John, 5th Lord Fleming

Amy Eberlin
Friday 12 December 2014

In this, the second of Charles Rigg’s postings, he examines the relationship between John, 5thlord Fleming, and Mary Queen of Scots. Taking the two postings together it is clear that the Fleming family was very close to Mary and that it remained that way throughout the queen’s turbulent reign.



When James, fourth lord Fleming, died in France in 1558, he left behind a wife, Barbara, the eldest daughter of the powerful Duke of Chatelherault, head of the House of Hamilton, and a young daughter. His younger brother, John, fifth lord Fleming, succeeded to the title, and quickly established himself as part of an inner circle at court that included his brother-in-law, the sixth lord Livingston, and the fifth lord Seton.[i] All three were brothers to one of the queen’s Four Maries, and this partly may explain why these lords rose to prominence.

John, lord Fleming and Mary’s Personal Rule: 1561-7

It did not take lord Fleming long to establish a close relationship with his cousin queen following her return to Scotland in August 1561. Not only had she visited him at his Cumbernauld home but also organized his wedding feast at Holyrood which took place the following May when he married Elizabeth Ross.

As part of the queen’s inner circle he was frequently at Holyrood palace where, as one historian highlighted, its architectural layout ‘enabled monarchs to withdraw to the remoteness of their private apartments and render them inaccessible if they wished’.[ii] In the case of Mary, this is what happened: the largely Protestant council met on the ground floor while the queen more often preferred not to attend. She opted to spend her time with ‘those close to her in her household and at court, like lord Seton and the Flemings, who were never members of the council, and Bothwell, who was, but only attended rarely’.[iii]

Despite this, in a letter to Cecil dated June 3, 1565, Randolph expressed surprise that Fleming had sided with the queen in support of her intended marriage to Darnley.[iv] The wedding took place at the end of July and was followed by the earl of Moray’s abortive rebellion against the queen. In what became known as the Chaseabout Raid, so called because no pitched battle took place, Fleming nailed his colours firmly to the queen’s side by joining his brothers-in-law, Atholl and Livingston, as three of the eleven lords on her side.

His conspicuous support for the queen almost cost him his life in March 1566 when he found himself at Holyrood on the night of the Rizzio murder. He, like Atholl and Livingston, left unceremoniously out of a rear window in fear of their lives as they believed the conspirators also sought them out as being the queen’s staunchest supporters. Following Mary and Darnley’s own escape from the palace, Fleming, with Bothwell, Huntly, Seton and Livingston, joined up with them and safely escorted the royal couple to Dunbar.

By this time, Fleming had begun to detest Darnley both in his behaviour towards the queen and to himself. On one occasion, Darnley requested that Fleming, along with lords Livingston and Lindsay, join him in going to mass. Darnley took their refusal badly and ‘gave them all evil words’, threatening to confine them to their chambers before forcibly making them attend.[v] On another occasion, when Fleming found himself in the company of Darnley on the Isle of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, the English diplomat Drury reported that he witnessed Darnley doing something so disgusting that he could not bring himself to describe it.[vi]

Fleming was also aware of Darnley’s part in the Rizzio affair and would have witnessed first-hand the tension between the queen and her husband as they made their escape from Holyrood. It was also recorded that some of the lords who supported Mary no longer spoke with Darnley, while others ‘especially Lord Fleming’ were openly critical of his behaviour towards the queen.[vii]

Despite his open contempt for Darnley, Fleming was not involved in his murder at Kirk o’Field in 1567. However, he appeared to support Mary’s fateful decision to marry his cousin Bothwell (left). Fleming’s name appeared on a list of those who signed the Ainslie Tavern bond showing support for Bothwell’s plan to marry the queen.[viii] He was also a witness to the signing of the marriage contract and then attended the wedding along with a small handful of nobility, including his brothers-in-law Maitland and Livingston.


The marriage was not popular amongst the Scottish nobility and Scottish people but Fleming continued to remain loyal to the queen. His non-appearance at her side at Carberry Hill has not been fully explained but a letter from Hamilton to him on the preceding day and his subsequent actions are clear indications where his loyalties remained.[ix] Following Carberry, when the queen decided to hand herself over to the mercy of the nobles who confronted her, Fleming and Seton met briefly with Bothwell on his escape north and then abandoned him to make his escape.

In support of the imprisoned queen: 1567-72

Fleming was one of the queen’s supporters who signed a bond calling for her release from Loch Leven castle a fortnight after Carberry Hill. It was not successful and a defiant Fleming refused to attend the coronation of James VI and the December parliament. He returned to Dumbarton castle where he had been governor since 1565 and it was here he was ensconced when Mary made her dramatic escape from Loch Leven.

Fleming left Dumbarton to be at Mary’s side at Langside where they observed the humiliating defeat of her army. It was then left to Fleming, Livingston and Herries, to accompany Mary on her three-day journey south to Solway. Once the party reached England, Fleming was entrusted with the mission to seek military assistance from France. This task he was unable to fulfil as he was intercepted in London by Cecil and prevented by Elizabeth from carrying it out.

Fleming then appeared in York as one of Mary’s commissioners at her first trial. Afterwards, he returned to Scotland to find that his lands had been forfeited on the instructions of the regent Moray and the Scottish parliament. Undaunted, he headed for Dumbarton where he resisted all attempts to surrender the castle to Moray.

The death of Moray brought Fleming no respite: his tenants in Biggar, Thankerton and Glenholm were forced to pay large sums of money and, in Cumbernauld, the deer were destroyed to create hardship for his people. Eventually, in 1571, Dumbarton was taken but Fleming was able to escape and head for France. There he was able to organise some military support for Mary but the ships were wrecked off the coast of England.

However, he did manage to get back to Scotland and Edinburgh castle, the remaining stronghold with allegiance to the deposed queen. It was here that Fleming was fatally wounded in rather bizarre circumstances on 5 July 1572. An accidental shot from a French soldier ricocheted into his knee; he remained in the castle until he was taken by litter to Boghall castle in Biggar where he died on 6 September.


What made John, 5th lord Fleming, stand out from all the other Marian lords, was his unwavering support for the queen. He supported Mary’s marriage to Darnley; joined her forces in the Chaseabout Raid; escorted her to Dunbar after the Rizzio murder; signed the Ainslie Bond, the Mary-Bothwell marriage contract and attended the wedding. Fleming then escorted Bothwell north after Carberry; signed the bonds for Mary’s release from Loch Leven; stood by the queen’s side at Langside; accompanied her on her flight to England; sought foreign aid to restore her position in Scotland; attended Mary’s first trial as one of her commissioners; refused to surrender Dumbarton Castle; and died from a wound sustained while still giving service to the queen’s failing cause in 1572. He certainly deserves to be ranked as one of ‘Mary’s most faithful friends’.[x]

What is less easy to establish is why he was so driven in this support for Mary. Perhaps, as one historian has suggested, Fleming retained Catholic sympathies and supported the queen for religious reasons.[xi] If that was the case, it raises questions as to why he resisted the queen’s request to take mass in February, 1656.[xii] This response from Fleming suggests that no matter how lukewarm he might have been in his allegiance to the reformed church he had no desire to see Scotland abandon it and we must look beyond religious reasons to understand his unwavering support over 20 years for the queen.

Another suggestion has been that Fleming was motivated by reward and personal ambition. Certainly he received various gifts from the queen, normally addressed to ‘her devoted and loyal cousin’. These ranged from twenty chadders of oatmeal to a third of the rents of Whithorn Priory.[xiii] He was also appointed to the almost hereditary position of Lord Chamberlain at the end of June 1561 and then, in 1565, to that of governor of Dumbarton castle. Fleming recognised, that in the context of the Marian civil war, Dumbarton castle gave him the fetters of the kingdom in his hand, a claim based on accessibility to French overseas supplies and domination of the Clyde.[xiv] But this, and an unusually generous pension, must have fallen short of any expectations of receiving an earldom as was reported to have been the queen’s intention in the summer of 1565.[xv] Perhaps the rapidity of the events which followed the queen’s marriage to Darnley overtook her; but it did not diminish Fleming’s support.

The key to understanding Fleming’s allegiance stems from kinship and marriage connections. Close family links were established from the very beginning of the queen’s life when her aunt and John Fleming’s mother, Lady Janet Fleming, became her governess. That family connection was further cemented through two of his sisters: Mary, as one of the Four Maries, and Margaret, as one of her principal ladies-in-waiting. A third sister, Agnes, married lord Livingston, brother to another of the Four Maries, and this brought together the queen, the Flemings and the Livingstons.[xvi] The queen placed considerable weight on these family ties and when she wrote to Elizabeth in 1568, she proudly referred to John as ‘my cousin Lord Flemying a faithful subject’. Fleming’s actions on her behalf during the civil war would suggest that he too valued that family connection.

Charles Rigg

December 2014

Charles Rigg, the author of this blog posting, is a Trustee of Biggar Museums. At present the Trust is involved in a £2million project to relocate two museums to a new purpose built site in July 2015. One of the centerpieces of the museum is the story of the Flemings and Mary Queen of Scots.


[i] Keith Brown, Noble Power In Scotland From the Reformation to the Revolution (2011), p. 182

[ii] Jenny Wormald, Mary Queen of Scots: Politics, Passion and a Kingdom Lost (2001), pp. 120-121

[iii] Ibid, p. 120

[iv] Caroline Bingham, Darnley: A Life of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots (1995), p. 102

[v] Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1973), p. 273

[vi] Alison Weir, Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of Lord Darnley (2008), p. 100

[vii] Roderick Graham, An Accidental Tragedy:The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (2008), p. 210

[viii] Alison Weir, pp. 344-345

[ix] Arnold Fleming, Flemish Influence in Britain (1930), p. 210; Antonia Fraser, p. 363

[x] Gordon Donaldson, All the Queen’s Men (1983), p. 59

[xi] Julian Goodare ‘Queen Mary’s Catholic Interlude’, in Michael Lynch, ed., Mary Stewart: Queen in Three Kingdoms (1988), p. 164

[xii] Gordon Donaldson,  p. 78; n.17, CSP, ii,335

[xiii] Arnold Fleming, pp. 184 &192-3

[xiv] Jane E.A. Dawson, Scotland Re-formed, 1488-1587 ( 2007), p. 275

[xv] Gordon Donaldson, p. 74

[xvi] Gordon Donaldson, p. 59

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