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- Published on Amazon.com
One of the most intriguing characters in the history of 16th century Scotland was Francis Stewart, Fifth Earl of Bothwell. Cousin to King James VI and godson of Mary Queen of Scots, Bothwell was a pivotal figure in what the book's cover copy aptly terms "the nightmare politics of his day."
Handsome, charismatic, and wildly popular, Bothwell was both rallying point and poster boy for such disparate groups as the border reivers, bishops of the Kirk, and ambitious Catholic noblemen. Although Bothwell stood uncomfortably near the throne (his father was one of James V's [illegitimate] sons), King James VI was openly fond of his cousin, granting him honors and restoring to him lands and titles lost by his uncle James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell (and Mary's third husband.)
Bothwell rewarded his royal cousin's favor with a campaign of terror -- repeated efforts to kidnap James, as well as several strange, almost inexplicable assaults on the king's privacy and peace of mind. The turbulent, fragmented culture and the constantly shifting loyalties of Scotish nobles and clery made it extremely difficult for James to censure Bothwell, much less contain him. Bishops praised Bothwell from the pulpits as the "sanctified scourge of God," castles guardians quietly released him from any attempted imprisonment, and the border reivers, always eager for adventure and plunder, flocked to his banner, providing Bothwell with a personal army that was often far superior to anything the king could muster.
Courted by nearly every faction in Scotland, financed by his marriage to a wealthy widow (and through under-the-table stipends from Queen Elizabeth, who encouraged many of his exploits), Bothwell led a charmed life, albeit a highly complicated one. As Lord Admiral of Scotland, he carried on secret and highly treasonous negotiations with Spain in the uncertain days before the attack of the famous Spanish Armada. He accepted money from England's queen while he plotted to free his royal godmother from an English prison. Such was his popularity and power that he weathered two of the most deadly accusations possible: treason through witchcraft.
When storms waylaid James' expected bride, Anne of Denmark, the king gallantly set sail to meet her in Norway. Their return was hampered by such fierce storms that Danish sailors suspected witchcraft. James, who survived the first of many assassination attempts when he was still in his mother's womb, was a justifiably nervous man, always alert to any threat to his person and position. Back in Scotland, he learned that a conspiracy of witches in North Berwick, alledgedly led by the Earl of Bothwell, had performed dark rites in an attempt to bring about the king's death. A trial resulted, but Bothwell was easily acquitted by this peers (due in no small part to the large band of "toughs" who were much in evidence during the trial.)
This is easily the best, most informative source I've found on the Fifth Earl of Bothwell. The author writes well. The information is organized well, researched throroughly, argued clearly, and presented in an accessible style. This book filled in the gaps left by several intriguing, unanswered questions raised by other histories of the period, including several biographies of King James VI. Few books present the complicated politics of 16th century Scotland so vividly. Some characters cannot be defined by a recitation of their actions; their power comes largely from a personal charisma, and can only be perceived in the context of their times and through the eyes of the people who knew them. Bothwell was such a man, and any attempt to "explain" him is likely to fall well short of the mark. Not even a reliable portrait remains to help our imaginations conjure the "wizard earl." That said, this book exceeded not only my expectations, but my hopes. I came away with a far better understanding, not only of Francis Stewart, but of this fascinating era.
Some readers might be unnerved by the author's implied assumption that malevelent witchcraft not only existed, but actually worked. Skeptics would do well to remember that this book attempts to bring the reader into the mindset of 16th century Scotland. Read in this context, such passages add to the narrative rather that detract from its credibility.
Highly recommented book. It's hard to find a copy, but well worth the effort.