The mid to late 16th century in Scotland was a perilous time for those in power. The murder of David Rizzio at Holyrood in 1567 and the subsequent murder of Lord Darnley in Edinburgh bear testament to the danger for the aristocracy. A particular group that bore the brunt of early demises during this period seems to have been regents of the throne. Regent Lennox was shot in 1571 and Regent Moray was executed ten years later. Sandwiched between these deaths, however, is an interesting case that is claimed as being the first assassination to be carried out by a firearm: the murder of James Stewart on 23 January 1570.
James Stewart (no relation to the 20th century American film actor) was born the second illegitimate son—one of many—to James V of Scotland. The granting of peerage titles to illegitimate children was a common practice at that time in Scotland, though James did not receive his title from his father. A half-sister of James Steward was none other than the eventual queen of Scotland, Mary Stuart. After her ascension to the Scottish throne and her return to Scotland in 1561, James became her advisor and it was at that time that Mary made him Earl of Moray and Earl of Mar.
The relationship between Moray and Mary was a tenuous one, at best. Though they were fairly close early in their lives, after he became her advisor and was granted peerage things took a turn for the worse. Religion, as it usually did in 16th century Europe, helped erect the wall between them. Moray supported the Scottish Reformation while Mary was an avowed Catholic. Mary’s second marriage to Lord Darnley proved a greater strain on the relationship.
Moray was staunchly opposed to the union, so much so that he mounted an armed rebellion in 1565. The Chaseabout Raid was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Moray to prevent Mary’s marriage to Darnley from resulting in a return to Catholicism. Moray managed to assemble around 1,200 supporters and enter Edinburgh, but when the people failed to support him and it became clear that they would be easily defeated, Moray’s group fled to England. Unfortunately for them, Elizabeth also refused to lend support. With little support from anyone and a show of strength from Mary’s army in Scotland, the Chaseabout Raid had essentially failed.
Moray was, for a time, declared an outlaw and forced to seek refuge in England. But, upon the death of Rizzio he returned to Scotland and received a pardon from Mary. Through some skillful maneuvering, Moray managed to avoid the entanglements of Darnley’s murder, though he undoubtedly was pleased with its occurrence. During the aftermath of the murder and Mary’s subsequent marriage to Bothwell, Moray travelled to France, possibly for the specific purpose of keeping his name clear.
When Mary abdicated the Scottish throne in 1567, Moray was quick to reappear in Edinburgh. Before long he had been appointed Regent of Scotland, tasked with guarding the kingdom for the eventual succession of Mary’s infant son James VI. Moray’s actions as regent served to protect the peace and the throne, the epitome of a dutiful regent. When Mary escaped her imprisonment at Loch Leven and attempted to mount a challenge for the throne, Moray rose to the occasion and defeated her supporters at the Battle of Langside. Though the battle marked the beginning of the Marian civil war, Moray’s protection of the Scottish throne earned him the nickname ‘The Good Regent.’
Following the Battle of Langside in 1567, Moray continued to lead forces in the defense of the Scottish throne. In 1568 Moray took the fight to Mary’s supporters by leading a military expedition known as the Raid of Dumfries. This expedition was successful, as Moray managed to seize control of several houses and castles belonging to supporters of Mary. At Dumfries, many supporters surrendered to the Regent’s forces. Throughout 1569 Moray continued to harry supporters of his half-sister.
On 23 January 1570, one of those supporters managed to end the life of ‘The Good Regent.’ At the time, Moray was in Edinburgh preparing plans for an attack of Dumbarton Castle, a stronghold controlled by supporters of Mary. The nearby town of Linlithgow was home to an archbishop named Hamilton. The Hamilton family had long been vocal supporters of Mary’s right to the throne, and it was a member of the Hamilton family that waited in the Archbishop’s house on 23 January 1570.
The Archbishops’ nephew, James Hamilton, had constructed a meticulous plan whereby he hoped to assassinate Moray. Hamilton had access to the family house where he knew there was a perfect view of the street. He also knew and planned an escape route from the scene. Though Moray had received several warnings about the danger of walking freely in Linlithgow, he proceeded to do so. Hamilton lay in wait at the family home and as Moray passed the window, Hamilton shot him in the stomach.
The escape plan worked and the assassin managed to evade the Regent’s forces that day. Though Moray was not killed immediately, he expired that same day at Linlithgow Palace. The assassin managed to flee the country and was never held accountable for his crime, but the Archbishop—owner of the house and uncle of the assassin—was held accountable for his part in the crime and hanged accordingly. Interestingly enough, firearms were still somewhat scarce in 1570, so the assassination of James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, is most likely the first recorded assassination to be carried out by use of a firearm.