JAMES I (1566-1625). King of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Letter Signed as James VI of Scotland ('James R' at the foot) to [George Keith, fourth] Earl Marischal, 1 page folio, Holyroodhouse, 28 December 1599. Remains of red wax seal with some slight seal-tears in the margins (a few words nibbled) but in good condition, address panel and endorsement on the reverse.
Exemplifying the king's historical struggle to control the Scottish nobility as well as the need for money, given his notorious extravagance, and written at a period of change which was to result in a rather different aspect to Scottish politics by the time that he ascended the English (and Irish) throne in 1603. With a complete transcript.
King James VI of Scotland was notoriously bad with money and by 1599 almost all efforts to control his spending had failed completely, from the efforts of his Chancellor John Maitland of Thirestane who died in 1595 to the later efforts of his finance committee the Octavians, who were forced to disband in 1597. This letter is remarkable in expressing the severity of the problem, requiring a special convention to attempt to find a solution, but also what James saw as the cause of his financial troubles, namely his 'over great liberality'. The letter is also remarkable in expressing James aversion to the use of higher taxation to meet this end. It is perhaps unsurprising that James would turn to his nobility and specifically George Keith, 4th Earl Marischal, who was the richest Earl in Scotland, enjoying vast and scattered landed estates stretching from Lothian to Caithness. This was perhaps reflected in James' nickname for Marischal: 'my little fat pork'. James's money problems would only be sorted out when he ascended to the English throne and had access to much more abundant resources.
Money was a difficult matter between King James and the Earl Marischal, who otherwise had a very good relationship. Marischal had gone to Denmark to act as ambassador for James in the settling of the marriage between the royal houses of Scotland and Denmark, but the payment of his expenses became an issue. Officially Marischal was granted the substantial revenues of the Abbey of Deer in 1587 in payment for the office; however as Marischal already enjoyed those revenues through his uncle Robert Keith the Commendator, this was not seen as payment at all, but rather simply a confirmation of the status quo. Although Marischal did not push his case too strongly, it was a matter that stayed with the family; not long after Marischal's death the family genealogical papers recorded 'This affair, though it brought him good honour, yet it made a vast diminution in his opulent fortune, his charges having been very great, and to this day remaining a debt on the crown'.
However the letter does show a familiarity between King James and Marischal and it is evident that James valued Marischal's advice and guidance, and that the two were on good terms. This is one of a substantial number of letters from James to Marischal which are now largely in private collections.
Marischal is largely remembered for his foundation of the second university in Aberdeen, Marischal College, the town of Peterhead and for his remodelling of the famous castle of Dunnottar. He was a remarkably cultured man, commissioning a translation of the works of Hesiod and himself writing works of history. He was in correspondence with various continental philosophers and scholars as well as the Kings of Denmark and Poland. Marischal led a relatively mild life in politics, being a faithful and loyal royal servant, although at various times falling into feud with the Earl of Huntly and Chancellor Maitland. After 1603 and James' removal to England, Marischal more or less retired to his vast estates. He had two difficult marriages; his first wife Margaret Home at one time took control of Dunnottar, which Marischal was forced to besiege, his second wife, Margaret Ogilvy stole many of Marischal's belongings while he was on his deathbed and ran away with her lover and Marischal's younger son. He died in 1623, aged about seventy and was succeed by his eldest son from his first marriage William Keith.
We are indebted to Miles Kerr-Peterson for his assistance in transcribing and cataloguing this letter.
The image links to a larger or more detailed version.