the Tragic Execution of Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis
Excerpt from the book
EDINBURGH, The Exchequer 17 July 1537 – The Justice General, Earl Argyll looked up from the bench at the Court of Justice and watched as his aunt, the beautiful and loving wife of his uncle, Archibald of Skipness was being brought to the bar. Janet dared not to look directly at her nephew as they both knew they might break down in a most undignified manner. The Justice Clerk was instructed to read from the Articles the charges of treason, imagining to poison the King and for assisting Douglas rebels in their escape.
Silently, Archibald of Skipness had come to stand behind his wife, touching her back lightly to let her know that he was there for her. The next hour became a living torture for the Campbell laird; the testimony of two accusers, provided in letters of the Privy Council, required the Justice Clerk to present the evidence by reading it out loud. Just as Janet and Archie had been told by their nephew, William Lyon had provided testimony in confidence to the King.
Lyon’s words were stinging and severe. The letters bearing his dramatic accusations began with allegations of misconduct against Lady Glamis that dated to 1524, as he referred to the statements Lord Glamis had made in the village the day his daughter Margaret was born. Janet winced to hear William Lyon’s description of the birth ‘of a monster at Glamis’. The Lyon cousin then carefully presented his case against Lady Glamis for treachery, adultery, and witchcraft using her husband’s own words, the attacking, angry slurs John Lyon uttered in front of his household when he was informed of Margaret Lyon’s deformities.
Then William Lyon made witness to another charge, for Lady Glamis having provided shelter at Glamis Castle to Charteris and others, vassals in service to her brother Archibald Earl of Angus eight days before June 1528.
After providing details of Janet’s resetting of rebels the Lyon witness then used the words of others to prove that John Lyon, Lady Glamis’ priest was coming to the castle while she was still put to the horn to secure poisons from an herbalist named Makke in 1529.
With each accusation made by William Lyon, she felt as if the weight of the world was crashing down upon her. Her stomach ached and her breathing was labored; her chest had tightened for her anxiety. Archie reached to touch her shoulders again, trying to give her his quiet assurance.
The second witness testimony emanated from a frightening source; John Lyon, her oldest son and heir to Lord Glamis. He officially brought claims against his mother for purchasing poison for the purpose of murdering the King. Janet gasped and had to try very hard not to lose the contents of her stomach. Her guilt overwhelmed her; she grabbed the railing in front of her as she was feeling lightheaded.
“Dear God, that I am so accused by the flesh of my own body,” Janet whispered to her husband. They had known that John Lyon had admitted to crimes to avoid torture but to volunteer false information, lies about his mother to spare his sentence of execution was not only unthinkable but also heartbreaking to the mother. Earl Argyll had warned them what might be said, but it was still excruciating to hear the bold lies presented in the testimony of her son Lord Glamis.
“Pray end this charade most quickly,” Archie whispered. He wanted with all his being to comfort Janet but he was forbidden to come closer; all he could do was lean forward and reach out from behind his wife.
“Lady Glamis, Janet Douglas (Campbell),” the Justice Clerk said. “You are now allowed to speak in your defense.” Janet took a deep breath as she tried with all her might to compose herself. She looked down at her left hand and began twisting the ring that Archie had given her nine years before; the memories of that glorious day on Kilbrannan Sound flooded in, steeling her resolve.
(The following words are quoted directly from CRIMINAL TRIALS IN SCOTLAND compiled by Robert Pitcairn, words attributed to Janet Douglas 17 July 1537 at the bar; punctuation and spelling are derived of that publication.)
“Those that hate my brother are enraged because he is not in their power, that he might fall a sacrifice to their malice; and they now discharge their spite upon me, because of my near relation to him; and to gratify their revenge with my blood, they accuse me of crimes which, were they true, deserv’d the severest death. But since it is only the prerogative of God to punish men or women for the faults of others, which belongs to no judge on earth, who are oblig’d to punish every one according to their personal crimes, you ought not to punish in me the actions of my brother, how blamable forever. Above all, you ought to consider if those things I am accus’d of have the least appearance of truth; for what gives the greatest evidence either of the guilt or innocence of an impeach’d person is their former life. What fault could any hitherto lay to my charge? Did any ever reproach me with any thing that is scandalous? Examine into my former conversation; for vice hath its degrees as well as virtue, nor none can attain to a perfection in either, except by long practice; and if you can find nothing reprovable in my conduct, how can ye believe that I am arriv’d all of a sudden to contrive the Murder which is the very height and perfection of impiety? I protest I would not deliberately injure the most despicable wretch alive. Could I then make the Murder of my Sovereign who I always reverence’d and who never did me wrong, the first essay of my wickedness? None are capable of such damnable and unnatural actions, except such as are in desperate circumstances, or such as are hurried into Plots by reward or revenge. My birth, and condition of life, puts me beyond suspicion of the first of this kind; and for the latter, since I was never injur’d by the King, how can I be suspected to thirst for revenge?
I am here accus’d for purposing to kill the King; and to make my pretended crime appear more frightful, it is given out that the way was to be by poison. With what strange impudence can any accuse me of such wickedness who never saw any poison, nor know I any thing about the preparation of it? Let them tell where I bought it or who procure’d it for me? Or though I had it, how could I use it, since I never come near the King’s person, his table nor Palace? It is well known, that since my last marriage with this unfortunate gentleman, I have liv’d in the country, at a great distance from the Court. What opportunity could I have to poison the King?
You may see by those circumstances, which give great light in such matters, that I am entirely innocent of those crimes I am charg’d with. It is the office of you Judges to protect injur’d innocence; But if the malice and power of my enemies be such that, whether guilty or innocent, I must needs be condemn’d, I shall die cheerfully, having the testimony of a good conscience; and assure yourselves, you shall find it more easy to take away my life than to blast my reputation, or to fix any real blot upon my memory.
This is my last desire of you, that I may be the sole object of your severity, and that those other innocent persons may not share in my misfortunes. Seeing my chief crime is that I am descended of the Family of Dowglass*, there is no reason that they should be involv’d in my ruin; for my husband, son, and cousin are neither of them of that Name or Family. I shall end my life with more comfort if you absolve them; for the more of us that suffer of your unjust Sentence the greater will be your guilt, and the more terrible your condemnation, when you shall be tried at the great day the Almighty God, who is the impartial Judge of all faith.”
Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis was sentenced to be burned; executed that same day 17 July 1537.
Tantallon - Douglas stronghold and birthplace of Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis
Douglas Castle, Douglas Lanarkshire; the family seat of the Douglas Clan since 13th century; now in ruin with only a tower remaining
Drummond Castle and gardens today, birthplace of Elizabeth, mother of Janet Douglas Lady Glamis
Skipness Castle; Archibald Campbell was Keeper of Skipness when he married Janet Douglas, widow of Lord Glamis
Edinburgh Castle, site of the Execution of Lady Glamis, Janet Douglas on orders of James V