her as he died? Did she think of him as she placed her head on the block? We don’t know. We never will.

As a rather sad codicil to all this, the Earl was to suffer the further humiliation of having his bodily remains put on show in a remote little church in Denmark. Of course, at the time, James was well beyond caring.

20 thoughts on “From delusions of greatness to insanity – the sad story of James Hepburn”

  1. We could have done without that head, Anna, but oh well. 😉

    Thanks for the true tale. It is like a refresher after Linda Root’s amazing series on whatever became of Lord Darnley, with some interesting additions. I remembered that Hepburn died a prisoner, but had forgotten that he went insane… though who wouldn’t in such a mess?

  2. Interesting, but am I crazy or did his name change from James Hepburn to James Herbert mid-article????

  3. Gosh. Quite a lot of events to squeeze into one life. Did you lapse from a Hepburn to a Herbert?
    When I was reading this I remembered that when I was a student, one of the residences at St Andrews, Scotland, was ‘Hepburn Hall’, and an area close to where I live is called Darnley. Any connection, I wonder, or are these simply Scottish names… ho hum…
    Humans do have a way of complicating their lives, don’t they?!

    1. I don’t know what happened when Hepburn went Herbert – now corrected. As to complicated lives, I think James had the misfortune of having youthful indiscretions catch up w him and gobble him down.

  4. Truth is stranger than fiction and this story is a great example of that. I felt like I was reading a ‘mini novel’ about their lives. Great work, Anna! 😀

  5. Interesting that you use the word glamorous to describe Bothwell, Anna. did you have in mind the original Gaelic meaning of glamour, ie magic? bewitching? It was often said that he used the ‘Black arts’ to bewitch Mary! And like you I do think she fancied him! Great post!

  6. Mary was a thorough lover of men. She just plain liked them. I wonder who exactly did murder Darnley. Was it Hepburn? Argyll??? Darnley was so unpopular with everyone. But, if you’re a queen, you shouldn’t run off with one of the probably murderers of your husband. Plus, involving yourself in Scotland’s dreadful court was not the smartest move. Even being King would have been disappointing: after a great deal of effort, you would rule a poverty stricken country, with poor climate and a capital sitting on a rock. Not nice.

  7. Such a sad ending. I always thought he was Mary’s champion and, if the Scottish Lords would have accepted him, would have made her a good Queen’s Consort. Mary was impulsive and gave her heart freely and I always felt that James Bothwell would have settled her down so she could rule Scotland the way it should have been ruled. Alas it was not to be. 🙁 On another note: When I think of as Mary, Queen of Scots, I always see Vanessa Redgrave and when I think of Bothwell I always think of Nigel Davenport. 🙂 Just like Katherine Hepburn will always be Eleanor of Acquitaine and Peter O’Toole will always be Henry II so too will Vanessa and Nigel be Mary and Bothwell. 🙂

    1. I agree re Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, but I have my own very personal vision of James Hepburn. (And isn’t that coincidential; two Hepburns in the same sentence…) Thank you for stopping by!

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