Inside the assassination of the Earl of Moray that made history

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On January 23, 1570, the 1st Earl of Moray James Stewart was riding his steed through the West Lothian town of Linlithgow, Scotland. Suddenly, a gunshot was heard, wounding him just below the navel. Although the illegitimate royal walked away, the damage was done and he died later that night. The 38-year-old’s assassination has now gone down in history as the first of its kind.

Moray was the illegitimate son of King James V and Lady Margaret Douglas, making his half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots, who took to the throne in 1542. 

In spite of her Roman Catholicism, he supported her, and two years into her reign, he became one of her chief advisors. She later made him Earl of Moray and Earl of Mar, although the latter was quickly withdrawn the following year. 

But, in supporting the Calvinist reformer John Knox — with whom Mary famously did not see eye-to-eye — and opposing her marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, in 1565, Moray fell out of her favour. 

Moray then personally led the rebellion against Mary later that year, where the rebels were acting against her marriage as well as issues such as governance and religion.

The “Chaseabout Raid” as it was known due to the Government and the rebels continuously going back and forth in Scotland, was successfully won by Mary along with the Earl of Argyll and Clan Hamilton.

Following her abdication two years later, Moray became the Regent of Scotland for his Protestant nephew, James VI.

However, Mary’s abdication was not well received by all. In 1568, the Battle of Langside took place which saw those loyal to Mary — including Sir James Hamilton — and those supporting her Protestant son come head-to-head. According to biographer Antonia Fraser, it was a “colossal defeat” for Mary. 

Although largely a popular Regent, Moray took umbrage against those who had supported Mary which he made quite plain, particularly to Clan Hamilton.

A year after the Battle of Langside, Moray ordered for the Rutherglen castle to be burned to the ground. This act might have brought him retribution against James Hamilton, but it simultaneously sealed his fate. 

Towards the end of that year, in 1569, Hamilton began to stalk Moray, following his every move from England to Scotland, waiting for the moment to strike. He tracked the Regent from northern England all the way to Stirling, in Scotland, before he finally had his moment at Linlithgow.

Hamilton hid below a gallery window in the Archbishop of St Andrews’ residence — the Archbishop himself being a member of Clan Hamilton. He then got into position, firearm in hand. 

Moray then galloped past, on his way to Edinburgh, when Hamilton fired a single shot with an Italian matchlock hunting carbine, successfully puncturing Moray in the stomach.

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Mission accomplished at last, Hamilton then fled on the “fast horse he had waiting”, managing to outrun Moray’s bodyguards. 

Although he eventually made it to safety in France, living in exile until his death in 1581, Clan Hamilton faced the consequences. Several were arrested and executed for allegedly playing a part in the assassination. 

At the time of his death, Moray was still the Regent and therefore a Government principal. Thus, he was the first anywhere to have been assassinated with a firearm.  

Knox preached at Moray’s funeral with the Regent then buried in St Giles Cathedral. A plaque, erected in 1897, was dedicated to Moray and is situated on the street opposite where he was assassinated.

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