Jane Gordon, Countess of Bothwell and Sutherland



Jane Gordon is one of those women who was caught up in the tumultuous life of Mary Queen of Scots.  Used as a pawn on the marriage market by her family, she was espoused to the Earl of Bothwell whose marital history was exceedingly complicated.  Despite all of this mayhem, Jane’s reputation for tenacity, steadfastness and dignity has remained down through the centuries.

Jane (sometimes Jean) was born c. 1546.  She was one of twelve children, the third daughter of the rich and formidable George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntley.  Her mother was Elizabeth Keith.  Gordon was the lord of a large territory and had great influence in northeast Scotland.  He became lieutenant of the north for the Queen Regent, Marie de Guise in the late 1550’s and was involved in affairs of the central government.  He was a grandson, through his mother, of King James IV and was brought up with King James V.

Jane grew up in comfort in the family home of Strathbogie in Aberdeenshire and received an education suitable to her rank.  Early on, she formed a romantic attachment with Alexander Ogilvy, the laird of Boyne in Banffshire.  The fortunes of the Gordon family took a drastic turn in 1562.  The Earl rebelled against Mary Queen of Scots and during the battle of Corrichie on October 28 1562, he suffered a stroke and died.  For their part in the rebellion, two of Jane’s brothers were executed.

Jane’s brother George was now head of the family.  The entire fortune of the Gordon family was confiscated by the Queen but by 1565, Jane was at court with her brother, mother and younger sister with Jane and her mother acting as servants to the Queen.  Eventually her brother George rose in favor and the Queen restored the earldom of Huntley to him.

George was a confederate of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, one of Queen Mary’s most loyal servants.  Bothwell was influential with landholdings in southeast Scotland and served as sheriff of Edinburgh and Haddington and as Lord High Admiral.  His authority was rivaled only by that of the earls of Huntley.  It was the Queen’s idea to unite these two houses with a marriage between Jane and Bothwell.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

However, Bothwell had a troubled marital history.  During 1558, Bothwell was appointed Lieutenant of the Border and while performing duties in the area, he formed a passionate attachment with Janet Beaton.  She was forty-three to his twenty-four, had been married three times and had seven children.  It was rumored at the time they had been quietly married or hand-fasted.  If they were married, he soon left her to pursue other ambitious objectives.

In 1560, while serving as Lord High Admiral, Bothwell sailed to Denmark in search of support from the Danish-Norwegian Navy in the war against England.  While in Copenhagen, he met Anna Throndsson, daughter of Christopher Throndsson, a wealthy Norwegian noble, government official and retired admiral.  Anna fell in love with Bothwell and he promised her marriage.  When he left to go to Paris, Anna insisted on going with him and her father pledged to give her a dowry.

Bothwell left her in Flanders and continued his journey to France.  It is unclear if he had deserted her or just left her there while he was on his mission.  The couple had run out of money and Bothwell asked her to sell her possessions.  She complied and visited her family in Denmark to ask for more money.  Bothwell did return to Flanders and spent three months there.  It is unclear if Anna came to Scotland with Bothwell or returned home.  In 1563, she appeared in Scotland to seek recompense from Bothwell, but it appears he never assisted her.

The Throndsson family claimed Anna married Bothwell after their offer of a dowry of forty thousand silver pieces.  It is possible they were wed according to Norwegian law, but Anna never claimed to be the Countess of Bothwell and there is no written record of a marriage.  It has been suggested that Bothwell’s only known child, William, was Anna’s son and certainly Bothwell’s mother left her estate to him.  It is clear Anna was unhappy and complained about Bothwell.  His treatment of Anna would, in the future, contribute to his downfall.

Bothwell viewed his anticipated marriage to Jane Gordon positively.  Jane’s family was wealthy and her large dowry would go a long way in paying off a significant portion of his debts.  Jane was willing to go forward with the wedding in the interests of her family but regretted she would have to give up on marrying Ogilvy.  Because Bothwell and Jane were related in double fourth degrees of consanguinity, a papal dispensation was requested.

The marriage contract was signed by the Queen on February 12, 1566 and she gave Jane twelve ells of silver cloth lined with taffeta for her wedding dress.  The dispensation was granted on the 17th by John Hamilton, Archbishop of St. Andrews, as Legate a latere of the Holy See.  The wedding was performed in the church of the Canongate on February 22.  The wedding feast, including jousting and tournaments, lasted five days with the queen and king, Lord Darnley, attending on the first day when the Queen inaugurated six knights during the festivities.  A few weeks later, Jane’s lover Alexander Ogilvy married Mary Beaton, one of the Queen’s four Maries.

Church of the Canongate
Church of the Canongate, Edinburgh (Photo copyright of The Freelance History Writer)


Jane’s dowry of £8000 was used to redeem most of her jointure lands of Crichton from Bothwell’s creditors and the couple settled down at Crichton Castle after spending their honeymoon at Seton.  The marriage was not a happy one.  Bothwell is said to have complained that Jane was disconsolate at the loss of her suitor.  Jane began her first assignment running an independent household.  Bothwell was unfaithful with Jane’s sewing maid, Bessie Crawford.  Jane was not in a position to argue or leave and made the best of her situation.  This state of affairs would go through a crisis when Bothwell’s association with the Queen was transformed.

Queen Mary’s personal secretary David Rizzio was murdered in her presence by several nobles at the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse in March of 1566.  Bothwell and Jane’s brother were united in maintaining the cause of the Queen.  By this point, Mary’s relationship with her husband Darnley had deteriorated beyond repair.  Suspicious rumors circulated that the Queen and Bothwell had become committed to one another during the winter of 1566-7.

Jane may have attended the christening of Mary’s newborn son James at Stirling Castle as her husband was there in December of 1566.  The Queen had given Bothwell some magnificent apparel to wear for the ceremony.  That same month, a conference was held at Craigmillar Castle to discuss the Queen’s situation.  Mary didn’t want to divorce Darnley and the councilors, along with the influential Bothwell, decided to take the destruction of Darnley into their own hands.

During the month of February, while Jane was seriously ill, Darnley was murdered on February 10, 1567.  The Gordon family fortune was once again confiscated.  At the end of the month, Bothwell, Jane’s brother and the Queen played golf together and participated in archery matches.  The Queen and Bothwell seemed very close by now and this may have caused some stress for Jane.  By the end of March, it was clear Bothwell intended to divorce Jane and marry the Queen.  There may have been an understanding between Jane and her husband by this time that the marriage was over.

Bothwell was charged in the death of Darnley and by April 12, he was tried and acquitted.  The forfeiture of the Gordon family estate was now reversed and Jane’s brother consented to the annulling of Jane’s marriage.  It’s possible the restoration of the family’s fortunes influenced Jane regarding her position in her subsequent course of action.  There were two legal proceedings to dissolve the marriage, one Catholic and the other Protestant.  On April 24, two days before the “abduction” of the Queen by Bothwell at Dunbar, Jane filed an action before the Edinburgh commissary court for divorce on the grounds of adultery with Bessie Crawford.  Judgement was given on May 3 and Jane was free to marry again if she chose to do so.

The Catholic process was overseen by Archbishop John Hamilton.  Bothwell filed his claim in the archbishop’s consistory court for an annulment of the marriage.  The archbishop formed a commission of six clerics on April 27.  These men seemed to be reluctant to grant the annulment but Bothwell applied pressure and the commission ruled in the earl’s favor.  The marriage was annulled on May 7 on the grounds that the couple were related within the forbidden degrees of consanguinity and had been married without dispensation.

As we have seen, a dispensation was issued the year before by the same Archbishop John Hamilton.  All parties colluded in suppressing the dispensation.  Jane hid the document as a duty to the family.  She continued to draw her jointure from Bothwell’s estates to the end of her life despite the annulment.  There is written correspondence from Bothwell to Jane after his marriage to the Queen, which took place on May 15, 1567.

During the summer, Jane made her way from Crichton to take up residence at Strathbogie, which was now once again her brother’s family seat.  At this point, Bothwell had become a pirate and the Queen was imprisoned at Lochleven after abdicating her throne to her infant son.  Jane’s brother remained a supporter of the Queen in the ensuing civil disorder with the new King’s men.

Jane told her cousin Lady Anne Keith, wife of the Regent Moray, that she ‘will never live with the Earl Bothwell, nor take him for her husband’.  Not long after she went to live at Strathbogie, Alexander, Earl of Sutherland was driven out of his own territory through the intrigues of the Earl of Caithness.  Sutherland sought refuge with the Earl of Huntley and came to live at Strathbogie.

The Earl of Caithness had enticed Sutherland to marry his daughter, Lady Barbara Sinclair.  The Earl was fifteen and Barbara was thirty-two.  The lady ended up committing adultery, allowing Sutherland to obtain a divorce.  He was seventeen when he arrived at the Gordon home and he and Jane formed a mutual attachment.  When he regained possession of his earldom, upon the death of his father in 1573, Sutherland and Jane were married that December.  Jane had heard rumors that Bothwell was dead so she felt confident she was not committing bigamy.

The couple lived at Dunrobin and the earl was prone to ill health, so Jane took over all the practical management of their affairs.  Surviving correspondence and state papers demonstrate the variety of business she oversaw.  The rents on the properties and those from her marriage to Bothwell were considerable.  However, the estate’s expenses were high and there were substantial debts.  She had to deal with bad harvests and recalcitrant tenants.

Jane had seven children with Alexander, including two sons who died in infancy.  When her husband finally became disabled from his illness, he transferred the right to his earldom and its lands to their eldest son John.  Alexander died in 1594.  John would spend two years in France and returned to Scotland in 1600.  During this time, Jane sent her sons Robert and Alexander to university, first to St. Andrews and then to Edinburgh.  Her daughters Jane and Mary made good marriages.

After the death of her second husband, Jane married her first true love, Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne whose wife had died in 1598.  The marriage is recorded as having taken place at Elgin on December 10, 1599.  Her son, who wrote a history of the family, states Jane did this for the ‘utility and profit of her children’.  Ogilvy died sometime before 1606.

Older Jane Gordon

Jane returned to Sutherland and continued to function actively in the management of the vast family estates.  In her letters to her son, Sir Robert Gordon, she comes across as a sagacious woman of business, always looking out for the best interests of the family.  Her daughter Mary died in 1605.  Her eldest son died in 1616 and his wife passed one year later.  Jane was now guardian of her grandson, John, 14th Earl of Sutherland.  She relied on the aid of her son Alexander in her affairs.

Jane remained a staunch Catholic all her life.  She would find herself in trouble with the church for giving hospitality and assistance to members of the Society of Jesuits and other priests from abroad while they fulfilled their missions in the north of Scotland.  In 1616, Lady Jane, as Countess of Sutherland, was summoned to appear before the High Commission at Edinburgh for her suspected religion.  Her son, Sir Robert, appeared on her behalf and after a short delay, he purchased from James VI an oversight and toleration of her religion for the rest of her days.

She was allowed to worship according to her conscience upon the promise that she would not harbor or receive any Jesuits.  At the time she was seventy-one years old and probably wasn’t expected to live long.  However, it’s apparent she did not keep her word because she was excommunicated in 1627.  In October, her son once again promised she would no longer received priests or Jesuits or hear mass.  By 1628, Jane was seriously ill.  She lingered until her death on May 14, 1629.  She was eighty-four years old and was buried next to her second husband in Dornoch Cathedral with full honors usually accorded to the Earl of Sutherland.

The Earl of Bothwell had been imprisoned in Denmark due, in part, to the troubles over his purported marriage to Anna Throndsson.  He became insane and died in Dragsholm Castle in April of 1578.  After Jane’s marriage to the Earl of Sutherland in December of 1573, Jane had taken the papal dispensation for her marriage to Bothwell with her and deposited it in the charter chest of her new husband.  There it remained until John Stuart, doing some research on the family, found the document in 1870.

Jane’s son wrote of her:

‘…a virtuous and comely lady, judicious, of excellent memory, and of great understanding above the capacity of her sex:  in this much to be commended that during the continual changes and particular factions of the Court in the reign of Queen Mary and in the minority of King James VI (which were many) she always managed her affairs with so great prudence and foresight that the enemies of her family could never prevail against her…Further, she hath by her great care and diligence bought to a prosperous end many hard and difficult business, of great consequence appertaining to the house of Sutherland…She was during her days a great ornament to that family:…and as she lived with great credit and reputation so she died happily and according to her command buried by her sons Sir Robert and Sir Alexander (now only alive of all her children) in the cathedral of Dornoch in the sepulcher of the earls of Sutherland’.


Further reading:  “Mary Stewart’s People” by Margaret H.B. Sanderson,  “A Lost Chapter in the History of Mary Queen of Scots, Recovered, Notices of James, Earl of Bothwell, and Lady Jane Gordon, and of the Dispensation for Their Marriage; Remarks on the Law and Practice of Scotland, Relative to Marriage Dispensations; and an Appendix of Documents” by John Stuart, “Mary Queen of Scots” by Antonia Fraser, “The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots” by John Guy, “The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women” edited by Elizabeth Ewan, Sue Innes and Sian Reynolds, entry on James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and duke of Orkney in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Rosalind K. Marshall, entry on Jean Gordon, countess of Bothwell and Sutherland in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Rosalind K. Marshall


One thought on “Jane Gordon, Countess of Bothwell and Sutherland

  1. What a truelly remarkable woman! She had wisdom and vision to fulfill roles that very few women at that time would have been capable of carrying out! She certainly ensured that her family who followed her, were left in better circumstances than any other female, and shealso had the intelligence to overcome problems and make a success of those who came after! An enjoyable read. …………alias nickname since childhood ( old Tich )


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