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The matter of an infected Scottish marriage and its consequences


I wrote this post several years ago, but it remains a favourite of mine, mainly because the idea of mary Queen of Scots and John Knox working together as marriage counsellors is so…wow? Impossible? So, I give you Mary and John and their efforts to save a failing marriage!

These days, we tend to have a romanticised view of marriage. It is white dresses and orange blossoms, it is love shining out of teary eyes and promises to love and to hold until death do us part. Today, most of us assume people marry for love. Okay, so there are different types of love – some people seem to marry out of love for their intended’s money rather than the intended’s qualities as a person, but in general the presumption is that first we hold hands, then we kiss, then we fall irrevocably in love and get married.

Marrying for love has its downsides. Like people falling out of love – or falling in love with someone else. In historic times, people married for various reasons, but rarely was one of those reasons love. After all, it is difficult to love someone you’ve never met, as in those arranged marriages that were the norm during medieval times (at least if you had land or wealth). I suppose this means that people married with very different expectations from the ones we have today, when we view all that marriage stuff through rose-tinted glasses and sigh at the happily ever after.

Historic couples got married to safeguard their respective families’ wealth and position – and to make heirs. Once that was concluded, the married couple could either rub along happily, or choose to spend as little time as possible together. No one really cared, as long as appearances were upheld when required. This was a pragmatic solution to marriages that were destined to last your entire life – after all, divorce was rarely an option.

In actual fact, divorce was more common than we tend to think. Mostly on the grounds of consanguinity, a sort of “oh dear, I forgot to get a dispensation on account of us being second cousins, and as I utterly hate your guts and you haven’t given me any sons, I’m going to divorce you”. Sometimes, divorce was granted due to lack of consent – although I imagine it was a bit difficult to come back six year after the fact and say that you’d never agreed to the marriage to begin with – or due to the discovery of a pre-contract. i.e. a promise to marry someone else.

However, all in all, divorce before the 20th century was rare. Very rare.  So, most married couples did, in fact, live together until parted by death – quite often through the wife’s death in childbirth.

Knox,_JohnIn England, acquiring a divorce remained a messy thing well into the 20th century. The accepted grounds for divorce were essentially adultery, but further to that, a spouse had to prove cruelty and abuse of some kind or another to be free of the philandering partner. In Scotland, however, things had been much, much easier since back in the 16th century. Personally, I think John Knox deserves a pat on the back for this – but then I am quite ambivalent to this fascinating man, on the one hand vilifying female rulers in his famous “First Blast of the Trumpet”, on the other a man who clearly enjoyed the company of women – and respected them.

So what did Scotland do back in the 16th century? Well, they decided to allow divorce, that’s what those savvy Scots did. Furthermore, the issue of divorce was transferred out of the ecclesiastic courts to be handled by lawmen rather than priests – which makes a lot of sense when one considers that most marriages at the time were contractual arrangements that involved property moving hands. (This is not to say the powerful Scottish Kirk did not keep a beady eye on proceedings – it most certainly did!) However, divorce was still a last remedy, and was essentially only granted for two reasons, one of which was adultery.

These Scots were progressive types, very much into gender equality (well…) How else to explain their decision that both men and women could demand a divorce on account of adultery – quite unheard of in a world where a man’s indiscretions were just that – indiscretions – while a woman’s adventures with another man than her husband were a sin, a grievous, grievous sin, very much in keeping with women’s general lack of morality and propensity for uncontrolled lust.

Interestingly enough, no law was ever passed confirming the right to divorce due to adultery. Instead, it was assumed that the prohibition against divorce on account of adultery went out of the window together with the allegiance to the Pope, and a decade or so later, divorce due to adultery was an established common law practice.

Had the Scots left it at that – divorce on account of adultery – that would have been an improvement, but maybe not a major improvement. However, due to the antics of two people with that intoxicating combination of money and clout, Scottish divorce legislation came to recognise another reason for divorce, namely desertion by either party. This had the benefit of being much easier to arrange – and prove – plus it did not tar one of the parties as being an unfaithful git. But let me introduce you to the main protagonists in all this, namely the Earl of Argyll – Archibald Campbell – and Lady Jean Stewart, one of James V’s many by-blows.

James V

Little Jean might have been born out of wedlock, but her royal father was well-practiced in handling such sensitive issues and in general took good care of his offspring. On her mother’s side, she was related to the Beatons – a powerful family which counts among its more (in)famous members Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews who instigated the trial and execution by burning of religious reformer George Wishart, and who some time afterwards was assassinated by William Kirkcaldy and a couple of aggravated Leslies. Beaton’s body was hanged from the window of his castle for everyone to see, and in many ways his handling of Wishart was the fuel that led to the roaring bonfire that was the Scottish reformation.

Enough about David Beaton (a man who deserves his own post, what with his relaxed attitude to celibacy, his constant focus on Number One – this being Davie, not Our Lord – and his strong Catholic and political convictions). Suffice it to say that little Jean was of good lineage on both sides, no matter what side of the blanket she was born on.

Archibald might not be a royal bastard, but his family was wealthy and among the most powerful in Scotland. Very early on, our Archie became an ardent Protestant. During the long regency that followed James V’s death, he, together with James Stewart – yet another of James V’s bastards, later to be Earl of Moray – became a vociferous opponent to Marie de Guise and her pro-French policies, fearing that the little Queen’s mother had every intention of keeping Scotland a loyal member of the Holy Roman Church. Probably a correct assumption, but Argyll’s decision to seek help and support from the English did not endear him overmuch to his countrymen.

Marie de Guise

Jean was fond of Marie de Guise. The Queen Mother treated her husband’s bastards with kindness, and she was very protective of Jean, the young queen’s only sister. Jean was raised at court and became one of Marie’s most trusted maids, living in close familiarity with the beleaguered regent.

Archie and Jean were married in 1553. Maybe they disliked each other on sight. Maybe their differing opinions on matter religious drove an immediate wedge between the young spouses, at the time still in their teens. Whatever the case, the marriage quickly deteriorated, with Archie living openly with various mistresses, fathering a number of illegitimate children while Jean remained childless. Things did not improve when ardent Archie became a prominent member of the Lords of Congregation, the Protestant faction that led the rebellion that resulted in the Scottish reformation in 1560. Jean couldn’t forgive her husband for siding against her beloved Marie de Guise.

Jean decided to get her own back by taking a lover. The Campbell clan roared in anger at this dishonour to their chief, and Jean was effectively held prisoner. Through the efforts of her – and Archie’s – extended family, the couple achieved some sort of reconciliation in 1561, very much at the hands of John Knox, who seems to have had quite the vested interest in this couple’s marriage.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France in 1561, and Jean quickly became a favoured lady-in-waiting, while her husband was one of the Queen’s chief political advisors. This didn’t help the marriage. Things went from bad to worse, one could say, with Jean complaining to the Queen, who was quite torn between her loyalties to her sister, and her dependency on Argyll to maintain peace in her realm.

(c) Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Mary and Knox as per W Powell Firth

In 1563 the Queen decided to rope in some help in attempting to heal the breach between Archie and Jean. She contacted John Knox. Picture this scene for a moment: The devout Catholic queen turns to her foremost adversary when it comes to matters of faith and asks for a tete-a-tete. In a low, concerned voice, she expresses that something must be done to save the fragile thing that is Jean’s marriage. John Knox agreed, and in 1563, the Queen and the Reformer had a number of sessions with Jean and Archie. Ultimately, it didn’t help – but it was nice that they tried!

Archie was becoming desperate. He needed an heir, and whether it was because Jean refused him access to her bed (in itself a mean feat in the 16th century) or because she was barren, so far there had been no reconciling patter of little feet. Plus, the two spouses obviously hated each other’s guts. So Archie offered Jean a settlement if she would agree to a divorce on the grounds of adultery, with him taking the blame. She refused – as the so called injured party she could.

The Queen was deposed, the realm was in upheaval, and in all this chaos Jean took the opportunity of fleeing for ever from her husband’s tender care. In 1567 she ran away, and the couple’s very public separation forced the Scottish Kirk to attempt to deal with it. Archie needed a full divorce, not a separation. He wanted to be free to wed again and beget children. Jean had no intention of making anything easy for him, and so the Kirk’s leaders – such as John Knox – sucked in their lips and mulled this little conundrum over.

In 1573, the Earl of Argyll succeeded in having the Scottish Parliament pass an Act that allowed divorce on the grounds of desertion. This time, when he pushed Jean for a divorce, she didn’t protest. Her own position was far too shaky at present, with her royal sister imprisoned and her brother, the powerful Earl of Moray, busy with other matters. And so, in August of 1573, Archibald Campbell became a free man again, hastening to re-marry. Unfortunately for him, six weeks later he was dead… Unfortunately for his hapless widow, Jean decided the time was ripe to protest the divorce, insisting she had been forced to agree.

After years of squabbles, a final settlement was made four years later. Jean retained the title of Countess of Argyll (very important to her, apparently), received a generous lump sum and retired to live out the rest of her life at her Canongate residence in Edinburgh. I’m thinking she laughed all the way to the bank, our Jean – or maybe she didn’t. Maybe now and then she felt genuine regret for what could have been a marriage and never rose above a constant bloody strife.

The legal outcome of all this was that in 1573, Scotland implemented an Act that allowed for spouses to be divorced, assuming they could prove desertion by the other. Suddenly, all those unhappy marriages had a “get out of jail” card. Not a bad thing, all in all, even if divorce continued to be rare in the following centuries. A failed marriage was a stigma – especially for the woman, who, as we all know, probably was to blame for its failure to begin with. After all, either she was a nag, or she was barren or, worst of all, she was a lewd and immoral creature, far too tempted by carnal sin!

7 thoughts on “The matter of an infected Scottish marriage and its consequences”

  1. Sophia Alexander

    You’re such a good writer, Anna. I was clueless about Mary’s half-sister, Jean Stewart! I very much enjoyed reading this…but in what way did John Knox respect women? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone claim that, though I may have closed my ears, going, “La-la-la!” when they did. Really, though, there are many (too many) extremely-misogynistic men who still enjoy the company of women…

    1. Thank you for leaving such a positive comment – made my day. I think Knox was more multi-layered than an onion, and there were women he seems to have respected. I would suggest you visit and check out her excellent books about Knox. I am no Knox fan – I am no fan of Calvin either, both of whom I feel had a very narrow take on what life was about (although Calvin did, on occasion, wax poetical about things like green grass and dog’s noses) . But I do believe there is more to Knox than his vociferous denigration of women in power…

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